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Livelihoods in our Town {Cont.}

[Page 161]

The peasants with a variety of clothing, usually winter clothing and furs, that they would not take off even during the summer, would sit on their carriages and gorge themselves with herring. The youngsters would have a good time playing harmonicas and accordions. The peddlers would announce their merchandise. The merchants would pull every peasant to their side with his merchandise. There was a lot of noise all around and the sound of the horses all mingled with the screaming of the young men and women of the village who would listen to the sound of the music box and the parrot on top of the box who would give everybody a fortune that promised good things.

Among the merchants in town there were a small number of store owners who were not Jewish. They, like their Jewish colleagues, would await the market day and the fair. But, the peasants preferred to deal with the Jews. Usually it was a custom that every merchant had his own gentile village and they were his sworn customers. They would trust their Jew and would consult with him about various kinds of purchases that were not in his store.

If he had a wedding in his village this was a day of celebration also for this merchant because several days before the wedding the families would come into the city and do all their shopping wholesale (also bringing their merchandise for sale). They would buy sacks of wheat, sugar, packages of yeast, syrup for baking, etc. The merchant would also help them with their shopping in the textile shops, haberdashery and clothing, and he would receive commission for his labor.

With all of this they worked very hard to make a living. Only a few among them were considered among the rich. After they rebuilt the portion of the commercial center that was destroyed during the First World War and added new shops and merchants, there began a wild competition between the new and old. One would interfere with the business of another. At the same time several shops run by Poles organized as cooperatives and began to attract the peasants with anti-Semitic slogans. In order to avoid the flow of peasants into the city, they established branches of these cooperatives for buying and selling inside the villages. The peasant preferred to bring his merchandise to the city, but these measures damaged his trust in his Jew. The day after the fair and market day there would be quiet in the city as if after a storm. The merchants were busy returning order and cleanliness to the store and renewing the inventory that was sold.

The retailers were usually connected to the wholesalers in Brisk which was close by because there were big stores. As the county seat, Kobrin was tied to Brisk in all administrative and government matters especially in matters of commerce. There were also regular bus connections several times a day aside from the train twice a day.

[Page 162]

More delicate merchandise used to be received by the store owners through two or three agents who would travel every week to Warsaw, the capital. Those agents would fix a certain percentage of commission for their labor.

Areas that were more established than the grocery area (there were about 400 grocery stores) included stores for textiles, clothing, haberdashery, building materials and iron. But their number was very small.

Most of these people would travel to the -capital city themselves and would select their merchandise. Agents of the larger firms also came to Kobrin.

Aside from that, there were several merchants that would bring merchandise in wagon trains. For instance, kerosene, salt, sugar and their business was connected to a concession given by the government for wheat, flour, etc. All the other foodstuffs were either purchased in smaller quantities or produced locally.

It is also worthwhile to remember the business establishments for hard liquor. There were about three of them (which were also connected to a concession). Stores for simple medicine: There was only one pharmacy belonging to a Pole who for many years was the sole pharmacist but in the recent years there was another one added. There were also several stores for stationery and toys, a tavern and several restaurants and a few hotels whose total number of beds was not larger than that in one simple hotel in a big city.

The export merchandise in Kobrin sent outside the city and outside the country were not on a great scale like linen, linen seed, mushroom, hand craft and embroidery, pig's hair, and various skins of animals. All those were concentrated in the hands of a few merchants who would buy from the peddlers and who were connected to wholesale merchants from the outside who bought from them. To the aid of the storekeepers and the artisans would be three credit institutions in town (aside from the branch of the Polish government bank) and these were: The Cooperative Bank, The Bank of the Artisans, and The Bank of the Merchants. Most of their activities were confined to giving loans to their members, short term loans up to half a year and more, and receiving I.O.U's. Details about the activities and business dealings of those banks are not known to me.

Kobrin also had a “dead season” as is customary in the rest of the world. This was during the harvest months of July, August, and September.

[Page 163]

During these months the city was empty of peasants and even during the day of the fair and market days there would appear only a small number of peasants, mainly for two reasons:

  1. because they did not have merchandise to offer for sale (aside from some grain and maybe some fruit) and
  2. because it was the burning season of work that had to be done immediately in the field.
The only transactions that were made were by those peasants who being in need of money would sell the produce of their fields and then would bring it to the buyer after the harvest. Among those sellers were also estate owners who needed money. They would also lease their fruit gardens and some of their field produces. As a matter of fact, a few merchants succeeded in becoming rich from those transactions.

