Swislocz - Portrait of a Shtetl
By Abraham Ain
Translated by Shlomo Noble
Reprinted with permission of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York, from "Swislocz: Portrait of a Shtetl," by Abraham Ain.
Originally published in Yivo Bleter VVIV (1944) and XXV (1945)
The Area is bounded by the Dnieper and the Vistula, the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea contained before the slaughtering of six million by the Germans over eight million Jews. Part of the general community in their respective lands, these Jews also developed their own specific forms of life, which in addition to religion embraced many other spheres of activity, such as philanthropy, recreation, and the like. Some of these forms of Eastern European Jewish life were incorporated, with proper modifications, in the basic pattern of the Jewish community in America, a fact that bears eloquent testimony to their vigor and effectiveness.
I. General Aspects
Swislocz (Yiddish name: Sislevich) was considered one of the larger towns (shtetl) in the district of Grodno. According to the census of 1847, there were 997 Jews in Swislocz. Fifty years later, the town numbered 3,099 persons, of whom 2,086 were Jews. In the beginning of the present century the population again increased substantially. A leather industry of considerable size sprang up and a railway was built, linking the town with the industrial centers of Western Russia. Jews and non-Jews from surrounding villages flocked to the town. In 1906 it had some 6oo families, of whom 400 were Jewish. In addition to the permanent residents in town, such as the students of the teachers' seminary and the ailing seeking medical aid from the local physicians.
The town consisted of a market, five large and a dozen small streets and alleys, and a synagogue yard. The market covered an area of about two city blocks in the center of the town. It housed all the town's business places. All larger streets, which extended on the average to three or four city blocks, began in the market and terminated in the suburbs. These streets were known after the towns to which they led. Thus the Grodno Street led to the Grodno highway. Two of the larger streets, the market, and the synagogue yard were inhabited by Jews. The Jewish neighborhood was adjacent to the synagogue although some large and most of the small streets were inhabited by both Jews and non-Jews. The non-Jews consisted of White Russians, Poles, a score of Russian civil servants and a dozen or so Moslem Tartars. The Jews were "townspeople" and were registered in the lists of the town administration (meshchanskaya uprava).The president and the secretary of the town administration were Jews. Most of the non-Jews were "villagers" and were registered in the lists of the village administration (volostnaya uprava).
At the end of every larger street, at the entrance to town, was a huge gate. Once upon a time the town had been surrounded by a deep moat. At the entrance to the large streets there was no moat, so that passage was only through the gates. In the daytime the gates were open; at night they were closed, and no one could then enter or leave town. In my days only three of the large streets had gates; the others were in ruins. Three of the large streets had cobblestone pavement; the other streets and the market were unpaved. On rainy days the mud was ankle-deep and crossing the market was no pleasant undertaking. In 1904, the chief of police ordered every property owner in the market to pave the street fronting his property to a depth of twelve feet. This was the sidewalk of the market.
At the eastern approach to the town were ruins of massive stone walls. These ruins were called the stores and represented the remains of a street, two city blocks in length, that had burned down. The stores had been erected by Polish noblemen, owners of the town, in order to encourage trade. Several times a year fairs had been held in town, each lasting four weeks. In the 1830's a conflagration destroyed the stores. The owners of the town, involved in the insurrection of 1831 against Russia, fled abroad, and there was no one to rebuild the ruins. Conflagrations were no rare events in the towns. In the course of the nineteenth century the town burned down to the ground twice. In 1910 half of the town was destroyed by fire again. Hence, the town was continually being rebuilt anew and its external aspect improved. Many of the houses were substantial two-story brick structures, adorned with balconies. Some of the newer houses had hardwood floors and papered walls.
In the center of the market was a square concrete pillar, some fifty feet high, twelve feet square at the base tapering off to two feet at the top. From the top of the post extended a brass bar, about a foot long, supporting a round brass ball some two feet in diameter. No one knew the age of the post. Tradition had it that the owners of the town had formerly erected the post. On the significance of the post there were several theories. One maintained that it was constructed as a lightning-rod. Another version claimed that the Russians had hanged on that spot several Polish noblemen for participation in anti-Russian activities, and their colleagues had erected the post as a monument to them. A third account had it that the brass ball contained ancient documents about the history of the town.
How Old Was the Town?
There were no records to indicate the age of the town, or the age of its Jewish community. The Holy Burial Association (Khevre Kadislie) formerly had a pinkes, a minute-book, but it was destroyed in one of the periodical fires, and no other source for the history of the Jews in town was left.
The Jewish cemetery was divided into a new and an old burial ground. On the old cemetery, near the entrance, the tombstones had collapsed, so that it was difficult to tell that the place had once been a burial ground. Farther down, the tombstones protruded half-way from the ground, but the inscriptions on them were obliterated. On the new cemetery the graves and tombstones were in better condition. But even the new cemetery had probably been used for centuries, for in the first World War it was filled up and ground was broken for another cemetery.
In 1903, when a railway was being built through the town, a large number of human skeletons was unearthed. These skeletons were laid out in rows, close to one another, at a depth of about three feet. There were no clues for closer identification of the skeletons, nor was there any real interest in them. Apparently, the town had a long history, which was completely obliterated from the memory of the inhabitants.
The immediate surroundings of the town were dotted with villages. Their inhabitants, chiefly White Russians, were, in the main, poor peasants who had to supplement their meager incomes by doing chores in town or laboring in the forests. Some of them worked in the leather factories in town; others were engaged in hauling timber from the forests to the railway depot. In the villages close to the forest skillful peasants carved all sorts of articles out of wood: pails, kneading troughs, felloes, yokes, and shingles. These articles they brought to town for sale, and with the money thus realized they purchased not only farm implements, but occasionally also flour and barley, for some peasants had so little land that they could not raise enough food for their families. There were also in the vicinity several large and small estates that belonged to Polish landlords.
Nearly every village and estate had a Jewish family, engaged as millers or lessees. On the eve of the first World War there were practically no more Jewish millers in the villages, for two Jews, former millers in a village, by installing two motor mills in town rendered the village miller superfluous.
Administratively and judicially the town was linked with Wolkowysk, the county seat, which was at a distance of some twenty-eight versts. Economically, however, the town was closely bound up with Bialystok, some seventy versts away. In 1906, the railway through our town was completed, and a closer contact was established with Wolkowysk and other nearby towns.
