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Economic Life

Jewish Metropolitan City

by Arye Avatihi

Translation by Sara Mages

The city of Rovno was known for its special importance. Indeed, it is not as old as its sisters: Ostroh, Dubno, Lutsk, Kremenets and other old communities in Wolyn. Not its beauty, nor its unique style, differentiates it from other large cities in the Jewish Diaspora and also its personalities didn't exceed those in neighboring cities. Nevertheless, it was different among its sisters. The difference has been particularly noticeable in recent generations with the increase in the pace of its development from year to year due to various factors which changed its structure, composition and character in almost all fields. Anyone, who remembers the city half a century ago, from the Tsarist period, would agree that it deserves the crown of metropolis and, in fact, ancient Lutsk wasn't the main city of Wolyn, but rather Rovno, which is younger but more developed and advanced economically, publicly and socially.

Attracting population, especially Jews – was a prominent goal of the city. This phenomenon must certainly be attributed to the development of trade, which placed Rovno in line with the large and developed cities. Of all the populated towns in the vicinity people were drawn to Rovno to arrange their purchases and bring to it from the produce of the estates, villages and towns in the region for the purpose of importing the merchandise to the cities and abroad. For decades, Rovno was known as a trading city and a center for the export of lumber and forest products, grains, hops, fruit, eggs, dairy products, skins, soap, bricks and more, and also various rural handicrafts.

There were other important reasons to the growth of Rovno: its public approach to matters of the

 


Movement on The 3rd of May Street (Shossejna) from the corner of 13th Division

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general public, and to questions of social organization, charity, welfare and politics. There were always Jews in Rovno for whom the concern of the general public was theirs, and those who saw the need to care for the needy, to donate and solicit donations for help. The concern for the poor was important to the city's leaders and its communal workers. In addition, a wide range of activities were developed in the local community in its religious education system: Talmud Torah, housing for scholars and their maintenance, construction of prayer houses and the maintenance of cantors in them, etc. In the last century, Rovno reached the peak of its social, national and cultural growth. After the Russian Revolution the community was organized on democratic foundations and was protected by law. Reforms were made in charitable and benevolence institutions and various aid projects, most of which were under the supervision of the community. New institutions, planned and founded, were established in the areas of aid, health, welfare, education and more.

After the First World War, and the revolution in Russia, life in the city has been changed: a broad political and social movement was developed in the general and national spheres of life which earned a reputation for Rovno in the Polish state and the Jewish world of Eastern Europe. During this period, the city flourished as a border–city populated by people of several nationalities, a city of commerce, industry and culture, and above all, a Jewish–Zionist city with Hebrew and pioneering education. Rovno's character was always Jewish and, in the last generations, Zionist spirit prevailed within the Jewish life.

In general, most of the time the Jews constituted sixty to seventy percent of the general population in Rovno. The plagues, which spread over various periods in the past century, did indeed afflict the city's Jews, but eventually their number grew. From the population census in Rovno it appears that from 890 Jews in 1765 its number reached to 19,791 in 1910 and 28,000 in 1939.

Due to the proximity of the place to the Austrian border, concentrations of the Russian army were established in Rovno and barracks were built at the edge of the city. Soldiers and officers always met the in the city's streets and there is no doubt that the city enjoyed the army barracks and the commerce it provided.

 


The commercial area on The 3rd of May Street (Shossejna)

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There were regular “fairs” in Rovno and they were a blessing for the economy of the city and its inhabitants. Many flocked to these “fairs” from the surrounding towns and villages, to buy, sell and exchange. Another factor in the development and advancement of the city was its convenient geographical position and the paving of the main road, Kiev–Brisk, along the length of the city, and the south–west railway line which divided the city between its old part and the suburb of Hovalia. The area's farmers, and Jewish merchants, arrived with their goods to the city and in exchange bought various commodities, materials, etc. Some came by train and most came in wagons and on foot. The city and its markets were crowded most of the time.

 


In the Rovno market

 

A State Bank and other banks, large trading houses for the grain of well–known companies and merchants were opened in the city. In addition, the trade in fabrics and textiles, merchandise, groceries, iron, notions and more was expanded . A number of craft industries and light industries were developed: flour milling, brick production, soap, matches, candy, furniture, brewery, clothing, footwear, tannery, tobacco for cigarettes and many more. Almost all these factories were located in or near the city, and all were the product of Jewish initiative. Indeed, in some industrial plants, such as: brick incinerators, brandy distilleries in the district, beer factory, flour mills and in the only foundry for steel in the area there were also many non–Jewish workers, but they consisted of a minority among all workers.

It should be noted, that among the branches of trade, the trade in textile, grain and forests flourished the most. Due to the large turnover in Rovno's trade, many came for their various businesses – merchants, agents, manufacturers, brokers, buyers and sellers, owners of estates and small farms, and shopkeepers from the towns in the immediate and distant surroundings. Even ordinary people came to Rovno to buy their own goods on the assumption that they would find not only a selection of goods but also at a reduced price. In addition, it was possible to order there a garment, or a dress, tailored to fashion. In Rovno, there were specialist doctors, lawyers, teachers, who weren't found in a small town and, in general, it was possible to arrange in the city all matters that couldn't be easily arranged in a small town. The city attracted people to it and its enjoyment from this movement was substantial.

