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Of Old-time Sokolov

by Gad Zaklikowski, Petakh-Tikva

Translated by Tina Lunson

A. In the old besmedresh [study-house]

This was when the new besmedresh on Shedlets Street, near the small market, was not yet partitioned off inside, some scaffolding was still standing, and the masons were still laying the bricks above so artfully, to finish the walls with cornices.

 

sok147.jpg
In the foreground: The stone that was left as a memorial of the destruction of the beautiful Sokolov shul

 

On the other side, where they had begun to cover the roof with red tin, they were plastering and everything was covered with bricks, piles of lime, mortar and dug-up earth. So it was not so easy to get to the entrance. Besides that one had to carefully avoid the fresh mortar holes and hills of lime

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that they had just made while beginning to pour the foundation of the Amshinover prayer house that on one side leaned against the wall of the besmedresh.

This did not stop the market activities or the artisans, or the shopkeepers who were all artisans but with an open door to customers, and the regular early pray-ers from the fish market and from the nearby side streets and lanes, from jumping very early into the unfinished besmedresh, which was for them a gifted yeshive to spare them from having to run all the way to the old besmedresh and be breathless all the way. And what was the flavor of the praying in such a lonely place? (The khay-odem prayer room, in a nearby street, did not exist yet.) And before they had set up the two long tables pushed together on both sides of the holy ark and the four long benches around them, or before the large Talmud volumes, mishnayos and other books that the congregation donated had appeared in the bookcases along the plastered wall, the besmedresh attendees came, the teachers of that area: Arye Meyshe Aron's, Avremele-Mayer Kortser's, Botshe Avrom Mikhl's, the horse-dealer and his nephew Itsl Fridman's son Gedalye-Borekh, the handsome young man, a good teacher with many good traits, Kalman Yekhiel Fridman's brother.

And so another besmedresh was added, for Torah and prayer. But there were no elder, settled regulars as in the old besmedresh, in the new one. The study without supervision also drew young men from around the old besmedresh, and when the above-mentioned big tables were in place that gang carved the sixty-four square chessboard layout into them with pen knives and “gypsy shivs” (they did not have the effrontery to do that to the one on the Eastern side); and they cut up old white pasteboard boxes to make little square tokens inscribed with king, queen, old man, horse and so on for all the chess pieces down to pawns, and blackened some with ink. Then they took an extinguished match and cut up the top so that it was soft like a paint brush. Thus they had black and white chess pieces and played a game of chess when they did not have a great desire to study. In any case someone soon wandered in to get a look, a son-in-law on dole, and while looking sat down for a game of chess. Among the best of the drop-in chess players was Henekh Dovid Itl's, a true quiet Hasidic young man, very modest, with Torah and wisdom, who used to begin by singing “A go!” inviting himself in: “Thieves, what are you doing? Have you finished ruining it, bungling!”

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That is how a poor young man stumbled in, under whose small cloth cap there was a well-cut and smoothly combed mane of hair. He was drawn to the new besmedresh in the cold, cloudy autumnal days after the Days of Awe (I have already spoken about winter). The two tall, handsome, clean, caulked heating ovens reached up high to the little curtained windows of the women's besmedresh which was heated with rock-coal and was closed with double hermetic little doors with beautiful brass handles – unlike the big, awkward, clumsy brick oven in the old besmedresh that often smoked and if you just stood near it you would be covered with lime however great you were, and it could not be cleaned off unless you took off your cloak and were left standing in your trousers. Not a pretty picture.

That is how the younger boys also arrived from the old besmedresh and before you knew it you could hardly manage to get your bearings; the old besmedresh was almost emptied of its pupils. There were only a few of the older young men left. Avremele Meyshe Leyzerke's, the tailor's, the short-sighted talented scribe with the beautiful handwriting and the wagon-driver's neat one, the well-groomed, quietly smart young man, Khayim Kheykl, Rov Zelekl's grandson, the fine singer, Avremele Ziskind's with a finger cut off from his left hand (probably due to the Russian military draft). [A missing finger might impair a man's use of weapons and thus save him from conscription. Ed.] Of the younger ones Yisroelke Tsibule, the big red rash, Khone Dovid Gitke's, the tall shoemaker's and Meyshe Botshe the vinegar maker's, the one who knew Russian. In short, the old besmedresh, a place of Torah since ancient times, was beginning to empty out. The first to remark about this were the hasidic shopkeepers near the large market square, who ducked in to warm up a little and perhaps look into a book for a while.