To maintain order the town had a chief of police and a constable (uryadnik). In 1905 this force was augmented by eight policemen. The chief of police (stanovoy pristav) was the ruler of the town; his word was law. Frequently, this official would tyrannize over the town, but a way was always found to placate him. As a rule, he was not averse to a little gift…In 1903, a new chief of police came to our town. Forthwith he launched a vigorous campaign against "subversive" elements, particularly among the young people. His zeal knew no bounds. Once, encountering on the outskirts of the town two young men reading a book, he had them arrested and questioned for two weeks. Subsequently, they were released. Another time, he raided a meeting of the clandestine Jewish Labor Organization "Bund" in the forest and arrested ten young men and three girls. The arrested maintained that their gathering was in the nature of a harmless outing and as no forbidden literature was found on them, they were released. The young bloods of the town decided to teach the chief of police a lesson. On a dark night they set fire to the woodshed of a school on the outskirts of the town. The regulations called for the chief of police to be present at a fire. A group of young people lay in wait for him and gave him a thrashing. This experience considerably diminished his zeal for discovering conspiracies. The constable, too, who began to peer into closed shutters, was given a beating, while in a somewhat intoxicated state.
The town had, moreover, a justice of the peace (zemski nachalnik), who adjudicated minor litigations of the rural population, and three excise men, who supervised the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages.
Controversies in Town
The town, consisting exclusively of misnagdim (opponents of Hasidism), had a Synagogue and three Houses of Study, in which services were conducted three times a day. The Houses of Study possessed rich collections of books, and at dusk, between the minkhe (late afternoon) and the mayriv (evening) services, numerous groups could be seen busily pursuing their studies of the Scriptures, the Talmud, or some ethical text. The untutored had a teacher who instructed them in the weekly portion of the Bible on Friday evenings and Saturdays. The older folks were pious but tolerant toward the young generation, which was largely heterodox in its religious views. The young people, in turn, refrained from publicly offending the religious sensibilities of the orthodox.
On one occasion, however, a sharp conflict broke out between the young and the old generations. An itinerant preacher came to town. He was a man of eloquence and power and opposed to the "progressives," whom he attacked in his sermons. These sermons led to strained relations between some of the parents and their children. Once several young people entered the House of Study and interrupted one of the preacher's customary diatribes against them with catcalls. Some of the older people rose to the defense of the preacher and a fight ensued. During the altercation a butcher called out that the young people were justified in deriding the preacher because he was sowing discord in the community. The older folks avenged the slight to the preacher by prohibiting the butcher from selling kosher meat. The prohibition would have ruined the butcher, had not the Jewish Labor Organization or "Bund" sent an ultimatum to the trustees of the Houses of Study to repeal the prohibition, or it would adopt strong measures. The trustees were frightened and complied with the request of the organization.
There were also deep-seated and prolonged dissensions within the camp of the orthodox. They began toward the end of the past century, when the old rabbi of the town, Rabbi Meyer Yoyne, died, leaving a son, Rabbi Motye, who aspired to the position. Although he had been duly ordained and was qualified for the rabbinate, the old and prominent members of the community opposed his candidacy. The reasons for their opposition were that the deceased had not left a will designating his son as successor and that the aspirant because of his youth and familiarity would not command the respect due that office. They, therefore, selected one Rabbi Shneyer Zalman as rabbi. The artisans and small tradesmen, however, sided with Rabbi Motye and argued that since he was qualified for the position, the fact that he was a local man or that he was not well advanced in years should not be to his detriment. And so he, too, remained rabbi in our town. Rabbi Shneyer Zalman was a quiet and tactful person, and the tension between the two factions was kept at a minimum.
In 1903, Rabbi Shneyer Zalman died and Rabbi Joseph Rosen was chosen as his successor. The conflict flared up anew with increased bitterness. The young people remained largely outside of the struggle, although their passive sympathy was on the side of Rabbi Motye. Shortly before the first World War, Rabbi Motye died and his adherents chose no successor. After the war, Rabbi Joseph Rosen left for America, and the two factions were reconciled and agreed on one rabbi.
The Community Council
The Community Council administered all religious and community affairs. It gave financial aid to the various religious and charitable associations, paid the salaries of the rabbi and other functionaries, and maintained the ritual, bathhouse (mikve) and the poorhouse (hekdesh). The budget for these activities came from the tax on kosher meat known in our parts as korobke. The korobke was usually leased by one person, or by several partners, called the tax lessees. The shokhtim (ritual slaughterers) could not slaughter an animal or a fowl without a permit from the tax lessee. The permit for a chicken cost three kopeks; it was somewhat higher for a duck, goose, and turkey. The permit for a calf was sixty kopeks. For slaughtering a cow or an ox there was a certain tax, and an additional tax was levied on the meat, exclusive of the lungs, liver, head, and legs. To guard against the importation of meat from nearby towns, the rabbis prohibited the sale and consumption of such meat. In cases where this prohibition proved ineffective, recourse was had to the police, who confiscated the imported meat.
Some twenty or twenty-five prominent members in the community, who were the trustees of the Houses of Study and the various associations, constituted the Community Council and ruled the community. They were the choosers and the chosen. The elections took place in the following way. By order of the rabbi a meeting was called, to which the Houses of Study sent delegates. The delegates were chosen in this manner. The trustee of the House of Study told the sexton to call out the name of the delegate. The sexton called out: "Rabbi Shmuel, son of Rabbi Mendel, first delegate! Will anybody second the motion?" The prominent members chorused, "Second." The sexton then called out: "Rabbi Mendel, son of Shmuel, second delegate! Will anybody second the motion?" The same members responded again, "Second." And so on, till the required number of delegates were "elected." The delegates met and elected the Community Council or passed upon matters of policy under discussion. Popular dissatisfaction with their decisions did not affect them.
Thus the Community Council ruled the town up to the first World War. During the German occupation of the town, the tax on meat was abolished. After the war, the Community Council was elected in a more democratic manner.
