"Pinkas Hakehilot" - Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities - Poland; Vol. 4: Warsaw and District, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem 1989

Plock (Plock) (Region: Plock; Province: Warsaw).

Pages 358 - 372

Written by Abrahan Wein
Translated from the Hebrew by Morris Gradel

Devi Tuszynski: Plock 

Between the Two World Wars

The first years of the Polish Restoration were ones of uncertainty for the Jews. This was mainly due to the rabid behaviour of the troops of General Heller when passing through Plock. They attacked the Jews, insulted them, and humiliated them by shaving off their beards and sidelocks. An air of pogrom reigned in the town after the martyrdom of the local Hassidic sage Rabbi Chaim Shapira. During the battles between the Polish army and the Bolsheviks in 1920 he went out onto the balcony of his house, wearing a talith (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries), to pray for heavenly mercy in a time of crisis. His Gentile neighbours reported that during his prayers he had raised his hand as a signal to the Bolshevik artillery to zoom in on its targets. He was arrested and sentenced to death. His execution was public. In his last moments he asked to put on his talith, and he expired with "Shema Yisrael" (Hear O Israel) and "Our Lord is God" on his lips.

In the wake of this tragic event the town nationalists attempted to incite the rabble to attacks on the Jews, but this was foiled, thanks to the intervention of the local branch of the influential PSP. The Jewish community of Plock began the new era of Polish independence under the shadow of the economic crisis it suffered during the world war and from which it had not recovered. A sign of this was that the number of Jews decreased despite the increase in the birthrate.

This period also saw the closing of the Russian market to Jewish trade, together with a falling-off of the grain trade with Prussia (Danzig), in which the majority of the established Jewish merchants were engaged. The small merchant broke down under the burden of the taxes imposed by the authorities; and the economic stagnation that permeated independent Poland during almost all the years of its existence until 1939 severely limited the potential market. Many of the smaller merchants were forced to close their businesses (especially during the major crisis of 1929-30) and to move to the larger towns to earn a living. The two agricultural machinery plants under Jewish ownership took on no Jewish workers until almost the end of the period, when one of them engaged a dozen Jewish workers.

The partial census carried out by the "Joint" in 1921 reported that in that year there were in Plock 396 Jewish workshops (including a few small industries), and two larger plants producing agricultural machinery, employing 1,035 workers. In 224 of the small enterprises only the owners and their families worked; in 172 there were also hired workers (376 Jews and 179 non-Jews). More than half of the businesses (58%) were in the clothing industry, i.e. most of the owners were tailors, furriers, hatters and shoemakers. Also most of the Jewish employees (35%) worked in the clothing branch. Work in most of these workshops was seasonal, which meant that both owners and employees were without earnings for many months of the year.

In view of their difficult situation the Jewish merchants, workshop owners and workers set about strengthening the internal structure of each branch by establishing institutions for credit and mutual assistance. All three groups formed professional and trade unions. Shortly after the First World War the "Loan Bank" was established; at the height of its activity in 1934 it had 400 members. In 1927 the "Merchant Bank" was set up and became the repository of most of the savings of the Jewish population. Its loans, which at times amounted to 10,000 zlotys, benefited mainly the more established and medium-sized merchant firms. In 1933 representatives of the religious Jews set up the "Credit Bank", which survived, as did the two other banks mentioned here, until 1939. Towards the end of the First World War a wealthy Jew called Rogozin established a bank in his own name - but this institution met with several failures, especially during the severe economic crisis, and was wound up in 1930.

In addition to some small charity funds that were established at the time, a provident fund was set up in 1935 to give loans to needy small Jewish businesses. Its capital came from contributions from almost all of these establishments; but owing to the demand for loans from the majority of its members, whose economy deteriorated from year to year, the fund was quickly emptied and in 1939 teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

Among the most prominent trade associations was that of "Ovdei Hamachat" (the Needle Workers), and the association of Transport Workers - each with about 100 members. The former organisation was under the influence of the "Bund", while the latter moved in 1935 from the aegis of the Bund to that of "Poalei Zion" , though towards the end of the period the "Bund" was again in the ascendant. Both these organisations had loan and welfare funds.

The period between the wars was marked by vigilant and varied activity by the political parties and their youth organisations, whether they stemmed from before or after the First World War.

