Mouse in bread. Polish-Jewish relations in Łuków according to the pre-war press

12.02.2021
Written by: Paweł Jezierski
Everyday situations, joyful and tragic events, economic boycott and political intrigues. Looking through old newspapers, we can see how colorful and sometimes turbulent Polish-Jewish relations in Łuków were before 1939.
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Placard of the Bund party committee in Łuków, 1927 r. / Polona

 

Sacrilege investigation

In 1883, "Izraelita" [Israelite] magazine published a detective story with Łuków in the lead role. The newspaper's correspondent was interested in a lively discussion held by his "long coat fellow believers" on the city market. It turned out that someone in the city had stolen valuable liturgical vessels from the church in Łuków, and the suspicion fell on the local Jews, who, in the opinion of Polish neighbors, were “the only ones capable of such a criminal act; for no Christian would be able to commit it”.

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Łuków, 1920 / Polona

The concerned correspondent added that "such a conviction, held not only by the masses but also by the intelligent class, was sufficient to disturb the peace of the Jewish population and cause their fear". The investigation stalled and it was only thanks to the conscious attitude of one of the Jews from Łuków that the perpetrator was discovered. Let's give voice to the report:

“Szaja Alabaster under a court judgment was supposed to seize some property (as a result of unpaid debt) from a home of a Christian citizen from Łuków. When they met, the debtor fearfully said to the Jew: «Don't worry about your money, you will get it, and additionally you can earn a nice penny if you help me sell the silver candlesticks I have». The Jew, who was a clever person, immediately recognized by the tone and substance of the offer that this was not a smooth deal. So he entered into a longer conversation and, while skillfully examining his interlocutor, realized that he had found a trace of the sacrilege. He soon received also a few gold items, under the pretext of finding out if it was genuine gold. The Jew immediately went to the canon priest from the local church and told him everything, showing him those items, among which there was also a golden crucifix, sent a few years ago by the Holy Father as a gift for the inauguration of the church. The canon priest was overjoyed.  Soon enough, Alabaster was given enough money to buy the rest of the items and deftly bring the whole thing to light. He asked the would-be seller to bring all the mentioned belongings to his home at 11 am while at the same time he informed the police. At the appointed hour the suspect appeared in the Jew’s house with a bag full of items. The bird, having fallen into a trap set up by the police, was led away for the night into custody”.

According to the correspondent, after the matter was clarified, joyful days for the Polish-Jewish community followed in Łuków. "The Jews were rehabilitated and (...) the Christians apologized for suspicion thrown on them and expressed their gratitude for discovering the thief". "The whole Christian local community now treats the Israelites from Łuków with great friendship and gratitude”.

Bread with a mouse or a cockroach?

Over the centuries, trade and craftsmanship in Łuków was dominated by Jewish owners, which often irritated Polish competitors. The Jews were accused of making low quality products, such as bread and meat. As early as 1839, in the Official Journal of the Podlasie Governorate, we notice complaints from the townspeople "about the sale of all food items by the Jews in the city of Łuków, who are usually less decent and cannot satisfy buyers". On the other hand, in "Gazeta Polska" [Polish Gazette] from 1872, we read that the Jews of Łuków were also able to fight for their own interests as "the Italian baker Ferrari had to leave Łuków, just like the German called Thiel before him, due to the efforts of the Jews; and it needs to be said that he baked nice rolls and bread, so there was no need to buy them in Siedlce [town located about 30 km from Łuków]”.

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Łuków, Chęcińskiego Street, before 1939 / National Digital Archive

It is worth to mention another court case from 1889, also concerning bread, described in the supplement to the "Zorza" [Daybreak] newspaper: "a citizen of Łuków accused the Jewish baker called Abuś of finding a piece of a mouse in bread bought from him. Abuś explained that he did not know where the mouse came from in the bread; at the end of his defense he added these words: «anyway, there was only a piece of a mouse in the bread, not a whole mouse»". This argument was not accepted by the judge and the baker was sentenced to pay a fine of 10 rubles. According to the editors of “Zorza” this should "teach us to buy bread only from our [Christian] people and not from Jews as Jew will always be sloppy".

"Kurier Warszawski" [The Warsaw Courier] concluded that "cases of finding various strange additions to bread in Łuków (...) are very frequent, therefore sentence uttered by the judge at the end of the trial made the audience laugh in the courtroom. Judge said: «If you want bread with a mouse, go to Abuś. But if you prefer it with cockroaches and bugs go to Bergman instead»”.

Wrongful accusation

In 1927, in the "Nasz Przegląd" [Our Review] daily we read reports from the Łuków market saying: "here is one more example from the history of ignorance, stubbornness and hatred of the village people, a matter that clearly illustrates peasant vengefulness and obtuseness". Rojza Wolberg, who traded in scarves, was approached by a woman from a village near Łuków, interested in buying a scarf. “The Jewish seller is bustling fast. She presents a first scarf, then a second and a third one. But she is not able to please a picky client. Finally – her client picked one! After two hours of searching, the peasant woman choses a scarf, but then suddenly a neighbor speaks to her: – My dear! This scarf will fade after two washes. Don’t buy it! As a result, the peasant woman begins to hesitate again. The irritated Jewish woman is fed up with this situation. She tears the scarf off the client's shoulders. She doesn’t want a bargain with her, this is enough!”.