Recognizing the emptiness they asked the old shames Reb Shmuel Ali and Reb Ben Tsion the shul-shames who recited the “ayn yankev” for the congregation in the new besmedresh: Where did this emptiness come from? They shrugged their shoulders, they did not know. But when they asked Khayim Yosl the carpenter, the gabay at the besmedresh, who lived near the new besmedresh and saw everyone who studied there, he said one could conclude that they were drawn to the new besmedresh like a magnet, where the pupils were without supervision the whole day. Free as birds. Besides that Ayzikl Shimshon the hat-maker's son-in-law even had a snack table in the besmedresh in the front corner where one could get a little sausage, a little sweet roll, a “shpigele” (a cookie with a candy set in the center), a thin matso with a sweet glaze, a small bottle of dark beer that

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the dark Khayim the school teacher made himself, and also various whiskies and appetizers for any occasion. In particular he would give things on credit, and all that drew the young people who were beginning to study on their own.

In short the men began to consider how they could make the old besmedresh a place of Torah again. How could they allow such a holy place to be empty, the place where the great saint Rebi Leyvi Yitskhok Berditshev had prayed? (After he had fled Zshelekhov.) And it was a comfort to them when the best students, who lived in the neighborhood, came to the old besmedresh to join the holiness of prayer – Ber Leyb, Yoysef Akive Yosl's, Itshe Mayer Avrom Yenkl's. And they also discussed it with Mendl Reb Leybele's who lived in the neighborhood and arrived at the general opinion that they should send several boys from the hasidic prayer rooms and sons-in-law on dole to study every day at the old besmedresh.

So they spoke with the gabeyim of the hasidic prayer houses and with newly-weds to fill the old besmedresh and study diligently. And it was frequently said that if one wanted to study earnestly one should go to the old besmedresh. And so boys went there for the Thursday watch-nights when they stayed up all night studying in the old besmedresh where on the left side of the holy ark there was a watch-night table. And on those evenings there was not a seat where a Talmud lay closed.

 

B. The Watch Night

The group that had decided to study where the big Thursday watch-nights were held were joined by members from the Kotsk and Aleksander and even the Ger prayer rooms, whom we had studied with in the same kheyder – Elezar Kalman Yekhiel's, Avremele Mendl Hagadol's and Yenkele Yehoshue Yosl's, the only one who had studied in a yeshive and came home so polished that he shone. He was all of six months older than we were. Yet Shaye Yosl, the wagon driver with a silk kapote, could not keep him in the kheyder any more and Yenkele said, “If that's how it is I will go to Lomzhe, to the yeshive.” Now, arriving home, he told us how un-observant they were there. He himself saw a rov who was praying without a waist-sash, and who did not have long peyes but had a short kapote,

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long trousers and no shtreyml, only a hat with a high crown. This rov went around in such a get-up as is popular with the simple Jews! Indeed, he told Shaye Yosl that one even became Enlightened [with secular learning] there. But Yenkele, who already smelled a bit of “Lite`” [Jewish Lithuania] said that he, God willing, without an oath, may go to another yeshive at the beginning of the month of mar-kheshven, perhaps in Bialystok. And since he was a person of order we had him make arrangements for everything we needed for the watch-night.

The first thing that Yenkele Shaye Yosl's asked for was a large shabes tablecloth, a loaf of sifted-rye bread and a loaf of bolted rye bread, potatoes, knives, spoons and forks. We spared nothing for him. He had traveled many places, but we were not yet used to forks. Further, about white rolls, a shabes khale? It was already Thursday; in the evening it would be fresh. So at Mindl Mayer Potshner's we bought a fat “potshtove” herring. Shulke the Rov's, who lived nearby, brought an old copper container with two handles for washing before eating, as the law says, so that we would not put our hands under the hand barrel. Later we went to Khaye the bakeress, Rov Naftali Pinkhas's wife, and bought fourteen oil-cookies for a “twenty piece” and a few egg cookies. But when Khaye the bakeress asked us why we bought these and we told her, she added some things, a few poppy-seed cookies and a braided shabes khale; and when we were standing at the door and she called us back and asked what else we were preparing and we told her, she ordered us to bring the herring, but quickly, it was already Thursday night, a gold coin a minute, and when we brought the herring she very quickly cleaned it. She gutted it, scaled it, cut it up, sprinkled a little ground pepper around the rim of the plate and said, “Here, this is for the potatoes, and the rest of the herring will come later.” And when we came later it was all ready, on one plate chopped herring with onions, sugar, vinegar, softened squeezed khale all mixed according to taste. And the long pieces of herring milt on the sides, as mixed to taste, lovely and full of charm. She said, “Here, this is a scrub-brush” (that's what she called it) and on the second plate, chopped herring with curled scallions, sweetened water with vinegar, the roe on the side. Just as at a wealthy meal. And taking two covered plates from a shelf on the wall she said,

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“Don't keep the food uncovered.” She wrapped them in a cloth, and pushed a few fresh buns with onions and poppy seeds into our pockets and told us to deliver the plates without fail.

