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[Pages 33-47]

In Struggle for Life

The Story of The Free-Loan Society

By David Salz

Polish Jewry's General Circumstances in the Nineteen Thirties

The latter half of the decade of the thirties saw the circumstances governing Polish Jewry reach a catastrophic stage. The authorities declared the Jews third and fourth class citizens. Calculated economic operations removed the Jews from their positions in the country's economy. The Polish government's reaction to all this was expressed in the famous Polish word, "Owszem" which means "By all means, why not?" A contest began between the two parts of the Polish population: the anti-Semitic coalition of the National Democrats-the ruffians of Nara and of Falanga started riots, beat people, committed murder, and needless to say, Jewish lives had no value in their eyes--and the Poles identified with the party of Sanacia and later Ozon, who followed the line set by the government and conducted an economic boycott. Like the Hitlerites in Germany, the Poles stationed guards beside the Jewish stores and workshops and prevented people from entering. They also organized government-supported Christian-Polish cooperatives to compete with the Jews.

Before long the heretofore successful Jewish businessmen were reduced to poverty and forced to seek assistance or even beg. The impoverishment of the Jewish masses spread rapidly, encompassing progressively larger circles, until humiliation and despair were everywhere. Thus it was in Kolbuszowa as well.

The Letter to New York Concerning a Free-Loan Society

A tragic letter, dated April 1, 1935, came to the Kolbuszowa rabbi who lived in New York. Under the stamped name, The Hebrew Community Administration of Kolbuszowa, was the signature, Rabbi Yehiel Teitelbaum, followed by other signatures: Solomon Sonntag, Mattes Landau, Yossef Nussbaum, Marcus Lampel, Asher Derszowitz, Arnold Zemel and Sholem Brodt.

The latter refers among others to: "the catastrophic circumstances of the small businessmen and shop-owners who unfortunately constitute an overly large proportion of the local Jewish population."

From the above quotation we learn that there were in the city also Jews who adopted the anti-Semitic argument that they, and not the neighbors or circumstances, were responsible for the composition of the city's Jewish population. They bowed to the anti-Semites' arguments that the middleman functioning between producer and consumer played an insignificant role in the economy. Under economic pressure the Jews also diminished the importance of the artisan who lived by the work of his hands.

In this letter we read further:

" . . By means partly our own and partly others', we succeeded in conducting an expanded heating-operation during the harsh winter months, thus lessening the suffering of the impoverished Jewish population."

The letter continues that the committee was loath to stop with a single operation which brings only momentary relief in one specific area. It therefore undertook to delve deep into the needs and privations of local Jewry and to ask for far-reaching aid that would make their continued existence possible: ". . . In its budget for 1935 the community committee has included the sum of 1500 zlotys to serve as the basis for a free-loan society. It will be under the direction . . . of the community, which represents the entire Jewish population of the city and functions in matchless harmony."

The last two words were underlined in order to stress the nonparty approach to the problem. The letter also declared that the free-loan society would aid all the needy who were on the verge of collapse, and help them get back on their feet. They asked the rabbi to exert every effort so as to bring the problem to the attention of the Kolbuszowa Relief Committee and the Young Men's Society "who have more than once demonstrated their loyalty to their home town in a number of ways," and to persuade them to help establish a Free Loan Society.

It is interesting to note that the Jews in Kolbuszowa were aware of the severe financial crisis then gripping the United States; they refer to it in their letter. Nevertheless, they plead that a special concerted effort be made for the sake of their brothers in "the old country".

The Kolbuszowa Self -Aid Operation

From the Kolbuszowa rabbi in New York, Alexander Teitelbaum, we received a proclamation printed in Polish by the Committee for Memorializing the Name of Marshal Pilsudski, addressed to the Jewish community of Kolbuszowa. It was published following the Polish marshal's death and on the eve of the general meeting of the membership of the Free Loan Society called for June 23, 1935.