At the head of the Zionist camp, represented in Plock by all its factions, stood "Poalei Zion", established in P in 1926. It formed the mainstay of the umbrella organisation "Haliga lemaan Eretz Israel Haovedet" (League for the Workers of the Land of Israel), with a majority among the Zionist groups. In the elections to the Zionist Congress in 1935 the League obtained two-thirds, or 506, of the proportional vote - while the remaining votes went to "Al Hamishmar" (On Guard) - 76; "Ait Livnot" (A Time to Build) - 53; "Hamizrachi" - 53; the Revisionists - 6; and "Hechalutz Hamerkazi" (Central Pioneers) - 2 only.

"Poalei Zion" in Plock had its own loan fund, and during its existence granted some 300 interest-free loans. Among the Zionist youth groups in Plock first place was held by "Hashomer Hatzair", established, as stated, in 1921, on the basis of the Scout Movement from the time of the First World War. In its heyday the Plock branch numbered some 300 boys and girls. The first group of veteran members emigrated to Palestine in 1926. In that year was set up "Dror" (Freedom) - a union of the youth movements of Poalei Zion, Socialist Zionists, Hashomer Hatzair, and Hechalutz - and a training farm established at Maladrosze, near Plock. This training farm, or hachshara, existed until 1937; it contained on the average 25 trainees for six-monthly periods. In Plock itself a hachshara named after Borochow was started in 1933, and during the three years of its existence 150 trainees in various non-agricultural trades passed through it with a view to emigrating to Palestine. The "Hashomer Haleumi" (the National Watchman) branch of the General Zionists was set up in 1929, followed two years later by that of the religious youth movement "Beitar" - though the majority of the latter’s members in 1932 went over to "Akiva". Akiva flourished in Plock and at the height of its activity numbered some 200 boys and girls.

Among the non-Zionists considerable influence was exercised by "Agudat Israel" (see Notes at end), whose branch in Plock was established in 1919, based mainly on the Chasidim of Gur. Most of its activity was concentrated in the Community Committee and in religious education.

The "Bund" in Plock experienced its ups and downs. The peak of its activities was reached in the years immediately preceding the Second World War. As indicated earlier, its activities were based on the trade unions and on propaganda and educational activity in Yiddish.

An important role among the Jewish workers was played by the clandestine cells of the communists in Plock. Many of the workers in "needle" and leather belonged to the communists and their youth organisations. Amongst those charged with illegal activities there were at times some 90% Jews. The communists carried out their secret activity under the guise of the legally established library named after Anski and the sports club "Saar" (Storm).

The parties played a significant role in all areas of the Jewish community’s public and social life. They were the major factors in elections to the committee, the town council, and the Polish Parliament (Sejm). And it was on their initiative that there were institutions of education and culture in the town.

In the elections to the community’s committee in 1931 the "Zionist-Mizrahi" list obtained 6 seats, as did the list of "Agudat Israel-Workshop Owners". A year later the same result ensued. In 1937 Agudat Israel won 3 seats, the Zionist-Mizrahis 3 seats, and the Workshop Owners 2 seats. The "Bund" took no part in any of these elections; but it did so in 1939, with the suppprt of the communists. Nevertheless, the majority of votes were won by the "Poalei-Zion-Yemin" (i.e the right wing of Poalei Zion). The new leadership, however, had no time to function before the outbreak of the Second World War. Its Chairman, Fishel Fliederbaum, was a member of Poalei-Zion and a town councillor of many years’ standing.

In the beginning of the 20s the community set about restoring its welfare institutions. The hospital, which had been sequestered by the German occupiers in 1916, was re-opened in 1926 - with 26 beds, an operating theatre, an outpatients’ department, a casualty department, and a maternity ward. Prior to its reopening , and even during the war, the "Ezrat Cholim" (Help to the Ill) had been reconstituted, its object being to give medical treatment to the poor (such as free medicine) and support for their families. A considerable improvement took place in the 20s in the Orphanage ("Ochronka" in Polish) and the number of occupants reached 36. The orphans went to elementary school and thereafter to trade schools, and the brighter ones even to the Gymnasia. There was also a "Talmud Torah" under the tutelage of the community, and also a hospice for the poor. With the aid of voluntary contributions a "Tipat Chalav" (Infant Welfare Centre) was established. So too was a society of "Tomchei Aniim" (Help for the Poor) - to provide the needy with food, clothing and fuel for the winter.

