Poland – Jewish estate agents

The Haggadah states, “In every  generation, our enemies rise up to  destroy us.” Every time, they have a  different excuse. Lavan imagined that  Yaakov was robbing him of his wealth,  and then he accused his son-in-law of  stealing his daughters. The Egyptians  were afraid that the successful Jews  would team up with their enemies and  drive them out of their land. Capitalists  accused the Jews of being Communists,  and Communists insisted that  they were Capitalists. The Nazis pinned  the world’s problems on the Jews’  genetic makeup, and so on. 

A major factor that sparked off the  Chmielnicki massacres of the early-  5400s/mid-1600s was the Arenda  (stewardship) system that existed from  about the 14th century until the first partition  of Poland in 5532/1772, when the  large-scale epoch of Jewish arendas  came to an end. The word arenda  remains undefined in most English dictionaries,  but the Encyclopedia Polska  defines it as follows: “arenda – the  lease of estates, farmlands, mills, hunting  or fishing rights, etc. At times, this  term was used for the rights to collect  taxes and dues. The arenda contracts  usually lasted for three years, which  corresponded to the system of tri-annual  crop rotation. During the 16th to 18th  centuries, the word referred primarily  to the rental of whole estates or complexes  of estates. In time, the term  arenda became limited in common parlance  to Jews renting inns.”

The Arenda system was created as a  result of many factors. First, the expulsion  of Jews from France, England,  Portugal and Spain, between the 12th  and 17th centuries, resulted in masses of  Jews heading to Poland to find new  homes. Even more Jews were driven  from Germany and Bohemia to Poland  in the 14th and 15th centuries. This is  how their language, Yiddish, became  dominant. At the same time, after  Queen Jadwiga of Poland  married Wladyslaw  Jagiello, the Grand Duke  of Lithuania in  5146/1386, Poland  expanded so much that,  by the late 5300s/1500s,  it incorporated the  Ukraine and parts of Russia.  Poland itself, and its  vast new territories, was  owned by about ten to  twenty families of Polish  magnates, who were  handed their huge holdings  by the Polish king  for helping him in his  wars. These vast estates  were known as “latifundium,”  a word used to  describe the estates of  ancient Rome that were  generally run by slave  labor. In Poland, the  workers were serfs who  were bound to the land,  and were sold or leased  together with it.

The magnates had little  interest in administrating  their estates and the peasants  were too uneducated  to manage their affairs on  their own. Thus the intelligent  Jews, who were  forbidden to own land but  permitted to lease it, were  the perfect middlemen.  For a while, Jews even  minted Polish money,  imprinting it with the Polish  king’s name in  Hebrew lettering. By  5376/1616, over half the  Polish Crown’s land in  the Ukraine was leased  out to Jews.

Arendas could include  the responsibility for  town development, grain  production, distilleries,  taverns, saw mills, tobacco sales and  dairy production. The following is an  example of a typical contract:

“I, Hryhory Sanhushko Koshersky,  and Sophia of Holowchyna Sanhushkova  Kosherska, announce in this, our  arenda contract, that on the 10th day of  April, in the year 1594, we assigned by  arenda contract those of our properties  that are itemized below to our illustrious  Mr. Abram Shmoilovych, and his  wife Rykla Yudynna, and his successors:  “The town of Koshar with the villages:  Koshur Stary, Kruhel, Krasnodubia,  Horodelets, the Myziv estate and  the village of Myziv, the Borziv  Cheremshanka settlement, with monies  from rent, with pubs, taverns dispensing  all sorts of alcoholic beverages,  with the honey tribute, and the boyars  with all their servants, regardless of  whether they own livestock, with their  cultivated fields, their labor, their wagons,  living in the above-enumerated  cities and villages, together with bee  colonies, with ponds, mills and their  ground grains, which in those aboveenumerated  cities and villages either  exist today or will be built in the future,  with lakes, with beaver lands, with  fields, hay pastures, pine forests,  woods, groves, oak groves, with farm  houses, with barns, grain of all kinds  sown in the fields, with all profitable  activities whether itemized here or not,  reserving nothing for ourselves, for  five full years, until the 10th of April  1599, for five thousand Polish gold  pieces…

“According to this arenda contract,  he (Shmoilovych) is granted by us,  under seals and with signatures of our  own hands, the right to own, to use, and  to take for himself all manner of profit,  and also all those we have placed in his  power, to judge, to deliberate over and  to punish the guilty and the disobedient,  according to the gravity of their  transgressions, and to impose ‘karary  horlom.’”

The meaning of the last words of the  document, which are literally translated  as “to punish by means of the throat,” is  unclear. 

To prevent Jews from competing  with each other and raising the lease  prices sky high, kahal laws developed  to prevent this, and anyone who broke  the rules could be excommunicated.  The Jew renting a lease would sublet it  to sub-arenders, and it is estimated that  the hundreds of major arenders had  thousands of sub-arenders working  under them. For example, on the vast  lands of the Ostrorog family of magnates,  there were about 4,000 Jewish  arenders. So widespread was the system  that it became common to use the  words “Jew” and “arender” interchangeably.  Jews were pushed to extract as much  as they could out of the peasant populations  in order to turn a profit over and  above the leases they paid and have  something left after paying exhorbitant  taxes because, depending on circumstances,  the Jewish arender could either  become a wealthy man or buried in  debt and barely able to make ends  meet. Things were toughest when a Jew  had borrowed money to buy his lease  and had to slave to pay off his loan. The  extravagant lifestyle of the magnates  frequently plunged them into debt,  forcing the Jewish arenders to squeeze even more money from the serfs.

