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Grodno After 1915

Grodno After 1915;
Grodno During World War I

On September 2, 1915, the Germans captured Grodno and occupied the
city for three years. The war put an abrupt end to the city's economic
boom, and Jews and non-Jews alike were plunged into a crisis
situation. Nevertheless, the Jews continued to maintain lively
cultural activity. Yiddish especially enjoyed a revival:
Yiddish-language schools and a Yiddish theater were established, and
many cultural activities were conducted in that language.

Between the World Wars
Under the terms of the Treaty of Riga (March 18, 1921), Poland
received a large part of the territory that was claimed by both the
Ukraine and Byelorussia. Poland's eastern boundary was demarcated more
or less along the Russo-Polish border that had been set following the
second partition of Poland in 1793. The Poles viewed this as a
compromise solution between their aspirations for the historic borders
and what they considered their ethnic territory. Within these
compromise borders the proportion of non-Poles within the population
was estimated at about 40 percent. In the eastern part of the country,
the Byelorussians and the Ukrainians constituted the majority in the
rural areas, but in the big cities the Poles and the Jews made up the
majority. More than a million Germans resided primarily in the
southwest of the country, in regions that in the past had been annexed
to Prussia, while the Jews constituted slightly more than 10 percent
of the population.

For reasons connected with the geography of elections, the Polish
authorities enlarged the territory of Grodno by annexing to it suburbs
and nearby villages. One result of this move was to reduce the
relative proportion of the Jews in Greater Grodno. This demographic
trend persisted through the 1920s and the 1930s, due to a combination
of factors. Grodno, like most of the medium-sized cities and towns in
Poland at this time, was feeling the consequences of rapid
urbanization, a process that was most blatant among the Jews; many
young people from Grodno sought their future in the larger towns and
big cities. The situation was compounded by the Jews' low rate of
natural increase: 8.9 percent, as compared with 18.5 percent among the
general population. Thus, the proportion of the Jews in Grodno's
population declined appreciably. Within ten years, between the
censuses of 1921 and 1931, the proportion of the city's Jews dwindled
from 54 percent to 42.6 percent.

The Jews' Economic and Occupational Structure. The standard of living
among Grodno's Jews declined continuously in the inter-war period.
Most made their livings as shopkeepers, peddlers and artisans; only a
small group, consisting of industrialists, large merchants, and some
employed in the liberal professions, enjoyed economic prosperity of
one degree or another. The annexation of the Grodno region to Poland
at the end of World War I and the loss of the huge Russian market
meant that the population was dependent on the very limited internal
Polish market. Since the Poles did not introduce agrarian reform,
peasants with small plots ran economically independent households and
did not need goods or services provided by artisans. Moreover, the
Poles deprived Grodno of its status as the administrative center of a
broad district; the new center was Bialystok, which was far from the
border with Lithuania and from the Byelorussian villages and closer
to the center of Poland, a development that played a role in the
deterioration of the economic situation in Grodno.

These and other developments seriously affected the livelihood of the
population in general and of the Jews in particular. The Polish
authorities also adopted a consistent policy of removing the Jews from
their economic positions. Moreover, the government gave Poles in the
Grodno region, as throughout the eastern border area, land for
settlement; loans and housing assistance; various concessions in
commerce, industry, and small industry; positions in the government
and the army; tax exemptions; and other benefits that were not given
to Jews. At the same time, the taxation and levies system, together
with the government's nationalization and monopolistic practices,
adversely affected the Jews, who lost jobs in the government§run
railway, telegraph, and postal services and suffered discrimination in
the private sector as well. The Jews also suffered from the
law-enforcement methods. The officials involved were at best
unsympathetic to them and many were outright Jew-haters. The police
hounded Jewish shopkeepers, fining them for every violation - real or
imagined - of the sanitation regulations.

The years of economic depression radicalized internal conflicts and
heightened anti-Jewish discrimination. The right-wing parties and the
Polish population competed in making up antisemitic slogans and in
conjuring up extreme solutions for the Jewish problem. Only one party,
the PPS (Polish Socialist Party), occasionally objected to the surging
antisemitism, but to little effect.

Commerce was the primary and major economic sector on which the
government's anti-Jewish policy was focused. Already on December 18,
1919, the Polish government prohibited the opening of shops on Sundays
and on Christian holidays. Although this was not necessarily directed
against the Jews, it most certainly caused a serious reduction in
their incomes. Later, the general economic crisis was fertile ground
for an economic boycott of the Jews. Local and national merchants'
associations launched a vigorous propaganda campaign against their
Jewish colleagues under the slogan Swoj do swego (let everyone turn to
his own people). The drive received the blessing of the rightist OZN
(United National Camp) government.

Prime Minister Florian Slawoi-Skladkowski made clear his stand on the
Jewish question on June 6, 1936, when he said, No one in Poland must
be harmed, as a fair landlord does not permit anyone to hurt people in
the house; [however] an economic struggle - of course [Owszem]! That
last word was understood as the go-ahead to discriminate against the
Jews by means of extreme economic measures. A highly inflammatory
antisemitic propaganda campaign was launched. The press published
defamatory articles and virulent antisemitic caricatures; anti-Jewish
graffiti and posters appeared on walls of buildings; Jew-baiting
leaflets were distributed on the streets; protest vigils were held in
front of Jewish businesses; and shops owned by non-Jews were marked,
the latter in some cases against the owners' will. The Poles
introduced the term Christian shop, and, in the late 1930s, even
carriage drivers bore the inscription Christian carriages on their
caps. Jewish suppliers were also boycotted.

