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[Page 523]

The Trade Workers (Artisans) Union

by Avraham Chani, Australia

Translated by Dr. Samuel Chani and Jenni Buch

A.

There were many artisans and tradesmen in Brest long before W.W.1. From Brest they would travel to other cities of Greater Russia. Brest construction workers were to be found everywhere that stations, railways and barracks were being built. They represented all the various trades: carpenters, painters, metalsmiths, and others.

Masses of shoes and boots were manufactured in the workshops of Brest for the monthly fairs and all the major Russian trade fairs, and even sent as far as Siberia. After W.W.1, Brest was absorbed into Poland and thus lost all the Russian markets – however, the number of tradesmen in the city did not decrease.

This naturally resulted in a large trade union movement in Brest, which was as important as the trade unions of Vilna, Bialystok and Lodz. In 1919, after the Germans had left Poland, the American Joint organization began an overall assistance program in all the cities and towns of Poland. The Jewish population received economic support, food and clothing, and the “American Joint Committee” was established by local officials to supervise the relief activities. At that time several delegates for the tradesmen confronted the representatives of the Joint and requested that they distribute food and potatoes specifically to poor tradesmen.

By the way, these delegates for the tradesmen had no affiliation to the working masses – one was a dairy merchant who presented himself as a cheesemaker – the other was a shoe merchant who presented himself as a shoemaker. They gathered several Jews from the synagogue, Jewish tradesmen of the old style – held a meeting in front of a homeless rabbi who was from a neighboring village and decided to form a trade union. Thus the “Trade Workers Union” was formed in Brest.

B.

As soon as several dozen tradesmen had enrolled in this union, they received from the city council a large store in Pilsudski Place and hung up a large placard with “Trade Workers of Brest Union”. They received wagonloads of potatoes from the Joint to be distributed amongst the tradesmen. This union ceased it's activities in 1920 because of the Bolshevik assault. The Bolsheviks were indeed driven out in 1920, but in the midst of the tumult the chairman of the union, the formerly homeless rabbi, and his two officials – vanished. At a general assembly they elected as chairman the tailor Shoshanov. Amongst the committee members were: Candlesbroit, a medic, and a retired goldsmith, Zylberberg, who lived off rental income. The first activity of this committee was to gather a quorum in it's offices and to demand that the Joint Committee co-opt a representative from the Trade Workers Union. No real activity was carried out until the end of the Russian-Polish war.

Only after the peace treaty of Riga in 1921 (in which the whole of Polessie was annexed to Poland), and the steady stream of expatriates returning from Russia swelled the population of Brest daily - only then did the Trade Workers Union spring into action. New members joined the union and the committee was forced to increase it's membership fee. The committee was forced to create new positions for new young active members because ,according to a previous decision, the committee had to represent all trades. Two new members were co-opted onto the committee – Zablud the photographer and Chani the watchmaker. The chairman was preparing to emigrate to the U.S. and consequently neglected union affairs, so the opposition managed to push through 3 decisions: I.) To renovate the hall with a mezzanine. 2.) Establish contacts with the Central Union movement in Warsaw. 3.) Call for an A.G.M. after Passover.

Before Passover notices were posted and many invitations sent out. Immediately people began to visit the office in order to sign up as members. This A.G.M. made a strong impression in the city – it was discussed in the streets and synagogues. A day before the meeting, Hoffman, an educator from the Warsaw committee of the union arrived in Brest. Seeing that there were two camps, he made efforts to broker an agreement between the two.

An hour before the meeting, the front seats were already occupied by important dignitaries, and slowly the hall filled with the ordinary people, Jewish working folk and tradesmen. The first vote was almost unanimous – to establish a democratic list with another three new members, this new administration consisted of 14 committee members, Candlesbroit was elected chairman for the sake of peace. In reality the union was run by the deputy chairman M. Zablud, and the honorary secretary A. Chani. The new committee established 4 sub-committees: 1. Finances 2. Cultural. 3. Health. 4. Political. Mr.Chavetsky, a capable and hard-working secretary was employed. That year the membership reached 400.

The cultural committee organized a series of lectures with instructors from Warsaw. The members would gather before the Sabbath for tea with sugar. Illiterate members were be taught to read and write. The committee sent representatives to the various welfare institutions: the city hospital, ORT, TOZ, and others. The Joint allocated 2000 zlotys to a lending fund that lent interest free loans. There was a collection amongst the members of raw materials, merchandise and remnants. A lottery was held, the proceeds of which were directed to the purchase of medicines and medical equipment for the union's clinic.

C.

The Inaugural Meeting of the Jewish People's Party in Brest 1922

 

In 1922 during the election to the Sjem (Polish parliament), Rastner, the chairman of the central Trade Workers Union from Warsaw arrived in Brest. In accordance with his proposal, a branch of the People's Party (Socialist) was formed in Brest. The head of the People's Party, Noah Priludski, came to Brest and addressed a packed meeting of the People's Party in Sarva's hall.