The proclamation stated (in Yiddish):

"The death of Marshal Joseph Pilsudski, who renewed and rebuilt independent Poland, has awakened echoes of real sorrow in your hearts. . . . To honor his memory our community has decided to establish a humanitarian institution in the name of Marshal Joseph Pilsudski. It will give no-interest loans and will function under the patronage of the starosta (region-governor) magister Michal Sienkewicz.

The proclamation declared further that the founders of the Free Loan Society had decided on a campaign to collect funds to set up the Society and to ask the Jewish public to join in large numbers as members of the Society and as donors giving substantial initial contributions.

An Active Free-Loan Society

An official letter from the Pilsudski Free Loan Society, dated May 30, 1937, to Mr. Henry M. Gastwirth in Woodside, N.Y. includes the following report, which we bring here to show how great was the poverty and the need for assistance:

INCOME    
1. Payments 7,779.60 zlotys
2. Administrative tax 118.25  
3. Contributions and membership fees 1,243.05  
4. Temporary credit from JOINT and other sources 2,069.45  
5. Income from certificates 75.19  
6. Weekly campaign, etc. 651.05  
7. Income from reminders 80.18  
Total    11,899 zlotys
     
DISBURSEMENTS    
1. Loans granted 10,547.61 zlotys
2. Postage and administrative expenditures 122.01  
3. Credit reimbursements 1,234.45  
Total    11,904.07 zlotys

This report was signed by the chairman of the Society, Dr. Kleinhaus and the secretary, Prof. L. Thau.

The explanations accompanying it state:

The initiating committee appealed to the Jews of Kolbuszowa for assistance. As a result a number of people contributed a sum totalling 700 zl. Inasmuch as this was not sufficient, the committee organized weekly and monthly collections among people unable to pay their pledges in one lump sum. This brought in about 40 zl. per month. Since, however, the need was great and the income by these means inadequate, the committee was forced to seek short-term private loans at no interest. Such a loan was forthcoming from the JOINT in the sum of 500 zl. with a commitment on our part to repay it in ten installments.

Characteristic is item 2 of the report which shows that 55 groschen were collected by the Society from everyone who received a loan, as payment for administrative expenses. It also issued certificates confirming the poverty of recipients of parcels from America, thus releasing them from payment of customs duties (item 5). Those who borrowed but failed to make their payments on time were sent reminders and charged 10 groschen for each (item 7).

As to expenditures, the letter explains, the individual loans granted did not exceed 50 zlotys; although the need was indescribably great, the funds were simply not available. 215 loans were granted in the period included in the report. "The committee aims," the letter declared, to increase the loans to at least 200 zl., for as you will readily understand--50 or even 100 zl. cannot possibly suffice to put a small merchant or artisan back on his feet." They therefore appealed to "their brothers in America" and especially the young men from Kolbuszowa to come to their aid and increase "their capital by a substantial amount" in order to enable them to "respond to a larger number of requests which at present they cannot, to their sorrow, fulfill."

Inside Quarrels

It so happened that there were. indeed inside quarrels regarding the Free Loan Society because certain persons tried -to besmirch the good deeds of the committee in the eyes of the American townspeople.

A letter dated January 12, 1938, and addressed to the "Kolbuszowa Young Men's Benevolent Society" in New York, answers the critics' barbs, declaring that "they aim to damage your sincere labors on behalf of our Free Loan Society by putting it in a false light."

The letter confirms that in the short time of its existence it had succeeded in obtaining the recognition and respect of the entire Jewish community. Moreover, it adds, it prevented many families from "falling into an abyss."

It appears from the letter that rumors existed to the effect that the monies collected in America in the campaign for the Society, had been retained there instead of being transmitted to their intended destination. The writers ask therefore that their American counterparts immediately send the money to them as at the moment "it is still possible to a certain degree, to halt the process of disintegration among the impoverished segments of the community" by granting loans, small but constructive, with good conditions. If they delay, they warn, it may be too late.

