Abraham Poljak (1900-1963) -
the man, his work, life and legacy
Paul E. Meier, ed.
translated by Sue Wiesmann
"The Jewish-Christian Church is the will of all Jews who believe in Christ
and in the mission of the Jewish people."
The above mission statement from Abram Poljak's own pen together with his confession of faith expressed in three languages on the tablet at the top of the execution stake of the Jewish Messiah: I.N.R.I., "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews", is an integral part of almost every publication of this Jewish forerunner of the 20th-century Messianic revival. His banner is the cross in the Magen David, the star of David, which began to fly during the period of National Socialism ten years ahead of the Israeli national flag.
Whoever cherishes the wish to write a biography of the founder of the Jewish-Christian Church, Abram Poljak, should base it on both the written and the oral sources. The latter include the not yet transcribed tape recordings which reflect primarily the thinking of the later Poljak. They reveal his inner development which can even be seen in a comparison between his earlier and his later publications. He said of himself, as Jacob said of Elijah, that he was "a man like us".
Many of the thoughts and Bible interpretations found in the beginning of his work were taken from the Pietists, although he otherwise attempted to avoid this. These include his words on prophecy and the end times, the differences between kingdom brotherhood and Jewish Christian church, between the body of Christ and the bride of Christ, or statements on the date of the rapture. Toward the end of his career he no longer emphasized certain things at all. Poljak did not think that he had the final word of wisdom on every subject. He assumed that we must proceed on the path he had begun and thus our understanding of all of Scripture would increase.
To our knowledge, a comprehensive collection of his writings is not available in any single place. Nor is there a Poljak archive even now, more than 40 years after his death (1). Those who knew him claim that he himself would have rejected a biography as a distraction from his message. For not Poljak himself must have priority, but his crucified and risen Jesus Christ, King of the Jews - I.N.R.I.
But even if we wish to manage without a biography, we can grasp the thinking of this extraordinary Jew only if we take into consideration the context which formed him. This context is first of all the two world wars, especially the second, whose anti-Semitism reached its peak during the Hitler period (2), as well as the cold war which followed. (3) The second aspect of this context is the breeding ground of German Pietism and its influence on his understanding of Biblical salvation history. And the third aspect is the controversy with Christian churches of his day. The theologians of those churches were no friends of Pietism and were largely silent regarding events in Germany. In addition, these churches were under the influence of so-called replacement theology, although they (as well as the Catholic Church) have in the meantime modified it. (4)
One of the key events of Poljak's life was a pogrom he experienced when he was 5 years old; following this pogrom his non-Orthodox family fled to Germany. Other key events were: his reading of Tolstoy, which made him a "Tolstoian Christian"; his arrest and miraculous liberation after just one week in prison (1933); his recognition that Jesus is the Messiah and king of the Jews; his calling on the Mt. of Olives; God's guidance through an Israeli visa which was not extended, leading him to conclude that God wanted to use him in Europe instead of settling in Israel; and finally, the years of his internment in England, Canada and on the Isle of Man, where he chose internment rather than liberation.
Due to the absence of a biography the reader can draw his own picture of this active life from the numerous references in the JCG publications. (5) Nevertheless we will now attempt to bring out several essential characteristics of Poljak and his work - all the more because his significance for the history of Messianic Judaism has not yet been properly appreciated. (6)
To understand the tensions between Poljak and the Protestant Church of Württemberg, this attempt is all the more necessary because of a book which during many decades after the war was highly influential in Christian churches of German speaking Europe: Dr. Kurt Hutten's "Seher, Gruebler, Enthusiasten" ("Seers, Brooders, Enthusiasts"), a presentation of Abram Poljak which needs correction. Dr. Hutten's judgment was influenced by replacement theology. For further details on this conflict, see Appendix on Poljak vs. Hutten.
Our tribute to Poljak acknowledges that Poljak regarded both Biblical salvation history and the present nation of Israel in a basically positive way. For whoever considers Poljak from another viewpoint would find it difficult not to acquiese to the judgment of his opponents. They claimed that his messages led to "separations and schisms" and caused "unrest among the believers". Hans Haerer, who became known through his summary of Theodor Boehmerle's (a famous Pietist) (7) teachings, defended Poljak in 1953, calling attention to Poljak's conciliatory attitude. "We should not put ourselves above churches and fellowships, no matter how they act toward us! We have no right to forbid a person from leaving the church, nor do we have a right to command or propagate separation from the Church. Our brotherhood, as a movement, is favorably neutral toward churches and fellowships and we wish them God's blessing." (8) This shows Poljak's inner greatness in the face of the church's rejection of him.
