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[Pages 104-107]

The Workers Movement in Brzezin

brz104.jpg -  Abraham Abramowicz

by Abraham Abramowicz

Translated by Renee Miller

Edited by Fay Bussgang

In the beginning of the twentieth century a violent political storm was already raging over the entire length and breadth of the Russian Empire. Its aim was to put an end to the absolute monarchy of Czar Nicholas II (Nicholas Aleksandrowicz reigned despotically from 1894 to 1917).

Poland, which had many times before raised its flag for national freedom, was particularly sensitive to the development. When the uprising of 1905 spread, it naturally did not bypass any industrial area where socialist activity was already operating.

The industrial town Brzezin at that time already had a socialist movement that was a part of the socialist movement of the country.

And in those days, just after Russia had lost the war to Japan (1904–5), after the bloodbath of 22 January 1905 – known in history as “Red Sunday,” when thousands of workers marched to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg with demands for reforms and were, as a result, killed and wounded – at that time a socialist leader from Lodz came to Brzezin.

Baruch, the socialist leader, was a good speaker and a capable organizer. The flames of the revolution that blazed over the Russian Empire also reached our town, which was not isolated.

On that day the tailors' wheels did not turn. The tailors were out on strike!

On the second day about forty tailors were arrested. There were rumors that certain magaziners (manufacturers) let the police authorities know who the revolutionaries were, so that those arrested would be exiled to Piotrkow – where they indeed were banished.

This provoked an absolute fury among the workers – the wives of those arrested broke almost all the windowpanes at the magaziners as an answer to their denunciation.

Disturbed by the extraordinary happenings mentioned, a number of the important balebotim [leaders] of the town intervened and disputed the charges leading to the arrests – and were thus instrumental in freeing the tailors.

The main leader of the Akhdesnikes [members of United Youth] in town was known as the Finlender-doktor [Finnish doctor]. Among the leaders were the pale Abraham Mojsze, Icie Poznanski, N. Bundkin, and others.

The Bojowy Komando [fighting squadron] was the executive organ, which had the assignment to carry out all the plans authorized by the main committee.

The participation of the Brzeziner Akhdesnikes and their contribution to the uprising can only be correctly understood when one takes into consideration that the uprising of 1905 rocked and undermined the throne of the Czar and forced him, for the first time, to agree to a concession – the establishment of the Duma (parliament) and a number of other reforms. True, not broad enough, no great satisfaction for the workers, but nevertheless a step forward.

A number of the Akhdesnikes had to run away from town. It became too “hot” for them there. Others were very disappointed, because socialism had not been victorious. For a number, pessimism and passivity were the “natural” results of the “unsuccessful operation.”

During the time of the First World War, in 1914, Brzezin had been a major strategic point between Lodz and Warsaw, and the inhabitants experienced all kinds of trouble. Hunger, death, and destruction were normal phenomena.

A considerable number of the magaziners left town. They sought safety in the East, in Russia, far away from the war fronts.

Who can forget the terrible tragedy of the day when the Russians took Jewish fathers and sons from a great number of homes and carted them off to the eastern marketplace – where the sound of shooting rifles announced that gunfire had killed innocent lives!

The revolution in Russia in 1917 sped the process of freedom.

 

brz105.jpg -  The 'Hilfs-Komitet' [Aid Committee] of the Brzeziner town council
The Hilfs-Komitet [Aid Committee] of the Brzeziner
town council decided in 1932 to relieve the great
unemployment that had at that time prevailed in the town

The picture shows how Jewish and non-Jewish workers were
widening the river at Lodz Street as one of the service projects

 

In November 1918 the news came from Lublin that a socialist peoples' government was established there under the leadership of A. Muraczewski. On 13 November the Red flag was hung on the Royal Castle in Warsaw, which acted as a call to action to all socialist units.

Could such a new event that took place in the land pass Brzezin unnoticed? Certainly not! The occurrences of 7 November 1918 in Lublin and of 13 November in Warsaw reverberated like a flash in the tailoring town.

