This reading comes from the Facing History and Ourselves resource The Jews of Poland.
A worldwide depression began in the 1920s and continued through much of the 1930s. A depression is a time when economic activity slows; more and more businesses decrease production and lay off workers. In a poor country like Poland, the effects were devastating for everyone, Christian and Jew alike.
As Poland’s economy worsened, many people turned to leaders who saw the crisis as an economic war between us and them. Wanda Wasilewska, a Polish writer, described the effects of such attitudes:
The slogan of economic struggle is raised against the paupers of the Jewish street. Why look for those responsible [for Poland’s economic problems elsewhere] when it is so easy to find them nearby, in a street in the Jewish quarter? Why suppress when it is so easy and so safe to vent one’s anger in a fight with a bowed porter [one who earns a living carrying heavy loads on his back], with a Jewish boy selling watches, with an old Jewish woman [selling bagels]? 1
In big cities and small towns alike, it became harder and harder for Jews to find work. Belkhatov, located just south of Lodz, was typical of many places during those years. Although the town had a number of modern textile factories, they employed only Poles and ethnic Germans to run the huge mechanical looms. Jewish weavers in the town worked at home on hand looms. Unlike their counterparts in the factories, they received no benefits and earned no regular salary. A young Jewish worker recalls:
The Jewish youth, who were already in the habit of frequenting the locals of the various left-wing political parties and the textile workers’ union, began to envy the legal benefits that the Polish workers enjoyed: eight-hour workdays, health and unemployment insurance, annual vacations, and so forth. The Jewish workers, who had to work halfway through the night, had no legal protection whatsoever, since they worked at home. Furthermore, it grew harder and harder to protest for better pay, because a new type of competition had arisen. These were the peasants of the surrounding villages, who installed looms in their homes and did the work much more cheaply. For them it was an extra source of income, which they did when they weren’t busy in the fields; for the Jews it was the only source of income. 2
Some Jewish weavers decided to learn how to use the mechanical looms. Once they mastered the craft, they faced a new stumbling block: the textile workers’ union to which many of them belonged. The union claimed that if Jews took factory jobs, Polish unemployment would rise.
Many Jewish workers left town in disgust. Others saw a new opportunity when a factory opened in Belkhatov in 1930. The owner, an Orthodox Jew, said he would hire Jewish weavers, but they could not work on the Sabbath or on Jewish holidays even if they wanted to do so. On Fridays, they could work only the morning shift. Clearly, to take advantage of the owner’s offer, Jewish workers needed the cooperation of Christian employees. After much negotiating, they persuaded their Polish co-workers to take the Friday afternoon shifts and work all day on Saturday for extra pay. Although the Jewish workers lost a day’s pay each week, they at least had jobs with benefits.
For a time, the two groups worked side by side without conflict. Then little by little, Polish workers began to complain about the agreement. They were stirred by antisemitic newspapers, radio broadcasts, and speakers eager to arouse old prejudices and give new life to ancient myths. Before long, those workers were demanding that everyone work a standard eight-hour day, six days a week. Many Jewish workers were willing to do so but the owner refused to let them.
The Jewish workers decided to fight for their jobs. They began by withholding their union dues. If the union would not support them, they would not support it. A worker recalled the suspenseful weeks that followed.
The antisemitic agitators spread propaganda saying that Jews wanted to destroy the eight-hour day; meanwhile, we began an educational campaign among the more classconscious workers. With great effort we succeeded, and the factories remained open. On the one hand, we warned the Polish workers that under no circumstances would we allow ourselves to be pushed out of the factories; on the other hand, we argued that the maintenance of the previously established conditions was in the common interest of all the workers. The conflict continued for quite some time, but seeing our determination to defend our right to work, the Polish delegates eventually announced that they would accept our demands. 3
- Quoted in Celia S. Heller, On the Edge of Destruction, 117.
- Hersh Goldmints, “The Struggle for the Right to Work,” in From a Ruined Garden, 48-49.
- Ibid., 51.