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Brush Workers and Brush–Making Enterprises

by Ch. Kac

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Collected Historical Material

The Mezritsh brush–making industry has a rich past, but it is difficult to find data and corroboration regarding its origins. We have succeeded, however, with the help of various sources, in collecting important information and memories about the lives and the work of the brush workers, starting from the latter half of the 19th century.

 

Bondage

There were a considerable number of factories in Mezritsh in 1868. The largest ones included those of Reb Gedalja Blanksztejn, Gitel Sime's, Reb Davidl Arieh's and others.

Some of the factories at that time employed 30 workers, and were considered to be among the largest factories. People had great respect for the factory owners of the city. If Reb Gedalja or Reb Davidl Arieh's uttered a word, it was considered holy. If it was repeated, from one person to the next, that Reb Gedalja said such–and–such, those words would have great effect. There was no meeting to which they were not invited. If one of them were seen on the street, people would move aside and let them pass. They would point with their finger and whisper quietly, “Reb Davidl is passing by!”

The politeness was not only for the factory owners; there was no shortage of politeness for their foremen (meisters) who directed the workshops. The workers who had the right to talk to such factory foremen felt very fortunate, and often would remark, for example, “I spoke first with Hershel the Black!” Everyone who received such news from a fellow–worker was very jealous.

The foreman was completely in charge of the work. His word was treated as holy. Even though he stood side–by–side at work with all the employees (and there were indeed many of these), were he to glance bitingly at a worker, that person would feel the need to move around and avert his gaze, as if he were guilty.

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The workday started at 4:00 a.m., winter and summer. One would get up before dawn in the greatest frost, and quickly grab one's clothing by the dim light of wood burning in the oven or a tallow candle. Sometimes, one did not even get dressed properly. Then one ran to the factory, in order to not be late by even one minute, Heaven forbid. The foreman would already be at the factory, and he would not spare a blow or a beating for anyone who was late. If a worker was reported tardy to the factory owner, he would be judged and fired, and it would be almost impossible to get a job at another factory.

One worked from 4:00 a.m. until 9:00 a.m. Between 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. one would daven [recite the morning prayer service] and eat breakfast. Then one had to return to the factory until 5:30 p.m. Davening Mincha and Maariv,[1] was followed by supper between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Then one had to return to work at the factory until midnight. [Having worked] half the night, one returned home exhausted, silent, and unable to move a limb. One fell into bed without seeing one's wife or children from one Sabbath to the next.

It was very hard to get up every day at 4:00 a.m. and return to work, having slept only a few hours. The factory owners conceived of an expedient method for waking the brush workers to get them to work on time… They hired two wakers: Lejbel the Helper and Moshele Jovn. Their task was to go to every worker's home, and knock on the shutters to wake him, starting at 2:30 a.m. If one's luck was poor, the waker would come to him first, at 2:00 a.m. If one could not open one's eyes, the waker would hammer on the shutters with his stick to wake him up. Those who were woken last by the wakers, at 3:30 a.m., were considered the lucky ones.

That is how things went until before candle–lighting [on Friday evening]. One was allowed to rest from Friday night until Saturday night, but as soon as the first stars appeared, one had to daven Maariv quickly and run to work.

Work would begin at 7:00 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. on a winter Saturday night. At midnight, the foreman would come [to the factory] with a flask of Ninety[2] and offer everyone a cup, to encourage the employees to work with enthusiasm. Work would continue until 3:00 a.m. by the light of a few tallow candles.

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Sunday felt like a full festival. The wakers were able to rest, since work started at 7:00 a.m. The foremen muttered that this “day of luxury” made the workers lazy…

That is how long years passed. It did not occur to any of the workers that things could be better, and that it might be different.

 

The Shalach Manos[3]

A few weeks before Purim, the foremen took out the bundle of pig–bristles that they had carefully collected all year, and selected the finest and the best, meaning the longest of the long, the most rigid of the rigid, and whitest of the white (called a katke). Evaluated with trembling hands, sized up with the eye, weighed and measured to check that it held the right mass, the foremen presented each [pig–bristle] in turn to the workers [for their inspection], beginning with the worker standing next to him, and ending with the last worker, listening to each person's appraisals. All were gripped by a sense of wonder as they took the strand of pig bristle in their hand, held it for a long time, examined it from all sides, caressed it gently with their finger as if it were a precious diamond, and then returned it to the foreman. The foreman wrapped the bundle in a dozen pieces of paper and hid it once again, like a treasure, in a hiding place known only to him. Not a day passed when the foreman did not think about that bundle. The foreman would search for and set aside some bit of the treasured rigid bristles for his trove from every piece of work.

When the day of Purim arrived, the atmosphere was completely festive. There was no work that day. Everyone gathered together at the factory. The foreman himself was very busy. From early in the morning, he was already in the workshop preparing a fine tray. With great fanfare, he opened the bundle of the fine, white, long bristles he had collected, and spread it out over the entire tray. The whiteness literally blinded the eye, as they prepared the Shalach Manos for the owner.

The owner lived, year in and year out, for that Shalach Manos. He would have already prepared a flask of Ninety, and he snacks for his employees, who would come to him early in the morning, led by the foreman. These were the workers who had served him for the entire year and had prepared the Shalach Manos, and he, the owner, would have earned a large fortune from their work. People noticed that he was very happy, cheerful after

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his good breakfast, and that he smoked his long pipe, which hung down to the ground. He sat on an upholstered stool, dressed in the yellow–green robe that he loved to wear every Sabbath and festival morning. With a jovial smile, he greeted his workers as they arrived, starting with the foreman Reb Hershel the Black, who carried the Shalach Manos for Reb Gedalja. The Shalach Manos was borne upon a silver tray, covered with by a snow–white table linen.

Reb Hershel walked a bit ahead, with sure steps, feeling happy with his own importance – on that one day a year, his [gift of] pig bristles was sure to evoke a smile [from the owner, Reb Gedalja]. The workers stood by the door opposite him, and, with pounding hearts, watched the procession [as it made its way to] deliver the Shalach Manos.

“So, what good things do you have to say?” asked Reb Gedalja of his foreman with feigned innocence.

“Reb Gedalja, we have brought you Shalach Manos,” Reb Hershel the Black responded quietly.

“Very fine of you,” replied Reb Gedalja extending both hands as he considered the presentation of the tray. He lifted the table linen, which covered the tray at either end, and gazed [appreciatively] at what lay there – he was clearly delighted to see the whiteness and length of the bristles.

“So, come here. You should drink lechayim in honor of the festival!” he called to the workers, who had watched the entire scene from afar. The workers pushed themselves inside unsteadily, each jostling the other so he could go first. It took a bit of time until the last worker made his way in.

Once inside Reb Gedalja's house, everyone stood around the table. Reb Gedalja himself poured the Ninety and called out to them, “So drink!” He himself stood back, not moving to the table. The workers wished him lechayim and drank. They enjoyed pieces of honey cake and wished Reb Gedalja another year of life so that they might come again to give him Shalach Manos. They then made their way out one by one.

Outside, the workers felt a bit freer and one called to the other.

“You know what? I would forego the bit of drink if I did not have to go in there. There is something uncomfortable about the opulence.”

The other would respond, “But at least Reb Gedalja rejoices with us one day a year…”

The others did not respond. Everyone went home to rest, for at dawn they would again get up for work.

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Reb Gedalja, freed from his workers, now began to think about the packet of pig hair, with which he was very happy. He looked for a white bag, stuffed [the packet] inside, hid it in a dresser, and murmured to himself:

“A considerable Shalach Manos this year! Truly very good!” He rubbed his hands together with glee.

 

Buntovchikes[4]

On a wintery Sabbath late–afternoon in 1878, prior to Mincha in the brush workers' Beis Midras, a few brush workers from Blanksztejn's factory were sitting on a bench near the stove: Judel the Deaf, Josel Brojt, Joel Gutman. They were discussing amongst themselves [the distressing fact] that they would shortly have to remove their Sabbath clothes and return to [work] at the factory.