Through the Tailoring Town

On the day when workers took over the management of the town, the workers' council had before it a very serious question about providing food for the hard-suffering, hungry inhabitants.

The workers' committee issued orders to a number of magaziners the first day, to others the next day, and so on, continuously, to prepare meals for groups of fifteen, twenty, or more workers. So it continued for the short time of the life of the workers' council.

The news from Warsaw that Andrzej Muraczewski had begun to talk about a coalition with the capitalist parties, you understand, undermined the workers' councils and also the very existence of the Muraczewski government. And that is what happened; the life of the Brzeziner workers' council was thus cut short.

Brzezin became an important place, where the struggle of the new parties was carried out with an unexpectedly amazing momentum in an effort to win the following of the masses.

Party debates were not lacking there. Major leaders of the directorate used to come from Lodz and from centers in Warsaw. They were such frequent visitors that they were soon rightly called Brzeziners.

Their lectures were multi-sided. Beside political ones, a great number of their lectures were on historical, scientific, and literary themes.

Their contribution struck deep roots that surely influenced later events in town; progressive activity blossomed there as never before. Drama groups sprang up, sports clubs, libraries, and also other activities.

The fight between the old and the new, between the new philosophical ideas, between parents and children, who had in large numbers begun to go in new directions, naturally changed the intellectual character of the town.

In many homes where life had been conducted according to the traditions of great-grandparents, crises occurred. Under the new circumstances of the town, the appearance of worldly ideas in the homes was simply unavoidable.

The thing that really was unusual in the town was the rapidity of the tempo spurring on the radical process, the very extreme attitude to issues, the general, boundless fanaticism that helped no one.

– I will never forget what happened in the town on Shabes-Shuvah [Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Yippur] 1927.

The Yevsektsiia [special section for Jews in the Communist Party] had invited the editor of the Polish Fraydenker [Free Thinker], Dlugoszewski, who came from Warsaw, to give a lecture on the day of Shabes-Shuvah on an anti-religious theme. The news spread quickly through the town. From minute to minute, the atmosphere became more strained.

In the shul [synagogue], in besmedresh [Orthodox houses of prayer] and in the shtiblekh [Hasidic houses of prayer], all over, they talked and called on the worshipers to go to the Fireman's Hall on Lodz Street – with the rabbi in the lead – and not to tolerate such blasphemy.

On the other side, again, the radical interests joined together to prevent the lecture from being disrupted. The day arrived. On that day when holy dread spreads through the heart and soul of the religious Jew, on that day, they got ready for battle.

An hour before the room was to open, Lodz Street was already chock full of synagogue-going Jews. They poked and pushed each other in the direction of the doors. There was no question of tolerance. From the angry and loud shouting and violence that drifted from the entrance, they soon came to blows. Many raised their hands, others, their feet. The police chased and pursued them and even shot over their heads; the police chased not only those who came to disrupt the lecture but also the defenders.

So the lecture was not held. The rabbi and the Jews from the synagogue were euphoric, delighted with their victory.

Certainly the lecture did not have to take place precisely on that day, but at that time, those in charge did not see it that way.

After the Shabes-Shuvah incident, friction began again among the leftist parties. The left-wing Poale Zion contended that they and they alone were the one and only representatives of the Jewish workers and had the right to represent the Jewish working class. They brought out their heavy artillery, the Borochovism [Marxist-Zionist views of Ber Borochov], and they contended that this was the Marxism af der Yidishe gas [of the Jewish street] and that proletarian Palestinism was the most important and most consistent way to solve the Jewish question.

But the Yevsektsiia denied them the right to be the representatives and contended that their own program possessed the refue shleyme [complete recovery] for all people, which also included, of necessity, you understand, the Jewish question. And in the meantime, it was lively in town.

In 1927 Poale Zion Left took part for the first time in the town council election. Among the speakers who came from Lodz for the election campaign was the Brzeziner teacher Idel Fuks. He, like the others, and perhaps more so, was extremely influential and contributed with his heartfelt lectures to the great victory in the election of the first Jewish councilman, Mordechai Biedak.

