Table of Contents

From a Ruined Garden

The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry

Edited and Translated by
Jack Kugelmass and Jonathan Bioyarin
With Geographical Index and Bibliography by
Zachary M. Baker
Published in association with the
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Washington, D.C.
INDIANA UNIVERSITY PRESS
< http://www.indiana.edu/~iupress/ >
Bloomington and Indianapolis


[Page 450]

At the Market: A Jewish Town's Struggle for Bread

Shalom Muhlstein

("From a Ruined Garden" pp. 58-64)

One needs no particularly rich imagination to picture the chaos and uproar of the Jewish camp in the desert on that Friday morning when Moses the lawgiver announced that no manna would descend from heaven on the Sabbath, and that everyone should therefore collect enough to last until Sunday. Men and women of all ages hurried to their tents with all the vessels they'd brought along from Egypt, to grab the heavenly bread before the sun came up and it dissolved: a race, a noise, a confusion and above all, the voices and shouts of those-well known screamers, Dathan and Abiram. This image swims into consciousness as an apt comparison to the feverish commotion on a Tuesday morning, when a townful of Jews had to obtain its livelihood not only for two days, but in most cases for an entire week.

The fair at Kolbishov constituted a colorful, bustling spectacle, which took place both on Commerce Street (where the trading in cattle was held) and the market square, where a lively trade in all sorts of merchandise went on. The air was filled with a grating mixture of shouting voices. All the voices flowed together into a chorus expressing one word and one word only: Par-no-se (livelihood)!

The center of town was organized in precisely the same way as the tribes in the desert. Four lines of low houses surrounded the big square, with the well and street light right in the middle. Most of these stone houses consisted of three rooms, the foremost of which served as a place of business. These shops contained everything to satisfy the minimal needs of the peasants who came to the fair en masse every Tuesday, in order to sell their agricultural produce and bargain for city goods with the money they obtained. These stores commanded only part of the trade, however; all day long the huge marketplace was covered with wagons, booths, and wooden setups laden with all sorts of merchandise.

This is what it is like on a Tuesday, market day in Kolbishov.

The first rays of God's sun meet with signs of preparation for a busy day. Shutters open. Jews with their tefilin bags under their arms hurry home from early services. The Biale vegetable growers, who had arrived the previous night in order to secure their accustomed spots, creep out from underneath the wagons where they've spent the night, and begin to sort out their produce. The "Bialer goyim" are well-acquainted with the things Jews need for their Sabbath table. Onions for fish, parsley for soup, little cucumbers with dill for pickling, and carrots for tsimes. A growing human stream, together with containers and merchandise, pours forth from all of the back streets, Jews bearing crates, poles, and boards get ready to build their "pavilions" at the Great Weekly Exhibition.


Trains of peasant wagons bearing every sort of produce from the surrounding villages arrive endlessly. At the side of the road are masses of barefoot peasants and peasant women in colorful peasant clothes with baskets of eggs, butter, cheese, and poultry under their arms. Those who are too elegant to walk around barefoot in town carry their shoes dangling from their shoulders in order to spare the soles, and only put them on as they come into the market.

After selling their produce, the peasant men and women wander around the Jewish shops and stalls to do their own shopping. They go in groups, families and neighbors, mothers with children, whom they've brought along to show them the wonders of town and let them sample its humble luxuries. Here's a mother with six daughters, one smaller than the next, all in seven-layered petticoats. Large kerchiefs with floral designs on their heads, and their feet bare; each tastes long sour pickles, or white braided challahs baked by Jewish hands. Thus they go from shop to shop, from stall to stall, looking for the best bargains.

Every trade has its set place at the exhibition and its trademark, so to speak, with which those who make their living at it are associated. Fruit, for example, is sold here as in every Jewish town by mark-zitsers, who are famous for their unique form of invective. Here this trade is mainly in the hands of a Jewish family from the nearby town of Glogov, who buy up entire orchards and distribute the fruit at the surrounding fairs.

Binem, the head of the fruit merchants of Glogov, is an important figure at the market, giving it added tone and atmosphere. Standing on the wagon of fruit, he hawks his merchandise in a strong basso which drowns out other voices. "It heals the heart," he praises his wares. And when business is poor, he begins to argue with his relatives on the next wagon, shrieking so loudly that they are quickly surrounded by curious peasants. Then, as curses pour out of their mouths, apples pass through their hands as if they were going out of style.

