Workers in the Worzel and Daar raincoat factory, Tarnów, 1925. (YIVO)

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Imperial Russia and other areas of Eastern Europe did not become fully industrialized until the end of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, even in its earliest stages, Jews played prominent roles in industry. The two main reasons for this were first, the emergence of a Jewish bourgeoisie, some of whose members had accumulated vast wealth that to a certain extent was invested in industrial development; and second, the Russian government’s policy of seeking to transform the empire’s Jewish residents into contributors who would play a beneficial role in the Russian society and economy. During the first half of the nineteenth century, industrialization in the Russian Empire (which at that time included much of Poland) had begun at a sluggish rate. After the Crimean War (1855), however, production was financed by private wealth, under tight governmental supervision. Gathering speed under new conditions, by the 1880s and 1890s industrialization had advanced rapidly.

Textile factory owned by the Poznański family, Łódź, ca. 1890s. Photograph by Bronisław Wilkoszewski. (University Library, Łódź)

Originally, the two most attractive manufacturing branches for Jewish entrepreneurs were in textiles and the sugar industry. Involvement in cloth production began as early as 1808 when Russia’s interior minister, Aleksei Borisovich Kurakin, sought to build factories in Ukraine’s heavily populated Jewish areas to provide uniforms for the Russian army. By 1828, there were 124 textile plants across the Pale of Settlement’s eight regions; 75 were owned by Jews. Of these, 40 were located in the Volhynia region, 13 in Grodno, and 10 in the Mogilev district. The plants, whether owned by Jews or gentiles, employed on average 50 workers.

Jews became involved in the sugar industry in the second half of the nineteenth century, and were mostly concentrated in Ukraine. The industry’s crude conditions improved under the initiative of a Jewish entrepreneur, Izrail’ (Yisra’el) Brodskii (1823–1888), of the rabbinical Schor family that had moved from Brody to Zlatopol’ in the province of Kiev. Izrail’ became involved with sugar refining in the 1840s, when he financed several refineries built by Russian estate owners in conjunction with other investors. In 1847, Brodskii was granted a government concession to operate a sugar refinery for five years. His sons Lazar’ (known as the “sugar king”; 1848–1904) and Lev (Leon; 1852–1923) enlarged their father’s enterprises. Until World War I, the Brodskii family’s refinery produced approximately 25 percent of the overall Russian sugar output. The Brodskiis also were known for their philanthropy.

“Czysta” (Pure). Liquor label from a distillery owned by M. Rajsman and K. Kopelzon, Luboml, Poland (now Lyuboml, Ukr.), 1920s–1930s. (American Folklife Center, Library of Congress)

Brodskii’s successes led some refinery owners to turn to other prominent Jewish families, including Zaitsev, Balakhovsky, and Halperin, for financial assistance. Increased participation by Jews led to expansion and sophistication of the Russian sugar industry. Kiev had approximately 49 sugar refineries in 1846–1847; by 1852, Ukraine had 223. In 1872, only 27 Jews owned sugar refineries, but less than 30 years later in 1910, Jews owned 182 out of 518 such companies spread across Belorussia and the southwestern districts of the Russian Empire.

Other industries in which Jews played a role were considerably smaller and less sophisticated, especially as they relied chiefly on manual labor. These included tanneries, hairbrush production, and tobacco and flour manufacture. Most tanneries operated out of the Belorussian district of Smorgon’ in the Vilna province. The hairbrush production industry, often thought to be monopolized by Jews, set up factories mainly in smaller towns such as Vitebsk, Grodno, Mogilev, and Suvalki.

At the turn of the twentieth century, more than 30,000 factories that were engaged in the industries thus far described were owned by Jews. During the 1880s and 1890s, Jewish industrialists also were involved in the Russian oil industry; indeed, 16 percent of the state’s oil industry’s manufacturing plants had Jewish ownership. With the outbreak of World War I, Jewish industrialists increased their role in the metal industry, partly due to their contacts on the other side of imperial Russia’s borders. In other parts of Eastern and Central Europe, Jews were pioneers in developing coal mines. In Czechoslovakia, Jews were active in oil refining and in general branches of trade and industry, particularly textiles.

