To the Memory of my Grandmother, Rasha Holcman nee' Zlotnik, the Shopkeeper of Gombin.
WE REMEMBER THE ARTISANS!
"Gombin: The Life and Destruction of a Jewish Town in Poland", " Gombin: dos lebn un umkum fun a Yiddish shtetl in Poylin"
Published by the Gombiner Landsmanschaft in America, New York, 1969.
Jewish Artisans in Gombin
The Yiddish Part, Pages 28-45
Translated by Dr. Ida C. Selavan Schwarcz
Edited by Dorothy & David Rothbart and Ada Holtzman - December 2000
A group of Gombin Bund Activists who immigrated to NYC in 1907
Seating from right: Abram Solomon, Moris Borenstejn, Maks Wolfisz
Standing: Moris Stawi, Dfwora Bol, Jakob M. Rothbart
Source: The Gombin Yizkor Book page 27
Table of Contents
1. Tailors (Shneiders) pages 28-29
2. Jewish Cobblers (Yiddishe Shusters) page 30
3. Hat Makers (Kirzshners un hitel machers) page 30
4. Jewish Tanners (Yiddishe Gorbers) page 31
5. Furriers (Peltzen machers) page 31
6. Bakers in Gombin (Bekers in Gombin) pages 32-33
7. Jewish Butchers in Gombin (Yiddishe Katzavim in Gombin) pages 33-34
8. Jewish Fruit Traders (Yiddishe Sadovnikes) pages 34-35
9. Drying Fruits (Dos Trukenen di Fruchten) pages 35-36
10. Jewish Boot Uppers Makers (Yiddishe Volkers) pages 36-38
11. Musicians (Kleizmerim) pages 38-39
12. Village Traders (Dorfsgayers) pages 39-40
13. Market Women (Mark Zitzers) pages 40-41
14. Shopkeepers in Gombin (Yiddishe Kremers in Gombin) pages 41-44
15. Mordkhele, the Rope Maker (Mordkhele - Shtrikmacher) pages 44-45
Market Day in Gombin 1910
Source: Janusz Szczepanski "Dzieje Gabina do roko 1945", Warsazawa 1984, page 189,
1. Tailors (Shneiders)
There were all kinds of artisans in Gombin who lived from their labor. The tailors occupied the most important position, consisting of many families who had tailoring establishments: fathers and sons and often sons-in-law worked together. There were also apprentices of various kinds.
There were all kinds of tailors: second-rate tailors who made complete garments from cheap materials, as well as those who made finer garments of better quality. There were tailors who specialized in children’s clothing, for children of all ages. The second-rate tailors used to carry around their ready-to-wear garments with them to the frequent fairs where they sold them.
There were also second-rate tailors who made garments for the various Polish sects who lived in the area. There were sects who wore long coats with vents in the back (like those worn by hasidim), and the garments worn by the Mazumim, knee-length coats with loose pants, which were draped over their boots. Over these they wore vests. They also wore long-sleeved blouses whose cuffs covered their knuckles. The women wore short full skirts and short blouses with loose sleeves. Both men and women’s garments were made from a rosy yellow material decorated with shiny gold buttons and ribbons. Polish patriots considered these garments their national costume, and even shlakhtshitses would dress up in these costumes for their revels, in order to demonstrate their Polish patriotism.
There were also custom tailors whose clientele were mostly German colonists of the FolksDeutsche as well as the Swabian Germans. Among the best tailors in town were Avremele Melekhs, Yitshak Mayleks and others. They got the best prices for sewing garments to order. Their customers were the Polish nobility and wealthy shlakhtshitses who lived in the area.
There were tailors who specialized in women’s clothing. They were called ‘damske shnayders” (i.e. dames’ tailors). Among them there were seamstresses who had workshops. These tailors sewed for the general public, Christians and Jews, old and young women, as well as brides.
Another class of tailors were those who sewed exclusively for Jews. They made long coats and long pants and knickers and even silk kapotes (overcoats) for Hasidim, and short-jacketed suits for the general male population.
One should also mention another kind of tailor, the village tailors. They worked almost exclusively for the residents of the “Niderung.” They did their sewing in the homes of the Germans, making cheap clothing for the workers and maids, for children, and sometimes recycled used clothing.
These tailors were of the lowest class. They worked very hard all week long, slept in the barns or in attics on a pile of hay, cooked a pot of “kloytskes” in milk for their meals. Some who were very pious would take along a kosher pot from home. There were also others who allowed themselves some leniency and used glazed pots in the German homes.
On Monday morning at sunrise, they had already packed their talis and tefilin, shears and iron, thread and needles and other necessities, and set out on foot for the villages. Sometimes they would take a son along, to help out. All week long they worked very hard in strange homes, often in anti-Semitic atmospheres; often they would hear mocking remarks from ignorant, coarse Germans but would not respond. This is how they lived, week in week out, and thanked God when there was enough work and they could earn enough to bring home a few rubles for household expenses and to pay off debts and to prepare for the Sabbath.