Binem's voice is accompanied by the barrel organ of the lottery-ticket seller, the harmonica and pious Christian songs of the Polish beggars, and—to make a distinction-Meyer Gersheles' Psalm melody, "Before birth your destiny is sealed."

Right in the middle of the square are the woodworkers. Jews from nearby Sokolov are represented by the furniture they've manufactured. Among piles of wooden vessels, sieves, and strainers, strides the grizzled and venerable Reb Matisyohu, the patriarch of the industry.

Not far away are the textile dealers, hasidic youths in velvet hats and long black overcoats, who sell striped and flowered percales and muslins for peasant dresses and kerchiefs, and speak to the women in Polish mixed with Hebrew:

"Well, then, how much will you offer?"

Textiles are the most common item sold. The competition in this business is especially fierce, and earnings small: a group of merchants stand in a circle, discussing the lamentable business situation. Motl, a progressive businessman whose clean-shaven face, sleek figure, and years of living in Vienna have earned him the title "Herr," rather than the usual "Reb," is the discussion leader. Motl argues that despite all of the failed attempts so far, it is time to try once again to organize a merchants' society, to introduce sound business practices. Others claim that such an undertaking has no chance of success whatsoever, because too much of the trade is in the hands of teachers. As an example of how teaching and trading go hand in hand, the.anecdote about Betsalel the town magnate is retold. When he had wanted to take his son out of kheyder and allow him to engage in secular studies, Yisroel Isser Melamed had argued with him: "Why does he need to be a lawyer, Reb Betsalel? Let the lad study with me, he'll grow up to be a merchant."

A good deal of the blame is placed on Getsele Bentsh. Getsele's is the most important name in the textile market, and this is regarded as a disaster. Getsele is a shrunken little Jew, an experiment in frugality on the part of the Creator. The name Bentsh refers to the blessing after eating meals with bread, and testifies to his stinginess: "Even before he washes himself before eating, his wife reminds him to say the after-meal blessing. So it's no wonder that Getsele can get by on the lowest profits and murder the prices," argues a Jew half-joking and half-serious.

The argument is picked up by a young man studying at the bes-medresh, who describes Getsele's stinginess in his own way: "Getsele can sit down to eat less than the minimum portion necessary to say the blessing afterward, and finish with enough left over for saying the blessing."

With quick, agile steps, bearing cackling hens in both arms, Perl drifts by. Perl is the head of an enterprising family. They export grain overseas, they ship poultry to Cracow, they have a textile shop, they set up a booth at the marketplace, and Perl stands at the head of it all. Perl stops awhile by the circle of merchants and sums up the stagnation in the textile business in her own fashion: "It's a real curse. When you buy a bit of fabric in Raysha, its for a girl and when you bring it home, she's already a matron." And people with experience in both business and married life testify that Perl's assessment of the situation is quite accurate.

Nearby the textile wares is the exhibit of the needle industry. The head of the underwear industry is Mendl Shnayder. Mendl certainly deserves a medal for productivity: a tailor's workshop for men's clothing, an underwear factory, and eight children. God only knows where there's room for all that in his one-room dwelling on Shendishover Street. But tall, proud noblemen and government officials have to bow their heads crossing the threshold of his low room, and prospective grooms think it risky to be presented in clothes made by any other tailor, because Mendl has a reputation as a first-class master of his craft.

Mendl is always buried in work. If someone wants a garment for summer, he has to order it in winter. A piece of goods that enters Mendl's workshop goes through a whole series of transformations before it fights its way onto the sewing table. First it is spread out on the floor to protect the finished work, then it's a tablecloth, and then it's placed under pieces of ironing. Mendl explains that this procedure is very good for the material, making it sturdy and stain-resistant. Mendl is a pleasant, calm person. He pronounces each word slowly, sucking a hard candy meanwhile. When someone comes to try something on, Mendl always has a finished garment-sometimes too big, sometimes too small-but always reassurance that he's working on the order. Sometimes the customer sees his order laid out as a bedspread. Mendl smiles, in a bit of a dilemma, eats a grape and recovers, measures the customer once again, and cuts the material right then and there, and the client goes away reassured. But Mendl's tempo is quite different before market day. Then the workshop is organized according to principles of mass production. Actually, before market day it is Mendl's wife who determines the pace. The mother of his eight children can be seen every morning on top of a loaded wagon, on her way to a market in another town, In short, the Jewish clothing industry occupies a major role in the market.