Not bad, this would do us very well, we did not have much money. Our mothers had told us that, instead of spending money, they would give us cooked food like a hasidic dinner.

So we went in to the besmedresh with all the goodies and also with the blessing that Khaye the bakeress had wished us with such bright beams in her damp eyes: We should always be happy to study the holy Torah.

We put the already-roasted potatoes into the fire of burning coals so that they would not get cold, when Yenkele Shaye Yosl's said, “Friends, we need a quart of whisky [yash] – yad-shin is an abbreviation for fear of heaven! Someone run and get a little aquavit.“ And since we had some money left as Khaye the bakeress did not want to take it, Yenkele told us to buy more snacks from old Khana Khaye whom we used to call Rov Khana Khaye because of her age, such a tiny woman, in a tiny little shop, and such a tall husband. We went into the old woman's shop, bought thirty-some syrup cookies for a gilden. She added two more for us. That emptied out the glass cabinet, which was hanging shakily. And while she counted out the syrup cookies (several times over) we peered through the windowed door and saw the tall canopy bed, the only one in town. From Khana Khaye we went to Grune, with the crooked head, as the front of her bonnet was always twisted around over one ear and when someone spoke to her she spun her head around so quickly that her bonnet slid over to the other ear. From her we got several little sausages at three kopeks each and went back to the besmedresh. Meyshe Yisroel Mendl's had arrived with a kettle of sweetened tea which he placed in the oven. He took glasses and little pots from his pockets. After him came Efroym Rokhl-Fishl's with a pan of liver with onions and with that the preparation was finished.

The crowd gradually dwindled and we were left alone. Rov Simkhe Yoel the elder assistant shames with the wide fur collar gave us several havdole candles – the work of the old Rov Eli Toybe's – in case there was something wrong with the lamp and he was the last to leave the besmedresh. Now we sat ourselves

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around the watch table, which was low, and low over it hung a lamp; almost everyone was seated against the wall with their backs to the window so as not to look out at the shul opposite, about which people said that the dead came at night to pray there. (Later we forgot about that.)

We talked about beginning a Talmud tractate and finishing it, and after a deliberation decided someone would go to the bookcase, close his eyes and touch a thin volume of Talmud, take it out and then we would study it. So someone took out the tractate Khagige [Holy-day Temple sacrifices], which had no more than three chapters. We studied it in sets of two to a Talmud. And if something was difficult for both of them, one of them clapped over the Talmud, everyone paused, and someone who knew explained it; and if no one knew everyone dug into it and in the end found an explanation. Thus we studied with desire and fire the first chapter about the obligations when making an appearance at the Temple. Everyone was obligated to appear at the Temple during the three [pilgrim] holidays [peysakh, shavues, sukes]. It was a tractate we had never studied before and yet it was so familiar, like places in the twenty-four books of the Bible. We had just begun to study and we were already the pilgrims in the land of Yisroel, among those walking to Yerushalayim. We were in the Temple. With the Kohanim and Levites at the offering of agricultural products. Close to the burnt animal sacrifices that no one ate. The complete sacrifice, because besides milk and a few small things one could eat everything in Yerushalayim; the sacrifice was called the “complete festivity.” In short we traversed all of Yisroel's roads and ways. It was very good for us.

Then all of a sudden we came to an impasse and stood still at “They may not expound upon the subject of forbidden relations in the presence of three, nor the narrative of creation in the presence of two, nor the vision of the heavenly chariot in the presence of one” – and we had to leave Erets Yisroel, and Yerushalayim, and the Temple. Something so difficult, go try to understand what in the world is the story of the “heavenly chariot”? Here we had to wade into the commentaries. And saw how the Bartenura raised a cry against RaMBaM's because he said that the story of Bereyshis was the character and the story of the heavenly chariot was just an idea. So, do we have to go mixing in with RaMBaM and Bartenura? We quickly stopped muttering about the commentaries and it was not long before we were once again in Yerushalayim and in the Temple with the Kohanim and the Levites and in about an hour and a half we were in the last chapter and were getting warm and warmer. Such enthusiastic warm-heartedness flowed through our limbs and such a feeling of accomplishment. Another hour, maybe more, and we would finish the chapter. But Yenkele Shaye Yosl's, the master of the feast, banged on the table: “Friends, a break!” We closed the books, spread a tablecloth,

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and set up the feast. While eating, like experienced hasidim, each one repeated a rebi's teaching. (We could hardly hear one another.) Someone came out with a merry tune and everyone joined in. A circle was formed and we danced away. And when we, under Yenkele's command, were doing a clap dance that could be heard in the street, the old frontier guard Ivanov – whom little children spoke Yiddish with and who made a blessing over a pinch of tobacco – came in to see what kind of party was going on. We honored him with a toast and took him into the circle. Then the old soldier tucked his coattails into his belt, unhooked his sword, lay on a bench and clapped out a Cossack beat with the backs and heels of his boots. In his heart he thought “Oh my, Jews, now I'm old.” After asking for another drop of whisky, he took his sword and left.