The intensive boycott propaganda affected both the simple folk and the
educated. Not a day passed without an article appearing about a
meeting, a lecture, protest vigils, the distribution of antisemitic
handbills, and so forth. For example, the Swoj do swego group
organized a solidarity month and a Polish merchant's day; merchants
from Grodno and the surrounding area sent a delegation to Warsaw to
demand that no Jews be given tobacco concessions; the
nationalist-antisemitic Narodowa Demokracja (National Democracy)
party, known as Endecja, held a mass rally and set up a special
department to work for the economic dispossession of the Jews. The
department circulated propaganda leaflets that played on the emotions
of the Christians, with assertions such as There is no Poland without
Polish commerce; Pole, defend Polish commerce; Poland without Jews is
a strong Poland; Buying from Jews enriches them; and Buy from
Christians in order to provide bread and jobs to the unemployed and to
strengthen the state. The merchants' association, unwilling to stop at
mere words, resorted to threats by blacklisting those who maintained
commercial ties with Jews.

These aggressive economic measures were partially successful; quite a
few Jewish merchants lost their clients and were forced to close.
Nevertheless, some Poles continued to buy from Jews for the simple
reason that their prices were lower.

State intervention led to the ouster of Jews from several economic
branches in which the Jews of Grodno and the region held a prominent
place, such as forest products and grains. The Jews' diminishing share
in commerce during the inter-war period was consistent and
unremitting. But if, until the mid-1930s, it stemmed mainly from
socioeconomic trends among the population, the last five years before
the war saw a constant intensification of deliberate anti-Jewish
policies and harsh propaganda. In 1932, 694 of Grodno's 823 shops
(84.3 percent) were still Jewish-owned. Five years later, although in
absolute numbers there were more Jewish shops - 710 out of a total of
999 (most of the increase occurred in the food branch) - their
relative proportion had declined to 71.1 percent. A few branches of
commerce remained mainly in Jewish hands: soap, salted fish, glass,
iron, and building materials.

Industry. Polish industry also suffered a sharp recession between the
wars, and here, too, the Jews, whether as industrialists or as
workers, were particularly hard hit. The combination of the monopoly
system, which was introduced in Poland at this time, and the
nationalization of large factories was calamitous for the Jews. One of
the most flagrant cases was the nationalization of the Shershevski
tobacco factory, which, before World War I, had been the third largest
in all of Russia; its total work force fell from 1,800 to 650, of whom
only 280 were Jews.

Some of the city's Jewish industrialists were nevertheless able to
maintain their position even in this period, continuing to do business
with non-Jews. For example, the construction company of Nahum
Freydovicz (cement-pipes factory and building-materials stores and
depots) continued to execute large-scale projects, such as barracks
and bridges, mainly for the army.

Jewish factory workers were also victimized. As a rule, Jews were not
hired by state-owned factories, or by those that had been transferred
to the state in the monopolization process. Jews who were already
working in these plants, in some cases for many years, were the first
to be dismissed in every case of cutbacks. (Frequently they were sent
on their way with the words Go to Palestine!) This was the situation
in the matches, salt, and liquor industries. Even in those cases that
they were not fired, Jewish workers found it difficult to compete with
their non-Jewish colleagues: Many did not work on the Sabbath, and
they always felt pressure that in order to keep their jobs they had to

Crafts and Small Industry. Under the circumstances described above, it
is not surprising that many of Grodno's Jews were compelled to earn a
living as self-employed home-based workers, engaged primarily in
crafts and small industry. However, here again, there were many
difficulties. A law passed on June 27, 1927, obliged artisans to
possess a master craftsman certificate as a condition for maintaining
a workshop and employing apprentices. Yet only about 10 percent of
Jewish craftsmen had such a document. In order to obtain a permit, it
was necessary to pass a test conducted in Polish and pay a high fee.
Nor should we overlook the examiners' hostility toward Jewish
candidates. The 1927 law applied also to pupils, who had to attend a
vocational school for three years and then specialize for three more
years under a master craftsman. However, there were few professional
schools, and Jews were not easily accepted.

In 1938, there were 1,146 artisans in Grodno, of whom 938 were Jews.
They were divided as follows: 364 tailors (of whom 322 were Jews); 218
cobblers (168); 37 shoe stitchers (35); 80 ironmongers (68); 36
blacksmiths (19); 97 carpenters (83); 11 wagon-makers (6); 94 builders
(54); 69 glaziers (4); 12 harness-makers (2); 10 upholsterers (1); and
37 milliners (1). Some crafts remained virtually Jewish even in these
difficult times; these included pottery, tanning, engraving, and
for the rest go to http://www1.yadvashem.org/about_holocaust/lost_worlds/grodno/grodno_during_ww1.html