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Every day wagons, laden with goods, left the city for various locations; since the 1920s, when transportation by buses and cars was introduced, the travel in wagons, in areas where the train did not pass, almost ceased. Roads, which strengthened ties with neighboring areas, were paved around the city. In this manner, Rovno, the metropolis, served as a center of all branches of the economy for a large part of Wolyn and Jewish communities in this region and thus Rovno developed in the last three or four decades into its flowering period before the Holocaust descended on it.

In Rovno, the metropolis, various economic and cultural enterprises, which were a glory to the city and a blessing for its Jewish and non–Jewish residents, sprung up. The Rovno–Kovel–Warsaw railroad line crossed Rovno from the mid–nineteenth century, while the Rovno–Vilna line was only paved in 1885. These railway lines eased the growing traffic on the road leading through the city to Brisk. The city itself expanded during the Polish rule (1920–1939) and could rightly compete with large cities and well–known centers in Poland. Jewish Rovno also did not lag behind in the field of sports and alongside the Polish sports associations there were Jewish associations that excelled and added respect to the city's Jewish population. The Red Army, which entered Rovno at the end of 1939, shifted the life of the metropolis on other tracks and the way of life has changed radically.


Banks and monetary institutions

by Feibel Berliner

Translation by Sara Mages

As a developed commerce city in the center of Wolyn, which had commercial relations with centers and cities around it, Rovno was in need of financial institutions. In the distant past financial businesses were arranged in the city by loans from individuals and postal transfers, or through banks in the big cities nearby. Those in need of loans turned to moneylenders and various brokers. In those days R' Gur–Arye Meizlish worked in Rovno as a private banker. The Commercial Bank in Minsk, which had connections with Rovno, opened a branch there. At that time there were no other banks in the city.

In 1890, when Czar Alexander III came to Rovno accompanied by his family and entourage to observe the military maneuvers of the Kiev–Warsaw region and stayed there for eight days, a group of Jewish merchants submitted a request to set up a branch of the State Bank for the development of the city and its surroundings. The request received attention and in 1895 a State Bank was opened in Rovno. Shortly after its opening, in 1896, the bank began to give loans against promissory notes to merchants, landowners, and others. A committee of dignitaries was established next to the bank to examine the ability of the borrower and those who signed the promissory notes. The loans were approved on the recommendations of the committee and the bank deducted the merchants' promissory notes in good faith and favorable terms. Everyone, who was privileged to be one of the bank's customers, enjoyed it, and the benefit of the bank to the Jews of Rovno and the entire city was great.

Alongside the State Bank there was also a government treasury, “Kaznacheistvo,” which had major roles, mainly for the needs of state institutions.

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At the beginning of the 20th century, a branch of the bank of the brothers Shmuel and Yudel Lurie of Pinsk opened in Rovno. After it, Mr. Pinchas Gelferson opened his private bank. In those days, R' Zalman–David Levontin, manager of the branch of the Bank of Pinsk in Rovno, planned to establish a large bank for the development of Rovno and the entire district of Wolyn, but the idea was postponed when he moved to London in the service of the “Jewish Colonial Trust.”

In the years 1905–6, there was an awakening among various circles and masses of Jews in Russia. Economically, the situation improved somewhat, but the immigration from the cities, especially from the towns, continued and even increased. This has led to the fact that many localities began to establish public welfare institutions such as Loan and Savings Fund (which were called “Benklach,” meaning small banks in the towns) in order to provide simple and inexpensive credit to the masses – shopkeepers, craftsmen and those in need of credit, and to release them from the burden of private loan sharks who charged weekly installments with the addition of exorbitant rate of interest.

These funds were people's institutions built on the foundations of mutual aid. Anyone, who needed help from the fund, registered as a member and paid a membership fee of ten percent of the approved loan in order to pay it in weekly installments. The loans were given against liabilities and guarantees. These funds were supported by the Jewish Charitable Association which periodically invested money in them.

Such a fund was founded in Rovno in 1906 by a number of public activists. At the head of the fund stood Pinchas Gelferson, who later became a private banker and eventually the initiator and manager of a large public bank. Among the other members of the bank's management, who were elected at a general meetings, were: Meir Botzkobski (a local merchant), Shimon Tabachnik (activist from the craftsmen's circles).

