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[Page 206]

The Economic Structure of the Jews of Radzymin

Translated by Miriam Bluestone

Edited by Rona G. Finkelstein

The economic structure of the Jews of Radzymin in the period between the two world wars was identical to that of the Jews in most of the towns of Poland. In the town there were some rich men and property owners, but they could be counted on the fingers of one hand these were at the top of the economic pyramid. Then there was the not-so-rich middle class, who earned an honest, good living and lived an ordinary life. The larger part of the pyramid included the large majority of people that lived, with their children, on the verge of malnutrition, and all they hoped for was to succeed in the struggle to eat on Shabbos in the manner fitting to the House of Israel. Their situation was good in comparison to the very poor, of whom, to our sorrow, there were many.

The majority of the Jewish population was supported by various types of trades: owners of grocery stores, haberdasheries, woven fabrics, decorative and ornamental items, leather, tobacco and accessories, tools, iron and building materials, paint and chemicals, writing materials, textbooks. There were also those who had been merchants of good standing, whose businesses were now failing now they lost their possessions and fought not to be ejected from the branch of commerce in which they had engaged for so long. All their merchandise was piled on a pushcart on market day, which was Wednesday.

A large number of inhabitants earned their livelihood as craftsmen, alone or with their sons or other family members. Relatively few had apprentices. This was a community of tailors, shoemakers, hatters, leatherworkers, carpenters, blacksmiths, a tinsmith, a miller of grain, a maker of vegetable oil.

There were also a number of good and devoted workmen who engaged in “non-Jewish work,” such as making roads and pathways: Rabbi Zelig Friedman and his two sons Yehezkiel and Simcha. Roofers Tuvia Mendzhitsky and his two sons Yitzhak and Yaakov covered the roofs of houses with small wooden shingles, hand fitted to attach firmly to one another. The blacksmiths were known as good-hearted people; they knew everything that was going on in the community. They were Henoch Israelsky and his son Hirsch, Leib Riback and his son, and others.

In the twenties there developed in Radzymin a type of businessman who supplied and sold his products to factories or big wholesalers in Warsaw. These were makers of knitted tricot clothes, rubber clothing, leather clothing, curtains and other goods. The first to supply rubber clothing in sufficient quantity to Warsaw were Shlomo Chaim Nadovitsky and his sons Mendel and Beryl. The first producers of tricot were Chaim Abkovitz and his sons, Shlomo Yehoshuah Silverstein and Joseph Kaplushnik.

The Struggle to Survive

The source of survival of the Jews of the town was the rural population in the communities close to Radzymin. The market day, usually the fourth day of the week, was the central economic event in the city. The mood of the merchants doing small-scale business was measurably enlivened if, after several weeks of poor profits, market days enabled them to carry on until better times, when they could repay money they had borrowed.

We remember vividly the spectacle of market day in our city. Hundreds and hundreds of farmers and their wives with horse-drawn wagons wend their way through paths and roads from their hamlets to the city. They bring for sale racks of corn and grain, potatoes and onions, fowl and eggs, fruit and calves, greens and bunches of autumn fruits. The farmers and their wares congregated mainly in two central areas of the city -- in front of the church and across from the municipal building. The sellers of grain roamed among the wagons, felt the sacks of grain and asked, “What's the price today?” Among the “feelers” were many just whiling away the time. Early in the morning, there was no activity; the merchants of the city were not in a hurry to buy from the farmers. And the latter were in no hurry to sell until 'the birds of the sky would raise their voices' and show them whether the sale was 'strong' or 'weak'.

It was in the afternoon that the fair attained momentum. Articles for sale changed hands; farmers and their wives who had been successful in selling their wares streamed toward the stalls and booths of the city people (most of them Jews) who had painted their stores or set up stalls in the street for 'fair day'. In the area of the market could be seen farmers trying on hats or caps, others bargaining with the city shoemaker over a pair of shiny boots, or trying on a winter coat. Jews and non-Jews, acquaintances and relatives from neighboring villages, had plenty to chat about and to raise glasses to – and more glasses, and more – until there erupted a big squall and it was necessary to call the police.

The wives of the farmers congregated at the stores and stalls in the market, and with the money they had earned from the sales of agricultural products, they bought sugar, salt, tea, coffee, thread, safety pins, decorative items, clothing, colored ribbons, colorful scarves, and cigarettes and tobacco for their husbands.

The tailors and shoemakers in Radzymin could not pin their hopes solely on market day. The struggle to survive was not completely supported by this day. As some of them jested bitterly, “From market day In Radzymin it is impossible to make Shabbos .” It was therefore necessary to load up the horse-drawn wagons and travel to big fairs ( yeridim ) in neighboring cities such as Volomin, Tlusht and Kamintshuk.