In 1938 a branch of "ORT" (see Notes) was active in organising courses in knitting and shoemaking. The community’s budget in 1939 amounted to 125,000 zlotys; and its property that year consisted of the "Little" Synagogue, the "Great" Synagogue, a Bet Midrash, an orphanage, an old-age home, a Talmud Torah, a Mikveh (ritual bathhouse), a Bet Tehara (a Room of Purification for preparing the dead for burial), and two cemeteries (the old and the new).

Every year the committee organised a "flour for Pesach" campaign, and hundreds of poor families received matzot and other food. Similarly, in Pesach a kosher kitchen was set up for Jewish soldiers serving in the local garrison.

From 1927 until the outbreak of war in 1939 the rabbi of Plock was Mordechai Eidelberg. At the onset of the Nazi occupation he escaped from Plock (but perished later in the Holocaust in a town in eastern Poland). The community also employed 3 ritual slaughterers, a cantor, 4 teachers, and 2 gravediggers. The teaching staff of the "Talmud Torah" numbered 7, and their salaries too were paid by the community.

In the inter-war period the Jews of Plock maintained a comprehensive network of educational institutions. Apart from the "Talmud Torah" and the cheders, where the Jewish children continued their studies (mainly in the afternoons), most of them attended state elementary schools for Jewish children only. These were called "Szabasowka", since they were closed on the sabbath and on Jewish Holydays. The curriculum consisted of general subjects, but also of some hours each week of religious instruction.

The remaining Jewish children went to the "Mizrachi" school (that existed from 1915 to 1939) and to the schools of "Agudat Israel - Yesodei Hatorah" (Basics of the Torah) and "Bet Yaakov" (which commenced activity in the late 20s). In the early years of the 30s a school was established by a central organisation with Yiddish as the language of instruction. Some of the cheders within the "Cheder Metukan" system also continued to exist in this period. Hebrew courses were organised by the "Hazamir" Library and by nearly all the clubs of the Zionist groups and their youth movements. The dual-language Jewish Gymnasium mentioned earlier continued its activity and in 1926 achieved state approval, i.e. its diplomas were officially recognized. The Gymnasium was likewise given permission to hold recognized matriculation examinations, enabling its graduates to apply for institutions of higher learning in Poland. As a result of economic difficulties in the 30s (due to the inability of many parents to pay school fees) the Gymnasium suffered a crisis in 1935/36, when the number of its pupils dropped to around 30, compared to a figure of 300 in 1923.

During this whole period - in the clubs and Jewish youth organisations, and in particular in the "Hazamir" library - there were lectures on topical subjects, popular science, and general culture, as well as performances by amateur drama societies and orchestras. Resident members of the free professions and teachers participated in these cultural events, as well as guests from among leaders of the Jewish political parties in Poland, such as Y. Grünbaum. Discussion and debate, sometimes stormy, continued long after the official programmes had ended.

In the realm of Jewish sport the aforementioned "Maccabi" club continued to lead the field. The public appearances of its various sections (football, handball, swimming, hockey, light athletics, boxing, etc.) were often festive occasions that attracted hundreds of Jewish youth from Plock and its environs. Other Jewish sports organisations were also active, albeit for briefer periods - namely "Hapoel" (Poalei Zions sports club), and "Stern" (Star) and "Morgenstern" (Morning Star), associated with the "Bund", and embracing also communists of various shades.

The 30s also revealed in Plock, as for other Jewish communities in Poland, growing signs of anti-semitism. Anti-Jewish propaganda and incitement were spread on the spot by the anti-semitic "Andak" and its youth organisations, and in the local paper, "Glos Masowsa" (Voice of Mazovia). Also printed and distributed locally were libellous anti-semitic tracts in the style of the Nazi "Streimer". They contained such incitements as "how to purge Poland of the Jews". In the course of time pickets were placed near Jewish shops. As early as September 1930 thugs assaulted a 10-year-old Jewish boy, Moshe Lenkin, and inflicted serious injuries on him. The following years saw repeated riots and attacks on the Jews. In 1935-1937 some 90 new Polish businesses and shops opened up in Plock, accompanied by anti-semitic propaganda and calls to boycott Jewish trade and workshops. The anti-Jewish organisations drew up "blacklists" of Poles who "dared" to buy from Jews and exerted strong pressure on them to "alter their evil ways". The boycott and the pickets led to the closing of many Jewish businesses, while others went bankrupt.

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