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[Page 494]

Russian Exile and my
Encounters with Mezritshers

by C. M. Zaltsztejn, New York

Translated by Jerrold Landau

In the summer of 1920, the Red Army, in a military offensive, drove back the Polish Army. The Polish Army had already penetrated deep into Ukraine, and had covered great distances in Russia. The retreat of the Poles after the harsh attack of the Russian Army took place with great haste and with great losses. The Reds were marching toward Praga, a suburb of Warsaw, in preparation for storming the Polish capital. However, an event termed “The Miracle on the Wisla”[1] took place: the French general staff came to the aid of the Polish Army. With a lightning maneuver, not only did it stop the forward march of the Red Army, but it also forced them to retreat with greater haste than that with which they had entered Poland.

The Bolsheviks left Mezritsh in great haste at the end of the summer in 1920. They had spent eight days there. Large groups of Jews, both young and old, afraid of Polish revenge, fled along with the Red Army. To this day, I cannot figure out the reason why I fled along with the Reds. As I was an opponent of Communism, I should have been more afraid of the Reds than of the Poles. I was apparently affected by the mass psychology. Everyone was fleeing, so why should I remain behind? We believed that the Reds would drive out the Poles once again within a few days, and we would return home. The Red Commissar in Mezritsh had assured us of such.

There was no time to think. I met quickly with my parents and my sister. My younger brother was already in the Polish Army at that time. I was dressed in summer clothes, and I did not take anything with me – for why would I flee with belongings when I would be returning home within a few days? I quickly set out for the Bialer Highway, which was already full of retreating Red Army soldiers and Mezritsh civilians, mainly young ones.

The “stroll” of twenty–something verst[2] was very easy for me, and we arrived in Biala [Podlaska] at sunset. I

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went to my acquaintances, who had a guesthouse in the market. They gave me a room in which to spend the night.

At dawn, when I went out to the street, there was a great tumult. Thousands of soldiers and civilians were hurrying and pushing their way through wagons, cannons, field kitchens, and automobiles. Everyone was forced into the Bug River on the way to Janów. We believed that the Red Army would halt the Polish assault. The only bridge over the river was besieged by masses of soldiers and wagons. The soldiers and military equipment were allowed to pass first. The congestion was terrible.

It was a hot day. Clouds of smoke obscured the sun. The masses of people, covered with dust and muck, began to cross the river. Many people removed their clothes and swam across the river. I was in danger of falling into the river due to the protruding boards on the other side of the bridge's railing. Thoroughly soaked, I finally reached the other bank.

Night fell, but there was no place to sleep. Thousands of us remained in the fields, waiting for sunrise. We continued on our way accompanied by the thundering cannons of the pursuing Polish Army. Airplanes shot at us with machine guns from above. One Mezritsh youth was hit by a bullet and lay in the field wounded. Nobody attended to him. Instead, people ran on further, seeking shelter under the trees at the side of the road.

We were a group of about 40 Mezritshers going on our way to Wysokie Litovsk. A few said that if they reached the city they would not go further, come what may. Noach Podoliak, Gershon Tandajter, Wajnman, Szapira and others were among those who decided to remain. We arrived in Pruzhany after great exertion over the course of a full day and night. We set out for the large Beis Midrash. There, we were able to rest and prepare for the onward journey. Some of the Mezritsh group decided to remain there. Our goal was to reach Slonim[3], where we would wait out the storm and then return home.

We saw the commandant of Mezritsh riding in a carriage on the highway with his Jewish commissar and his assistant commandant – Shalom, Shua Kamosznszteper's son. A short time earlier, they had been Mezritsh householders,

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about whom the “Reds” had chattered in Mezritsh. In truth, I was not afraid of the Russian commandant, but rather of him, with whom I had studied in cheder. Everyone knew that I was a Poalei Zion[4] member, which was no strong recommendation in those days. I tried to hide behind the shoulders of tall travelers, but to my surprise and amazement, he halted the carriage, turned to me, and said, “I see that you are tired. However, believe me, I am more tired than you. You are free people, and I am mobilized. I do not know what tomorrow will bring. As soon as we reach Slonim, you will see that you will get food and other necessities.” I believed him when he gave his word – for he was a Jew.