As they began to move their weary bodies during the course of their discussion, they realized that none of them wanted to leave the warmth of the stove to work in a [cold], dark factory the entire night.

“Do you know what?” Josel Brojt called out to the other workers. “The wakers, may their names be blotted out, have now all died. It seems that the factory owners will not be able to find anyone to take their places. Getting up every day at dawn is simply hell. If we could abolish the 4:00 start time, and instead start at 7:00, we would be happy.”

Very pale, Judel the Deaf got up from the bench, put a strand of his beard in his mouth, thought for a while, and quietly murmured in his low voice:

“What would Reb Gedalja say? And how can we show our faces to our foreman Hershel the Black? He will expel us from the factory like dogs! No, we cannot do this!”

The other brush workers did not respond, but they took great interest in the “proposal”. They remained hesitant and nobody dared to utter a word.

Josel Brojt did not give up, however. He argued that the brush–workers would become the best–placed people in the city. Who would not [under these new circumstances] want to be a brush–worker? The finest wealthy children would make way for brush–workers, and everyone would have a bit of respect for us. We understood that we had already given enough of our health away to our factory owner, and that it was no longer practicable to go to work at 4:00 a.m., especially since the wakers were no longer alive, and there

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was nobody to replace them. It was no longer possible to withstand such a long and grueling workday. We therefore decided that we must attempt to repeal the accursed dawn [start time], so that we could rest our weary bones for a few additional hours.

The discussion continued until Mincha. After Mincha, the men did not go home, but continued the discussion between Mincha and Maariv. As they proceeded toward Maariv, Josel Brojt called out the decision:

“Let us all shake hands before the Holy Ark: starting Monday, we will not go to work earlier than 7:00 a.m. We will all do this together, so that none of us will cast guilt upon the other. He then made his way to the Holy Ark. The next person followed. All of them shook hands, with the Holy Ark as witness, vowing to stand together and arrive at work at 7:00 a.m.

After Maariv, they set out for work as if nothing had happened. Nobody spoke a word about it. When Monday arrived, the foreman Hershel the Black was at the factory at 4:00 a.m., as usual. Half an hour passed, and he did not see anyone. He became very anxious and ran around the factory like a crazed person. He was afraid to go to the factory owner with such news. He should not, [he reasoned], wake him up so early in the morning. He did not know what to do. Finally, his anxiety erupted. He hurried into the street to the workers' homes, and rustled around by their shutters, hoping that they would hear him. Everything, remained quiet. Not even a murmur was heard [from within the houses]. He ran back to the factory, but did not see anyone.

When the clock struck 7:00, and the first brush worker arrived at work, Hershel the Black stared at him in anger, threatened him with his fist, and shouted at him until he was hoarse:

“Are you having a rebellion? Are you not obeying Reb Gedalja? Wait! When Reb Gedalja arrives, I will tell him the entire story. He will throw you out, like dogs!”

Gradually, all the workers arrived, and began working at 7:00 a.m. Nobody uttered a word, [acting] as if nothing [extraordinary] had taken place. This further irritated the foreman, who continued shouting. Seeing that nobody responded him, he ran to Reb Gedalja, and told him what had happened.

The workers waited impatiently to see what would happen. Reb Hershel returned alone, muttering quietly

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under his breath. He went directly to his workbench and began working.

What he discussed with Reb Gedalja, and what Reb Gedalja answered remains a secret to this day.

The news quickly spread throughout the city among the workers of all the brush factories. The next day, 7:00 a.m. came peacefully. A week later, Gitel Sime's factory adjusted to the new order, and the rest of the factories did so within a few weeks. Thus it happened, that on account of the death of the wakers, the 4:00 a.m. starting–time was repealed.

Slowly, people forgot that at one time they had started work at 4:00 a.m. The manufacturers also got accustomed to this. However, the sobriquet “Buntovchikes” stuck – a stigma on the workers of Reb Gedalja Blanksztejn's factory.

 

After the Messe [Fair]

Every year, the brush–making season began at Chanukah–time and ended either before or after Tisha beAv[5]. Then, the workers of Reb Gedalja Blanksztejn's factory, just like the brush– workers in the rest of the factories, would be [let go] – pushed out into the street with near–empty pockets. No earnings were left – not a coin – despite their bitter–hard work, day and night, without any rest. A penetrating worry quickly entered their minds: From where would they earn their livelihood during the few months when there was no work?

The first few days passed as usual, as they still had the last few groszy from their prior week's earnings. A day later, however, the workers eyes were darker and dull. The few coins had been used up… One [of the workers] had already encountered Reb Gedalja's emissaries, Reuven Gruszka and Judel the Black, who had returned from the far–off Russian cities and towns without any pig–bristles [the raw material for their work]. This completely extinguished the workers' hope [of a quick return to work and wages].

These bitter times for the brush–workers were understandably exploited by the “Podriatczykes”, who were employed in paving and marking streets, which otherwise one would traverse knee–deep in mud. With no other options [for employment], the brush–workers helped pave the market and the other city streets for a negligible wage.

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As evening approached, Jews would come to see the entire camp of brush–workers laboring hard and covered with sweat. One would try to console the other by making a joke, saying to his friends, “We should imagine that we are [slaves] in Egypt!” The others smiled bitterly. Only Moshe Hersh “Ketchebonde” came to work at dawn, and, seeing the mound of stones, shouted and asked, “What, am I supposed to carry that mound of stones?” With that comment, he ran from the market off into the horizon… The rest of the old or weak brush–workers, who could not tolerate the work with the stones, had to hire themselves out as lashers to the wagon–drivers for thirty groszy a day; or they repaired the houses of wealthy people who paid them very little to ready [their homes] for the upcoming winter frost.

Matters continued this way until Chanukah. When they realized that the factory emissaries had finally returned from the far–off places [for sourcing raw materials], and that the [brush–making] season would begin soon, they again became cheerful: “We are returning to the factory, a veritable Garden of Eden…”

When the long–awaited day arrived, the brush–workers gathered together happily in their factories much earlier than usual, and enthusiastically began the work.

After working for a few weeks, people began to sense that the true Day of Judgment was approaching in Reb Blanksztejn's factory. The foreman was very nervous, and would run from the factory to Reb Gedalja, and back again to the factory. When a worker asked him calmly and with great respect why he was doing this, he responded quietly, “Reb Gedalja is preparing to travel to the Messe [fair] in Leipzig”.

A few days later, a carriage approached Reb Gedalja's house. Reb Gedalja emerged in festive clothes – half Jewish and half German – with his black beard trimmed. Reb Hershel the Black loaded up the baskets, the suitcases, as well as the hat–box for his “tzilinder[6], and placed it all on the carriage. The crowd on the street grew with every moment, staring in amazement as Reb Gedalja embarked on a distant journey, which in those days was fraught with mortal danger.

When the carriage set out, the crowd extended greetings, [expressing the hope] that he would return in good health. The foreman ran

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behind the carriage part of the way, extending his own good wishes. When he could no longer run, he stood still, catching his breath, and slowly made his way back to the factory.

After the first two weeks, the workers, and especially the foreman, awaited word from the Messe, for the workers understood the misfortune they would suffer if the Messe was poor, Heaven forbid. The foreman then would walk around in [a state of] black vexation, throwing himself at everyone, pointing out the deficiencies in their work, cursing, and even delivering [the occasional] blow, which one would deflect, and about which one would remain silent.

On a certain Tuesday, good tidings suddenly came from Reb Gedalja. The merchandise had been sold for a good price. It was like Simchat Torah in the factory. The foreman was happy, and said nice things. The brush–workers felt as if a stone had been lifted from their hearts…

When Reb Gedalja returned, he brought Reb Hershel the Black a tobacco box as a gift from Leipzig. When Reb Hershel the Black came to the Beis Midrash to worship on the Sabbath, he distributed a pinch of tobacco to many in the crowd, so that they would see the valuable gift he had received from Reb Gedalja. The crowd did not suffice themselves with looking. Each person took the tobacco box into his hands, and rousing comments were heard from all sides.