With the coming of Friday noon they would become restless, hurrying to get home so they would not profane the Sabbath. If God had given them a good week, and the weather was good, they could come home in time. Meanwhile the wives prepared clean underclothes and stockings. Off they would go to the bathhouse, to wash off the uncleanness of the week and they would feel elated. Coming home they would dress in their Sabbath garments and go to the synagogue to receive the Sabbath Queen.
The khazn chanted the evening prayers, sang the “Lekha Dodi”, the congregation responded and they received the Sabbath Queen.
At home they would find their wives and children dressed up for the Sabbath; they greeted the angels with the chanting of “Shalom Aleykhem Malachey Ha-Shalom. Malakhey Elyon” (Peace to you angels of peace, angels of the Exalted One) then they would chant “Eyshet Hayil” (Woman of Valor), make kiddush, wash their hands for hamotsi [blessing over bread] and sit down at the table to celebrate at the Sabbath feast. The downtrodden Jews of the weekly toil were completely transformed, possessors of an additional soul.
After the delicious fish which their wives had cooked, they would sing the Sabbath hymns: Menuhah ve-simhah, or la-Yehudim, Yom Shabaton, Yom Mahmadim, Rest and joy illuminate the Jews, a day of rest, a day of pleasure.
This is how the village tailors started their Sabbath.
2. Jewish Cobblers (Yiddishe Shusters)
There were quite a few Jewish cobblers in Gombin. Most of them made cheap ready-to-wear boots and shoes, They would go to fairs and the frequent “targn” which were held in town and there set out their merchandise in booths and on stands.
There were all kinds of cobblers among them: those who did cheap work and others who were more expensive. In this area there was competition from the Polish cobblers. There were a number of Polish cobblers in town. Their products were of a very cheap quality, and the peasants who came to buy shoes preferred to buy from Jews, whose shoes were pleased them more because they were better made than the once sold by the Poles. This aroused jealousy among the Polish cobblers and some of them showed their anti-Semitic poison. Some of them were close neighbors of the Jews on the street of the cobblers, for example Khoynotski, Vroblevski, and Kovalski. Some of them couread and write Yias well as the Jews butdid not diminish their hatred of Jews, even of Jews who were not cobblers
There were also custom shoemakers in Gombin. They measured their customers’ feet, the customers chose the leather uppers and the soles, and agreed on a price. Here we can mention something, which is looked at as laughable at present. A new style came out which required men’s shoes to squeak. God forbid that a shoemaker should forget to include the squeaky material. The young dandies would never have forgiven him.
There were shoemakers in Gombin who were artists of their craft. I should like to mention one of them. When he made a pair of boots they practically danced off the shelf. His customers used to say that his boots made their feet enjoy themselves. Finally he left and came to Chicago. What he did there I do not know.
3. Hat Makers (Kirzshners un hitel machers)
There were a number of hat-makers in Gombin. It was a completely Jewish trade. They made ready-to-wear hats of all kinds: for Poles, with shiny visors, cloth visors, hats with warm line, which the peasants wore in winter time, as well as hats for Jewish customers, and custom-made hats for those with their own particular tastes.
Most of the ready-to-wear hats were sold on “targn”(stands) at the fairs, just as other artisans sold their wares.
4. Jewish Tanners (Yiddishe Gorbers)
Some Jews in Gombin worked as tanners. To mention only a few who were well known: Barukh Garber and his brothers had a yard filled with large vats sunken in the ground, where the skins lay soaking. From these they made all kinds of leather. Every vat had different kinds of chemicals. They said in town that they (i.e. Barukh and his brothers) were experts in their field.
Another tanner was Mordekhai Garber. There were others as well. There was a German family named Schneider, a father and his sons, who had a big tannery on Plotzk Street. They had a large enterprise and employed many workers, among them also Jews, who worked there for many years. They related sympathetically to the Jewish workers; there were never any signs of anti-Semitism on the part of the owners toward their Jewish workers.
There were gentile workers there as well who worked together with the Jews without any conflicts, as far as we know. Harmony reigned among them, a rare occurrence in Gombin.
5. Furriers (Peltzen machers)
The craft of furriers was completely in Jewish hands. Entire families were occupied in this field. To mention a few: Zishe Peltsmakher and his sons, Neta Peltsmakher and his children, Pinhas Shakher and others, who worked at this trade. Most furriers made a complete garment to sell on stands and at fairs. Others did custom work. This was a group of goodhearted and fine people. They were always ready to do a favor whenever asked.
It is worth telling about Neta Peltsmakher that he was very hospitable. So too were his wife and children. It is difficult to transmit what this family went through with the many guests who always crowded their home. They did not do this for money, but only for a mitsva. They never refused a poor man who came to beg for a night’s lodging. All kinds of poor people used to come to Neta. They would often come on an annual basis, and go right to Netsa’s house, as if to their own homes.