This letter was signed by the representatives of eight organizations: The Merchants' Association, the Zionist Organization, Linas HaTzedek (the Shelter Society), the Talmud Torah, the Bnai Zion Order, the Agudat Israel, the "Hashahar" Organization, and the Revisionist Zionists.

Later Reports

Another letter of January 6, 1938, written by an official of the Joint, states that the administration of the Society is preparing a very important plan whereby, with the help of the Joint Distribution Committee, it will organize a course in basketry and other courses to train the Jews of Kolbuszowa for employment and particularly to give a profession to the young people, 40 in number, who are totally idle. The Committee had, however, to wait for an allocation from the Joint.

From America the Committee received the news that its fellow Kolbuszowites had collected $1,000 for them. The writer of this article appealed to the Joint personally, asking that they also contribute a like amount. The representatives of the Joint refused.

The letter concludes with a favorable opinion written by a Joint inspector: "I was impressed by the hard work, done in a volunteer capacity, by the chairman who keeps the books with an exaggerated continuous watchfulness and daily inspects the work of the treasurer. No less devoted is the secretary, Professor Thau, who despite his professional work (as teacher in the elementary public school and gymnasium of Kolbuszowa) devotes all his free time to the books and documents and monthly reports."

The Society Receives Funds from America

The initial sum of $750 was given to the Committee of the Free Loan Society. In the archives of the Kolbuszowites in America there is the full correspondence maintained by the committee of the United Kolbuszowa Relief, the office of the Joint in New York, and the United Federation of Galician Jews to which the Kolbuszowites of America belonged. The groans of pain from the old home town reached America when it was itself not in good circumstances, but our townspeople responded nevertheless generously and wholeheartedly. The New York Joint contacted its office in Warsaw, demanding that they investigate the needs in our city. One letter written by the New York Joint to the Federation of Galician Jews, quotes from a letter received from their Warsaw office:

"We paid the Free Loan Society the second sum of $750 for its present work and made the condition that in the future the money be used for constructive purposes."

In the meantime conditions in Poland had become intolerable. The Jews were being displaced from their positions more and more and suffering was increasing. The Free Loan Societies were fulfilling a historic task; they saved many Jewish families from extinction. Outstanding in particular was the Free Loan Society of Kolbuszowa. In a letter of September 28, 1938, addressed to the Relief organization in New York, the Free Loan Society's officers wrote to New York about the visit by the president of the United Federation of Galician Jews in America, Mr. Saul Loew in Rzeszow. They described the excellent meeting held on Friday, September 16, 1938 in the hall of the Jewish community of Rzeszow jointly with representatives of the neighboring communities. Kolbuszowa of course participated; its delegation was headed by Bezalel Grunstein, the community head, and Hirsch Gewirtz, secretary of the community and of the Free Loan Society. They told of Mr. Loew's speech in which he sharply criticized certain towns in Galicia because due to their accusations and informing, the townspeople in America refused to cooperate with the Galician organization in America and as a result their aid was delayed. He singled Kolbuszowa out for special praise, heaping superlatives both on the Kolbuszowites in America for their loyal devotion, and the local people for their dedicated work for the community, which deserved to be held up as a model for other communities.

The 1937-1938 Report

The official report sent by the Society on April 28, 1938, for the year 1937-1938 (from April 1, 1937 to March 31, 1938), to the Joint in Warsaw, and signed by the chairman Dr. Kleinhaus, the secretary Yossef Nussbaum, and the comptroller B. Grunstein, includes the following facts which shed light on the wretched circumstances:

During the above-mentioned period 200 customary loans were granted in the sum totalling 12.807 zl.; 8 were for 150; 40 for 100; 1 for 75; 1 for 52; 149 for 50; and 1 for 30 zlotys. The list by trades: 15 tailors, 4 cobblers, 1 carpenter, 6 butchers, 26 miscellaneous, 12 dry goods merchants, 1 leather merchant, 13 grocers, 16 market and street peddlers, 35 traveling village-peddlers, and 52 others; in addition, loans were given to 6 farmers and 9 with various other occupations.