“Oh, this was brought from Germany! It is certainly made of gopher wood. Reb Gedalja must have had a good Messe, if he did not forget his foreman”.

The tobacco box and the Messe were the topic of conversation throughout the entire Sabbath in the Beis Midrash. All of the foremen in the other factories were very jealous of [Reb Hershel] the next day, in that he had a “golden” factory owner who had not forgotten his foreman at the Messe.

 

Strangers Arrive

In 1890, a pig–bristle businessman named Liupka arrived in Mezritsh from Berlin. As he got to know the pig–bristle factories and realized that they were conducting “raw” work, he set up a new kind of factory with “cooked” work, which was an innovation at that time. For that new type of work, one needed a large number of hands to gather, bind and wash. To that end, he began to employ young lads and girls, with more people becoming employed each day.

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The owners [of the] old [factories], who employed veteran and qualified workers, at first mocked the German along with his workers and merchandise. Within a short time, however, the new factory employed many workers, both old and young. Liupka himself used to work in the factory for entire days, showing the newly–arrived workers how to handle the new style of work [the cooked process].

He also taught the bakers how to dry the bundles, which were later produced not only from Siberian and other Russian sources, but also from Polish pig–bristles and from “fluff” (refuse of pig hair) that had been washed, bleached and dried by the girls and boys. With each passing day, the enterprise employed more youth, mainly girls.

When the other manufacturers realized that the production of the “cooked wares” demanded less capital and brought greater revenue, they slowly began to take on that type of work. The more factories began to do so, the more hands were needed. The army of workers grew day by day. The sense of privilege [in being a bristle worker] disappeared, and the new youth, who earned a few guilders a week, spiffed themselves up in cardboard oibranies[7] with rubber collars. The few manufacturers who did not go along with the [cooked process] were defeated and had to fire their employees; eventually all the brushes were German–style, and the original wares were no longer produced…

That same year, a person named Simcha Jokel's, arrived from America. Seeing the hard labor of Mezritsh's brush–workers, and being friendly with Hershel–Jankel–Hershke's, Nuske Karszic and a few other foremen, he described the [life of] the working man in America, noting that it was not proper for people to work harder than horses. At first, the foremen did not want to hear about this, but when Simcha–Jokel's persevered, he gradually succeeded in convincing them that this was not the way things ought to be. They decided that every foreman should quietly summon his factory workers to gather on a certain Sabbath day in the large Beis Midrash for a discussion.

On one specific Sabbath day, the brush–workers entered the Beis Midrash one by one. Simcha–Jokel's was already sitting at the table with an open Mishna for appearance's sake. The workers, some standing and some sitting around him, heard him out. He spoke calmly, gesturing

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with both hands, talking earnestly, “Is it appropriate that people should work on Saturday night?” He said, “The Sabbath should be an entire 24 hour rest. Nowhere is it stated that people should work in the summer until the middle of the night, and in the winter until midnight. You are horses, not humans! Why are you giving away your health, working without any time [limits] and without any purpose? We must work as they do elsewhere in the world: 11 or 12 hours a day!”

The workers sat open–mouthed as they drank in his words. Others shook their heads. The youth agreed with him completely. The speech lasted a long time, but action resulted from it. The small gathering of the brush–workers decided to talk to the rest of the workers [about these ideas]; the conversations were to begin in one week. They decided they would not go to work on Saturday night. They would try it first in one factory, and then in a second factory. In the end they stopped working on Saturday night in all the factories, and worked a 12–hour day throughout the entire week.

At first, the factory owners were angry, and refused to agree to this. They understood that this [action] was Simcha–Jokel's idea, but in the end they gave in. If a factory owner ever wanted to show his anger, he would come to the factory at 10:00 p.m. to see how the work was going. With the owner was standing there, even if the time to go home had already long past, [workers felt] it would not be appropriate to stop working and leave. People remained and worked until the owner allowed them to leave. Only then did they quickly remove their aprons and hurry home.

 

The Market Business With Workers

A few days before the “Fifteenth”[8], the mood was becoming festive. After finishing work, the workers did not go home immediately, but rather gathered as a group in the yard, where everyone gave his few groszy to the oldest brush–worker, who collected the money.

On the morning of the “Fifteenth” the person who had collected the few zloty had a duty to purchase bockser[9] and figs, and pack them up for the foreman and the wife of the owner. The owner also participated [in the festivities]. In the late afternoon of Tu Bishvat, the factory owner and his employees, led by their foreman, went to a pub, where several flasks of “Ninety” and some tasty snacks were purchased on his [the owner's] account.

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When they had become a bit tipsy, they set out to Reb Moshe Gedalja, the wine distributor, where they spent half the night drinking wine and beer, paid for by the workers. When heads were spinning and pockets were empty, they would slowly make their way out, humming a tune from the Sabbath prayers. This took place year in and year out. Work continued on until Chol haMoed[10] when the season ended.

On Chol haMoed, all of the brush–workers were set free [jobless], since the working season would begin only following Yom Tov. Anyone who did not arrange a job for himself [for the following season] would remain idle for the entire [working] season. It was therefore no wonder that by the first day of Chol haMoed, the newly–paved market was filled with brush–workers at dawn. Some of them stood by the railing of Josele Rogozszyk's cabin and quietly discussed where they might end up during the coming [work] season, and who might be their foreman. A little later, one saw the owners of the small factories and the foremen from the larger factories slowly arrive at the market to hire back their veteran workers, or to employ the early birds from amongst the others.

The owners and the foremen would wander through the market a few times, examining the “merchandise”. If somebody caught their eye, they would call him over to the side, negotiate quietly with him, discuss a raise of a quarter– or half–ruble, and close the deal when they were ready.

A worker who might have already wandered around the market for a long time without anyone taking interest, would push to the front as he passed by an owner or a foreman, greeting him with a cheery “good morning” and a smile, hoping they would take notice of him. When they saw that evening was approaching, they would attempt to approach a foreman more directly. They would even ask for a raise of [only] a single zloty or a twenty so as to be able to obtain a position. If a worker was stubborn, he might stay in the “meat corner”, and remain without work until the following season.

By the time darkness fell outside, the workers had been

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hired [for the upcoming season] by the Baal Habayitkes[11]. One of the workers, Aharon Blatt, wanted a raise of a quarter, but the owner was stubborn and would not give in under any circumstances. Speaking about good or evil did not help. The owners needed no [additional] workers, and the foremen had filled up their factories, but Aharon Blatt would not give in. The sole [remaining] factory–owner left him [in the market], shouting, “Your stubbornness will cost you enough in money and health.” He did not want to talk to him any more. He collected his newly acquired staff and went to Reb Moshe Gedalja, the wine seller, to drink a cup of beer[12] and “seal” the business transaction. When they got home, the workers would have barely walked through the door when they were asked, “So, did you get a Baal Habayitke?” Did you get a raise?” When a worker answered, “Yes,” the joy was boundless. He was served an ample dinner. The worker would describe how the negotiations had proceeded, laying out every detail, as the members of his household stared at him, lapping up every word as he explained what he had managed to obtain, including the raise of a quarter or half ruble per week.

Aharon Blatt indeed went without work that entire season, fulfilling the broker's prediction. The season indeed cost him greatly in health and money, all because he had insisted upon a raise of a quarter.

 

The “Oath”

A good few years passed since work on Saturday nights had ceased. The workers were living with the “luxury” of working a 12–13 hour day. They had long forgotten the time when they had worked 20 or 22 hours per day, and when at one time, in the Beis Midrash before Mincha on a [long ago] Sabbath, one person had begun the discussion, and the workers present, sighing heavily, listened to him speak.