The magnates’ estates ranged from  the vast to the relatively modest. Some  of them included hundreds of villages  with tens-of-thousands of residents.

For example, when Maria Zofia Sieniawaski  married Augustus Alexander  Czartoryski in 5491/1731, their combined  properties sprawled over an area  of about 539 square miles. In contrast,  the area of a smaller estate, owned by  the couple, Sieniawa and Olezzyve  Klucz, from 5476/1716 to 5484/1724,  was only 162 square miles.

Jews who generally made good profits  on their leases and the arenda system  contributed to what is known as the  Golden Age of Polish Jewry. This success  led to intense anti-Semitism.  The peasants did not take kindly to  being exploited by the magnates and,  as the magnates were normally absent,  their immediate object of hate was the  Jews who were doing the magnates’  work. To add insult to injury, one of the  Jews’ jobs was to tax the revenues of  the Greek Orthodox Church and charge  a fee at christenings and funerals. On  occasion, Jews even had control of the  Church’s keys.

Not that all the Jews were wealthy. It  is estimated that, typically, perhaps ten  percent of the Jewish community was  poor, seven percent extremely rich,  while four-fifths were of middle-income  range. All of them were ruthlessly  taxed. But the peasants’ lot was  usually even worse. A Jewish historian  described their feudal life like a vast  prison:

“The bars were the all-encompassing  restrictions placed upon the daily life of  the people. Inside the bars were the  peasants, the so-called ‘Third Estate,’  who comprised about 95 per cent of the  total population. Outside the bars but  tied to them by invisible chains were  the other two estates, the priests and the  nobles. Neither inside the prison nor  tied to the bars outside it were the Jews,  the unofficial ‘Fourth Estate…’

“The priests were excluded from  work, the nobles did not want to work,  and the serfs were not allowed to enter  the bourgeoisie or middle-class professions.  There was no one left to do this  work except the Jews, who therefore  became indispensable. The Jews were  the oil that lubricated the creaky  machinery of the feudal state.”

The existence of even a few wealthy  Jews was enough to infuriate the peasants.  As Yaakov admonished his sons,  “Lama tisra’u?” “Why make yourselves  conspicuous?” (Bereishis 42:1).  And the Gemara interprets this to  mean: “Yaakov told his sons, ‘Do not  show yourselves to be sated either  before Eisav or Yishmael so that you do  not arouse their envy against you.”

Similarly, Rav Hirsh Keidanover,  who lived in the 17th century, complained:  “I have seen Jewish women  out on the street, dressed not as Jews  but as nobles. They … bring Christian  hatred and jealousy upon us.” 

Things came to a head with the outbreak  of Bogdan Chmielnicki’s civil  war of 5408/1648-5414/1654, when he  tried to throw the Poles out of the  Ukraine. Chmielnicki had started off as  a magnate himself but, in 5406/1646,  he temporarily left his estate, Subotiv,  and came back to find that a Polish  nobleman, Daniel Czaplinski, had raided  it and killed Chmielnicki’s youngest  son and abducted his fiancée. After  numerous fruitless appeals to court,  Chmielnicki took matters into his own  hands and led a Ukrainian revolt  against the Polish overlords.
In an address to the Cossack rebels,  Chmielnicki declared, “You must be  aware of the fact that the Polish nation  is gaining power daily and that it  oppresses our coreligionists. But it is  not the noblemen alone who lord it  over us. Even the most abject nation  (the Jews) hold us in subjection.”

The Yeven Metzulah describes the  subsequent murderous atrocities,  known as Tach v’Tat (the Hebrew  years, 5408-5409): “Wherever they  found the ‘slatchta’ (royal officials or  Jews), they (the Cossacks) killed them  all, sparing neither women nor children.

They pillaged the estates of the  Jews and nobles, burned churches and  killed their priests, leaving nothing  whole. It was a rare individual in those  days who had not soaked his hands in  blood and participated in the pillage.”  During this slaughter, which ranks  second to the Holocaust in post-exilic  history, 300 Jewish communities were  eradicated and between 50,000 to hundreds  of thousands of Jews were massacred  or starved to death.

Rav Shlomoh Efraim Lunshitz, the  Kli Yakar, who lived in Poland some  time between 5310/1550-5379/1619  and headed a yeshivah in Lemberg, had  foreseen the Chmielnicki massacres.  He commented on the verse, “Rav  lachem sov es hahar hazeh, penu  lachem tzafonah,” “Enough of your circling  this mountain, turn yourselves  northward” (Devarim 2:3), that “har”  refers to the exile and “tzafonah”  means hidden. He explained that the  Torah is warning us to keep a low profile  when we wander in exile and not  flaunt our wealth, in order to not arouse  the envy of the gentiles who imagine  that we have stolen it from them. The  Kli Yakar concludes: “This custom (of  flaunting wealth) is prevalent among  most of our nation and it is the cause of  all the trouble that has befallen us. And  the wise will understand and take mussar.”

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