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The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry

Edited and Translated by
Jack Kugelmass and Jonathan Bioyarin
With Geographical Index and Bibliography by
Zachary M. Baker
Published in association with the
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Washington, D.C.
< https://www.indiana.edu/~iupress/ >
Bloomington and Indianapolis

{Page 208}

The Struggle for the Right to Work

Hersh Goldmints

("From a Ruined Garden" pp. 76-79)

In the early 1920s, with the revival of the Polish textile industry, the machines in the factories of Belkhatov were set in motion after having sat idle during the entire First World War. The youth of the shtetl, and even some adults, gaped at the machines as if they were magical. Before then the factories had been lifeless; their windows--especially those of Perets Fraytog's factory, which stood on the new road-had been targets for the stones hurled by children playing at war.

The noise of the machinery was something new for most of the young people. Before, we had only heard our parents describing what it was like before the war, when all the factories had been in operation.

The workers who sat at the mechanical looms were Poles, along with a few ethnic Germans. There were no Jewish workers, with the exception of one or two, in the mechanized factories. Jews worked in the factory administration; also, most of those who did the manual preparatory work were Jews. For members of bourgeois or Hasidic families, whose fortunes had declined; becoming a cutter was no shame. Indeed, many young Hasidim did become cutters. A young cutter stood a good chance of obtaining a fine bride with a dowry.

Just as before, Jewish weavers were employed at the hand looms, rather than the mechanical ones. On Pabyanets Street, which was inhabited almost exclusively by Jews, not one house lacked a hand loom. Children whose feet barely reached the pedals were set to work by their parents.

Beginning on Sunday morning (and often on Saturday night immediately following the end of the Sabbath) and continuing until Friday afternoon, one heard the monotonous clatter of the hand looms, accompanied by the tones of a nostalgic love song, a workers' anthem, or simply a hasidic melody, which carried through the open windows out into the street.

The hand-weavers' situation grew worse and worse. They were paid by the piece, and as the boss demanded larger and larger pieces, they had to work longer hours. Sometimes people had to work all through Thursday night in order to have enough money to buy food for the Sabbath.

The Jewish youth, who were already in the habit of frequenting the locals of various left-wing political parties and the textile workers' union, began to envy the legal benefits that the Polish workers enjoyed: eight-hour workdays, health and unemployment insurance, annual vacations, and so forth. The Jewish workers, who had to work halfway through the night, had no legal protection whatsoever, since they worked at home. Furthermore, it grew harder and harder to protest for better pay, because a new type of competition had arisen. These were the peasants of the surrounding villages, who installed looms in their homes did the work much more cheaply. For them it was an extra source of income, which they did when they weren't busy in the fields; for the Jews it was only source of income.

Beginning in 1926, on the initiative of the National Council of Jewish Professional Societies, a campaign was undertaken to struggle for the right of Jews to work. The council that started the campaign included representatives not only of the Bund (which had a decisive influence in the National Council), but also of 'the Labor Zionist parties and the "leftists." We in Belkhatov responded actively to the National Council's initiative. For a few zlotys one could start learning mechanical weaving from one of the local Polish or German weavers. But there was still no work, even for a Jew who knew how to operate the machines. And new troubles arose: claiming that if Jews learned mechanical weaving there would be a rise in unemployment, the textile workers' union discouraged their being taught, even though Jews belonged to the union. The restriction didn't apply to Christian working-class youngsters, because children of employed weavers automatically had the right to work.

The Jewish members of the textile union began a bitter struggle against this measure, and against the transformation of the union into a guild. I took part in this action as the delegate of the cutters and I was supported by the handweavers' delegates. As the representative body of a workers' organization, the Polish majority delegation couldn't come out openly against the Jewish workers, but all sorts of chicanery were employed in order to prevent the Jews from being allowed into the factories.

Meanwhile, several Jewish workers had managed, by means of connections and bribes, to become trained at the mechanical looms. In addition, some Jews had worked the looms earlier. Yekhezkl Birntsvayg, Yisekher Feld, and others saw to it that more and more Jewish workers made the switch from hand to mechanical weaving, but since all of the jobs were occupied and no new factories were being built, most of the trainees moved to Lodz and sought work there.

A new crisis arose in the years 1927 and 1928, when the Jewish factory owners almost entirely ceased giving piecework to Jewish weavers, giving it to the peasants instead. Only a few of the older hand-weavers retained their jobs, through force of time and privilege; the rest, especially the youth, were simply thrown out of work. The situation was further exacerbated by the taxation policies of the Pilsudski government, which forced children of merchants and petty traders to look for factory work. Most of these were cutters, and those who were related to the factory owners were given jobs at the expense of the previous workers. In certain cases the expelled workers were even given severance pay.