The only people who were unable to get accustomed to the “opulence” of the workers' new lives were the largest manufacturers. Most of them cursed Reb Gedalja Blanksztejn who, in turn, bore an abiding hatred for the new work–process that was referred to as “cooked,” to Liupka, and in general to all the workers who were buntovchikes [rebels].

One fine morning, Reb Gedalja Blanksztejn indeed liquidated his

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factory. He summoned his trustee, Reb Moshe Hefner, and told him to sell the house in which he lived and in which his factory was housed. Within a short time, he left town with the entire kit and caboodle. He traveled away, leaving behind a curse for the buntovchikes, Liupka, and Simcha–Jokel's for destroying his peaceful life and good business. The house was purchased by a newly arrived businessman, Reb Mele Bronsztejn, who had settled with his family in Mezritsh at exactly that time, and who conducted a large–scale business importing luxury horses from deep inside Russia and then exporting them out of the country. Reb Gedalja Blanksztejn followed [the example] of the female factory owner, Gitel Sime's, who also liquidated her large factory. She, however, remained in Mezritsh and lived off her proceeds.

The workers barely noticed [Blanksztejn's departure], since within a brief time, a number of manufacturers arrived who employed the new “cooked” process, which did not require as much capital. The workers from the largest factories obtained work in the new factories, and there was a steady demand for new workers.

The foremen, who were the former strongmen, had changed. Their harshness had been broken, and they slowly became friendly with the workers.

On the Sabbath, after lunch, one might see a group of young brush–workers strolling along the roadway with pride. At first, they gathered stealthily so as not to be noticed. Later, any shame they might have felt was cast off. For the most part, one noticed a small group of young brush–workers who walked in the company of a few older brush–workers, discretely listening as the older ones talked quietly. The discussion might heat up as they moved down the road, as the elder brush–workers – Simcha Jokel's, Lejbel Simcha–Lejzer's, Yitzchak Kwoke, and Judel Hentche's – could become agitated. The discussions often lasted a long time, until it got dark. Then, they went home.

This stroll repeated itself every Sabbath with increasingly larger groups of workers. A meeting was finally called in the brush–workers' Beis Midrash on a particular Sabbath, so that a larger discussion could be held.

They quickly gathered in the Beis Midrash, which grew full. Many workers were turned away, for there was no longer

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sufficient space. Simcha Jokel's talked about the need to found an “organization”, which all the brush–workers would join, and which would unify them. He proposed that the organization be called “Poalim[13]. There was general agreement. He additionally stipulated that every brush–worker was to contribute a 10 groszy coin per week to create a sick fund for the [Poalim] brush–workers. In truth, Simcha Jokel's revealed to his close associates, his ultimate intent was to create a “political organization”. He requested that they not relay this information to the other workers who might not understand the significance – one must organize gradually, he said.

The meetings in the Beis Midrash took place frequently. They requested that Shmuel Janower prepare a sermon for the workers, and he indeed did so. One Sabbath, he delivered a sermon spiced up with statements from the sages and from Rashi, embellished with a parable, stating that the workers were like the twigs of a broom: If they banded together as one, they would have power. Using a Gemara melody, he warned that if they were, Heaven forbid, to fail, they would become nothing…

Thus a few fine months passed. The brush–workers regularly paid their 10 groszy coins into the brush–worker sick fund. They were able to send some support from their collected rubles to Fiszel Flastersztejn, a brush–worker who was ill. On account of this, more workers joined “Poalim.” There was no loner sufficient space in the Beis Midrash to meet, and they decided to convene a larger “savranie[14], that would include all the brush–workers, which would take place under the iron bridge near the railway station.

Simcha Jokel's spent the work days alone; late at night he waited for the workers as they returned home from the factories. He then told them the location of the gathering, to be held the following Sabbath. He was afraid to trust anyone else with such work. He pleaded with every worker [for their attendance] until late Friday night. It was not easy for him, but he persisted in coaxing each person until he would agree to come.

Simcha Jokel's was at the meeting place on the following Sabbath right after the cholent. Judel Hentche's, Lejbel Simcha–Lejzer's, and Yitzchak Kwoke arrived just after him. Slowly, groups of brush–workers arrived in twos and threes. The meeting place became crowded with workers. Simcha Jokel's issued the “order” that [after the meeting], the workers should return to the city in a single file: small groups, with 100 steps between each group, until they reached the town. If an observer was to remark that a “knepl” had taken place, the [Poalim member] was to give his fellows a “haslo” as a sign[15].

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Simcha Jokel's arranged the workers in a circle, with Judel Hentche's and himself at the center. He began by chastising workers who had failed to maintain unity by meeting with the merchants. Finally, he turned to all the workers, stating that they should join the “Poalim” organization if they had not yet done so. He said, “We must work fewer hours; and if any businessman should “kziwdzen[16] or fire a worker, all the workers should leave. This can only happen if all the brush–workers of the city become part of this organization.”

The brush–workers heard him out, but did not respond. Judel Hentche's took out a chumash from his bosom, opened it up, and said loudly to the workers, “Now it is time for our “Poalim” organization to swear on the chumash! Everyone shout out as one – We swear!” Simcha Jokel's smiled, raised his head higher, and grabbed the first person that he could, held him tight and kissed him. The workers slowly went home, and the city knew nothing of what had taken place. Everyone maintained the secret of the assembly that had taken place that Sabbath, under the bridge near the train station.

Nevertheless, a rumor reached Vove Wysznia that his foreman, Simcha Jokel's, was inciting the brush–workers to rebellion. It did not take him long to verify this. He went to the factory, and shouted at him angrily, “You shall never set foot here again! Are you urging my workers to rebellion? Out of my factory, you buntovchik!” Simcha Jokel's took off his apron and prepared to leave, when suddenly – and Reb Vove could not believe his own eyes – all the brush–workers removed their aprons and prepared to leave with Simcha Jokel's. Since it was before the Messe and Vove Wysznia needed merchandise, he had no choice. He gritted his teeth, called the workers back to work, slammed the door in anger, and ran off.

From that Sabbath onward, the brush–workers gathered together every Sabbath in various groves and roads for their meetings. It was done so quietly and covertly, however, that nobody in the city knew about it.

More brush–workers from various factories joined the “Poalim” organization. The “oath” was upheld in a holy fashion by all.

 

The Inspector Causes Them Concern…

Poalim” became stronger, to the point where there remained not one brush–worker in the city who did not belong to the organization. They deliberated about

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how to lighten the workload, so that they would not have to work so many hours per day. Every Sabbath, meetings took place in various groves, where the workers wracked their brains to come up with some ideas.

One fine Sabbath day, the veterans gathered for a covert session, kept secret from even their own brush–workers. After a lengthy debate, they came to the decision that the only method available to them to reduce the number work hours was to present a “proszenia[17] to the inspector in Siedlce. For this purpose, they had to collect a 10 groszy coin from each brush–worker to cover the costs.

Within a few days, the coins were collected. The brush–workers were not told the reason for the collection, so that the foremen would not know. However, when the few veteran brush– workers attempted to carry out their plan, they encountered difficulties that they had not considered. They first had to find someone who could write the proszenia.

They searched for an entire week until it became obvious that there was nobody in the city able to write such a thing. They all agreed that they must travel to Siedlce to [find someone who could] write it. There was another problem, however. None of the organizers wanted to risk having his factory–owner find out, as this could result in being dismissed from the factory. They again conducted a search to see who might be willing to travel to Siedlce [on their behalf]. Since none of the brush–workers wanted to do so, they looked for someone who was not a brush–worker, but who could keep a secret. They found just such a person: Hershel the Yellow. Everyone in the city considered him to be a wise man, who enjoyed quiet. They sent him to Siedlce with the mission of getting the proszenia written. In it, they would pour out their hearts to the inspector, asking him to take up the cause of the brush–workers of Mezritsh.

