The Promised Child introduces the saga of the Pulichevers, a fictional rabbinic family who served for generations as rabbis in Pulichev, a small city in the southern provinces of Poland. The story begins in the early part of the seventeenth century with Reb Mendel and Sarah Pulichever embarking on a journey of hope to Krakow and reaches its startling climax over thirty years later with a return to Krakow for a dramatic and memorable confrontation affecting the Jewish population of the entire region.
During this period, the status of the Jewish people in Poland was undergoing a series of dramatic changes. For several centuries, Poland had provided a benevolent refuge for the victims of anti-Semitic persecution in other parts of Europe. Since Polish society consisted of two extremes, nobility and serfs, the Polish kings eagerly encouraged the immigration of Jews, because they were likely to emerge as a merchant class and thus bring prosperity to Poland. And this is indeed what happened. The kings, from Zigismund Jagiello to Zigismund August to Stefan Bathory, were delighted with the arrangement and extended their personal protection to their Jewish subjects. It was a good time, a time in which the Jewish communities of Poland flourished both spiritually and materially.
When the good King Stefan Bathory died in 1587 and the fanatical King Zigismund III ascended to the throne, a new spirit of Catholic fervor and intolerance swept through Poland. The Jesuit Order, established by Ignatius Loyola to do battle against the Protestant Reformation, gained a strong foothold in Poland under Zigismund III. The Jews suffered greatly at the hands of the Jesuits, and their position in Polish society steadily eroded.
The outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, in 1618, between the champions of the Church and its Protestant opponents fanned the fires of Catholic fanaticism in Poland and eroded the Jewish position even further.
Moreover, although the battles and bloodshed were mostly on German soil, a steady flow of Jewish refugees into the cities of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania spurred the Jesuits and the other enemies of the Jewish people into renewed anti-Semitic activities. This trend would reach its climax with the massive Cossack pogroms against the Jewish people after the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 to end the war.
It must be understood that in the seventeenth century, unlike in modern times, the Church was at the center of the political arena. Most of the wars fought during this period were, at least nominally, over religious issues. The power wielded by the Church was enormous. Indeed it was a law unto itself, with police powers. Thus, the everyday life of the Jew in Poland, as well as in most other parts of Europe, was affected by the positions and prejudices of the Church. The characters in The Promised Child are strongly affected by their helplessness in this climate. They also know that their only recourse is to trust in the Master of the Universe.
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