This colorful description does not seem to be anything special as such situations were a typical market trade reality at that time. However, a week after this incident, the husband of the would-be client appears in the court in Łuków and accuses Rojza of hitting his wife, which, in his opinion, caused a miscarriage. The unfortunate accuser added that "he noticed on the forehead of a prematurely born child... a bruise!" - probably from the alleged hit by trader. Faced with the bizarre accusations, the defendant's lawyer "proved that the «victim» had exaggerated the whole incident too much, that in her hatred and ignorance she attributed some magic to the Jewish woman. In addition, the defender proved that the peasant woman had to walk 7 kilometers from Łuków to her village, which could have caused a miscarriage”. Rojza Wolberg was acquitted of the charges.

The case of Moszek Rydelman ended differently. In the same year, he was accused of usury and criminal threats by local peasants. Rydelman allegedly concealed the real interest rate on loans so a group of peasants blamed him "for exploiting their difficult financial situation, especially during sowing", reported "Nasz Przegląd". Dissatisfied village borrowers also testified that Rydelman threatened to set them on fire if they will not pay their debts. The court of first instance sentenced Rydelman to 4 months in prison, but the appellate court reduced this sentence to 3 weeks in arrest, considering that there was an "excessive collection of interest", but without elements of "exploitation".

Boycott of stores

A clear escalation of anti-Semitic moods in Łuków can be noticed in the 1930s. This corresponded with the national tendencies fueled by the national-Catholic organizations. In 1937, the right-wing daily “ABC – Nowiny Codzienne” [ABC – Daily News] reported that "the Polish society of Łuków had been carrying out a boycott action for a long time”. “Recently, Christian stores have been opened in Łuków, and all the inhabitants of this city and the surrounding villages do their shopping in the stores owned by Poles. Łuków has a population of 16,000. In addition, within a radius of several kilometers there are many villages with a population of 3 to 4 thousand inhabitants. There are about 80 Christian grocery stores in these towns and villages” – the newspaper adds. “All these stores, however, are forced to obtain goods from a Jewish warehouse, because there is no Polish warehouse in Łuków or in other nearby towns. In this way, Jewish wholesalers have a huge turnover and draw profits from Poles. Under these conditions, the attention of the Polish society should be drawn to this pressing need to establish a (Christian) warehouse in Łuków. With the present attitude of the Polish population and the current sharp boycott of Jewish shops, such a new warehouse would have its business secured. We would like to emphasize that the Polish society of Łuków will wholeheartedly support the work aimed at nationalizing trade”.

A few months later, the same newspaper described another sad events from the town on the Krzna River: “Łuków followed Lublin, which had recently started a boycott of Jews. During the last market, young nationalists from Łuków put up patrols all over the city, with the intention of preventing the Polish citizens from visiting Jewish stores. At the same time, a number of leaflets were distributed to make the Polish society aware of the role of Jews in our economic relations. The campaign produced great results because the Jewish stores were empty. Throughout the duration of the boycott, which is also scheduled for the following days, there have been no records of retaliatory activities from the Jews”.

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An article from the "Narodowiec Łukowski" [Łuków Nationalist], March 10, 1938 / Polona

„Savagery of the National Democrats”

In March 1938, the National Party (Stronnictwo Narodowe) in Łuków published "Narodowiec Łukowski" [Łuków Nationalist] – a brochure alarming about issues with "too much Jew-craftsmanship and Jew-trade" and the need of "building Poland without Jews", which was full of anti-Semitic content. "Here you need a doctor-psychiatrist", the progressive magazine "Podlasie" summed up the content of "Narodowiec Łukowski", at the same time noticing that the brochure was distributed to rural inhabitants by a catholic monk during village church retreats.

A few months later, „5-ta rano” [5 am], a Jewish daily published in Polish language, reported on another outrageous incident from Łuków proving "terrifying disappearance of all morality and ethics in the National Democrats’ jungle". In a tragic accident, a bred horse killed a young Jew, Szyja Rybak, and seriously injured two people, and the event itself shocked "the entire Jewish and Christian population". A similar shock was the reaction of the leaders of the National Party in Łuków, who "were to give the owner of that horse a meter of oats as... a bonus for killing a Jew". "This deed caused disgust also among the Christian population", reported the daily.

Park for Christians only

In 1938 another anti-Semitic incident was covered in national newspapers, including "Gazeta Robotnicza” [Workers’ Gazette]: "The city of Łuków does not have a park or a garden for walks, it does not have a river or a municipal bathing area, the only place of «rest» in the city is a piece of a garden with an area of 50 by 50 m, where, due to the lack of benches, the nature-longing citizens of Łuków (...) expect at least one bench to be installed by the municipality. Instead of the desired bench, a huge inscription appeared recently at the entrance to the garden saying: SQUARE ENTRY ONLY FOR CHRISTIAN CHILDREN”.