They impatiently awaited for Hershel the Yellow on the evening of the second day. He indeed brought back a certified proszenia. Immediately the next morning, they sent it by mail, along with many signatures, to the inspector in Siedlce.

One week passed, then another. It was already the fourth or the fifth week, and no response to the proszenia had been received. People were afraid to talk, but it was difficult to remain silent. There was no

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other recourse than to assemble a meeting, tell the brush–workers the entire story, and deliberate about what to do next. A gathering was convened covertly one Sabbath in a small grove in Wysokie, and all the brush–workers were told the entire story. The brush–workers were agitated for a long time, until they finally decided to send two men to “the master” [the inspector] himself. They resolved that they must choose people capable of undertaking a discussion with him. On the spot, they designated Baruch Kojftszes and Moshe Vove.

Early Monday morning, the two selected individuals boarded the train secretly and traveled to Siedlce with pounding hearts. They lingered for a long time on the street in front of the inspector's door, not having the nerve to enter, but they slowly realized that they would be shamed if they returned home [without having met him]. Eventually they summoned up their courage, and entered.

An elderly Christian, who was walking in the hallway, told them to wait until “Gospodin Inspektor” [Mister Inspector] was free, as he was presently occupied. They waited for a considerable time. In the interim, they noticed a few pairs of galoshes, lined with pig hair, in the corner of the hallway.

“How is it that there are people here who are involved with pig hair?” one asked the other in wonder. Their thoughts were interrupted when the door to the inspector's room opened quietly, and businessmen Shmuel Bromberg, Meir Simcha, Fejga Rachel, Moshke Wysznia, Meir Cytryn, Avraham the Red, and others slowly emerged.

The two delegates [from Poalim] grew deathly pale, and their knees began to tremble. They could not utter one word.

“There,” said Moshe Wysznia, “Look at them! Do you see where this came from? This is their work! These are them, the accursed buntovchikes,that have slandered us! [In exchange for] the bread we have given you, you have given us stones. Wait! When you get home, you will see what we will do with you!” They left the inspector's [office] in anger.

For some time the delegates stood motionless, with lowered heads, as if they had been beaten. Who knows how long they stood there before the old gentile pushed them into the inspector's room with his fist. With sagging knees, they shuffled over to the inspector's office, where a fat Russian sat at a writing table.

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He asked what they wanted, and they inquired about the request of the Mezritsh brush–workers.

The inspector explained to them that the businessmen that had just left had indeed been summoned to him. From now on, the brush workers of Mezritsh would only work 12 ½ hours per day. He said that the workers did the right thing by approaching him, as he was their protector. The delegates listened bitterly to their “protector's” speech – it had been his idea to reduce the workday by a full half–hour. They murmured something under their breaths, thanked him, and slowly left.

The businessmen strongly castigated the workers and threatened them for half an hour regarding the inspector's demands. After some time, however, calm returned, and booklets from the inspector appeared quickly in all the factories.

At the same time, in 1897, Shimke Vitebsker arrived in Mezritsh and was hired by Golda Sztejn. When he found out about the issue with the inspector, he laughed [scornfully]. On the following Sabbath, when the usual workers' meeting was held, he broke out in a speech that mocked the foolish workers who had gone to seek justice from the inspector.

He spoke heatedly, “We must improve the situation on our own. We must demand more money and a shorter workday! We give enough work and sweat to the businessmen who gnaw at us! If they do not want to accede to us, we must fight with them with the only weapon we have – with strikes. That means we must stop work. Then the owners will come to us begging, for they need us more than we need them! We create a good life for them!”

That was the lecture that Shimke from Vitebsk delivered to the brush–workers of Mezritsh. It was the first time they had heard such things. With great energy, he quickly began to organize the workers in a completely different fashion: in every factory, he designated desiatnikes[18] who were each in charge of ten people, and whom he could call together at any time, as necessary. Every Sabbath, he enthusiastically roused the dormant feelings within the workers. His speeches had their effect: the workers changed completely.

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They talked and related differently to the owners.

When the owners discovered that this was the work of the Vitebsker, they urged Golda Sztejn to fire him. They did not have to wait long – one fine morning, he was dismissed from work.

All the other workers, however, left the factory with him. This was the first time they went on strike. That same evening, Golda Sztejn approached every worker separately, asking each to return to work. The workers, however, responded that she first must go to Shimke [to negotiate their return]. Unfortunately for her, she was obliged to do so. Shimke then made [an additional] demand: he and all the workers would return to the factory only if she would employ all her workers until the eve of Sukkot[19]. Having no other choice, she acceded to the demand, and the next day, the workers returned to work.

That morning, almost immediately, the workers suspected that Y. K., who was considered in the city to be a “slichaner[20], had been called in for a rebuke at the factory, and Shimke was advised to leave. That very evening, the police indeed came to search for Shimke Vitebsker, but he was no longer there. The owners then breathed freely, for they had driven him out of town.

 

The Establishment of Bund in Mezritsh

In 1897, several Mezritsh brush–workers returned from Volkovysk, where they had spent some time. They arrived laden with secrets. When asked, they would say that they had a great deal of news but that they must hold off relaying it: the time had not yet come. The curiosity of the Mezritsh workers was very strong, and they tried to learn the news. Many theories were proposed, but nobody was able to find out the truth.

In the meantime, the returning brush–workers, who had arrived very covertly, called a meeting: Kivale the Small, Jolia Hajman, Kiva the Large, and Shmuel Moshe Krol met with them in someone's home. The [returning brush–workers] told them that an organization of Jewish workers, called the Bund[21], existed in the outside world, and the brush–workers of Volkovysk already belonged to that organization. The Kalwarier and Niewaler brush–workers were also members, as the organization was operating everywhere – in Mezritsh, however, it was dead…

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The brush–workers who had returned, Gedalja the Fat, Shmuelke Michulke's and Jankel Zeloznik talked with a great deal with enthusiasm. The discussion lasted a half the night, as they wracked their brains about how to establish a Bund organization in Mezritsh as well. Finally, in accordance with the advice of Gedalja the Fat, who was somewhat practical, it was decided to call together 20 people in a week's time to found the first kroszak[22] of the Bund organization. He also decided to invite someone from the outside who would enlighten the workers and help them organize. The main thing was that the first schodka[23] of the kroszak was to be held in a secret location, so that nobody would know where it would take place, and so that no outsiders would attend. The task of choosing a place for the schodka was assigned to two workers. The others were to follow the suggestions of these veteran, “in–the–know” workers.

A week later, the first schodka indeed took place in Yitzchak Beder's “bath apartments.” Some twenty people attended, as did the invited covert emissary Chaimke the Dvinsker. The latter explained the need for the organization, how the workers' organization functioned in many cities, and how the workers had improved their situation everywhere. He also clarified the reasons for the workers' suffering in general, explaining that it was the fault of the Czarist regime. He began speaking about some things that the Mezritsh workers found foreign. Those gathered heard out the Dvinsker apprehensively, paying close attention to what he was saying. They saw Chaimke as a holy person, whose every word was sugar–sweet. Finally, he asked the workers to explain their situation in Mezritsh. The workers spoke from the heart, and also told him the story of the inspector who specified that they should work for 12 ½ hours, and that the work was very difficult. Chaimke then further declared that the workers must not allow themselves to be worked so hard, for so many hours a day. They must work at most 10 hours, and the workload must be lightened.

The meeting continued. People left with the firm feeling that the workday must be reduced to 10 hours, and that the kroszak must include all the workers.

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On the first Sabbath following this event, all the workers were told that they should come to the Beis Midrash. When it was full, Kiva the Large, Kiva the Small, and Shmuel Moshe delivered speeches. They painted the situation in very black colors, thereby encouraging the workers to refrain from working so hard, stating that ten hours a day was sufficient. They should not work so hard because prig–bristle workers in other cities were already working a ten–hour day.