Every summer a Jew came called by the Gombiner, “The Recluse.” He was always dressed the same way: a very long caftan, reaching to his feet, over this a shorter one and another shorter one until he was wearing five or six. The final kaftan was the shortest of all. Older people used to look at him with a gentle smile on their faces in order not to embarrass him, but younger fellows would make fun of how he dressed. The man seemed indifferent to their mockery. He came every year, each time to the home of Neta Peltsmakher.
6. Bakers in Gombin (Bekers in Gombin)
There were very many bakeries in Gombin, much too many to serve the Jewish population alone, but they also served many Christian customers.
There were frequent “targn”(market days) when the Polish peasants and the German householders would come to town and bring all kinds of agricultural products, some a few sacks of potatoes, chickens, eggs, ducks, geese, sometimes a cow tied with a rope to the back of a wagon, or a calf bedded down with straw in the wagon, as well as other products. As soon as they sold their merchandise, they would go shopping for their necessities. Many were also customers of Jewish bakeries.
The Jewish bakers of Gombin also had a side occupation. In Gombin at the beginning of this century there were no proper ovens for baking bread. When a Jewish housewife wanted to bake bread or hallah she had to go to a bakery. After she kneaded her dough she would bring it to the baker, who would bake it for her.
Some Gombiner still remember the hullabaloo at the bakeries on Thursday nights. Women would crowd into the bakeries and it was lively on Thursday nights or before the holidays. Some women even prepared a “roshtshine” and waited until it was baked. They spent almost all night in the bakery. At dawn they would bring home the freshly baked goods.
Most women who had grown daughters would give over the baking chores of baking hallah, honey cake, “stunikes” and other baked goods for the Sabbath to their daughters. This leads me to tell of something that happened when the Bundist movement began in Gombin. It was not easy in such a small shtetl as Gombin to meet Jewish girls and carry on propaganda to influence them to join a new movement. Jewish girls were guarded by their parents and siblings and relatives. It was not customary for a Jewish girl to just meet young men. It was not considered proper. There might be gossip about her that she was a loose woman and that could harm her chances for a match. The shutters to the new times were already half open and the young people were drawn to them as if by a magnet. They wanted to know, what do the “ahdusnikes” Bundists want? What do they have that makes people want to join them? They longed for something unexpected and looked for opportunities to meet with a Bundist and hear what he had to say. The Thursday night baking was the easiest and best time and place to meet. During these evenings the Bundist movement got many new members. A few of them became active members and were even in the executive committee.
Another side income for the bakers was putting the cholent pots in the oven on Fridays and Saturday after prayers the women came to take them out.
There were some exceptional bakers in Gombin: Mendl Baker and afterwards his son Adam. Avraham Baker and Fishele Baker’s breads had the taste of Paradise. Many people said it was better than honey cake. Yitshak Baker used to specialize in baking rye bread, which was finger-licking good. Each baker had his own specialty and his steady customers. The Jewish baker families lived not worse than other artisan families. They brought up fine families and were respected in town, and took and occupied an important place in Gombin’s economy.
7. Jewish Butchers in Gombin (Yiddishe Katzavim in Gombin)
There was a considerable number of butchers in Gombin who served the Jewish public, as well as some of the Gentiles. Which Gombiner does not remember the butcher shops with their wooden stands, which stood in front of the butcher shops most of the year? The shops were long, sturdy buildings, on the extreme Eastern side of the market place, left of the council building.
There were thirteen or more businesses in this long building, all of them Jewish butchers. Most of them were assisted by their sons and even by their wives before the Sabbath or holidays when there were many customers.
Most of the butchers were well-built, tall, and healthy men. Their sons and daughters took after them. Most of them were pious Jews. It was rare that one heard them insult or embarrass their customers. But if a Polish anti-Semite ever felt like starting up with one of them, he put himself in an unenviable position. He soon swore off startinup with Jewibutchers.
Theimerchandise, the cattle, calves and sheep were purchased from the peasants who brought themto town twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, the famous Polish 'targn' (market days) as well as during the occasional fairs.
Some of the butchers used to travel out to the villages to buy a cow or a calf, bring it to town, to the town slaughterhouse, and let the shohet [ritual slaughterer] slaughter it. The shohet was usually there in the mornings.
If a lesion was found on an animal’s lungs, and it was certified trefa (not kosher) and its owner was a poor butcher who had borrowed money to buy it, it was a pity to look at the poor man. He had to sell it as trefa meat and take a big loss. It took him a long time to cover his losses and pay back the money he had borrowed.
However, in general, Jews were able to make a living as butchers. They raised their families and after the fathers’ departure the sons continued as butchers in Gombin.
8. Jewish Fruit Traders (Yiddishe Sadovnikes)
Quite a large number of the Jews of Gombin worked in the marketing of fruit and with orchard keeping in the summer months. As far as I know, there has been no research into the major role of the Jews of that region in the development and spread of fruit commerce (this is a separate profession, which is not part of my experiences). I only wish to mention briefly how Gombin Jews occupied themselves in this.
