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Economy and Institutions (Cont.)

[Page 41]

The Lumber Trade and the Lumber Yard

Zvi Persitz (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

In 1924, my father, Yakov Mordehai Persitz, left Harkov and moved with his family to Vilna. He was a well-to-do lumber merchant, highly experienced in the field. I worked for Mr. Beikovich who was an agent for a paper manufacturing plant called “Papirovka”. Its head office was in Koenigsberg. I traveled to Lubinitz on business and an event occurred there which helped considerably in the economic development of Rokitno. By pure chance I met, in the railroad station cafeteria, Mr. Siniavsky, born in Harkov and one of its wealthier citizens. At the time he was residing in Warsaw and he was dealing with a railway company whose head office was in Vilna.

Mr. Siniavsky told me that he was looking for my father. He was ready to conclude a large business deal - buying the forest land of Rokitno and its surrounding area. He himself was not knowledgeable in these matters and that is why he wanted to include my father in this deal. I gave him our address and a few days later he came to Vilna to meet with my father.

This is what it was all about, Siniavsky's offer to my father: there was a large ancient forest area near Rokitno. No human foot had ever stepped in it. Its length was 25 kilometers and it reached the villages of Ostoki, Karpilovka, Borovey and Blezhov. These lands bordered on Soviet territory and served as hiding places for infiltrators and elements unwanted by the Polish government. Therefore, the Polish Defense Ministry decided to cut down a large part of these forests in order to create open spaces and to get rid of the danger from infiltrators or, at least to lessen the danger. The job was given to a non-Jewish firm and it proved unsuccessful. The authorities turned to Siniavsky for help.

My father was interested in the proposition but, before agreeing to it, he wanted to visit Rokitno in order to investigate for himself. In 1925, my father came to Rokitno with my uncle Yehoshua Betzalel Persitz who was also a lumber expert. They slept over in the home of Aharon Litvak and then proceeded to tour the area in a horse and buggy. They visited Ostoki, Karpilovka, Borovey and Blezhov. My father returned to Warsaw greatly encouraged by his visit and told Siniavsky that he would accept the government contract because he felt it was a gold mine and that a great deal of money could be made. My father found in these forests high quality trees for which there was great demand in the world. Among them were beech, oak, pine and other fine trees.

According to my father's recommendation, a partnership was formed. Its members were: the engineer Frumkin from Warsaw, Siniavsky, my father and my uncle. (A year later, my uncle left the partnership and opened a large business in the Grodno forests).

The new plant invigorated Rokitno. In those years it was a large village and there was much poverty. There was economic growth and the population increased quickly. Many Jewish businessmen from the area and from places far away came to settle in Rokitno. They saw great opportunities for good business and for making money. In those days, we referred to our village as “Little America”.

The forest-clearing project (a length of 25 km) became a great source of employment for Jews and non-Jews alike. In order to understand the scope of this era, it is sufficient to say that 3,000 non-Jews were employed with their wagons. It was necessary to mobilize villagers from the area. There was a whole fleet of horse and buggies. They were housed in canvas tents, in the forests. Dozens of Jewish families earned their living by providing food, clothing and felt boots for the forest workers.

A large office was opened in Rokitno. It had 120 clerks - most of them Jews. Some were Jews from other villages. The workers were paid weekly. The payments began on Saturday at noon and ended early Sunday morning. There were three locations: Karpilovka, Borovey and Ostoki.

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The New Sawmill

The lumber of Rokitno was well known in all of Europe because of its high quality. Important firms in England, France, Belgium and Germany sent their representatives to Rokitno to buy the outstanding lumber. Because of all the languages spoken in the streets of Rokitno, it looked like an international village. The English firm “Neam and Booth”, one of the large lumber export firms, had permanent representatives in Rokitno who stamped the trees with the firm's logo and looked after their transport. The top directors in London even came at times to Rokitno, toured the forests, and selected the best lumber. Even the firm “Parmentier and Partners”, one of the large firms representing sawmills in France and Belgium, bought a great deal of lumber. Maurice Parmentier lived in Rokitno for two years and dealt in the transport of oak trees to France and Belgium.

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Loading Of Logs On Freight Cars

Standing, third from right below: Mordecai Hamer
Last one on the left: Avraham Golod
Standing on freight car on the right: Haim Berezovsky



However, the partnership did not only send lumber, but it also gave advice on lumber products. For that purpose, my father built a large sawmill in Rokitno which worked non-stop day and night. Aside from the “Huta”, it was the only place that was lit by electricity. The sawmill produced railroad ties, boards, building planks and beams. The products were destined for export and for the local market in many parts of Poland. Rokitno flooded the markets in Poland and other European countries. There was so much lumber that the wagon drivers could not keep up and it was necessary to build a narrow gauge railroad, 12 km in length, to the forests in Borovey and Karpilovka in order to bring the lumber on the freight cars. For the sake of accuracy, I must note that the need to build this railway arose from the fact that in the summer and in autumn the movement of wagons was almost stopped because the roads were full of puddles. The lumber was mostly transported in the winter and not enough time was thus available to transport this bounty.