Almost all of the younger workers concurred. One could hear them quietly agreeing amongst themselves that they must indeed work fewer hours. The older workers, however, gestured with their hands and slowly shuffled out of the Beis Midrash.

This situation continued for an entire month. Throughout the time, the kroszak, which often held covert schodkas in various locations – sometimes on the road, sometimes in a grove or an orchard – worked with gusto. Many young brush–workers joined the organization and quietly agitated for a ten–hour workday. They came up with the idea of designating a day on which they would work only ten hours. They called a meeting in the synagogue at which they instructed the workers to simply stop work after ten hours on the following day. If the owners disagreed, they would go on strike.

Suddenly, however, there was a stir among the older brush–workers: “What are you ordering us to do? Are you are telling us to strike? Who will feed our wives and children? You, perhaps? Give us money to sustain our families, and then we will strike!” The speakers were embarrassed, and did not know how to respond. Then Kiva the Large ascended the podium and whispered something into the ear of the speaker. The speaker's face then brightened, and he shouted victoriously: “Tonight, all the married brush–workers will be given a few rubles, and if we need to go on strike, there will be as much money as you need!”

It was silent in the Beis Midrash. Everyone seemed perplexed, but then they shouted out: “Good! Tomorrow we will stop work after ten hours.”

The next day, when the young workers in the larger factories saw that the tenth hour [of work] had ended, they took off their aprons and went home. The owners were astonished and shocked; they started to react, but

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by that time there was nobody left in the factory. The next day, the owners were angry and shouting. The workers responded that in all the other cities workers were no longer laboring more than ten hours a day, and that this should be the case in Mezritsh as well. The owners threatened to take revenge, but the workers stood their ground.

In the smaller workshops, which employed mainly older people, the workers were not bold enough to stop work. They labored their usual twelve and a half hours. After ten hours they closed the blinds and the doors, so nobody would notice [that they were still working]…

The kroszak, however, soon found out about this. They gathered together to figure out what to do about the fact that a portion of the workers were still laboring as previously, thereby undermining the kroszak's action. They decided to speak to the workers amicably. Over the course of a few days, they spoke with the workers, telling them that they must not continue to work the long hours, because they were hindering the efforts of the other workers who were only working ten hours. The older workers promised to obey, but the next day they once again did not have the courage to stop before 12 ½ hours had elapsed.

Then they [the kroszak] decided to employ terror tactics. They called together a few youths who were armed with sticks and stones. First, they went to the workshops of Jankel Maksim and David Wirde. When they saw light through the cracks in the shutters [at the end of the long workday], they threw stones and broke the shutters with sticks. They entered the workshops through the windows and beat the workers over the head with sticks. The older workers quickly fled, leaving everything in a disturbed state.

This had its desired effect, and within a brief time, all the workshops worked ten–hour days. Furthermore, the owners had to give the foremen a raise of a ruble a week, and a regular worker was raised a quarter, to a salary of five rubles a week. The owners, however, did not pay the foremen their entire wage at one time, claiming that they would eventually get it… [instead], the foreman was given three rubles before the Sabbath, and the remaining two on Sunday.

From that time on, after the fight for a ten hour workday, almost all of the brush–workers joined the new Brush–Workers' Bund organization.

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The First Arrest

To this day, it is not known who informed the inspector about the process of the struggle for a ten–hour workday. What is known is that the inspector arrived suddenly from Siedlce one fine morning and immediately went to the city hall, where he summoned a few pig–bristle businessmen. The businessmen told him that the Bund members were terrorizing the workers, using sticks and stones, commanding the workers to leave their workshops. The inspector calmed the businessmen, told them to go home, and summoned a few of the veteran brush–workers.

When the brush–workers came to the city hall to meet with the inspector he became red as fire, his eyes ignited, and he banged on the table:

“Is this how you thank me for taking care of you? I specified a 12 ½–hour workday, and that is what must be. Who dares to disobey my order? Have you become involved with terror? Do you want a rebellion? I will make you rot in jail, and I will deport you to Siberia!”

The workers were greatly shocked, and they stood silently during the stream of shouting, offering not a single word in response. Only when the inspector had seated himself comfortably at the table and began to rummage through his papers did one worker calmly turn to him:

“Your honor! It is not possible to work 12 ½ hours at such work! Almost all of our workers are ill with consumption, and if your honor wishes, we can bring a few such workers here, so that you can see that this is true.”

“Agreed! Bring me a few such people with consumption! Let me see them with my own eyes,” replied the inspector, a bit calmer.

Two workers set out and within ten minutes brought back three hunchbacked workers with yellow, withered faces, breaking out in coughing fits that resonated as if from a hollow barrel, every minute expectorating phlegm from their lungs.

“All right!” said the inspector, pushing back with his hands, “tell the sick workers to return home.” He asked the rest of the workers to wait.

He sent for the owners once again, and on the spot legislated a ten hour day. If, however,

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such a thing were to recur, if the workers or the owners were to have another dispute, they were instructed to turn to him.

The new Bund organization did not take the inspector's warning to heart. The Bund was involved not only with the local disputes between the owners and the workers, but also had begun widespread political activity. From time to time, new faces appeared in town. Nobody knew where they came from or when they might leave. They knew only one thing: before the person left town, displays of newspapers such as “Veker” and “Arbeiter Shtime[24] appeared, along with various brochures, which until that moment had been held close to the bosom or secreted in other places. These were now shared in a factory or in a room, when no outsider was around. During a free moment, the workers would gather together in an attic or a stall to read them. Then, in the factory, they would recount [to their co–workers] everything they had read. Such newspapers had very few readers among the workers; some could not read, and those who could did not understand the meaning of the material, or did not have sufficient boldness to ask about it.

The Bund organization realized this, and decided, therefore, to set up a secret library and indicated that czytianies[25] would be held in various locations every Sabbath so that all of the workers would know what was printed in the pamphlets and books. Such a library was set up in a woodshed on a side street [in Mezritsh]. On the Sabbath, those who had a bit of knowledge were obligated to take a book or a pamphlet, proceed with some ten workers to a meadow, or a grove, or some other isolated place, and read it to them.

This went on for a long time. The covert czytianies opened the eyes of the workers a bit, and they began to think of their bosses with scorn. The owners were astonished and did not understand why the workers had suddenly become “completely different people! We do not recognize them at all!” The greater wonder for them was why the more veteran brush–workers were no better, for they seemed to possess the same brazenness as the younger ones. They attempted to ask the rabbi to call together the older brush–workers and admonish them, but the workers would laugh at the rabbi as well. This is when the owners realized that they must not play along, and must not allow the workers to continue to act brazenly. They apprised the police colonel of Siedlce about all this.

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[The following event] took place in October 1898. One Wednesday, a few “blue policemen” appeared in Mezritsh, tall young men with long shashkas[26] and jingling spurs, instilling fear in the population of Mezritsh. That evening, several workers were summoned to the city hall for questioning by the police. By Friday, there was an announcement that three workers – Shmuel–Moshe Krul, Jankel the Dead and Jankel Szmegde – had been arrested at 10:00 and had been taken to the train in closed wagons.

For the duration of Friday, the workers and families of the arrested men ran around like crazy people. Nobody knew where [the arrested men] had been sent. Everyone was nervous and uncomfortable. The day passed in this manner. The next day, [the mood] was dark in town. People ran to the rabbi to plead for the unfortunate men, and people ran to the cemetery to supplicate. The panic caused in town by the arrest was terrible. An additional rumor spread that the arrested men had been sent to the citadel where they would be drowned. The Bund organization secretly sent someone to Siedlce, who verified that they were indeed in the Siedlce prison. However, in the interim, nobody in Mezritsh had been made aware of this.

After visiting the cemetery, Shmuel–Moshe's mother returned weeping, and refused to go home. She sat down behind [factory owner] Jankel Maksim's window and beat her head against the wall with terrible wailing as she lamented the devastation that had overtaken her and her son. People gathered behind closed windows for long discussions, and threats against the owners, made with raised fists, could be heard.

