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{Page 110}

On the Border of Two Centuries

by By Zalman Pudlowski

Translated from the Yiddish by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

[with comments in brackets]

On the border of two centuries, the 19th and 20th, when Jewish life in Eastern Europe was marked by strong national and social storms - something began to stir in the standing swamps that had been unresponsive to Jewish need and poverty in Belchatow.

Those dominant in shtetl [town] life wanted to be (and often were) the influential ones in the Gerer shtibl [small, usually one room prayer house]. They were mostly manufacturers and their assistants. The largest majority of the manufacturers in the shtetl prayed in the Gerer shtibl. Two families simply flooded the shtetl with manufacturers. Chaim Tusk, one of the esteemed Gerer Hasidim, raised a generation of manufacturers. Each son - a manufacturer, each daughter - a manufacturer, grandsons and great grandsons - all manufacturers. Another generation of manufacturers was raised by Yeshayahu Szrage. The two families had a say about the appearance of Jewish life in Belchatow through the Gerer shtibl. The Gerer shtibl had many others among them, manufacturers, merchants, teachers and Hasidic kest [1] sons-in-law.

Working people were rarely found in the shtibl. There was felt among the Gerer a certain scorn for the men who worked for a living. For matches for their daughters, the Gerer chose the greatest ne'er-do-wells before a working man. The poorest of the Gerer endeavored to insure that their children not become workers. In the spiritual-religious sense, the Gerer were truly much higher. There were many great scholars among them, shrewd people, zealots who were successful over the years in making a siyum-haShas [celebration for the conclusion of the seven-year cycle of Talmud study]. In the morning and in the evenings many Hasidim sat and studied. And the praying had an entirely different sense. At best, it mirrored the Days of Awe [from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur]. Those who stood in front of the pulpit did not excel in vocal music, but the praying had a particular zest. When Alter Bresler (Alter the shoykhet [ritual slaughterer]), who recited the Shacharit [morning prayers], began with HaMelekh [the King] it really touched one. Yeshayahu Szrage, who recited the Musaf prayers [the prayer service on Shabbos added to the morning prayers], prayed with sweetness. A specific mood reigned in the shtib on Erev Yom Kippur [the eve of Yom Kippur] at Kol Nidre [“All vows” - the opening Yom Kippur prayer] and the next day at Ne'ilah [concluding Yom Kippur prayer]. It truly felt as if we were standing for a very important spiritual mission. It was not that they wanted to ask for or secure their lives, health, income and other good things; this could have been fulfilled with prayer in the synagogue and beis-hamedrash [house of prayer], in other shtiblekh and groups. Something higher, mystical lay in the Gerer shtibl during the Days of Awe and hovered in the air.

The Gerer wanted to impose their stamp on Jewish life. The most important Jewish problems in the shtetl, around which quarrels would take place, were religious, such as: the Rabbi, shoykhet [ritual slaughterer], synagogue, khevre-kadishe [burial society] and the like.

The necessity of building a new synagogue was felt in the shtetl in the second half of the 19th century. The old, wooden synagogue was in such a condition that it was impossible to continue to use it. The synagogue was sealed by the police. Those praying in the synagogue had to move to the beis-hamedrash. The beis-hamedrash could not accommodate all of the synagogue worshippers. Therefore, some had to go to the [prayer houses] of societies. Or prevail upon Hasidic shtiblekh. It was worse for the women who did not have the option of taking part in prayer when the synagogue was sealed. Some of them, the very pious, prayed under the open sky, under the beis-hamedrash windows.

A movement to build a new, solid brick synagogue was created in the shtetl. The Jewish population approached the synagogue building plan with enthusiasm. The Gerer Hasidim were opposed. Why this was so was impossible to imagine. They hindered the carrying out of the plan with significant means, by refusing to assess themselves for the building fund although they were the wealthiest segment of the Jewish population. They also lay stones in the road in other ways. However, they did not succeed. The idea of building the synagogue gripped all of Jewish Belchatow. At the head of the movement stood the very energetic dozor [synagogue warden], Moshke Grynberg. He moved heaven and earth to realize the plan. Significant help came from the side of Shmuel Zylberstang (Shmuel Kliker); wood for the synagogue came from the Kliker Forests. In addition to all of the wood, which he gave for the building and the internal accommodations, he also gave a significant sum of money as an assessment.

The Talmud Torah

 

The Belchatow Synagogue

The fire from the quarrels had not yet cooled and new struggles were underway. The old Rabbi Konsztajn died. Who should be his successor? Who should occupy the rabbinical throne? The Gerer strongly wanted him to be one of their own from the Gerer circles, but the Aleksanderer Hasidim - the Gerers' eternal opponent - said, absolutely not! The Aleksanderer Hasidim surely could not have competed with the Gerer without the help that they received from the synagogue Jews and Jews from the House of Prayer and from the dozor, Moshke Grynberg. [2]

The coalition of the Gerer opponents was victorious; Moshe Eli Birnbaum, not a Gerer follower, came to Belchatow as rabbi. However, the Gerer did not lay down their weapons; they did everything to annoy the rabbi. They did not recognize him. They did not address him with the title rabbi, but called him by his name, Moshe Eli. All of this would not have mattered if the Gerer had not bent and brought into their circle the dozor, Moshe Grynberg. They simply reconciled with him. Then they spread rumors about the rabbi about immoral conduct that is not appropriate for a rabbi and the rabbi ran away from Belchatow.

The new Rabbi, Shlomo Baron (the noble Braun), known as the Lukower Rabbi, was already taken to heart by the Gerer. The rabbi excelled in several areas. He erected a large yeshiva with many young men who came from various areas of Poland.

