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The study of Torah along with a worldly occupation is good
(Tractate Avot, Chapter 2, Mishna 2).

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The Economic Situation of the Town

Approximately 70% of the residents of the town were Jews. How did they earn their livelihood? The livelihood of the Jews of the Diaspora was based on commerce and labor, since the other economic endeavors were locked or almost locked before them. These were also the sources of livelihood of the natives of our town.

The Fairs

The fairs were the most important days for earning a livelihood. The town that was somnolent during the six weekdays was awake with bustling life on that day. The market was full of farmers' wagons with their owners, who brought the goodness of their land to town. In exchange, they purchased all their household needs in the stores of the Jews. The Jewish tradesmen displayed many wares in the marketplace: clothing, shoes, hats, furs, brooms, horses, and other items. Most of these wares were purchased by the farmers from the neighboring villages during the day.

ruz047.jpg [29 KB] - The stores of the Ruzhany Market Square
The stores of the Ruzhany Market Square

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The farmers sold a great deal of eggs, chickens, ducks, grain and fruit, as well as sheep, cows, horses, etc.

Ruzhany was fortunate in that a change in its economic situation took place during the 19th century. It was better off than the other near and far cities of the Diaspora. The livelihood of the Jews was based not only on these two branches of livelihood that were typical in the Diaspora – commerce and labor – but also on two additional branches: manufacturing and agriculture.


At the beginning of the 19th century, the weaving industry grew in the city. From that time, the livelihood of the local Jews was based on hand-weaving of blankets and material for the fatigues of the army of the Russian Czar. Six weaving workshops and several sewing workshops were established in the town, employing close to 1,000 people, mainly Jews. The wool came from outside, and the blankets and material were exported from the town to far-off places. The pioneer in this line of business was Leib Rishon of the Pines family, who settled in Ruzhany.

Later, the town achieved an important place in the tanning trade. The pioneer in this second area of business was Avraham Yitzchak Chwojnik. Several hundred people worked in his hide workshops.

The livelihood of the Jews of the town was readily available, even though for many it was quite meager. There were barely any Jews lacking in livelihood prior to the First World War.

Several of the Ruzhany residents were also owners of taverns, rope factories, flour mills, and other such enterprises.


A certain number of the Jews of the town occupied themselves in agriculture, as lessees of fruit orchards, growers of vegetables, and other such endeavors. However, the town was not known for those types of farmers, but rather for actual farmers – workers of the land worthy of the name – who were residents of the two Jewish villages of Pavlovo and Konstantinovo, which were established around the year 1850. However, this was the lot of only several dozen Jewish families. Nevertheless, this image, unusual in the landscape of Jewish Diaspora life, made a great impression in the region, and brought joy to hearts.

By Meir Sokolowsky

Lives of the Weavers in Ruzhany During the 19th Century

As has been said, there were several weaving enterprises in Ruzhany. The Jewish workers worked in a primitive fashion at simple looms. They worked on a contract basis, and of course were greatly exploited. There were no set hours of work. People began work early in the morning and ended late at night. The weavers would even come to the Sabbath Mincha service in their work clothes and their outer Sabbath coat, so that they could go out to their work in the factory immediately after the Mincha service. They waited impatiently for the first three stars to come out, indicating the end of the Sabbath.

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Then they would recite the Maariv service in haste, remove their Sabbath garb, and immediately go to work until well after midnight, for they had rested on the afternoon of the Sabbath and were able to remain at wake until a late hour of the night.

The wages of work were not sufficient for satiety. Wages were paid semiannually. In the interim, the workers purchased their food supplies in the stores on credit. Therefore, they obviously paid a higher price for every piece of merchandise. The workers received their semiannual pay after the factory owners sold their inventory. How was the merchandise sold? The factories had two agents, whose job was to bring the stock of merchandise to the fairs in Yarmolintz and Nizhin.

The merchandise was loaded upon several rented wagons, each one hitched to a pair of horses, which hauled the heavy load along the Moscow Road in the direction of the two aforementioned cities. However, the merchandise was not always sold to the satisfaction of the factory owners. The agents often stood at the fair with their merchandise, with no purchaser coming to buy. Once it happened that the sun was already setting and nobody had pounced on the merchandise. What could be done? How can one return home empty-handed? How would the weavers sustain themselves for the upcoming half year? Then they saw that there were other agents standing and waiting for purchasers of their merchandise, which was also not sold. The Ruzhany agents asked the other merchants about what they were selling. They responded that they had dried fruits in their sacks. The agents of the two cities decided to swap their merchandise. The merchants of Ruzhany returned home with died fruits – raisins, apples, and the like – in their sacks.