This Jewish loan and savings fund in Rovno, which existed under the name, The Second Loan and Savings Fund, operated and developed until 1921. Around the same time, a “Reciprocal Credit” bank was established in the city followed by a Commercial Bank. At the head of the management of “Reciprocal Credit” stood the well known merchant, Shlomo Kolikovicher, and its managers were: Mordechai Schtrich and Shlomo Waldman. The head of the Commercial Bank was Moshe Zilberfarb (who later became Minister for Jewish Affairs under the Ukrainian regime)

 


Management and staff of the Mutual Aid and Insurance Association next to the People Bank in Rovno, 1912:

Dr. Yakov Guzman, chairman; Juz – vise chairman, Efraim Cacica; Simcha Winocur;
Melech Blai; Shmuel Weinzweig; Shmuel Melamed; Natan Angelchik – bookkeeper;
Shimon Tabachnik – treasurer; Gorenstein – bookkeeper; Yeshaya Schictaw – bookkeeper; Noah Brusiker – collector.

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and its first manager was the Zionist activist Yitzhak Melamed. These three financial institutions, which were people's institutions, stood at the service of their members and were of great value to the trade and economic life of the Jews of Rovno at that time.

The prosperity of the trade in Rovno, and the connections of large firms with the city and its environs, prompted large banks to operate in this commercial city, and the Azovsko–Donskoy Bank, which operated in all the centers in Russia, acquired the branch of the Bank of Minsk, which became its branch (circa 1909) and developed a broad financial and credit operation in Rovno and its environs. At the same period the private bank of Inlander and Parczuk was opened in Rovno.

During the First World War, when moratorium was declared and many of the merchants and business owners wandered from Rovno to the interior of Russia, the activities of the banks were greatly reduced. The State Bank was transferred from Rovno, and the field of operation only remained for the Loan and Savings Fund whose members, members of the simple poorer class, remained in place. Due to the difficult financial situation they needed the institution more than in normal times, and the institution continued to operate to the extent of its ability and helped many of its members.

With the end of the First World War at the end of 1917, a new financial institution was founded in Rovno – a Jewish People's Bank whose founders were a number of merchants and craftsmen, among them a Zionist majority. In the atmosphere of those days, after the Russian Revolution, the founders hung great hopes on their enterprise. And indeed, the institution grew rapidly, many members of various circles joined it and it obtained a distinguished position in the city. However, it was not long before unwanted tendencies were discovered in the institution and caused, under the conditions of the exchange of government in 1918–20, its closure. The bank did not operate until the Polish rule was established in the city in 1930. Some of its founders re–established it in the name of Bank Ludovy and Israel Zilberdik was appointed bank manager. After he immigrated to Israel, Isaac Brick served as manager.

 


The Jewish People's Bank, the council, management and staff

 

About 1925, the power of the craftsmen, who had joined forces with members of the “Bund,” increased in the bank and as a majority they had a powerful influence on it. Mr. Simcha Platt, a member of the “Bund,” was invited to replace the Zionist manager and the Bank continued to exist as a public institution without the influence of the Zionists.

In 1924, Rovno's Zionists founded a bank named, “Jewish Cooperative Bank.” Among its founders were the esteemed gentlemen: Baruch Kagan, Aharon Lerner, Ben–Zion Eisenberg, Isaac Brick,

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Leib Klika, Yitzchak Berliner and Julian Feldman. In the city they saw the bank as a Zionist bank and, as it grew and succeeded in its operation, they saw the need to change its name to “Commercial Bank.” The acting bank managers were the esteemed gentlemen: Isaac Brick and Yitzchak Berliner, and the management was made up of the esteemed gentlemen: Ben–Zion Eisenberg, Julian Feldman and Leib Klika. In the scope of its business the bank ranked second among the public credit institutions which operated at that time in Rovno, after the Merchants Bank.

The new conditions under the Poles' rule, and the economic prosperity of the city, led to the establishment of several new banks, mostly cooperatives, and they are: Discount Bank, Powszechny Bank Kraditovi, Merchants Bank, Small Merchants Bank, Odbudowy Bank, Homeowners Bank, Handlowy Bank, Powszechna Kasa Kraditova and more.

The Homeowners Bank was founded in 1928 at the initiative of: Moshe Sruatnik, Moshe Roizman, Leibish Beik, Yakov Fishbein, Krepliak, Hersh–Meir Pisuk, Alexander Galferson, Feibel Berliner, Chazanzuk, Orlicht and others. Its main objectives were: to unite the homeowners economically and socially, take care of the status of the homeowners, protect their interests, extend aid to them in credit, and serve as a financial instrument for them. The bank took upon itself to arrange the collections and claims of homeowners, as well as the handling of their taxes. Among the heads of the bank were several non–Jews: Colonel Kowaslki and Mr. Baranowsky, but it was essentially a bank of Jews. From forty members at the beginning of the founding of the bank, the number rose to five hundred in 1931, and it continued to grow and expand its activities. The writer of these lines served as the bank's director from its inception until 1932.

 


Homeowners Bank: management and staff

 

“Discount Bank” was established in 1926 by: Shlomo Kolikovicher, Pinchas Galferson and Nachum Goldberg, and its offices were at the Liberman home on The 3rd of May Street. Officially, the bank was registered as a cooperative institution but, in fact, it was a private institution of its founders who, thanks to their personal records, attracted the city's merchants who had banking connections with it. At first, the bank's business flourished and its turnover was quite large but, in the end, it did not last. One of the reasons for this was the investment in “Spółka Budowlana” which was founded by Mr. Nahum Goldman, a construction contractor whose company built a commercial center in the area of the old market in Wartowa Street.

