Economy and Institutions (Cont.)
The Lumber Trade and the Lumber Yard
Zvi Persitz (Tel Aviv)
Translated by Ala Gamulka
In 1924, my father, Yakov Mordehai Persitz, left Harkov and moved with his
family to Vilna. He was a well-to-do lumber merchant, highly experienced in
the field. I worked for Mr. Beikovich who was an agent for a paper
manufacturing plant called Papirovka. Its head office was in
Koenigsberg. I traveled to Lubinitz on business and an event occurred there
which helped considerably in the economic development of Rokitno. By pure
chance I met, in the railroad station cafeteria, Mr. Siniavsky, born in Harkov
and one of its wealthier citizens. At the time he was residing in Warsaw and
he was dealing with a railway company whose head office was in Vilna.
Mr. Siniavsky told me that he was looking for my father. He was ready to
conclude a large business deal - buying the forest land of Rokitno and its
surrounding area. He himself was not knowledgeable in these matters and that
is why he wanted to include my father in this deal. I gave him our address and
a few days later he came to Vilna to meet with my father.
This is what it was all about, Siniavsky's offer to my father: there was a
large ancient forest area near Rokitno. No human foot had ever stepped in it.
Its length was 25 kilometers and it reached the villages of Ostoki, Karpilovka,
Borovey and Blezhov. These lands bordered on Soviet territory and served as
hiding places for infiltrators and elements unwanted by the Polish government.
Therefore, the Polish Defense Ministry decided to cut down a large part of
these forests in order to create open spaces and to get rid of the danger from
infiltrators or, at least to lessen the danger. The job was given to a
non-Jewish firm and it proved unsuccessful. The authorities turned to
Siniavsky for help.
My father was interested in the proposition but, before agreeing to it, he
wanted to visit Rokitno in order to investigate for himself. In 1925, my
father came to Rokitno with my uncle Yehoshua Betzalel Persitz who was also a
lumber expert. They slept over in the home of Aharon Litvak and then proceeded
to tour the area in a horse and buggy. They visited Ostoki, Karpilovka,
Borovey and Blezhov. My father returned to Warsaw greatly encouraged by his
visit and told Siniavsky that he would accept the government contract because
he felt it was a gold mine and that a great deal of money could be made. My
father found in these forests high quality trees for which there was great
demand in the world. Among them were beech, oak, pine and other fine trees.
According to my father's recommendation, a partnership was formed. Its members
were: the engineer Frumkin from Warsaw, Siniavsky, my father and my uncle. (A
year later, my uncle left the partnership and opened a large business in the
The new plant invigorated Rokitno. In those years it was a large village and
there was much poverty. There was economic growth and the population increased
quickly. Many Jewish businessmen from the area and from places far away came
to settle in Rokitno. They saw great opportunities for good business and for
making money. In those days, we referred to our village as Little
The forest-clearing project (a length of 25 km) became a great source of
employment for Jews and non-Jews alike. In order to understand the scope of
this era, it is sufficient to say that 3,000 non-Jews were employed with their
wagons. It was necessary to mobilize villagers from the area. There was a
whole fleet of horse and buggies. They were housed in canvas tents, in the
forests. Dozens of Jewish families earned their living by providing food,
clothing and felt boots for the forest workers.
A large office was opened in Rokitno. It had 120 clerks - most of them Jews.
Some were Jews from other villages. The workers were paid weekly. The
payments began on Saturday at noon and ended early Sunday morning. There were
three locations: Karpilovka, Borovey and Ostoki.
The New Sawmill
The lumber of Rokitno was well known in all of Europe because of its high
quality. Important firms in England, France, Belgium and Germany sent their
representatives to Rokitno to buy the outstanding lumber. Because of all the
languages spoken in the streets of Rokitno, it looked like an international
village. The English firm Neam and Booth, one of the large lumber
export firms, had permanent representatives in Rokitno who stamped the trees
with the firm's logo and looked after their transport. The top directors in
London even came at times to Rokitno, toured the forests, and selected the best
lumber. Even the firm Parmentier and Partners, one of the large
firms representing sawmills in France and Belgium, bought a great deal of
lumber. Maurice Parmentier lived in Rokitno for two years and dealt in the
transport of oak trees to France and Belgium.
Loading Of Logs On Freight Cars
Standing, third from right below:
Last one on the left:
Standing on freight car on the right:
However, the partnership did not only send lumber, but it also gave advice on
lumber products. For that purpose, my father built a large sawmill in Rokitno
which worked non-stop day and night. Aside from the Huta, it was
the only place that was lit by electricity. The sawmill produced railroad
ties, boards, building planks and beams. The products were destined for export
and for the local market in many parts of Poland. Rokitno flooded the markets
in Poland and other European countries. There was so much lumber that the
wagon drivers could not keep up and it was necessary to build a narrow gauge
railroad, 12 km in length, to the forests in Borovey and Karpilovka in order to
bring the lumber on the freight cars. For the sake of accuracy, I must note
that the need to build this railway arose from the fact that in the summer and
in autumn the movement of wagons was almost stopped because the roads were full
of puddles. The lumber was mostly transported in the winter and not enough
time was thus available to transport this bounty.
