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Jewish Occupations

        How did Jews earn a living in Drohitchin, and who employed them? The quick answer is that they made their living from the landowner and the peasant. Drohitchin never had any factories or industries. Until World War I, there were only two tanneries in Drohitchin; they tanned rough animal hides, shoe soles and light leather. There was briefly also a small straw factory in town that produced straw bottle covers, and a small oil press that produced seed oil, a product needed by the peasants. Those little factories were destroyed in a fire during World War I, and were never rebuilt.

        For several years there existed a small candle factory, which produced wicked candles. That factory was the subject of a story in Drohitchin. In the middle of Yom Kippur in 1910, the candle factory caught fire from a flame that constantly burned there. Due to the fact that it was Yom Kippur, no one wanted to violate the Sabbath laws, and thus let the fire burn. In the meantime, the fire spread to neighboring houses, and it was permitted to put the fire out. However, by that time the fire spread out of control, and the result was that half of the town (starting from the Sand) burned to ashes.

        Most Jews in Drohitchin were small traders: storeowners, merchants and brokers engaged in the animal and horse trade, etc. There were also the artisans and workers, such as bricklayers, carpenters, glaziers, painters, blacksmiths, tailors, shoemakers, quilt makers, saddlers, furriers, bakers, tinsmiths, locksmiths, watchmakers, etc. There were also a few big businesses engaged in forestry and lumber, and ox traders, but no longer existed in Polish Drohitchin.

[Photo:] Part of Pinsker Street (spared during the fire) under German occupation in 1916

        Trading and Stores

Jews used to travel through the villages and buy merchandise from the landowners and peasants: cattle, oxen, calves, sheep, horses and various agricultural

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products such as grain, and then sell it in town for local use, or sell it to exporters, who loaded it on to freight wagons and transport it to the large cities. Another well-known occupation was that of the village peddlers, who used to travel through the villages carrying a sack, and who traded with the peasants for a pud [36 lbs.] of seeds, a hen or pig hair, and then sell it in town.

[Photo:] A large trade fair in Drohitchin after World War I.

        Another major source of livelihood was during the large trade fairs, smaller Monday fairs before Passover, and the usual market days. During the large fairs, the entire town was filled with peasants and merchants, who came from the surrounding villages and more distant towns and cities. People were tightly packed back to back. The peasants would come to town to sell animals, calves, horses, hens, eggs, potatoes, corn, oats, millet, barley, seeds (to make oil), mushrooms, pig hair, sheep wool, home-made flax linen, etc. The peasants had nothing to take back home; they sold off everything to Jewish merchants in Drohitchin and other cities.

        The peasants didn't take home the money they made from their produce either, because they exchanged it in Jewish stores, which they cleaned out of merchandise. At each fair, the stores had to hire extra help to deal with the demand. The peasants bought up the smallest household items: sewing thread, fabric for clothing, herring, heating oil, candles, mushrooms, salt, fish oil for their boots and tar for their wagon wheels. They also bought ironware such as scythes, sickles and plows and other implements, etc. The peasant could find everything in any Jewish store, from needles and threads to a pound of tar for greasing their wagon wheels. (You could never even find such an assortment of merchandise and bargains in Woolworth's stores.)

        The bakers and tavern keepers also enjoyed success. The peasants loved to sit down to eat a white bread roll and drink a bottle of kvass (a type of lemonade). This was holiday time for the peasants; they especially enjoyed buying white bread rolls, herring and kvass, which they considered a very tasty combination, for their festivals. There were many treats and gifts during those days; the peasants drank lots of whisky and vodka, but not much beer.

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