The Five (Rosa) Luxemburgs

by Thomas Klikauer and Meg Young


In January 2022, the East-Germany city of Leipzig started to host an exhibition about the siblings of one of Germany’s greatest anti-war activists, working class speakertheoretician of mass strike, and a struggling working class: Rosa Luxemburg. Yet, unlike her well-known political activist side, this new exhibition focuses on the much less known years of Luxemburg’s so-called “Polish life”. Almost to this day, Rosa Luxemburg was murdered by fascist 103 years ago on 15th January 1919.  

Today, many know Rosa Luxemburg as Rosa Luxemburg but when she was born – 5th March 1871 – her real name was actually Róża Luksemburg. Rosa was also known as Rozalia Luksenburg. On 13th June, 1919, an unimaginably large funeral procession walked through Germany’s capital, Berlin almost five months after Rosa Luxemburg was murdered. Germany’s digital library shows thousands and thousands of workers have lined Berlin’s streets to pay tribute to Rosa Luxemburg.

Yet, among one of the largest number of people ever seen at a Berlin rally were also four people with whom Rosa Luxemburg knew extremely well during the forty-eight years before her murder by right-wing death squads known as free corps. During the 1918/19 revolution, Germany’s majority social-democratic party, the SPD, had, what Rosa Luxemburg would call a choice between Socialism or Barbarity. It used Gustav Noske – known as the bloodhound – and the free corps to shoot a massive amount of workers and, thereby ending the revolution. 

Choosing Barbarity over Socialism resulted in fourteen years of instability marked by political assassinations (Matthias ErzbergerWalther Rathenau, etc.), and frequent coup d’états to destroy democracy (e.g. Kapp Putsch, Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch, etc.) until Hitler – with the generous support of German conservatives (Papen, Hindenburg, Hugenberg, Neurath, Blomberg, Eltz-RübenachDorpmüller, etc.) – could bury democracy paving the way to World War II, and Auschwitz – the ultimate height of barbarity.

Long before all that and walking among German workers at Rosa’s funeral were four people who had known each other for decades, Rosa’s four siblings: Anna, Maxymilian, Mikolay, and Józef. Today, we are certain that Rosa’s older brother Józef was present at her funeral. He was the youngest of three brothers holding a doctorate as a physician. Rosa was proud of him. At the time, Josef worked at the Polish Ministry of Health. Some even said that he travelled by plane to Berlin. Yet, many historians believe that most, if not all, of Rosa Luxemburg’s siblings attended the sad occasion in Berlin. It is most likely that all four had come to Berlin.

Today, we can trace Rosa Luxemburg’s life with the support of the Warsaw office at Germany’s Luxembourg Foundation. Over the past four years, the foundation has deeply immersed itself into the history of the Rosa Luxemburg family. Actually, the family often used their name with an “n” instead of an “m”. Yet, my six volumes of Rosa Luxemburg’s complete works – published in East-Germany in 1979 – carry the name Luxe”m”burg, and not Luxe”n”burg.

Irrespectively, the five Luxemburgs became a wealthy and highly educated Polish-Jewish family enjoying the bright side of life in late 19th century Poland. Rosa’s paternal grandfather was one of the richest merchants in the locality. A brother of Rosa’s mother even owned a mining business. As for Rosa’s parents – Edward and Lina – they weren’t quite that wealthy. Rosa’s father had even gone bankrupt during the so-called January Uprising of 1863. As a consequence, the Luxemburg family left the house in the Polish south-eastern town of Zamość (זאמאשטש).

Rosa Luxemburg was born on the 5th March 1871 at 45 Ogrodowa Street (now 7a Kościuszko Street) in Zamość. All five of the Luxemburgs were born in this house. The Luxemburgs sold their house to the piano teacher of one of Rosa’s brothers. Luckily, the Luxemburg family was able to occupy two rent-free rooms and a kitchen for one more year. After that, Rosa’s family moved to Warsaw. 

Since the year 2018, nothing reminds anyone in Zamość of the city’s famous daughter. In its zealous nationalistic, conservative, misogynistic, and chauvinistic fanaticism, Poland’s right-wing government has removed the plaque of the commemoration of Rosa Luxemburg that had been installed in 1979. Today’s Polish government defames Rosa Luxemburg as an enemy of Poland.