The Holy Burial Association (Khevre Kadishe) played a leading role among communal institutions in town. Its membership consisted of old and pious Jews. Membership in the Holy Burial Association was restricted. Admission took place in one of the following ways: first, members could enroll their children or grandchildren as minors and upon attaining maturity they became full-fledged members; or, second, an adult wishing to be admitted to the association had to serve for a year as a sexton, whose duties were the calling of the membership to meetings and attendance at funerals. The association purchased the site for the cemetery and took care of the surrounding moat (the cemetery had no fence). It obtained the necessary funds from the families of the deceased, in accordance with their financial abilities. To the credit of the association be it said that it never wronged these families. It was fair and reasonable in its demand and always conciliatory in its dealings.
The most popular of the organizations in town was the Nursing Association (Khevra Line). The function of this association was to provide nursing service for cases of prolonged illness. Constant attendance on the patient, in these instances, would leave the other members of the family exhausted, and this service would give them an opportunity for a brief rest. The association sent two members-to a male, two men, and to a female, one man and one woman to attend the patient from ten o'clock in the evening to seven o'clock in the morning. The association had its medical supply department that lent thermometers, ice bags, heating pads, and similar sick-room needs to poor patients. The very poor were also supplied with medicine and nourishing food. The association obtained its funds from weekly dues paid by practically every adult in town, from special pledges in the synagogue, from the collection on the eve of the Day of Atonement, and from grants of the Community Council. The administration of the association was elected at a meeting of the entire membership.
Two types of visitors came to town frequently: poor Jews who went begging from door to door and itinerant preachers. The former were lodged in the poorhouse and the latter in a specially provided guest house (hakhnoses orkhim), consisting of a large room with several beds in it. The sexton would arrange for their meals in some household. The more distinguished preachers and the collectors for charitable organizations (meshulokhim) usually stayed at the inn.
The small merchants were always short of money and in need of a loan. Most of them had to resort to a private lender who charged usurious rates. For a loan of twenty-five rubles for a period of a half-year he charged four rubles interest, which he deducted initially. Repayments had to be made from the first week, at the rate of one ruble a week. There was in a town a traditional loan association, Gmiles Khasodim, granting loans up to twenty-five rubles without interest. But many people refused to apply to the Gmiles Khasodim, for they regarded such a loan as a form of charity.
In 1908-1909, a cooperative savings and loan association was established with the aid of the Jewish Colonization Association in St. Petersburg. The members of the association could borrow money at the rate of 8%. The state bank gave the association a loan of several thousand rubles. People had confidence in the association and instead of depositing their savings in the savings bank, they deposited them in the association, which paid 6% interest. Even the non-Jewish population did business with the association. In time the private lender with his usurious rates was banished from the scene.
Sanitary and Hygienic Conditions
Sanitary conditions in town were far from satisfactory. Some inhabitants had to attend to their needs in the open. The wells were not covered, and dust and dirt would find their way into them. Before the war some wells were covered, and water was obtained by means of a pump.
The Jewish community had a bathhouse, too small for the needs of the population. On Fridays it was badly overcrowded, particularly in the winter. In the summer conditions in the bathhouse were better, since a number of people bathed in the river. All types of disease were prevalent in town, though they rarely attained epidemic proportions. Only during the German occupation in the first World War and immediately thereafter, epidemics of dysentery and typhus raged in town.
The economic situation of the town was fair; the people were well-fed and well-dressed. As a rule, they had adequate medical attention. The town had a municipal hospital, with one physician, one assistant (feicher), and a midwife. Hospital service was free to all, and the non-Jewish population made use of it. The Jews, as a rule, avoided the hospital, although they occasionally used the services of the physician and the assistant in the capacity of private patients. In addition there were two physicians (Poles, who had estates in the vicinity), an assistant (a Jew), and two Jewish midwives in private practice. The physicians enjoyed an excellent reputation in the entire district. One of them, a surgeon and gynecologist, attracted patients from points hundreds of miles away.
At the age of five, a boy was sent to a school (kheyder) where he was taught the alphabet and reading. In the kheyder the boy usually spent a year or a year and a half, and was then promoted to a higher grade, where he took up the study of the Pentateuch and the rest of the Bible. The next step in his education was the study of the Talmud. Some teachers (melamdim) also instructed their pupils in writing and in the elements of arithmetic. Thus, at the age of ten, a Jewish boy knew a little of the Bible, could write Yiddish, had a smattering of elementary arithmetic, and was studying the Talmud.
For the study of Russian there was a special teacher. Some boys studied in kheyder only part of the time and devoted several hours daily to the study of Russian, arithmetic, and writing.
The kheyder was ordinarily in the home of the teacher. Study hours, except for beginners, were from nine in the morning to nine in the evening, with an hour for lunch. In the winter time every pupil had to contribute a pint of kerosene for the lamp.
For children whose parents could not afford the fee, there was a Talmud Torah, in which the fee was very low or tuition was altogether free. The Talmud Torah had three classes. In the first class instruction was given in reading, the Pentateuch, and the rest of the Bible; in the second class, in Bible, Talmud, and in writing Yiddish and Russian; in the third class, in Talmud, writing Yiddish and Russian, and in arithmetic. Instruction in the secular studies was given by two teachers who came for that purpose to the Talmud Torah for two hours daily, except Friday and Saturday. One teacher taught Yiddish writing and arithmetic and the other, Russian.
The years between twelve and fourteen were years of decision for the boys. Most of them entered at that age the leather factories, or were apprenticed to artisans. A small number of ambitious and promising boys left for the Yeshivas. Boys from the wealthier homes helped their parents in their factories or stores and simultaneously continued their education with a private tutor.
The education of girls was delayed to the age of seven or eight. It began with instruction in reading Hebrew and Yiddish. Thereafter came instruction in writing Yiddish and Russian, and in the elements of arithmetic. At the age of thirteen or fourteen girls were usually apprenticed to seamstresses. The poorest became domestics. Some girls worked as saleswomen in their parents' stores part of the time and continued their education.
At the turn of the century a general public school, of four grades, and a modern Hebrew school were opened in town. These schools gave the foundation of a systematic education to a number of Jewish children. Moreover, some of the well-to-do parents began sending their children to secondary schools in the larger cities. At the time of the first World War, under German occupation, a secular Yiddish school was opened. After the war the old-fashioned type of kheyder became practically extinct. It was replaced by a net of Yiddish and Hebrew schools, which existed till the second World War.