When we arrived in Slonim, we were all arrested. In truth, we were happy. It was not a comfortable hotel. We spent our first night on the hard floor of the large barracks.

The next day, they put us in rows, and a woman in a commissar's uniform, with a revolver by her side, presented us with our first portion of “food for the spirit.” “The Soviet authorities presently have more important problems than taking in the homeless. We are conducting a difficult and bitter fight with the external and internal enemies of the Soviet Fatherland. You would better help our struggle by remaining in your places and fighting against the bourgeois enemy. However, we believe that you are our friends. Even though you arrived uninvited, we will permit you to remain. And we, along with you, will struggle and strangle the imperialist fight. Who among you is willing to volunteer for the Red Army? You do not need to decide right now. You can go to the city executive committee, where you will receive further instructions for your evacuation.”

We went to the city executive committee. There, we found our fellow townsman Shua Kamosznmacher's[5] son Shalom, who helped us obtain food cards and treats from a restaurant. They registered us and set us up in a barracks.

We believed that we would wait out the war in Slonim. After a few weeks, however, they ordered us to set out for Baranovich[6]. Once again, we set out on a difficult journey by foot.

[Page 497]

Once in Baranovich, we learned that this too was not our final stop. From Baranovich, most of our group was evacuated to Homel[7] in cargo wagons.

In Homel, they told us that we should each enroll in our professional union. Since I registered as a hide worker, I was enrolled into the professional union of leather workers. They were happy with me there. There was a hide–working factory for the army in Homel, and they were in need of a worker. As soon as I entered the factory manager's office, he took me immediately, and without hesitation, to the factory, which was located outside of the city.

When I asked the manager about a dwelling place, he directed me to a room that contained hides that were finished as well as hides that were still in process: “I can give you this! We all live in poor conditions. It is a war. The war against the bourgeoisie. We all are struggling for the Red Army. We believe that it will get better, but in the meantime, we must suffer.”

“And what can one eat, or does one get money for food?” I asked him further.

The manager smiled sarcastically: “First one must work to earn. You will earn no less than everyone earns. However, you must wait until the first of the month, when we get our “payok” (food rations), and hold out.”

During my travels, I had used the money that I had brought with me. It was the end of September, and the weather in Russia was already cold. It was raining and snowing. I had no warm clothes, for I had taken nothing with me when I had left Mezritsh. My shoes, which had endured a long journey by foot from Mezritsh to Baranovich, were splitting open. I was desperate. How would I hold on until I got my first food ration? There was no reason to be jealous of me. I suffered from hunger and want. The only thing that helped me endure this bitter time was that I was able to obtain a lunch for ten rubles at the city restaurant (Stolova)[8]. This lunch consisted of a bowl of thin soup, a piece of bread, and a small piece of meat. This was enough to keep me from starving, but not sufficient to live on.

Finally, I awaited my food

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ration. I went to the market (tolchak)[9] and bought a pair of old boots and a jacket for myself. I paid my entire month's salary for these items. For the next month, I lived on dry bread and the lunch that I ate the city restaurant. One day at the end of November, when I was returning from the city after my lunch, two chekists[10] were waiting for me. As soon as I walked into the factory yard, they came to me and presented me with an order for my arrest. They did not answer my questions. I was between the two armed chekists, and thought: what is my crime? What is the cause of my arrest? I could not think of anything, for I did not feel I was guilty of anything, except for perhaps my former membership in Poalei Zion.

Meanwhile, we came to a large building, where a Red Army soldier, with a gun over his shoulder, guarded the entry. One of the chekists showed the arrest warrant, and we entered. They led me to the office of the duty officer and said only one word, “Arrested!” The officer stood up and ordered me to come close. He led me into a half dark room with cots on both sides. He closed the door behind me.

I remained standing. To my left, I noticed a group of men who were telling stories and laughing joyously. The right side of the room was empty. I went to a cot and sat down. One of the men, who concluded his story, shouted, “Stela, put on the samovar! A new guest has arrived!” Everyone laughed loudly.

