Tag Archives: World War I

Jew of the Week: Helena Rubenstein

First Self-Made Female Millionaire

Chaya Helena Rubinstein (1872-1965) was born in the Jewish ghetto of Krakow, Poland, the oldest of eight daughters in a very religious family. Her cousin was Martin Buber. At age 16, she was arranged to be married but refused to go along with it, instead running away to Switzerland, and then Australia. Although she spoke no English, the local ladies fell in love with her fashion sense and makeup. After agreeing to sell off most of what was in her luggage, she realized she could start a business. With help from an aunt, Rubinstein found her way to the region of Coleraine, famous for its millions of sheep, which produce lanolin, the key ingredient in her creams. Rubinstein worked as a waitress by day, and experimented with her creams by night. With some help from a wealthy admirer, Rubinstein launched her business. It didn’t take long for her to open up her own shop in the heart of Melbourne. Within five years, she opened two more locations: in Sydney and London, England. At the time, women were barred from getting bank loans, so Rubinstein saved up all the money herself and paid in cash. In 1912, she moved to Paris with her first husband, and there opened a new salon. During World War I, the family fled to New York, and Rubinstein opened up shop there as well. Business boomed, and Rubinstein expanded to another twelve cities. She soon became the most famous businesswoman in the world—and the richest. She has been credited as the world’s first self-made female millionaire. After her first marriage fell apart, Rubinstein tied the knot with a Georgian prince, and took on the title “Helena Princess Gourielli”. Rubinstein was a huge philanthropist, and her charity distributed around $130 million to causes around the world. She had a great life-long rivalry with Elizabeth Arden, of whom she said: “With her packaging and my product, we could have ruled the world.” Rubinstein faced a tremendous amount of adversity, as well as anti-Semitism. (In 1941, she was rejected from living in a Park Avenue apartment because she was Jewish, so she bought the whole building!) Nonetheless, she persevered through it all and became a pioneer in the cosmetics industry, in business, and in marketing, continuing to work into her 90s. Among her innovations were waterproof mascara and what may be the first sunscreen. Today, her company is owned by L’Oréal, which presents the Helena Rubinstein Women in Science Awards yearly in her honour.

Words of the Week

We have been waiting for 2,000 years. Is that hurrying?
Golda Meir, to King Abdullah of Jordan in a May 10, 1948 meeting, when he asked not to “hurry” to declare independence.

Helena Rubinstein cuts the ribbon at the grand opening of her Museum of Art in Tel-Aviv (1959)

 

Jew of the Week: Johann Kremenezky

The Man Who Powered Europe—and Zionism

Yonah Yosipovich Leibensohn Kremenezky (1850-1934) was born in Odessa, Ukraine to a Russian-Jewish family. He studied electrical engineering and worked on designing Russia’s first railways. In 1874, Kremenezky moved to Berlin to further his studies at the city’s Technical University. He then got a job working for Siemens, and was sent across Europe to build the continent’s first street lighting systems, starting in Paris and ending up in Vienna in 1878, where he settled permanently. Two years later, Kremenezky founded his own factory that produced lamps and batteries—the first of its kind in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By 1883, he had become very well-known as a scientist-industrialist (a European Edison), and Crown Prince Rudolf personally asked him to help “electrify” his empire. Kremenezky did just that, laying electrical cables and setting up lighting systems, as well as building the empire’s first power plant. Meanwhile, his lamp factory designed all sorts of new lights, including ornamental bulbs and what we now know as “Christmas lights”. Kremenezky lights were a huge hit, exported around the world, even to the United States. For playing a key role in rebuilding and repowering Vienna after World War I, Kremenezky was awarded with the Ehrenbürgerrecht, the city’s highest decoration for citizens (a street in Vienna was named after him, too). Meanwhile, back in 1896, Kremenezky had met Theodor Herzl and the two became best friends. Kremenezky became a passionate Zionist, gave countless funds in support of the movement, as well as essential electrical know-how to power the future State. In 1898, he set a 500-franc prize for anyone who would write a fitting hymn for the Zionist movement. This eventually led to the adoption of HaTikvah as Israel’s national anthem. Around the same time, Hermann Schapira proposed the establishment of a Jewish National Fund that would legally purchase land in Israel and help settle Jews there. Schapira didn’t live to realize his dream, but Kremenezky was convinced and established the Jewish National Fund a couple of years later, serving as its first chairman. It was he who came up with the JNF “blue box” to collect charity. The JNF went on to play a central role in the establishment of Israel, purchasing over 50% of Israel’s landmass, developing some 250,000 acres of its land, building nearly 200 dams and reservoirs, and establishing over 1000 parks. Perhaps most famously, the JNF has planted over 260 million trees in the Holy Land, partly thanks to its Tu b’Shevat tree-planting drive which still runs to this day. A true friend, Kremenezky was the only one by Herzl’s bedside when he passed away, and financially supported Herzl’s family afterwards. When Kremenezky himself passed away, he was eulogized as a “simple, modest Jew, who did a great for the Zionist movement.” He was awarded the prestigious Wilhelm Exner Medal for excellence in scientific research and innovation, and multiple institutions and streets in Israel are named after him.