In the cattle trade on Commerce Street, Jews also play an important role. The trade in horses lies in the hands of Jews from the neighboring town of Maydan. An old horse trader named Treytl once lived there, and Treytl has remained the generic name of the Jewish horse traders of Maydan. It's even said that in the old days, when a market day fell during the intermediate days of a festival, they used to come from Maydan in their silken overcoats, bare feet, and fur hats on their heads.

Here is also the place where Jewish butchers get their meat. Only the trade in swine is "Judenrein." The trading is carried on in a very crude fashion. Every proposed price is accompanied by a heavy slap of one fleshy paw on another and loud comments from the onlookers, reminding the observer of a sporting match. When the transaction is finished, everyone goes to have a drink in a Jewish tavern.

As day goes on, the pace of the market increases. It becomes jammed with people. The trading grows more and more intense. The peasant women, the principal shoppers, who have already made a tour of all the shops to see what's available at what price, have now made up their minds and haggle for the merchandise they've decided on. Compromises are reached. Hands are slapped. Hands reach out. Bundles of coins are untied from different comers of the kerchief. People count on their fingers, then their money is counted. Shimek the policeman bangs on his drum. Everyone comes running, and it is announced that a horse and wagon are to be sold at auction for back taxes. On the way from church, the priest rides his carriage, ringing a bell. Throngs of peasants on both sides of the road kneel in the mud and cross themselves.

"Yaftiru besafa yaniun rosh" (They move their lips and sway their heads), sings Meyer Gersheles.

"Ten cents a pound," calls out Binem from his wagon, and the barrel organ plays and the blind beggar sings.

Not only did the Jews at the market play an important role as middlemen, buying up raw products for export and selling factory products, but a good deal of the manufactured goods that were sold were made by Jewish artisans. Jewish artisans sat and worked on sieves, strainers, and other wooden items, and distributed their products throughout the entire region. Families of Jewish bakers spent entire nights at troughs full of dough. There were Jewish tinsmiths, capmakers, coatmakers, shoemakers, Jewish porters, even Jewish peasants, but at the time when the Polish pogroms broke out, most of the Jews left the villages, where life was less safe than in town.

Jews bought factory goods in the big cities and sold them at the market. They were far from being parasites, as the anti-Semites depicted them, for they served the peasant, who received everything he needed for a minimum price. Under normal conditions no businessman would be contented with the low margin of profit that the Jew received for his effort and worry. In their attempt to take away from the Jews their livelihoods, the Poles organized cooperatives, hoping thereby to drive the Jewish middlemen from the marketplace. These cooperatives, with all the privileges that the government gave them, couldn't exist at the low profit margin that the Jewish merchant had maintained. Peasants found that the merchandise was cheaper in Jewish businesses than in the cooperatives. The same was true of the Jews who bought up the peasants' produce. The markup they received barely covered the physical labor expended in packing and loading. The Jewish grain dealer used to carry the sack from the wagon himself, as the
peasant followed, whip in hand.

The earnings were so minimal because of the terrible poverty in which the peasant lived. The wide fields and all of the villages around belonged to Count Tishkyevitsh, for whom masses of peasants worked at starvation wages. The produce from the fields was exported overseas while the count himself, like many other noblemen, spent entire years at Monte Carlo, gambling away the income from his holdings.

The Polish political leaders, instead of correcting these unjust conditions, found it easier to point to the Jewish stores as a solution to their situation. This is how the great enmity between Jew and non-Jew came about, which prepared Polish soil to be the great Jewish cemetery. But the struggle went on for many years, and the Jews didn't give up their economic positions easily.

The economic and political struggle of the small Jewish community between the liberation of Poland in 1918 and the Hitlerite invasion reflects in miniature the "parliamentary anti-Semitism" which characterizes that period in Poland. Government-supported Christian cooperatives were the mildest of the means taken by the Polish government in its determination to take away the livelihood of Jews. The attempt to hold markets on the Sabbath was a heavy blow to the Jews; it was a sad time for the Jews in town. Not a single Jew in Kolbishov opened his store on the Sabbath. Most of the peasants boycotted the Sabbath market, believing there could be no effective market without the Jews. The community council, whose main source of income consisted of fees for wagons and stalls at the fair, finally had to give up the plan.