By a miracle, this courageous but quite humble witness of the Jewish-Christian faith did not end up in the Holocaust. Almost no one else studied God's plan for Israel and the church as he did, even as a prisoner of a war in which he had not even participated. His context was not only the Holocaust, but also the great open-mindedness of the post-war period, which was a more fruitful ground for end-time perspectives than we find today. Not by chance was his movement called an end-time or eschatologically oriented special group.
Is it not regrettable that the Christian church lost its eschatological components in spite of the terrible war events; that it passed by Poljak as if he had been a sectarian? In spite of his prophetic analysis of the Hitler period (9) the church has still not recognized that he was more than a Jewish journalist trying to spread a special dogma. (10)
We cannot avoid asking whether this lack of recognition was due to Christian anti-Semitism or - what amounts to the same - or whether his opponents' eyes have been blinded by the modern concept that there are two paths to salvation even though the validity of God's covenant with Israel is unlimited (11). On the other hand, we could also ask why there has still not been a single Messianic Jew who has written a Poljak dissertation (12) based on the theological view of history (13) - even though Poljak was not a theologian.
Did not Poljak before all others recognize the calling of the Messianic Jews, when he wrote, "We must uncover the guilt of the Jews as well as of the nation. Both reveal that they have no reason for pride. For they have all turned aside, they have together become worthless. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. For God has bound all men (Jews and gentiles) over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all..." (14)
Abram Poljak (1900-1963) was the first Messianic Jew who in the 20th century, (15) shortly before the Second World War, founded Messianic-Jewish, i.e."Jewish Christian"congregations in Europe. Before he was interned in England his first settlement was founded in Kenninghall. In his book "The Cross in the Star of David" (1936) (16) he describes how he came to faith in Jesus Christ. It is to his great merit that he was the first Jew to recognize that the commonly accepted replacement theology (which claims that Israel was disinherited by the church), which the church inherited from the Reformation, does not correspond to God's Biblical plan of salvation and needs correction. God did not reject the Jews, but called them to a special task. This insight brought him onto a collision course with both the church and the synagogue, but also with the Jewish Christian Alliance, whose members belonged to the Christian churches and congregations. (17)
As a disciple of Jesus who had thus become homeless, he saw himself called to offer the Jewish Christians (rejected by both church and synagogue) a "home for the homeless". (18) This home was the "Jewish Christian Church" (19) which he founded in November 1937. From 1946 this appeared as a "Jewish church" or "Christian synagogue" to the outside as well. The calling to this task had become clear to him in 1935 on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The vision likewise included founding Jewish Christian communities in the holy land and Bible schools to train congregation leaders. (20)
It should be noted that the term "our mission" arose during the Second World War and testifies to Poljak's vision and faith. "Our task is inward as well as outward. We must preach the gospel, bring Jews and non-Jews the Jewish Christian message and demonstrate a new form of life: the true fellowship, the life fellowship in the spirit of Christ - Jewish Christian communities in Palestine and in all the lands where we can build them." (21) This desire corresponded to Theodor Herzl's, who in Basle 1897 predicted the founding of a "homeland" in 50 years at the latest.
For Poljak, this development meant separation neither from the church denominations nor from the Jewish people. Unlike the traditional Christian understanding of Jewish Christianity, his view was insofar revolutionary as he did not expect of the Jews - as the Jewish Christian Alliance did - that they must be integrated in a church if they wanted to accept Jesus as their Messiah. This is exactly the way the modern Messianic Jewish movement sees itself, as well. As Poljak understood it, the traditional integration of Jesus-believing Jews could not be the sole path God had planned for the Jews.
