A World Apart: Conclusion

I finished Joseph Margoshes’ A World Apart last night, and I did find the answer to why he left Galicia.  When the lease his father-in-law had for the Yozefov estate expired after ten years, he was unable to obtain an extension, as it was leased to a different Jewish man.  Margoshes took the assets he had and obtained a lease on a different estate for himself and his wife, but he ran into difficulties and ended up in substantial debt.  When that lease expired in 1898, his father-in-law paid off Margoshes’ debt, and Margoshes and his wife and children left to seek better opportunities in America.

His father-in-law also ran into some difficulties when the lease on his estate in Zgursk expired and he, too, was unable to obtain an extension.  Margoshes described a long-running feud between his father-in-law and the people of Rzhokov, a small and poor shtetl across the Vistula River from Kielkov where the Shtiglitz (Margoshes’ in-laws) had family.  According to Margoshes, in the 1860s there was a huge dispute when one of these relatives died, a very wealthy man named Reb Yisroel Kielkover.  Reb Yisroel had not only provided work for many of the poor Jewish residents of Rzhokov, he had also provided charitable support, including free food and liquor.  Despite his generosity, when he died, the people of Rzhokov led by a man named Yankle Leiman refused to allow Reb Yisroel to be buried in the cemetery (which was used by residents of Kielkov as well as Rzhokov) unless his estate provided substantial financial support to raise the standard of living for the poor Jewish residents of Rzhokov.

Margoshes’ father-in-law and others were outraged and came to Rzhokov to demand that they be allowed to bury Reb Yisroel.  A violent fight broke out between the two groups of Jews, ultimately settled when Reb Yisroel’s side agreed to provide about half the money demanded by the group led by Leiman.  Margoshes’ father-in-law then brought criminal proceedings against Leiman for blackmail, resulting in Leiman spending three months in jail.   The money was never paid to the residents of Rzhokov, and the charitable support ended as well.  Margoshes wrote that the people of the shtetl remained very poor and without adequate buildings for a shul or mikvah.  He blamed this result on their excessive greed.

The feud continued for many years,ultimately exploding when Margoshes’ father-in-law had to obtain a new lease when his lease on Zgursk expired.  The estate he wanted to lease was, perhaps not coincidentally, leased at that time to Yankel Leiman and was about to expire.  Shtiglitz essentially swooped in and struck a deal with the Polish landowner to get the next lease, depriving Leiman of the opportunity to extend.  When Shtiglitz arrived to take over the estate, he and his family found that Leiman and his people had, as an act of revenge, vandalized the manor house and other buildings, much as today people who lose their homes to foreclosure often vandalize their homes before moving out.  Nevertheless, Margoshes’ father-in-law stayed and was able to make a great deal of money for the years he leased this property.

The father-in-law, however, ultimately paid a price for his bad temper and greed.  When he became angry with a worker on the new estate for not working hard enough, Shtiglitz accidentally killed the man by kicking him in self-defense, according to Margoshes.  Shtiglitz went to trial and was sentenced to two years of hard labor for second degree murder.  He only served a year, and Margoshes dismissed the significance of this by commenting that it only cost him about 10,000 gulders.  There was no expression of remorse or sadness for the dead worker.

Margoshes there ends his memoirs without any comment or conclusions about these matters or about life in Galicia in general.  My own conclusions about the book, however, are mixed.  It was interesting to learn more about Jewish life in Galicia, but overall the book was not what I expected.  I was hoping for a depiction of what life was like not only for wealthy Jews, but also for those Jews who were not as fortunate.  Aside from the first section of the book, there is no discussion of how religion played a part in the lives of any of these people; instead, the focus is almost entirely on how wealthy Jews lived and made a living.  As I’ve written in prior posts, Margoshes comes across as a rich young man who had little empathy or interest in the lives of those who were less fortunate.   He seems deluded into thinking that life for the Jews was a paradise during these times, despite the poverty of many Jews, the underlying resentment of the peasants, and the obvious anti-Semitism of the wealthy Polish landowners.

Given his description of his childhood as a boy from a religious home whose favorite activities were reading and discussing books and given that he became a Yiddish writer and journalist in the United States, I would have expected more insight, more soul-searching from a seventy year old man writing his memoirs in 1936.

7 thoughts on “A World Apart: Conclusion

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

  2. Amy, I was horrified by what the peasants did! After all the kindness extended to them they were so easily swayed by Leiman to prevent the burial. The concept of social justice was different from today. I think the family of Reb Yisroel, including his wife, were good examples of the way in which the estate holders who had strong moral values took the dispensing of charity seriously. It’s true that some poor people were not treated well by other estate holders and that is where the problem comes in. The government itself did not do enough for all the classes of people in society. I put much blame on the government and the Austrian monarchy who were too far removed to consider or care about things like social justice, treatment of the Jews or relief to the poor.

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    • Societal values certainly were different then, though we still have far too much injustice in our world. I just read a book about Kiev in the 1880s, and things were also horrible there for the Jews.

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      • I will re-read your postings about “A World Apart”. There is so much emotion in them and I can tell the book got to you in many ways and on many levels. This is what a good book is supposed to do, even if we disagree with parts of it.

        I agree with you on something you brought up. Namely that you expected more from Margoshes as a well educated man who had certain advantages his economic status brought to him. I think for all his Torah learning there was a serious lack of empathy for others. For example, the so-called “joke” he and his wife pulled on the elderly teacher by having him believe the kitchen girl was interested in marrying him. This was so very cruel but Margoshes did not feel a deep sense of wrong all those years later. Just embarrassment. He used the excuse that they were young but even in his older years he did not write about it with any sense of regret. He rather enjoyed the retelling.

        I attribute this to the distance the upper class Jewish people kept from interacting with other Jews of different economic classes. It doesn’t seem that there was a sense of strong solidarity with other Jews of differing economic status. I could be wrong but the impression I get remains. Margoshes spends so much time giving us the pedigree of each person he introduces. I sometimes get lost. Truly, ever new person brings along the names of a few ancestors or the names of the Rabbi he studied with.

        Still, I think the kindness and charity some estate holders showed was an example given the standards and values of the time.

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      • It sounds like you and I agree that Margoshes was quite an elitist in his views of his own people and not very sensitive to the feelings of others. Maybe it was the times and the culture, but for me, that made reading the book uncomfortable. He was not the “hero” I wanted!

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      • Ah, now I understand what you were looking for! I wanted more from him, too. Like tell me about your wife and children! Also, I long to know what the everyday life was like–the streets, the cuisine, the atmosphere in the shtetl on the high holy days–that kind of thing.

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