In normal circumstances, the various economic sectors in any town or area assume a certain mathematical ratio to the economy as whole. Not so in Poland. Its trade and commerce, which was preponderantly in Jewish hands, assumed an abnormal proportions. Thus, the trading sector in Hrubieszow suffered from a very pronounced surplus. The result was that good many traders, who had started out with nominal initial capital, saw their assets steadily shrink to a vanishing point, and were forced to liquidate their business. During the period preceding World War II Polish chauvinism dealt another serious blow to Jewish trade in Poland.
The Hrubieszow district, with its rich corn-growing hinterland, was one of the suppliers of agricultural produce. After the Soviet invasion following World War I, trade in agricultural produce expanded very considerably. Jewish merchants put up big storehouses near the railway line bought up the produce from neighbouring farms. Thus was created the nucleus of the corn-merchants in Hrubieszow.
I recall several of the leading corn-merchants: Shmuel Brand and his brother Itchele, who dealt mainly with the "Pritzim" (large estate-owners) and were purveyors to the army at Hrubieszow; Isaac Kaltan, who conducted his business in partnership with big farmers. He maintained roomy offices in the center of the town, and with the help of his right-hand man, Yankel Kahan, was able to export corn to Galicia and other places. In time, the corn trade came to be the backbone of our towns' economy. New names appeared on the "Who's Who" of the corn market: Yankele Sassow, Shlomo Itche Einhorn. Needless to say, not all Jews could talk properly with a "Poritz". The merchants enumerated above spoke Polish fluently, and succeeded in maintaining close relations with the landed aristocracy, even when the chauvinistic anti-Jewish boycott movement was in full swing.
The operating areas of lesser merchants were situated at certain well chosen spots in towns; one might say in strategic positions. This served a double purpose: attracting customers, and preventing independent farmers from entering the town and dealing direct with the purchasing public. The merchants knew practically every farmer in vicinity by name and thus could head him off by purchasing his goods.
Naturally, the corn trade brought into being a number of other professions: bookkeepers, clerks, agents, transport offices. I mention this self-evident fact because I recall a number of these persons whom I knew intimately and who have perished in holocaust, either in the course of the death-march or at Hrubieszow itself: Itchele Lebros, Israel Zuckerman, Shmuel Ele Eisen, Azriel Hochman, Jude Waksman, Jacob Leib Feiler, Haim and Hirsch Engelsberg, Abraham Zimmerman and a good many other whose names I no longer recall.
It is hardly to be wondered at that with the expansion of the corn trade bitter rivalries sprang up. These often degenerated into open conflict mostly in corn exchange. This state of affairs lasted for several years, until they came to realize that the only person who profited from their disputes was the farmer. Several sensible Hrubieszow citizens epitomized the situation thus: "We are only pouring gold into farmer's bag".
The Hrubieszow merchants, the bigger and the smaller, got finally together and hit on the only logical solution: partnership in the form of a cooperative body. Not all joined immediately; but as the first attempt met with almost immediate success, the movement spread. In later years, Christians, too tried their hand' but. Characteristically enough, Polish farmers remained loyal to the Jewish merchants.
The constitution of cooperative body did not resolve all problems, and there still broke out conflicts, some quite serious, which all but destroyed the "partnership". In this connection I consider it a sacred duty to put on record the noble services of Shmuel Elei Eisen who spared no effort in keeping the partners together and preventing the collapse of the structure which had been set up at such cost.
The pulsating center of the corn and timber trades was the exchange, situated at the center of the town. There all the sectors met: suppliers, purchasers, middleman and workers. At the exchange car-loads of corn used to be sold by word of mouth, without any written document being required to confirm the transaction.
Usually the first call of the day was at the office of Izhak'l Neumark, because there one could ascertain, as a result of telephone calls which had just been made to Lemberg and other towns, what the price of wheat and other corn products were. More than often one came to hear of serious dispute which had broken out between two parties. These disputes were usually referred to an arbiter, a well-known or trustworthy man; the arbitration was called a "Din Tora". Of these arbiters, the best known were Itzhak Neumark and his son Yankele Neumark (both now dead).
Side by side with corn-merchants there were millers, who used to send the flour to other towns, after satisfying the local needs. Of these the best known and the best organized was Friedlander mill, which no outsiders were admitted. During the last few years before World War II, the milling industry expanded very considerably and flour was sent to outlying districts, and thus rendered the millers independent of the corn-merchants in Hrubieszow itself.
The cooperative tendency among corn-merchants caught on in the ranks of those who served the trade: porters and carters. The cooperative body, or the trade-union, whichever we prefer, saw to it that decent price were paid to porters and carters for loading into railway trucks, offloading into warehouses etc. this body was well run and enjoyed a long existence, thanks mainly to organizing talent of Motel Thaler.
A special feature Hrubieszow trade was the weekly fair, which fell on Tuesday. It did not lack in picture squareness. Three main roads converged on Hrubieszow, and on market-day these roads were jammed with carts of peasants from surrounding villages. Imagine one such cart laden high with produce, and on top of it the matron of the family, the grand mother, seated as on a throne. The cart contained the fat of the land: vegetables, cheese, butter, eggs, poultry, geese, duck, and turkey. The matron was not merely an ornament; she it was who actually made the sale. She was also empowered to make the necessary purchase for the family back home: clothing for the girls and household articles. Clothing for the boys were usually brought by the father.
The visits to the fair by the children served a further purpose: to come in contact with townspeople. In the villages, all sort of legends grew up about "the Jews": children were even threatened with dire punishment for misdeeds by being handed over to "the Jews". In time, this stupid custom went out of fashion, although it did not disappear altogether.
The produce brought by the peasants was usually sold directly to the consumers, but a good part was sold to middlemen, who disposed of it subsequently to the public. Some of these middlemen used to post themselves at strategic points along the path of carts and enjoy the pick of load. This aspect of the fair brings to my mind, very vividly, the memory of Sara Kazak, who was always up and early on market day and drove a hard bargain with the peasants. Her harsh, mannish voice and here acute business acumen won her the sobriquet of "Kazak" (Cossack). Her husband, Haim Kradnik, invariably accompanied her on these expeditions, but he was not meddle in bargaining and haggling; he was but fetch and carry what his wife brought and bring it home.
In contrast with her overbearing and aggressive tones during the week, Sara Kazak was a model of womanly modesty on Shabbat. On that day, her voice sounded more feminine, more refined, reserved and almost sweet. Thanks god for the Shabbat!
As can be readily realized, spring and summer were the slack season, especially the latter, although a number found auxiliary occupations which helped them eke out their meager budget.