Jewish Christianity from Poljak's perspective - and herein lies his special meaning - must be seen essentially as a return to the Jewish Christian congregation of the apostolic period before the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. (22). On the other hand, it anticipated Messianic Judaism. The latter resurged only a few years after Poljak's death, most likely without any relation to Poljaks ministry of the previous decades, when many American Jews recognized that Jesus is the Messiah. (23) However, none of these Messianic Jewish groups saw themselves, as Poljak had, as an independent end-time confession whose task was to prepare the Jews for their end-time vocation. (24)
The transformations which Poljak's work passed through (25) extended from the founding of the Jewish Christian Church in 1937 to the "International Jewish Christian Union" (then "Jewish Christian Church" (26)) to the founding of the "Kingdom Brotherhood" in Basle 15 years later (27) ("Jewish Christian Kingdom Brotherhood" JCG 183, 1952), the Kingdom Brotherhood of Jesus Christ (28), and the Jewish Christian Seminar. (29) In addition, there was the failed attempt to create a "Union of Messianic Jews" in Israel in 1950, at least 50 years too soon. All of these not only reveal an unusually creative spirit, but above all they express a cautious seeking - with the aid of prophetic and apostolic Biblical words as "guiding lights" - on the "bridge" of the end time, a "transition time." (30) They are also part of the extended birth pangs of the Messianic Jewish Church, whose model today is seen in the "one new man" described by Paul in Ephesians and in Romans 9-11.
Even though Poljak did not yet see this model, it was clear to him that the body of Christ is made of Jews and non-Jews, whose unity was part of the divine plan of salvation. Thus in 1936 he could already write, "We are beginning a work from eternity for eternity." After the war he repeated,
"The Jewish people must speak. And it speaks already when Jews as Jews confess Jesus and call for a Jewish Christian church. Even if there are still only few, no large party, they still throw more into the scales than all the Jewish parties now possess: the original Jewish faith and the national consciousness.
"Whatever else may happen today, the publications with the cross in the David star can no longer be erased from the history of the Jewish people. Nor will the Jewish Christian movement disappear like movements out of the relativity of space and time. For it is from eternity and for eternity. It is the liberating finale of the immortal symphony of the Jewish spirit; the introduction of the last and eternal chapter of Judaism and of mankind's intellectual history.
Jesus of Nazareth i s proclaimed King of the Jews!" (31)
"I consider these words the most important I have ever written or will ever write," Poljak quoted himself from "The Proclamation", written ten years earlier (The Cross in the David Star, 1936). (32) The fact that these words survived the Hitler period indicates their prophetic foreboding. For Poljak realized that the two world wars ushered in end-time events which would flow into the promised (and by the church largely forgotten) return of the Messiah, the king of the Jews.
His view of history is formulated in his essay "Six years of Hitler". (33) He later summarized it in his smallest publication, "which had the greatest dissemination" - "Hitler as General and Spiritist". This was written in 1949 and first published in 1950 in Germany. He wrote,
Even though Poljak was mistaken in his expectation that the Messianic Kingdom would soon come, (34) he was not one of those who calculate the date of Jesus' return. (35) His eschatology can not be counted against him any more than the against most important evangelical and messianic expectations of our time which likewise reject the great historical churches' amillenialism. From a pre-millenial viewpoint, Jerusalem will become the center of the Messianic Kingdom which, after God's judgment of the nations, will become a reality this side of eternity in space and time. Regarding this, Poljak quotes the prophet Zechariah as well as the New Testament, among others.
Poljak deserves a special tribute for another reason, as well. He realized that although the Jews did not crucify Jesus alone, they must also confess their co-guilt before God. This confession of Poljak demonstrates that, even though he was not a theologian, his understanding of Scripture is far ahead of those theologians who still think the Jews must be blamed for Jesus' death. This interpretation laid the foundation for replacement theology and still belongs to the core of anti-Semitic thought.
Yet it is not only this confession which demonstrates Poljak's spiritual acumen. As hardly another Jewish voice of his time, he confessed the Shoah as guilt of those Jews who fell under God's judgment because they had sold their calling for the lentil stew of assimiliation, thus denying their identity.
But his confession of guilt is not to be confused with the confession, for example, of a Meir Simcha Sokolovsky (36), who likewise saw the suffering as the fulfillment of prophetic warnings. But at the same time he interpreted it as substitutionary penance to save the lives of the American Jews. Poljak saw in the Holocaust part of God's judgment which will not end until Armageddon and which has nothing to do with Isaiah 53.