This Jewish worker-councilman (from Poale Zion Left), in his behavior and actions in town hall, was nothing like the other Jewish councilmen – who did not represent Jewish workers.

For the first time, the town council heard such an “astonishing” proposal – that assistance, such as potatoes, coal, and flour, should be distributed to the unemployed and the needy. The usual “silence” in town hall came to an end.

The violent struggle of that time and the wide support for this proposal among the population, after a number of violent sessions of the town council, compelled the majority not only to accept M. Biedak's proposal, but also to carry it out. It is, therefore, no wonder that the same party, in later elections, elected two additional representatives to the town council, Mesdames Ester Winter and Hamer.

The Strike

Brzezin was known throughout Poland as a tailoring center.

Workers from many towns used to come there. The earnings of Brzeziner tailors were a good deal less than, for example, those in Lodz or Warsaw. Here the workers worked almost twice as many hours a day as in other known towns. Brzeziner products were specifically for export. And the export, ever since the end of the war, had decreased. At this time the population was larger and the tailoring season, shorter. And this had a bad effect on the situation of the craftsman.

The worker's life was made even harder by the fact that in order to get immediate necessary cash, they had to give up from ten to thirty percent of the value of promissory notes [legal contracts] and kvitlekh [informal IOU's] written for dates three or six months into the future.

At that time a group of tailors joined the “Clothing Exchange,” which was in Warsaw and controlled by the Bund [Jewish Socialist Party]. After the exchange of a number of letters, the agent from the Warsaw Clothing Exchange, Herszel Himelfarb, came to Brzezin. The meeting was held in the home of Melech Akerman, who belonged to the Bund. The writer of these lines participated in the meeting. We, the initiators, were unhappy with the decision of Herszel Himelfarb not to give the charter (status) to the founders of the professional union – only to his Bundist friend Melech Akerman. But, under the circumstances, we did not have any other alternative. And we got down to the work of building a union.

The tremendous difficulty that we encountered was due to the fact that there were many hundreds of small workshops in which only relatives were employed. But all these difficulties were overcome. Their own children, sisters and brothers, struck against their parents. The strike did not last long. The tailors now had their union and also won a ten-hour workday. Before this, the tailors used to work about eighteen or twenty hours a day.

Then the professional union drafted conditions that made the life of the tailor easier and more comfortable. A little later, after the time when I left town (in July 1928), the tailors won the eight-hour workday.

 

brz107.jpg -  People standing in line for bread
People standing in line for bread in front of Sarah's bakery on
Apothecary Street during the German occupation in 1915 or 1916

 

The First of May

The first of May [Socialist Labor Day] used to be celebrated in Brzezin by not going to work. This was already considered a great accomplishment. But who among the progressive worker-leaders dared to dream of a May Day demonstration in Brzezin?

In 1928 this was no longer a daring dream. Negotiations were conducted among the socialist parties to find a common ground for a united May Day demonstration, and such a unanimous resolution was accepted. On the day of the first of May, the various factions marched with their slogans and flags up to the marketplace. There the great demonstration was formed.

It was still early, and the marketplace was already full of people. With red flags and banners, the march moved noisily in the direction of Rogow Street. Chants and slogans in Polish and Yiddish deafened the streets through which the demonstration moved. From Church Street the march turned into Apothecary Street and stopped in front of the town hall. The burmistrz [mayor], Waclaw Niedzwiedz, who was a member of PPS [Polish Socialist Party] came out and placed himself at the head of the demonstration, which extended from there into the marketplace. The speeches and slogans were warmly received by the assembled crowd.

We gave the Poale Zion Left Party (I was then the party secretary) the honor of bearing the flag. The flag was so heavy – and the wind made it even heavier – that to this day, I feel its weight.

The flow of life carried me to Canada. The thousands of miles between the two points did not separate me from my town.

During the First World War, we had partial losses in the town, but in the Second World War, the Nazis destroyed all that was dear and valuable to us.

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