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The company swallowed a large part of the bank's money that remained stuck in the building (due to the difficult economic situation the shops built in the commercial center were not sold), and made it difficult for the bank's money cycle. In light of this situation, the bank's customers began to leave, or reduce their activities. Depositors began to take out their deposits and when they saw the bank's difficulties they stood in line at the manager's door and demanded their deposits with threats and tears. The crowds especially put pressure on Shlomo Kolikovicher, a local activist and trader that they had trusted for many years, but they couldn't get what was owed to them. The bank's honor declined and it was destroyed. When it collapsed the prestige of it managers, and several of its founders, also fell.

The “Merchants Bank” was one of the major banks in Rovno. It was founded by: Shmuel Alman, David Fisher, Meir Botzkobski, Shimon Katz and others. Its manager was Shimon Katz, who managed to stabilize the bank and acquire a good reputation for it. Most of the city's merchants gave their trust to the bank, tied ties to it, and it blossomed.

“Handlowy Bank” was the financial instrument of small merchants. It was founded in 1924 but began its operation in June 1925, after its founders managed to sell shares to shopkeepers and collect the bank's core capital. The Bank's activities were not broad, but it acted in favor of its members in the framework of regulations and it had no ambitions.


Craftsman organizations

by Yaakov Bar Midot

Translation by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

Although there were earlier attempts to form a craftsmen's organization in Rovno, it would be more accurate to consider 1917 as its founding year. One of the first attempts was by a group of carpenters who established themselves under the name “Artel” in Rovno in 1906. Another one was a small bank called Halva'a ve Chisachon (Hebrew for “Savings and Loan”) which was created around the same time by another group of craftsmen. The craftsmen's organization was heavily involved in Jewish and social life in Rovno from 1917 on. It supported its members' affairs and livelihood and chose representatives to send to Public Institutions as the need arose.

This Zionist awakening was driven by the Balfour Declaration (1917) which was followed by its ratification in the San Remo conference [April 1920, the League of Nations approved the British Mandate of Palestine]. These events had a significant influence on the craftsmen of Rovno and brought them closer to the Zionist movement.

In 1921 Dr. Joshua Gottlieb of Warsaw visited Rovno for a fund–raising drive for the United Jewish Appeal. While leading a workshop for craftsmen, he promoted Zionism and spoke about contemporary issues surrounding the movement. Some of his subjects were on volunteerism and immigration to Eretz Israel. Mr. Avatichi (Garbuz) of Eretz Israel, who had just returned from the 12th Zionist Congress, reported on current events in Eretz Israel and the prospects of settling there. The Zionist spirit at first seemed to be popular in the organization but its influence soon waned. The craftsmen were attracted to the Folkspartei (The People's Party) and during elections often entered into political agreements with anti–Zionists. This new party participated in the 1916 municipal elections in Warsaw and won. Leading this party were Noah Prilocki, Haim Rasner, and others. One of the goals of the People's Party (Folkspartei) was to organize small businesses and craftsmen.

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The organization of Jewish craftsmen in Rovno, as in most Polish cities, was associated with the People's Party in Warsaw led by Haim Rasner. He directed its politics towards the “Sanacja” movement (“Healing”, Pilsudski's revolution ‘slogan’). Rovno's craftsmen also supported Sanacja's anti–Zionist policies. As time went on, however, the influence of the People's Party on Jewish craftsmen diminished.

In 1924 the Jewish craftsmen were faced with a dilemma, the “Zach” problem. Zach was the name for a professional association, one for each craft or art, and they existed across all the different religions of Poland. This problem was of particular importance to Jewish craftsmen as they saw a clear anti–Semitic tendency which would limit their economic freedom. The Jewish press in Poland, including in Rovno, alerted the public to this dangerous trend. Subsequently, the craftsmen's organization put the question of “the Zach” at the top of its concerns at their annual general meeting which took place in January 1925. Eventually, the Polish law mandating Zachs was passed with some adjustments and was enacted in 1928. After this, there was a split in the craftsmen's camp and Rasner was not elected to the Jewish Craftsmen association in the 1937 elections.

At that time, through my involvement in public affairs, I had the opportunity of meeting some activists from the craftsmen of Rovno. I met with members of the Association of Small Merchants for a discussion about the Ludovi Bank – a Credit Institution that was of great benefit to both merchants and craftsmen and was then headed by the Zionist businessman Isaac Brick. We discussed the need to appoint an appropriate number of small merchants to the Bank's management and its Board in order to represent the interests of this group of clients. The speakers at the meeting warned that the city's craftsmen were gearing up to take over the Board's membership. They reported that talks between these two organizations, the Bank and the craftsmen, were preparing a joint list of candidates to achieve a decisive victory in the upcoming elections for the Board. They also noted that the unity in the craftsmen's ranks was exemplary.