On such days with no traffic the store owners would sit in the entrances to their stores. Those from the older generation would browse in “The Book” or a portion of the Mishna. The more advanced would read a newspaper and they would read all of it including the ads. Or they would assemble in groups by the stores of their neighbors and talk about politics and little bit of gossip and would count the riches of the rich people. (About a vacation they didn't dream, aside from those who would go out because of their illness by order of a physician.)

At the end of the harvest and the gathering of the produce from the field business returned to its cycle and the wheel turned again. A good number of the residents found its livelihood from house work. The profession of shoemaking was divided into two types. One type worked for the village people and their work was not exceptional. The other type worked for the city people and their work was much better. The system and the tools they worked with were primitive and they did not even understand that you could sew shoes with machines. Stitchery was a more respected profession that provided a better livelihood. Aside from stitchery for shoemakers they also sold leather goods. They were the richer people in the city. In the tailoring profession there were only a few tailors who were at a professional level and employed several workers. Usually one tailor would be known as a good one for a certain period and everybody would go to him to give him the work. Then there would be a period when his competitor would have the better reputation. At any rate, sewing a new suit was a family affair for most of the families in the city. Most of the modern peasants would buy their clothes in the clothing stores or from the peddlers in the markets who would sell clothes made out of bad cloth with bad workmanship. The hatters, and there were several of them, made a good living.

Some of the workers were carpenters who would go to the villages and the estates surrounding the city and would come back home for Sabbath and holidays.

[Page 164]

Bricklayers and those who mended stoves, whose number was less than 10, would sit like their friends in the profession during the winter behind the stove and wait for better days. When there began the movement of immigration to Palestine some of the “pioneer” members who had learned to build with bricks did use that talent when they came to Palestine. Glaziers found their livelihood in work for the village people and would wait for existing windows to break.

There were contractors,, two or three in number, who would undertake building work and road work.

Then there were merchants in straw, wheat, and hay that would send it outside the city. There were blacksmiths whose entire livelihood came from the peasants and the coachmen in the city. There was a locksmith who when he fixed a lock or key was looked upon as a divinely inspired artist. Indeed, he had a talent that never found its full expression.

There were several barbers, some of whom were also musicians (with musical instruments). In those days when they did not have any work as barbers the music would cease too.

There were several bakeries that the housewives would not really need them because they would bake their own bread at home and also Challas and cakes. Recently their was an improvement in their situation because many of the housewives began buying ready-made bread.

A unique profession that I haven't found in any other city or country that I have visited is the frying of pancakes, by which two families made a living. During the early morning hours they appeared in the marketplace with their product, prepared from potatoes or buckwheat, and sold the pancakes while they were still hot to their usual customers. Shopkeepers and market people would have this as their first meal.

If we should count the butchers among these professions, then it should be said that it was a fairly established branch which included the slaughterers, four in number. They made quite a good living.

There were two or three photographers in the city and one of them was an excellent professional. There were a few watchmakers, a very honorable profession. Every young student who wanted to learn this delicate work would pay the person who would teach him that work. One of the watchmakers would also rent bicycles for riding by the hour.

[Page 165]

I wonder to this day at those people who copied scriptures. There were two of them in our city and its surrounding cities, a city that was mostly a religious city. They could not make a good living in this city and were very poor all the days of their lives. There were two book-binders whose work was mostly to bind old books, two engravers of tombstones who were not too particular about spelling, and several tinsmiths who plated roofs and fixed old utensils. (One of them was famous and the Poles turned him into their national hero.) There were no plumbers and their place was taken by water drawers who had a “monopoly” for generations, refusing to allow anyone new to enter this work. They sold the water by measuring it from a barrel that sat on top of their wagon. When one had a faucet with a wooden stopper instead, pranksters used to take that stopper in secrecy and cause the owner of the barrel loss of time. The water they drew without any fee from the wells or from the river.

Among the white collar professions were two petition writers, one Jewish lawyer, a sizable number of teachers, one Jewish engineer, a number of Jewish doctors, mostly natives of the city, “doctors” out of practice – quite accepted, by the way – and an additional number of intellectual people, amateurs actors, etc.

