Economy and Society in Plonsk

In 1915, during WWI, Germany conquered Plonsk from Czarist Russia. War had led to the cessation of industry and trade, and many of the residents were left without means to earn a living. The Jewish community opened a soup kitchen for the poor, which handed out hundreds of free meals every day.

Plonsk, Płocka Street

Plonsk, Płocka Street

Despite the difficulties, Plonsk managed to maintain a vibrant economic, cultural and political life. The German occupation allowed political parties, trade associations and cultural organizations to operate freely. The Zionist groups that had been founded before the war increased their cultural and public information activities. The Bund, which had operated in secret during communist rule, renewed its pursuits openly. In 1917, Plonsk opened a public library, and in 1918 a branch of Agudath Israel was established in the city.

At the end of the war, Plonsk found itself part of Poland. When the Polish army entered Plonsk, the Jews were accused of collaborating with the Germans, and in many cases Polish soldiers were violent towards the Jewish population. With the outbreak of war between Poland and the USSR in 1920, the Red Army captured the city for a short while, and violence against the Jews increased. At the same time, an epidemic of typhus broke out and hunger was rife.

After the war, the needy in the city were given aid by the Joint, public support organizations and relatives living abroad. During the 1920s, a number of welfare organizations were established in Plonsk. Volunteers worked for the "Bikur Cholim" (aid to the infirm) organization, and its supplies were funded by donations as well as by revenues from public events. The Jewish Tradesmen's Association established the "Credit Cooperative Fund," a few years later, this fund became a bank; later still a "Gemilut Hassadim" (charity) society was established that provided interest-free loans. Each one of these organizations had hundreds of members.

The Community's aid institutions supported the poor, especially around the Jewish holidays, and provided them with fuel and warm clothes in the winter. "Bikur Cholim" and "Linat Tzedek" helped the impoverished of the city with housing and free medical treatment. "The atmosphere of volunteerism and surreptitious donations exemplified the Jews of Plonsk. It was not unusual to meet two respected homeowners going from house to house to collect donations for someone in need – without revealing the name of the needy so that they would not be embarrassed, God forbid." (Yehuda Arni and Peretz Alufi, Kehillat Plonsk, p. 18)

Most of the leadership of the Plonsk Jewish community was affiliated with Zionist political parties. The community collected taxes from members of the community, took care of the election and appointment of religious positions (rabbi, dayanim - religious judges, shochetim - ritual slaughterers, cantors and others), and ran the synagogues, batei midrash (study halls), religious educational institutions and other religious institutions in the city.

A third of the city council in Plonsk was Jewish. The Jews of Plonsk continued to work in small businesses, manual labor and construction, as well as food and chemical manufacture. They made a living from trading grains, wood and livestock, as well as being tailors, cobblers, porters, butchers and clothes merchants. As a result of the economic crisis in the agricultural sector in the region, the farmers could afford less, and the Jewish merchants and laborers had fewer resources. The reduction in commerce also resulted from growing competition by the Poles together with increasing antisemitism. During the 1930s, boycotts against Jewish businesses began, and intermittent protests outside their stores took place in order to dissuade the public from patronizing them. Stones were hurled at Jewish houses, and the windowpanes of the synagogue were broken. The authorities also attempted to usurp the Jews from the economy. All this led to the emigration of Jews from Plonsk to Eretz Israel, Western Europe, North America, Australia and South Africa.

The Jews of Plonsk involved themselves in public life, both in good times and in bad. Jewish elders, workers, wagon drivers and youth would gather every evening in the central market place to discuss current affairs and the world crisis. The city's Zionist youth movements went on a mass parade, in their uniforms and with flags, on the occasion of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, as well as in 1925 to celebrate the opening of the Hebrew University. In 1929, a mass gathering was held at the city's synagogue protesting the Passfield White Paper.

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