With the beginning of spring, and the blossoming of the fruit trees, a large number of Gombin Jews set out for the nearby villages, especially those in the “niderung” (lowlands) almost completely settled by Germans. They would negotiate with the owners of the orchards and make agreements to buy the fruit when it ripened and was picked from the trees. It was understood that the owner of the orchard would build a straw hut into which the sadovnik and his family would move as soon as the fruit began to appear on the branches. They would live there until all the fruit had been picked from the trees. A portion of the fruit would be dried and packed in sacks to be sold in the winter months when no fresh fruit was available.
Around the end of the month of May there began the exodus to the villages. The families which leased the rights to the fruit had to watch to see that no fruit was stolen, and make sure that as soon as the summer apples or pears were ripe they would be picked and sent to be sold. They also had to prepare special trays for the drying of the fruit. In short, there was no lack of work. They had to work very hard, often to exhaustion. Everything had to be done at the right time. The fruit could not be too ripe. It had to be picked, properly packed in cartons or vats, so that it was not crushed or spoiled before it was taken to the big city, mainly to Warsaw and Lodz. It took almost 24 hours before the fruit arrived there. They had to know how to pack the cartons of fruit onto the big wagons, which took them to the big city. Afterwards the sadovnik and the waggoner would set out on their way.
If there were not much fruit in the market of the big city, the sadovnik would sell his merchandise at a good price and would be pleased. Sometimes he would even bring home presents for his children. However, if there was a glut of fruit on the market, he had to sell his fruit for almost nothing. One must also keep in mind that most of the sadovnikes leased the orchards with money borrowed from their families or from others. Even if the price of fruit was low, they still had to sell it, because if held too long the fruit would spoil and anyway there was no place to store it. In such cases, after the hard work of the whole family and the difficult two days and two nights of travel on the wagons, which shook up their bodies, the sadovnikes would come home to their wives and children bitter and disappointed. It could happen that the money earned did not even cover their expenses and they had to cover the losses from their pockets.
9. Drying Fruits (Dos trukenen di fruchten)
Gombin Jews were great experts in drying fruit. For those who do not know how it was done, I shall give a brief explanation and overview. A lasye, as it was called, was in the form of a wide bed, like the one used for sleeping. All around it was nailed a border of two-foot smooth boards. Over this was attached a thick wire net. Then a hole was dug in the earth, five or six foot deep, over which this lasye was set, so that it would not fall into the hole. Near it another hole was dug, with steps going down. Between these two excavations another hole was dug to connect the two large holes. This hole also served as an oven which was heated with wood. The heat went into the hole under the lasye. The oven had to be heated so that it gave off an exact amount of heat. The lasye was filled with plums or apples, covered with smooth boards of the same size, and the crevices covered with cloths, so that the heat should not escape. And in this way the produce was dried. The sadovnikes knew when it was time to uncover the lasye and take out the fruit that was ready and then to leave it in the baskets until it had cooled off. Afterwards they would put the fruit in sacks and it would be ready to store for winter. All the Gombin Jews who ever ate the dried plums or pears prepared by the sadovnikes will testify that it had a heavenly taste, which they cannot forget until this day.
It is difficult to categorize this occupation--were they merchants or artisans. However they are classified, their work was very important. They provided a necessary addition to nutrition and they also stimulated the owners of the orchards and provided an important part of their income. And our "good-hearted" neighbors looked down their noses on these hard-working and useful Jews and called them "shakher-makher." As I have mentioned earlier, I am not doing a scientific research on Jewish sadovnikes. I am only reporting what I saw with my own eyes in my youth. Before I conclude, I wish to add one fact: the night fears from which these sadovniks often suffered.
The "dear" FolksDeutsche in the lowland, who leased their orchards to the Jews for good sums of money, also wanted to have some fun on the Jews' account. In the middle of the night they would cover themselves with sheets, take along their big dogs and go into the orchards where the Jewish sadovinks were spending the night. They would incite their dogs to howl, run past the straw huts, making terrible noises. The Jewish children would wake up and see the white "jokers" with their dogs dancing around in front of them. The children would be terribly frightened and cry to the high heavens. After they had thoroughly frightened the Jews and had worn themselves out, the Germans would leave with much laughter and satisfaction. They called this adventure a "wachnacht".
This "experience” was in addition to the hard work of the sadovnikes to support their families. If they would have a good season, and make a profit, they would forget all the difficulties and the fears and would wait for the next year, God willing, when they would again lease a “sod” (orchard) perhaps even from the same German owner. But if they had a bad season and were left with a loss and had to find a way to pay off their debts, it was pitiful to see. The next spring they might not even have the possibility of trying their luck (because they could not afford it). So went the life of the Gombin sadovnikes.