There were also tradesmen with Zionist sympathies. Without the union's knowledge and with assistance from the local Zionist organization, they brought Goldberg and Bromberg - delegates from the Zionist Trade Unions in Warsaw to address the members. At a meeting in the Mizrachi hall, the assembled Zionist supporters of the Trade Workers Union heard speeches by Winnikoff and Z. Begin. They stressed the fact that the People's Party ruled the Trade Union circles at a time when the Jewish mainstream sympathized with Zionism. The truth was that the People's Party existed only on paper, as the union had no party activities. Yet many more voted for the People's Party in comparison with other cities of the Kressy (eastern Poland). Thus Brest became known as a stronghold of the People's Party.

The next A.G.M.took place in a stormy atmosphere. A new administration was elected, consisting mainly of previous members with a few newcomers: Chairman – Zablud, Chani - deputy chairman, Sussel – treasurer, Rosenshein, Labushevski, Leider, Topol, Daitch, Wapniarski, Rubin, Lev, Shpigelmacher, and Savaniuk.

The Health Committee (who administered the clinic) was: Lev, Sussel, Manker, Tepper, Mocasi, Zablud, Chani, Topol, Donovski and Weinstein.

The Cultural Committee: Zablud, Chani, Rubin, Levy and Rosenshein.

The new administration faced very difficult problems. Especially in the field of finances as the devaluation of the Polish currency meant that the membership fees did not cover the expenses. The subject of money caused much friction between the workers and employers, resulting in many strikes. The union and the professional unions cared for the interests of the poorer tradesmen, with some success, always compromising between the opposing sides.

In the summer of 1923 the union received a demand to vacate it's premises as the owner had returned from Russia. The matter came to court and the owner lost his case due to the tenancy protection laws. But the committee did not want to wrong anyone and searched for a suitable site.

At the A.G.M. of 1924, which was held after Passover, the building workers section proposed the engineer Greenberg (the founder of the ORT school), as chairman. The committee agreed, enrolled him as a member and invited him to the A.G.M. Both sides proposed a list of the former board members with Zablud and Susser instead of Greenberg and Chani – however, Greenberg was elected as chairman at this meeting. In 1924 there was also a celebratory function upon the opening of our new premises, with representatives from all the social institutions, the powers at the city council, not only the Jewish press, but even the anti semitic Polish press published favorable, if somewhat sarcastic reports of the event. At the opening meeting the following demands were formulated: 1. The union would accept the flag of the Warsaw Trade Unions. 2. That a library for union members be established.

The following actions were implemented in 1924 –5:

  1. Each trade was organized into it's own section, with it's own administration.

  2. A free Yiddish lending library was founded.

  3. The purchase of new instruments and medicines for the union medical clinic, as well as new doctors and specialists.

  4. A lawyer was hired as a legal counselor for the union, he gave free legal advice twice weekly to the union members.

  5. Due to the demands from some members, an orchestra was formed.

The union developed and grew stronger under the chairmanship of Greenberg – 150 new members joined up at this time – in 1925 the membership reached over 400. The financial situation also improved as the members began to pay their fees punctually.

D.

In the summer of 1925 there was a Polish-Jewish meeting of trade unions. Five delegates were sent from Brest: Gendler, Wabnik, Chani, Rubin and Spigelmacher. They represented all the various groups at the conference.

In 1927 the Polish government introduced the new “Union Laws” which were a hard blow for the Jewish tradesmen. The central union committee in Warsaw tried to unite both of the Brest trade union organizations, for this purpose there was an executive committee elected that had full powers. This committee decided that: I. The divisional committee should disband, vacate it's premises, and the members transfer to the Trade Workers Union. 2. Both funds should amalgamate, and the funds of the liquidated division should be used to pay off any debts under the supervision of the treasurer of the executive committee. 3. All members would automatically be members of the Trade Union and pay membership fees. 4. The executive committee would run the board of both groups until the A.G.M. 5. This meeting was to be held within one month, and the previous chairmen of the two groups, Greenberg and Zablud, could not be candidates for this new committee until January 1928. 6. The A.G.M voted to annul the autonomous powers of the Brest union and affiliate it with the central union movement in Warsaw.

However, Mr. Zablud, with a group of about 20 members, did not recognize this peace agreement and boycotted the union.

On Sunday, 21st January 1928, the A.G.M. of the united Trades Unions in Brest took place with the participation of Mr.Rastner, chairman of the central committee in Warsaw. A Mr. Roisman, an ordinary tailor, was elected as chairman. The newly elected executive had representatives from all the different trades. This was a very active committee, and according to the government laws, every member was issued with a union membership card, and the various sections had to be organized for that purpose.

E.

