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The Life Pulse Of Krinki

By Shmuel Geler

Translated by Eszter Andor and finished by Judie Goldstein

The Economic Life of the Jews

When the First World War ended, new frontiers and new countries appeared on the map of Europe. Independent Poland came into being. Life started gradually to return to normal. Although there was still great poverty, the first buds of renewed, creative and constructive work appeared here and there. The aftereffects of the war could long be felt in Krinki. The financial assistance of the Joint [international Jewish relief organization] and former Krinki compatriots now living in America helped Krinki Jews a lot to make it through the difficulties of the transition period.

[p. 160]

In the first years of Polish independence, most of the manufacturers that had evacuated their enterprise to Russia during the war returned to the town. The shtetl slowly started to come to life again. The closed tanneries opened their gates that had been locked for so long. The leather workers rolled up their sleeves; and after a long interruption the tanners gave out a sharp smell of wet skin, slaked lime and oak once again.

Disregarding the differentiation between the various tannery trades, all leather workers were united by their common fate and fight. The tannery owners experienced good periods of prosperity as well as bad periods of crisis. The leather workers never had any good times. They could hardly make ends meet even in the better periods when there was plenty of work. And their situation was much worse in the frequently recurring years of crisis. The Krinki leather workers knew well what it was like to be unemployed for long months on end, when poverty reigned in their homes and the shopkeepers and bakers gave no more food on credit. The children of the workers looked yearningly on a piece of rosy bread. The unemployment benefit distributed by the state was hardly enough to buy water to make porridge.

But the leather workers did not crack. The suffering and the constant fight made them harder and tougher. They were all organized in their professional unions and it was impossible for someone who was not a member of the Union of Leather Workers to get seasonal work even for a day. Krinki was always famous for being a stronghold of the Bund, which had many members and sympathizers among the tannery workers. The Bundists were in a majority in the leadership of the Union of Leather Workers. Their leader Nakhum Bliakher was the secretary of the Union for many years. The communists also had a visible influence among the tannery workers. They were represented by Zeydl Zaleski in the leadership of the Union for a long time. Although there were a lot of Zionists among the tannery workers, they had no influence in the Union of Leather Workers. The Zionist tannery workers preferred to indulge themselves in the “Merkaz” (the Center) rather than in their professional union.

The cramped union hall was always crowded. The workers came here to talk about all that was weighing on their minds, to ask for protection and work. Many of them had no stable work place. The Union made great efforts to secure work for all its members but it was not always successful. Sometimes the manufacturers did not want to employ a newly sent worker, and sometimes the permanent workers of the factory would also object to a new worker.

Although the leather workers and the manufacturer prayed in the same beys medresh [synagogue] and went around with the same Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah, they did not have an idyllic relationship. The shtetl was small but the class conflicts were great. The town saw frequent work conflicts and strikes, which lasted for days and sometimes for long weeks. And there was no strikebreaker among the Krinki workers. The leather workers displayed a lot of persistence and class-consciousness in the strikes. True to their revolutionary tradition, they fought hard for their rights.

If we disregard their daily worries, the leather workers lived an intensive political and spiritual life. One of their main concerns was the education of the younger generations. The majority of the leather workers' children studied in the Yiddish elementary school where they received a secular education. The parents displayed a lot of love and devotion in maintaining the Yiddish Tsisho school.

[p. 161]

kry161.jpg - A group of elementary school children and their teachers
A group of elementary school children and their teachers

They often gave their last zloty to help cover the ever-growing costs and debts of the school. The leather workers could not afford to give more than an elementary education to their children. None of their children studied in gymnasium and only a few chosen ones continued their studies in a teacher training college or in a trade school.

The Krinki leather workers were interested in reading Yiddish books, daily newspapers and followed with great interest what was going on in the wider world. The trial of Sacco-Venzetti, the civil war in Spain and the notorious trials in Moscow were all echoed among the workers in Krinki. They felt sympathy for the freedom fighter and condemned the show trials staged in Moscow.

The tannery industry in Krinki experienced a certain degree of prosperity in the last few years before the Second World War. The tanneries increased their production; beside the “traditional” leather products such as sole, "distressed leather," bootleg and tongue, a new product came out: a soft, thick “piece sewed under” which functioned as uppers, especially for leather fancy goods.

A considerable number of local Christians and peasants from the surrounding area made a living from the leather industry. The Christians worked mostly as wet tannery workers and in other simpler trades. The number of leather workers continued to grow on the eve of the Second World War.

[p. 162]

Technology reached Krinki as well. Machines appeared in the Krinki factories. The majority of the manufacturers had their own steam engine and electric power and finally high wind turbines also appeared. The workers no longer had to turn the drums by hand for long hours. As one was driving along the highway from Krinki to Grodno or Sokolke, one could see the tall smoking chimneys of the factories and the wind turbines – it was like a “little Manchester.” The shtetl was working; an intensive economic life was pulsing in the city. Jewish initiative and capital, the efforts and hard work of Jewish professionals created an economic value, which was beneficial for the whole shtetl. Shopkeepers, commissioners, packers, artisans and coachmen all made a livelihood from the ramifying leather industry.

The Second World War, which broke out unexpectedly, and the bloody German occupation destroyed everything that the Jews had built up over many decades. Jewish manufacturers and workers, the poor and the rich, all had the same fate: Treblinka, Auschwitz and death.

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