10. Jewish Boot Uppers Makers (Yiddishe Volkers)
Quite a few Jews in Gombin worked as makers of boot uppers. Most of them were young children of middle-class families. At that time (between 1900 and 1906) there was a movement to free oneself from the old concepts that an artisan was not as important as someone who studied Torah. The young men did not desire to sit on the yeshiva benches and study until someone would find a suitable match with a large dowry with some years of free board from a father-in-law and afterwards one would look for some way to make a living in business. Young men felt that they should look fora way of life, and many dto learn a trade. There were not too many choices in Gombin so some young men began to learn how to make boot uppers which was quite a respectable trade and widespread Gombin.
Jewish leather workers in Gombin, 1909.
Source: The Shtetl Book, by Diane and David Roskies, 1975
For those who do not know what this trade is, I will try and explain: A piece of wood was cut into the shape of a human foot. One took a piece of soft leather, used for boot uppers, soaked the leather in a thick oil, and then put the leather on the form of the foot. It was then worked with a blunt knife until the leather took on the form of a human foot. Then it was attached with small nails and put in a suitable place to dry out. Afterwards it was given to a shoemaker who sewed up the bottoms and put on the soles and heels and it became a finished boot. Mostly these boots were bought by the cobblers to be sold to the peasants who came to the fairs to buy boots for themselves and their children. All sizes of boots were available from the cobblers. The peasants would try them on and if they fit, they would come to some arrangement as to price. The peasants were happy to buy ready -to-wear boots like these, because they were as strong as iron.
There were a number of workshops where such boot uppers were made. The largest was Mordekhai Garber's workshop where only Jews were employed. At the time when I left Gombin, my closest friends worked there - Eliyahu Leyzer and his brother Yankele Tiber, Yosele Berishes, Yitshak Moshe Geyer, and it seems to me, also Shmuel Leyb Volman. These young men who worked for Mordekhai Garber were the most important members of the illegal Bund workers' movement. Later others joined them who also studied this trade, among them Henekh Goldshmidt, and Yerahmiel, the son of the teacher of Talmud, who had become famous as the genius of the town when he studied by himself in the Bet Hamidrash. Later he was also the elected representative of the Jews of Gombin in the Town Council.
Source: Lucian Dobrzoszycki and Barabara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: "Images before my eyes", Schoken Books, NYC , 1997, page 197.
Iwant to tell an episode about Henekh Goldshmidt. When he still sat in the Bet Hamidrash and studied, when the Bund organization in Gombin was still new, the Jews gave the leader of the movement the nickname "Czar". They argued with their children and made fun of the "Czar". Look at this young snot nose, the son of such and such, wants to take over the Russian Empire and become the new Czar. In this way they wanted to frighten their children, so they would not be led astray by the Bundists. But their words had exactly the opposite effect. The children were eager to become acquainted with the Czar. One time Henekh decided he would go to the woods where the Bundists used to meet, and since he knew the Czar very well, since he had studied Talmud with his father. He laid out all the proofs from the Torah that the new ways were no good and would lead nowhere. Well, let me make it brief. Henekh met the "Czar" and from that day on they became the closest comrades and friends until Henekh's death in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They corresponded with each other throughout their lifetimes.
Not only were the makers of boot uppers excellent craftsmen who lived from the honest toil of their hands, but they were also considered very important people in Gombin.
Until now I have finished writing about the main artisans in Gombin. I want to mention here that there were people in Gombin that worked at other trades. For example there were some stitchers of low laced boots who worked for shoemakers, locksmiths, carpenters, turners and belt makers and saddle makers and tinsmiths (Yitshak Blekher and his father), carriers, makers of Kashe, soda water makers, those who made oil from flax-seeds, soap makers, glaziers, wig makers, egg chandlers, fishermen (quite a few), bagel bakers (quite a few), waggoners, water carriers, feldshers [paramedics], barbers, teachers, and some other trades which I cannot remember just now. They all earned their bread from their toil. Here I end my writing about the artisans of Gombin.
11. Musicians (Kleizmerim)
At the entrance of the narrow little street, which started at Dead people's street, there were two stores at each intersection. One store belonged to Itsik Zionts. It was a large flour establishment. At the second intersection was the grocery store belonging to the son-in-law of Leybele, Hanan Klezmer [the musician]. As soon as I walked into this little street, I would hear music being played. Sometimes I would hear only a violin, but often I would hear an entire band. Right behind Leybele's store lived Hanan the musician, the leader of the Gombiner klezmorim [musicians].
Honele Klezmer had in his band, in addition to his two sons, Hatzkel and Yosele (all three played the violin) also Volf Dude, who played a big bass violin which was almost as tall as he was. In Gombin such a bass violin was called a bandure. Nu, how far is dure from dude? So all his life he was called Volf Dude. There were others in the band who played other instruments. In short, it was a whole orchestra.
When Honele and his band played at a wedding, especially for well-established householders, it was something to hear. When they played the melody for "Kale basetsen" [seating the bride] especially if the girl was an orphan, it could break your heart. Not only the bride cried with bitter tears, but all the in-laws wept as well. And their "mitsve tentsl" [the dance of the bride with various male members of the family each one holding a kerchief] was something special. The day after the night of the wedding Honele and his band would come to the home of the bride's parents and play a merry "Dzshien dobri" (Good morning), which cheered everyone up and which refreshed them after they had been celebrating almost all night long..