Educational facilities for the non-Jewish population were provided by the Russian government. It maintained two elementary schools, one for boys and one for girls, and a seminary for the training of teachers for the elementary schools in the villages. The seminary had some 300 students. These students came from the entire district of Grodno and were provided with board and lodging by the school. Together with the faculty and staff the seminary population comprised some 350 people, who were a considerable economic factor in town.
The first political party in our town was the Zionist organization. On a winter eve, some time in i898 or 1899, the Jews were summoned to the House of Study, where an out-of-town preacher and some local men addressed them and Hebrew songs were sung. As far as I recall, the speakers appealed to the audience to become members in the Zionist organization, and the response was good. The work of the organization consisted mainly in collecting money for the Jewish National Fund. Before every Zionist congress there was some activity in town in connection with the election of delegates. The Zionist organization also opened and maintained the Hebrew school in town.
From 1905 to 1907 the town had an organization of Zionist Socialists, known by the abbreviated Russianized name of S.S. The leadership of the group consisted of some temporary residents: a teacher and several workmen. Upon their departure, the group dissolved. The town also had an anarchist club, with a leader who also came from out of town. Upon his departure, the club closed its doors.
The Jewish Labor Organization or "Bund" had its beginnings in our town about 1900. By 1905 it had grown into a powerful organization. Its membership was drawn from all classes of the Jewish population. The organization conducted strikes in the leather factories and in the shops. It helped elect to the first Duma a "Bund" representative, who received some 80% of the Jewish votes cast in our town. But the years 1907 and 1908, the period of political reaction in Russia, saw a decline of the organization in our town. Some active members left town; others became disillusioned and gave up political activity. In 1909, the group was reorganized, concentrating mainly on cultural activities: symposia, lectures, discussions and similar enterprises.
The heroic period in the history of the "Bund" in Swislocz was the year 1905. In the fall of that year a peculiar tension was felt in town. People awaited eagerly the arrival of the mail to obtain the latest news. Rumors of pogroms spread and there was talk of organizing a Jewish self-defense. Money was needed for the procurement of arms; and the following way of obtaining the required sum was decided upon, although the organization was in principle opposed to confiscation.
The town had two government stores for the sale of liquor. It was decided to stage an attack on one of these and to take its money. Once a month there was a fair in town, to which peasants and merchants from the neighboring villages and towns would come. During the fair the government stores took in considerable sums of money. The day of the fair was, therefore, deemed ideal for such an enterprise. Some time in October, 1905, in the evening following the day of the fair, as soon as the front door was closed, several of the most active members of the organization entered the store and, intimidating the salesgirls, departed with the money. Although the street was full of people and police (the chief of police summoned for the fair the police forces of the neighboring towns), no one noticed what had happened. When the salesgirls raised an alarm that they had been held up, no one believed them. Rumor had it that they embezzled the money and that the story of the burglary was an invention. It was only after the "Bund" published a proclamation taking responsibility for the act that suspicion of the salesgirls was allayed.
The attack was well organized, save for one serious slip. The participants entered the store undisguised, and the salesgirls identified two of them. One fled abroad; the other was arrested, and faced a long term at hard labor. After several months' imprisonment, he was freed on bail of five hundred rubles and likewise fled abroad. With the aid of the chief of police a false death certificate of the arrested was secured. The certificate was submitted to the district attorney and he released the bail. In the final analysis, the affair cost considerably more than it brought in.
Formerly, Joseph and Esther plays were given in Yiddish during the Purim season. The actors, who were young men, took the parts of both men and women. Some time in 1905 or 1906 the first Yiddish play was given in which women, too, acted. This play was sponsored by the "Bund"; it was followed by several Yiddish plays given by the Zionist Socialist group.
Great difficulties were involved in these dramatic presentations, mainly in securing the requisite permission, which the chief of police was very reluctant to grant. Another difficulty was finding a suitable place. For a time a large barn was used, later on, a vacant factory loft. Under the German occupation and thereafter, dramatic presentations in Yiddish were given more frequently, with the dramas of Jacob Gordin enjoying great popularity.
At the ceremony announcing the engagement of a couple to be married, plates were broken. After the engagement the bride and groom were invited to the houses of their future in-laws for a holiday or a weekend. On such occasions relatives and friends would send wine to the house entertaining the guest, with a greeting, "Welcome to your guest!" (Mit lib aykh ayer gast.)
Wedding festivities began on the Saturday night prior to the wedding. The bride's girl friends would gather in her house for dancing and merrymaking. This gathering was called the prelude (forshpil). At dusk, the wedding proper commenced with a reception for the bridegroom, in which, as a rule, the older people participated, and with the ceremony of "seating" the bride (bazetsn), at which the young folks danced. After the reception, the bridegroom was led to the house in which the bride was "seated," where he performed the ceremony of veiling the bride. If a bride was an orphan, a memorial prayer was recited for her deceased parents.
The wedding ceremony was usually performed in the synagogue courtyard. The bride and groom were led to the ceremony to the accompaniment of music. First, the musicians led the bridegroom under the canopy and afterwards the bride was brought. After the bridegroom pronounced the marriage formula and the appropriate benedictions were recited, the young couple were taken back to the house where the bride was "seated." At the entrance of the house the couple were met by someone holding a tray with wine and cake. Since both bride and groom fasted on their wedding day, they were taken into a separate room, where they were given a light repast.
After the ceremony the older folks sat down to the wedding supper. Wedding gifts were announced by the sexton or the jester (badkhn) in the traditional formula: "A gift from the bride's or groom’s relative!" When the elders finished their meal, the young folks had theirs and afterwards continued dancing.
On the following morning, the bridegroom served brandy and cake. On the Sabbath following the wedding, the traditional "seven benedictions" were pronounced three times: Friday night, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon. Saturday morning the bridegroom was led by a group of men to the synagogue, with the bride similarly led by a group of women. A bride and a lying-in woman were not permitted to be alone in the house or on the street. After the bride had been led to the synagogue and the lying-in woman had gone to religious services, the restriction was lifted. On the walls of the room in which there was a lying-in woman, talismans, known as shir hamaylesn, after their opening words, were hung, containing psalm 121 and a number of incantations.
