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[p. 40]

About Jewish Life in Krynki
during the second half of the 19th century until 1896

Translated by Judie Goldstein

Ab[raham] Miller: Through the decades

Chapter on Textile Production

Before the leather industry arrived in Krynki, the shtetl had been busy for sixty years in the previous century [18th c.] with cloth production. In stables and in attics – stood (weaving) looms. Back and forth they ran without cease. Big and small, everyone worked. From morning until night the noise was heard and the clatter of the machines together with the singing of the bobbins. I still remember the old song that the young women would sing:

“Mama, arrange a marriage and give me
A man, a weaver;
The day after the wedding I will travel
In a carriage with rubber wheels”.
A weaver was popular. He earned six to seven rubles a week while other artisans, for example a shoemaker or a tailor, earned more like eighteen gulden in the same time and not able to make ends meet.

The weavers had trouble with their hands. So before the spinning they used the strength of the waterfall from the big and small Nietupe and a little water helped with the task. There were also a lot of “roundabouts” (an arrangement using the strength of a horse, also used later in the leather factories to pound bark). Cloth production quickly developed and several fortunate manufacturers built steam factories with high chimneys. Krinik was noisy. The whistle of the steam factories and noise of the modern machines left its mark on the shtetl of an industrial center.

I would like to mention some of the manufacturers. It is thanks to them that Krynki reached its high status and they also bore the usual shtetl names: Yehusha Kugel's, Zundel Ite's, Mordchai Meyer Katsemakh, Meyer Yokhe's, Moshe Abraham the Wealthy, Munye the Tanner, Berl Pukh, Yidl Eli Chatskel's, Boruch David, Moshe Slava's, Yosel from Dobra-Valke, Chaim Jankel Hersh's, Hersl Sukenik, Yosel Tsalel Enya Kresh's, Jankel Moshe Abrham's, chaim Eli, Berl. Chaim Jankel's, Moshe Chaim Jankels, Feyvel the Ekideker, Moshe Yoshitser, Gdaliya Krupnik, etc.

[p. 41]

Besides the manufacturers, there arose in the shtetl a class of big merchants of raw material, commissioners and wagon drivers (there was no railroad in Krynki at the time).

Bialystok and Lodz, with their modern factories, that put out a better product, and due to demands at the time had begun to surpass the Krynki manufacturers who did not go with the flow of making cheap goods. They began to quarrel amongst themselves and in a short time became aloof and one fine morning they simply went bankrupt.

The work slowly went over to the neighboring towns – Horodok, Mikhalove and Vashilkove, etc. The factories were idle. The spinners, weavers and merchants left Krynki and the town became as idle as a cemetery. The windows and doors of the factories were broken, boarded over. The idleness and quiet cast fear into the population and passing by after the kheder [religious school], boys would avoid this area, as they believed that there were devils there. Jokers would blame the silent steam factories and composed a song about the troubles.

“Yidl approaches and says:

The steam factory goes like a fiddle
Eli approaches and says:
The steam factory goes like an orchestra
Gedalya approaches and says:
The steam factory is out of order,
Fayvel approaches and
Rolls up his eyes.”
Krinki in Confusion

Krynki's economic situation became very difficult. Looking at the community institutions in the shtetl, like the Talmud Torah [free religious grade school for poor boys], the bote-medroshim [synagogues, of study], the hakhnoses-orkhim [Sabbath shelter for poor wanderers], the hospital, etc. were poorly maintained. During the good years the bosses were too busy with their big businesses to notice any of this.

Krinik felt like after a wedding. The tumult was still humming in the head, but the pockets were empty. Everyone felt impoverished. People wandered around the market place like after a fire, not knowing what to do to earn a piece of bread.

Little by little people accepted the situation and carried on as best they could. They bought what the gentiles brought during a market day: a bundle of pig hair, seeds, flax, wax, wool and fought each other over an old, holy peasant shirt. They ran on the roads during a market day to stop a peasant with a little grain; then ran back to the shtetl, while the other whipped the horse in order that the Jew would not run after him. All this just to earn a kopeck profit from the trade. And from this business people had to live and pay tuition, pay for marriages and pay one's way out of military service. They wracked their brains trying to survive from one day to the next until times got better.

The Fires

The fires touched everybody!

One beautiful morning a fire broke out at the market place at Niome the tanner's and one quarter of the city went up in smoke. There was nothing anybody could do and so they asked for help from the surrounding cities. They received a little from here and there and they began to rebuild. First the Christian houses and later the Jewish ones. A lot of places stood empty and before the wound was healed another fire broke out - a larger one.