The report shows that the Free Loan membership up to April 1, 1937 numbered 117 and that during the period covered by the report 40 more were added, bringing the total to 157 members. It notes that 74 members attended the general meeting held on March 27, 1938.

The capital of the Society during the year of the report and up to March 31, 1939, was 7,009.48 zlotys.

The Suffering Increases

The Polish authorities' boycott-politics against the Jews grew continuously more severe. Scarcely any Jews were left in even modest positions. The cries of the needy and hungry reached as far as America. The townspeople living in America, deeply concerned about the plight of their brothers in Kolbuszowa, turned to the Joint and to the Galician organization as well as the Union of Polish Jews for counsel and assistance. Z. Tiegel, then director of the Federation of Polish Jews in America, wrote to the Kolbuszowa Jews, in a letter of March 25, 1939, that they were negotiating with the Kolbuszowa organization in America, and promised to devote special attention to the problem of the Free Loan Society.

The correspondence we have found elucidates the problem: it appears that the Free Loan Society was unable to respond to the requests of all those who needed loans; their number was constantly growing. A letter from the Kehilla dated June 2, 1937, to the Benevolent Society of Kolbuszowa in New York, tell us: The loan report attached here clearly depicts the impoverished condition of our institution which is unable to fulfill the requests of even a small portion of those who ask for loans.... Characteristic of the circumstances is the fact that of 350 families in our community, 105 families benefited from the community's aid-for-Passover program (matza flour, potatoes and cash)." A third of the population was forced to seek help before the holiday. From this we conclude that the number who need business loans was far greater.

In the same letter the Kehilla explains that "in order to guarantee the neutrality of the Free Loan Society's management, its administration assured itself of a majority in the status of the Society, thus keeping full control of the Society's activities in the hands of the community's leadership. This attests to the party dissension in the city.

As the suffering grew more intense, the patience of the Society's management decreased to the point that they addressed a letter on November 19, 1937, to the secretary-treasurer M. Gastwirth. This communication is written in a highly polished Polish style (evidently by the secretary Prof. Thau, and signed by him and the chairman, Dr. Kleinhaus) and includes the following passage:

"We have been informed by Rabbi Leib Teitelbaum that a significant sum of money, collected by your relief organizations for our Free Loan Society, has not been transferred to us due to the negative stand taken by the Joint in Warsaw, who decreed, in our absence, that there is a lack of order in our work. We hereby inform you that this is a malicious opinion . . . in place of the usual book-keeping, they demand the procedures of a ministry. . . We have been in existence for about 2 years and have, by means of donations and collection-campaigns, gathered a capital of 2,000 zlotys. We granted 300 loans totaling some 17,000 zl. The gentlemen of the Joint did not even trouble to send their representative to us, despite our repeated requests.... True, during

this time they lent us 500 zl, 100 of which we have already repaid, and now they appear with negative reports about us....We declare that our institution is the most important one in our city, inasmuch as it is the only source of assistance for merchants and artisans.

The following sentence is characteristic of the attitude of many Free Loan officials in the provincial cities to the Joint in Warsaw:

"These gentlemen in Warsaw have built a tremendous bureaucratic staff which swallows huge sums of money but actually its formal procedures place a burden on the credit societies in the small towns."

The Kolbuszowa committee did not sit idly by. It aroused and alarmed and prodded the townspeople in New York with one letter after another, seeking to inform them of the true circumstances and to influence them to take steps as quickly as possible to help their brothers overseas who were fighting to stay alive.

