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[Page 87]

Years of Agitation

Yaakov Shimshoni

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The Year 1905 -- the Political Parties

ruz087.jpg [7 KB] - Yaakov Shimshoni
Yaakov Shimshoni

Not only did the times of worker unrest at the beginning of the 20th century not skip our town, but rather stirred it up greatly. Even though Ruzhany was a town, it had a few factories in which several thousand workers worked.

At that time I was nine years old, and on occasion I would run to workers' meetings (swadkaot). The meetings took place on Pruzhany and Slonim Streets, especially the latter -- not on the streets themselves but rather on the trenches that conducted the water to the fields. The gatherings took place there, between the nut trees and the other trees. From the party centers in Bialystock and the nearby city of Slonim, delegates came from different parties: Revolutionary Socialists, Social Democrats, “Poale Zion”. The guest delegates, the anarchists, were especially numerous. Everyone came to present their case to the workers of Ruzhany, who then went to the householders of the town to ask for money for their party, at times even with physical force. The collectors of these parties would evaluate the means of every person and set the sum that each person should donate to the coffers of their party, even if he was not a member, and even if he was opposed to it. At times there would be attacks of robbery, all for the benefit of their party. Once they attacked the post office in the village of Zalesyany, but they were disappointed when they only found 37 rubles in the till. The postmaster whom they attacked and the wagon driver who brought them to the place of the attack recognized the people who carried out this deed. Therefore, they were forced to hide for a period of time until they moved to America.

The Year 1905 -- The Struggle for a Twelve Hour Workday

by Yaakov Shimshoni

Motshe (Mordechai) Pines owned a wool spinning workshop in Ruzhany. He signed a contract and was obligated to produce a specific number of blankets. The workers then came and demanded that he reduce the number of work hours per day to 12, or increase their wages. Motshe refused to agree to either of those demands. The unrest of the workers grew. Moshe closed

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the factory, saying that he was leaving the city. He would somehow arrange things with the people to whom he was supposed to provide the blankets, but now could not. Motshe seated himself in the wagon and traveled. The workers, headed by the sons of the physician Leib Epshteyn and the shoemaker Yitzchak Yaakov, set up guards along the routes and captured him as he was on his way to Byaroza. They returned him to Ruzhany during the night.

Circassian horsemen were going around the city, guarding the city from marauders. Motshe's capturers drove their wagons opposite the guards. They lay him down in the wagon for fear that he might scream. They sat on him, put a gun to his face, and threatened to kill him if he utters a sound. Motshe was quiet for the entire ride until they brought him to the cellar of Chaim Leib the baker (the daughter of the baker was a “fighter”, “Kemperke” in the vernacular). They held him there until evening.

However, Motshe continued to be stubborn. Even in captivity he refused to sign on to a change in the work conditions. The youths did not know what to do with him. They loaded him on the wagon and brought him to Pruzhany. They passed through a forest and entered into the house of the forester. This was near morning, and Motshe rose up to worship. The youths fed themselves. One youth was playing with a gun. A bullet went forth, and struck and killed the forester. The youths were afraid. They took Motshe with them and fled. Along the way Motshe tricked them and advised them to take a side route, for they are likely already being pursued. The frightened youths agreed, and the side route that Motshe showed them brought them close to Ruzhany.

They reached a certain village. Motshe requested to go out to attend to his bodily needs. In the meantime, he entered the house of a gentile who was one of those who worked in his factory (the Jews were the weavers and the gentiles were the spinners) and raised an outcry. The gentile and his neighbors got concerned and held him. Then the youths fled for their lives. Then Motshe informed Ruzhany, from where people came to bring him home. The youths hid for some time until they moved to America.

The Big Strike of 1910

The working conditions of the hired workers in the weaving factory in Ruzhany were very bad. There was no professional protection, for the workers, who had indeed started to organize, did not conduct this appropriately. The factory owners took advantage of this situation. Not only did they not raise the wages, but they wanted to lower them. This desire caused great bitterness among the weavers, who gathered in the “Majer Beis Midrash” and decided to declare a strike, demanding not only a return to the previous wages, but also a raise. Motshe Pines informed them in a decisive manner that he was about to close the factory and move it to Bialystock, and then the weavers of Ruzhany would die of hunger. He issued an ultimatum to the weavers, saying that if they do not return to work within three days, he would carry out his decision. However, the strikers were not confounded, and continued with their rebellion. What did Motshe do? Rather than move the factory, he brought in strikebreakers from outside. One bright day, several wagonfuls of people from outside arrived to town, and the work in the factory recommenced.

Then something unbelievable took place. The merchants of the town closed their businesses, the tradesmen closed their workshops, and the peddlers left their stalls. All of them streamed to

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the weaving factory on Schlosse Gasse. It was not the solidarity with the workers that was the factor here, but rather the concern of the merchants and tradesmen for their own livelihood, for their livelihood depended on the workers. Only the intervention of the Pristov (police chief) with all the Ukrainian policemen saved the factory from the wrath of the masses. When the strikebreakers heard about what had taken place in town, they were afraid to leave the factory, and remained there for the night. The next day, they sent a delegation to the strikers and informed them that they were misled by the factory owner who hired them, who had told them that they were invited due to a shortage of workers in Ruzhany. Therefore, they are releasing themselves from their agreement to work there, and are leaving the factory. When the factory owner saw that his plan did not work, he was forced to enter into negotiations with the strikers. The situation ended with the complete victory of the strikers.

The factory owners did not give up after this incident. Rather, they followed the path of “let us outsmart them”[1]. They instituted contract work. This worked as follows: They chose a few workers as independent workers (“leinketers”) as they were called, which led to a reduction in wages. The “leinketers” would hire children between the ages of ten and twelve, and thereby not only caused a setback in the previous gains, but also an actual shortage of work among the veteran workers. The unemployed workers attempted to explain to the “leinketers” that they should raise their prices so that the former workers could return to work instead of the children, but they did not succeed. Then the unemployed workers began to perpetrate acts of destruction against the property of the “leinketers”, which forced the factory owners to restore the situation to what it had been previously. These acts of destruction caused the factory owners to slander the most active of the workers. The police began to imprison the workers, especially the activists among them. Many of the workers left the town and escaped to the United States.

From a letter of Yitzchak Shlomo Miller (Mronchik) from the United States

Translator's Footnote
  1. From Exodus 1:10 return

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