[p. 42]

It began on Shivoser betamez [17th of Tamuz June/July, a fast day to remember when Nebachanezar broke through the walls of Jerusalem in 586 and Titus in 70 b.c.e] and people had fasted the whole day. It was a very hot day. Everyone was tired. They were exhausted and went to sleep. Just before daybreak a large fire broke out. Screaming was heard. “Fire, it's burning!” People opened their eyes – there were lights in all the windows. Everyone woke up and grabbed the children. The father grabbed the axe – he ran to see where the fire was. I ran after him. I ran to the fire and saw Chemia Moshek's house was ablaze and nobody extinguished it. A second caught on fire, a third.

The Krynki rabbi, Reb Boruch crawled out a window in his nightclothes and begged the butchers to at least grab a hoe. He could not ask more of them. The fire was everywhere and destroyed the entire shtetl. Whatever things could be saved was carried into the synagogue, because it had not burned the time before and everyone was sure it would not burn this time. But it did not take long for the large synagogue, the “Khayeh Odem” [“Life of Man”, title of a well-known compendium of Jewish religious laws] and the Slonimer shtibl [Hassidic prayer house], to go up in flames. All that was left were ruins. Three quarters of Krinik went up in smoke.

The Shtetl Is Rebuilt

The large fires erased all traces of the cloth factories that Krynki had. From all the tired, empty buildings nothing was left.

But it is said that after a fire people become rich. People in the shtetl began to stir, buying old bricks. They were ready to clear out a couple of blocks. It was lively. Some insurance money had arrived and some respected citizens were traveling the world with a document from the rabbi – to make money.

The large synagogue, whose walls were still standing, had not been forgotten. They were working on the building so that it would be ready for Rosh Hashanah [Jewish New Year]. Yudel Laskes helped a lot with the work.

Little by little the shtetl was rebuilt (with nice bricks in place of the rotten wooden houses) one with modern windows and doors (made with frames set into the openings.)

But the Kalter Synagogue was forgotten and was left standing without a roof. Who knows how long it would have stayed this way if not for Yankel Elke's (Mordchilevitsh) and Shaul Zelman from the courtyard. They did not rest until the synagogue was rebuilt. Yankel Elke's tried to make it as beautiful as possible according to the standards of the time. The vault was decorated with fine carvings of pears with an artistic knob in the middle. The carver was Shalom Pinkhas from Grodno and his name was cut into the carving. A lovely Holy Ark was also built (made by Efrim the cabinetmaker) and an artistic cantor's desk as well as a fine door (worked on by Eli Meyer Fishel's).

As known, the poor and guests of the community always prayed in this synagogue.

The Beginning of the Tannery

In Krynki, as in a lot of other towns, there were small wet tanneries that worked cowhides and also made simple soles (one of them was founded about 1864 and later restored by Jakob Kipel Zalkin). The entire morning during market day, the manufacturers would layout his entire “production” on a small, dilapidated wagon held together with string. He hitched himself to the wagon and dragged it to the market place. His wife and children helped pushed it downhill. He stood near the booth of Motl, Chaia Tille's, laying out the bits of leather, and waited for merchants and peasants who were the principal buyers of leather to make bast shoes. The wife and children stood around all day watching the wagon so that the peasants would not steal because back then a gentile buying a small piece of leather was a big purchase. The small piece was used for different parts of the shoe.

[p. 43]

kry043.jpg - The Holy Ark and Bima
The Holy Ark and Bima [Torah reading platform] on the Krynki synagogue.
Standing on the bima at the right is the shames [synagogue sexton];
on the left is the gabe [trustee of a public institution]

[p. 44]

The large Krynki leather industry that began with these small leather pieces later became famous in Russia.

The tanners at that time were Yeshiya Shmuel Moshek's, Mates the Tanner, Moshe Velvl and Abrahaml Gimzshes, Jakob Shmuel the Tanner, Eliahu Abrahaml Holeveshke, Abrahaml Meyer Leyb's and Kopel Safianik. Kopel would make safyan [morocco leather] from sheepskins at Yoshe, Chaia Masha's.

This how they worked year in and year out. They bought horsehides from the “kapitse” [skinners[1]], a cowhide from the butcher and kept a couple of Tatars to help during the week (not on a market day). They sold cow hides to a shoemaker for gentile boots and with this they made a living, not having any idea that anything better existed.

Hillel Katz-Bloom: People Become Tanners[2]

In Krynki, a small shtetl of three to four hundred wooden houses in the 1890's, the population was poor and oppressed. They made their living from the village and the market place. When a peasant arrived by wagon he would be met by Jews in kapotes [long, black coats worn by Jewish men] and women with kerchiefs wound around their heads and there would be a tumult and yelling: “you, what do you have to sell?”