Jankel Maksim hid somewhere in his house. Similar threats were issued against other owners. When they found out about this, they locked themselves in their homes and were afraid to show their faces on the street.

People began to calm down in the evening, when an emissary returned from Siedlce and informed everyone that the arrested men were in the Siedlce prison.

The next day, people found out that several factory owners had traveled to Siedlce. A rumor spread in the city that they had gone to intercede on behalf of the arrested men, arguing that they should be set free, for they were withdrawing their accusation. Exactly 14 days later, on Friday evening, the arrested men returned on the “Pocztow” [postal] train.

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There was great joy and gladness in the city. People surrounded the freed men, and they were made to describe everything they had endured during their 14 days in the Siedlce prison. Respect for them ran high, and when they appeared on the street, everyone pointed at them as if they were saints who had sanctified the Divine Name on behalf of the public.

 

The First May 1st Celebration in Mezritsh

After the arrested workers were freed from the Siedlce prison in 1899, the Bund began to grow stronger and more demanding. The leaders boldly agitated lagging workers [to join their ranks]. The arrests were understood to be a threat by the factory owners meant to frighten the workers into refraining from further participation in the Bund – [their message was that the Bund] would only cause trouble for the rest of the workers.

The arrests did cause a bit of activity. The veteran brush–workers became afraid of confronting the factory owners, and became even more afraid when they noticed that increasing amounts of literature were being distributed – literature which they believed to be completely unsound. Furthermore, they began to hear bizarre murmurings in the factories: about the overthrow of the Czar, about working fewer hours and earning more money. The veteran brush– workers could not understand this. To them it was simply a pity, and they trembled like fish when they heard such things. They simply asked the younger workers whether they had heard any such discussions, for they did not believe the reporting in the treif [non–kosher/gentile] newspapers. Seeing however, that these discussions were not helping, the veteran brush–workers met together. One evening, a few [veteran] brush–workers went to the rabbi to report the situation and ask for his advice. The rabbi asked questions about the situation and expressed concern that he had not been told about this much earlier. He promised to help eliminate the evil spirit of the yimach shemonicks[27]

The rabbi kept his word. He convened a meeting in his house of the most pious Jews in the city. He also sent a messenger to the veteran brush–workers. After a long deliberation, they reached an agreement: they would create a “Shomrei Shabbat” [Sabbath Observers] organization that would not allow the youth to roam the roadways. They would also found a “Mikra” [Scriptures] organization that would offer lessons to the older brush–workers every evening, so that they would understand the prayers, Psalms, Chumash, and Bible. It was hoped that,

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the more veteran brush–workers might convince the younger ones to come to learn as well.

A few days later, the rabbi instructed Reb Lejzer Bejniszen to study with the brush–workers every evening in the Shmulewizner Beis Midrash. The older brush–workers took great enjoyment from this. As soon as work ended in the evening and they had had a bite to eat, they hurried to the Beis Midrash, which filled up with each passing minute, and studied with great enthusiasm. The group of young people from the Bund also did not rest. They convened covert schodkas in various houses where they agitated against the [Torah] learning that [they believed] would weaken the struggle for an easier life. The Shomrei Shabbat also fulfilled its function. Its members went out to the roadways every Sabbath to try to send the youth home. Some obeyed, but many laughed at them and mocked the Shomrei Shabbat group. The battle heated up. The youth agitated vigorously. At work in the factories, they attempted to persuade the more veteran brush–workers, but the latter did not give in. They did not forego their learning at the Shmulewizner Beis Midrash for even a single evening.

At the same time, preachers suddenly appeared. They spoke in the synagogue, warning the congregation against following the false paths of the buntovchikes who were rebelling against the regime, which was a very great sin and a danger to every soul. The chairmen of Bund – Kivale the Small, Kivale the Large, and others – rose to respond in opposition to every preacher. On more than one occasion, the discussions lasted for many hours, and the audience of brush–workers went home, mumbling, “We do not know what to think.”

On one occasion, Reb Shimon Bern, the former wealthy man and strongman of the city, wished to call a meeting in the synagogue. He himself ascended the podium and started making a speech, stating that the brush–workers of Mezritsh were bringing misfortune upon the city by rising up against the government. He supported his viewpoint with various verses [of Torah] and other statements demonstrating its sinfulness, and as something one must not do. The Bundists had no respect for him either, and they responded to him. A discussion ensued, which lasted the entire night, and once again, both sides were right…

This was not enough for the Bund. They instructed the desiatnikes to bring their ten workers to

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a designated house, where they would agitate for their cause in the presence of the veteran brush– workers. The veterans nodded their heads at the agitators, and promised that they would be good, pious, and obedient, but the next day they once again hurried to study in the Beis Midrash. When the owners saw that the older brush–workers held different views, and that they did not obey the young ones who were occupied with foolishness, they became bolder and entered the factories. They would often make fun of the youth. Even Hershel Leib Cytryn, who would rarely come to the factory, would now come often. Once, being in good humor, he said the following, apparently seriously: “Group! The blue vessels are coming!” This apparently meant that the blue policemen had arrived in Mezritsh. When Chaim Ovadia's, the desiatnike in that factory, heard the news, he quickly took off his apron and fled for home, where he hid in the attic for two days. Later, Hersh–Lejb Cytryn retold with laughter the trick that he had played on his people…

This is how the battle between the younger and older brush–workers played out, until the first months of 1900. Quiet rumors spread that preparations were being made to observe a holiday for the workers on the first of May. As the day approached, the Bund agitated strongly and frequently convened meetings. When the first of May arrived, they worked enthusiastically in the workshops. At 11:00 a.m. sharp, when the signal was given, the youth threw off their aprons and left work. The older workers, however, remained at their jobs. The youth asked the elders to join them, but they would not hear of it.

“What? You are inventing new holidays? We do not believe in and never will believe in such holidays! You cannot turn us into gentiles!”

Seeing that they could not convince them, the youth left singly and in groups, making their way to a designated spot in the forest on the Radzyner Highway, where a large number of workers steadily gathered. Kiva the Small, Kiva the Large, and Jolia Hajman were the first to arrive. When the crowd was large, the chairmen spoke about the meaning of the First of May.

Suddenly, without notice, a red banner began to flutter above everyone's head. On it was inscribed, “Long live the First of May!” “Fight for an eight–hour workday!”

[Pages 423]

Afterward, the youth sat on the grass. Flasks of beer, drinks, and [platters of] roasted ducks quickly appeared. The crowd ate, drank, and sang various revolutionary songs – albeit very quietly so as not to be heard from afar. As darkness fell outside and people grew somewhat tipsy, they arranged themselves in a line. The person with the red flag in his hand stood at the front of the line, and by his side were the two chairmen of Bund. Two revolvers were seen in their hands. The three were immediately surrounded by a large group called Bojewoy Otriad[28]. The demonstration continued until they reached the mills. There they stopped, hid the flag, and returned to the city one by one, as if nothing had happened. City dwellers remained unaware of how the First of May had been celebrated for the first time in Mezritsh.

 

The Owners Rebel…

After successfully celebrating the First of May for the first time, the brush–workers became much bolder than previously, and the Bund organization agitated for increased pay. The campaign succeeded, and over the course of several months, the owners slowly became accustomed to the new wage demands. The owners gave in unwillingly, and only because they did not want a strike. In 1901, the Bund organization conducted its work in a more formal fashion, and presented a written demand for increased wages to every factory owner.

After some time, when the wage for an average worker had reached six rubles per week, the owners became very afraid, and complained, “Can it be? Such a price for a regular brush– worker? This is an outrage!” They decided to convene a meeting in order to deliberate on a course of action. A meeting was organized quickly in the home of one of the owners. After long deliberation, they resolved amongst themselves [to a course of action], and under oath, vowed to stick together and carry out their decision.