They arrived at the inn and lay down to rest. The people in the inn smelled the fruit and could not withstand the temptation. First they tried to taste the fruit, and then they put it in their sacks. The agents finally reached Ruzhany with half-empty sacks. The eyes of the factory owners darkened. What could be done? They took the fruits and divided them up among the weavers instead of paying them money, saying to them: go pay your debts with the value of the money – that is, with fruit instead of cash.

Heard from the mouth of Abba Leviatan

Families of Workers in the Town

As is known, the livelihood of most of the residents of the town came from work in the weaving factory of the Pines family. Since the wages of the workers were meager and insufficient to sustain a large family, the wife of the worker would have to assist. How? She opened a small store for groceries and other household necessities. In a store such as this, whose value was only a few rubles, it was possible to find salted fish next to a can of kerosene and rat poison next to a sack of flour. Of course the woman, who was tending to children and the needs of the family, could not devote herself to the home and the family at the same time; so accidents often occurred, sometimes serious. At one time, people were saved from death only through a miracle. The story is as follows:

Pesha Leah, the wife of Reuven the weaver, set aside a corner of her house as a grocery store. We were among her customers. Once when we came to purchase flour for challah, the shelf with the rat poison moved and some of it spilled into the sack of flour below, unbeknownst to anyone. We baked the challahs, ate them, were satiated and went to bed. We woke up a few hours later with pain and tribulations. Our quiet night turned into a night of fear and perplexity.

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We all felt terrible, and violent vomiting overtook us. Were it not for the fact that we summoned the doctor in time, who knows if we would have survived until the morning. We did not know from where this affliction came. We found out in the morning. Pesha Leah ran to our house and burst in with barely the breath of life. What happened? She had discovered that the rat poison had spilled into the flour. Who can recount the bitterness of her fate and the bitterness of the discussion of the tribulation that she had brought upon us.

Her husband Reuven, tall and pale, worked in the Pines weaving factory. He worked twelve hours a day. The factory owners regarded this as natural. The statement of one of the factory owners was typical of their way of thinking, “The owners of the factories in Lodz will not maintain their stand, and their factories will close since the workers only work ten hours a day.” Reuven was one of the few Hassidim in our town (there was a minyan of them). He was Orthodox, but also was one of the first with a sense of workers' rights. Once when the factory owner said brazenly to his workers, “We need to make you a bit hungry so you will not come to us with exaggerated requests and you will know that your livelihood comes from us,” he answered, “We make you wealthy. We strengthen you with our blood and sweat. And you still oppress us.” This was the first time that words of this nature were heard in the town.

Thus did Reuven and Pesha Leah live. Both of them worked and never lived in comfort at all.

From the mouth of Bulia Chwojnik

The Labor Movement in Ruzhany in the 19th Century

In “Historishe Schriftn” (Historical Works) of YIVO 111, on the topic of the “Jewish labor movement in Russia from the beginning of the 1870s until the end of the 1890s” by A. Menes, we find the following article on Ruzhany:

“During the Russo-Turkish war which took place in the years 1877-1878 (the exact date is not in the article), a strike broke out in the Pines Factory of Ruzhany – as told to us by an article in 'Rezhsoyet'.

During the revival that took place in the wake of the Russo-Turkish War, the workers demanded an increase of wages, and the factory owners shut their ears to this request. The workers declared a strike. This had no impact on the owners despite the fact that it caused a great loss to them – as has been said, to the sum of 40,000 rubles. The factory owners did not agree to the slightest increase, explaining their stance by stating that they must not allow the workers to 'raise their heads.'”

The strike lasted for eight weeks and completely weakened the workers. The aforementioned article in “Rezhsoyet” 1880 (49) is interesting and important in its various details. The author describes the poverty of the workers and the methods used by the owners. For example: with the agreement of the workers, a factory owner would not hire the employee of another manufacturer, so that the worker would not think that he is able to choose the workplace that he wishes. The writer A. L. Mintz reports harshly about the factory owners, and explicitly intends to publicly attack their behavior toward the workers. That writer writes in an article that appeared several months earlier in “Rezhsoyet” 1880 (28) about the dismal situation of the workers in Ruzhany. The factory owners found it necessary to react to this and to justify themselves in “Rezhsoyet” 1880 (34).