The following was written on January 12, 1938; this is how the case was presented:

"We are mailing you a copy of the report we sent to the Joint in Warsaw with the comptroller who was dispatched to our Free Loan Society. It will persuade you that the idea which originated in Warsaw about disorder in our work is completely unfounded and voiced with malicious intent.

"It is our opinion--the letter continues--that it is most desirable for you to transmit forthwith to us your contribution as our Society's funds. We will at least be able to ask the Joint for a loan, which will undoubtedly be granted. . . . We in turn will undertake to repay the loan only, and will not be subjected to the caprices of the Joint . . ."

On March 7, 1938 the Free Loan Society's management informed the Kolbuszowa Young Men's organization that on February 28, 1938 the Joint received the sum of 3,945 zlotys they had sent. After expressing their thanks, they added:

"Upon receipt of your money, we increased the loans we grant from 50 to 100 zl., and in certain cases where the guarantees are satisfactory, to 150 zl.... Your money has injected new life into our community. As a result, we declared a week of campaigning and enrolling new members. Your response aroused enthusiasm and devotion in the town."

Joyfully the Free Loan officials relate that on one Sabbath, 200 zl. were pledged for the Free Loan fund. And finally they write that two representatives of the joint's main office visited Kolbuszowa and promised that more money would be forthcoming. But they stipulated that future funds must serve to rehabilitate the youth and make it productive. The management, the writers stress, reserve the right to use their judgment in this matter.

In a letter written jointly that year by the managements of the Kehilla and of the Free Loan Society to the Kolbuszowa Relief Society in New York, they request the following: "Inasmuch as the Society's office is overburdened with work and people come and go continuously on a variety of matters, it has been decided to appoint the secretary, Mr. Gewirtz, to a full position at a minimal monthly salary. We determined to direct a request to you regarding this point and ask you to allocate an additional sum for this purpose from your funds and have our secretary receive part of his salary directly from America."

Another letter of that period reports definite signs of coming war, which proved to be the second world war, with its tragic consequences wrought by the wicked Nazi policies:

"We are now faced with a new task, since the cruel expulsion from Germany of 40,000 Jews, Polish citizens, without any means or possessions whatsoever. Several families among them are of Kolbuszowa origin and we will have to care for them. True, an aid-committee has this week been formed to collect the money required for their initial needs and to be sent to the central aid committee as well. These sums will, however, not suffice for food, clothing, etc. for the refugees."

Zbaszyn

Let us pause for a moment in our report of the day-to-day struggle continuing around the Free Loan Society and consider the matter of Zbaszyn, which concerned the Jewry of Kolbuszowa.

On October 28, 1938, 40,000 Jews, citizens of Poland, were expelled from Germany to Poland and interned by the Polish authorities in the provincial town of Zbaszyn. It happened so that among them was a group of Jews originally from Kolbuszowa. Like the other fugitives, they were in a state of despair. Having no alternative they appealed to the Jews of Kolbuszowa for aid. The Kolbuszowites therefore asked their townsmen in America to send money to the Kehilla to enable it to distribute it among the individuals according to a list they attached to their plea.

It is difficult to ascertain whether the Kolbuszowa Jews did in fact respond with aid. After all, they were quite helpless in the face of their own local needs. But help did come from America. There exists a receipt sent by the General Aid Committee for the Jewish Refugees from Germany, dated June 20, 1939, and signed by the president, Prof. Moshe Schorr (great scholar, rabbi in Warsaw and member of the Polish Senate) and by the secretary, acknowledging their having "received the sum of 530 zlotys (100 dollars) for the refugee families of Kolbuszowa who are now in Zbaszyn". This receipt was sent by the Joint from the Relief Committee of Kolbuszowa in New York.

Let it be noted here that the Kolbuszowa Young Men's Benevolent Society was active in dispensing aid to the refugees in Zbaszyn. This is confirmed by correspondence found in the Kolbuszowites' center (letters from August 23, 1939).