Learning was heard from the yeshiva students from morning until late at night. The gemara melody that came from the small beis-hamedrash alley carried across the shtetl. The melody was sung automatically in speaking, in arguing; the melody was used as well while trading. The melody was even absorbed by the peasants when they came into contact with Jews. Scores of young men filled the house of prayer and the religious court, sitting around a table and studying aloud and rocking non-stop back and forth. The Belchatow poor fed the young men by giving them food for “teg,” although they themselves were hungry. [3] They took from their own mouths and gave the yeshiva students food. This was the result of the rabbi's work. The rabbi also tried to influence Jewish religious life by other means. He sought to restrain the young. He would very often give moralizing sermons in the house of prayer. This would take place Shabbos after the midday nap. Jews would enter the house of prayer and the rabbi would give his moralizing sermon on the platform. In special cases, the Jews were called to the synagogue and the rabbi spoke to men and women.

When the rabbi left Belchatow, new quarrels appeared on the horizon.

It was not long before the quarrel started. Aleksanderer and Wolborzer Hasidim and a large number of those who prayed in the synagogue and house of prayer (or as they were called, “simple Jews”) decided to bring the Wolborzer Rebbe's son, Zemach Tornheim, as the rabbi in Belchatow. That alone, that the candidate proposed as the new rabbi was so disliked by the Gerer coalition in all likelihood had to provoke the Gerers' opposition. To justify their opposition, the Gerer sent two scholars to question the rabbi. As the questioning established, the candidate for the rabbinical seat was too weak in learning. The Gerer decided that in no case would they permit the Wolborzer Rebbe's son to take the Belchatow rabbinical seat.

Nevertheless, the son of the Wolborzer Rebbe became rabbi and the Wolborzer Rebbe himself brought him [to Belchatow]. The old Wolborzer Rebbe, who came along to settle his son on the Belchatow rabbinical throne, practiced Hasidus, “gefirt tish[4] and covered the expenses, it should be understood, by accepting kvitlekh [notes asking for prayers for good health, children, etc.] with payments for advice. His followers arranged parades in honor of the rebbe. It was crowded at the entryway to the rebbe. People came to the rebbe from neighboring shtetlekh and villages. Belchatow was then in turmoil. The Gerer mocked the parade and the pushing toward the rebbe with kvitlekh.

The rabbi remained and the Gerer Hasidim had a longer and embittered quarrel as their goal. The Gerer separated themselves as a separate religious group, with its own rabbi, shoykhet and butcher shops. Everything on the other side was declared unkosher. They became enemies and did not go to each other's celebrations. Women at the head of their homes could not bring pots to their neighbors who belonged to the other side. Many comic situations occurred, particularly when in-laws belonged to the opposing sides.

The Gerer obtained permission from the regime allowing birth, marriage and death events to also be recorded by their rabbi. Belchatow's shtarke [strong ones, connotes tough guys], who stood on the rabbi's side in the struggle, also had a say and several Gerer had their bones broken.

The struggle was a very long one; it appeared that the war would last forever, but in time the crowd grew tired. Only a few extreme, stubborn Gerer Hasidim did not want to give up the struggle. When Berl the shoykhet [ritual slaughterer - shoykhetim is the plural form] had to stop slaughtering because of his age, new fights began about shoykhetim. The same when Hershl the shoykhet had to lay down his khalef [slaughtering knife]. The struggle rarely stopped. The Gerer were always more firm, spiritual, in the religious sense, much higher and they all stood on principled ground in the quarrels.

After the earlier years, the young Jewish people in Belchatow were unsatisfied with the monotony of their lives. They wanted something new. This found its expression in the creation of a “society” of young men [khevre bokhurim]. The society of young men did not do any great things and nothing especially new took place in their lives. Yet, just praying separately and sometimes spending time together was something new.

Hasidic young men did not group themselves in the society - they were as if forged to the Gerer shtibl. The young artisans also were grouped in the society; Yisroel Moshe Benczkowski, Manele Piotrkowski and others from this segment were particularly active. The society did not show any great activity and, therefore, it could not have a long life. It finally fell apart.

The above mentioned khevre bokhurim was followed by a second khevre bokhurim that was similar to the first. The new khevre bokhurim, just as the first, prayed together and spent time together. However, they tried to be more active and bring innovations to the young. First of all, the group began to carry out an organizational life. Joining the group, one had to pay a registration fee as well as a monthly payment. The program of the group was to help those suffering from need. A large undertaking that gave the group esteem was the group arranging the marriage of a begging couple. The couple was dressed and given shoes; a wedding was arranged with music and a wedding meal. The entire shtetl, kith and kin, rejoiced. Organizing the wedding was a great event in the shtetl at that time. But the achievement in which the group took pride was the building of a fence for the recently built synagogue. All of the activities were not enough to keep the group in existence. New winds were already in the air. It was too little for the storms of the time. Active in this group were: Lipman Benczkowski, Josef Gliksman, Itshe Piotrkowski and others.

Belchatow also had few shtarke who were respected and who also began to be [socially] aware. These were the wagon drivers, butchers and so on. Very often they would have wars among themselves, usually for competitive reasons. It also occurred that their physical strength had general uses. Thus once they got even with groups of peasants who, led by a dark hand, on an erev Yom Kippur [eve of Yom Kippur] at the end of the last century [19th century], came to the shtetl intending to go on a spree. They waited outside the shtetl for the peasants who were well battered.

There was a case when the Szczercow Poles carried out a “familiar” judgment on one Dovid Feiffer. They murdered him because he was supposed to have set fire to peasant stables. As revenge, the Belchatow butchers and wagon drivers got even with the Szczerców Polish butchers who came to the market in Belchatow. It could also occur on a market day that peasants would want to create a scandal, particularly with horse trading. All such attempts were suppressed and often bruised peasants were driven home.

On the eve of the army conscription times, the village and city Polish young people, being tipsy, wanted to go on a spree. Once, when such conscripts attacked Yeshayahu Szimkewicz (Misziker's), scores of Poles were beaten by Jewish butchers.

There were also cases of non-ethical conduct on the part of the “strong ones,” such as takers of pretenzie-gelt [demands of money], lewdness, denunciations - but this was on such a small scale that it was not apparent.

Obtaining money through cheating in the throwing of three cards occupied a large spot. The victims were mainly peasants. This chiefly took place on market days.