Jewish entrepreneurs played a considerable role in Congress Poland’s industrialization process. The Russian government viewed this region as advanced in contrast to the rest of the empire, and therefore regarded it as the appropriate place to set up industries, at least until less well-established Russian regions were able to open their own industries and manufacturing plants. Polish industry was initially financed by state funds and tax revenues. The state wanted private capital to be directed toward industrial development, and often the only investors willing to contribute were Jewish bankers, who were granted concessions in exchange for investments. Capital from Jews facilitated the mechanization and modernization of Polish industry. In the aftermath of the Crimean War, custom duties were rescinded on exports between Congress Poland and Russia. As a result, Congress Poland became Russia’s chief supplier of manufactured goods. Silesia served as the center of the coal and mining industry.

Łódź, Białystok, and Warsaw were centers for the textile industry; there, Jewish entrepreneurs, who had key contacts with wholesalers from outside Congress Poland, played a prominent role. Łódź’s first factory was set up as early as 1823. The city became known as the “Manchester of Poland,” and was host to many of the Poznański family’s enterprises. In 1872, this family established its fabric factory, with the financial backing of the state. The government had feared that the local textile industry would be under the exclusive control of German industrialists, who were also active in Łódź and elsewhere. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Poznańskis’ textile production plant had become a successful shareholding company. With the onset of World War I, however, the golden age of the family’s industrial activities came to an abrupt end. Many textile operations moved from Łódź to Warsaw. Białystok was yet another town in which the textile industry developed; its first Jewish-owned textile factory was set up as early as 1850. Other textile businesses were established after the war between Russia and Turkey (1877).

Match factory and residence of the Luria family, Pinsk, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)

In addition to Jews’ involvement in textiles, the Warsaw Jewish bourgeoisie (like that of Russia) had financial interests in the budding sugar industry. From 1843 to 1857, the Jewish banker and entrepreneur Herman Epstein built three such factories on property leased by Jews. Other Jewish bankers from Warsaw, including Volf Zelig (Samuel) Natanson and Leopold Kronenberg, built sugar factories in the Plotsk district. In 1872, sugar factory owners set up the Warsaw Sugar Manufacturing Company with basic capital of 2 million rubles. Entrepreneurs such as Kronenberg were also involved in setting up the tobacco industry.

Jews also were active in various food industries. As demand for modernization in that industry increased, and as economic reality required the launching of new enterprises, so too did Jews’ involvement in financing and building factories for such businesses. In 1867, Jews owned 430 factories across Congress Poland, cumulatively employing not less than 17 percent of Poland’s industrial workers. However, most Jews in this field worked in middle-level jobs and for smaller firms. Though certain Jewish communities believed that the Jewish entrepreneurs’ influence stretched far, in most cases Jews were unable to exert influence upon the national agenda.

In the course of World War I, Polish industry was so severely damaged that only a portion of the large production plants were able to recover to the point of being fully functional. Before the war, most of the Polish industrial output had been directed to the Russian market, which later ceased to exist. Polish industry, then, had to struggle to find alternative markets. During the interwar period, involvement by Jews in Polish industries suffered a dramatic downturn. By the 1930s, the state had rapidly increased its involvement in local industry, enacting new laws that made it increasingly difficult for smaller Jewish-owned industries to survive.

“The Role Played by Jews in the Growth of Białystok and Its Industry.” Exhibition at a school belonging to TSYSHO (Central Yiddish School Organization). Among the posters are (left) a map showing exports shipped internationally from Białystok and (to its right) a drawing stating (in Yiddish and Polish) “The Białystok textile workers are united!” (YIVO)

In addition to their role in the textile industry, Jews in the Czech lands had become involved in leather trade by the first decades of the nineteenth century. There, in Pilsen (1829) and Brno (1846), Jews founded the first factories to produce modern-style leather. By the 1860s, more than 20 leather factories in Bohemia were run by Jews. During the interwar period, some important developments affected the roles of Jews in industries. Although in the USSR entire industries were nationalized, the proportion of Jews who worked in metal- and coal mining increased while their part in traditional Jewish industries decreased. In independent Poland between the wars, Jewish participation in the textile industry (in Łódź and Białystok) was hard hit by anti-Jewish state policies. Some industrialists, however, managed to develop their factories with foreign capital. By 1931, textile enterprises owned by Jews operated mainly on a smaller scale; Jews tended to be employed in the industry in clerical posts rather than as workers. However, Jews’ participation in the leather trade in independent Poland remained considerable: in 1927, Jews represented 41 percent of all tanners, and in 1931, a total of 15,705 Jews were employed in leather industries (representing 45% of all leather workers).