An action committee was also elected at that meeting. Later, an agreement on a unified front was reached with the representatives of the craftsmen for a common list of candidates for the Board. As usual, the candidates with the most experience and knowledge were brought into management to represent the shareholders. The representatives of the craftsmen raised the matter of which individuals to assign to management positions and they approached the merchants with this proposal: “you should include, among your board candidates, someone to fill the position of Corporate Secretary. This should be a person who can take minutes at executive meetings, draft decisions, and so on. Candidates of this kind are more numerous among you than among us.”

The craftsmen were unified and voted according to the instructions they received from their leaders. The small merchants, individualists by nature, were not as united and many of them even left the Assembly before the voting began. The craftsmen were encouraged by their success and later on continued to exert their power in other conflicts as well. Both their internal unity and the discipline of their organization set an example for other groups. Some of their most prominent activists at that time were: Haim–David Gamar, Yehuda Katz, Leibel Schmutz, and others.

The craftsmen of Rovno were, on the whole, obedient and followed the instructions of their anti–Zionist party center in Warsaw. However, many of these craftsmen had felt pressured by the party while, in their hearts, they had actually rejoiced after each success by the Zionists. These unsophisticated, good–hearted Jews were preoccupied with financial concerns and missed the warm, encouraging Zionist atmosphere. The Folkspartei leaders in Warsaw overpowered the local laborers and did them a great disservice by stifling their Zionist aspirations.

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A few years ago in Israel, I met an elderly man who used to come to pray in the club of the Tel Aviv “General Zionist” Party every Saturday. I wondered about the man's history and found out that he was from Rovno and that he had immigrated (his second time) to Israel immediately following the Balfour Declaration. When he told me his name, Moshe–Mordechai, I remembered hearing of it in Rovno during some Zionist meetings. He had been held up as a good example to follow by Mr. Isaac Brick. Mr. Brick described Moshe–Mordechai as a fine craftsman, head of a large family and someone who had successfully completed a move to Eretz–Israel. Indeed, he enjoyed much success working there and wrote encouraging letters back home to Rovno.

The eighty–something Rabbi Moshe–Mordechai told me about his first visit to the country in 1909. He had then worked at the Rishon Le Zion Winery as a laborer and toured the country on foot. Afterward he traveled back to Rovno but returned to Eretz–Israel with his family immediately after World War I. Once back here, he worked in Tel Aviv building the Commerce Center and also at rock–quarrying and paving roads. He carried the “Star of David” with the words “If I Forget Jerusalem” engraved on it and even kept the “Zionist Shekels” from those days between the pages of his SIDDUR. For me, he symbolized the “old time” craftsmen of Rovno. Who knows how many families of craftsmen he might have succeeded in influencing to immigrate to Eretz–Israel before the Jews of Poland were annihilated had it not been for the anti–Zionist sentiment emanating from Warsaw.

The leaders of the craftsmen's association in Rovno were Katz, engineer Peres, and Tzirkel. Mr. Mordechai Tzirkel was the Chairman of the organization during the late 1930s and was very active. He also served as a Deputy in the craftsman committee during Mr. Stock's term as Chairman.


The General Bureau of ZACH

by H. B. Hermoy

Translation by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

In 1927–8 Poland enacted a law that organized all the trades into National Bureaus called ZACH, each with chapters in every big city. Such a chapter was also established in Rovno and it was under the influence of the Folkspartei. It included 17 sections: carpenters, builders, blacksmiths, tailors, shoemakers, hairdressers and barbers, painters, bookbinders, bakers, confectioners, watchmakers, butchers, tailors and tinsmiths. This Bureau of the ZACH was called “Kamera” and served the entire population: Polish, Ukrainian and Jewish. Its decisions and actions had both public and state authority. It could determine the ‘right’ of a person to enter a profession and issued employment–related certificates, allocated materials and dealt with tax matters, discounts, etc.

Professionally, all the ZACHs had to be registered and controlled by the Bureau. Without the Bureau, the ZACHs could not operate or receive Polish government support. Thus the Bureau had broad control over the trades and this came to play during election campaigns for local or central institutions.

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Members of the Bureau from the various ZACHs belonged to different professional and political groups. The majority of them in Rovno were Jewish craftsmen without a unifying common goal. The craftsmen were against the ZACH Law at the time of its proposal, seeing it as a danger to Jewish craftsmen. They were successful in introducing some changes and improvements to the draft law. The Bureau had quite a few roles and it did a lot to improve the conditions of the craftsmen in general. However, it also greatly limited the number of permits for individual craftsmen. The Bureau's head in the 1930s was the writer of this column who, not being associated with any one particular party, put a lot of effort into having the Bureau work for the benefit of all its members.

The Bureau ceased operations when the Russians entered Rovno in 1939 and abolished all public institutions in the city.