The Economic War of the Poles vs. the Jews

A description of the economic conditions of the Jews of Radzymin and their struggle to support themselves and their families would not be complete if we disregarded the hostile attitude of the Polish government to the Jewish minority in their country, and their oppressive policies regarding Jewish merchants and workers. The purpose of these policies was to undermine the economic viability of the Jewish trades people. To do this, the government organized 'Christian cooperatives' to strengthen the Polish merchants and Christian workers. The Department of the Treasury and the municipal governments instituted the policy to collect taxes ruthlessly. As in other Polish cities, this policy did not lag in Radzymin. The anti-Semites in Radzymin did not hide their strong hope to eliminate the Jews' source of support, to weaken and oppress them. And because most of Radzymin's Jews earned their living from trade and business, they suffered greatly from the heavy taxes imposed upon them by the Department of the Treasury.

The first victims of this hostile policy were the little merchants and workers who were not organized. The weaker the Jew was economically, the easier it was to liquidate him totally, and to turn him into a charity case, dependent on the community, a type far from unknown in the Jewish community in those days. These people received immediate succor from acquaintances and goodhearted Jews. Trades people without a strong foundation, most of the business people, collapsed. Jewish merchants and workers were engaged in a daily struggle to survive, and were at times regarded as dramatic and stubborn characters.

After they lost their livelihood, they struggled valiantly for their position and survival. A small percentage of workers gave their ideas as to how to defend themselves from poverty and how to strengthen the failing merchants and factory owners so they could continue operations. Thus was organized in Radzymin an 'Association of Merchants' and an 'Association of Workers.' The Association of Merchants even organized a loan bank.

Help and Mercy Organizations

Among the members of the Association of Merchants were elected Shlomo Kaploshnik, Khenoch Hendel, the brothers Itsha and Abraham Radzyminsky, Moshe Safrose, Israel Jacob Vishnivsky, Abraham Radnivar and others. They were members of the administration. These associations had permanent connections with the centers in Warsaw, and more than once asked Jewish representatives in Parliament to intervene with the central government in the state to prevent violence against the Jews of Radzymin, or when a permit for a Jewish factory was withheld, etc. It must be noted that the strong feeling of Jewish solidarity at this time created some stormy meetings in the Association of Workers when it seemed to some that their representatives did not work with all their power for the good of a needy member.

People's Loan Bank

An important factor in the economic life of the Jews in the city during the twenties and thirties was the People's Loan Bank. It made loans to poor merchants and workers with low interest, loans that enabled Jews to acquire raw materials and save their businesses. Sometimes the loan system allowed the Jew to rescue merchandise that had been seized by the local Treasury Office because of arrears in payment of 'entrance tax' or other taxes.

Among the workers of the bank, who invested much time and labor, were appointed Yehiel Tschepansky, Eliezer Hendel, David Yisraelsky, the teacher Abraham Don, Eliezer Alberg and others. On the first day of the week the board meeting of the bank was held and loans were approved. Usually, the total of the loans requested was greater than the amount available, and the board members were forced to ask about each request: Was it urgent or could it wait a week? Many of those who had applied for loans waited in the waiting room until the meeting ended, when the officer in charge of aid, Yehoshuah Bergman, would announce the names of those to whom help was granted. Sometimes they would noisily erase the names of those who had not been deemed to be in dire need.

Another source of loan was the fund Gemilat Chasadim that existed in nearly all the groups and clubs in the city, and in the shtieblach of the Hasidim. Meriting special praise were the few merchants on the city whose support was worthy and plentiful, and whose hands were open to the needy and oppressed among the storekeepers, peddlers and workers. This was a community needing urgent help. The merchants whose hearts were open to them and who helped lighten their load were Nissan Silberstein, Pesach Milgram and Baruch Yonish. Those that benefited from their goodness of heart knew that they would be able to return their kindness when their condition improved. But that time was long in coming. When the war broke out in September 1939, the merchants assembled those in debt and announced that the debts of those in dire need were cancelled.

Lodging Houses ( Linat HaTzedek )

Without doubt, Linat HaTzedek , which is no longer in existence, was one of the oldest groups in Radzymin. Its workers claimed that it had been established before the First World War. Certainly the seed from which it developed had been in existence a long time – giving medical help to poor, sick people, including payment to doctors, getting special medicine for isolated poor people, increasing the watch by the sick bed. Poor sick people received good, tasty cooked food or special dietetic food that the wives of workers supplied to the lodging houses.

There is no doubt that the Jews of the city involved themselves generously in the work of these houses, and when one of the active members needed medical treatment, they all knew that he was ill and their eyes followed him with admiration.