A small number of workers were drawn into not so nice deeds. Without doubt it was a result of the bitter economic situation in which a large number of Belchatowers found themselves.

The economic situation of the Belchatow Jews was not so very good. Several dozen competing food shops were located in the shtetl; the owners of a few shops were relatives of the manufacturers, and they received workers with notes from the manufacturers as customers and had better luck. There were also several large shops whose owners brought goods in large quantities from Piotrkow and Lodz. The merchants sold to other smaller shops as well as directly to the customers. There were also grain merchants, cloth shops, iron shops, haberdashery businesses, bakeries, butchers and others.

There were also market merchants who would sell their goods at the market twice a week: Monday and Friday. A number of the market merchants went to the surrounding shtetlekh when there were market days in those shtetlekh.

All kinds of goods were arranged in the market: baked goods and roasted meats to herring and other articles of food, as well as sweets, various manufactured goods, all kinds of men's and women's clothing, linens, hats, shoes, leather, dishes, furniture, horses, cattle, pigs, poultry, eggs and other things.

The much larger segment of the Jewish merchants was not wealthy and lived labored lives. Commerce mainly was done on credit; payments were made with promissory notes. The entire life of an average Belchatow merchant consisted of seeking loans, loans with very little interest from the loan fund of Doctor Radczewicz, later from the loan fund of Alter Bornsztajn (the fat Alter). They were also forced to take money from private usurers who would discount promissory notes.

Many of the merchants went bankrupt. But this did not mean that he stopped doing his business. It took a little time until such a merchant came to terms with his creditors to pay a part of his debts in installment payments. The remaining [debts] were cancelled and trade further continued.

There were also artisans who worked principally for the city population. These were: tailors, seamstresses, underwear seamstresses, shoemakers, quilters and other trades. But these were not the main sources from which the Belchatow population drew its livelihood. The main employment of the shtetl and partly in the surrounding area, was work in the textile industry.

In the greater number of houses of Belchatow Jews, and not only Jews, the noise of the banging weaving stools reigned from early morning until very late into the night. People at the weaving stools did not only work with their hands and feet, but their entire body quivered - all of their limbs worked. The earnings for a weaver were from two to three rubles a week. There were weavers who earned more, but these were exceptions. Usually a weaving house was filled with weaving stools. When they wanted to go to sleep, it was necessary to crawl through the stools to the bed. If there was work, everyone in the house, from small to large, worked. The family members, who did not work as weavers, spooled or drove a small wheel.

There also would be apprentices employed in the weaving factory. These were in large part young men from other places. They were extraordinarily exploited. Matz [a taste] was a supplement to a weaver's earnings. This was legal robbery. The manufacturers knew of this very well. The weaver would remove a certain amount of thread from the spool (gengl) as well as some from the loom and sell to merchants who were called Matzar. Buyers of mats would often present material to the manufacturer that had originated with the same manufacturer. The weaver lived from all of this in indescribable poverty.

In addition to the weavers there were still others who were employed around the weaving factories. First of all, the wagon drivers. This was a group of men who had their own goods wagons and horses and they also hired people to work for them. Twice a week the wagon drivers would load spun yarn in Lodz and bring it to Belchatow and twice a week the same wagon drivers would load the finished goods in Belchatow and return it to Lodz.

The dyer or the bleacher would take the wool that was brought from Lodz. Dozens of packs of yarn, which would first be cooked, were thrown into large boilers; then dyed or bleached.

The yarn was taken from the dyers by the treyberin [women who carried the yarn]. These were [known as] the Belchatow parier [outcasts]. Usually a worker in the textile industry earned little. A Belchatower earned even less. The refiners earned the least; their earnings were so picayune that it had almost no influence on the price of the goods. It was mostly village women who carried the yarn. The treyberin would also have a “taste,” or taking off a little of the wool. The “taste” compensated a little for the very poorly paid work. The refiners had to starch the thread to strengthen it. The manufacturer gave flour, paraffin and clay to the refiners for this purpose. It is self evident that the refiners took some of the flour for themselves. The manufacturers waged a struggle against the “thefts” by the refiners and they sprinkled the flour with kerosene so that the refiners could not use it.

The cutters represented their own uncharacteristic group. These were respected men of whom many were Hasidim; some even worshipped in the Gerer shtibl. Cutting was not considered an ordinary trade. Although the work was physical, it was given respect. The cutters were the “aristocrats” of occupations. The work was better paid, not only in Belchatow, but in the entire Lodz textile area. There were two categories of cutters in Belchatow: there was a primary cutter with each manufacturer who usually was a relative of the manufacturer or a close friend. The remaining second class [cutters] worked for less money and the primary cutter received the difference. Not all of those in the second category received the same amount. The wage was regulated separately for each. The cutters, who received from the carriers goods spun for the weavers, examined them in the manufacturer's special cutting room. The tools, such as pattern holders, spools of thread to spin, spool sticks, cutting boards and the like, belonged to the manufacturers. The cutters were the manufacturers' trusted men. They did not only inform the manufacturer about the length of the thread on the wound spools which the refiners had brought, they also told of the mood among the weavers. Almost all of the cutters were Jewish. Jews also were the product inspectors and winders. The work of the product inspectors took place in their own houses. The product inspectors had helpers who received very little for their work. The product inspectors also dealt with containers and pages. Each product inspector had his manufacturer who gave him work.

The work was only partly carried out in Belchatow. The thread was spun and finished in the apreton [place with the process was completed] in Lodz. The greater number of Belchatow manufacturers were that in name only because in truth they were only middlemen or jobbers (contractors). Some were partners in Lodz enterprises. The Belchatow manufacturers were, except for individual exceptions, all Jews. Chaim Tusk and his sons and daughters, Yeshayahu Szrage, Henekh Szrage, Mendl Wolfowicz, Welwl Ferszter, Gruber [fat] Shaul, Meir Moshe Fajwisz, Avraham Mendl and Josl Warszawski, Peretz Freitag, Ragodzinski, Shwartser [dark or black] Shlomo, Makawer, Mikhal Dozor, Chaim Mendl Wiszlicki, Mikhal Avigdor Pitowski, Shmuel Yankl Kaszub, Ahron Flacek Tomaszower, Feywel Ambordiks and others.