Printing Houses

by Arie Harshak

Translation by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

From the end of the eighteenth and all during the nineteenth century, there were printing press houses located throughout cities and towns in the regions of Volhynia and Galicia. As a result, the Volhynia region may rightly be considered the pioneer of Jewish printers. The first partition of Poland (1772) left Volhynia under Polish rule while Galicia was cut off and given to Austria. This resulted in the few printers in Volhynia becoming the only suppliers of Holy books to the Jews of Poland and this produced a demand that exceeded supply. Additional printing presses were needed and so, out of necessity, other well–known printing houses in Ostrog, Aleksinets, Dubno, Zhytomyr, Berdichev, Sudilkov, Slavuta, Polonnoye, Poritzk, Korets, Radzivilov, Greater Mezerich, Belozirka, Bazaliya were founded. These new establishments produced many books – in particular, Holy books and books by rabbis and teachers. All these printing houses were considered among the first in Poland and they were very important for both the Jewish communities in Poland as well as Jews in other countries.

The city of Rovno had not yet become prominent in Volhynia at that time and did not have any printing press houses. This was due to a lack of appropriate conditions to support their development. There was a lack of financial support as well as skilled workers. Additionally, existing printing houses in other cities were satisfying all the printing needs. At the turn of the twentieth century, however, with the city's economic development and growing population, modern commercial printing houses started to appear. The first one, followed by others, was the printing house of Brenner–Bichek. By 1910 Rovno had nine printing houses. But their main business was not printing books as it had been in Volhynia's old printing shops. These more recent printing houses supported the business needs of the city and its surrounding area. The printers main source of income during the period of 1910–1912 was printing commercial “coupons” for businesses. In addition, they did work for the theaters, banks, commercial stores and factories. As well, two Russian–language newspapers which appeared in Rovno before the First World War were also clients.

Following the Russian Revolution, the printing business in particular flourished. It delivered various publications, leaflets, announcements, etc. Additionally, new newspapers appeared and many schools and public institutions were established which also provided the need for printing services.

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The following printing houses date from this period: Brenner, Boyer, Shastkovsky, Gassar, the brothers Henzchuk, Pigel and Litbeck, Tilzmeiger. During the Polish period, 1920–1939, others were also opened: Karmazin in the Volia area, Elaineik, Michal Henzchuk and the Polish printing shop “Drukarnia Samozhondova” which employed Jewish workers too.

The printing industry's expansion in Rovno happened, to a great extent, in this last period. The awakening of various nationalities (Polish, Ukrainian, Jewish) in the city created the demand for published bulletins as well as newspapers in many different languages. In addition, many of these groups conducted much of their propaganda through the printed word. The Santos Orphan Relief Company, whose branches were scattered across Volhynia, founded a center for the education of orphans in the printing profession. This center was always busy. Some of the early pioneers from Rovno were themselves trained in the printing profession before immigrating to Eretz–Israel.

Professionals from other cities moved to Rovno and the industry improved and supported hundreds of families with the growth of the printing business.


The Photographers' Artel

by Yaakov Cherchis

Translation by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

The economic life of Rovno changed dramatically at the end of 1939 when the Polish government left the city and the Soviets entered. Public works stopped almost completely, inventories of goods and materials were running out, prices of whatever was still available rose dramatically except for some food items that were distributed at official prices to the residents. People had to stand in lines to receive their limited allowance.

The ten photographers of the city were among those who suffered. Their work was reduced by the decline of orders and by the lack of materials required for their product. The photographers contacted the Soviet authorities and the mayor's office seeking help. They created a joint group, Artel, which represented the common concerns of the photographers and their salaried employees.

The move was successful. The Artel developed regulations and working standards. It represented all of the photographers in discussions with the Government's Supply Office and, as an organized cooperative, requested the materials and supplies necessary for their work. Indeed, the arrangement worked out nicely from the early 1940s. Everyone involved in the photography business, both the owners of the photography shops and their workers, joined the Artel and this solved their immediate problems. Those who hesitated to join the Artel ran out of materials after a few weeks and begged the Artel to accept them as members.

The Red Army, which was stationed in and around the city or passed through, was a good customer for the Artel.

According to the arrangement, each photographer continued to work on his own and would receive materials allocated by the Ministry of Supply. The income was deposited in a common fund that distributed each person's wages according to their professional standing. The income was adequate and all the photographers made a decent living. While the cost of living continued to rise and living expenses increased day by day, the conditions for the members of the Artel were better than that of other professionals.

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The photographers' cooperative institution, the Artel, was a model for other industries. Its members included: Benjamin Geffen, Meir Kenser, Isaiah Rubinstein, R. Gelperin, Petia Geisler and his partner Kalman, J. Dolinko, Rosa Gassen, the brothers Billy, Katz and Lerner and their roughly 40 employees. The managing Board included Geffen, Gelperin, Dolinko, Edelstein and others, who managed the group's affairs and represented all the members.

The German occupation in June 1942 marked the end of the photographers' Artel in the city.


The Deterioration of the Jewish Economy
And the Sanacja Alliance

by Yaakov Bar Midot

Translation by Meir Razy

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

The Jews of Rovno had always faced ups and downs in their economic conditions, but these fluctuations were usually limited to small sections of the population. However, the economic decline during the Polish rule that followed the First World War was different.