Comments on the church's as well as the Jews' rejection of Poljak
The wrong judgment of a church which saw in Poljak's work an "end-time oriented Christian sect” (37) can be understood only against the background of a theology which does not share the insight of one of the 20th century's greatest Protestant theologians - Karl Barth. His insight was that the church can be church "only in unity with Israel". Barth taught that "the Jews' understanding of Christ cannot be a matter of leaving Judaism. On the other hand, heathen Christians' faith in Christ cannot mean a rejection of Israel."
Barth's comment on Romans 11:16-32 is worth considering in the context of Poljak's work: "Whoever believes in Jesus cannot not want the Jews. He must have them together with Jesus' predecessors and relatives. Otherwise he cannot have the Jew Jesus either. Otherwise he rejects the Jesus along with the Jew. This - the real foundation of the church - is what is at stake here." (38)
As already mentioned, Poljak was reproached for having ostensibly found two lines in the history of salvation in the Bible - one line for Jews and one for non-Jews. But these two lines were not, as a superficial reading claimed, two basically separated lines. They were actually one single line whose two lanes would merge. That is the basis of his understanding of the church [Gemeinde] as a unity of Jewish Christians and gentile Christians. In his book ‘Die Botschaft vom Reich’ ("The Message of the Kingdom") (39) Poljak defends himself against these accusations. The kingdom brotherhood is not an additional church. It must rather be understood "as a movement, as a prayer fellowship spread across all Christian circles." (40)
Understanding Poljak's terminology requires the knowledge of the sources (It is necessary to study the sources in order to understand…) . What does he mean by the term "kingdom"? He urges caution. "At this point we must warn of a leap in our thoughts, of an exaggeration, of haste and lack of sobriety. Please note: We are building the kingdom, but we do not form it, because the kingdom is still in the future. Today we can proclaim the kingdom as herolds; we can announce its proximity. But it can come into effect 'in power’ only with Christ's visible return. Until then we are 'at the kingdom' but not 'in the kingdom'". (41)
The term kingdom is linked to the term (prayer) brotherhood. What does the Jewish Christian church mean by the term "kingdom brotherhood"? Is there not behind this question of terminology also an ontological question, the question of identity, which will perhaps be with the Jews until their Messiah returns? Why does Poljak, after 20 years, still speak in this context (1955) of "heavy questions",(42) which he treats in his "programmatic" articles? The goal of the kingdom brotherhood's conferences was "to announce and to explain the reason for our existence, to point out the limits of the time and to exceed them, and to give a testimony for the visible and the invisible world." These conferences also served to clarify some problems of definition. The "Jewish Christian Kingdom Brotherhood" (second conference in Basle, 1952) became the "Kingdom Brotherhood of Jesus Christ" (conference in Bremen, 1954).
[ The initial structure of the congregation - from the London period -, which consisted of an inner circle (Jewish Christians) and an outer circle (gentile Christians) was probably given up when the work came to a premature end in England itself. (see endnote 24)]
If we understand Poljak's strategy properly, the problem which arises here is that his expectancy of Jesus' imminent return must include an element of uncertainty. For if we think it through, not one of us knows whether he will still be alive when Jesus returns.
Poljak differentiates between the "body of Christ" and the "bride of Christ. "The body is the church which is formed in the interim between Christ's first and second coming.” According to Gal. 3:28, in this body there are neither Jews nor Greeks. This body will be removed from the earth when Christ returns. With that, the line of the history of salvation for the body from the nations will have come to an end. (Poljak believed in the rapture of the body-church [Leib-Gemeinde]) "Then the bride of Christ will appear, the whole Jewish people which will then confess Christ" (Zech. 12, Jer. 31:34, Rom. 11:26). The Jewish Christian church consists of two groups: "The one group belongs to Christ's body, the other to the bride. One has its task now, the other tomorrow." (Tomorrow, when Christ will have come.)
The important thing here is that no one knows when Christ will return. Therefore the Jewish Christian cannot know with certainty whether he will belong to the bride church or not. For Jewish Christians who are still alive when Jesus comes (Poljak: "It depends who gets through the 'last minute before 12', who will reach the end of the bridge on which we find ourselves in this moment") belong to the bride church. (We have not yet discovered his rationale for the special commission of the bride church. Perhaps it comes from the Old Testament pictures and from the conviction that the book of Revelation was written primarily for Jews and ends with the call of the bride for her Messiah.)