Another hardship made things difficult for the Belchatow weavers. This was the payment for the work. They had to pay on Friday afternoon. The weavers worked all of Thursday night in order to supply the merchandise and receive the paid out wages. The workers assembled at the manufacturer's on Friday afternoon waiting for his arrival from Lodz with money for payments. It often happened that the manufacturer was late or did not come at all for Shabbos. It also happened that the manufacturer came without money. Also, more than once, the manufacturer hid and his wife said that her husband had not come. The worker went home without money after waiting hours. The worker's family was desperate because they were in debt over their heads; not receiving payment meant a catastrophe. In addition to the baker, butcher and storekeeper not giving any more credit, they would be abusive, too. Such Shabbosim [Shabbats] were transformed into sad days. However, this was only half the trouble.

The other half was the receipt system. The manufacturer paid for work with a receipt for a certain shop instead of with money. Often the merchant was a relative of the manufacturer. The products [bought with] a receipt were expensive and worse. In general the worker was forced to take the goods that the storekeeper had. The weavers were dissatisfied with the receipts; the weavers' wives particularly hated the receipts. However, the merchant who had a large number of customers profited and earned a nice living. The manufacturer also profited. He usually paid the storekeeper with a promissory note when taking the receipts. Paying with receipts was illegal. The history of receipts even reached court, manufacturers were threatened with jail, but the existing order did not cause too much trouble for the manufacturers, even the Jewish ones. The police, the bailiff, even the judge, looked away. All offenses were washed clean with bribes.

The bad economic situation, the inhuman living conditions had to awaken feelings of protest. The voices found an echo in the beis-hamedrash where weavers would come to pray. Between Minkhah-Maariv [afternoon and evening prayers] the weavers spoke to each other from their hearts. It was even more so on Shabbos after the midday sleep. Then the other group of weavers gathered in the beis-hamedrash. At the same time they would talk about the dark luck of the weavers and, in speaking, the idea of a strike occurred. A large number seized on [the idea]. But at home, in the dark weaving rooms, the enthusiasm for the strike evaporated. The wives argued: from where will we get what we need to maintain the soul? But the miserable conditions meant that such a protest would come and it actually was decided in the beis-hamedrash. On a beautiful early morning, spinning wheels being carried with the tools dangling and finished goods wrapped around them were seen everywhere. Whole trees were laid down in front of the doors of the manufacturers. The impact of the protest was very strong. Everyone in the city admitted that the weavers were correct. But the situation did not improve as a result. The workers were to return to work with the same sorrowful conditions because of their severe need. A second act of protest - a stronger one - was carried out by the weavers against the manufacturers, when the Gerer rebbe, the author of Sfas Emes [The Language of Truth], was ill. The Belchatow Jews were then called to the synagogue to pray for the health and the life of the rebbe. The synagogue was packed with Jews, among whom were found many manufacturers. Upon leaving the synagogue, a number of manufacturers were attacked by young weavers who considerably beat the manufacturers. Only those who had behaved brutally in relation to the workers received blows. The workers were dissatisfied not only with the manufacturers who were in the synagogue; they also went to the houses of those who were not in the synagogue and beat them in their own homes.

Attempts were made to disrupt the distribution of the work to the village by dousing the material with vitriol [sulfuric acid]. When the manufacturers gave out the material quietly so that the Jewish weavers would not notice, there were shearers who made it known when such village weavers came for material. The manufacturers then turned to the regime. An investigative commission of police and court representatives came from Piotrkow.

The Jewish weavers, who were under suspicion of using vitriol to burn the material which the village weavers were taking from the city, were summoned to the commission. But nothing came of this. The arrival of a stormy time was felt in the air. At that time a Wage Weavers Union arose in Belchatow. Political, revolutionary work began among the young.

One of those who were the first to be infected with revolutionary ideas was Mikhal Josef's son, Chaim Shlomo, a young man, a weaver. As young as he was he had already had the opportunity to have a conflict with the Lukower Rabbi on a Shabbos daybreak. It was at Uzer Czuchowski (Migac), near the beis-hamedrash, and the rabbi and young people would meet, spending time together sometimes with a glass of whiskey and snacks. Once the rabbi appeared and began to scold the youths; why are they not praying. Chaim Shlomo was not afraid and boldly answered the rabbi's shouting.

Chaim Shlomo did not let Belchatow rest. He was drawn to Chojny, Rokicie, Lodz. In Lodz he came into a Bundist environment; there he became acquainted with a young man, a weaver, whose name was Berl Binem, with whom he became a friend. In a conversation, Chaim Shlomo told Berl Binem about the situation in Belchatow. They agreed to go to Belchatow to do something to better the situation of the Belchatow worker. Both came to Belchatow and began to spread Bundist ideas. They had quick success. Supporters were acquired and the group grew. The meetings took place in private houses, sometimes on the Neyem Weg [New Road] or in other places.

Among the first occupied by revolutionary activity were Avraham Machabajnski (Yeshaya's son, later names: Shwartser [black] Avraham, Avraham Black), Fishl Meir Weiss (Perl of Bosterin's son), as well as his sister, the Gela [blond] Chana took part. Moshe Bornsztajn (Kaiser), Avraham Yankl Przybylski (Sabran), Avraham Szmulewicz (Prowiser), Chona Itsik (Tsalikl's [son]) and still others.

A two-fold program of activities was undertaken. Political and economic struggle. With the several strasznikes [guards] who were in the shtetl we could do even more than we wanted. For a small payment we could bribe the police and all of the clerks.

The second form of struggle - the economic or professional movement, seized everyone who lived through their work. Everyone wanted to better their economic situation. Better living conditions was the call to which everyone responded. A Bundist organization was created and a textile union that was led by a Bundist.