I sat down silently, but I did not have to wait long. The officer who had led me into the room appeared at the door and called me to come. He gave me over to a tall chekist wearing a uniform.

The officer led me into a room. A writing table surrounded by some chairs stood in the middle of the room. He showed me to a chair. “Thank you,” I said quietly. He said, “Sit down” with a strong, high voice, as if to stress that this was not an invitation, but rather an order. I sat down. Slowly, as if playing, he withdrew the revolver that was stuck in his belt and placed it on the table. Then, he shone the electric table lamp into my face, sat opposite

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me, and stared at me for a while, “Your name, bourgeoisie?” I responded. He asked me a few questions several times in order to confuse me or to catch a lie. He sat silently for a few minutes, obviously deliberating over the words and strategy [he would use] for the investigation. Once in a while he stood up, leaned over the writing table, and called out powerfully, “Did you say that you prepared to attend a counterrevolutionary demonstration on the anniversary of the revolution?” “No!” I responded in the negative, but I simultaneously felt a frosty chill in all my limbs. I made a great effort to remain calm. “But you did say so. We have evidence against you.” “This is not true. Perhaps I heard some discussion about this, but I was not the one who said it.” “Where did you hear it? Where are the people who said this?” “I know few people, “I responded, “I have only been here in the country for a short time, and I have been working since the day I arrived. I have no acquaintances other than the people with whom I work. I go into the city to eat once a day, and return immediately to the factory.” “Since you have admitted that you have indeed heard talk of this, then why did you not report this to the authorities?” “I did not know the significance of this. I considered this to be a meaningless rumor that had no basis.” [He replied], “Empty rumors…This is the strategy of the counterrevolutionaries. Anyone who hears such rumors and talks about them helps the counterrevolution!”

The questions and answers tired me out. I remained seated, and could no longer answer the flood of questions. My interrogator started at me silently for a while. Then he went to the door and spoke to someone. He then came back carrying two glasses of tea with a snack on a tray. He placed the tray on the writing table, and left the room without saying anything. “Drink the tea,” my interrogator said with a friendly smile.” “A cigarette?” “No, I don't smoke.” He sat down again and sipped his tea for a long time. “Drink,” he encouraged me. He finished up his tea, stood up, and quickly paced across the room. He stopped, and said to me, “I recognize that you are not a counterrevolutionary. I will now let you go under the condition that you return in ten days and tell me where the people are from whom you heard

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the shameful and destructive rumors regarding a counterrevolutionary demonstration.” “Thank you for your trust,” I stammered. He directed me to the door with his hands, “You can go.”

When I returned to the street, it was night. The frosty air overtook me. I felt a shiver throughout my limbs. Looking around in all directions, I quickly began to march toward the factory.

When I came to the Jewish family who lived there, they rubbed their eyes in disbelief that I had actually returned from a place from which nobody returned.

I became sick from the experience, and had fever for a few days. There was no doctor or medicine. I recovered thanks only to my youthful physical energy. The question for me was now: should I report to the chekist or not? I decided to feign ignorance.

Work in the factory continued normally. I was the only Jew among the workers. Later, three older Jews from Homel joined, and a few weeks later, an entire group of Jewish workers arrived from Novozybkhov, a town near Homel. This was a pioneering group, who organized themselves into an artel[11] in order to obtain legal status. I quickly befriended them.

One day, one of the members shared a secret with me: there would be a covert meeting that night. A delegate from the Zionist Congress would present a report. I asked them to take me with them. One of them told me that they would need the permission of the chairman of the organization for that. I must wait at a designated place, and a person with the password “tov” would ask me to follow him. I waited with great suspense.

A young lad passed by me, looked at me sharply, and left with quick steps. A few minutes later, a second lad came and quickly said “tov.” I followed him through various streets and alleyways. He remained standing for a while and then pointed to a secluded house with his hand. “Enter and do not look around. You should say ‘aretz’ as you enter, and they will let you in.” I followed the instructions. The young man at the door smiled at me and let me in.