Poljak also considers it decisive that no one knows his own assignation. [G. Bestimmung] "Only the future will reveal this."
With "bridge", Poljak describes the function of the gentile Christian kingdom brotherhood which belongs to the body of Christ. It has the "royal task of building the 'bridge' to Israel. It blesses Israel and receives Israel's blessing, the ‘blessing from Zion’. With this power it lays the foundations of the kingdom and opens the gates of heaven for the king of kings, who will return to the earth."
If we understand Poljak correctly, then every Jew who confesses Jesus and participates in the Jewish Christian church [Gemeinde] becomes a Jewish Christian. A non-Jewish Christian who considers himself part of the Jewish Christian church belongs to the kingdom brotherhood. "One cannot 'apply' to the kingdom brotherhood. We are not an organization and have no membership lists. We are a movement whose origin is in eternity. Only those whom the king himself has called, 'chosen from before the creation of the world' (Eph. 1:4), belong to it... We have the sign, a flag, which is the cross in the star of David...the sign of the king." (43) "The kingdom brotherhood is not our invention and we did not found it. It was called to life by God and will be preserved by him." (44)
Several of the JCG monthly journals deal with "Problems of the kingdom brotherhood", such as can arise in every prayer group. For example, the dogma of universal salvation surfaced in Pietistic circles. Poljak, "It is not our responsibility to deal with topics such as universal salvation, spiritual gifts, etc. Neither is it our responsibility to fight them. We do not speak about them – within the confines of the kingdom brotherhood... This attitude seems to us a principle of wisdom, 'Remain in the word which was given to you!'
"The word which was given to us as our commission is solely 'the message of the kingdom' - and we as the kingdom brotherhood may preach only this message. With this message we were able to unite friends and opponents of universal salvation, friends and opponents of the Pentecostal movement, Catholics and Protestants as well as members of many fellowships. Shall we now drive them apart by taking the side of one direction, of one party? This would make us a party ourselves and we would throw off the crown of 'ecumenism' (45)
See Appendix II regarding Poljak’s earlier emphasis on the distinction between the body and the bride of Christ, a distinction that lost its prominence in his later years,.
After the death of Abram Poljak in 1963, Baron Albert von Springer became his successor in the JCG (Jewish Christian church [Gemeinde]).. Why did the JCG disband in the German speaking area after Springer retired some 20 years after the death of its founder, whereas the French "Jerusalem" continued without a break? Had the time for Poljak's vision not yet come because the political detente and the economic up-turn in Europe put the Christians to sleep again? Or was it the church which could not acknowledge an independent Jewish Christian movement because it was not willing to revise its theology? Poljak will be re-discovered in his time, at the latest when atomic bombs are again spoken of (46), for his old-new message will never again be lost: "Jesus is the king of the Jews, I.N.R.I." (47)
Poljak's publications (monthly journals and re-printings in book form)
In 1935 the author founded the monthly journal “ Jewish Christian press correspondence". Eight numbers appeared in Jerusalem. The journal was continued in Berne, Switzerland, from August 1937. With the November number it found its final title, "The Jewish Christian Church".
This journal served Abram Poljak as a platform for his articles, press reports, sermons and sermon preparations, meditations, correspondence and defense against theological attacks from the church. Circulation reached several thousand. When these journals were out of print, the author published selected numbers in a dozen different books. These books themselves were reprinted several times and left behind a rich documentation of his Jewish Christian thinking. The series of collected volumes, printed by Patmos (Moettlingen/Stuttgart and Berne) consists of ten books, some of which reached likewise numerous printings.
The author expressly allowed the copying of his works. He did not take out copyrights, remarking, "If the thoughts I have written can bring the readers blessing, I have only one desire - that they be further disseminated. Whether this is in other publications under my name or no name, does not matter." He only wanted his "programmatic articles" which appeared under his name in the official publications of different groups of which he was not a member, to mention the source. This should express clearly that these articles were reprinted from the JCG. (48)
During Poljak's lifetime, 322 monthly numbers appeared. After his death in October 1963 they were continued by his successor Baron Albert von Springer. This journal was discontinued in December 1990 (Nr. 694/650) for lack of a further successor.