And at dawn, after finishing the tractate Khagige, a few of us decided to talk with Yenkele Shaye Yosel's about going to a yeshive.


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Jewish Economic Life in Sokolov

Neta Koyfman (Ekhu)

Translated by Tina Lunson

Jewish trade in Sokolov was of small proportions. The majority of businesses were located in market stands and little shops that Hershman, the lord and owner of the land the town sat on, had built. A small percent of the merchants had their own shops. The rest of the merchants conducted their business on market tables between the stands and shops for a fee paid to the municipal establishment.

The economic undertakings, both from artisanry and from trade, that served the life of the population of the town itself, the surrounding villages, and the populations of the villages to which one traveled for the fairs there, were small and limited, first of all because all the merchants and artisans were dependent on credit, of which there had always been a shortage. Private credit was expensive and in general scarce, and private credit had not existed through the generations. Where it did exist in the last century in the form of a loan fund or a loving–kindness fund maintained by the group “Glory of Youth” [tiferes bokherim], vendors could not do much with the small amount of money that they got on credit; they could buy a little raw material to work with or sell in a business only to make a living.

The second reason for the limited opportunities for trade in artisanry was the competition – which grew stronger from year to year – between the local and outside merchants and artisans in the market, and that ate into any profits from their businesses.

The situation got a little better when merchants from the surrounding areas of the country came to buy up the merchandise from the artisans and traders on the spot. In those seasons certain lines

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were revived; the industrious ones saved up a few gilden against a bad time. Or they gathered money to buy their own homes, which was the constant dream of the residents of our home town.

 

The Leather Line

An exception in our town was the leather line, whose craftsmen “lived and laughed” only in the seasons when merchants from the Russian provinces in the tsarist times, or merchants from the border areas in the years of Polish independence, made big orders. Then the craftsmen hammered day and night and earned money to eat with. If those merchants or their orders did not arrive, with few exceptions the workshops and machines of those lines were stretched to cover their expenses. Both the proprietors and their journeymen were in a lot of trouble. From those spheres of the leather trades among the unemployed, were some with few qualifications, such as bunglers and patchers who were not suited to a bad time that demanded better work for a home market that was too small for so much leather production (of shoes and boots). The result was economic wanderers, that is those who were, because of their need, forced to take other positions, in order not to be pulled under.

The village peddlers were among those last. They bought old, well–worn fur coats, boots, hog bristle, hides of cows and other animals, from the peasants. There were also village travelers, Jews who went to far–flung villages with their own horses and wagons and exchanged clay and porcelain vessels and glassware for old iron, old clothes, and other refuse from the peasants in the villages. Among the village–travelers were those who bought eggs, chickens and calves, which they took to Warsaw.

Wagon drivers, porters, street brokers, woodcutters and country travelers also came out of the leather trade. There were two porter–service companies in town that had disputes between them to earn a few coins which our little town was in general rarely able to give.

The Jewish woodcutters – who were in competition with the gentile woodcutters – also had a struggle with the youth of the pioneer group Mizrakhi for the right to cut wood for the proprietors of the town.

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The brokers always went around among the peasants with a sack over their arms, bargaining and delivering to the grain merchants' warehouses for ten or twenty groshen per acquisition. The villagers who traveled by foot or by wagon, being limited to just a crust of dry bread, could barely survive.

Such village travelers could rarely even out their balance of expenses and revenue and brought in little livelihood for wife and child. There were some who got rid of their horses because instead of food they spent their profits on drink. Besides village drivers and village walkers there were Jewish tailors, shoemakers, watchmakers and so on. They would go early on Sunday morning to the villages and only return home on Friday evening for shabes. In previous generations that type of village artisan apparently made up a respected stratum of the general Jewish population of our home town. Evidence of that is the statute of the tailors' guild in the 1750s (YIVO Bleter, Volume 40). Their legal clauses also regulated the right of journeymen to participate in work in the villages.

 

Furriers

Other seasonal trades experienced both failures and successes.

Such was the case with the furrier trade, of which the Jews were a conspicuous part, and were up against constant strong competition from the Polish furriers. There were times when the stock of prepared pelts was not sold during the season, and new credits were hard to come by because of unpaid debts from the previous year. But for the pelt–makers such crises were periodic as a result of temporary slumps in the market, both here in the local area and there where the merchants came from. They rarely changed their profession, and the material circumstances were never desperate although they were always dependent on credit (private or communal) to finance their workshops. There were even some wealthy men among them, but the leather trades were permanently subject to unemployment. Thus it was very rare even for the larger workshop directors to be in the position to climb the social ladder and be able to possess their own houses.