Very poor people were not lacking in Radzymin, and in those days the incidence of disease was harder to deal with than at present. If a member of the family had a prolonged illness, it was a tragedy. To call a doctor and pay for a home visit, or even to buy medicine at the pharmacy was often beyond their resources. More than once was the head of the family in a dilemma, whether to buy medicine for the sick child or bread for the rest of his children – to do both was usually impossible. There were times when the head of the family was forced to go to his daily work and leave the sick child alone in the house, with no one to take his temperature or give him medicine or watch over him. In serious situations of this kind, the workers of the lodging houses would appear as angels and saviors.

Sometimes the members of Linat HaTzedek took in other members of a family who were near collapse from lack of sleep or the strain of never-ending care of the sick one. The workers of Linat HaTzedek had to spend time seeking financial support to care for the poor and homeless, and the Jewish community regarded them with respect. Individuals responded according to their ability, so that the group could function without hardship.

Those appointed to Linat HaTzedek were Moshe Baruch Wegman (organizer of Bnei Brak), Mendel Ashman, Baruch Yonish, Aaron Joseph Kosover, Chaim Ankovitz, Itza Meir Ashkenazi, Eliezer Hendel, Abraham Dov, Yehiel Tzfensky, Moshe Baruch Ashman (who is still alive in Israel). Most honored and respected was the owner of the only pharmacy in the city, the Christian Casomir Rovodovski, for his work in Linat HaTzedek . The Polish Christian community was not accustomed to this expression of humanity and worry for the recovery of the sick person. This was beyond the duty of the pharmacy owner, who also held a high position in the community. He saw how a Jew of the upper class came to the pharmacy to buy medicine for a poor Jew who was lying ill in another part of the city. Because of his high regard for the society, he sold his medicines and other health needs on credit, a practice that would not for many years be generally accepted. Once the pharmacy owner said to my deceased father Aaron Joseph, “You can see in me a friend. I helped them with all their obligations and debts of Linat HaTzedek when there was no money left in the kupah (fund).” Before his friends and before the leaders of the Polish community who visited him in the pharmacy, he more than once characterized his work in Linat HaTzedek as humanitarian endeavor and succor.

Hevrah Kadisha (Holy Society) (Preparation for burial)

The few Jews who were accepted as members of the Hevrah Kadisha in Radzymin also received special respect from the general Jewish community. It was understood that not everyone was so fortunate, and the society accepted only a few. They had to be “people of special standing”. A certain mystical aura surrounded this holy institution and its active workers. It is not surprising that the Jews congregated in the area of the cemetery, even at night, as if in their own backyards, or in the purification room with the corpse, in order to perform the purification before burial.

Nevertheless, people in the community used to tell jokes about the society, albeit cautiously, because they knew themselves to be mortal and that one day they too would be in their hands. For anyone born of woman is destined to be taken to the purification committee. The joking arose because the Hevra would request a large sum of money for the cemetery plot from the family of a deceased person that was well-off. More than once this ignited a bitter public quarrel. Usually, many in the community took upon themselves the obligation to stop the Holy Society from demanding too much. When an important and beloved man went to his final resting place, many congregated near his house even though they did not have permission to enter.

The members of the Holy Society were the overseers of the cemetery. They established burial policies and assigned the burial plots to the most honored -- to the pious and the scholarly, to deceased honored for their own merit or for the merit of their family lineage. They did their work faithfully, with holiness and purity, with intent to perform an act of true kindness, that is, not in expectation of reward. They were known in town as good people, doing good to all, helping everyone, and giving charity in secret.

Among the honorary members of the Hevrah Kadisha were appointed: Shlomo Kaplushnick, a righteous and respected Jew, Shmuel Moshe Gatovitch, Yehudah Leib Kulas, Henech Putsch, Israel Peskovitch, Itze Meir Ashkenazi, Avram Yaakov Bergman, Avram Leib Radzyminsky (in his house were held the conferences of the gabbaim), Avram Radziner (lives today in Israel), and brothers Benjamin Leib, Yaakov Avram and Hersch Pesach Kelusky.

The most honored member of the group, for many years the respected elder, was Hersch Ber Yonish, in whose house were held the annual dinners of the Hevrah Kadisha on the eighth day of Adar, the date of the birth and death of 'Moses Our Teacher'.

Photograph p.232: “The 'Ford' car is from the late twenties. In addition to the kolika (narrow-gauge railway), it was a means of travel between Radzymin and Warsaw.”

Photograph p. 233: “David Glazer (on the left) with Lunka Radzyminski at their work at the People's Bank for Loans.”

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