In Czechoslovakia after World War I, Jews continued to work in textiles, and were also active in oil refining. The Kralupy refinery on the Vltava River was established by Jindřich Eisenschimel and Ludvik Heller, and a refinery owned by David Fanto was prominent in the industry by 1924. The Vacuum Oil Company, headed by Charles Wachtel and Bedřich Stránsky, transferred its affairs to New York in 1939. In Hungary, Jews played a leading role in developing the sugar beet industry.

The East European Jewish proletariat did not evolve in large, modern, and advanced industries, but rather in small sweatshops and workshops that were not necessarily owned by Jews. In fact, Jewish owners generally avoided hiring Jewish workers, and even gentile employers showed no enthusiasm for employing Jews to work in their factories. The reason for this reluctance allegedly had to do with the fact that Jews refrained from working on the Sabbath; however, it is doubtful that this was the actual reason. A real factor behind the preference to employing gentile workers was the fact that the latter were less likely to join trade unions and were not as vocal about protesting working conditions and defending workers’ rights. Jewish employers also feared that their relationships with Jewish workers would extend beyond the workplace, preventing formal employer–employee relationships.

View of Scheibler’s textile factory from Wodny Rynek (Water Market Square), Łódź, 1936. (Archiwum Państwowe, Łódź)

The only large industries with a mainly Jewish workforce were tobacco and match manufacturing, both of which were monopolized by Jews. However, tobacco processing plants were not mechanized, and their goods were produced through crude, unsophisticated means; often the owners preferred to employ women and children. The only textile factories that hired Jews exclusively (for halakhic reasons) produced prayer shawls.

Only in the Pale of Settlement’s Jewish production plants did Jews make up the majority of the workforce. In other areas of Russia, Jewish workers had to compete with non-Jews for positions in Jewish-owned factories. Białystok was an exception; in the last few decades of the nineteenth century, textile firms operating in the vicinity of this city hired between 2,000 and 3,000 Jewish weavers.

Perhaps because most of the Jewish workers employed by small industries worked in sweatshops under very trying circumstances, in 1892 Jewish workers began to organize themselves into unions. Seeking to standardize work hours and wages, workers occasionally coordinated strikes. Not until after World War I did the Polish government allow Jewish labor unions to operate openly and legally. The economic situation in Poland was the catalyst for increasing numbers of Jews to join professional trade unions. In the interwar years, the Bund’s influence and involvement in the Central Council of Jewish Trade Unions (Tsentralrot fun di Profesionele Klasn-Fareynen) was considerable, even though the Left Po‘ale Tsiyon and (Jewish) Communists also operated within this framework. In 1938, membership in Jewish trade unions soared to about 98,000, half of whom were members of unions affiliated with the Bund. Jewish trade unionism was the most comprehensive of all the Polish trade unionisms.

Suggested Reading

Salo Wittmayer Baron, The Russian Jew under Tsars and Soviets, 2nd rev. and enl. ed. (New York, 1976); Bina Garncarska-Kadary, Ḥelkam shel ha-yehudim be-hitpatḥut ha-ta‘asiyah shel Varshah ba-shanim 1816/20–1914 (Tel Aviv, 1985); Louis Greenberg, The Jews in Russia: The Struggle for Emancipation, vol. 1 (New Haven, 1945); Nachum Gross, ed., Economic History of the Jews (New York, 1975); Raphael Mahler, Yehude Polin ben shete milḥamot ‘olam (Tel Aviv, 1968); Ezra Mendelsohn, Class Struggle in the Pale: The Formative Years of the Jewish Workers’ Movement in Tsarist Russia (Cambridge 1970); Yazi Tomashvesky, “Ha-Yehudim be-meshek Polin be-shanim 1918–1939,” in Kiyum ve-shever, vol. 1, pp. 415–426 (Jerusalem, 1997).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler