On the outside, Belchatow was not much different than the neighboring towns, like Szczercow, Kamiensk, and so on. It was somewhat larger in size. It had two or three thousand more inhabitants than the above mentioned towns. However, in the area of culture and society, the lives of both the individuals and of people in general were on a higher level than that of people in the surrounding towns. The people from Belchatow did not look as if they came from the provinces. They did not have the provincial small-mindedness nor the penny-pinching, shopkeeper's ideas. A person from Belchatow always had a sense of the problems of the world, both in the political and cultural and communal arenas.
Even before the end of the previous century [the 19th century], Jewish communal life began, mainly among the young people. First small brochures appeared about class problems, about [political] parties and ideological questions. This was the interesting time of my life during the years 1897-1914. These were years of economic and spiritual ascension. Serious literary works by Yiddish and Hebrew writers were brought into Belchatow, as well as translations of world literature. Agitators for unions began to appear, Bundists (they were called Akhdusnikes [unionizers]), Poalei-Zionists [Workers for Zionism], and general Zionist speakers.
Before my eyes I see the first Zionist messenger, or preacher (that is what they were called at that time) who came to our town. A tall, thin Jew, with the appearance of an ascetic, he had a long beard, sidecurls; he spoke with genuine chasidish fervor. He told ardent tales of morality; crackled with insights into the Torah, the prophets, and the Talmud. He spoke about Dr. Herzl as if he had been sent from G-d, although he was [of] German [descent] and wore a short jacket and fedora. The synagogue was full of Jewish artisans, shopkeepers, and chasidim. He kept them all enthralled. The next day, Jews began to organize meetings, to start Zionist groups. The more affluent Jews in every small synagogue did the same in their way. However, this did not go on for very long.
The rabbis took a very negative position regarding Zionism and that cooled off the chasidim's [fervor]. There remained only a small number of affluent Jews who were interested and later the more religious among them formed the Mizrachi [an Orthodox Zionist movement], which carried on satisfactory activity.
The Bund [the Jewish Labor Organization of Poland] was the most active organization among the young people at that time. Of course, all of these activities were illegal. The leaders of the Belchatower Bund at that time (the ones that I can still remember) were: Leybush's son, Yitzhakl Ire, his friend Pitze Dritshe (that was his nickname), Fishl Meyer Weis (who later immigrated to America), Leybush Mikhl Landau. Later Avraham Szmulewicz, Plawner's son, Hershl, one of Jakubowicz's grandchildren. This [latter] was a young man, who was very learned in world literature. [He was] a follower of Nietzsche and enthusiastic about his Zarathustran philosophy. [He was] knowledgeable about Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and an ardent follower of Karl Marx.
There were a lot of religious young men among the Bundists, children of Chasidic parents. I am reminded of the figure of a young religious boy, whom I used to meet often on the berze, (a special meeting place in front of the Catholic church or along the new road). He strolled around holding the hand of a boy 14-15 years old, while teaching him Marxist theories. It was a remarkable picture: the young tall man bent over the boy, swaying back and forth as he walked, pulling at his peyos [side curls] and with a Gemara melody explaining to the boy that there did not need to be rich people and poor people, that everyone must work equally and live the same
Much earlier than in other even larger cities, Belchatow began to experience the fervor and the agitation of illegal gatherings, terrible proclamations, calls for economic strikes, and so on.
There was a reason for the early development: several years earlier there had been a textile factory in Belchatow. [It was] only hand-weaving until the end of the 90s, but later also machine weaving. To a certain extent, the fact that Belchatow was also a summer vacation spot for the surrounding cities was also important.
According to historical Polish sources, during the Napoleonic Wars there were a total of three hundred people living in Belchatow. There were no weaving factories at all at that time, only tailors, shoemakers, and most important potters, who stamped the city coat of arms into their clay pots: the Garden of Eden with a tree with a snake wrapped around it, and near the tree Adam and Eve. Perhaps it was this Garden of Eden stamp that drew the young people from the surrounding towns, but it is a fact that during the summer young people from Lodz and other large cities used to come to us and [they] brought urbanity to Belchatow.
As mentioned, until the Napoleonic era, there were no weaving factories in Belchatow. But, immediately thereafter, Germans began to settle here, and they started the cottage weaving. They produced cotton cloth and later woolen material as well, which was at that time called tukh. They spun the wool themselves, carded it themselves, and finished it themselves; with only the means that they had at home. The Polish weavers learned their trade from the Germans.
In the seventies of the previous century [18th century] (and perhaps even earlier), there was a mechanical wool spinner. Horses were used as a source of power, with a carrot, which the peasant farmers still use to this day [to drive] their threshing machines. This [early] weaving plant was in the building in which my father-in-law, Peretz Freitag, later built the first mechanized weaving plant. In the nearby areas there was a dyeing plant. For as long as I can remember, there has not been a trace of any of this.
In 1888 or 1889, when I came to Belchatow from the village of Parzniewice (where my parents lived) in order to study with the Gemara teacher, Reb Notele, and later with Reb Yeshaye Eksztajn, that building had been turned into a residence, and only the older Jews saw signs in the neighboring places of there having ever been a dyeing plant and an repair center.
I do not know when Jews began to take part in the weaving industry in Belchatow. Polish history is also silent about this. Perhaps it was noted in the pinkas of the Jewish community in Belchatow. The first weaver I knew in my early childhood years was my grandfather, Moyshe Fatersman. About him it used to be said that he had come to Belchatow as a young man from some German town or other close to the Polish border and got married here. He was, it is said, a specialist in finishing, dyeing, and repairing woolen fabric. At that time this was called bostn. (In Belchatow, my grandfather was indeed called Moyshe Boster.)
It would be good here to write a few words about my grandfather Moyshe Fatersman, of blessed memory. I remember him from the time that I was five or six years old. He was an old man of 70 even then: a tall man with a nice, white beard. He wore German clothes: a short, cut-off jacket, no black cap on his head, as was worn at that time, but a hat in the German fashion. When I was a grown up young man, older Jews used to tell me, both surprised and upset, that he possessed a full closet of religious texts and many non-Yiddish books (probably German). He was a heretic, did not much believe in certain customs, like kapores-shlogn, and so on. He was a wise man and good with people.
I can only give actual information about the general development of the textile industry in our town and with the Jews in particular from the year 1889. That was when I came to town from my village in order to study with teachers and in school. It is worthwhile to mention that there was already a Jewish school and a Jewish teacher in Belchatow at that time. I do not remember his last name, but his first name was Abner. I remember him well. [He was] a very pleasant man, handsome, with a fine beard, wore a short jacket and a fedora. He was very friendly to his students. He was much respected in town.
At that time there were already many Jewish weavers in Belchatow and several Jewish manufacturers and contractors: Chaim Tusk, Faywish Shrage, Yakov Huberman, Feiwel Leyb (Feiwel Amberduks), and so on. At that time, light twill-like fabric was produced, woolen flannel, satin, wool shawls and scarves. From 80 to 90 percent of these articles were produced by Jewish weavers. Other less expensive items such as: molton [an opaque cotton fabric], all kinds of cotton fabrics, pinafores, bed linens, and the like were produced in the surrounding villages.
Machine work was also starting to develop in Belchatow at the time. Before that, fabric was produced by [machines run by] foot treadles: from two for flannel and from four, six, or ten treadles for satin. They made better fabrics on electric machines: combed- wool and woolen cheviot articles. Machine work was started in Belchatow, or rather in the nearby Kolonia Koldunow, by a German named Shultz. He was the first to bring such a machine from Pabianice, where machine work developed quickly, as it also did in the neighboring colonies of Koldunow, Zawardow, Belchatowek, and so on.
Chaim Tusk and Yeshaye Shrage were the first to turn to machine work. The Jewish weavers resisted using mechanical looms. Around 1892-1893, my brother-in-law, Peretz Freitag, came to Belchatow and settled in Koldunow. He became the partner of the German, Shultz. I must comment here that my brother, Shimshon Pitowski, who at that time was a manufacturer of better combed wool fabric in Lodz, was also instrumental in the production of better combed wool material in Belchatow by sending his material to us to be worked on in town. My brother-in-law, Peretz, was in Koldunow for two years and later, in 1894, settled in Belchatow, where he began to employ a large number of handlooms.
I should take this opportunity to mention my part in the development of machine work among the Jewish weavers and later leading Jewish workers to mechanized machine work. And later yet, in the years 1912-1913, [I would like to mention] the work of Jewish weavers on mechanized looms.
In 1895, when I had already completed my training as a weaver with my father, Hershl Weis, I worked as an apprentice to Feiwel Leyb.
In relation to Feiwel Leyb, it is worthwhile to mention several details, which will characterize the relationship at that time of the manufacturers to the workers or apprentices.
Feiwel Leyb had a factory of 10-12 handlooms, which produced woolen scarves and kerchiefs. Big, grown young men worked in that small factory as apprentices: Shmuel Zuken Choinacki and his brother, Yakov Szuster, Ayzik's son Moyshe, who had already done his military service, and so on. Reb Feiwel used to come to Belchatow from Lodz every Friday to spend the Sabbath there. When he came into the factory, he would look through the finished material and never stinted in his criticism, whenever he noticed defects in the work. I remember, one time he came over to my loom, looked at my work and suddenly he screamed: You impudent fellows, come over here to this little one and learn how to do a good piece of work. (I was the youngest of the workers.)
Electric machine weaving started to develop for Jews in Belchatow during the years 1897-1898. At that time they were producing an article, which they called r.v. [possibly reine veberay fine woven fabric]. It was woven in two procedures: a diagonal, with two above [the diagonal] and two futer-shus [mechanical term used in weaving a double-stitch of sorts]. One did not earn very much by producing this article. The second article was satin binding made with one above [the diagonal] and two futer-shus. Much more was earned from this article. I brought this article to the Jewish weavers. Then other Belchatow manufacturers brought in machine looms and began to make this same article. They would give out the work to be woven in the villages, where the wages were significantly lower, and in this way they harmed the interests of the weavers of Belchatow. This led to the formation of a weavers' guild, which opposed, in any way it could, the farming out of the work to the villages.
It is worthwhile to dedicate several words to this weavers' guild. I only remember several of the founders' names and [the names] of those who were active members of this guild. They were: Sh. Chojnacki, Ch. Sh. Szpigelman, Z. Machabanski, and others. The guild was limited purely to economic interests. It stood in the way, as mentioned above, of the manufacturers sending the work out to the villages, and it organized strikes to attain higher wages. The guild made sure that during a strike the village workers did not bring their merchandise to town, and it did not permit any raw material to go to the villages. In order to achieve this goal, pickets were set up at the edge of town. More than once, the guild arranged occupation strikes against the more stubborn manufacturers. A large number of weavers would go into the home of the factory owner and sit there until he conceded to their stated demands.
This guild did not have any cultural activities. The members of the guild did form a quorum of ten men so that they could pray together on the Sabbath and on holidays. On those occasions, they drank a keg of beer and socialized with one another.
The guild ended in a tragic way: In 1908, the police and the militia attacked the homes of the leaders of the guild. (I only remember the names Chaim Szpigelman, Shmuel Zuken Chojnacki). They were sentenced to two years in prison; others got four years. In town, it was strongly suspected that they had been denounced by the manufacturers, but there was no real proof of this. My brother-in-law, Yakov Ostrowski, was also arrested and sent to Siberia. Although he himself did not belong to the guild, they did hold their meetings in his house.
In either 1898 or 1900, the first mechanized weaving plant began to operate in Belchatow. It belonged to my brother-in-law, Peretz Freitag, and I managed it.
As I mentioned previously, I had the privilege of being the first to introduce the Jewish workers of Belchatow to mechanized machine work. Certain jobs in the weaving plants had already been performed by Jewish workers, both male and female, even in the mechanized factories. These were the warp thread setters and stitchers. This was a kind of monopoly for the Jewish workers. In the first years of mechanized weaving in Belchatow, warp threads were cut by hand shears, and because the cutting trade had been in Jewish hands for many years, the Jews automatically got the first jobs as cutters in the mechanized factories.