In response to all this, attempts were made to organize the remaining Jewish hand-weavers, and to convince the peasant weavers to charge higher prices so as not to compete with the Jews. Unfortunately, the crisis in the textile industry in 1928 ruined our attempts to resolve the differences between the peasants and the Jewish weavers.

In 1930 M. Zhukhovsky built a large factory and brought about 130 mechanical looms from Pabyanets. We began to intervene in order to have Jewish workers employed as well. The manufacturer agreed, on one condition: the Jews were not to work Sabbaths or Jewish holidays, and on Friday they were to work only the morning shift. After long negotiations, the Christian workers agreed to work only the afternoon shift on Fridays and to let the Jews work the morning shift. Thus the Christian workers also benefited from the Sabbath day: the Jewish workers had no choice but to agree to all of the conditions, although they lost six hours of work every week. Finally, good relations were established between the Christian and Jewish workers.

Meanwhile new winds were blowing from Lodz. The Polish professional unions, which were dominated by the National Workers' Party, began to agitate against the employment of Jewish workers, and even went out on strike over this issue.

Good relations between Polish and Jewish workers prevailed for a long time in Belkhatov. Jewish delegates were elected alongside Poles, and we conducted economic and political actions together, because we were under the jurisdiction of the central office of the professional unions in Lodz. But bit by bit antiSemitic influences became visible in the ranks of the Polish workers, some of whom were reluctant to accept the idea that Jews were also to be employed in the factories. Anti-Semitic agitators began to appear in Belkhatov, attacking the unified socialist spirit that reigned there, and it didn't take long for them to bring about tragic results. One day the Polish majority in the union passed a resolution saying that every worker had to work the standard eight-hour day. In other words, the Polish workers were no longer required to work for the Jews on the Sabbath, even though they, received special wages for doing so. Furthermore, the Friday shifts were no longer to be switched to allow Jewish workers to work mornings only. If Jews wouldn't work on the Sabbath, the machines were to stand idle. Of course, many Jewish workers would have been willing to work on the Sabbath, but the Orthodox Jewish manufacturers would under no circumstances agree to this, nor would they, allow the machines to stop.

At the initiative of the Bundist party, committee, a meeting of all Jewish mechanical weavers was called. All of the Jewish workers' parties in Belkhatov sent representatives. After discussing the anti-Semitic actions of the executive council of the textile union, in which Jews had long been loyal and active members, it was decided to withhold union dues for the time being, to renew the effort to establish Jews in mechanical jobs, and to obtain equal rights for Jews and Christians in every respect.

These resolutions were immediately announced to the union executive and to the Jewish manufacturers, and a committee was elected to lead the campaign. The members of the committee were Yekhezkl Birntsvayg, Moshkovitsh, Yisekher Feld, M. Yakubovitsh, Gedalye Shtayn, and the writer of these lines. The situation was very tense. The main struggle was conducted in Zhukhovsky's factory, where mostly Jewish workers were employed.

Thus several suspenseful weeks passed. The anti-Semitic agitators spread propaganda saying that Jews wanted to destroy the eight-hour day; meanwhile, we began an educational campaign among the more class-conscious workers. With great effort we succeeded, and the factories remained open. On the one hand we warned the Polish workers that under no circumstances would we allow ourselves to be pushed out of the factories; on the other hand, we argued that the maintenance of the previously established conditions was in the common interest of all the workers. The conflict continued for quite some time, but seeing our determination to defend our right to work, the Polish delegates eventually announced that they would accept our demands. Thus ended in Belkhatov a chapter of the struggle for the right to work of the Jewish working class.

The Jewish workers of Belkhatov continued in the avant-garde of the struggle for better working conditions. Under their influence, the textile workers of Belkhatov took part in several demonstrations against the prevailing political terror in Poland, and even on behalf of the rights of the Jewish population. In addition, several political actions were conducted in common, including those during the Vienna events of 1932 (the workers' revolution against the Dollfuss regime), during the Pshitik affair, against the institution of separate seating for Jewish students in Polish universities, and in various other instances. True, the black shadows of anti-Semitic propaganda more than once attempted to poison the peace among the workers, but in Belkhatov, thanks to the determination of the Jewish workers, it rarely had much success.

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