The Skowronek Bank Robbery

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Pablo Edronkin

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In Dec 1915, Shlomo, my great-great grandfather, was shot in the neck as a band of eight thieves entered his bank at 5 Elektoralna st. in Warsaw. Two of his sons, Abraham and Motyl started shooting back, the police came, and after a few moments, three robbers, a passing-by 14-year old girl and a policeman died; Shlomo Skowronek died two days later.

"The last anti-Semite will die when the last Jew does." - W. Adler[250].

Shlomo was known to bee a well-dressed, good-looking man that developed the financial business of the Skowronek family in Warsaw into a banking enterprise. He wasn't the first Skowronek dedicated to the banking business: In fact, his father Israel had been one of the directors of the Warsaw Stock Exchange and in 1870 he was already listed on address books as a "faktor" together with other five members of the family as well as his father. His wife was Dinah Estera Schoenberg. Theirs had been only one in a series of dynastic marriages between the Skowronek bankers and the descendants of the family of Dom Iago de Sampayo y Belmonte[1.2], and he also had fought years earlier, in his youth, as a revolutionary against the Russians who occupied Poland until WWI.

The banking business of the Skowroneks was prosperous. They were located at Elektoralna 5/7 in Plac Bankowy, the then financial centre of the city. Right across the street was the Central Bank, and many members of the family lived or worked in the same street. The family was well-connected and its relatives had banks in other countries, such as the Itzig family from Berlin, the Mendelssohns, and the Rotshschilds in Frankfurt, Vienna, Paris and London.

This was also a characteristic of the Skowronek family: Whenever one opened up his shop in a street, others followed, so after a while, they "seized" any street they wanted for their commercial purposes. At that time, Elektoralna was important because it was where the financial and commercial business of the city were located. Elektoralna changes its name to Chlodna street a few hundred metres from Plac Bankowy, going westwards. Eastwards, across the place of the banks, it becomes Senatorska street, where, of course, the Skowroneks and the relatives of other families had shops and lived. They always preferred to live or work close to government offices. For example, Abraham Skowronek, one of Shlomo's sons, loved on Senatorska street. One of his addresses put him right on the side of the main synagogue of the city. Another of his addresses was the Kraków Bishop's Palace, at the intersection with Miodowa street. From there onto the Royal Castle there is a very short distance.

Those were hard times in Poland; Hena, my great grandmother, had to sell an ear ring and that kept the family fed until the end of the war, complete with servants and coach driver. They faced difficulties. Common people faced starvation. Most businesses were controlled by the Russian authorities before the war, and trade was heavily oriented towards the Russian empire, so almost all of the economy went into a depression since the main contractor – the Russian state – retreated. The Schoenbergs, at the time, also fed the Russian army. They had to reinvent themselves.

The Germans could do little to alleviate the problems once they conquered Warsaw and they also did their share of plundering for their own purposes: The wiring of the city's tramway system was removed because copper was required by ammunition factories; other resources, such as food, went to feed the Reich too. The clock went backwards and only the financial system was kept working normally, and so the banking enterprises survived and thrived while the rest of the economy faded away.

According to my grandmother, Danusia[1.36], Shlomo was carrying "baskets filled with money"; her cousin Alicia Maria[1.38], another of the few survivors of the family after WWII confirmed the fact, but spoke of a suitcase or a bag, altough she had heard the story from his father Józef[1.39] since she was born in 1917. Anyway, Shlomo was carrying a large sum of money as he always did. He crossed the street from the central bank and into his own with some police custody. In those times there was no wire transfer, indeed, so money had to be moved physically from one place to the other.

It is very likely that the money in question was used as part of the daily operation of the bank, which particularly dealt with foreign exchange. At the time of the war, and shortly after the German occupation Warsaw after the Russian army was routed out, this meant carrying mostly – if not all – Germany money. As it happens whenever routine actions are taken, prying eyes of thieves detected the weak points of the procedure, and the eight-men gang waited until Shlomo and his custodians were actually entering into his bank, which seemed the most vulnerable moment. The close-range, closed-quarter firefight that ensued ended into one of the most violent crimes of those years.

The situation for most people in Warsaw was very bad, many were starving due to privations imposed by the war; even the rich had troubles, including the family of Shlomo: While the banks were still active, many other industries stopped their activities after the Russian retreat because as it happens in many authoritarian regimes, the economy remains under centralized control. The system was so oriented towards commerce with Russia that once they left, there was practically no one else to commerce with.

That meant that even the members of the Skowronek family that were not directly involved with banking and finances faced serous trouble. For example, my great grandfather, Hersz Josek Blat[1.13] presided over the arms trade company they had. Prior to the German occupation, they supplied the Russian army, but once they left, there was no one to supply and so, my great grandmother, Hena Skowronek[1.14], who was involved with the banks, managed to get the money required to survive until 1918 when Josek was back in business as Poland gained its independence (see Hena Skowronek).

Hena had to sell one of her ear rings; that was enough to keep the family safe from 1915 to 1918, complete with servants. Her two sisters were even in deeper trouble, and a quarrel over that among the three Skowronek brothers that ran the bank after Shlomo's death meant that Józef Skowronek created his own bank, while Abraham[1.40] and Motyl[1.41] continued with the existing one. If the rich had troubles, the poor were far worse; a wave of crime engulfed the city, gangs became pretty ruthless and the German authorities imposed harsh punishments for those who broke the law. In most cases, criminals were simply executed.