With the creation of the independent Polish State, led by Marshal Josef Pilsudski, the Polish Government enacted discriminatory laws against the Jewish minority. This occurred both in the historical Polish areas and in the areas that were annexed to Poland through several peace treaties. Poles attacked Jews on roads and in streets, thus reminding the Jews that from now on they were at the mercy of the new Polish rulers. Patriots would openly declare: “Long live Pilsudski – beat–up the Jews” and attacks against the Jewish population spread across the country. Sometimes they took on an ominous form of menace, just as in the days of the Russian Tsar. The authorities saw the attacks and registered the victims' complaints but turned a blind eye and did not respond in any meaningful way.

In addition to the physical attacks, the Polish political parties started restricting Jewish rights. The Jews in Rovno, Brest, Grodno and the other annexed frontier regions were not spared, as the rulers intended to instill Polish culture over the newly acquired territories. Anti–Semitism, which was entrenched in Poland, re–emerged and posed an additional danger in the new Polish constitution. However, it also seemed that the more modern views of the victorious World War I superpowers' resulted in more sympathy for Jews and their rights (the affirmation of the Balfour Declaration, securing minority rights, etc.). The Jewish delegation to the League of Nations in Paris, along with other minorities, demanded an official stand by the League opposing anti–Semitism and any limitation of Jewish rights. Subsequently, the League's position somewhat restricted the Polish government and Parliament from limiting the rights of Jews in the young state. This worked at the political level but ordinary citizens still had other ways of hurting Jews. New troubles hit the Jews of Poland which limited them economically and destroyed their livelihood.

It is well known that the Jews of Poland were engaged in commerce and that most of the shopkeepers in the cities and towns were Jewish. The government employed various policies and tricks to impede Jewish businesses. Poles of all social classes rose up against their Jewish neighbors. An alliance between the Catholic clergy, Polish economic bodies as well as all shopkeepers demanded that the authorities set Sunday, and all the Polish holidays, as mandatory days of rest for all residents – regardless of their religion.

[Page 65]

The intention was clear: keep Jewish businesses closed at the same time Polish businesses were. The Jews could keep their Sabbath by closing their businesses for two days during the week. This would help Polish businesses and limit Jewish ones. Authorities even hoped that the new restrictions might motivate Jews, or at least some of them, to leave the country for good. The plotters added another piece to this plan – boycott all small Jewish shops. They had already started a boycott even earlier and had seen the results. All these actions expressed the anti–Semitic sentiment that was spreading among the Polish population exactly at the time they were achieving independence. It should be noted that the Socialist parties, and even the Jews among them, voted in parliament for the Sunday closing. They saw this as a way for Jews to get closer to non–Jews in Poland, enabling joint meetings and the like on these days. Thus, a joint front of left and right factions was created and its impact was strong.

Jewish protests did not help, nor did the resistance of known progressive circles. The supporters of those anti–Semitic measures explained that they had no interest in hurting the Jews and justified their position as the “acceptable” majority opinion of the State. In reality, however, it was a deliberate and calculated move against Jewish merchants.

The Rovno Jews were upset by the soon–to–be–published decree. If their condition during the early years of Polish rule, 1920–1923, had been precarious, now the physical attacks and the dangers embedded in the upcoming laws added even more difficulties, bitterness and insecurity. Soon after that, with the late 1923 appointment of Vladislav Grabski as Minister of Finance, the situation of the Jews further deteriorated and shook their financial situation. Grabski's policies were aimed at undermining the status of the Jews and legally squeezing more taxes into the government's coffers. Grabski knew how to execute his plan and make the Polish Jews poorer from one year to the next. The elected Jewish representatives to the Sejm, the Polish parliament, mobilized all their forces to try to change the government's direction against the Jews. They fought especially hard for relief in the border areas, but sadly, with almost no positive results. The Jews of Rovno were also engaged in defending their survival; sending letters and petitions to “high places”, obtaining interviews with all the concerned Ministries, but their efforts were all in vain. New decrees and other limitations were looming and things only proceeded to get worse. The weakened economic situation barely supported life for the Jews. As things continued deteriorating and more bankruptcies ensued, more and more the question became “what comes next?”

What's more, assimilated and career–driven individuals were ready to betray their own people's interests. They were mainly seekers of “deals” and concessions. They participated in and readily accepted the government's direction while ignoring the damaging outcome for their displaced brothers who were losing even their most elementary rights. These despicable actions also assisted the “Sanacja”. This was a non–partisan political alliance set up in 1927 by Pilsudski, just before the elections to the Sejm. The Sanacja Alliance celebrated its political victory in most Polish cities, including Rovno. The Law of Sunday Closure was passed and went into effect in spite of the opposition by the press, the Russian orthodox minority and other national segments of the local population.