On the other hand, the French edition with the name "Jerusalem" is still being published. For example, April 2006 saw the publication of Nr. 556. These journals occasionally print translations of Poljak articles, but they have taken on a character of their own.
In England Poljak's movement likewise put out a regular publication ("Jerusalem"), which had a smaller circulation than the German editions. The death of John Brockis, who was responsible for these journals, brought them to an end. His daughter later took up this publication again and continues it today, although not as regularly as previously. The author attributed the work's lack of success in England to a lack of prayer support, which was obviously better in Switzerland and Germany.
Poljak's courageous, daring plans were accompanied by simultaneous humble, honest modesty. He confessed of the first ten editions of the JCG magazine that not everything which had been published there should have been. (49)
A collection of lectures on Grammaphone records are available on CD from Karl Krauter, Otto-Schott-Strasse 16, D-73431 Aalen, 07361-44294.
Abram Poljak died in 1963 (50). When he held the first worship service in London in 1944, after he had been released from prison camp, he summed up the meaning of his Jewish Christian church after its first year, "We repent for the sins of our people, which culminated in the crucifixion of Christ. In rejecting his salvation power and sovereign rule up to this day they have reached their disastrous crowning. Just as Israel's priests used to cover the sins of their people with bloody sacrifices, so must we today intercede for our people through spiritual sacrificial service, with prayers of repentance and by appealing to Christ." (51)
We must see his legacy primarily in the view that we must understand Holy Scriptures in their entirety - Old and New Testament - as God-inspired word in its basically literal (G. ‘grundsätzlich buchstäblichen’), original Jewish-Hebrew sense. "We see that linguists and professional (G. sprach- und fachkundige) Bible translators have different understandings and that when we read the Bible we can draw false conclusions and assume exactly the opposite of what God intended. We should therefore not only read, but also ‘ponder the word in our hearts.’ (Lk. 2:19, "Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.") Many Bible translators and exegetes think abnormally and stubbornly - in a ‘sectarian’ way. Paul spoke of ‘ministers of a new covenant - not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’” (2 Cor. 3:6). (52)
Poljak's exceptional humility, the honesty with which he confessed his own weakness, mistakes, and errors, as well as his search for truth and his courage in confessing the truth (even when he was massively criticized for it) give his awareness of a mission real credibility - even though the time for his vision was not yet ripe. Thus Poljak ‘a man with a nature like ours,’ may have erred here and there, but he fulfilled his calling to link God's plan of salvation with the signs of the times (53) and to call Jews' and Christians' attention to its meaning. This included the king of the Jews' immanent return and his (1000-year Messianic) kingdom, as well as the prophetic warning of the coming judgment on the nations. (This would be the last war, which would also be an atomic one, which the Bible calls Armageddon, "the last battle before the beginning of the Messianic kingdom" (54). Just as meaningful is Poljak's insight that the Jewish Christian church must be surrounded by prayer groups (the kingdom brotherhood) "from the nations" so that it can fulfill its calling.
Here we see the difference between America and Europe. Eschatology is not discussed in Europe. In the U.S.A. it often makes headlines with its Christian conferences. As far as we know, Poljak did not yet see the collision of cultures and the world-wide threat of Islam. (55) The church in Europe has lost the balance between this world and the next, giving its primary attention to social concerns and the protection of the environment, of creation and its creatures.
Poljak admonishes us to take God's plan with Israel seriously. (56) He names this plan "the message of the kingdom". If he had seen the present political development in the Near East he would have once again admonished us to heed the signs of the time and draw the consequences. These signs are not only the political development, but also the growth of the Jewish Christian churches and their efforts to find unity among themselves. A generation ago Poljak had striven in vain to mediate.
The journalist Poljak wrote about the second Basle conference of the JCG on January 27, 1952, at which the 80-year-old former India missionary Friedrich Braun had spoken, "It became a historical event, a milestone in salvation history. (57)
These incomplete references to the rich JCG source material leave many questions unanswered. We hope that they will nevertheless help a coming generation of Christians and Jewish Christians/Messianic Jews to acknowledge and study Abram Poljak's efforts in their historically significant context.