I hired the first Jewish bobbin winders and spoolers to run the mechanized machines in the years 1901-1902. In doing so I ran into two difficult barriers: First of all, no Jewish woman at that time wanted to work on the Sabbath, and even if one had wanted to the Orthodox Jews would have stoned us. So every Friday afternoon, I had to send for Christian bobbin winders and spoolers, who were unemployed at that time, to run the machines and get them to prepare spools to be cut for the Jewish cutters, who worked on Sunday. The second barrier was the fear of class-consciousness on the part of the Jewish workers, of the akhdusnikes [unionizers], buntovshteshikes [insurgents], that they would call a strike. This fear on the part of the Jewish manufacturer was actually based on fact. In 1913 and later, other Jewish weaving plants were founded in Belchatow like: Dzialowski, Epsztajn Brothers, later Ferszter and Warszawski.
Until after the First World War, there were no Jewish bobbin winders or spoolers in the mechanized weaving plants, except perhaps for individual cases that I did not know about.
In the year 1910, the first mechanized Konus cutting machine was built in Belchatow. I taught my brother-in-law, Shmuel Goldberg, to operate that machine and that later became his job.
In 1912, I brought ten of my own carding machines back from Germany.
At that time Jewish community activists in Lodz had already started to bring Jewish workers into the mechanized weaving plants. The Jewish manufacturers, the religious ones as well as the nationalists [non-religious], tried with all their might to oppose this action. In this instance, there were also obstacles relating to the Christian workers, who went on strike more than once when the Jewish manufacturers wanted to hire Jewish workers in their mechanized weaving plants.
When I became the owner of my own ten machines, I decided to hire Jewish workers to run them. My first attempt was not successful, although the wages made from running my carding machines were much higher than could be made at two English looms. Instead of five rubles a week at two English machines, a worker at one of my carding machines earned between eight and 10 rubles a week a very nice wage for that time.
I made my first attempt with a relative of mine a young man, who was working at a business in Lodz. He was an idealist, who belonged to the Social-Democratic Party and always strove to be more productive at work. I hired him and placed him near a Polish weaver. I told the Pole that my relative wanted to be a weaver in a different country and wanted to learn the basics of weaving here (otherwise the Pole would not have agreed to teach him). I paid the Pole for his instruction, and my relative, Danski was his name, stayed with me until he learned the trade. I later gave him a loom to work on. He worked fairly well for several weeks but later, not being used to physical work, he tired very quickly. Work in the factory would start at six in the morning, but Danski came at eight o'clock. I could not let him work on the Sabbath in Belchatow, although he actually did want to. This gave the Poles an opportunity to laugh at the Jewish noble worker as they called him. The [other] Jewish manufacturers ridiculed me [saying]: Here you have an example of a Jewish factory worker.
I began to argue with Danski: You know what I wanted to achieve by bringing you in. And you see that with your work [habits] you have given the Jewish manufacturers a good excuse not to give Jewish workers a chance. So from now on, you must work five normal days a week or leave the factory.
He chose the latter and went to Germany. When I later saw him in Berlin, he was a member of the Communist Party. In 1933, when Hitler took power, he escaped to Russia, and I heard no more from him.
My second attempt was with a Chasidic young man. After working two weeks normally, he, like Danski, started to come to work at eight o'clock. I explained to him that he was setting a bad example and frightening off other manufacturers. I gave him a choice: either he work regular hours or he teach the trade to another Jew, who could replace him at the machine.
Avraham Naparstek took his place, and this was my first successful attempt to show that a Jewish worker was no worse than a Polish worker, even at carding. Naparstek did his job very responsibly. He worked only five days a week (except for the Friday nights that he worked stealthily), and he did not produce 16-17 percent less than Polish workers, only 5 or 6 percent less. This was a big accomplishment, something that I could use to counter the complaints of the Jewish manufacturers. The truth is that these arguments did not accomplish much, because the manufacturers' fears were caused by something else: Jewish workers were considered agitators, strikers, rabble-rousers. This was a natural phenomenon, because the Jewish worker was more conscious, and as a resident of the city had greater needs than the Polish workers, who mostly came from the villages.
In this regard, the situation of the Jewish workers was not so good. Actually a friend of Naparstek's, Zalman Pudlowski, pointed this out to me. One day Naparstek told me that he wanted to teach this trade to his friend, Zalman Pudlowski. Pudlowski was at that time the leader of the Bund in Belchatow.