The meeting lasted the entire night. They unanimously decided that the trouble hanging over their heads stemmed from the group of buntovchikes who were leading the Bund. Since there were about 18 such people in the city, [the owners] vowed to free themselves of them. When the question arose as to how to do this,

[Pages 424]

none of the various proposals were accepted: reporting them to the police was not an good option, as they still remembered how badly this had turned out the first time. They looked for a different, better method, and came to the simple conclusion that these 18 people must not be permitted to work in any factory. When they began to starve, these workers would behave better. They further decided to reduce the weekly wages of the remaining brush workers by 10%, and by 15% if they were unmarried. They also agreed that no owner would hire a worker from another's factory.

It was almost light outside when the owners returned home. They left the meeting very happy. They were content despite the fact that they had earlier taken an oath to stick together if they wanted it to succeed[29].

The [working] season was due to end right before the festival[30], but the workers knew nothing about [the owners' plans]. A few days later on Chol haMoed, when the workers were to be rehired, they suddenly discovered that none of the factories would talk to the 18 men, even if they were to work for free, and that salaries for the rest of them had been reduced.

There was anxiety among the workers. The Bund agents ordered the rest of the workers to not give in and to demand that the 18 brush–workers be hired. The workers, especially the older ones, who had not considered this possibility beforehand and had spent their last few groszy during the festival, did not have to think a great deal: they accepted work–offers at the salary dictated by the owners

The 18 men remained unemployed – on the street. Among them were Kiva the Large, Kiva the Small, Jolia Hajman, Shaul Diszel, Moshe Czepelinski, Berish Czepelinski, and others. The owners had succeeded in carrying out the plan they had agreed upon at their meeting.

The Bund organization, however, did not sit with folded hands. Its members deliberated what to do about the 18 men, who would simply wither away from hunger. They

[Pages 425]

decided to urge the workers to donate a half–ruble from their weekly salary to the 18 brush– workers. The workers agreed to this, and brought the money to Shaul Diszel every Thursday night. The money was then divided up amongst the 18 brush–workers.

Things continued this way until the new year, when the season began with the arrival of the new pig bristles. The Bund organization realized that this was the right time, at the beginning of the season, to take advantage of the situation. If they were late or procrastinated, everything would collapse. They called secret meetings and made the case to the workers that this was the opportune moment to improve the situation, to recover from the harm that the factory owners had perpetrated. The workers understood this and decided that if the owners did not restore their reduced wages and re–employ the 18 men, they would go on strike in the factories. Additionally, they decided that they must force Avraham the Red to hire Jolia Hajman and Kivale the Small, who had never worked for him before. Avraham the Red was the owner suspected of being the ringleader, the “macher” who had conceived of the scheme among the owners.

The workers' decision was reported to the owners. Seeing that the workers had moved to the right side[31], and since the season was beginning, the owners had no choice but to agree to the raise, as well as to the re–hiring of the 18 brush–workers. Before capitulating, they asked the rabbi to release them from their oath[29].

Only Avraham the Red continued to be stubborn. Under no condition would he agree to hire Jolia Hajman. “Can it be?” he shouted, “that I can let this ‘false god’ into my factory? He will ‘overrun’ all of my employees!” He remained stubborn and did not want to give in. The workers, on the other hand, seeing that they could not reason with him, stopped work in his factory and went on strike.

Avraham the Red ran around like a crazy man. His factory, [at a standstill] burned [figuratively, from disuse]. In every other factory work proceeded normally; in his factory, everything had stopped. He waited and waited, hoping perhaps, that the workers might give in. Seeing that this would not happen, he approached the workers once again and begged them, with tears in his eyes, not to

[Pages 426]

force him to hire Jolia Hajman the buntovchik. When he saw that this did not help him, he proposed instead arranging a lottery to see which factory–owner would have to hire Jolia Hajman.

After begging for mercy from the workers for a long time, they agreed to arrange a lottery, but the lot fell to Avraham the Red. He gritted his teeth and waved his fists, but it did not help and he was forced to give in. His anger burned, and he could not calm himself. In order to take revenge on Jolia, he isolated him at work, as if he had a contagious disease. He put him in a separate room, alone, and gave him the hardest work, hoping that Jolia might quit and that he would thus be freed of him.

From that time forward, work proceeded normally. The workers were happy, but the owners were bitter for a period of time. They were ashamed to show their faces to each other due to their failed rebellion against the brush–workers, which had ended for them with so much shame and ill feeling.

Mezritsher Wachenblatt
July, August, September 1929


Translator and Translation Editor's Footnotes

  1. Mincha and Maariv – the afternoon and evening prayer services, which can be run together. For more information, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mincha return
  2. Ninety – This is some form of alcoholic beverage, probably 90 proof. return
  3. Shalach Manos – The food gifts traditionally sent on Purim. return
  4. Buntovchikes – “rebels” or “insurrectionists”. return
  5. Chanukah usually falls in December, and Tisha beAv in late July–mid August. The brush– workers of Mezritsh thus spent approximately 4 months unemployed. return
  6. Tzilinder” – referring to a fancy, tall top hat that was in vogue especially among the upper classes, politicians, diplomats and businessmen at the time. See the article in Hebrew Wikipedia http://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/כובע_צילינדר return
  7. Oibranies – Literally “peels”, but evidently a type of clothing. return
  8. Referring to the minor holiday of Tu Bishvat, which is on the 15th month of Shvat. return
  9. Bockser – Carobs, which are a traditional food on Tu Bishvat. return
  10. The intermediate days of Passover, two months after Tu Bishvat. return
  11. The term here is Baal Habayitke (in this context – a boss, but with a bit of a mocking diminutive ending). return
  12. They probably did not drink regular beer at this time, as this took place during Passover. return
  13. Poalim – The Hebrew term for workers. return
  14. Savranie – a meeting. return
  15. This, evidently, was a system for transmitting messages through code words. A “knepl”, literally a button in Yiddish. Perhaps the roundness of the button symbolized a small gathering. A “hasło” is a slogan or watchword in Polish. return
  16. kziwdzen – seemingly from the Polish word “krzywda” – harm or wrong someone. return
  17. Proszenia – seemingly, a formal complaint. return
  18. Desiatnik – a corporal; one of lowest military rank – here referring to the Bundist leaders of groups of workers. return
  19. Sukkot is an 8 day holiday celebrated 5 days after Yom Kippur, marking the start of the fall season. By demanding that the workers be employed until Sukkot, the union, in effect, extended the working season for about 65 days, reducing the “off season” of unemployment from approximately four months to 2 months. return
  20. Slichaner – From the word “Slicha” – forgiveness. The term here seems to imply an apologist (in this case for the factory owner), someone who is playing both sides of a situation. return
  21. The Bund – a secular Jewish Socialist party. For more information on the Bund in Mezritsh, see pp. 431–438 of this Yizkor Book. For more information on the Bund in general, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Jewish_Labour_Bund_in_Lithuania,_Poland_and_Russia return
  22. Kroszak is apparently a term for a chapter of an organization. return
  23. Schodka is a term for a Bund meeting. return
  24. Der Veker” – (The Alarm Clock) was a Bundist newspaper published in several cities in Eastern Europe. “Arbeiter Shtime” – (The Workers Voice) – was the newspaper of the Bund's central committee. Both were in Yiddish. return
  25. Czytianies – Oral readings from the pamphlets and books available in the library, allowing the contents of the material to be more easily disseminated. return
  26. Shashka – a kind of sabre. For more information, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shashka return
  27. Yimach shemonicks – Literally “people whose name should be wiped out” – a term for evildoers. return
  28. Bojewoy Otriad – Fighting Group. return
  29. Oaths are not taken lightly in Judaism. It is considered to be a great sin in to transgress an oath. return
  30. It is not clear which festival is referred to here, but from later remarks, it is probably Passover. return
  31. The right side – the meaning of this is not clear. It could mean “politically right” or perhaps “the side of justice.” return

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