The activity of the organizations was very popular and it was possible to feel this. All of the working young were drawn into the organizations. The apprentices were also drawn into the “small Bund.” Moshe Kopl, a young man who was a relative of Yoske Melamed [teacher], led the apprentices. Besides verbal propaganda at the birzhe [market], on the Neyem Weg and still other places, they began to use the printed word.

Newspapers, journals, brochures, appeals began to appear in Belchatow, as well as the establishment of a library.

The textile union took demands to the manufacturers about the situation of the weavers. The union organized strikes, which did not please the manufacturers.

Two intermediaries made attempts to disrupt the political and, mainly, the professional activities of the Bundists; this was the rabbi and the foremen.

The rabbi gave fiery sermons against those who wanted to destroy the world. Against the non-religious, who denied God's Torah and stood against God's will; they were going to war with God, with the Czar and with the rich Jews. The rabbi threatened excommunication for the shkotzim [5] and brats.

He particularly came out publicly against Chaim Shlomo Sztatlender and Berl Binem. The latter was then forced to leave the shtetl.

Another power, a more real one, came to help the manufacturers. This was the wagon drivers. Men of physical strength, who would have wars among themselves, now began to use their strength against the young men from the weaving stools. Slaps from the work-hardened wagon driver fists fell on the young enthusiasts who took as their goal the betterment of the living conditions of the Belchatow weavers.

The rabbi's droshus [sermons] were of no help. Berl Binem did leave Belchatow, but the organization was strengthened. And the wagon drivers were forced to stop bothering the Bundists. They received a message from the Lodz organization and the wagon drivers were warned not to disturb the Belchatow workers and such a message was carried out without reservation at that time. On the contrary, they submitted to the demands of the Belchatow Bundists when they were called upon not to pack goods to take to Lodz.

There were various strikes then: economic, political and strikes of solidarity. A given number of the economic strikes were successful. Jewish weavers constantly had work and received better pay for the work. The situation for the journeymen and apprentices also became significantly better.

Political strikes were connected to political actions such as the 1st of May, 9th of January [6], Constitution [Day - 3rd of May] and many other cases. During a political strike, in addition to ceasing work, the stores were also closed. It looked like Shabbos in the shtetl, both Jews and Christians were forced to rest.

The strike of solidarity took place principally when there were strikes in Lodz and the Belchatow workers were called to show solidarity. Then work stopped in Belchatow and even the goods wagons did not circulate.

The Belchatow organization had other tasks in the area of solidarity. When a comrade who had been severely persecuted by the police in Lodz or in other cities announced in a letter to the organization that he was coming to Belchatow, he was provided with an apartment, work and everything he needed.

Delegates and speakers from Lodz, Piotrkow and other places used to come from time to time to help lead the political-communal activities. Many times large meetings were arranged with the help of the outside delegates. Sometimes they were on the normal exchange on the Neyem Weg or in the forest. Meetings also took place in the Gerer shtibl, the prayer house, the synagogue or other places.

Public demonstrations would also take place under the Bundist flag. Such a flag was painted by Shmuel Reich, the headstone carver. The flag was stretched out on the exchange many times. There were a few street demonstrations. The street demonstrations would march protected by an armed militia. An accident once happened during a demonstration. Leibush Makhel Landau, the militia man shot and wounded Josef Leib Feld. Turmoil arose that was immediately silenced. The wounded one was taken to receive medical help and the demonstration went on according to the planned program.

Weapons were then often demonstrated. Weapons were shown at every opportunity. Both at demonstrations and at large meetings, weapons were always seen, although outwardly it gave the impression of children's play.

The authority of the organization grew. Its effect spread beyond the ranks of its members and supporters. Very many wronged people would turn to the organization to take their part in their grievances. The organization did not always think it necessary to get involved. In many cases the organization did intervene with success.

The organization would also save young workers who entangled themselves in the underworld. Little by little organization members began to combat the underworld. Unnoticed, the young worker element began to change. An interest in political-communal problems began. The want of a book, a newspaper grew. The feeling of being politically active grew. Personal attitudes became more cultured.

Other organizations arose that were influenced by the times, which had as their purpose the support of workers' interests. A wage-weaver's union was thus created. This was an organization of weavers who had their own looms in their homes. They worked with their families and employed journeymen and apprentices. The wage-weaver's union demanded various improvements from the manufacturers. The union also defended [the weavers] against the journeymen and apprentices, who belonged to the textile unions. However, no struggles between the wage-weaver's union and the textile union took place. On the contrary, the textile union would use the premises of the wage-weavers union. But the manufacturers preferred to deal with the representatives of the wage-weaver's union. They would also pray at the wage-weaver's union. Meir and Shmuel Zaken Chajnacki, Chaim Shlomo Szpigelman, Moshe, Yisroelke's son, Mendl Piusker and others led the wage-weaver's union.

A cutters' union with its own premises, where they prayed and even studied Mishnius [Talmudic commentary] on Shabbos, also existed at the same time. The cutters unions demanded that there be only one category of cutters, that the deduction of a percentage for the first cutter be abolished. Also, the clipping of the remnants should be ended or special payment should be given for it. Notice of the account should be given every six months. The union requested that the cutters should be given an account every week. The union also demanded that the wage should be the same as the Zdunska Wola wage. The chief leaders of the union were Yakov [and] Beynis, Markewicz's children.

*   *
*

The changes in the communal life of Belchatow were no different than those in all the other places in Poland. Particularly, those populated by the working elements. A stormy wave was carried against everything that oppressed and repressed. The political regime was shaken. The manufacturers, the rabbi, just as the priest, did not feel it was for the best. The representatives of the regime in the shtetl were so pitiful that they were completely lost. The several “guards” did everything so that they would not be noticed. It was as if they had gone into the earth. It could be thought that they did not exist. The manufacturers also tried everything possible not to pick a fight with the workers.

In 1906 the storms that carried the wave grew weaker. Everything was as it was before. There were celebrations on the 1st of May. The only mechanized weaving factory - Freitag's factory, stopped. The marketplace [of ideas] and circles functioned normally. Yet, a small change took place - 10 Cossacks arrived in Belchatow and they requisitioned a stable from Klink. The Cossacks did not carry out any struggles in the city. They only raised their voices alongside the manufacturers.