Down near the river there were several large wooden buildings where during the good years, in the past, when Jews had “podvalen” [cellars to store liquor] and taverns, there were liquor distilleries and breweries and Jews made a living from them. With the introduction of the monopoly in Russia, all the taverns and distilleries closed and Jews were left without the means to earn money. Men with entrepreneurial spirits began making tanneries in the old houses where leather was made to sell. Jews worked at dry leather and the Christians in the villages at wet hides.

A kilometer before arriving in the shtetl one could already smell the odor of the tanneries. Old, wooden, low, half-rotten buildings, the walls were damp and there was no ventilation. There was absolutely no sanitation. The workers had never heard of such thing and were not concerned about any of this. The only government official in the shtetl was the police officer. As long as he received his monthly stipend of fifty rubles from the manufacturers, everything was “kosher.”

There was an exploitation of the workers and the working conditions. The majority were former impoverished small storekeepers and former idlers. In winter the wet workers would have frozen hands, as the owners did not heat the buildings. For the dry workers in the drying rooms the heat was unbearable.

[p. 45]

People worked in shirts and sweat poured from their bodies. They worked in these odious conditions without rubber gloves (the owners did not worry about these things). The wet workers hands were damaged from the lime and became infected from the hides of sick animals, with the terrible “Sharbunke” (“Siberian Plague”, a type of ulcerated “carbuncle”). In just the winter of 1896-1897, fifteen workers died from it.

Nobody dared protest or complain about such conditions or the terrible treatment. Rebels like this would have been beaten black and blue and thrown out of the tannery.

Ab[raham] Miller: From Tanners to Leather Manufacturers

Jakob Kopel Zalkin was the first to begin working leather in large volume. He owned the factory that later belonged to Hershl Grossman. Although all the manufacturers tanned horsehides, some produced Warsaw soles. All of them worked according to the same system. The same wet tannery had the ceiling over head, broken windows, rotten vats, the same terrible odors from the skins, lime and extracts mixed together that would infect the air of the shtetl.

Never once on a Friday during the day, did we go without seeing a child or a wife bringing a piece of potato pudding to the tannery for a father or a husband. During the wet tanning he stood at the vat, with a scraping iron in hand, and pulled the hide from the carrion. He hurried to finish the work quickly, to be able to leave sooner for the bathhouse in honor of the Sabbath. He wiped a hand dirty from the leather and took the piece of pudding and “enjoyed the feasts” near the vat.

The first to begin production of leather in large volumes in Krynki, besides Jakob Kopel Zalkin (“safyanik”) [morocco leather man] were: Nachum Anshel with his partner Ayzik Krushenyaner and Chaikel Alend who bought the small tannery from Moshe Gimzshes. There were also Jankel Mates' and Hershel Grossman, Leyb Mates', Jankel Moshele's, Yehusha Zatz, Hershel Yankel Elkes, Sevakh Elkes, Shmuel the American, Asher Shiya's, the Blochs, Moshe Szimshonovitz, Eli Kopel's, Israel Ertzki; Rechel's three sons – Archik, Velvel and Israel Leyb and others.

The leather industry quickly spread throughout Krynki until the government looked around and stopped giving out permits to set up wet tanneries in the middle of the shtetl because of the terrible sanitary conditions. After going to a lot of trouble the manufacturers were allowed to go to the other side of the river, at Yenta's fields. The industrialists bought large tracts of land and built immense factories with better facilities, such as large windows and cement tanks. In the new factories they worked horse skins and employed hundreds of workers, masters and apprentices.

The First Tanners

The first workers in the factories doing wet work were as previously mentioned, Tatars and their wives.

Not only the Jews in Krynki made a living from the factories. There were also gentiles who worked there.

When Nachum Anshel decided to take up leather manufacturing, he asked Kopel Zalkin for advice. Kopel told him: “If you have enough money to put into it – then do it.” Nachum Anshel was not afraid and a few dozen years later he was the head of the shtetl, the leader of the Krynki manufacturers. He ruled like a strong government official and his word was law. His strong hand was also often felt on somebody's cheek.

[p. 46]

Germans did the dry work. The word “garber” [tanner] originated with the Germans. A lot of the words used in Krynki in the leather tanneries came from them. And when the Krynki young people went into the leather factories, they were taught not only the trade but also the German terminology.

