Economy between two World Wars

In the period between the two world wars, there were no significant changes in the employment of the Jews of Siedlce, apart from the development of several new areas. The competition with the Polish trade unions pushed the Jews out of the construction industry, even during the great construction boom that had taken place in the city in the early 1920s, in which hardly a single Jewish building worker was employed (according to figures from 1924). However, Jews took a part in developing the textile industry in the city. During the 1920s, Siedlce became one of the important textile centers in the region. Some of the new factories were founded by Jews and provided work for a few dozen Jews.

Due to its proximity to Warsaw Siedlce did not take an important position in other industries during this period, and most of the Jews continued to engage in their traditional occupations. The clothing and the tailoring industries were under Jewish control. In 1921, there were 513 tailors’ workshops owned by Jews and 195 of them had 580 hired employees. Many of the bakeries in the city belonged to Jews as well. In 1921, 90 bakeries and small factories were engaged in the manufacturing of food products, but this industry did not employ many hired hands, and only a few Jews found their livelihood there. 28 workshops Jewish tanneries, 33 metal workshops, 20 carpentry and wood processing plants and 6 small plants for chemical products also operated in Siedlce the same year. Overall Jews held 837 workshops and small factories in the same year. Only 385 of them employed salaried workers and apprentices totaling 748 workers.

Grabski’s Government’s instituted economic policies on the early 20s, badly hit Jewish middle class and Jewish independent craftsmen and resulted in a real decline in their number. In 1922/3 only 160 manufacturers and workers remained in the leather and footwear industries in Siedlce. Only five workshops and textile factories, employing 55 workers. In the late 20s there was a recovery in the economic life of Jewish Siedlce. In 1930 the number of Jewish workers in the leather and footwear industries reached 400. The average wage of an expert worker in this industry was 40 Zloty per week, and an intern earned about 20 Zloty a week. In the textile industry, there were about 500 Jews, and their trade union was the largest in the city’s Jewish trade unions.

In the second half of the 1930s there was a continuing deterioration in the economic situation of the Jews as a result of the government’s declared policy of discrimination in this area. Polish craftsmen cooperatives were established in Siedlce, which intended to remove Jews from their livelihoods. In November 1937, Christian wagon drivers appeared in the city, wearing the slogans “Christian wagon driver” on their hats, and young members of anti-Semitic movements were campaigning to boycott Jewish cart drivers. Indeed, their efforts bore fruit, and a few dozen carters lost their livelihood. In August 1938, 28 Jewish merchants and craftsmen were stripped of their sales stands in the city market. After a while, the rest of the Jews were also required to vacate their stalls on the pretext that the market was undergoing renovations. In order to completely eliminate Jewish trade and crafts, the city authorities decided to transfer the market days from Tuesday and Friday to Saturday.

Economic anti-Jewish measures also hit the liberal professionals. In 1937, a Polish lawyer signed Gentile residents on a petition, demanding that the city authorities revoke Jewish lawyers’ licenses. At the same time Jewish economic organizations have expanded their activities. Some of these organizations were set up before the war. “Savings and Loan Fund”, which stated during the war and numbered 2,760 clients, became, in 1925, “a shares Bank” with an equity and deposits of 15 thousand Zloti, which went up to 390 thousand Zlotys by 1932. In 1931 the Bank provided loans to 523 Jewish merchants, 527 artisans, 132 liberal professionals an 118 others, including 12 Jews engaged in agriculture. In 1924 “Merchants Bank” was established in Siedlce which gave large loans to traders and industrialists mainly. The Bank closed during the Great Depression of 1931, “bank credit”, founded by small traders, was the most important bank in 1936 Jewish Siedlce, after the “share bank” closed. The “folk Loan Fund”, supported by the JDC also worked in the city. The fund was managed by the community, giving small, interest free loans to artisans and others in need. In those years the Jewish labor movement strengthened in Siedlce. During the early 20s most unions, particularly shoemakers, bakers, porters and barbers, were under the influence of the “KomBund ” – a branch of the “Bund”, retired from it and joining the Comintern . The needle industry was dominated by “Poalei Zion”. The “KomBUnd” members found their way to the Communist Party, strengthened the influence of communists in Siedlce and in 1921 several Jewish union organizers were arrested and put on trial on charges of communist activity. This year the “Bund”, led by Alfred Levi had 400 friends. In theory, they were led by the “Bund”, but in practice they were mostly supporters of the communist orientated “KomBund”.

In 1922 several trade unions strikes broke out in Siedlce. On May 200 Jewish textile workers went on a three days strike demanding to raise their salaries by 50%. The wave of unrest on professional background continued until 1924, when the Communist Party shut down the factories, were Poles and Jews worked together and conducted large demonstrations attended by hundreds of workers. Among the party leaders, some of whom were arrested and tried, were: Yosef Sloshni, Moshe Kadish, Haim Zilberstein and Mottel Greenberg. In late 1928 a big trial against communist activists was held in Siedlce. A Jewish woman named Miriam Shumac was sentenced to two years in prison.

Written by Yitzhak Caspi in the book: “Ancestors Tell Siedlce”.
Translated from Hebrew by Mr. Yuval Romano.