The political and professional activity did not weaken. Only a little cautiousness was apparent in order not to give the Cossacks an opportunity to carouse. It was impossible to protect oneself completely. Once Yitzhak Zilberszac was severely beaten by the Cossacks. Moshe Kopl was arrested on the 1st of May 1907 for going through the stores asking that they close. A group of young people, among whom was Alter Naparstek, had to spend a month in Piotrkow detention A police-judicial commission came to Belchatow in connection with the forced cessation of Freitag's mechanized factory. Many Bundists and activists from the wage weaver's union were called to an investigation. They were threatened with repression.

Belchatowers, who were active in Lodz, began to feel the intensified activities of the police. Khona Yitzhak Pelcer was arrested. He was delivered to the military. After serving, he was arrested and exiled, but he escaped abroad. Chaim Shlomo Sztatlender sat in jail in Lodz under suspicion of burning the eyes of a high police official with vitriol. Chaim Shlomo was freed under bail until his trial. However, he did not appear at his trial. He forfeited the bail and went abroad.

On a dark winter night, at the end of January 1908, large wagons of police and gendarmes arrived in Belchatow. Bunikowski, a former old watchman came with them. On the same night, searches were carried out in dozens of houses and 23 Jewish young people were arrested: 1) Yissakhar Szilklaper, 2) Shlomo Szilklaper, 3) Chaim Shlomo Szpigelman, 4) Moshe Zorekh Belchatowski, 5) Lipman Benczkowski, 6) Avraham Machabajnski, 7) Avraham Szmulewicz, 8) Meir Zilberszac, 9) Yisroel Dovid Zilberszac, 10) Meir Machabajnski, 11) Avraham Landau, 12) Shmuel Landau, 13) Dovid Belchatowski, 14) Yekl Ostrowski, 15) Alter Naparstek, 16) Josef Rajnharc, 17) Hershl Goldberg, 18) Moshe Bornsztajn, 19) Shmuel Zaken Chojnacki, 20) Tuvya Dzenczarski, 21) Mendl Flamholtz, 22) Moshe Asher Laskowski, 23) Zaken Machabajnski. The arrestees were placed in the Belchatow jailhouse (prison). The unexpected arrests incited the shtetl. It was clear that the men were arrested according to precise instructions; that a denouncer had shown whom to arrest. Efforts were made to find out who could have made the denunciations, but they never learned [who it was]. Some parents searched for ways to free their sons. They wanted the rabbi to intercede. Nothing was of help. In the afternoon, the same wagons took away the locked up men to Piotrkow and they were placed in jail there.

Alter Naparstek, Moshe Bornsztajn (Kajzer) and Yakov Ostrowski
[referred to above as Yekl], three Belchatower revolutionaries,
who were exiled to Siberia where this photograph was taken

The number of arrestees in the Piotrkow jail grew constantly and it became so crowded that many arrestees had to be taken to other jails. The Belchatower arrestees also were taken from Piotrkow after sitting several months and they were again placed in jail in Siedlce. After spending two months in Siedlce, all of the Belchatowers were sent under guard to Siberia.

During the time they sat in Piotrkow and Siedlce, they were investigated several times. No trial was held. The sentence was an administrative one. Five received up to four years exile, three received up to three years exile and the remaining ones up to two years exile - all for belonging to the Bund, although a number of them had no connection to the Bund.

The Bund became an underground organization in the largest cities, too. In general, communal life was not obliterated. The proletarian organizations carried out activities, although in a different way than previously. It became as quiet as a cemetery in Belchatow. There was no sign that there was once something. In the Polish national camp, in which there was a little movement, it also became absolutely quiet. Several Polish intellectuals were also arrested and exiled. There was no socialistic or organizational activity visible among the Polish workers.

*   *
*

The appearance of Belchatow changed systematically. One by one the streets were bricked over; instead of the open wells, pumps were installed. New brick houses appeared, a mechanical mill and, also, mechanical weaving factories. If Jewish workers and other Jews left Belchatow, Christian workers took their place, and even merchants.

The Jewish communal life, which lost its proletarian face, took on a local form.

After a large fire beyond the bridge (on the road to Szczercow and Kamiensk), during which a large number of houses were burned, there was a movement among the young men to become stroszh (firemen). Other Jewish firemen, such as Mikhal Yakubowicz (Dizurnik [Russian word for “on duty” - here it is used as a nickname]), Nisen Freitag, Meir and Daniel Warszawski and so on, joined Hershl Cines, the regular stroszhak, for whom belonging to the firemen was an ideal. There were those who belonged to the firemen passively. They did not wear firemen's uniforms and the brass hats, did not take part in “practices.” They helped only in the event of a fire. Yehezkiel Szotten was one of them.

Young Jews also formed groups around the Bikor-Khoylem [society to help the sick poor]. This was an old institution that grew from the Mashorim Khoylem [Guardians of the Sick], another institution. The Mashorim Khoylem was created by Hershl Shoykhet [ritual slaughterer], Shaya Yoskowicz, Yankl Warszawski and so on. The Mashorim Khoylem, and later the Bikor-Khoylem, was one of the sides in a dispute with Yankl Warszawski, a feldsher [barber surgeon] in Belchatow. The institutions were a means for the competition among the feldshers in the city.

There was always the feldsher, Meir Lewkowicz, who worked as a doctor because not everyone could afford to have a doctor. There were those who had to come to him at the time of the military draft, or a girl because of “an unpermitted love.” In general, he practiced as a doctor, in addition to working as a hairdresser.

There was another feldsher who worked as a hairdresser - Yehiel Warszawski. He principally practiced by hakn bankes [placing cupping glasses used to draw blood to the skin] or shteln piawkes [placing of leeches on the skin] on the village population on market days.