The workday in the leather factories, during the early years, started at five o'clock in the morning and ended at dark during the summer. During the winter they worked from five o'clock in the morning until eight or nine o'clock at night. At five after five in the morning the doors to the factory entrance were already closed.

The weekly wage of a wet worker was three to six rubles

The dry work was done by the masters who were paid by the piece or by two pieces of distressed leather (a horsehide of finely worked leather with minute projections). It took ten to eleven years of apprenticeship to become a master and it cost forty to fifty kopecks a week to learn the trade. The masters lived better than the manufacturers. They lived in nice dwellings, had servants, were well-dressed, splayed cards, drank beer and schnapps and slept until nine o'clock in the morning.

Like the children of Israel in Egypt, the Krynki workers also moaned and groaned under the yoke of the difficult, dirty work. The skin of the wet workers hands was cracked to the bone, from working the hide with lime. They were not able to change their boots, and on Friday afternoon would polish their work boots with cod liver oil and go to the synagogue. Even the dry workers would wear their greasy work trousers on the Sabbath and holidays.

kry046.jpg - Tanners in Krynki
Tanners in Krynki

[p. 49]

Dov Rabin: Krinki Rabbinate

The First Rabbis

We are in possession of details about the Krynki rabbis from 1883. Because of the lack of necessary community chronicles (such as the community record book, and the Burial Society records) we have only the names and details of the rabbis, as far as possible, as was found in the sources that were available to us.

As previously designated the first time a rabbi in Krinik is mentioned is in “Pinkas Mdins Lita” [Book of Records of the Country Lithuania], in institutions for the year 1679 where he is entitled “the Communal Leader, the rabbi Leyb of Krinik”.

Later we have scant details about Krynki rabbi, first from the beginning of the 29th century, for instance:

Reb Osher son of Reb Avigdor ha Cohen was the rabbi in Krynki until 1810.

Reb Arye Leyb, the author of Shaagas Arieh [literally “the Lion's Roar”—a well-known work on Jewish Law] was at first the rabbi in Zabludova (after his father the rabbi Reb Boruch Bendet). He was the rabbi in Krynki until 1814 when he was invited to be the rabbi in Bialystok where he died in 1820. He was known as a sagacious scholar and versed in Talmud, Rashi's commentary, Tosfos and Codes. He was a master of style in Hebrew and was knowledgeable in religious poetry.

Reb Yosef son of Osher haCohen, author of “Kapos Zahav” [literally “The Golden Spoons, a book on Jewish Law and philosophy], the son of the previously mentioned Krynki rabbi, Reb Osher son of Avigdor – became the rabbi in Krynki in the 1830's until about 1838 when he was invited to become the rabbi in Kamenets-Litovsk.

After him, Reb Abraham haCohen became the rabbi in Krynki. He died in 1848. This is all that is known about him.

Reb Yosef of Krinik, Reb Yosele Lipnishker, was first the rabbi in Lipnishok and afterwards in Krynki where he died in 1867. He was a student of Reb Chaim Volozhyner in his yeshiva and in a letter in 1865, he described the situation of the study of Torah in Lithuania and Poland, before the above mentioned yeshiva was founded and stirred the Jewish community to open the locked yeshiva once again. In the shtetl Reb Yosele was considered a pious man and on his grave in Krynki there stands a monument where believers would come to lay request notes for him to defend them.

[p. 50]

Reb Abraham the sagacious scholar, “Reb Abrahamtchik”, “der alter rav” [the old rabbi] from Krynki died there in 1872. He was known as a man satisfied with little.

It is likely that was after him until 1883 rabbi in Krynki, Reb Gad Moshe son of Zelman, a brother-in-law of the Novy Dvor rabbi Reb Abraham Tsvi Hirsh. At the same time the Rabbinical Judge in Krynki was RebShlama Chaim Mishelev, previously the rabbi in Novy Dvor who is buried in the Krynki cemetery.

Reb Boruch son of Shmuel Meyer Lavski who came from Lomza, studied in the Volozhyn yeshiva, and when he was young was described as a bright, upright man with an aptitude to penetrate deep into the ancient rabbinical authorities. He became the rabbi in Krynki in 1883 having been recommended by Reb Zelman Sender Shapiro, who was the rabbi in Kobrin and who was acquainted with Reb Boruch from their days on the yeshiva bench in Volozhyn.

Reb Boruch soon occupied an important place in community affairs and being well versed in Polish and Russian helped. He was a specialist in lawsuits brought to the religious court and in jurisprudence. People bringing lawsuits would turn to him, not only Krynki manufacturers and merchants, but also people from near and far in the area, for example the Grodno Tobacco manufacturer Shereshivski and noblemen, for him to decide or comment on their disputes.