The four–room house was full of people. A quiet pervaded. The chairman of the gathering opened the meeting and said:

[Page 501]

“Friends, for various reasons the report meeting with be short. The speaker, who cannot be seen, must leave in 30 minutes. Other important assignments await him. After the speaker concludes his report, you must not leave the place all at once, but rather one at a time. I anticipate your full cooperation. Thank you.” The mysterious speaker gave his report about the recently held Zionist Congress through an opening over which hung a white sheet.

“Friends, our movement is growing. Our members are streaming to the Land of Israel by various means… You too must prepare to make aliya. The Land, my friends, is calling you…Thousands have recently come to the Land of our hopes. Despite the disturbances from the British regime and the terror from the Arabs, tens of thousands are preparing and waiting to make aliya. We are aware of and understand your difficulties and problems. However, this is the only way to actualize the great dream of national and social liberation of our people, which has suffered so much… I regret that my report must be so brief due to lack of time as well as security concerns. I leave you with the hope and belief that we will meet in an independent, liberated Land of Israel…”

We left the house one by one. The lad who led me to the meeting sprouted up from the ground near me. Clasping my hand, he ordered me to follow him. “Not a word about this; where you were, or what you heard. Good night,” he said to me and disappeared.

My material situation improved. I discovered the secret of becoming accustomed to the Russian reality. Elections for the factory committee took place three months after my bitter encounter with the chekists. They took that opportunity to send a commissar [to the factory] who pressed us to work more diligently and produce more so that the goals of the Communist authorities could be realized more rapidly.

Finally, he asked us to ask him questions about any subject, and he would answer us. Workers asked: how can one work more and better when the earnings are so poor? With the 10,000 rubles a month that a first class worker earns – over and above the food rations – one can only purchase three pounds of black bread. That which a worker earns in a month is sufficient only for one week,

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and what should we do for the other three weeks? From where can we get money for a pair of shoes, clothes, etc.? His answer to all these questions was that everything depended on the productivity of the workers. The more and better we worked, the easier it would be for us.

I asked a question, which the Communist commissar dealt with smoothly. In those days, various bands raged in White Russia and Ukraine, conducting pogroms against the Jewish people in the cities and towns. When one group of bandits left, another would enter. The Soviet authorities conducted a battle against the bandits and sent army units to drive them out. However, it happened more than once that when a Red Army unit entered a city to fight and drive out the white bands, they instead joined the bandits. I asked the Communist commissar whether it would be worthwhile to organize a Jewish self–defense organization that would be able to fight against and drive out the bandits with greater success. The commissar, who was not completely negative, flew into a terrible panic and called me a “White Royal Guard” and a counterrevolutionary. He ended his wild outburst with the following words, “I wonder what you do not find there, on the other side of the barricade.” However, the commissar was destined to suffer a downfall. I was elected as secretary of the factory committee. He did everything possible to prevent me from being elected, but he failed. He later told me that my proposal was not bad, but the Soviet regime could not allow the impression that they did not have the capacity to fight the bandits.

At the beginning of the winter of 1922, I received the tragic news that my father had died. Until that time, I had not thought about leaving Russia. Legal ways of leaving Russia did not exist. I did not want to attempt to escape illegally. However, after receiving the news of my father's death, I decided that my place was now with my bereaved family.

I knew that the headquarters for evacuation was located in Minsk, and if I wanted to leave, I would have to travel to Minsk. There, I would have to turn to a macher[12] who would take care of my matter. I took a leave of three days and traveled to Minsk.

In those days, it was not an easy matter to obtain a permit to travel by train to Minsk. I had a small

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valise with me containing a few necessities. I did not let the valise leave my hands. I must have dozed off, however, and when I woke up, there was no trace of my valise. I imagined that the thief with the valise must be on the train, but this did not turn out to be the case.

[In exchange] for a large sum of money, I registered on the list of farmers returning to the homes they had left during the time of the Soviet–Polish War. The registrar told me that I must wait a bit of time until the departure of the troop transport, and they would provide me with a letter allowing me to travel with them.

