Katzenelson Nison was born in Bobruisk, Minsk province in 1862 into a family of timber merchants to parents Joseph and Paie-Braine Katzenelson. Nison graduated from the University of Berlin with a degree in experimental physics and obtained a Doctorate in philosophy before moving to Liepāja.
At the Third World Zionist Congress in Basel in 1899 he was elected Director of the Jewish Colonial Trust and in 1905 became Chairman of the bank’s Board of Directors. The Trust, created at the end of the 19th century, organised fundraising for the purchase of land in Palestine for the creation of a Jewish State.
Nison Katzenelson was a friend of Dr. Theodor Herzl (founder of political Zionism, visionary of the Jewish state and founder of the World Zionist Organization). In 1903 when Herzl visited Russia Katzenelson accompanied the Zionist leader on trips around the country and participated in his meetings. During one of his last trips to Russia, Herzl invited Katzenelson to accompany him to a meeting with the Minister of the Interior, Senator Pleve Vyacheslav who subsequently hosted Dr. Katzenelson at a later date.
Nison Katzenelson played an active role in the political life of Russian Jewry and especially in the “Society for Equal Rights for the Jewish People” which was created at the Congress of Jewish leaders held in Vilna (now Vilnius) in 1905. He also attended a similar meeting in 1909 in Kovno (now Kaunas) where he was elected the Conference President.
In 1906, Katzenelson was elected Deputy for the province of Kurland at the First State Duma where he worked for the financial commission. The Duma, deemed too left-wing, only sat in session for less than three months before being dissolved by order of the Tsar. In protest against this government measure a large number of deputies met at Vyborg in Finland where they issued a proclamation protesting against closure of the Duma, calling for passive resistance against the government. Katzenelson and the other Jewish Deputies were signatories to this proclamation resulting in all the signatories being arrested, Katzenelson included. On his release, having lost the right to stand for election again he focused on local community work and headed the Libau (now Liepāja) emigration committee which provided support to Jews departing from the port of Liepaja, now one of the main Baltic ports through which Jews emigrated from Russia to the USA, Canada and Europe.
During the First World War Nison Katzenelson moved to Petrograd where he assisted Jewish refugees. After the Kerensky revolution in the spring of 1917 he was elected member of the Council for the Preparation of the All-Russian Jewish Conference.
Nison Katzenelson returned to Liepāja in 1918 where he died on November 9, 1923.
The large Katzenelson family in Bobruisk exported timber through the port of Liepaja which meant they needed a representation office in the city. Around 1900 Nison commissioned a construction project at 16, Kūrmājas Prospekts to provide a mansion for his family as well as the Katzenelson trading house. This project was undertaken by P M Berchi and completed in 1901. A year later staff quarters were added housing a coachman on the first floor and domestic staff accommodation on the second. The architect used different architectural styles – for the Katzenelson mansion he followed the Gothic style (e.g. the balcony design) and Art Nouveau style in the façade reliefs. Inside the mansion Gothic style features solely in the lobby while the rest of the rooms are decorated in various styles – from heavyweight German Renaissance in the dining room to Baroque and Rococo in both salons. The mansion boasted two original stained-glass windows of which the Ernest Tode window still adorns the former dining room. The second stained glass window in the winter garden was damaged during the WWII bombing of the city.
There is a legend about the house of Nison Katzenelson’s mother (below). She bought a villa somewhere in the Baltic States and ordered it to be moved to Bobruisk where the entire original mansion with mezzanine was assembled in 1912 on the former Prisutsvennaya Street. This wealthy but extravagant businesswoman, first guild merchant Paie-Braine Katzenelson, engaged in timber business like her son. In 1901 her company turnover was two million roubles. The name Katzenelson was well known not only throughout the Russian Empire, but also abroad and especially in Britain. Shortly before the revolution, Paie-Braine rented her house out to the Bobruisk Police Council to move closer to her son Nison in St. Petersburg.
The former villa of Paie Braine Kacenelson, first guild merchant in Bobruisk.