The third feldsher was a son of Yehiel Warszawski, the young Yankl Warszawski. He studied to be a feldsher at a school and later served in the Russian military as a feldsher. The population had more trust in Yankl Feldsher; he was trusted no less than Doctor Rodziewicz. Yankl Warszawski helped many of the sick poor through the Bikor-Khoylem.

Yankl Warszawski's children had an inclination to communal activities and with their friends helped to create funds for a Bikor-Khoylem. Thus, they once hired a Polish theatrical troupe, which starred in Belchatow. Yehezkiel Szotten and Nisan Freitag went around selling tickets to the performance. Later, an amateur troupe under the direction of Yoel Leib Goldsztajn (Yankl Warszawski's son-in-law) carried out their own Yiddish theatrical performances in behalf of Bikor-Khoylem.

Reb Yankl Warszawski

Yankl Warszawski's house belonged to the so-called “free houses,” in which young boys and girls would spend time. Yankl Warszawski himself kept the religious precepts, it can be said, pious, as much as a feldsher in general can maintain piety. But the family was much freer. There were five sons and four daughters in the house and young people spent time there very often. One could find there one Meir Zisman, who was a tanner - not a fragrant trade - but he was a success with the Belchatow young people of that time. He was a maskil [follower of the Enlightenment], wrote songs about love, about the relationship of the madams to the servants and on other themes. He also read beautifully, so he was willingly seen in the community of the young people. One could also meet the Lichtenfeld sisters, Mendl Grocholicer's daughters, there. Ruchl, the older one was active in the Bund.

Perl, the Bosterin's house also was a “free” one. Young boys and girls would come together; they would jointly read books and they would sing songs. There were four daughters in the house. One of them, the gela Chana was active in the Bund.

In addition to the “free houses,” there were also kavalerkes [places where young people, gentlemen came together]. One such room for young men was in Yankl Ostrowski's house. One Feffer, the son of a banker, who came to learn to draw patterns at Freitag's, lived in a small room. There, Moshe Freitag and several sisters, Nisen Freitag, Yehezkiel Szotten, Yankl Warszawski's children, Fela Rozenblum, Dobski's son and daughter, Yankl Elbinger, and others came together. Attempts were made there to establish a dramatic circle. A small lending library existed there. They sang there. Feffer, himself, had a very beautiful voice and, in general, they enjoyed themselves there.

Yoel Leib Goldsztajn also had a kavalerke. This was in Abish's on Piotrkow Street. A select community entered there. Goldsztajn tried to create a music lovers' group. Yoel Leib, himself, one of the most distinguished Belchatow communal workers, a writer, who wrote several books, such as: Der Letster Mentsch [The Last Man], Tsuzamenbrukh oder Iberboy [Collapse or Rebuild] (a novel in two volumes of more than 1,200 pages), a volume of short stories, Mitn Punim Tsum Shpigel [With the Face to the Mirror]. The last one was named, 1960. There were rumors that he had written many more than had been published. Among the Belchatow masklim [plural of maskil] were also Welwel Goldsztajn, Shaya Langnas, Yehiel Meir Krawicki, Yehiel Meir Jakubowicz, Dovid Luszczanowski, Berl Waldman and others. They did not develop any communal activities that were visible in the shtetl.

Yankl Elbinger had a small lending library where one received books to read. Morris Freitag also had Yiddish books and through the mediation of Morris' cousin, Arke Freitag, one could sometimes borrow a book to read without any payment. In 1911-1912, a group of young men in the beis-hamedrash were engaged in reading Yiddish books. Ahron Pinkhas Bornsztajn, Eli Twordowski, Moshe Szmulewicz and the writer of these lines belonged to the group. The obtaining of a book to read was very difficult. In addition to reading, they discussed the books that were read. They also discussed communal problems. When quarrels began between Heynt [Today] and Moment around the suspicion that Hillel Ceytlin had eaten non-kosher food in a train station, the group of young men from the beis-hamedrash sent a protest against the suspicion. The shortage of reading material gave the young men the idea of buying books. A discussion arose, which books should be bought, Yiddish or Hebrew? In the end, they came to a compromise - they bought both Yiddish and Hebrew.

The group of young men grew. At first, three Redziner, children of Redziner Hasidim, were added: Avraham Liberman, Henekh Liberman and Henekh Pigula. Later, Henekh Groszke and Shimele Szmulewicz joined.

Young men from the group often read in the beis-hamedrash, as long as they could sometimes sit with a gemara and thereby read a book. It once happened that the rabbi, Shmuel Shaya, caught them reading Abraham Mapu's Ahavat Zion [The Love of Zion]. However, he did not make a great fuss about it.

Reb Yakov Elbinger during his young years

Around Passover 1913, an incident happened that enraged the shtetl. One of the young men had borrowed Sholem Aleichem's Mabl [In the Storm] from Morris Freitag's library through the involvement of Arke Freitag. The book could only be kept for several days. Several of the young men came together and at the end of the holiday sat in a corner of the beis-hamedrash and were engrossed in reading Mabl at a candle. A group of Hasidim, who were passing by and noticed that there was light in the beis-hamedrash, entered. The young men were engrossed in reading and first realized it when the Hasidim began to shout. The shtetl was buzzing for several days. There was agitation everywhere Jews came together. In the shtiblekh [one room prayer houses] and other houses of prayer, even in the mikvah [ritual bathhouse] - Jews were agitated. My father, Moshe Eliezer Pudlowski, protested the most. He stormed against the young men. The rabbi also interested himself in the incident. Ahron Pinkhas, who was close to of the rabbi, was called to him. The rabbi chastised him, not letting him say anything in order to explain or to clarify. I was also called to the rabbi. Here the rabbi was milder. “Although your father is an enemy of mine, still it does not please me.” With that the rabbi began to reproach me.

A group of young activists from the Culture Union

One could always find an older, poor and shabbily dressed young man in the beis-hamedrash. They called him “Itshe the Rebbitzin's [son of the rabbi's wife].” This was a son of the old rabbi. He was never called by another name. He would be occupied with buying “antique” religious book. He had read a great deal of the modern literature; he was a learned man. He also loved to speculate on communal and religious problems.