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The Founding of Pavlova and Konstantinova

During the time of Czar Nikolai I of Russia, a number of Jews were permitted to settle on land in a few places in Russia. Ruzhany was one such place, and two agricultural settlements were founded nearby: Pavlova and Konstantinova. Yosef Starewolsky writes the following about them in “Hamelitz” 1887 (242):

“The settlement was founded by thirty families. Fifteen settled there in 1850 and another fifteen in 1851. They came there from Jasionowka, Piaski, Lyskowa, and Volkovisk. At first, we had bad years, for our land did not yield its produce and the expenses were great. Were it not for the Pines factory of woolen garments in Ruzhany, we would have died of hunger. We gained our stand very slowly. The land was improved with fertilizer that we bought in Ruzhany for a great deal of money. Our animals increased, and we earned an honorable livelihood from the produce of our land and the milk of our cows. We now have 25 plots, the same as the number of families. The population consists of 125 males and 124 females. Of the 30 families that settled at the outset, five returned to their cities during the first five years since they were not cut out for agriculture. Their land was confiscated by the government. Each plot is 20 desiatin[1]: 3 of meadow, 1 for their children and a garden, and 16 for cultivating and planting all types of grains. The tradesmen among us include 9 house builders, 7 factory workers, 3 tailors, 4 shoemakers, 3 builders, 1 maker of earthenware vessels, 1 carpenter, 2 smiths, and 3 butchers. During their free time they also serve as wagon drivers in the city.

In the colony of Konstantinova on the other side of Ruzhany, there are 11 families.”

Torah and Divine Service

The Hebrew farmers were diligent, and worked the land for many hours a day. However, they also set times for worship and Torah. Yosef Starewolsky writes about this in “Hamelitz” year 2, 1862 (11, 13).

“Twelve years prior to this, 30 families came to Pavlova. We lived in hunger and want for seven years. Nevertheless, we had already built our own Beis Midrash in the first five years, without requiring help from anyone, not even the late wealthy Aryeh Leib Pines. We did everything with our own power. It has now been five years since we invited a rabbi and teacher to come to us. We give him wheat to sustain his household, a house, wood, and candles, and even one ruble a week. He teaches “Chayey Adam” and Bible every day between Mincha and Maariv. He teaches the weekly Torah portion on Sabbaths and on Shabbat Mevorchim [2] he teaches morality.

During the spring and the summer, everyone goes to work: men, women, and young girls. The Shacharit service takes place at dawn. Many people are also training for trades. On days when there is a great deal of work, they hire people, including gentile workers. There is great joy at the Harvest Festival[3]. Everybody greets each other, and the Magid preaches.

They study more from the eve of Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan until the spring: Bible, Mishna, and some even learn Gemara. They study normally between Mincha and Maariv, and some remain later to continue learning. The cheder for children is in the women's gallery. It has three levels (classes) and three teachers. Their salary is paid by the parents. The Russian language is also taught there.” Starewolski

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Gemilut Chasadim
(Benevolent Societies)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Popular Idealists

(From the book “Neshamot BeYisrael”, Souls in Israel)

People of Ruzhany

Each town of the Jewish people has popular idealists who forgo their own needs and dedicate themselves to the masses with all of their essence. However, none was as excellent as those of Ruzhany. Ruzhany had three people of this type in the previous generation. They all lived at approximately the same time. One is David Melamed, the second is Liba Wasz, and the third is Hadassah.

David Melamed was not only a benefactor who collected from the rich and distributed to the poor, but was also a sort of revolutionary. He remained in a state of open warfare with the wealthy people. At every meeting attended by the city notables that dealt with issues of the poor people, the raging image of David Melamed appeared. He would call them “fat bellies” and “gluttonous gizzards.”