I agreed. Why should there not be another Jewish worker at the carding machine? However, Comrade Pudlowski went right to work. He began to convince the workers to strike. And not only my workers... This activity did not remain a secret for long. Polish workers told me sarcastically: There you have your Jewish weavers. I received an even worse reaction from the Jewish factory owners.
I turned to Comrade Pudlowski with weighty arguments: What do you mean? First my workers earn double that of English workers. Second why did you not organize the Polish workers? You are ruining all my efforts to bring Jewish workers into mechanized weaving.
It was useless to talk to an akhdusnik [unionizer]. He had his own arguments: that bringing Jewish workers into the factory was not for their own good My telling him that rather than exploit a Jewish worker five days a week, it would have been better for me to have a Polish worker, who worked six days a week did not help. The outbreak of World War I brought an end to our discussion
I want to add that before this, I had brought my mechanized threading machine with 240 spindles from Lodz to Belchatow and had employed two girls to run it: Ruchel Eksztajn and Miriam Borzykowski. Both of them were excellent workers.
In total, before the First World War, I had placed thirty Jewish workers in the mechanized factories: bobbin winders, spoolers, threaders, one Jewish cutter and one weaver. I did not make any more efforts in this area until 1932, when I once again made a similar effort involving a greater number of Jewish weavers.
In 1931, after a hiatus of over 17 years, during which time I lived in Lodz, my brother-in-law, Peretz Freitag, came to me with the suggestion that I again take over the management of his factory. Until then the factory had been leased by Szukowski and Adler. My two cousins, Shimek and Nachum (both of them were killed by the Nazis) were still too young too manage the factory. Their father, Peretz Freitag, was already ailing (he actually died soon thereafter). On his suggestion, I started to come three times a week from Lodz to Belchatow on factory business. With satisfaction I insisted that a certain number of Jewish workers be employed at motorized looms. At that time, there were not only akhdusnikes [unionists] and Bundists working in the factory, but also respectable [Jewish] children. The economic situation of the Jewish middle class in Poland was already bad at that time. The Polish government did everything in its power to expel Jewish shopkeepers from their positions. The young people felt that they had to seek new paths and began to stream into the factories to the extent they were able, considering the given conditions. The Jewish population's relationship to factory work changed radically. It was no longer a disgrace to be a worker. Pukacz, Szczekocki, Davidowicz and others all worked in the factory.
In 1932, when I came to Belchatow and organized the factory, we Shimek, Nachum, and I brought in a number of Jewish workers, who had previous experience working on mechanized weaving machines. I also took on several apprentices, who later worked on these machines. In addition, all the bobbin winders and spoolers were Jewish girls and women. Five Jewish cutters also worked at the power machines that set warp arms.
It was my bitter fate to see every single Jew that I had tried so hard to bring in thrown out of the factory. This was the beginning of the Second World War.
Starting in 1936, the factory was run by my sister's children, the sons and sons-in-law of Peretz Freitag. Three weeks after the start of the Second World War, on the 21st of September 1939, Peretz and Hertske, Dovid Freitag's sons, came to see me in Lodz. They told me that a mob in Belchatow had stolen the raw materials from all the factories, and the Germans prevented the looting of fabric and raw materials in only one factory ours. The asked me, therefore, to come to Belchatow and try to make some order in the factory.
It was already dangerous to be on the roads, but I made an effort. I arrived in Belchatow on the 22nd of September. Several dozen workers were waiting and happily welcomed me. The local Germans, who already had the keys to the factory and to the warehouses, turned the keys over to me and even the several thousand zlotys, which they had earned from the sale of merchandise. I paid the workers and the foremen in cash and in merchandise and started to put the factory back on its feet. This was the only factory, where workers could still earn a living, and, in the beginning, where manufacturers could bring their merchandise to be worked. At that time, the Germans had not yet set up a civil government in Belchatow, and in comparison to the civil government set up later, the military regime was, at the beginning, much less restrictive.
I was called to City Hall first thing in the morning on Yom Kippur, 1939. The Mayor, Frei, a local German, explained to me that I must immediately restart the factory, because they had to show the occupying power that the factory was operating normally. He also warned me that if I did not keep the factory running, I would be taking on a heavy responsibility, because this was the only factory that could because of its condition and its supply of raw materials be left operational.