At the birth of a child, for the first seven days of confinement, the beginners in kheyder would come at sunset to the house of the lying-in woman and recite in unison several passages from the Bible, for which they were rewarded with sweets. If the newborn infant was a boy, a celebration called the shoiem zokher was held on the Friday night following his birth, at which the guests were served boiled peas and broad beans. Some considered it particularly beneficial to have the child circumcised in the House of Study.
In case of death, the Khevre Kadishe was notified, and its representatives came and "lifted" the deceased, that is, strewed a little straw on the floor and placed him with his feet at the door. The grave digger was ordered to bring the coffin and dig the grave. Female members of the Khevre Kadishe sewed the shrouds. The sexton was sent to call out through the town, "mes mitsve" implying that attendance at the funeral was requested. While these preparations were going on a group of men would recite psalms in the house of the deceased. The Khevre Kadishe then washed the body, dressed it in a shroud, placed it in the coffin, covered it with a black cover, and carried it to the cemetery. One of the members of the Khevre Kadishe descended into the grave and put away the body, placed potsherds over the eyelids, two forked twigs in the hands, and boards over the body.
On the eve of Sabbath or holidays the people were summoned to the synagogue by the sexton. His summons served to indicate to the women that it was time to kindle the Sabbath candles. As soon as his powerful baritone voice was heard thundering, "To the synagogue!" The trades women quickly closed their shops and rushed home to usher in the Sabbath. The people were also summoned to the synagogue when a preacher came to deliver a discourse.
The women believed in the evil eye, which they greatly feared. If a child was ill, particularly if it yawned, the mother immediately concluded that it had been given the evil eye. The only remedy was exorcism. For that purpose the women had several Yiddish incantations. One of them was in translation:
There are three cracks
In the ceiling wide.
There the child's evil eye
Will depart and hide.
Another incantation was:
Three Women sit on a stone.
One says: "The child has the evil eye."
The other says: "No!"
The third says: "Whence it came
Thither it shall go."*
The incantation was followed by spitting three times.
(*This incantation is reminiscent of one of the oldest German incantations and is frequent in the folklore of many peoples. See K. Mullenhoff and W. Scherer, Deukmaler deutsche Poesie und Poosa aus dem VIII-XII Jahrhundert, Berlin, 1892, 1 p.15.)
Like every other town, Swislocz, too, had a nickname: sislevicher krupnik. The town fully deserved that nickname. For there was not a day, except the Sabbath and the holidays, when krupnik was not on the menu of every Jewish home in town. What is krupnik? It is a thick soup of barley or groats mixed with potatoes. In the winter time, when meat was cheap, a slice of lamb or veal was added to the mixture. In the summer time, when meat was expensive, only the wealthy could afford to season their krupnik with meat. Most people had to be content with a little beef fat in their krupnik, to which onions were added as a preservative.
For the Friday breakfast the krupnik was prepared differently, as a rule with stuffed gut. It was eaten with fresh rolls, which nearly all Jewish women baked on Friday. Friday was also graced with potato pudding. Advantage was taken of the fact that the oven was kindled for the baking of Sabbath bread (khale). Some families had potato pudding twice on Friday.
Another popular dish was lekshlekh bulve, peeled potatoes, thinly sliced and boiled with meat. The dish was prepared in the morning, placed in the oven, and eaten for lunch or for supper. Likewise popular were potatoes boiled in their jackets (sholekhts bulve). The wealthy ate the potatoes with herring; the rest, with herring sauce. On the whole, potatoes were a staple in the diet of our district, both among Jews and non-Jews. It was not without a measure of justification that the district of Grodno was known in Russia as "the Grodno potato."
II. ECONOMIC ASPECTS
Occupationally, the Jews of the town were divided, in the main, into three categories: leather manufacturers and workers, merchants, and artisans.
The Leather Industry
The leather factories were the backbone of the Jewish economic life in town. Some 70% of the Jewish population were directly or indirectly connected with the leather industry. Its beginnings date from the 1870's, when Pinkhes Bereznitski opened a factory, in charge of a German master craftsman. Thereafter a number of other Jewish employers established factories. From 1900 to the German occupation (1915), the leather industry was the decisive factor in the general economic life of the town. At the beginning of this century the town numbered eight leather factories employing between forty and fifty workers each, and a dozen or so smaller shops employing from six to twelve workers.
The factories were divided into wet tanneries and dry shops. They produced leather from horse hides, which was used in the making of leggings and uppers for shoes and boots. The process of converting a raw hide into leather took about three months. The hide was taken into the wet tannery, soaked, scoured, and set out ready for the dry factory. These several steps took some ten weeks. In the wet tanneries the work was mainly unskilled, and most of the workingmen were non-Jews. In the dry factories it took another three weeks or so to curry, grain, wash, and otherwise make the leather ready for the use of the cobbler. Here the work was entirely skilled, and most of the workers were Jews. In both the wet tannery and the dry shop the work was done without machinery. It was hard work, the lighter tasks being performed by boys fourteen or fifteen years old. The big employers owned both wet tanneries and dry shops, with capital invested from twenty to forty thousand rubles. The business was conducted in a modern way. The raw hides were purchased in Bialystok with payments by drafts made out to a Bialystok bank. The leather was sent by freight to the leather merchants and the receipts for it were discounted in the Bialystok banks.
Practically all the manufacturers had to resort in part to borrowed capital. Some they obtained in the banks and some from private individuals on promissory notes. The interest private people charged on such loans ranged from eight to ten percent. Every big employer went once a week to Bialystok to purchase raw hides and to settle his accounts with his banker. The smaller operators had no wet tanneries, but purchased half-finished hides in town or in nearby towns and finished them. The capital involved in such a business was between two and three thousand rubles.
The finished product was sold to merchants all over Russia. The biggest customers were the merchants of Poland. The transactions were negotiated chiefly by mail. The town had several brokers who took commissions from merchants out of town. They purchased the merchandise and supervised its packing and shipment. From tie to time the out-of-town merchants would come to town and their brokers would accompany them tot he factories.