The event was also described in "Nasz Przegląd", which reported that "in Łuków there is a garden where schoolchildren play. A few days ago, the following inscription appeared above the garden: «entrance only for Polish children»". The editor noted that the matter had been reported to Jewish members of parliament with a request to intervene in the Ministry of the Internal Affairs.

Unsuccessful political demonstration

Can we then clearly state that the above-described incidents in the 1930s were the norm and were accepted by the Łuków community? Not exactly. An example is the reaction of the citizens of Łuków to the loud demonstration of the National Party announced on August 15, 1938, on the anniversary of the 1920 Battle of Warsaw, in which Polish forces decisively defeated the Russian Bolshevik army. Numerous posters and leaflets invited the people of Łuków to a great march to Freedom Square, where a political rally showing Łuków's support for this nationalist and anti-Semitic organization was to be held. "Gazeta Robotnicza" reported that "the people leaving the church after holy mass were waited with banners and slogans saying «Down with the Judeo-Communism», «Down with the Jews» etc., which were to crown the solemn national demonstration".

What the surprise of the nationalists from Łuków must have been when "people leaving the church, passed indifferently the National Party slogans and went home, so that the rest of about 20 picketing people took the banners and moved to the square, where their «leaders» spoke to a dozen or so National Party supporters, raising «patriotic» cheers, welcomed with laughter by random passers-by".

Exotic political alliance

Surprisingly, slogans and other anti-Semitic activities did not interfere with local political arrangements. In July 1939, two months before the outbreak of World War II, “Gazeta Robotnicza” reported on the “sensational and "peculiar" consolidation of the National Democrats, Jews and «Ozon» in Łuków”. When the new City Council (composed of, inter alia, 6 Jewish representatives, 4 nationalists and 4 "Ozon" representatives) was electing the vice-mayor and three lay judges, these three parties, under an exotic coalition, decided to put forward common candidates to reduce the socialists’ political influence in the town.

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A "peculiar" political "consolidation" in Łuków according to "Gazeta Robotnicza" [Workers' Gazette],
July 1, 1939 / Polona

The Jewish members of the council, apparently not disturbed by the recent anti-Semitic protests, complied with the arrangements and, “remaining faithful to the National Democrats and «Ozon» [Camp of National Unity, right-wing anti-Semitic pro-Sanacja party], voted for a lay judge proposed by the nationalists, but shortly thereafter were deceived by right-wing coalitionists who “apparently adhered to the principles of that the word given to «lower race» does not apply” – did not vote for a Jewish candidate for a lay judge. In this way, no new lay judge came from the Jewish community. The further course of political puzzles in the City Council of Łuków was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II.

You can read more about the history of Jews in Łuków on the website www.zydzi.lukow.pl run by Dr. Krzysztof Czubaszek.

 

Sources:

Nr. 13271 z Wydziału Wojska Sekcyi Policyi, „Dziennik Urzędowy Guberni Podlaskiej” no 14, 1839, p. 217

Zawadzki, J., Z pod Łukowa, „Gazeta Polska” no 96, 20 April (2 May) 1872, p. 2

Neumanowicz, H., Korespondencja „Izraelity”, „Izraelita” no 24, 10 June 1883, p. 198

To i owo, „Poradnik dla gospodyń i mniejszych posiadaczy rolnych”, addition to „Zorza” no 25, 1889, pp. 6-7

Mysz w chlebie, „Kurier Warszawski” no 162, 14 June 1889, pp. 2-3

W obliczu sprawiedliwości, „Nasz Przegląd” no 51, 20 February 1927, p. 11

W obliczu sprawiedliwości, „Nasz Przegląd” no 20, 23 June 1927, p. 6

O hurtownię chrześcijańską w Łukowie, „ABC” no 132, 27 April 1937, p. 3

Bojkot żydów w Łukowie, „ABC” no 283, 6 września 1937, p. 3

Opolski, H. [red.], „Narodowiec Łukowski”, 10 March 1938

Brzozowski, S., O „Narodowcu Łukowskim” słów parę..., „Podlasie” nr 94, 1 April 1938, p. 5

Premia dla konia za... zabicie Żyda, „5-ta Rano” no 208, 27 July 1938, p. 4

Z czyjego polecenia?, „Gazeta Robotnicza” no 186, 31 July 1938, p. 9

Dla Żydów wstęp wzbroniony, „Nasz Przegląd” no 224, 10 August 1938, p. 13

Kompromitacja endecji w Łukowie, „Gazeta Robotnicza” no 202, 17 August 1938, p. 5

Swój do swego – po swoje, „Gazeta Robotnicza” no 157, 1 April 1939, p. 5

Paweł Jezierski