A. David Melamed

At first he was a teacher (melamed). Then he became an agent of wagons. He had a bad wife who made his life difficult, but he patiently suffered her curses and did what he had to. He was a great miser with regard to himself. His food would be a plate of grits, despite the fact that his house was well stocked with goods. He would roam around the streets all day with a sack over his shoulder or a pot under his arm. The householders and even the wealthy people whom he always castigated would meet him and give him bread, potatoes, flour and even cash. He would distribute all these to his people: the elderly, the sick, widows, orphans, poor brides, and students of the Beis Midrash. There was no brokenhearted person whose anguish was not known by David. He did his deeds discretely. Suddenly he moved, tossed his donation to the person, and fled. The donors did not know the recipients, and the recipients themselves did not know the identity of each other. When David the Melamed died, the Jews at the funeral saw – and the entire town was at the funeral – to their great surprise that from the alleyways in the midst of the city gentile men and women streamed forth the funeral, pushing their way to the coffin with weeping and wailing: “Our father, our sustainer, the person upon whom we depended!! What shall we do without you!”

It then became clear that David the Melamed sustained their poor families just as he sustained Jewish poor families. His wide heart, full of love for suffering people, did not know the difference between Jew and gentile.

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Above everything, the love of David the Melamed for poor children was known. The Talmud Torah that exists now in Ruzhany was established by him. His greatest pleasure was to hear the sound of the students during their studies, to befriend them, to be with them, and to help them to the extent that was possible. In his will he requested that he be buried among the children, and that garbage from the Talmud Torah and from other cheders be placed at his head.

B. Hadassah

Hadassah was a daughter of a middle class family. She stemmed from a rabbinical family. Her father Rabbi Eliahu Schik served as the rabbi in Lida, Zagar and Kobryn. Her husband was a wealthy merchant. He lived in Moscow all year, and only returned to his home for Passover. With the money that he sent, she was able to sustain herself amply as a wealthy woman. However, she lived her entire life in a small room, engaged in fasting, and only spent pennies on her needs and those of her family. She distributed all of her money to needy and sick people. When her husband came home once a year, he had to pay her debts.

After her death the people of the city decided that every baby girl that was born that year should be named Hadassah after her.

C. Liba Wasz

The third popular idealist, Liba Wasz, excelled above those two.

Liba Wasz was from the wealthy class, the son of a factory owner. His nickname Wasz was a short form of the name Warsaw, for he married a woman from Warsaw or traveled there often.

His ways were not as straightforward as David the Melamed or Hadassah. The people of the town used to say that he was not goodhearted by nature, but that he “overcame his temperament.” However, it seems that he was truly full of refinement and emotions. If he was not able to resonate entirely among the people and dedicate his life to the people as did David the Melamed and Hadassah, since a good heart was not sufficient for this; he had to separate himself from his group. Such an endeavor requires more than a heart. A lofty soul and iron strength are needed for this.

With his sensitive heart, it was impossible for Liba Wasz not to see the chasm between the two sides of the partition in Ruzhany. Without any socialist study, he was able to figure out for himself who created their own wealth, and who was responsible for the suffering and agony of the thousands of people on the other side of the partition. Since he was not able to change the guard, for he did not create it, he decided that he himself would not benefit from his own wealth, but would rather distribute it to the poor to the best of his ability.

He did not give simple donations. He gave of everything that he had in a discrete fashion so as not to embarrass the recipient. To so-and-so, for example, he would give a present of a box of tobacco, and hidden within the box there would be a gold coin. When he saw a poor person wearing tattered clothes, he would remove his own new clothes and give it to the poor person. So it would not be seen as a gift that would embarrass the poor person, he would “sell” the clothing to him – that is to say something that cost him tens of rubles would be sold for a few small coins. He would always have new clothes sewn for himself so he could do “business” with the poor people with them. He also wanted to send his son to the army “as a comfort for the poor.”

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It has now been some decades since these benefactors of the people have passed away, however the Jews of Ruzhany remember their heroes and talk about them warmly and enthusiastically as if they had only passed away recently.

They name of each of them was perepetuated in the charitable organizations. An honorable place was set up for each of them in the cemetery, and fine stone canopies were erected over their graves. At any time of need, Jewish men and women come to their good benefactors who dwell in the cemetery to pour out their hearts before them and beg of them to be “righteous intercessors for them.”

A. Litwin

Hadaska [4]

The diminutive, thin Hadaska, who was called 'Mother' by all the people of the town, stands before my eyes as if alive. She was the daughter of a famous rabbi, Rabbi Eliahu of Lida, who was known by the people as 'Rabbi Elinka of Lida.'

This Hadaska was a precious person: nothing was for herself, and everything was for other people and strangers.