Earnings of factory workers were good. From 1904 to 1908 earnings were the highest. An apprentice earned from two to four rubles a week; a semi-skilled worker, from eight to twelve rubles; skilled workers, from sixteen to twenty-five rubles. In 1908 and 1909 earnings declined about one-third. This lower level of earnings obtained up to the first World War. From 1904 to the first World War the working-day was eight hours: from eight o'clock to twelve o'clock and from one o'clock to five o'clock, with the exception of Friday, when the workers quit at three. Jewish workingmen did not work on Saturdays. Since the workers in the leather industry earned good wages, their standard of living was comparatively high. They were well-fed, well-clothed, and contributed freely to many a charitable cause. Frequently they extended loans of small amounts to hard-pressed merchants.
There were some sixty stores in town, mostly small establishments, whose stock was worth fifty to a hundred rubles. A dozen or so were operated by women, with the husbands engaged in another occupation, such as tailoring or bricklaying. However, most of the merchants drew their entire sustenance from their stores. A few stores whose stock was valued at ten thousand rubles enjoyed the patronage of the landowners, officials, and leather manufacturers.
The big merchants took several business trips in the course of the year to Bialystok or Warsaw, where they purchased some of their stock. Otherwise, they purchased what they needed through a kind of commission merchant who did a two-way business. These commission merchants brought to town such farm products as butter, eggs, and mushrooms and shipped them to Bialystok on hired peasants' carts, usually on a Monday. Simultaneously, they took from the merchants in town orders for their immediate needs. On Tuesday mornings they would leave by train for Bialystok, attend to the orders given them, and sell the farm products that had in the meantime arrived in the city. On Thursday they would dispatch the carts back to town laden with merchandise and then go home the same evening by train. There, usually with the aid of wife and children, they delivered the merchandise to those who ordered it. Several of the more enterprising purchased some. wares on their own account and sold them later on to the local business people.
Up to 1898 there were in town a dozen or so tavern keepers. After 1898, when the sale of liquor became a state monopoly, there were no more Jewish taverns. Several Jews obtained a license for a beer-hall (raspivochno), where bottled beer, tea, and a light bite were sold. Several Jews were grain dealers, buying from the landowners and the rich peasants. Part of the grain they ground to flour and sold to the bakers, and part they sold to wholesale merchants.
The district around the town abounded in forests; some were state owned and others the property of Polish landowners. (The Bialowiez forest, the property of the Czar, was a distance of fourteen verst from town.) A number of Jews were engaged in the timber business, some on a very large scale. The big timber merchants employed managers to supervise the work; the small merchants, who bought strips of forests (otdelianka), usually did all the work themselves. Occasionally, two or three small merchants formed a partnership. The better types of logs were floated down the Narew to the saw mills or to Germany. The others were used for railway ties. Defective logs were cut into fire-wood.
There were two types of men's tailors in town: those that catered to the town's trade and those that worked for the peasants in the vicinity. The former were generally proficient in their trade and comparatively well-paid. Frequently, they employed two or three apprentices. The latter were less fortunate. In the summer time, when the peasants were busy in the fields, the tailors depending on them had a slack season. They had to resort to supplementary occupations, such as orchard-keeping and selling fruit. (The latter was usually the task of the wife.) Even in the winter time, when these tailors were fully employed, their earnings were meager. The materials they received from the peasants were home-made rough cloth, or sheepskins for coats. These materials could not be sewn by machine, but for the most part had to be stitched by hand.
The town had several women's tailors. Some employed one or two apprentice seamstresses. These tailors sewed bridal wardrobes, ladies' coats, or worked on orders for the wives of the landowners. They were proficient and well paid. There were, furthermore, a few seamstresses who sewed blouses and skirts for the town women. Other women sewed blouses or jackets (kurtka) for the peasant women. The remuneration for this work was very low: twenty or twenty-five kopeks per blouse. In addition, a few women were engaged in sewing underwear, pillowcases, and the like.
The shoemakers catered almost exclusively to the town population. Because the peasant went barefoot in the summer, a pair of boots lasted many years. The shoemakers made their wares to order. The uppers were cut according to measurement by the cutter (zagotovshchik). The soles, shanks, and heels were purchased in a store. The well-to-do shoemakers would purchase these supplies in larger quantities, and the poor, for each pair of shoes individually. A few wealthy shoemakers purchased leather for both uppers and soles in large quantities. These shoemakers employed several apprentices. During slack times, when orders were few, they kept on working, preparing a stock of shoes, and selling them later on, in the pre-holiday season. Before the first World War, when two merchants began to import shoes from Warsaw, the local shoemakers saw in this step a threat to their existence. They banded together and declared a boycott on the imported shoes: they refused to repair them. Some of the shoemakers were truly - masters of their trade. They made a pair of shoes that vied in attractiveness with any displayed in the stores of the large cities.
There were several joiners in town. Their season was in the summer, when new homes were being built. They finished the wood work in the houses. In the winter time, they took to cabinetmaking, producing chiefly inexpensive household furniture and the wooden furnishings for the leather factories. Expensive furniture was imported from Bialystok.
The few blacksmiths in town catered, in the main, to the village population. They put rims on wheels, hammered out plows, and sharpened scythes. In the winter time, work fell off. It was practically limited to putting iron runners on sleds or shoeing horses. Some blacksmiths would purchase wheels in the winter time, put rims on them and sell the finished wheels in the summer, when there was great demand for them.
The town had eleven bakers. Two baked black bread, four baked both black and white bread, rolls, and khale for the Sabbath. Five baked cake, cracknels, and pastries.
The town also had a number of Jews without a definite occupation, shifting from one calling to another, or engaging simultaneously in two or more. Such a man would own one or two cows and sell milk, bake bread for sale, fatten geese, and bake matza for Passover. These tasks were carried out by the women. The men would go to the market, buy a measure or two of grain and resell it to an export merchant. In the winter time, some of them would buy a calf or a lamb, have it slaughtered and sell the skin and the meat, retaining the head and the legs and other minor parts. Others would buy from the peasants skins of foxes and martens, wool, bristles, mushrooms, and berries, and resell them to export merchants.
These Jews without a definite calling were indirectly engaged in agriculture. The Jews who kept cows or horses had manure. The peasants in the vicinity were always short of manure. Those who owned fields near the town would sublet a strip of land for two years to a Jew who had manure. The Jew would hire laborers to strew the manure on the field and plant potatoes. The following year, he would plant barley, oats, or buckwheat. On the third year the field was returned to the peasant in a fertile state, ready for planting rye. The Jew, in turn, would have enough potatoes and barley, or any other cereal planted, for his use, and even a small quantity for sale. The straw, chaff, and very small potatoes served as food for the cattle.