A very small number of people found their livelihood in office work, working in the few banks. The simple clerking in private businesses was performed under very bad work conditions. In government institutions such as the post office, the treasury, the government bank, the police or other district government offices, Jews did not have a foothold at all. The only place where Jews could work together with non-Jews was in the municipality, and there they were terribly discriminated against. (80% of the taxpayers were Jews while the number of Jews among the clerks was between five and six. Among them were one engineer, two to three clerks, and two tax collectors who felt themselves above everybody.) The income of the municipality was limited to direct taxes from citizens based on property assessments and the electrical current they received from the electrical station. The services were really deficient and in essential matters the citizens had to take care of themselves.

There isn't much to write concerning industry. There was a very small number of plants at which mostly family members worked. Most of them provided products to the residents of the city and the surrounding area.

The first place in industry was the flour mills. There were three of them, mainly for the peasants with a small portion for export. Power for oil presses was generated by horses walking in a circle attached to an axle diagonally. Later we also had hand presses into which people squeezed the oil. Electric current was not available during the day. That is why electrical generators were not in use.

[Page 166]

There was also a modern candle factory that was closed most of the year. Just prior to the holiday season family members worked there.

Recently there was established a factory for woolen boots. Close to the city were several brick kilns where most of the workers were gentiles. Several tanneries processed simple leather or sheep leathers for furs. In addition, there was one fairly developed industry, the industry of Matzos, and its product was not mostly for export. That work was seasonal, starting on the 15th of Shvat or before that. There were certain men and women who waited all year for the beginning of that season. Among them were those who received fairly good wages for their specialty.

There were also cooperative groups (unintentionally) and they were: groups of coachmen, groups of porters that would take upon themselves a concession by force, working the great loads of trains and cars and coaches belonged only to them. Transportation in the city was by carriages. Most of whose work was to transport passengers to and from the train station. For other loads and commerce we would use carriages and horses even to great distances, like from the city of Brisk (50 kilometers from Kobrin). Later cars were introduced into this transportation scheme.

The part women played in the economy of the city was considerable because many of them were helping their husbands in commerce. The stalls in the market were almost always managed by women (mostly widows) working for themselves; they mostly sold clothes and women's underwear. But most of the time the women were busy running their housework.

This kind of life continued from generation to generation. We did not need much and we were happy in what we had. The saying “Blessed God every day” was always hovering on the lips of people, who did not aspire to great things or complain about the monotony of their lives.

But in the last years before the Holocaust there began to bubble the poison of anti-Semitism among the gentiles. An anti-Semitic movement started and the government also intended to push the Jews out of the economic life. Our city was hurt very much by these politics. The heavy tax burden on Jews out of work, taking out commerce from their hands, etc., constituted quite a hardship. In our city, for instance, there was erected a new commercial center whose stores were rented only to non-Jews and the peasants were forced to concentrate with their merchandise only in that new market place.

[Page 167]

The new generation seeing that the earth was slipping from under its feet began to emigrate en masse to lands beyond the sea. The youth from Zionist organizations increased its immigration to Palestine and in that manner they escaped the destruction. Today they are among the people who are building the nation and the land of Israel.

kob167.jpg [39 KB] - Power station
Power (electric) station

Charity and Charitable Institutions

The Jews of our city fulfilled with their bodies and money the commandment: “All are charged with doing charity, even a poor man who makes his living out of charity.”

A poor man who would go from house to house begging would not be turned away. A passing poor man who stayed in the city for Sabbath would be accepted like a guest for the Sabbath meal. The Mitzva was fulfilled: “And if your brother shall become weak” help a weakened brother. Giving in “secrecy” was the most important of the Mitzvot. For a women who became widowed or was left by her husband without a divorce, or a head of the family who became ill, there were charitable women who took care of them in secrecy without any advertising and without getting paid for their deeds.

[Page 168]

Neighbor women would bring whatever they could in secret without their husbands knowing. Sometimes you would meet on a weekday men and women dressed in Sabbath clothes and you knew that they were going out to collect donations in larger sums in order to save a soul and to send a sick person to expert doctors in the capital city, or to a place where they could recuperate. Sometimes also for more productive goals, such as making it possible for a poor bride to be married, everyone donated handsomely.