The sawmill fulfilled an important economic role in Rokitno. Many Jewish
families earned their living from it. Some of the young men from the
Hechalutz Preparatory Kibbutz worked there. My father was a
Zionist and he admired the physical labor of the enthusiastic and loyal Zionist
youth. He also donated lumber for the construction of the Tarbut School in
In 1927 the sawmill burned down and not a trace was left. My father decided
not to rebuild because, in the mean time, the price of the lumber went down and
there was not a good opportunity for a new sawmill. The demand for unprocessed
lumber at better prices grew. Lurie's factory in Pinsk ordered lumber for
their production of matches and an important match factory owner in Vienna also
became a customer. The lumber business also brought about the beautification
of Rokitno. Beautiful large homes were built and the streets were full of
life. Many Jews began to trade in lumber and became wealthy. Energetic young
people bought remnants and firewood and resold them.
At the end of 1929, the government contract ended and the partnership was
dissolved. The firm fulfilled the conditions to the satisfaction of the
CHARITABLE INSTITUTIONS IN ROKITNO
Haim Shteinman (Tel Aviv)
The tradition of mutual assistance between people existed for many years.
Merciful men and pious women dedicated their time to charitable deeds.
One of the institutions was Gmilut Hasadim (Free Loan). Its
leaders were Mendel Kercher, Shimon Gendelman, Betzalel Kokel and others. The
treasurers would change every year, on Simchat Torah. The funds were donated
by the residents. The Free Loan was an important support vehicle for small
merchants, poor craftsmen and other needy individuals. A merchant whose
affairs were near bankruptcy would receive a loan at convenient terms. A wagon
driver whose horse collapsed suddenly and thus he would have no means of making
a living, was helped back on his feet. Also, the Free Loan helped a craftsman
who wished to open a workshop.
In time, the dimensions of the Free Loan were enlarged and the Popular Bank
(Bank Ludovy) was founded. Its director was Asher Zelig Baratz. The bank was
mainly helpful to small merchants by granting loans at low interest. The
middle class, which included most of the Jews of Rokitno, was rejuvenated with
the founding of the bank.
The Torah commandment: And your brother shall live among you,
became a prime concept for the Rokitno Jews. Therefore, in addition to these
financial institutions which were intended for constructive purposes, there was
also an unofficial institution of Secret Giving. Its activities
were purely assistance to the needy. There were some families in Rokitno who
were too embarrassed to beg. In order to save them, many of the residents of
Rokitno canvassed the population to collect the means to help them anonymously.
It was not necessary to press too hard for people to give. All those
canvassed gave willingly. They showed their love for their fellow Jews and
their wish to help each other. Our parents felt the pain of their brethren who
were impoverished and hungry. Among those who were active in the Secret
Giving we remember fondly Yoel the Shohet, Zeidel Binder, Shimon
Gendelman, Hershel Shteinman, Itzhak Shuber, Betzalel Kokel, Mendel Kercher,
Berl Shwartzblat and others.
Among the many important charitable activities, I wish to note one example. It
was done by my father and left an indelible impression in my memory. A maid
from a village near Rokitno worked in our home. She came from a poor family
and her father found her a suitable spouse who was also poor. My father acted
as the father of the bride and paid for a beautiful wedding party with Klezmer
musicians in the Old Shul. All the town residents participated in the
festivities and brought gifts for the couple. The young man was nicknamed
Hershel's son-in-law in Rokitno.
The Founders of Righteous Lodging
Standing: Right to left:
1) Yosef Haim Baum 2) Zeidel Binder 3) Baruch Flehendler 4) Levi Grinshpan
5) Daniel Bender
1) Aharon Levin 2) Betzalel Kokel 3) Noah Soltzman 4) Asher Zelig Baratz
5) Shlomo Bender
Another type of institution which existed in Rokitno was Righteous
Lodging. This institution was active in medical assistance. Its purpose
was to provide the poor with inexpensive medications, at times for free. It
also covered doctors' fees. The Righteous Lodging especially took
care of those miserable souls who were chronically ill. In these cases, in
addition to providing medications and medical help, nightly vigils over sick
beds were made available. In this manner, other members of the household could
get a night's sleep.
I recalled here only a few of the charitable and righteous deeds which were
performed by the Jews of Rokitno. These are mere examples, which point out the
kindness of all Jews and their readiness to help others among them.
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