A Report - What It Shows Us

Thereis a report for the year 1938-1939 of the Kolbuszowa Free Loan Society which covered the activities of April 1, 1938 to March 31, 1939 (i.e.,5 months before the war started). The Jewish population numbered 1,756 souls.

During the year 280 loans were granted totalling 37,085 zlotys. As to the amounts loaned, I was for 20 zl. I for 25, 2 for 30, 45 for 50, 1 for 60, 14 for 70, 1 for 90, 84 for 100, 1 for 105, 1 for 125, 43 for 150, 631 for 200, 21 for 250, 2 for 300.

It must also be noted that one loan for 150 zl. was financed by a source designated as "The Constructive Fund". This seems to be a reference to an investment in productive work.

The loan recipients by occupation were: 20 tailors, 4 cobblers, 1 carpenter, 7 butchers, 20 others, 39 dry-goods merchants, 5 leather merchants, 28 grocers, 14 market and street peddlers, 52 traveling village-peddlers, 50 engaged in various types of business, 9 laborers, 14 farmers and 17 miscellaneous.

The Jews of Kolbuszowa not only asked for help from their townspeople in America but themselves contributed. On a Sabbath in February 1939, they declared a week for pledging anew to the Free Loan Society. A special proclamation was published in this regard.

Another letter informs us that in February the Society undertook yet further tasks. It had to grant a loan to a family to make it possible for a destitute girl to emigrate to the Land of Israel with her bridegroom. This refers apparently to a fictitious marriage. At that time the holder of a certificate was permitted to take his girl-friend along if he married her first. The young men frequently demanded their travel expenses in return for such a marriage.

A May letter informs the brothers in America of the propaganda and work connected with the bonds which the Polish government issued for the benefit of its air defense. War was already in the air. Hitler had already activated at full steam his brutal anti-Polish propaganda, and Poland was making its preparations. Life for the Jews became even harsher. More than once Jews spent their very last pennies to take part in the government's bond campaign in order to demonstrate their loyalty to the land of their birth. Conditions in general degenerated. Cash was lacking. A merchant who ordinarily could obtain a few zlotys as a short-term loan, now found all the doors locked before him. The Free Loan Society suffered of course; under these circumstances there were many who could not make their payments on time or at all.

Another letter describes the war panic which engulfed many circles. This too reduced the payments by loan recipients. The war psychosis moreover, brought commerce to a standstill.

The last letter to the Kolbuszowa Relief Society bears the date of August 7, a month before that bloody day of September 1, 1939, when the German army attacked Poland, dooming Polish Jewry. This is a long letter written not in ink but in blood. Every one of the management of the Free Loan Society signed it in order to underline the importance and the seriousness of the problem. Those who signed were: the chairman, Dr. Kleinhaus; the vice chairman, B. Grunstein; and members of the Board: Akiva Leister, Yossef Nussbaum, Yeshaiah D. Lisha, Moshe Nussbaum, Hirsch Halpern, Arnold Zemel, Solomon Kraut, Leizer Hoffert, Marcus Weitzen, Marcus Lampel and Shoran Brodt.

This was the cry of despair of 200 families who had heretofore received loans and hoped for additional loans. The writers acknowledge with gratitude the efforts exerted by their townspeople abroad on their behalf and ask for larger sums.

The society, they declare, not only helped Jews to exist, not only helped to open workshops for women's clothes and undergarments and shoes, but at the same time also lent money to poor girls to help them get married, helped to set families on their feet, to rent homes and to send halutzim to the Land of Israel. As in the previous months, the general report was supported by the relevant documents and detailed lists which carried the names of all those who benefited from the loans.

Now, they write, there is a new problem known as Zbaszyn. The refugee camp there is about to be disbanded and a number of Kolbuszowa Jews, so we hope, will return to their home-town. "We must help them.

Little did the writers of this letter realize that within two months' time they themselves would become refugees, all of them, and that total destruction loomed ahead ...


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