An Attempt at Statistics
Knowing the town well, its streets, houses, occupants, and their calling, I traversed, in memory, the entire town, house by house, street by street, and recorded the callings of the people. I did the same with the factories. Here, however, the task was more complicated. In a factory with several dozen employees, it is difficult, according to my system, to indicate the number of workers with absolute accuracy. It is especially difficult in the case of the assistants an apprentices. Figures for them as well as for the factory workers are approximate. From 1902 to 1914 the number of artisans did not change. The following table covers that period.
When we compare the figures for Jewish artisans, assistants and apprentices with those for non-Jews we are struck by the disparity in one aspect. For 103 Jewish artisans there were 35 assistants and apprentices that is about one Jewish assistant or apprentice to three Jewish artisans, whereas for every non-Jewish artisan there were two non-Jewish assistants or apprentices. Why was the number of Jewish artisans' assistants and apprentices so small? The Jewish youth was attracted by the leather factories. As an apprentice, he had to work the first year for a very low remuneration and, occasionally, without remuneration. In the factory he received seventy-five kopeks a week as a beginner and after six or eight months, two rubles a week and even more. The effects of the disparity in the numbers of Jewish and non0-Jewish artisans' assistants and apprentices became manifest later on The number of Jewish artisans began to decline and that of non-Jews to rise, as is shown in the following table.
In 1919-1920, the number of Jewish artisans in the categories under consideration declined by 37.5 %, whereas that of the non-Jews increased 100%. In 1902-14, the Jews comprised 88.9% of these occupations and i 1919-20 nly 71.5%. Particularly great was the decrease in the number of Jewish shoemakers. In 1919-20 their number declined 45.5%, whereas the number of non-Jewish shoemakers rose from four to nine.
Strikes and Lockouts
Up to the turn of the century, working conditions in the leather industry were very bad. The working day was fourteen or fifteen hours and even more; wages were very low. Gradually, conditions improved. The number of factories increased and some of the smaller establishments expanded. More workers were needed, and wages rose. The higher wages attracted a number of young people from well-to-do homes, who deemed it below their dignity to become artisans. (These usually entered the more specialized branches of the trade, such as trimming and cutting, which were better paid.) Also young people from the vicinity came to work in the leather factories.
At about that time, a branch of the "Bund" was in the process of formation. In 1900-1901 the "Bund" called the first strike in the leather factories. Members of the organization assembled a large number of workers and together formulated their demands: a raise of wages, and a twelve-hour working-day, from seven to seven, with one and a half hours for breakfast and one hour for lunch. Thereafter, a general assembly of the workers was called, at which these demands were discussed. A strike committee was appointed and a resolution adopted that no one should resume work until all demands were granted by the factory owners. This resolution was confirmed by an oath taken on a pair of phylacteries by each worker.
When the strike committee presented the demands to the factory owners, the latter remained unimpressed. They were inclined to regard the entire affair as a boyish prank. On the following day, however, when not a single worker reported for work, the factory owners began to take a serious view of the strike. They attempted to break the solidarity of the workers by promising higher wages to the older workers. Some of these workers remained unmoved by the tempting offers and in the case of others, the oath on the phylacteries acted as a powerful deterrent. The strike lasted only a short time and ended in complete victory of the workers. The factory owners granted fully their demands.
A second general strike in the leather factories took place in the summer of 1904. This was during the Russo-Japanese war, when the profits of the factory owners were high and the cost of living had gone up. By then the "Bund" was firmly entrenched in town, conducting systematic organizational and educational activities among the workers. The "Bund" called a general assembly of leather workers in a forest one verst and a half from town. To impress the assembly, a speaker from the neighboring town of Wolkowysk was invited. The speaker presented the demands formulated by the "Bund": 1) a raise of about 35% in wages; 2) a working-day of nine hours, from eight to five; 3) job tenure, no worker to be discharged without sufficient cause; 4) medical aid, the employer to pay the medical bills of the ill employee.
That evening the demands were presented to the factory owners. They were ready to negotiate a reduction in working hours and a raise of wages, but would not consider the other two demands. They were particularly incensed by the demand for job tenure, which to them appeared highly arbitrary. The strike committee refused to negotiate their demands piecemeal, and a strike was called. It lasted three weeks and again ended in a victory for the workers. The newly acquired working conditions were in effect till the end of 1907. The period 1904-1907 came to be regarded as the good years of the workers in the leather industry.
The political reaction, which set in after 1905, began to show its effects in the economic sphere. In November, 1907, the factory owners called a general assembly of their workers and put before them the following conditions: 1) a reduction of 35-40% in wages; 2) discontinuance of medical aid; 3) abolition of tenure. Refusal to accept these conditions, they threatened, would be answered with the closure of all factories. The workers rejected these conditions and countered with a strike. Although the "Bund" was then considerably weakened, it took over the direction of the strike.
In the first weeks of the strike it became evident that the developments had more than a local character. The leather factory owners of the entire district were anxious for a victory of their fellows, in which instance they would follow suit and put before their workers similar conditions. On the other hand, the workers of the entire region were hoping for the success of the strikers in Swislocz. The Tanners Union of the district sent a professional organizer to advise and guide the strikers. He was an energetic young man and an eloquent orator, who inspired confidence. He also traveled throughout the district to collect funds for the strikers. The Tanners Union also enlisted the interests of the union in the district of Vilna and there, too, collections were made for the benefit of the Swislocz strikers.
Most of the strikers did not require aid. Before the strike, they had earned decent wages and had managed to accumulate some savings. The few less skilled workers whose earnings were in need of aid, were given one and a half rubles per week, if single, and three, if married. To keep up the spirit of the strikers, daily meetings were called. Since it was the winter and assemblies in the open were impossible, the strikers met daily, with the exception of Saturday, in the House of Study. The trustees of the House of Study raised no objection, for the majority of the Jewish population was in sympathy with the strikers.