Words of the Week

There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.
– Will Durant

Jews of the Week: Bielski Partisans

The Jewish Avengers

Tuvia Bielski

Tuvia Bielski (1906-1987) was born in a small village near what is today Navahrudak, Belarus (then part of the Russian Empire). When the German Army occupied the area during World War I, he was called to work for them as an interpreter, since he knew Polish, Russian and Yiddish. After the war, his hometown reverted to Polish rule, and Bielski was drafted to the Polish Army. He finished his service with the rank of corporal, then returned home to work in the family grain mill. When Nazi Germany invaded in 1939, Bielski was called up to fight. His cousin Yehuda Bielski (1909-1994), who had served as an officer in the Polish Army, was called up, too, and was shot in the leg. When SS troops stormed his hospital, he managed to escape. The Poles surrendered shortly after and the Bielski cousins returned to their village. The Nazis arrived there in the summer of 1941 and forced all the Jews into the Navahrudak ghetto. Tuvia, his sister, and three brothers fled to the Naliboki Forest; their parents, and two other brothers, were killed in the ghetto. The wife and baby daughter of his brother, Alexander “Zus” Bielski (1912-1995), were killed as well. In the forest, the Bielski brothers and 13 friends formed a paramilitary group under the command of Tuvia and brother Asael Bielski (1908-1945), launching a guerrilla war campaign against the Nazis. Through a Christian friend, they got a letter out to cousin Yehuda to join them and share his military expertise, which he did after escaping the ghetto.

The Bielski Partisans quickly grew to a force of about 150 fighters, and freed over 1200 Jews (including Jared Kushner’s grandmother) from the ghetto and surrounding villages. They worked to sabotage Nazi plans, destroying 4 bridges, 23 train cars, 32 telegraph lines, and killing nearly 400 soldiers. Their primarily goal, however, was to save lives. (Tuvia’s motto: “I would rather save one old Jewish woman than kill ten German soldiers.”) The Bielski Partisans built their entire life in the forest, constructing a school and hospital, bathhouse, bakery, tannery, synagogue, and even a courthouse and jail. The place became known as “Forest Jerusalem”. It had 125 full-time workers who also supplied the Soviet Army and other partisan forces in the area. The Nazis soon placed a 100,000 Reichsmark reward for the capture of Tuvia, and in August of 1943 launched a huge operation in the Naliboki Forest. While they were unable to suppress the Bielskis, they damaged most of their infrastructure, and punished many surrounding villages. The Bielskis ultimately joined forces with the Soviets and helped drive the Nazis out. (Throughout this time, they kept the identity of Yehuda secret, since the Soviets considered Polish officers to be enemies, and would have executed him immediately.) After the region was liberated in the summer of 1944, the Soviets turned on the Bielskis and the brothers fled. Unable to escape, Asael was conscripted to the Soviet Army and died in the Battle of Konigsberg in 1945. Tuvia and Zus, along with younger brother Aron Bielski (b. 1927)—who was only 12 when the war started—made their way to Israel and fought in the new state’s Independence War. Yehuda Bielski was there, too, and was injured in battle yet again. He rose to the rank of lieutenant in the IDF. The Bielskis eventually settled in New York, where they built a successful transportation company with a fleet of taxis and trucks. The story of the Bielski brothers was featured in two books, and a Hollywood film, Defiance, starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia.

Words of the Week

It’s the small acts that you do on a daily basis that turn two people from a “you and I” into an “us”.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), the Lubavitcher Rebbe

The Bielski Partisans in the Naliboki Forest