I received the letter with the needed documents for my repatriation at the beginning of the spring of 1922. I did not request permission to leave Soviet Russia. This would have been fruitless. The work that I was doing was important: the production [of the factory at which I worked] was designated for the army. I was afraid that my departure would be thwarted at the last minute. I approached the factory management and told them that I was not feeling well, and requested a week off work.

After I arrived in Minsk, I had sufficient free time to make my final arrangements to leave the Soviet Garden of Eden. After spending the first night, I went out and wandered through the streets of Minsk. I passed the workshop of a watchmaker on one of the main streets. By that time, almost all of the private businesses and factories had already been nationalized by the Soviet regime. The authorities, however, had closed their eyes regarding that tiny business, for which the population had need. Looking into the watchmaker's shop, it seemed to me that I saw the face of an acquaintance. I was not sure who this was, however, so I continued on. When I returned, I noticed that the watchmaker was my cousin, Menachem Nejsztejn. We were happy to see each other. He told me that he had already been in Russia for a long time. He had a wife and children. In the meantime, they allowed him to exist, but he was not sure for how long this would last.

He told me that there were a number of Mezritshers in Minsk, and I could meet them on the main street. There, I met Shimon Lew, whose sister was the librarian of the city library. He told me that he had a good position with the government, and that he was managing under the Soviet conditions

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as a privileged person. He also told me that Shimon Minc, Moshe Minc's son, had committed suicide a few weeks earlier. He had been an important officer in one of the enterprises of the regime. He had been involved in a hazardous game, however, and when they noticed that a large sum of money was missing from the enterprise, he had no other option.

In Minsk I also met Fejvel Erdfarb, who had been a leader of the Bund in Mezritsh. In Russia, he increased his prominence and became a fiery Communist. He studied at the University of Minsk. He foresaw a bright future for himself.

An officer walked by me and looked at me sharply. This lasted only for a few seconds. I continued on further, and when I turned my head back, I saw that the officer also turned around. I increased my pace. The officer again went in front of me and placed his hands on my shoulder. I trembled with fear, but my fear was for nothing. “Chaim Mordechai, what are you doing here?” “Moshe!” I called out, “You scared me.” “With us in Soviet Russia, only speculators and counterrevolutions must be frightened. You are not one of them.” (This was Moshe Ekerman, Moshe Gedalja Wajnszenker's stepson.) “I see you are wearing the uniform of a Polkovnik[13]”. “Yes, but I paid a hefty price for that achievement. I was wounded twice, but I am happy. I would never have achieved this among the Polish anti–Semites.” I spent a bit of time with him, and became friendly with him.

Where are you today, my dear, beloved Mezritsher youth? In water, prisons, and execution places you ended your young years, during which you fought against the Communist idol with so much love and trust.

I left Russia in peace, and with no difficulties. I arrived home on the eve of Passover. My meeting with my mother, sisters and brothers was a mixture of joy and sorrow. The year of mourning over my father's death had not yet concluded.

I want to conclude this chapter on Russia by stating that I discovered the reason for my arrest by the chekists before I left the Soviet Union. There were many Mezritshers in Homel. The majority of them were brush makers. One of the Mezritshers, Moshe Feldrejz, was a tailor. Chekists had their own

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workshops, which served other chekists. Moshe Feldrejz came to work in a tailor's workshop that catered to chekists. At that time, in 1920, a bitter struggle between the Soviet authorities and the various White Guard bands was taking place. Various rumors, false and true, spread through the city. The chekist guards caught wind of the various rumors. They searched for traces. I do not accuse Moshe Feldrejz of libel. Without intending any ill, he mentioned my name, which led to my arrest.

I also found out that my interrogator and the chekist were both Jews. Had this not been the case, I might have been sent to the White Forest, and nobody would ever have known where my bones lay.