Occasionally Honele's band had a good bit of income. That is, if the hosts were generous and gave a lot of tips for playing extra dance music they liked, the days after the wedding were also joyful ones for the band. Musicians, as most artists, are something of bohemians, even in such a "metropolis" as Gombin there were rumors that after such a wedding the musicians would whoop it up until the early dawn.
Honele's son Yosele was a very fine violinist. His son while still very young showed great talent as a violinist. It was thought in Gombin that he would grow up to be a famous violinist and that he would make his mark in the world. What happened to these hopes I do not know, for I left Gombin and lost contact with most of my landsleit.
It is important to emphasize one thing here, that a number of Gombin Jews made their living from music, and were also talented Jewish musicians.
12. Village Traders (Dorfsgayers)
There were many Jews in Gombin who did not have any special occupation. They tried all kinds of ways of earning a living. When they could find nothing to do in town, they would go out to the village to try their luck. Some peddled with household goods, which the farmers needed. Others sold all kinds of odds and ends especially for women and children. If they noticed that the farmers had things to sell, they would buy them, even if they were not sure what to do with them. Perhaps with God's help they could earn something from them.
Other village wanderers were more knowledgeable about what to buy. They did not bring things to sell, only went out to buy. They bought pigs' hair, horsehair, flax, hides of cows or calves, linseed and other articles, whatever they found. They were quite knowledgeable about the things they bought. There was quite a large trade in animal hides and pigs' hair in Gombin. There were set prices for them, and the merchants knew where to make more profit, what the different qualities were, etc.
There were other kinds of village wanderers as well, for example, butchers often went out to the villages to buy a cow, calves, and sometimesa sheep. This walready routine the Gombin butchers. Most of them had sons and sons-in-law working with them, so one of them would go to the villages to make the purchases needed for the week or for a holiday.
There were also dealers who would go to buy their wares in the villages. I remember my uncle, Avraham Pitel, who lived his whole life in the village of Yuleshev, around 7 kilometers from Gombin. He lived there for the sake of the pasture for his herds of cows and horses, always held in reserve for sale in other towns where he could get better prices.
Once, before the decrees of the 1890's which forbade land ownership to Jews, even in those Polish villages where it had been allowed until then, he had owned his own fields where he had pastured his herds.
Some of these village wanderers did other things as well. They might be in the villages until Thursday, and then go out to the lakes and help the fishermen bring in their nets full of live fish, buy them and bring them to sell to Jews for the Sabbath. Thus the village wanderer became a fisherman on Fridays. Or, on a fair day or market day the same village wanderer would take over a corner and spread out his wares of glazed pots and pans to sell to the peasants. Or sometimes he would sell all kinds of tin and porcelain ware.
In the springtime the village wanderers would go out to the villages or to the German colonies and rent an orchard and become a "sadovnik" over the summer.
That is how Jews who did not have a trade in hand tried various ways to support their families. Only not to have to ask for charity, God forbid. There was a say, " A melokhe is a brokhe:" A trade is a blessing.
The same Jews, who worked so hard to make a living, did not feel happy if they did not have a guest for the Sabbath or holidays. These same Jews would also sometimes offer a "day" [food for the day] to a poor boy who sat in the Bet HaMidrash and studied Torah. They would also not allow a beggar to pass by without giving him a contribution.
One should mention these Jews with a word of praise. In Gombin no one was ashamed of working hard at any kind of work, in order to support one's family and live an honest life.
13. Market Women (Mark Zitzers)
One of the ways women earned a living in Gombin was sitting at market stalls. These women were among the poorest of the poor.
At the west side of the market place, leading to Plock Street and on the right, to Meysim [Dead} Street, to the middle of the market place to Long Street, was the beginning of the market women's realm. At the beginning of the market place there were a few permanent wooden sheds. There all kinds of baked goods were sold. The sheds had wide roofs, which overhung both sides, to protect the goods from rain and snow. Right next to them were the stalls of the market women, and they reached all the way to Poznanski’s house.
On days when there were fairs, there were stalls put up by Polish butchers where they sold all kinds of sausages and hams and other pork products. Further on, till the municipality, where Long Street begins, there were stalls with all kinds of goods for sale, for example, short pants, trousers, and other cheap clothing.
The Polish butchers were the market women’s closest neighbors. They sometimes did disgusting things to the poor Jewish market women. When a woman was busy with a number of customers she did not notice one of the Polish youths throwing a piece of pork into her little pot of food, which she had brought from home to sustain her during the day. When she put her pot on her fire-pot, used to warm her on cold days, she smelled a strange odor, She was greatly distressed, but what could she do? She realized that one of the Polish “bastards” had played a trick on her, but how could she identify him? That was a fast day for her, poor thing. The Polish youths enjoyed the joke they had at the “kike’s” expense.