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Tailoring Sectors and the Working Conditions

Of the large number of sewing workshops in Sokolov there were just two types: warehouse and private. The first type worked for the home market and for fairs in other towns. In earlier times they would go to every Thursday market day and set up their linen kiosks along the length of the big market plaza and tempt the peasant men and women who had traveled to town with their elegant clothing. In recent years almost all the warehouse tailors had adjusted to the tastes and styles of modern times and now sold their finished products every day in shops, or at fairs in other towns where they set up their kiosks as in the past.

Those warehouse sewing masters employed many workers, whom they engaged through individual contracts or through the intermediary of the professional needle trades union.

The sewing masters introduced the system of homework at the beginning of the twentieth century. The clothing was produced by the so–called khalupnikes in their homes, for which they were paid by the piece. The khalupnikes also employed workers whom they paid by the week. That system of warehouse sewers arose in the beginning of renewed independent Poland and had as its goal to oppose the heavy taxes imposed by the government, that for the workshop directors and manufacturers measured the taxes according to the number of employed workers. The system was good for the sewing master owners but not for the weekly earners and the khalupnikes. It expanded the control of the employers and left the workers with fewer opportunities to defend themselves. In fights between the weekly earners and their proprietors the khalupnikes were never successful, and pulling the khalupnikes into a general action against the sewing masters did not succeed either. So, the income for the weekly earners was never regulated, and their earnings never legally standardized.

It is worthwhile to mention the following episode in order to illustrate the above–described situation: In 1926 the professional needle trades union entered negotiations with the sewing masters about introducing the eight–hour work day, legal in Poland. When the negotiations failed, a mass gathering of needle–workers

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called for a strike in the town, which was also supported by the khalupnikes. The sewing masters did all they could to break the strike. Then they called for the help of the town elder and the labor inspector, and they were able as protectors of the law to put pressure on the leaders of the strike. The masters actually called for a conference with the elder and threatened the representatives of the strikers with heavy consequences (deportation to Kartuv–Bereze with a judgment of economic terror and so on). As that path did not help and the strike continued, the masters sought other ways to get the khalupnikes to withdraw from the strike. When the strike was finally broken, six weeks of work time had been lost without achieving institution of the eight–hour work week.

There were many poor people among the warehouse sewing workers, but they remained in the line.

In the private sector of the sewing line too, the masters, the proprietors, lived in better circumstances, and their workers needed the help of the professional union in order to improve their living situation a little. They were few in number and they did not depart from the scissor–and–needle life that their parents had prepared them for.

 

Hat Makers

However many hat makers there were in our town, there were apparently too many for the town and its surroundings. Except for one of them, an owner who employed workers, they were all poor and in need of an auxiliary livelihood in order to survive. Such people often dealt in fish or orchards or their wives were earners; they also stood fast with the scissor and needle.

In the small crafts of Sokolov Jews, the mending and refurbishing of old furs, old shoes and boots occupied an important place, as did revamping old hats or clothes and repairing old wagons, bicycles and leather horse outfits. And those workshop–directors – each of whom was “a prince of four groshen” – would set up his merchandise in the market, flattering and drawing in the customers (peasants from the villages) with competitive prices. The transaction was a little easier when the customer came to the craftsman's

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home. Then he could speak in confidence to the “wise old man” and he, the “wise old man,” had the Mr. Good–Morning with respect, giving him the new boots or fur coat with a sure reward for his work. One must also note that pulling in the customer who was going among the merchants at the stalls and market tables generally made a poor impression.

 

Carpenters and Painters

There were two kinds of carpenters among us: furniture makers and construction carpenters. The first kind worked for the stores and private concerns. There were not many of those workshops, but even fewer were the number of workers they employed. The majority of those craftsmen worked alone and made a living. Against that, the workers who were employed in the workshops had to get help from the professional union in order to supplement their earnings.

The construction carpenters rarely hired anyone for wages; they worked in partnerships and rarely with wage earners. Because of the general poverty of the town, the development of construction was very weak. After the time of the great fire in 1910 there were places that stood empty even up to the Second World War.

All of the painters were poor.

 

Bakers

The only trade that over the years did not know any crises was baking. The bakeries were always busy and employed workers. The professional union was successful in their concern for their workers' situations. If it happened from time to time that one of the workers lost his job for whatever reason, the union divided the work among all the bakeries and hired the unemployed.