In 1929 Dr Yitzchak Kagan arrived in Brest as doctor for the union medical clinic. He was a pleasant man with a leaning towards social justice. He accepted the proposal that he become the next chairman of the Trades Union, on the condition that the A.G.M. would endorse this by open vote. The A.G.M. of 1929 voted Dr Kagan as chairman by a large majority. The question of obtaining their own premises was debated over a long period at many meetings. An American tourist, a Mr. Berger, donated money for this purpose and suggested that all the members donate towards this building and participate in the building work. It did not take long and we obtained a plot of land at Kosciusko 41 on a ten-year lease. This land belonged to the Jewish community (kehilla), but was held in the name of Benjamin Padva, the grandson of the Brest rabbi, Yakov Meir Padva. The kehilla was reorganized in 1930 and demanded rent money. But the union stated that the kehilla should support, not hinder the union, as it was a communal institution.

Construction began after Passover 1929. That summer, the union received an eviction notice and we had to transfer from our premises to the unfinished building. At this time a famous agreement was reached with the Christian Trade Workers Union, according to which the amalgamated Trade Workers Union would consist of 60% Christians and 40% Jews. The chairman was a Christian and the deputy a Jew. The Trade Union was a section of the government ministries and the agreement was advantageous and useful for the Jews. As Brest was the capital of the entire province, an office was established for the entire district. Every town and village in the district could elect 2 delegates, one Christian and one Jewish. Voting rights were only for tradesmen who had union membership cards.

The board consisted of 5 members, 3 Christian and 2 Jews. As the administration had to be from Brest, the question of who was to be the deputy chairman arose. The suitable candidate had to speak good Polish, command respect in the community, and be clear and concise on the workers issues, as well as political skills. Mr. M. Wabnik was elected temporarily to organize the trade union movement in the Polessie district, and to collect monies for the election fund.

On the 1st July 1929, the Polish Government introduced a statute that set the 13th October as the election date. According to reliable sources, the government predetermined the list of candidates, and Wabnik was picked as deputy chairman. The board ratified Wabnik as deputy chairman, and Loy as a board member. They were unanimously accepted. On Sunday 27th October 1929, there was a celebratory inauguration with a street rally attended by all the tradesmen of Brest, Jews and Christians alike. The Jews marched with their trade union flag, and led by their orchestra. The Christians marched with their flag and 10 holy images, and at their head, the firefighters band. There was a large banquet in the evening at the Citizen's Club with representatives of both the Jewish and Christian Trade Unions, and all the social institutions. The mood was optimistic. The Trade Workers Union building in Brest achieved a great deal in the 10 years of it's existence. It had a chairman, deputy chairman and board.

The chairman, Zhuk, was a Brest barber, who lived amongst Jews and was a Christian liberal. His deputy, Wabnik, a tinsmith, was a decent Jew who knew how to co-exist with the Christians. The director was Menasovitch, a lawyer, a progressive man and friendly to the Jews. Due to his Jewish sympathies he was stood down from his position as police chief. The government officials firstly organized an examination committee for all the trades. These committees consisted of nominated union members, mixed Christians and Jews, and in some cases, wholly Jewish. The examination fee was 90 zlotys, with concession 60 zlotys. Later on the committee decide to reduce this fee for the poorer tradesmen, and in hardship cases, to waive the fee entirely. The Brest and Brest district tradesmen underwent their exams at the Brest Trade Workers building – in more distant towns such as Kobrin, Pinsk and Luninets the chairman would arrive with a board member to conduct the exams on the spot. The Jewish tradesmen felt at home in the Trade Workers house in Brest. Yiddish was often spoken in the building as in the other Jewish institutions, the chairman was often occupied elsewhere, and the Jewish deputy represented him at the various functions. The Jewish tradesmen had no difficulty in passing the exams.

After 4 successful years of activity, several Christians conspired against the chairman and deputy chairman as not being competent. The chairman was dismissed, as there was no complaint against the deputy, he remained in his position and replaced the chairman after a year. The district governor wanted to charge him in court, but realized that the charges would not succeed, so he sacked the entire committee. According to the agreement on both sides, Christian and Jewish, it was decided to set up a new committee with a Mr. Gur as deputy chairman, a decent and honest man. However, he had no influence with the Christian circles. The conditions and times changed unfavorably for the Jewish interests.

At the end of 1929, the Jewish Trade Workers Union house was opened. The workload lessened, Dr. Kagan left the union, and he did not leave a suitable replacement. The influence of the tradesmen weakened, and in 1935 the leadership went into the hands of Zablud and his disciples. The enthusiasm and dedication disappeared and the work dragged on without success.

In the city elections the trade unions obtained 2 seats on the city council. There were also 2 representatives on the Kehilla council, but there was no real activity. The library was closed down – the orchestra disbanded and the musical instruments sold. There was no cultural/educational activity. Only the medical clinic, not longer exclusive to the ordinary tradesmen, was still active.

In 1939 after the Russian occupation, they exiled Zablud to Siberia. The trade union building was converted into a worker's club.

Of the 25,000 Jews that lived in Brest, there remained barely 150 alive. Of the hundreds of members of the trades union, four members managed to save themselves: Mattityahu Zablud, engineer Shloimeh Greenberg, Avraham Chani (now in Melbourne Australia) and Dr. Y. Kagan (died in New York).

A. Chani

 

Shossenaya St - The Commercial Center

 

The First Cinema in Brest – 'Elchayon'

 

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