Market Day in Gombin
Source: The Land Lovers Association of Gombin
The market women displayed many different items in large troughs. At the beginning of the summer they sold red and black cherries, the first summer apples and pears, and all kinds of chickpeas and beans, carrots and cucumbers, sorrel. They sold the first ripened fruits and vegetables that were available in town. In the fall their troughs were full of later ripening produce, dried plums, apples, pears, and other good things. Much of the foodstuffs sold in Gombin was sold by the market women. It is difficult to imagine how Gombin would have managed without them.
They worked hard long hours to earn their bread. They sat at their troughs in the heat of summer and the cold of winter. In the wintertime the kheyder boys would run to the market place to buy frozen apples, which they considered more delicious than the fresh ones. But the market women’s lives were not so delicious. They had hard and bitter lives.
14. Shopkeepers in Gombin (Yiddishe Kremers in Gombin)
The groceries were the most important stores in Gombin. First, there were the stores where all kinds of flour were sold. There were three large flour shops on the Mesim Street (Street of the Dead) alone, owned by Taubers, Itsik Zayonts, and Leybele. Besides selling retail to selected customers, they also sold to bakers. They also had unmilled grain: wheat, chickpeas, beans, and other unmilled products. They sold them for the spring sowing to peasants and farmers who had not preserved the grains from the previous year. They also sold rice and other similar products. In addition to the shops on Mesim Street, there were quite a few flour stores scattered throughout the town.
In the market place between Plotsker and Kutner Streets, was Rasha’s large store where many items besides flour were sold, such as all kinds of herring, kerosene, oil, and many other things (I seem to remember that they supplied herring to all the food shops in town). Besides her large store, which was at the front of her building, there was also an entrance on the side for wagon vendors. There it was always noisy with the unloading and loading of all kinds of merchandise, such as sacks of flour, vats of herring, tins of kerosene, sacks of sugar, rice, beans, grain, and other products.
There were always Jewish porters around the building, loading and unloading merchandise onto and from the large wagons. There were always more porters than Rasha needed, and when one of the other storekeepers needed someone to load merchandise he would come to Rasha’s building and call one or more of the porters.
Rasha had been born in Plock and married a man from Gombin. Right after the wedding it was obvious that she was better suited to business than her husband. Thus the store was called Rasha’s.
Rasha was a sister of Rabbi Yehuda Leyb Zlotnik. Rabbi Zlotnik was chosen to be the rabbi of Gombin in 1911 when he was 24 years old. He held this post until 1919. By the way, one should mention that the late Rabbi Zlotnik was one of the best known folklorists in Poland. I mention it here because I am convinced that in Gombin Rabbi Zlotnik was able to learn a great deal of Jewish folklore, and Gombin has a share in his later fame.
Rasha Holcman nee' Zlotnik Plock1870 - Gombin 1937
There were also a number of dry-goods stores in Gombin. The largest were those belonging to Itele Zelig, Abbas Rosental, and Leyzer Vigderovich. In addition there were smaller stores, like the one belonging to the Chassid Zander, on Kutner Street. At Zander’s one could buy all kinds of linens. There were also stores, which specialized in fittings used by tailors of men’s clothing and seamstresses: linings, buttons, needles, etc. There were also stores, which sold leather for shoes, boots, and soles. In these shops one could find everything necessary for shoemaking.
As for Jewish saloons, I remember only Bibergal and the tavern belonging to the Shtolcman family which was in the middle of the market place, near Long Street. Menashe Shtolcman was in charge of the tavern, which was a large fbusiness, and was comparato the lartaverns in the big cities of Poland. Most of the other taverns in Gombin were run by Poles, except for a German family named Schteile. They owned a large tavern, situated opposite the Shtolcman’s tavern.The Schteile family had quite good relations with Jews. Perhaps it was because they disliked Poles as much as they disliked Jews.
From Shtolcman’s tavern up to the Polish church, where Long Street began, there were a number of two story “mansions,” the most beautiful buildings in town. There resided the wealthier Jews, many of whom had assimilated to Polish culture, and they spoke Polish exclusively.
Karapki’s food store was exclusive. There one could buy the best-imported foodstuffs, for example sardines, lox, little herrings from abroad, almonds, dates, oranges, lemons, pressed dates, figs, chocolate, candies, and whatever one could wish for. But these were not for the ordinary Jews of Gombin. Very few of them tasted or even knew about the taste of what was in this shop. Karapki’s customers were the Polish aristocracy and office holders as well as the rich German colonists of the environs. I do not know whether Karapke had other businesses as well besides his imported foods. In any case, he was considered one of the richest men in Gombin and his family lived in a fashion so lavish that the Jews of Gombin could not even dream of it.
There were also wheat merchants in town, who sent their goods to other cities. There were also wood dealers and a number of iron stores. One of the iron stores, the largest in town, belonged to the Krasek family. This family, too, lived on a richer level than most of the Jews in Gombin.