During the First World War when the refugee camps arrived at Kobrin, residents attempted to ease the suffering as much as possible. A fine custom that went from generations to generation in many families was to put away Challah for the needy from whatever a family would bake for itself.

If there was a fire in the city or in the neighborhood there would immediately be found people that would offer help to the “burned ones” with food and clothing. All this was done witohout any propaganda, without any organizing to coax people to all these activities. Everyone was among those involved with the deeds.

In addition there were charitable organizations, “companies.” There the actions were directed by special committees.

An old folks home that was located at the end of Ratner Street was in our city even during World War I. Though it was not well endowed and was impoverished, the citizens tried as much as possible to offer their help. This institution had a much better time after it started receiving help from America.

An orphanage was established during the last year of the World War by a committee that assumed the responsibility for orphans. It collected them in the city. Mostly they were orphan refugees who found temporary shelter in Kobrin. They were arranged in a home where people took care of their food and clothing. The institution was in the large building at the end of Traugota. It occupied a large wing of that building.

After aid starting coming from America this institution was one of the best managed in town. The kids were dressed handsomely and their food was plentiful. They received their education in the city schools, each student according to his wish.

At the end of the World War there were organized by the “Joint” in the city kitchens and free food houses for the children of the city. All the kids received a nourishing free lunch.

[Page 169]

One of the rules of the food house was that the children had to eat the meal on the spot. When they came out they were checked to make sure they did not take any food with them outside the house. From time to time guests from America visited this institution and other institutions in the city. The workers in the food house were the young people of the city and a large portion of them worked as volunteers.

Another institution that almost all groups in the city enjoyed was the Jewish hospital that was located on Pinsker Street (Third of May). The richer people did not need this hospital and when there was an empty bed there was no discrimination. The hospital also conducted preventative medicine among the residents.

There was a hospice with the goal of visiting the sick and lending medical instruments such as thermometers, hot water bottles, etc. It had ice during the summer days at a greatly reduced price or free and sometimes medicine and doctors without fee or at reduced prices to poor people. But the main activity was “sleeping,” attending to a poor person. When a person had a serious disease and needed care during the night hours, members of the group were sent by rotation and without any fee, replacing family members who were tired from taking care of the sick person. This was very beneficial. The budget of this institution was based on income from the members or fund raising campaigns on occasions.

A yearly charitable event, as was the custom in other Jewish congregations, was the “Maot-Chitin,” which was supposed to provide for the needy over the Passover holiday. The Rabbi together with important people in the city would visit the volunteers for that purpose, and of course there would be a good sum collected that made it possible to supply the needs of the city's poor.

One day during the year when restrictions were loosened was the holiday df Purim. On the night of the banquet various people appeared in order to collect donations. To this day it is not known whether they collected these donations for themselves or divided it among needy people. Because they were ashamed, many put on a disguise so as not to be recognized. During the banquet, the men of the house sat very leisurely at the table with the rest of the people while under the tablecloth they distributed coins generously. Purim players were organized, a group with a long tradition behind them. They visited the homes of the rich people and performed the “Selling of Joseph” and the “Sacrifice of Isaac.” These players were Jews who had large families. Throughout the rest of the year they worked very hard and the income from Purim was vital to balancing their budgets for the upcoming Passover holiday.

[Page 170]

kob170.jpg [30 KB] - Old folks home in Kobrin
Old folks home in Kobrin

The Chevra Kaddisha [Burial Society] was another organization that performed serious charity and whose members worked voluntarily. The group's income was ensured. It was based on the income of the family of the deceased, according to the estimate of the members of the company. There was a story about one of the rich people in town who died but was not buried right away because his family was bargaining. The police intervened and arranged for a donkey's burial. The only salary of the burial society people was a banquet befitting a king on the 9th day of Kislev (according to their tradition) and the drinking of hard liquor after a funeral.

Apart from all the contributions that I enumerated above were people who loaned money to the needy as a benevolent act. Also, they contributed to various fundraising campaigns and Yeshivot, etc. And especially to Zionist fund raisers.

The residents who struggled to make a living and could barely manage to make enough for bread nevertheless opened their hearts and their hands for anything that had to do with charity.

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