The event caused an uproar; not only the bank assault and the sum involved were unheard of in those days, but the amount of wounded, the fact that a girl and a policeman were killed caused widespread indignation and the need for the authorities to find those responsible quickly. Half the gang was killed or wounded and captured during the assault itself, others were frantically persecuted by the police. The city stopped to a halt during the funerals a few days later; according to my grandmother, who witnessed those events, all activity on the city stopped. A mourning day was declared and regardless of religion and political opinions, everybody attended the processions.

A bunch of drunks in a cart began mocking the participants and making fun of the victims with anti – Semitic remarks. The police arrested them and it was found out that they were actually part of the gang that robbed the Skowronek bank. Since the city was under German occupation as part of WWI, they were judged under martial law and shot by a firing squad. All the money was recovered, fourteen people were wounded, and the eight gang members, a policeman, a girl and my great great grandfather died in the event.

According to Alicia Maria, after the shooting and the troubles with their sisters, the relationship between the Skowronek brothers was not good; Józef – his father – and the sisters on one side, and Abraham and Motyl on the other (see Józef Skowronek). They became competitors, actually, and two Skowronek banks began operating almost side to side, in generally the same places. These banks had the same organizational structure, down to similar phone line systems. Wierzbowa and Bielanska streets, became the territory over which they competed for. On one side, the Bcia Skowronek Kantor Wymiany, ran by Abraham and Motyl, and the Dom Bankowy Skowronek, on the other. The BSKW had its offices in Wierzbowa at the corner with Fredry street, and there was another branch at Leszno 17, right aside the Kino Femina, which naturally, belonged to a relative named Bacharach.

Józef's bank had its branches at Wierszbowa, Bielanska and Swietokrzyska streets. Its headquarters was right aside the Prudential building, and he lived across the street.

Those areas were very heavily bombed during WWII and the banks and almost all the other assets of the Skowronek family found in Poland except the Nowy Dwór "Austeria" were either destroyed or looted by the Nazis during WWII. The remaining ones, except the Austeria, were seized by the communist regime.

These were not the only troubles for the banking enterprises of the family during the first part of the XX century: General instability in political and social terms caused WWI and eventually, WWII in Europe and across the world. Banks are highly sensitive to such factors and especially in cases when there is persecution against those owning the banks. The Nazis persecuted Jews, but they were not alone and in Poland, in those days, there was also a strong anti-Semitic feeling, as well as in nearby countries. In Ukraine, which was part of Russia and later of the Soviet Union, anit-Semitism was also rampant, with the addition of the advent of communism and the civil war. One of the Schoenbergs ran a bank in Kiev at least until 1911; naturally, the communists would not have respected private property, and he was also a Jew, and let's remember that anti-Semitic enthusiast tend to say that communism was a Jewish invention, so here we have a case of a banker persecuted by the communists for being a capitalist, and by anti-Semites, which are generally also anti-communist, for being a communist. Being both a capitalist and communist in the view of the public is neither good for business nor for staying alive.

The result is that all the interests of the extended family in Ukraine were lost by action of communism, but even before that, the bad publicity that the Jews suffered meant that business owned or operated by Jews were on a decline of sorts, and what had been during the XIX century profitable farms, railroads and banks, were sold, went bankrupt or were seized or stolen.

Back to Warsaw, Abraham, Motyl and almost every member of their families were murdered by the Nazis. Józef Skowronek was assassinated by the Soviet NKVD after he and Alicia Maria were arrested in Lvov as they participated on the operation to save the gold reserves of the Bank Polski and the Polish banks from the incoming Nazi invasion; Barbara, Józef's wife and Maria's sister survived the war in hiding, as did my grandmother. The gold from the banks was ultimately transferred to Canada, where it remained for the rest of the war. In 1949 it was returned to Pland, but the communist regime never returned to the original owners what belonged to them. Maria's sister went to live to the United States after the war. Józef's wife and Maria remained in communist Poland, and to sell their villa in exchange for two shoebox, communist apartments; they were helped by some relatives from Belgium, the Rozenstejns, to whom one of my grandmother's sister was married. They sent goods to the Skowroneks in Poland every year, even well after the fall of the Berlin wall.

We still keep the Austeria, found at Warszawska 2, Nowy Dwór; it is one of the most characteristic buildings of the town and it is the place were many of the members of the family were born, including my grandmother, most of her brothers and sisters, and her uncles, the Skowronek brothers who were the last to run the banks before the holocaust.

Shlomo's tombstone still exists; it is in the Jewish cemetery, right aside the tomb of his father Israel Skowronek; however, he was robbed again after being murdered: The actual tombstone was composed by two elements. The most expensive one was located at the centre of the bigger element and contained an inscription. That part was looted and the space it occupied is now empty.

The Itzing house in Berlin; pencil, 2012, by Pablo Edronkin.
The Itzig house in Berlin as it looked around 1857; pencil, 2012, by Pablo Edronkin.

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