There were also lumber merchants in Gombin, but their business was not in town, but far from Gombin, and the Jews of Gombin had only a vague idea of their business. It was rumored in town that they had big sugar factories, but nobody knew for certain.
There were probably less than ten very rich Jews in Gombin. Shmulik and Poznanski were among the wealthiest Jews, it was said. Then came Zelig Abba Volfovitch, Yosele Borenshtein, and after them less and less wealthy men, Nobody actually knew how rich they were, because people had a very vague idea of what real wealth meant. They were compared with the majority of the Jews of Gombin Even if there were a handful of rich Jews, ninety percent of Gombin Jews were poor, hardworking laborers, artisans, and small storekeepers who worked even harder than the artisans. They worked by the sweat of their brows, in order to earn a living.
15. Mordkhele, the Rope Maker (Mordkhele - shtrikmacher)
Tevya Shtrikmakher lived on the Mesim Street [Street of the Dead] in the heart of the poorest neighborhood in town. There were always newly arrived paupers in his home, even though he himself had a house full of children. His oldest son Mordekhai was twelve or thirteen years old.
Iknew Tevya Ropemaker, or Tevya Ropetwister, as the Gombin jokesters used to call him, because in order to make the ropes he had a kind of “machine" which twisted the linen fibers into all kinds of ropes, from thin strands to thick ropes.
His workshop was in the middle of Mesim Street during the summer months. He used to station his son Mordekhai at one end of the street (according to how long he planned to make the rope), would place a “machine” in his hand, to which he attached the long fibers into which he had twisted his “twister” and gave his son signals: “Ho! Ho-ho!” Then he would approach the boy. The wheel turned and by the time he reached his son the rope would be made.
Children and passers-by would stop and stand around to watch eagerly as ropes were made. If a gentile would come by from the meadow with a wagon of hay, Tevya would move his whole “factory” to the side of the street and when the wagon had passed he would return to the same position as before and continue twisting the rope. Then he would continue sending loud signals to his son: “Ho! Ho-Ho!”
The second reason I knew the Ropemaker was because of his son Mordekhai who could tell wonderful stories. We children could simply not get enough of them when he would begin telling his tales,
In the summer evenings a group of children would gather in the synagogue yard which bordered Mesim Street. We would sit on the boards scattered here and there. They were needed for fixing the wooden walls of the synagogue. Due to age, the walls were bowed and “bellied” and were under constant repair. There was always a supply of boards of various sizes there. That was our meeting place. We would sit there with pieces of bread and khale in our pockets. Sometimes we would also bring other things for our “rebbe,” Mordekhai the Ropemaker.
Even though Tevya’s family was always hungry, Mordekhai was a stocky, well-built boy. His appetite was without limit. No matter how much we children (younger than he) would bring along, it was still not enough to satisfy him. He would take a large piece of bread in his mouth, curl his tongue, and the bread would disappear. But as soon as he would finish off the bread and sometimes a piece of gefilte fish, then he would wipe his mouth with his sleeve and would begin to spin his tales, and all kinds of legends, and we boys would sit as if in a dream. Occasionally a boy would actually fall into a sweet sleep.
Books could be written of Mordkhele’s stories. When he would begin a story he would put in all the details. His princes and princesses traveled in palaces on rubber wheels. They were served all kinds of meats and poultry, even roasted doves. They ate with silver and gold utensils. Their bedding was of the richest embroidered linens. He saw to it that they had all the conveniences. He did not even omit an indoor toilet for the prince and princess.
He told stones of a king and a king’s son who had sinned against his father, who exiled him to distant lands. The prince went around there in rags. He decided to become a doctor. And he wandered the world dressed as a vagabond until he came close to his hometown. . There he discovered that his sister, the princess, was terribly sick, and no doctor could help her. Meanwhile the king made known all over the country that whoever would heal his daughter could marry her. And would become the king’s heir. The prince quickly went to the palace and announced that he would undertake to heal the princess. The servants drove him out of the courtyard --such a tramp, dressed in rags, wants to heal the princess! So he again came and announced that he undertook to heal the princess, and again the servants threw him out. And so on and so on until the king heard that a vagabond wanted to undertake to heal his daughter. He ordered: Let him in!” The end was that the prince healed the princess, and when it came time for the wedding, he revealed who he really was. You can imagine the joy in the palace.
The younger boys sat enchanted by the story and some of them were already deeply asleep.
Mordkhele was a magnificent storyteller. His voice was clear as running water. He also had stories about Polish "Paritzim" landowners and their wives. He had stories about the Polish revolt and how the Jews hid the rebels. He had stories about "Zadikim" the Jewish Righteous, magic and wonders. He told about Jews who came from far-away places and settled in Gombin. And if ever there was a slanderer or a wicked person, he was always only from those foreigners who came from far away.
As the years passed, and I grew up and new ideas conquered me, I lost the connection with Mordkhele the rope maker, but the tens of his legends and stories remain for ever in my memory and for remembrance I now put them on this paper.