The ultra-nationalistic government has even banned Rosa Luxemburg’s writings. It is vilified as communist propaganda. Rosa Luxemburg was denigrated as a hater of Poland. Trying to acquire a little souvenir about Rosa Luxemburg will remain utterly unsuccessful in Zamość. Worse, the Polish government is determined to erase any visible memory of Rosa Luxemburg.

This fact was partly responsible for a renewed interest in researching the life of Rosa Luxemburg. It was this research that led to the Rosa Luxemburg exhibition currently being shown in Germany since January 2022. The very same research, conducted by Politt and Pilawski, also resulted in a German language book that was published in 2020: Rosa Luxemburg: Searching for her Family.

Researching Rosa Luxemburg in Poland has, inevitably, led to archives and cemeteries but also into the right-wing nationalistic abysses of 20th and 21st century Poland. On the upswing, the research also led to remarkable finds and personal encounters. It uncovered Rosa’s great-nephew Bernhard Borde, the grandson of Józef Luxemburg (Josef was Rosa’s brother). Great-nephew Borde was born in the Latvian city of Riga in 1934. He worked in Siberia as a nuclear physicist. Today, he lives in the Russian city of Krasnoyarsk. 

Rosa’s great-nephew Borde was able to supply an historic photo showing the four siblings during the happy days around the Easter holidays in the year 1902. The picture was taken in the apartment of Rosa’s eldest brother, Mikolaj in Berlin. In the photo, Anna, the oldest girl; Rosa, nicknamed “the nestling”; and Rosa’s older brother, Maxymilian seen with his wife and daughters as they hosted the Luxemburg siblings. Photos like these are incredibly rare. 

The absent brother Józef and Rosa’s parents can be recognized in two photographs placed on the table just in front of Rosa. This is the family portrait which opens the aforementioned Leipzig exhibition on the Luxemburg Five. The exhibition was met with a high degree of popularity when it was shown in 2021, in Rosa’s birthplace of Zamość. In 2022, it was shown in Germany for the first time. Initially, the exhibition was designed to mark the occasion of the anniversary of Luxemburg’s death. 

Eleven display panels full of photos and facsimiles are shown at the Leipziger’s Liebknechthaus. It is situated only a short walk away from the house where Karl Liebknecht was born and raised. Today, it houses the party office of the Die Linke. The political party, Die Linke (the left) and its political predecessors, is, despite right-wing murders, Nazi concentration camps, the outlawing of the political party during the 1950s, and Berufsverbote during the 1970s, etc. still alive today. It is represented in Germany’s federal parliament. 

Today, the Die Linke’s office is located at the very same house in which Luxemburg lived when, in 1899, Rosa paid a visit to the editor-in-chief of the local newspaper Leipziger Volkszeitung. The newspaper still publishes today, but is run by a local monopolist, Madsack Media. Recently, Germany’s union of journalists call the monopolist – owning 100% of all local newspapers in Leipzig, a nail in the coffin of media plurality. 

The “Five Luxemburgs” exhibition was originally designed to commemorate Rosa Luxemburg and her family in her native city in Poland. Therefore, it focuses on Rosa and her four siblings who were all born in Zamość. The “Five Luxemburg” exhibition was also shown at the synagogue in the city of Zamość in southeast Poland. Today, the synagogue is supported by a foundation called Safeguarding Jewish Cultural Heritage.

Sadly, the exhibition was originally planned to mark Rosa Luxembourg’s 150th birthday on 5 March 2021, but the Coronavirus pandemic made this impossible. Despite the delay, the exhibition still started and proved to be an outstanding success.  In the first six months, 15,000 visitors came to see the “Five Luxemburgs”. 

Through this, many came into contact with Rosa Luxemburg for the first time. Unlike in her native Poland, Rosa Luxemburg remains much better known in Germany – especially in the East-German city of Leipzig. In fact, Leipzig offers a special place of remembrance: the Felsenkeller – a traditional place where the workers’ movement assembled. Self-evidently, Rosa Luxemburg gave a much celebrated speech at the Felsenkeller in 1911. 

