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.

A World Apart, part 5: Relationships between Jews and non-Jews in Galicia

My reading this time related largely to the relationships between the Jews and non-Jews in Galicia, socially, politically and otherwise.  Margoshes began this section by claiming that at least in the region where he lived near Radomishla, the Jews were economically and politically often more powerful than most of the non-Jewish population.   I would never have expected that at all; I assumed that the Jews were oppressed politically and economically.  Instead, Margoshes asserted that in area from Rzeslow to Tarnow to Krakow, the peasants lived under the dominance of the Jewish estate holders.  He wrote, “During the period between the 1880s and [World War I], this part of Galicia was a true paradise for Jews in some respects.” (p. 99; emphasis added)

According to Margoshes, in this region, anti-Jewish persecution and acts were unknown, and Jews and gentiles lived peacefully together.  If a peasant struck or even just insulted a Jew, the courts would punish the peasant by placing him in jail for at least two days.  Peasants would tip their hats to Jewish estate-holders when they were driving (oxen or horses, I assume) on the road and when they entered their homes.  (There is no mention of how the peasants treated and were treated by poor Jews, just the wealthier Jews, who in many instances were the employers of these peasants.)

Margoshes explains the political context for this by pointing out that in 1846 there had been a widespread revolt of the peasants against the wealthy Polish lords and landholders and that even forty years later, the politically powerful Polish aristocracy which controlled the government had not forgiven the peasants for the violence, deaths and damages caused by that uprising.  Thus, in a dispute between a peasant and a Jew, the government would generally side with the Jew.

Margoshes also attributed much of the peacefulness of the region to the Austro-Hungarian gendarmes who were responsible for keeping law and order in the Empire as part of the imperial army.  These soldiers lived in the area in barracks and frequently visited the estates to insure that all animals were registered and that everything was being managed according to the requirements of the Empire.

That did not mean that there were no disputes or problems between the peasants and their Jewish employers.  Margoshes described a number of incidents of theft by the peasants who worked at his father-in-law’s estate.  He wrote, “A Jewish estate-holder and his household had to have eyes in the back of their heads in order to make sure that the workers were not stealing from him….” (p. 127).  He also made the offensive generalization that it was part of the “inborn nature” of the peasants to steal: “he had to steal whenever the opportunity presented itself, especially from the Jewish estate-holder.  For a peasant, the smallest stolen article was an asset.”

In one story about the workers at his father-in-law’s estate in Zgursk, moreoever, Margoshes also revealed that the relationships between the Polish peasants who worked on the estate and their Jewish employers were not always quite so amicable.  There were at times hundreds of workers on the estate, and many of them boarded there.  Margoshes himself admits that their living conditions were substandard: “everyone found a place to sleep in one of the three stables atop hay and straw and that was it.  No pillows or sleepwear were provided and…a blanket used to cover horses served as a cover.” (p. 96) The estate did provide three meals a day that Margoshes described as generous.   Margoshes’ mother-in-law and father-in-law were the task masters who oversaw all the work on the estate, and his father-in-law was known to be rather cold and strict.

Margoshes described one time that his father-in-law lost his temper with some of the workers who in his view were not working hard enough and began beating them with a paddle.  In response, these workers and a number of others went on strike and refused to return to the fields. It took an intervention from the mother of the father-in-law to persuade the workers to return to work the next day.  Margoshes described this as if it were a one-time incident, and perhaps it was, but it does reveal that there was some abuse of the peasants by at least this powerful Jew, his own father-in-law.

Thus, although Margoshes initially described the relationship between the gentile peasants and the Jews as peaceful and amicable, these incidents of theft and abusiveness suggest that there was in fact a great deal of resentment and anger among the peasants towards the Jews. Perhaps he was deluding himself when he wrote that it was a “true paradise” for Jews in this region during that time.

According to Margoshes, the wealthy Jews also had good relationships with the wealthy Polish lords and landowners, called pritsim or porits in the singular.  He described his relationship with a neighboring porits  as “very friendly, although from a distance.” (p. 103) They would help each other out with favors, but were not social friends.  Margoshes did not think that this relationship was unusual.  He said that he “never heard of a case in the entire region of a porits who had negative relations with a Jew or where he insulted a Jew or harmed him in any way,” (p. 104) although he did then go on to mention one polits who refused to trade with Jews.

There was also, according to Margoshes, peaceful co-existence between the Catholic priests and the Jewish population.  Although he commented that “[p]riests, especially Catholic priests, cannot ever really be friends of the Jews” because “it is almost against [their]religion to love people of another faith,” (p.111), he reported that nevertheless for the most part there was little conflict between the priests and the Jewish estate holders.  He described a church law that prohibited Catholics from working as servants in Jewish homes, but pointed out that it was rarely enforced since the peasants needed employment and often worked in Jewish homes. Margoshes even developed a friendship with one of the local priests, but he severed that relationship when the priest tried to persuade Margoshes to come and see his church—not to convert, but just to go inside the church.  Obviously, this “friendship” was a superficial one based on necessity, and feelings of distrust and difference outweighed any sense of real connection.  Margoshes made it clear that it would not have been acceptable for him, as a Jew, to be seen in a Catholic church.

By the time I finished reading this section, I realized that Margoshes had had a very unrealistic view of the relationships between the Jews and non-Jews in Galicia during the late 19th century.  First, his viewpoint is entirely based on the experiences of the wealthy Jewish estate-holders.  The non-Jewish peasants may have seemed respectful and accepting of their Jewish employers, but beneath the surface there was likely a great deal of resentment and anger.  The priests and non-Jewish estate-holders also may have been willing to live peacefully side-by-side with the wealthy Jews, but there certainly was not a true acceptance or friendship in these relationships.  The gendarmes may have been keeping the peace, but beneath the surface the Jews were still the outsiders who were not integrated into the gentile world.

Moreover, Margoshes does not at all provide a picture of what life was like for the Jews who were not wealthy estate-holders.  Were their relationships with the peasants, priests, and wealthy Polish landowners as “peaceful”?  Or were they the targets of all the repressed resentment and anger that the gentiles felt towards the wealthy Jews?

It occurred to me after reading these chapters that Margoshes was writing in 1936.  He had no idea what was going to happen in Poland during the Holocaust. I wonder whether his naiveté about how the gentiles felt about the Jews was widespread in Poland during the 1930s and 1940s.  If only they had been more realistic, perhaps more of them would have left sooner.

Which brings me to another question: if things were so great in the 1880s and 1890s for wealthy Jews in Poland, why did Margoshes and so many others, including Joseph and Bessie, leave?

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.