In the spring of 1913, a young ma, who drew the attention of everyone who met him appeared in Belchatow. The unknown one had a bleached out face enclosed with a small black beard; he wore a loose coat with a pair of boots. It was a strange way of dress even for Belchatow. He worked in Shlomo Kowal's small factory. Young workers, who would usually come together mainly on Shabbos with a keg of beer where they danced, sang, carried on love affairs, grouped around him

The unknown young man spent Shabbosim with them in the woods and endeavored to organize them. His lectures for the young jobless were very successful. Apparently because the young man met on appreciative terrain. The speeches were entwined with Yiddish worker and folk songs. The young people were very satisfied with spending time in the woods and the number of those taking part greatly increased.

The name of the young man was Gershon Perkal. He was a Lodz weaver. He lived with his mother and his four brothers in a very small room on Dworske Street (Balut). There was great poverty in the house. Once on a winter night, the house was surrounded by police and gendarmes, who broke into the house and after a vigorous, precise search took along Gershon to jail. After sitting in a Lodz jail for eight months, he received a visilka [expulsion order] to Zdunska Wola. There, he had to be under police supervision. He escaped from Zdunska Wola and came to Belchatow.

He immediately took to the work. In addition to meetings with the young workers, he also established contact with other groups of young men and interested them with his lectures.

When switching work to Uzer Czuchowski, Gershon Perkal had a room of his own. One could always meet visitors in the room. Gershon offered a library in the small room. [He] subscribed to a number of copies of Die Tseit [The Time], the Bundist weekly publication that was published in Petersburg. His closest helper was the writer of these lines, who took care of Perkal's entire written or secretarial work. Gershon was the only one who led the meetings. He made speeches, answered questions and even gave the note for singing the folk songs. Gershon was not educated. His knowledge came from the Bundist circles and from reading books.

Gershon Perkal

The Bundist movement, which was cut short during the first months of 1908, now, after five years, began to grow anew. True, Gershon did not propose any official Bundist organization. But his campaigning and entire work was in the Bundist spirit. He also subscribed to various Bundist publications in addition to the Bundish weekly, Die Tseit, from Petersburg. The movement that lasted an entire summer finally began to draw the attention of the police, who sought to learn the particulars about Gershon. He felt it was getting hot under his feet and one evening he left the shtetl not saying one word to anyone.

In the morning a group of those closest to Gershon first learned of it and regretted his disappearance. No one thought that it was bad that he had left before they were able to catch him. Almost everyone felt that with his departure, ended contact - meeting. Everyone really regretted this, but did not despair. They removed the books and all of the material from Uzer Czuchowski's house and meanwhile placed it in another place. They also brought together a larger group, which would decide what to undertake. The conference took place at night, erev [on the eve] of Yom-Kippur. It was a Kol-Nidre [opening prayer on the eve of the Day of Atonement] conference in the meadows beyond the Belchatow bridge. Two dozen young people came together, among whom were: Henekh Liberman, Avraham Mendl Jakubowicz, A. Leib, Yehiel Leibish Goldberg, Moshe Ostrowski, the writer of these lines and others. A very large number of those mentioned took part in the debate. That such a group could come together on a Kol-Nidre night at that time showed that Gershon's work had sunk its roots. It was further decided to go on with Gershon's original work. While it was not possible to have speeches, we should read books, brochures and from Die Tseit. The address of the group was made that of the writer of these lines. It was decided to rent a small room as a kavalerke; a library would be there and we would meet on the wintry Shabbosim. We also decided that I would travel to Lodz and get instructions from Gershon.

All of the decisions of the Kol-Nidre meeting were carried out. After a short interruption, Die Tseit reappeared. The library functioned normally. We came together on the Shabbosim in the small room where the library was located. We read from books and sang folk songs. On the evenings in the middle of the week, a group could be found at Shlomo Midliacz's and in the confectioners' store.

On International Woman's Day, Die Tseit published reports from various provincial cities about the situation of the women workers. There were reports from four cities and one of them was Belchatow. In this report the Belchatower women workers were discussed, illustrated with facts from particular factories.

On the 1st of May, a small group gathered in the woods. They discussed Belchatow matters.

Just before the First World War, the group carried out a meeting on behalf of the striking Baku kerosene workers. The money collected (around five rubles) was sent to the address of the Tseit in Petersburg just before the outbreak of war.

The work of the Bundist group also pushed other groups to become active communally. In addition it affected those who did not fit into the Bundist environment. There also were those who were disposed to Zionism, so a short time before the outbreak of the First World War another library arose in Belchatow. The books probably came from Yankl Elbinger's and Morris Freitag's library. The second library was much richer in books and had good bookcases, and the premises were more comfortable. This was in Yankl Ostrowski's house.

However, it was not long before not only communal life in the shtetl ceased. Great changes occurred in the economic life of the shtetl; the First World War broke out, which began a new chapter in our history.

The first “TSISHO” [Central Yiddish School Organization] School in Belchatow.
The children together with Zalman Pudlowski and the woman teacher, Rozenband.

 

Teachers and students of the first Yiddish secular school

 

Yavne [religious Zionist] School with teacher

 

Jewish children of the general Folks-Shul [public school]

 


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Kest is the practice through which a father-in-law supports his daughter's husband so that the son-in-law can study Torah. Return
  2. The author refers to the dozor with both the diminutive, Moshke, and his given name, Moshe. Return
  3. teg = day. Families provided individual yeshiva students their meals for a day. Return
  4. Gefirt tish” = “Led a table” - Hasidic rabbis held discussions and provided commentary on the Torah to their followers at meals, often at the Shabbos lunchtime meal. Return
  5. Sheygets - plural Shkotzim - is a derogatory word for a gentile boy or young man. It can also mean a boy or young man who is impudent. Return
  6. On January 9, 1905, according to the Julian Calendar, the Russian Revolution of 1905 began when Russian workers marched on the Winter Palace ending with Bloody Sunday - the massacre of workers by Tsarist troops. Return

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