 

Blacksmiths

Among the seven Jewish blacksmiths who recently had their

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forges in Sokolov, there were some who had been born, reared and worked all their lives in the villages until the evil spirit of the NARA people – the Polish Hitlerites – reached the villages and infected the peasants with their zoo logicism and drove the Jewish blacksmiths away. Except for two young men, partners in one smithy, all were already grey–haired old folks, not wealthy and not rich, but small proprietors, healthy, bearded Jews who worked alone or with the help of their wives who worked at the bellows in the forge from dawn until late in the evening; they repaired and forged for wagons, plows and horses, earning a modest livelihood. They prayed observantly, recited psalms and in their free time sat in the study house at tables of the learned and listened attentively to the study of the holy books.

They were all as though born from the same father and mother, all plain, respectable, hard–working people and always so quiet, non–talkative, that it seemed (and it was really true) that their constant heavy work with the hammers and the blue–grey iron, a consuming fire in the forge, sweated the strength to speak out of them.

Those Jews shared the fate of extermination together with the Sokolov Jewish population.

The proportion of specialty vocations of the seventy percent of Jews who were occupied in physical work was relative to that of the Polish population of the town and area, in the following percentages:

All the heavy wagon drivers were Jews.
All buggy drivers(except for one Pole) were Jews.
All the load carriers were Jews.
All the tanners, benders, harness makers and shoe–leather workers were Jews.
All furniture makers were Jews.
All rope makers, market stall sitters, orchard product dealers were Jews.
Of the blacksmiths, locksmiths, construction workers, 80% were Jews.
Of the bakers, shoemakers and butchers, 80% were Jews.
Of the hat makers, 60% were Jews.
Also the wood and coal dealers were Jews.

Polish merchants in recent times were five to six percent of the whole region. That figure includes

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the individuals along with the newly rising Polish businesses of various types and the cooperatives.

Polish craftsmen in the entire region can be expressed in percentages in the following way: hat makers, 40%; shoemakers, construction workers, blacksmiths and locksmiths 20%; bakers and butchers 20%; Poles in agriculture and town officials 100%.

From that accounting of the economic functions in the life of both national populations, it is easy to see the full dependence of one on the other, and the friendly influences their partnering had in their historic and mutual life together. And in truth every market day for generations, any day of the week and every Thursday, the rising sun dawned over Poland's horizons with a blessing accompanying the gilded ways; with the hard–won abundance that the Podliash peasants brought from their villages, with all the roads leading to the streets of Sokolov and so many that the town was over filled so that the market might be broken. And the Jews, the small and large merchants and artisans, served by laying out their manufactured goods and merchandise for pani dobre–dzheyn, for their life–neighbors and fate–sharers to purchase in mutual regard and trust.

Just as across the entire land, so also in our area, both the princes of the estates and the peasants from the villages liked to be in touch with the Jews and their large and small leaders. And the town Polish population, the artisans, turned to Jews in order to make their lives easier, working for Jews in shoes and furs, and thanks to that were their equals. They worked with Jews, earned to live their lives, and took loans from Jews to buy life's necessities.

And among Poles of every level were those who had “their Jews” whom they favored and whose trust they won, whom they supported in time of trouble, or simply whose friendship they wanted. Such happenings were rare, however, not to compare with the above–mentioned trade and friendly relations of Jews to Poles.

Yet the Jews almost never knew real comfort.

Jewish trade and craft, the Jewish mentality, always

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aroused envy among all those in the Polish community. Those who were drawn to be merchants or artisans wanted to take the Jews' places in the town – and just as in all Poland, so also in our area, those masters of envy became the carriers of demagogic and hooliganish influences, poisoning the Polish environment with open and hidden hatred, even for the Jews who had once helped those demagogues and hooligans. And that same open and hidden envy and hatred that was generally buried in their Polish neighbors was at some times satisfied with Jewish victims, and the footprints of the murderers covered up. Mr. Hershel Orkes z”l the tailor (a popular type around town, an enthusiastic psalm reciter in the tailors' shtibl with the psalm group) was once going off to work in a village, as was his custom, and didn't come back alive. The Jewish village resident Dovid of Saveshes z”l, a small dealer in the villages, was murdered while walking from one village to another. The Sokolov fish dealer Leyzer z”l was killed walking from town to a village to buy fish. In all these cases the murderer was never found. This was so even in the better times, and in times of the unrest of blood libel envious Poles supported the falsehood against us with hooliganism and in times of cataclysm along with murder they demanded Jewish blood in equal measure. And because in every generation there are those who are open or hidden enemies of Jews despite the brotherhood that Jews have displayed to them – which the Poles themselves would admit to, and in asking Jews for help. A cynical saying that was very popular among the Poles characterized their relation to Jews:

“When in need, go to the Jew;
After need, kiss me, Jew.”