[Page 66]

Indeed, the Jews of Rovno, like their brothers in most of Poland, continued to close their stores on Saturday thus losing two consecutive business days. Some, however, tried to open their stores on Saturday. The local rabbi, Rabbi Moshe–Eliezer Rojtenberg, tried to influence the shopkeepers to observe the Sabbath. He visited the few shops that opened their doors and lingered around them so that Jews would not enter. Some Jewish merchants benefited indirectly from the new closure as the price of unsold goods increased due to inflation.

Rovno had not been a part of Poland before its 1918 Independence and only a few of its inhabitants were Poles. Polish merchants and political operators moved into the city after independence. They tried to get hold of the local markets and displace Jewish tradesmen according to the newly enacted laws. The Jewish tradesmen of Rovno quickly felt that these new laws and Polish actions would destroy them. They saw how they were being pushed out of trades that they had practiced for many generations. At the same time, the newly arrived competitors believed that by taking control over businesses they advanced the State's plan. The boycott of Jewish shops, both covert and open, was widely promulgated and carried a well–known slogan “be close to your relatives”. Anti–Semitic pamphlets proclaimed: “Buy from Poles Only, Don't Buy from Jews!” As well, insulting caricatures of Jews were widely circulated among Polish residents. All those things were visible to the authorities and were carried out with their full knowledge.

The historians noted that the anti–Semitic propaganda temporarily decreased after the annexation of Western Ukraine and parts of White Russia to Poland. Perhaps the government felt that the anti–Semitic propaganda was already out of control or it could be that the government wanted to give the Jewish majority in the new territories a sense of inclusion in their “new” country. However, the anti–Semitic line had not fundamentally changed. No opportunity to criticize Jews and to promote Polish businesses, commerce and industry over the Jewish ones was missed. This led to situations were Jews where forced to do business under the patronage of a Christian Polish citizen by adding him as a business partner or in exchange for a large payment for just using his name.

In addition, the Polish authorities imposed heavy taxes and levies on Jewish merchants. This was done with no regard to the law and without any balanced relation to taxes imposed on Polish merchants. The damaging effects were achieved by excessive estimates or by disregarding a business's bookkeeping altogether. The goal was to harry Jewish businesses to bankruptcy. Under these conditions, the status of small merchants and shopkeepers declined until they were completely dispossessed.

The authoritarian reign of the Sanacja Alliance, Marshal Pilsudski's Party, suppressed all the other parties in the country and undermined their activities. This was accomplished through various forms of sanctions and changes in the law on the one hand, and empty promises and baseless assurances on the other. All these measures impaired Jewish political activities and, as a result, Zionist parties suffered. In particular, the situation in the border regions, where government rule was different from that of the Congressional Poland, worsened considerably. This was especially pronounced as parties got ready for the elections to the Polish Parliament. Members of the ruling party, the “Yadinka”, (or “number one”), harassed Jews, both candidates and voters alike. They intimidated and spread lies about them and through “investigations”, false accusations, arrests and imprisonment, terrorized Jewish citizens with the express aim of damaging the National Jewish Party. Those among the Jews who were demoralized turned away from Zionist activity so that they would not arouse any suspicion with the government. They kept quiet and refrained from participating in election campaigns. Others, called the “Ma Yafit types” (praising the ruler under any circumstances), lacked Jewish national pride and supported the Polish national forces in return for deals, jobs and concessions.

[Page 67]

These people aligned themselves with the ruling party and conducted propaganda for the government's candidates in Jewish areas. A contentious election campaign flared up in the Jewish streets of Rovno and opinions were sharply divided. Most of the local Jews, led by the Zionists, did not cave–in to the pressure exerted upon them by the ruling party.

Jews in the regions annexed to Poland did not speak Polish and every junior official in a government office abused and made fun of them. Public leaders, even the brave ones, were unable to help their brothers. The number of active Zionists in the city diminished. Only a few people remained who had the organizational skills and energy to fight for Jewish rights and interests, and there was great concern about the outcome of the elections to the Sejm.

At that time, the Zionists of Rovno had the good fortune that Dr. Maurizio Wilhelm Rothfeld, a lawyer from Galicia, settled in the city and joined the Zionist camp. It was not easy for the public to communicate with him because he did not speak Hebrew or Yiddish but his great strength lay in his mastery of the Polish language. He was a great orator who spoke with grace and passion. He quickly earned the appreciation of the Jewish public who came to hear his heartfelt speeches. Dr. Rothfeld appeared in front of the Poles as a proud Jew, defending Jewish rights and dignity. The Poles appreciated him as a brave fighter and treated him with respect.

The fight between the BUND and the Communists against the Zionists also caused a lot of damage during the election campaign. Dr. Rothfeld, who led the Zionist Party, would crisscross Rovno's electoral district to speak to voters. There were occasions when bullies from the BUND and the Communist camps interrupted him during his speeches. On one occasion they even threw a bottle at him and hit his head. However, he did not flinch and stood up proudly for the Jewish nation.

Rovno's Jews looked up to Dr. Rothfeld as both a fighter and a leader during the Sanacja period.

 

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