A World Apart, part 4: The Rich and the Poor in Galicia

In my last post, I wrote about Margoshes’ marriage to the daughter of Mordecai Shtiglitz, the manager and lessor of a substantial estate in Zgursk, not far from Radomishla.  After checking Google maps, I realized that Radomishla is only about 60 miles from Dzikow where our family might have lived, so Margoshes and Joseph and Bessie may have lived quite near each other in the 1880s.  Whether their lifestyle was anything like his we do not know, but it made reading his story even more compelling to me.

After Margoshes married, there was a three year period of what he called “kest.”  According to the glossary provided in the book, kest referred to the practice where the family of the groom provided financial support to the groom and bride after the wedding to enable the groom to study without having to worry about earning a living.  Margoshes and his new wife lived with his in-laws, both of whom worked very hard to manage and oversee the estate.  Margoshes, however, spent the early days of his marriage being idle, reading and eating a lot of fruit. At one point his father-in-law arranged for him to oversee the cutting down of trees for lumber on a nearby property where the Polish owner needed assistance and agreed to allow Margoshes to keep the profits in exchange for overseeing the labor.  Margoshes did not do any of the physical labor himself, but would ride out to make sure that the work was being done.  He hired a Jewish man to help him supervise the work.  After a short period of time, Margoshes decided not to pursue the lumber business any further.  He wrote that he found it tedious and that his father-in-law and wife found it beneath his dignity.  He sold the business to someone else and returned to his “kest” lifestyle.

About a year and half after he was married, Margoshes and his wife moved to Yozefov, a 450 acre estate about a mile away from Zgursk, where his wife’s sister and her husband had lived.  The land was owned by a non-religious Jew who had leased the land to Margoshes’ father-in-law as a place where his older daughter and her husband could live and work.  When the older daughter’s husband died, Margoshes and his wife were essentially told that they had to move to Yozefov and take over managing the estate.  Margoshes lived there for ten years and, as he described it, was his own boss for the first time.  The financial arrangement, however, put Margoshes in a risk-free situation.  His father-in-law covered the expenses and took the profits, but Margoshes and his wife were able to live without cost in exchange for overseeing the estate.  When the lease was up after ten years, Margoshes still had the original dowry from when he married plus the livestock and equipment from Yozefov which he then used to set up his own business.

In this section of the book, there is a little more light shed on how “the other half lived.”  First, it is clear that there were many Jews who were not wealthy at all. As described by Margoshes, “Jewish economic life in Galicia was always uncertain.  People who had done well for years and lived an upper class existence suddenly became paupers due to unforeseen circumstances.” (p. 58) Margoshes  observed many poor Jews while living in Zgursk: “…itinerant paupers were constantly wandering through.  A day rarely passed that 10-15 poor Jews did not appear in the manor yard.  These vagrants would often wander in whole families: man and wife, several children, and sometimes even infants at the breast. Every poor person …received a generous portion of hot food, and a big piece of bread for the road, along with two kreuzer in alms.  They were just not allowed to spend the night in the manor yard; their ranks included a lot of undesirable people and thieves.  They were sent away to the nearby inn, or if space was short, to the [poor house] in Radomishla.” (p. 67)

Margoshes claimed that he was the only person in the region with the ability or desire to read books in Hebrew, German or Polish, and when his brother-in-law Mikhl wanted to learn, there was no one but Margoshes to teach him.  Margoshes found Radomishla to be more sophisticated than other towns and shtetls nearby.  In the other towns, the Jews had cows as the source of most of their income.  They would milk and feed the cows themselves and tend to their own gardens to provide a meager living for their families.  (Margoshes’ tone in describing these hard-working farmers is blatantly condescending.)  In contrast, he found the Jews in Radomishla to be far more successful merchants who engaged in trade and did not own or take care of cows. There were timber traders, cattle dealers, and many money lenders—many people who were extremely wealthy.  Although Margoshes recognized that there were also poor people in Radomishla, he claimed that there were not as destitute as poor people in the other towns and shtetls.

Often I feel really annoyed by Margoshes.  He was what we might call today a very entitled young man—someone whose family was wealthy and who never really had to do any physical labor at all and barely any other hard work of any kind.  He was handed everything on a silver platter, yet has the nerve to express disdain for those who were less fortunate.  I may react this way in part because I imagine that our ancestors, Joseph and Bessie, were probably among those poor farmers Margoshes was looking down at from up on his high horse as the fortunate son and son-in-law of two wealthy men. I am still hoping that somewhere in his story, Margoshes developed some perspective and some empathy for those who were less fortunate.

3 thoughts on “A World Apart, part 4: The Rich and the Poor in Galicia

  1. Pingback: Galicia Mon Amour: A Conversation « brotmanblog

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