 

The Professional Movement

Before the Jewish workers' party Bund arose in Sokolov, a relentless poverty dominated Jewish life for generations, along with social injustice, communal intellectual stagnation and superstition. Exactly as in the previous generations, there

[Page 164]

did not yet exist any vocational training institution for the Jewish youth. The majority of young girls in poor households became maids, traveled to Warsaw, and wasted their lives and health in grueling work, day and night serving dull rich people. Such young women died of consumption, which was a frequent guest in these situations. Some of these young women stayed at home, sinking into poverty and want. Only a small number of them devoted themselves to learning tailoring or another craft, darkening their apprentice years, coddling the children and cleaning some mistress's house. After this apprenticeship they could take their achieved knowledge and continue working for the pittance that the master or mistress offered for a 14– or 16–hour work day. When such girls did acquire a little vocational education and sought a better wage, they were thrown out and their employers found other apprentices.

The boys of poor homes experienced the same slavish fate. They also wearied themselves by years of apprenticeship, doing various dirty housework tasks. And after the apprenticeship they were again forced to work 14 or 16 hours a day, for a wage that the employer set.

And if a worker reached a certain level of vocational knowledge and wanted a better wage, he rarely found a proprietor who would hire him. The majority of open places were taken by another apprentice or go–for, which the master could easily find.

The history of the professional unions in Sokolov began with the rise of the Bund in the first years of the twentieth century, as a party whose theory and program was based on Karl Marx's teachings about the class divisions that dominated in human society, and about the economic exploitation of the worker by the capitalist classes. The first leaders of the Bundist party – with their political and revolutionary enlightenment – illegally organized the workers, establishing demands for higher wages and shorter work days. The nominal work day the professional organization demanded at the time was twelve hours: from seven in the morning until seven in the evening (from “hour to hour” people used to call it).

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Previously the worker worked 14, 15 or 16 hours of the 24–hour day.

And if the good will of the community and the professional appeals did not help, that is, if one of the employers was stubborn and did not want to subscribe to the demand for higher wages, or totally disavowed the professional union, the strike commission or the boyuvke for the worker stood as a watch and did not allow there to be a strike breaker. And if someone of the workers was pleased to be a strike breaker, the boyuvke would teach that worker a lesson. Among the young workers of the time it was the mode to walk about with light shtshin sticks in their hands. The older generation apparently did not like this, and they called any young worker who carried such a stick a “striker” because the organized workers used such sticks against the strike breaking that was a frequent occurrence among the poor, backward workers. Besides that the master of the strike breaker had to pay a sum of money, determined by the professional union.

Because the existence and activity of the Bund was in those years, for the Jews in Sokolov, a novelty and for a while seen as a law not written in Torah, the professional work situation changed only with great difficulty. More than the social–psychological moment, in our town the professional work was harder due to the social–economic character of Jewish life that was mentioned above. The so–called work places consisted of small workshops of many kinds whose proprietors stood with one foot as a master and the other foot ready to go work for a wage in other workshops to earn a livelihood. There were also workers who were not able to fulfill the demands of the professional union for their own partnering crafts youth, as it happened that such masters had apparently signed the wage demand for the professional union and in reality ceded nothing, so did not improve the work life of their workers.

The strike commission was therefore always busy and checking the workplaces after seven o'clock in the evening to ascertain whether the twelve–hour work day was being violated, and whether the free shabes evening was protected,

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something that in the era of unions held a special place in the weekly work accounting.

It was in that odd situation that piece–work or pair–work was born in several trades, and that professional work was carried out thanks to the devoted political activity of the Bundist revolutionaries. Through the professional movement they reversed the former social dispersion and classification in Jewish life, raised the morale and spirit of the workers and improved their economic situation.

After the Bund was silenced in Sokolov, professional work among the Jewish workers stopped, the employers again became the proprietors who set the wages and the hours of work, now extending from daybreak until 10 or 12 at night, and in addition working a little at night after shabes with no extra pay.

The main mechanism of the whole Bund activity was the party collective, which consisted of three to five people. They led the work clandestinely and not all the party members knew who they were, as the collective had faithful members under them. The latter were the liaisons with the representatives of the trades, or in general with the worker groups of the masses, among whom the Bund did its work in every area.

Because the Bund and its activity was illegal and the Russian Tsarist police always had their eyes on them, there could be no regular, set place for their meetings. The meetings of the leadership were held in specially prepared places, guarded from the outside by faithful members. The main address for encounters with the mass was the bourse on Dluga Street with the stone pavers. They stood along the side with the shops and talked to the workers walking home every evening. There were Bund activists among them too, who distributed proclamations, gave over important political news, recruited new members, organized political and economic actions and so on. Certainly the Bund's illegal status also disturbed and made difficult the work in the professional area. There were cases when employers speculated on the illegal status of the professional union and their activists, and so refused to sign the demands of the professional unions. That would result in very primitive treatment and ended such conflicts in shul before reading the scroll or someplace in a tavern, usually to the benefit of the worker.