The Jews comprised a clear majority in town and the Jewish representatives in the town council naturally worked against the Poles' attempt to administer the city against Jewish interests. For years the Poles tried to artificially increase the Christian population of the town by including parts of neighboring villages within the town's boundaries. The Jewish community was well represented in court by Shloyme Zontag, Betsalel Grinshteyn, and Yekhezkl Dershovits.

The struggle against the anti-Semitism of both the government and town officials was supported by the cooperative bank under the leadership of Grinshteyn and Dershovits, and later by the free loan society which distributed smaller loans, and which was directed by representatives of all of the Jewish parties in town; they were important resources in the Jewish struggle for a bit of bread.

The traditional Jewish free loan society also played a very important role. Kivtshe Leystner, for instance, a Jew who always sought to do good, had a sort of private free loan society, running around the market borrowing from one Jew and lending to another. These were all means of economic self-defense, as the Polish bosses of the country, with the help of taxes and assorted restrictions, drew the rope tighter and tighter around the Jewish merchant's throat.

The Poles lived to see their hopes realized much quicker and more thoroughly than they could have expected. There are no more Jewish businesses and traders. The market in Kolbishov is planted with potatoes. Whether this made the Polish residents much happier remains in doubt.

Evening falls.

The pace of the fair grows slower and more relaxed. Housewives who are themselves merchants come to the grocers of Biale to shop for the Sabbath. Binem climbs down from his wagon, the anger disappears from his face, and he begins to joke with the Jewish women. A girl hurries to the slaughterer with a goose; its liver will be prepared for tonight's dinner. A tall young Hasid walks with a list in his hand and a pen stuck behind his ear; he's going to collect a little honest capital so that the next day he'll be able to travel to Raysha and pick up some merchandise for his store. Bit by bit, the marketplace is emptied of wagons and stalls. A group of drunkards leave a tavern; they embrace, kiss, weep, start arguing, beat, and bloody each other. The peasant women tear them away from each other, drag them off to the wagons, and drunken voices are drowned out by the clatter of the wheels on the highway.

Jews hurry to the synagogue. The church bell chimes, paying its last respects to a dying day. Kapuste the water carrier sets down his tanks, tugs off his cap, and crosses himself. Jews hurry to the synagogue. On the Bes-medresh Street, on the pavement not far from Leyzer-Meyer's fence, a drunken peasant lies snoring. Next to him stands his wife, wrapped in a shawl, with a box under her arm. She pulls him by his dirty clothes, damns him with massive Polish curses, insults with him obscene peppery comments that impugn his mother's modesty. The peasant lies snoring, and Jews hurry to the synagogue.

In the bes-medresh it is warm and bright. Jews pray with feeling: "Who distinguishes times and changes seasons ... rolls away the light before the darkness, and the darkness before the light ... makes day to pass and brings the night .. ." And the warm murmur flows from one comer of the bes-medresh to the other, until the congregation is rocked in a silent and grateful Shmone esrey—grateful for what fate has brought them today, for their earnings at the fair.

After the evening service, people turn their attention back to the day's business. The market is now brought inside the big bes-medresh. Little groups of merchants talk over the results of the day. Grain merchants make deals, and rye, oats, and lupines go from one hand to another. Money is counted, dollars exchanged. A restrained slap of one butcher's hand on another, at the long table near the door, tells that a sterile cow or a young ram has changed ownership, and it has been decided on whose cutting board the animal will serve to honor the Sabbath. The butchers quench their thirsts with a glass of apple brandy from Yankev-Borukh's jug, snack on a jar of salted beans, and turn toward the crowd that stands around the big table near the clock, where Leybtshe-Leyzer is reading a chapter of the Mishnah. They listen to catch a good Jewish word.

On their way out of the big bes-medresh, they stop a few minutes at the doorway of the little bes-medresh to catch a look at one of their boys, who diligently sways over the Talmud. After all, what is it that a Jew works for? The Lithuanian Preacher, just recently, clearly expressed the insight that the whole world is like a fair. 'The difference between one person and another lies in how each manages at the fair, and how each is able to answer when called to task at the Heavenly Court- Have you traded faithfully? Brother, what did you obtain at the fair?

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