Translator's and Editor's Footnotes

  1. Miracle on the Wisla – The Vistual river. For more information on the “miracle” (the term was used by Winston Churchill) that took place, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Warsaw_(1920) Back
  2. Verst – An obsolete Russian measure of length, equaling about 1.07 km or two thirds of a mile. Back
  3. Slonim – now Belarus. The distance from Miedzyrzec Podlaski to Slonim is approximately 230 km on modern roads. Back
  4. Poalei Zion – (literally Workers of Zion) – was a Marxist–Zionist movement founded in the early part of the 20th C in response to the Bund's rejection of Zionism in 1901. For more information, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poale_Zion Back
  5. Kamosznmacher, the last name here is different from the name used at the end of page 495 (Kamosznszteper). Because both the proper name and the father's name are the same, as is the first part of the surname, we assume that the author meant to identify the same person Back
  6. Baranovich, now spelled Baranovichi, is in Belarus. The distance from Slonim to Baranovichi is about 54 km on modern roads. Back
  7. Homel (also spelled Gomel), is in western Belarus, 442 km on modern roads from Baranovichi. Back
  8. Stolova (or stolovaya)– This term is included in parentheses in the original text. It is a Russian term for a diner or informal, inexpensive restaurant Back
  9. Tolchak – This term is included in parentheses in the original text. It is a Russian term for a small, often unregulated, market Back
  10. Chekist – A term for an officer of the NKVD or Cheka – the Soviet Secret Police. For more information on the feared Cheka, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheka Back
  11. Artel – a cooperative organization. For more information, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artel Back
  12. Macher – A term for an influential person with good connections who can make things happen. Back
  13. Polkovnik – The equivalent of a colonel. For more information, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polkovnik Back


[Page 506]

Brush Making and Brush Makers in Mezritsh

by L. Frydman, Melbourne

Translated by Jerrold Landau

1.

Mezritsh was a peculiar Jewish city. According to the size of the population (18,000 residents, of whom 14,000–15,000 were Jewish) and with respect to its location, it was similar to tens of other Jewish towns in Poland. However, it was one–of–a–kind based on the economic and social structure – there was no other city like it throughout Poland, for it was a combination of a small Jewish town with the traits of a large city. This gave it a name not only in Poland, but also beyond.

Mezritsh had the traits of a large city thanks to its pig bristle industry, tanneries, and fur coat business. How [it came to be that Mezritsh's economy was dominated by] such a unique industry as the production of pig bristles – a product that is completely not Jewish – has stumped all economic and social researchers who have wanted to investigate the inception of the industry in that city. On first glance, the city had no specifics that would cause the emergence of that industry.

About 40 years ago, the author of this article also pondered the obscure beginning of this industry during the time that he was writing a thesis for the Warsaw Business Academy. After long and difficult research, I came to the conclusion that beginning of that industry was not as old as had been believed., The industry apparently began at the beginning of the 19th century when mechanized mass production replaced manual labor in the West due to the industrial revolution and the rise of the bourgeoisie class on the ruins of the feudal system. Mass production required various brushes, for which pig bristles were appropriate.

At that time, a large demand for fur coats also developed in the west, for use by the rising bourgeoisie class. The Jewish fur coat merchants from Poland, who had been going to the market in Leipzig and other western cities for many years, took note of the great demand for manufactured pig bristles, and they began to bring a bit of that product to the market with them.

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This gives us an answer to the question of when the mass manufacture of pig bristles began. However the question remains – why specifically in Mezritsh?

We can figure out the answer to that question if we study in detail the map of Poland of that time. As is known, Austria, Prussia and Russia partitioned Poland amongst themselves in 1795. After that, Napoleon took over the area of the former Poland, during his war with the three aforementioned powers. After Napoleon's fall, in 1815, a Polish kingdom was formed[1], which in fact was a part of the Russian Empire with certain autonomous rights. A customs border existed between the Polish Kingdom and Russia, and that border ran close to Mezritsh.

The pig bristles that arrived primarily from Russia entered the Polish Kingdom near Mezritsh. Since that was the first station at which the merchandise arrived, it was purchased, sorted and later also processed there. The fur coat merchants who used to purchase smuggled cases [of furs], in time began to also involve themselves with processing pig bristles. In this manner, for example, my grandfather Moshe Michel Bromberg and his wife founded a large warehouse for pelts, as well as a large factory for pig bristles. They would export both the pelts and the pig bristles to fairs in Leipzig.