Even at that time, in the City Hall premises, I experienced a moment of terrible horror: it took a long time to take care of the various formalities. At around 10 o'clock, I noticed that the Germans were pushing their way to the windows and that the younger ones were choking back laughter. Then I also went over to the window, and I was appalled at what I saw. Jews were being chased from all sides. Some fell while they were carrying Torah scrolls and religious books in their hands. They were being chased, beaten, and kicked. Opposite the windows of the City Hall, the Germans had made a big bonfire, and the Jews had to throw their religious books and the Torah scrolls into the fire. They were being kicked the entire time, and some Jews were badly burned, as a result of having been pushed into the fire. From the window of his house, which was right across from the City Hall, the Rabbi of Belchatow, Rabbi Shmuel Yehoshua [Horowicz], of blessed memory, was made to throw down his religious book. Later, the Germans dragged him down and forced him to carry those books to the fire.
When I left the City Hall, two local Germans, who had accompanied me on the way to the City Hall, were waiting for me. We had to wait for a third German, who had gone to bring a certain amount of money to me. The two Germans, who were standing with me, watching this hellish scene, comforted me with their heads down: they kept on repeating, This is truly horrible. This should not be happening. They promised that they would do everything [they could] so that such scenes would not be repeated. I, however, thought to myself: Even if they are sincere, they will also not be able to withstand this dark power.
On the way back, we passed the store of our baker, a German. His wife called me over and said: I am telling you, Mr. Pitowsky, that because of these murderous acts, the Germans will lose the war But, we, the local Germans, cannot oppose them. The three Germans who accompanied me agreed. Her prophecy did come true, but too late!
I permitted the continued operation of the factory, and I managed it for several weeks. The Germans did not interfere. I hired all the Jewish workers who applied. And quite a lot applied, because in addition to the salary, the factory had another positive attribute; [being employed there] meant that the workers were released from forced labor, at which they were cruelly beaten.
In November 1939, I was visited by a whole group of upper-level staff officers from Piotrkow, led by their chief officer. There was also a civilian, who the chief appointed as the so-called trustee, that is, the manager of the factory. In the morning, I turned over the money to this German, went over the accounts, and wanted to return to Lodz, but the new manager did not let me go he did not have the slightest idea about weaving.
I was actually very pleased about the possibility of remaining, because I could give back to the Jews the material that they gave to the factory to be worked on. We also had the opportunity to help many Jews who had their raw material in Lodz, and enable them to bring their merchandise to Belchatow, along with the raw material, which we brought to the factory. At that time, this saved many Jewish families from starvation, because they could sell the merchandise they brought [to Belchatow] in an unofficial way.
In addition to the trustee, a Belchatower German professional weaver also came to the factory. This is a person who had been fired from our factory in 1937, because he could not work. Now he had the opportunity to get back at his former bosses.
As soon as he arrived in the factory, he began to dismiss the Jewish workers and to put Germans in their places. We tried to influence the trustee, to convince him that the new worker, the German, did not understand the first thing about this work. It did not do a bit of good. Paljaczek, the new worker, complained to the party, which said that we should do exactly as he ordered.
I remained at the factory until May of 1940. During this time, I had to witness many horrible persecutions that the Jews had to endure. Others, however, will write about this, comrades who escaped the murderous hands of the Hitler thugs.
I was once again in Belchatow in 1946. I did not see a single living Jew there.
So I went to see the cemetery. I wanted to see the place where those closest to us were resting. I walked around the place several times, where I knew that the cemetery had been long ago; there was nothing I could recognize. Then a gentile acquaintance assured me that this was indeed where the cemetery had been.
I stood there for a very long time, and I left the cemetery with a heavy heart.
This was the beginning and this was the tragic end of Jewish life in Belchatow.
Freitag's factory in the year 1913:
Mindl Benczkowski, Freydl N. Borszikowski, Machabanski,
Gele Benczkowski, Tsipor Goldblum, Miriam Eksztajn, Blime
Sherman, Chaye Blime Jakubowicz, Itke Spiegel, Sore Ite
Sztatlender, Miriam Borszikowski, and Gitl Eksztajn
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