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In 1916 when Poland was occupied by the Germans, and that regime was more liberal than the tsarist one, a new Jewish workers' party rose in Sokolov, the Poaley tsion, and soon after that the Bundist party renewed its existence in a smaller measure. The two parties came to an understanding and to a large degree reorganized the professional unions in town. The occupation authorities did not legalize them but also did not turn the police persecution against the Bundist union as happened in tsarist times. That was during the war years and the population lived on a standard hunger provision; in the Jewish trades work loss and livelihood loss reigned. The Germans' special orders forbid having certain articles at one's disposal, but those were the foundation of Jewish trade and craft, so all the organizing actions by the trades soon ended with great success, as the workers both employed and unemployed came en masse and accepted our information enthusiastically. The mood of the Jewish masses contributed to that as they felt freed and elevated after being released from the dark tsarist despotic authorities under which they had always suffered. That extraordinary historic fact – that the Russian Kozaks, the jokesters, the zashiks and other Russian satraps who insulted the Jews on a daily basis and embittered their lives were no longer on the streets of the town –– made them believe in the ideals of freedom and redemption.

Also contributing to our success was the memory of the Jewish masses in general, even among the Jewish opponents of the Bund. They still remembered the past of the Bund: the troubles that Jews endured for the ten years that the Bund in Sokolov stopped existing, the fear of pogroms, and the six, seven, eight years that the Beylis trial went on and the bloody experiences in the first year of the First World War.

In the organizational and practical work of the professional unions we went in the paths of Bundist tradition: Each trade had its own management and each management had a delegate to the general professional council, which carried out all the actions and work of the professional union. The representatives and council stayed in contact with their political worker unions and all timely political questions of the parties were

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handled at worker assemblies. We instituted strike commissions in order to fight against strike–breakers but few used that system because the working masses themselves took care that in any actions about wage raises there were no occurrences of strike–breaking, and the work time was protected according to the established norms of the trade assemblies. There were some events of conflict with employers, which ended with wins for the worker.

In the years 1916 to 1918 and the first half of 1919 there were no long–lasting strikes. (During that time I, as delegate of the Poaley–tsion party, was occupied with the office of the chairman and secretary of the professional council.) The second delegate from the Poaley–tsion was Alter Shuster (killed), and the third delegate from the Bund was the member Itshe Shpanke.

The wage demands were sent to the employers in the workshops. Negotiations with them were carried out over a period of one or two days until they all signed the wage demands at the professional union. It often happened that someone pled “mercy” and did not want to sign on to the wage demands as set out.

For the leaders in those years, there was only one time when the professional unions gave an order to carry out a political strike, in solidarity with the political workers' parties Poaley–tsion and the Bund, which also existed illegally.

It was a question of celebrating the First of May in 1917. The German authorities in Sokolov tried to cover it up and arrested the Poaley–tsion party committee during the night of April 23 of that year, which caused a lot of fuss in the town. The professional unions did everything they could in order to make the First of May look like a workers' holiday and have them not work in the workshops.

Early in the morning the confidential group that the Poaley–tsion had prepared for this day in a conspiratorial manner let me know that “all is well” and actually appeared on the streets in their holiday clothes to demonstrate to other holiday–clad workers and soon disappeared in order not to draw the notice of the German gendarmerie. The confidential group later carried out the last order and secretly ordered male and female members to meet in a forest two kilometers from town. But despite the fact that all was well

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prepared and the confidential group was posted along the whole way from town to forest, the German gendarmerie found out about it and in the middle of the merry–making and the inspiring talks by member Shleyme Shertsman (an activist in Poaley–tsion) during the best mood and enthusiasm of its preparers – among them the member Bashe Yelin – the German gendarmerie swooped in on horseback and surrounded the forest from behind and anyone they were able to catch, they arrested and later brought charges against and punished with fines and arrest.

In 1919 to 1920 after the split in the Poaley–tsion party, after the middle of the year, two other worker parties arrived in town: one the right Poaley–tsion and the second, the Communist (recruiting from the Bund and Poaley–tsion), from the Bund because of the loss of the young worker activists. In that time there were already no representatives in the professional unions. The right Poaley–tsion gathered their members and conducted separate professional work. The left Poaley–tsion which at that time had joined with the Communists and partnered in work in the professional movement, at that point had neglected their duties so much that the Communists had become the factual activists. Because the professional unions were legal by then, for the Communists who were illegal in Independent Poland, it was a good chance for their political–party work. Thanks to their smooth, devoted work in the trade unions, they grew the number of members in their party and so became and remained the best professional activists in town until the end of 1939. (The professional activists Yisroel Alter, Dovid Fridman, Pielte and Peysakh Shtutman were killed.) Very few strikes took place before that era, except the big strike by the gold workers for an eight–hour work day in 1926.

 

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