The processing of pig bristles also took place in other Jewish cities and towns along the customs border. Pig bristles were processed in Trestena, Bialystock, Tykocin, Kniszin, as well as Vilna. The city of Brody and its region, which was situated on the Austrian side of the border with Russia, was also an important point for the processing of pig bristles. It was the first point where the smuggled pig bristles were processed.

Mezritsh was the most important of all the centers. In the thirty years prior to the Second World War, Mezritsh was responsible for between 80 and 90 percent of all pig bristles in Poland that were destined for export.

Mezritsh exported pig bristles to twenty–some countries. The export was primarily to Germany, which had been the traditional market for export since the beginning of the 19th century.

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The export to Germany declined after 1934, and its place was taken by England and America.

Approximately 200 registered workshops for the processing of pig bristles existed in Mezritsh during the 1930s. The majority of them only had a small number of workers. Several employed up to several tens of workers.

 

mie508.jpg
Mezritsher Brush Makers at Work
From right: Aryeh Kac, Saneh Epsztejn, Yaakov Moszinski, Alter Skwarne, David Cytryniak, Asher Wysznia

 

Aside from the registered workshops, a considerable number of illegal workshops, which did not have the capacity to pay taxes, and used to conduct their work “illegally”, existed in Mezritsh. It is estimated that approximately two thousand people were employed in the processing and commerce of pig bristles in Mezritsh between the two world wars. Obviously, this left an imprint on the entire city and defined its economic and social character.

The processing of pig bristles in Mezritsh was not mechanized. A few Mezritsh factories made attempts to gradually mechanize the processing of pig bristles, but they were not successful.

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A few manufacturers and merchants of pig bristles earned large fortunes. Everything depended on the demand of the external marketplace. The manufacturers and merchants who were able to capitalize on a favorable set of circumstances outside the country quickly became wealthy.

The majority of the owners of the pig bristle workshops lived an unassuming lifestyle. They would sell most of their wares to export merchants, who very often took advantage of the difficult conditions of the workshop owners, paid them low prices for their processed merchandise, and exported it at a time when the circumstances were positive. The small–scale illegal workshop owners, whose employees were mainly family members, and whose workshops were very often in their private homes lived a very poor life. They [the small–scale workshop owners] were home manufacturers for the most part, and would distribute the material for people to process.

The Polish authorities made many attempts to wrest the production of pig bristles from Jewish hands. An attempt to set up a large, mechanized factory for cleaning and processing pig bristles was made in 1930 in Zamość. The machines were imported from outside the country. However, in 1932, the enterprise went bankrupt and the factory was closed. Throughout the two years of its existence, that factory did not run consistently and was forced to close for many months. It was unable to compete with the Mezritsh production.

The Polish authorities also attempted to create a sales cooperative through which the entire export of pig bristles was to flow. Officially, the cooperative was supposed to help the manufacturers and merchants of pig bristles with credit and with obtaining better prices for their export merchandise. The Jewish pig bristle producers regarded the project with suspicion, thinking that it was an attempt to wrest the industry from Jewish hands, and refused to cooperate with it. The result was that the sales cooperative was not able to sustain itself.

During the 1930s, the authorities tried to regulate the export of pig bristles. They imposed a fee for exporting unprocessed pig bristles. Only pig bristles that were processed to a designated standard were exempt from the fee. Every shipment of processed pig bristles leaving the country had to possess a certificate from a business office controller stating that the conditions of the regulations had been met, and it was free from the fee.

The Mezritsh pig bristle producers had to conduct a fierce battle

[Page 510]

against the fiscal office, which imposed heavy fees upon them. This finally led to the establishment of a series of producer cooperatives. Even though the cooperatives were in fact fictitious, and the tax office was aware of this, it did not have enough will to nullify the cooperatives and tax their members as private owners.