She would arise early both in the winder and the summer. The morning was dedicated to her soul. She was very much attracted to Barchu and the Kedushas. Her relationship to them knew no bounds. Each morning she would run from one Beis Midrash to the next in order to 'snatch' them. Then she would dedicate all the rest of her essence and time to the poor.

ruz054.jpg [13 KB] - Hadaska

She would fast on all weekdays, only tasting a few potatoes and coarse bread after nightfall. Like men, she would only eat on Sabbaths and festivals, when the act of eating is itself a commandment. Her husband would argue with her to stop fasting, but it was to no avail. Once her father, Reb Elinka of Lida, wished to command her to stop fasting, using the pretext of honoring her father. However, she pleaded with him, “Please Father, do not do that. I cannot stand up to such a harsh decree and sin against my soul.” Her father, Reb Elinka, retracted and did not make such a command to her. He continued on and said:

“My daughter is a modest woman, and she certainly knows what she is doing…”

All of the people of the town revered her as a holy woman. Rays of light emanated from her image. Many would say, “Reb Elinka did not decree. He said…” People would nod their heads and smack their lips.

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However the fast only applied to her. She did not demand it at all of others. The poor had to eat every day and required clothes. Hadaska was busy all day, including nights, in order to ensure this. It was not for naught that all the people of the town called her 'Mother'.

This name was indeed fitting for her, for she was a merciful mother to all of the poor of the town – and not just the poor, but also the sick, the mothers who had just given birth, the orphans, and the brides. No obstacle interfered with her actions. She went about her work in rain, snow, summer heat, and winter cold. With a sack over hear head, crossing over to one shoulder, and the other end under her second arm, she would go around to the homes of the wealthy people on behalf of the poor and destitute. If Hadaska had to rock the cradle of a sick orphan, she would sit and rock. If it was necessary to find a wet nurse for an orphan baby, where death snatched away the mother, Hadaska would seek out a wet nurse. Hadaska, the mother of the town, did everything. Whoever did not see her leading a poor orphan girl to the wedding canopy, as a mother or mother-in-law, and dancing and clapping her hands before the bride, has never seen happiness in his life.

When the economic situation worsened and it was difficult to collect money in the town, Hadaska would travel to Warsaw, Lodz or even far-off Moscow, to collect money and clothing for the poor of her town. Her good name always preceded her.

She herself was a G-d fearing woman, but she had great tolerance toward others. She never preached or lectured to anyone that they should fear Heaven. I recall only once when she could not control herself, and told me:

“I am required to admit the truth, that it is very easy to receive a donation from you, and it is always a proper donation, but you are lacking somewhat in the fear of Heaven… Do not imagine that I am, Heaven forbid, asking a great deal from you. No. Only that you pray three times a day, wash your hands before eating, recite the Grace After Meals, and fulfill everything that is written in the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch)…” It is clear to me, however, that she did not say these things as exaggerated zealousness, but rather out of goodheartedness. I was close to her, and her heart ached when she saw that I was forsaking my share in the World to Come with my own hands. She could not stand seeing my tribulations, and she had mercy upon me…

When I returned to my city after many years, I discovered that Hadaska had barely changed. It was possible that the wrinkles on her forehead deepened and her eyes became more sunken in their sockets. It is possible that her back also became slightly more hunched. However, the diminutive, thin Hadaska still retained her excitement with respect to Barchu and the Kedushas, she still fasted on all weekdays, and would only eat a few potatoes and coarse bread after nightfall. She spent every day running through the marketplace and the streets to collect money and clothing, and distribute them to the poor, widows, and orphans.

“How are you, Hadaska”, I asked her, “How is your health?”

“How am I? Thank G-d, not bad. In truth, I do not have time to be sick. Only my feet have weakened somewhat, may you be spared.” She then continued on with her work.

At the end, her diminutive, thin body buckled under the burden of her hard work. It buckled and broke. It was during the period before Passover. During the evening, she was still working on behalf of the poor. She went to sleep, and she woke up in the morning saying that she was not well.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. A Russian unit of measure, about 2.7 acres. return
  2. The Sabbath prior to Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon. return
  3. This seemingly refers to Sukkot, which is referred to in the Torah as the Harvest Festival, although it may imply a private harvest festival. return
  4. Hadaska is a diminutive of Hadassah. This person is identical with the aforementioned Hadassah. return

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