At first there were no difficulties with the police. At the time of the strike the chief of police was a quiet and liberal man who gave assurances that as long as the strike was conducted peacefully, he would not interfere. It was difficult, however, to conduct the strike peacefully, and a clash between the strikers and the police occurred. The strikers had pinned their hope on the factory owners' need f6r money to cover their outstanding notes. When these notes became due, the factory owners decided to raise cash through the sale of half-finished leather. This transaction led to the clash. In the seventh or eighth week of the strike, the strikers were told that a factory was shipping half-finished leather to other towns. A group of strikers left for the factory to prevent the loading of the leather. At the entrance to the factory yard several policemen denied entry to the strikers. When they attempted to force their way into the yard, the police fired a salvo in the air. The strikers retired and marched to the homes of the factory owners, demanding that the police be with-drawn from the factories. In the altercation that ensued, a factory owner was beaten up. The chief of police took a grave view of the situation and called for soldiers to patrol the streets. Tension mounted steadily. The organ of the tanners Union printed a letter from Swislocz reporting that the police had fired on the strikers. It was sued for spreading false rumors. However, strikers from Swislocz testified in defense of the organ.
Fortunately, the strike committee kept cool heads. An ultimatum was presented to the factory owners to withdraw the police and the military from the factories and the streets, or they would bear responsibility for the consequences. The police and military were soon recalled, and the strike again assumed a peaceful character.
On one occasion the factory owners succeeded in shipping half-finished goods. But the strike committee kept cool heads. But the strike committee, which maintained connections with the railway workers, was informed of the destination of these goods. At the request of the committee, the workers of the town to which the goods were shipped refused to work on them. This solidarity of the workers discouraged the manufacturers of neighboring towns from buying half-finished goods in Swislocz.
The strike continued into the ninth and tenth week. Some strikers began to feel discouraged. At the meetings of the strikers in the House of Study demands were made for opening negotiations with the owners. The strike committee decided to call a conference of the Tanners Union of the Bialystok and Vilna districts. The conference met in Swislocz in the twelfth week of the strike. (The chief of police might have known of the conference, for it met in the neighborhood of his office.) It lasted two or three days and was attended by delegates from a number of towns. After prolonged discussions, it was decided to continue the strike. Following the conference, a general meeting of the strikers was called at the House of Study. Several delegates addressed the strikers, moving the audience to tears.
When the strike entered its. fifteenth week, the spirits of the workers flagged. Aid from the neighboring towns came irregularly. The Passover festival was approaching, and the needs of the strikers were great. The demands for a settlement became more urgent, and the factory owners, too, were in a conciliatory mood. A week later the strike was settled with a compromise on wages. The workers won on the other points.
Essentially, however, both sides lost: the workers sixteen weeks' wages; the factory owners, the loss of production and, above all, the loss of markets. During the strike, some of the merchants who had formerly bought their leather in Swislocz sought out other sources of supply and retained these connections even after the strike was over. In fine, several factories closed and the others sustained heavy losses.
The Leather Industry from 1908 to 1919
A few weeks after the strike, the factory owners renewed their demands for the abolition of tenure of job under the threat of a new lockout. When the workers refused their demands, they carried out their threat. The "Bund" was then weak and the workers were exhausted by the previous strike. After three weeks of lockout, the workers capitulated and accepted all the demands of the owners.
The workers were quite demoralized. Since several factories had closed, a number of them were unemployed. Furthermore, the large factories began selling their product in half-finished form, which meant that the workers in the dry factories were left without work. Dry factories that had previously employed forty and fifty workers reduced the number to fifteen or ten. In these factories the percentage of Jewish employees was very high, and the growing unemployment affected chiefly the Jewish workers.
Some of the unemployed workers opened their own shops. Two workers would usually go into business in partnership. For about two thousand rubles they could rent a shop, hire a couple of workers, buy a quantity of half-finished leather and finish it. The small shops paid lower wages than the factories. Thus, a worker who had received before the strike some sixteen rubles a week in the factory, was paid for the same work in the small shop ten or nine rubles. Even at their best these small shops could give employment to only a small fraction of those who were out of work. A large number of workers then decided on immigration to the United States and Canada.
The depression continued up to 1911. Then conditions improved slightly. In 1911-1912, the "Bund" regained some of its former strength and renews its activities. Its members helped in the organization of strikes in the smaller shops. From that time to the first World War conditions in the leather industry were fair. The first years of World War I was a boom year, with every worker employed.
Toward the end of the summer of 1915, the German armies entered Swislocz. During the German occupation trade was forbidden. At the end of 1918, when the Germans left town, a few factory owners resumed operations on a small scale. The source of supply of hides was limited and the demand for the finished product even more so. Swislocz was cut off from Russia, previously the main market for leather. To meet the demands of the local market, several small shops began producing fine leather fro calf skins. On the whole, however, the leather industry, the backbone of Jewish economic life in Swislocz, never regained its former position.
Strikes in Artisans' Shops
There were practically no strikes in artisans' shops, which as a rule employed few outside hands. Joiners, blacksmiths, and bakers worked alone with their children. The few tailors and shoemakers who employed outside help usually granted the demands of their employees and avoided strikes. Some recalcitrance was shown by the women's tailors. They employed young girls between fourteen and twenty years old. In season they worked from eight in the morning to ten in the evening, and even later than that. In 1901 and 1902 a demand was put forth for a regular working day of twelve hours. The employers refused this demand and the girls were too timid to strike. A an act of solidarity the young leather workers notified the tailors that unless regular working hours were introduced the windows of their shops would be smashed. They carried out their threat, and the tailors yielded.
Up to the turn of the century few Jews emigrated from our town. In 1896, several families left for Argentina to settle in the colonies of Baron de Hirsch. In the beginning of the present century there was a slight rise in emigration. After the depression resulting from the strike in 1908, the tempo of emigration. quickened, with England, the United States, and Canada as destinations. In 1916, under the German occupation, several groups of women went to America. Emigration assumed mass proportions after the first World War, chiefly to the United States. There was also considerable emigration to Canada, Palestine, and Argentina.
Note: A study of a Western European Jewish Communtiy, by Max Strauss, appears in this volume. A related study by Hirsh Abrahmovitch on "Rural Jewish occumpations in Lithuania," appeared in the Yivo Annual of Jewish Social Science Vol II-III.