Reb Boruch had also acquired a name among the Torah scholars with his work “Minchas Boruch” [literally “the Offering of Boruch”] – questions and responses on the “Shulhan Aruk”, [“Prepared Table”, title of a book containing all Jewish religious laws]. Because he was a great, well-versed, sagacious scholar of Torah, a lot of communities, like Ponovezh for example, offered him the rabbi's chair, but Reb Boruch was faithful to his Krynki community where he remained as rabbi for twenty years until his death in 1903.

Preachers

While Reb Abrahamtchik was the rabbi in Krynki, Reb Abraham Jakob Leviton was the judge and preacher – he was called “der Alter Magid” [the Old Preacher]. He was a good speaker and a follower of the Kelm magid's path and manner and his fight against petticoats.

But when Reb Abrahamtchik died, Reb Boruch Lavski took over as rabbi and he did not need somebody to help out as judge. So Reb Abraham Jakob was removed as judge and “der alter magid” left the shtetl and took up the rabbinate in another community and traveled around as the “Krynker Magid”.preacher.

In his old age he returned to Krynki, was a teacher in the religious public school for older boys and spoke before the people in the “Kavkaz” synagogue.

Some time later Reb Tsvi-Hirsh Orlanski, “Hershele Dubrover” became the magid in Krynki. He was famous for preaching in favor of Zionist societies and the settlements in Israel. Among the common Jews he had managed to influence were the fervent Hasidim, but as told by Ab. Miller, Rabbi Reb Boruch and the bosses “were not convinced by him” and in 1887 he left for Szczuczyn (Lomza Province).

[p. 52]

“Enlightenment” Winds

Signs of the winds of “enlightenment” began to blow also in Krynki about the last quarter of the 19th century. This is evidenced in the correspondence from there in the “HazFira” [newspaper] dated the 7th of Nisan [March] 1877, written by the enlightened man Jakob Leyb Zaleski in which he complains about the sad condition of Jewish education in the shtetl. He writes “education is being neglected and is run by the teachers who tire out the children with gemore [part of the Talmud commenting on the Mishnah], before they know how to read Tanakh [the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses] as it should be. The Talmud Torah [free religious grade school for poor boys] students are ruined and hundreds of children from poor families wander around in the streets and nobody is concerned about them. They are not even able to write a couple of lines in correct Hebrew or sign in Russian.

“The previous summer there a teacher, an enlightened man from Grodno, M. Volgel, who had, on his own, and with a permission from the government, opened a school here in order to teach our children Hebrew and Russian. We hoped that his would be a modest beginning that would grow larger. Unfortunately, several people who felt that the school was a crooked business, began a smear campaign that the children would be led away from a Jewish life. The situation for the school has become very difficult and as a result it will not be able to hold out for long.”

Later Zaleski opened a school in the shtetl. As mentioned in the Jewish Russian weekly periodicals “Russki Yevrei” [Russian Jews] and “Voskhod”, since August 1881 he had gone regularly to endeavor to get a subsidy from the “Society for Trade and Agriculture among Jews in Russia.” The subsidy was for a class to train young women as skilled workers in his school. He received the first subsidy in 1887 when the Krynki community agreed to pay an equal subsidy for this purpose. In 1901, 30 young women were enrolled at the school.

Zaleski also tried in 1881 to buy agricultural land, through the same society, for six Krynki Jewish families in the area, near Krusheniany. But in the mean time the Russian government had forbidden Jews to buy land outside the city limits.

About Jakob Leyb Zaleski, his son, Moshe Zaleski, today he is a manager of the Office for Hebrew Community Education in Cincinnati (United States) and Professor of Hebrew at the university. There he wrote that his father was a true Jewish enlightened man, devoted to the pursuit of “esthetics of beauty in G-d's tents.” As for the broader picture and his proficiency in several languages he was self-taught. He was a reader of Hebrew and world literature and created a rich library, but mainly he was a trustee for various associations.


Footnotes

  1. “Kapitses” – Skinners who would handle animal carcasses, principally horses. They would skin the animals and deliver the hides to the tanneries. The “skinners” were also busy with other businesses. Return
  2. Hillel Katz-Bloom, one of the founders of the “Bund” [Jewish Labor bund, socialist labor party influential in Poland and other East European counties until World War II.] had as a mission of the movement (active in Bialystok) visited Krynki in 1897. This was used in his book “Zikhroynes fun a Bundist' [“Memoirs of a Bundist”], New York 1940, page 148. Return

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