Among the many commemorations for Rosa Luxemburg, there is also a series of publications about Luxemburg. Today, the Felsenkeller is the location of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Saxony. While Rosa Luxemburg’s life and politics is rather very well-known in Germany, what is rather unknown is Rosa Luxemburg’s early life in Poland. 

Yet, Rosa Luxemburg’s writings in Polish represent about one third of her work. Sadly, those Polish texts are still not treated with the interest they deserve. Rather typical is the fact that Rosa Luxemburg’s fascinating work on nationality and autonomy – written by Rosa Luxemburg in 1908 – was (as a complete text) only published in the German language in the year 2012. 

Today, historians are working towards closing this gap. Currently, labor historians plan to release further writings of Rosa Luxemburg in autumn 2022. These are designed as additional volumes that complete Rosa Luxemburg’s writing that have already been published by the publisher Dietz-Verlag. Rosa Luxemburg’s so-called Polish writings are currently in translation. These will add two more books. 

Sadly, very few things are known about Rosa Luxemburg’s early life and her family in her native Poland. Yet, we know that the Luxemburgs were a family in which all children received a comprehensive education in which Polish was the first language. Rosa’s mother also spoke German, while Russian was the language at Rosa’s local school. The Luxemburg siblings tended to speak French among themselves. Meanwhile, all cared for and read Hebrew at home.

The Luxemburg Five had a close relationship throughout their lives. When Rosa Luxemburg was imprisoned for the first time in the German city of Zwickau in 1904, her brother Józef visited her while she was serving prison time. Meticulous lists about Rosa’s daily life from that time show how often Rosa and her family corresponded with each other. 

Frequent letters and personal conversations weren’t just about family issues. Rosa’s relationship with her sister Anna (who is seventeen years older than her) deepened after she had visited Rosa in Berlin in the year 1898.  And, in 1908, Rosa Luxemburg spent several weeks with Anna in the Baltic resort of Kolberg, wherein Rosa discussed her ideas and writings about the issue of nationality with her. Rosa Luxemburg was also actively seeking the opinions of her brothers on this issue.

After the murder of Rosa Luxemburg in 1919, the remaining Luxemburgs suffered during the upheavals of the 20th century. In the early twentieth century, some of Rosa Luxemburg’s nieces and nephews also experienced hardship. One of Rosa’s nephews became a Polish military officer. He was imprisoned and in the spring of 1940, he was shot by the Red Army in the forest by Katyn. 

Another nephew joined the Polish resistance against the German occupation. He was executed by the Germans in 1942, in the Maidanek concentration camp. His brother – a member of the Polish underground Army – was taken to Auschwitz and murdered only a few months earlier. 

The fate of Bernhard Borde is no less traumatizing. Bernhard Borde was the grandson of Józef Luxenburg. Józef’s parents owned a pharmacy in the city of Riga. After the Soviet occupation of Latvia in mid-June 1941, he was deported. By the end of June 1941, German Nazis – including the infamous Butcher of Riga Herbert Cukurs – arrived in Riga and all Jewish life was erased with all the inhumanity and brutality German Nazis could muster.

Post-Nazi Germany continued to violate one of Rosa Luxemburg’s great dictums, there can be no socialism without democracy and no democracy without socialism. West-Germany had democracy but not socialism and East-Germany had socialism but no democracy. When West-Germany took over East-Germany in 1989/90, Germany got neither. There is no socialism and true deliberative democracy remains a distant dream as much as the even more urgently needed democratic eco-socialism.

Looking back at the family history of the Luxemburg Five, Bernhard Borde wrote, if they [the Soviets] hadn’t deported us, none of us would be alive today. Thanks to the Soviet deportation, Bernhard Borde survived and was able, despite his old age, to contribute towards completing the one-hundred-and-three years’ history of the Luxemburg Five.

Thomas Klikauer has 670 publications including a book on Managerialism and a textbook on human resource management.

Meg Young is a professional number cruncher and Pomeranian lover who enjoys good books, foreign films and music.

Originally published in Znet

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