The Mezritsh pig bristle manufacturers and merchants conducted an orderly campaign against the Polish government organs in order to maintain their share of livelihood. They won the battle.

I have mentioned in passing that Mezritsh was also a center of the fur trade, which certainly existed before pig bristle processing began there. The demand for fur from markets outside the country had existed for hundreds of years, albeit not at the same scale as the demand during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Several hundred people were employed in the fur trade between the world wars. Many of them used to travel to the eastern regions of Poland to purchase the pelts. Then they would sell them to merchants who would export them abroad.

The third branch [of the economy] that employed a large number of people, and which was connected with the pig bristle industry and the fur business, was tanning. Tanning apparently developed during the 19th century and employed several hundred people on the eve of the First World War. The tanning factories use to process soft leather and pelts. The market for the product was not in the west, but rather deep in Russia. This sealed the fate of the industry, for when an independent Poland arose and the border with Russia was hermetically sealed, the tannery owners were severed from their market, and the industry declined sharply.

 

2.

The workers movement that was connected to pig bristle processing in Mezritsh had a rich and long history, beginning in the 1890s. The Brush Makers Union, which was formed in 1898 on a national scale, fought for better working conditions and wages for the brush workers. The fight for the eight hour workday in the brush making industry took place in 1906.

[Page 511]

Indeed, even during the inter–war period, the brush workers did not live in particularly good dwellings. An investigation of the Mezritsh brush workers, conducted by the writer of these lines in the 1930s, demonstrated that their standard of living was not dignified. Their wages ranged from 10 zloty a week for young and less qualified workers to 45 zloty for highly qualified guild members. On average, a brush worker earned 20 zloty a week. The work week was 45 hours. The brush workers worked only during a season that was defined by the conditions of the external markets. The season was ten months a year in the best case. Therefore, the brush workers had to save part of their wages so that they could sustain themselves for the entire year. The result was that the brush workers seldom ate meat in the middle of the week. For the most part, they ate meat only on the Sabbaths, whereas during the rest of the week, they had to suffice themselves with “appropriate” [less costly] food. The reason for this certainly can be found within the context of the generally low standard of living in pre–war Poland.

The brush workers often suffered from lung and heart diseases, asthma, etc. This was related to their working conditions, standard of living, and inferior dwellings.

 

3.

The large number of brush workers in Mezritsh, and their long history of professional and revolutionary struggle, left a mark on the social, political, and cultural lives of the entire city between the two world wars.

That time was a stormy and difficult period in Jewish life in Poland. It had a greater resonance in Mezritsh than in the other Jewish cities and towns, which did not have as large a community of workers. In hindsight, Mezritsh can be compared to the large Jewish cities of Poland, where the renewed Jewish life was so colorful and pulsated with a strong tempo.

The brush workers and the workers of other trades were organized into various unions, and they had various clubs and parties. They all conducted intensive political and cultural activity and competed with each other. Various local lectures, gala evenings, educational groups and the like, took place every Friday night or Saturday. Every movement attempted to bring in the best lecturers.

[Page 512]

Every movement maintained its own library. Jewish theatrical undertakings, whether staged by professional actors who would often come to Mezritsh or by local amateur groups, enjoyed great success and performed at a high level.

Mezritsh pulsated with full–blooded Jewish life, which included both the religious Jews as well as the worldly ones. Political life centered on the various Zionist movements, the Bund, and the Communists. Every movement conducted activities in accordance with its outlook, not infrequently with counter–accusations and fights.

Due to the unique conditions in which the Jews found themselves in semi–fascist pre–war Poland, the radicalization of the Jewish masses was a natural phenomenon. Even youth from patrician homes often belonged to parties and clubs of the left, as did a significant portion of the intelligentsia. They were often the leaders of those clubs and parties. This was the situation in Mezritsh as well, where some students and university graduates came to the clubs and studied Marxist ideology together with the workers.

That full–blooded and variegated Jewish life in our city remains alive only in our memories. It must be transmitted to the coming Jewish generations as a precious page in our ancient history.


Translator's and Editor's Footnote

  1. For more information on Congress Poland, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congress_Poland Back


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