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Ostrów Mazowiecka - History p.4

History of the Inter-War Period

During the period from 1918 through 1920, there was a struggle between the Bolsheviks and the Poles for control of Poland, culminating in the defeat of the Bolshevik army just outside Warsaw during a counteroffensive by Marshal Pilsudski that began on August 14, 1920.

The Bolsheviks retreated from Ostrow on August 15, 1920, a day that people called “The Miracle of the Departure.” On Friday, August 17th, the Poles took control of Malkinia, one of the nearest railroad stations to Ostrow. The Polish soldiers grabbed seven Jews, including old men, and without any reason or even a field-trial, shot them dead. This action created fear and grief in the Jewish population across the entire region.

On Sunday, August 19th, the Bolsheviks returned and controlled Ostrow for another three weeks. When they left, a young man who had cooperated with the Bolsheviks was arrested, charged with openly criticizing the Polish government, and sentenced to death by hanging. He was publicly hanged the same day on Malkinia Road.

While the Jewish population, being a substantial minority in Poland, initially obtained some representation and influence in the new Polish parliament, any potential benefits quickly disappeared due to political instability and the rise of right-wing nationalism, combined with difficult economic conditions. Anti-Semitism increased during the Depression years of the 1930s, with the more difficult economic conditions of those times. One popular tactic, which was started by right-wing groups during the 1920s, was to boycott Jewish stores, conduct which basically received government sanction by 1936 (the same year the government started to impose restrictions on kosher meat). In Ostrow, Jewish stores were picketed by Poles, insisting that Poles not buy from Jewish storekeepers. However, because most of the stores in Ostrow were Jewish-run (except for two pharmacies, a butcher and a baker), the Poles had little alternative.

The Town – Businesses and Institutions

The most comprehensive description we have of Ostrow comes from an article in the Yizkor book called “A Walk Through the City,” by Arye Leib Margolis, one of the principal authors and compilers of the Yizkor book. It describes the different streets and landmarks in the town.

According to this article and other sources, the major industries of the town were the grain trade and the lumber trade. There were several steam-powered grain mills and two large sawmills, providing major sources of employment. Much of the lumber was exported to foreign countries.

Most of these businesses were Jewish owned. This is a partial list, based on a local history and the Yizkor book:

º Seven grain mills, including the following:
1. The steam mill “Automat,” described as the second largest in Poland and the largest enterprise in Ostrow. It was owned by Kalman Kagan and his partners -- the brothers Trejster, Berel Turnowski and Velvel Rekant (and later or earlier, a Bandrymer). The mill would buy grain from other towns in Poland as well as from Canada and Australia. It was famous for its fine quality flour, reputedly the best in all of Poland. The business employed ten workers and supported many other local businesses, and the owners gave generously to local institutions and national funds. Kagan reportedly burned down the mill in 1937 for the insurance money, after a 1936 crisis in which demand for flour disappeared at a time when Kagan owed money to creditors.
2. Kasha mill of Fishel Blumenkrantz, on Komorowo Road
3. Kasha mill of Motel Wengrow, on Komorowo Road
4. Kasha mill of Eliezer Wengrow, on Komorowo Road
5. Kasha mill of the Margolis family, on Komorowo Road
6. Another Jewish-owned mill
7. Mazur mill – the only one owned by a Christian

º Two sawmills, one located on Komorowo Road and owned by the partners Zelman Yosef Nutkiewicz, Gabinet and Lewer; and the other owned by the father-in-law of Josef Froimowicz (the family of the late Reb Hershel Tejtel)

º Brewery, located on Warszawska Street and owned by the Tejtel family – click here to see beer labels from historic brewery

In the center of the town was the Old Market, in which the current City Hall building was built during 1925-1927. Around the Old Market square were many one-story wooden houses. Most of the Jewish community lived in the area around the Old Market and the center of town.

During the World War I German occupation, Jews started to become active in the town government, with Hershel Tejtel serving as Vice-Mayor, among others. Several Jewish people served on the town council during the 1920s, and Michel Tejtel was a judge on the city court. However, the Jewish role in town government decreased with the rise of anti-Semitism in the 1930s. In 1931, to avoid the election of a Jewish mayor, the local political parties conspired to avoid having a quorum.

Social and Cultural Life

A comprehensive description of the social and cultural life during the inter-war period is found in the Yizkor book in an article by A.M. Orzycer, who later immigrated to New York.

In the 1920s, as Poland emerged as an independent nation, there also was a rise in anti-Semitism. Many in the Jewish community felt ill at ease, and reacted in different ways.

One of the major developments was the rise of Zionism, the movement that believed in returning to Israel, the Jewish homeland. There were those who read Hebrew leaflets and sent their children to the teacher Itzek, who were steadfast in hoping for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Their children became “Pioneers” and joined Zionist organizations. The Zionist sentiment cut across all the different groups in the community, including the middle class, the poor, the artisans and storekeepers.

A related development was the rise of leftist sentiment. Many from poor homes and some from the middle class, including many Zionists, began to believe in the Communist movement, mainly because they believed that Communism would wipe out anti-Semitism. A small number joined the “Bund,” a socialist organization. The Bund helped spread culture through its “Folkszeitung” (people’s newspaper) and lectures, bringing “fashionable” lecturers from Warsaw. The Bund, as a movement, was opposed to Zionism.

These changes were particularly dramatic for Hasidic families. Their children would start by secretly read “treyf” (secular books), and then begin openly going to the Jewish library (which housed a large secular book collection) including events there on Friday nights, when their parents were celebrating the Sabbath. The most visible sign of this struggle was with clothes. The parents saw the Hasidic clothing as the shield of Judaism, whereas the young men would replace the long “kapote” with short jackets.

The Left grew stronger at the end of the 1920s, outpacing the Bund, in part as a response to the Pi?sudski regime, the anti-Semitism of the right-wing National Democratic Party (the “Endeks”), and the Socialists-Facists. This was accompanied by an increase in police activity, marked by many night raids that resulted in heart-rending scenes of children being taken from their parents, pulled from their beds in the middle of the night. Mr. Orzycer observed that very few of the arrests were of non-Jews. There were one or two Polish gymnasia (high school) teachers who would meet with pro-left Jewish youth, and it was later discovered that the teachers were in fact police informants.

By law, all children were required to attend public schools, although exceptions were recognized for Jewish schools that incorporated secular subjects. As a result of this law, the continued emphasis on Jewish learning and the rise of Zionism, there were a number of different schools for Jewish youth in the town. There were the traditional Cheders, Talmud Torahs and Yeshivas, which emphasized traditional Jewish subjects. The “Algemina Shul” was the Polish-sanctioned school. Then there was the “Shul Tarbut” run by the Zionists and the “Shul Yavne” run by Mizrachi, the religious Zionist group, both with an emphasis on Hebrew language and culture. In addition, many Jewish children attended the public high school, the gymnasia.

During this period, many young people left for larger cities, such as Warsaw, where the Left had more of a presence, or emigrated abroad. Of those who were Pioneers in the Zionists organizations such as Poaley Tzion, many were able to go to Palestine. According to Mr. Orzycer, by the 1930s, one would see mainly middle-aged and elderly Jews in Ostrow.

*© 1999 Michael B. Richman

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