The sawmill fulfilled an important economic role in Rokitno. Many Jewish families earned their living from it. Some of the young men from the “Hechalutz Preparatory Kibbutz” worked there. My father was a Zionist and he admired the physical labor of the enthusiastic and loyal Zionist youth. He also donated lumber for the construction of the Tarbut School in Rokitno.

In 1927 the sawmill burned down and not a trace was left. My father decided not to rebuild because, in the mean time, the price of the lumber went down and there was not a good opportunity for a new sawmill. The demand for unprocessed lumber at better prices grew. Lurie's factory in Pinsk ordered lumber for their production of matches and an important match factory owner in Vienna also became a customer. The lumber business also brought about the beautification of Rokitno. Beautiful large homes were built and the streets were full of life. Many Jews began to trade in lumber and became wealthy. Energetic young people bought remnants and firewood and resold them.

At the end of 1929, the government contract ended and the partnership was dissolved. The firm fulfilled the conditions to the satisfaction of the authorities.

[Page 45]


Haim Shteinman (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The tradition of mutual assistance between people existed for many years. Merciful men and pious women dedicated their time to charitable deeds.

One of the institutions was “Gmilut Hasadim” (Free Loan). Its leaders were Mendel Kercher, Shimon Gendelman, Betzalel Kokel and others. The treasurers would change every year, on Simchat Torah. The funds were donated by the residents. The Free Loan was an important support vehicle for small merchants, poor craftsmen and other needy individuals. A merchant whose affairs were near bankruptcy would receive a loan at convenient terms. A wagon driver whose horse collapsed suddenly and thus he would have no means of making a living, was helped back on his feet. Also, the Free Loan helped a craftsman who wished to open a workshop.

In time, the dimensions of the Free Loan were enlarged and the Popular Bank (Bank Ludovy) was founded. Its director was Asher Zelig Baratz. The bank was mainly helpful to small merchants by granting loans at low interest. The middle class, which included most of the Jews of Rokitno, was rejuvenated with the founding of the bank.

The Torah commandment: “And your brother shall live among you”, became a prime concept for the Rokitno Jews. Therefore, in addition to these financial institutions which were intended for constructive purposes, there was also an unofficial institution of “Secret Giving”. Its activities were purely assistance to the needy. There were some families in Rokitno who were too embarrassed to beg. In order to save them, many of the residents of Rokitno canvassed the population to collect the means to help them anonymously. It was not necessary to press too hard for people to give. All those canvassed gave willingly. They showed their love for their fellow Jews and their wish to help each other. Our parents felt the pain of their brethren who were impoverished and hungry. Among those who were active in the “Secret Giving” we remember fondly Yoel the Shohet, Zeidel Binder, Shimon Gendelman, Hershel Shteinman, Itzhak Shuber, Betzalel Kokel, Mendel Kercher, Berl Shwartzblat and others.

Among the many important charitable activities, I wish to note one example. It was done by my father and left an indelible impression in my memory. A maid from a village near Rokitno worked in our home. She came from a poor family and her father found her a suitable spouse who was also poor. My father acted as the father of the bride and paid for a beautiful wedding party with Klezmer musicians in the Old Shul. All the town residents participated in the festivities and brought gifts for the couple. The young man was nicknamed “Hershel's son-in-law” in Rokitno.

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The Founders of “Righteous Lodging”

Standing: Right to left: 1) Yosef Haim Baum 2) Zeidel Binder 3) Baruch Flehendler 4) Levi Grinshpan 5) Daniel Bender
Seated: 1) Aharon Levin 2) Betzalel Kokel 3) Noah Soltzman 4) Asher Zelig Baratz 5) Shlomo Bender

Another type of institution which existed in Rokitno was “Righteous Lodging”. This institution was active in medical assistance. Its purpose was to provide the poor with inexpensive medications, at times for free. It also covered doctors' fees. The “Righteous Lodging” especially took care of those miserable souls who were chronically ill. In these cases, in addition to providing medications and medical help, nightly vigils over sick beds were made available. In this manner, other members of the household could get a night's sleep.

I recalled here only a few of the charitable and righteous deeds which were performed by the Jews of Rokitno. These are mere examples, which point out the kindness of all Jews and their readiness to help others among them.

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