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David-Horodok Business from the 19th Century to World War I

Lumber and River Transport

After the Napoleonic war ended in 1812, the economic development of Polesye improved somewhat. Victorious Russia became the great power of Eastern Europe and gradually began to rebuild its lands. Russia’s attention was focused primarily on its southwest. In the Ukraine new colonies were founded, a fleet of ships for the Black Sea was built, and railroad tracks were laid. The nearest source of timber for all this construction was Polesye. A broad-based business developed with the Ukraine. This of course affected David-Horodok, which lay by the Horin River and was in the center of the forest region. In the second half of the 19th century a merchant class developed in David-Horodok for lumber production and so-called “watermen,” or those who plied the rivers.

The David-Horodok lumber merchants were with few exceptions not wealthy, but together with the watermen they markedly improved the lumber business. Lumber dealing was not simple. It demanded much knowledge and skill. Buying the raw material required expert examination of the wood’s quality, calculating precisely how it could be transported, worked, etc.

The watermen used berlinis or berlinchikas, which were the chief means of transportation on water. In bygone days they used baidakis, which were wide, heavy boats carrying up to 650 tons. However baidakis were not very convenient and by the middle of the 19th century were no longer in use. They had been replaced by barges and berlinis.

The barges were usually open and had the following dimensions: 15-19 sajen[1] [35-44 yards] long, 7-8 arshin[2] [7.5-8.5 yards] wide, and 24-28 virshak[3] [6-7 feet] high. They carried a load of about 4000-5000 pood[4][about 80 tons]. The barges were mostly used for carrying firewood and boards.

The berlinis were covered and very large: 17-20 sajen [40-46.7 yards] long, 3 sajen [7 feet] wide, and 2 arshin [6.5 feet] high. They were divided into three or four sections in which they transported a variety of goods. Such a berlini required as many as 18 workers plus a captain and carried between 800-1140 tons.

In spring they were loaded mostly with firewood or other wood material, and went downstream as far as Kiev and in recent times as far as Yekaterinoslav.[5] A trip downstream from David-Horodok to Kiev would take, in normal circumstances, two weeks. In the summer the berlinis would work on the banks of the Dnieper hauling various loads from one point to another. In the fall season they would load up with a variety of food items from the rich Ukraine, or with salt, and go upstream to David-Horodok. The return trip would take about 40 days. Not uncommonly winter would come early and the watermen would be forced to remain somewhere along the route. In such a case they were understandably far from their home and source of winter income.

This was not an easy business. The men were separated from home 8-9 months of the year. They were dependent on weather conditions such as winds, rain and ice, on water depth in the rivers, etc. The business required great skill and knowledge.[6]

Until World War I this business was a major source of income for the towns along the banks of the rivers. It was a multifaceted business with brokers, agents and warehouses. The larger merchants bought the material and sold the products, while the smaller businessmen earned their incomes through transport.

In this regard, it is worth mentioning the family Bragman of David-Horodok, which had at the end of the 19th century a large business. The Bragmans owned many of their own berlinis and from time to time would make deals with outsiders to transport merchandise for them. They had warehouses in many places. Later they had their own steamship called the Montefiore. They had agents all along the way from Pinsk to Yekaterinoslav who would buy and sell for them, hire workers for them, procure food for the workers, and determine the prices of produce, sugar, salt, etc. The agents also investigated the condition of wood reserves in the Ukraine. This was a large firm with wide-ranging interests and thereby enjoyed boundless credit and trust.

The water business also created a shipbuilding industry in David-Horodok from which many Jews and Christians earned their livelihood. A geographer from the University of Lemberg reported that the 1910 shipbuilding industry of the Ukraine was located chiefly in Polesye--“in Mozyr, Petrivic, Balazevichi on the Pripyat and particularly David-Horodok on the Horin.”[7]

The wood merchants and water-men had a great impact on the development of the town, especially the youth. The elders endeavored to give their children not only a Jewish education but also a broad secular education as was required by their businesses.

From an interview with Anne Zemmol

I was born in David-Horodok on April 15, 1903 according to my passport, although to tell you the truth, parents in Europe didn’t really know how old their children were. My name in Europe was Nechama Eisenberg. My father was Label Eisenberg and my mother was Esther Margolin; they had nine children.

My Zeyde Beryl had a barge. He used to import and export. He took things from David-Horodok and went to Vetrioslav, Kiev, and then came back in fall. Go in spring and come back in fall.

My father was in the barge business too. My father went to Katerynoslav[8] once. At that time it was called Katerynoslav; I don’t know what they call it now. He came home with the barge and hit something in the river-- something like a heel that stuck up, maybe a sandbar; I don’t know what you call it in English.[9] Anyway, he hit it and the barge broke down. It sank, but not all the way. He could still stand on the top. But it wasn’t insured so when he came home he didn’t have any money. That time he was a young man, only thirty-eight years old. And he had nine children. We were four girls. My mother only had a little store near the marketplace. See, in the town on the marketplace they built up a big church and then they fenced around the church. And in the back were the stores. My mother had a store there.[10]

My father wanted to go to the border around Kiev and open up a store and when the girls got older they would work in the store. But my mother didn’t want it. She said, “Go to America. You have four daughters; dowry you don’t have for them. Who they gonna’ marry here? They’re gonna’ marry expressmen [longshoremen - men who load and unload the barges]. They’ll have a better future to go to America,” which was true. So my father went to America with Max, the oldest son. Then my father sent us an affidavit so we could come to America too, and we sold the house, but the war broke out and we were small children and my grandmother, my Bubbe Shaindel, she wouldn’t let us go. So we moved in with my Grandfather Beryl and we stayed put.

Retail Shops

Shops were an important part of David-Horodok life. Having a Christian population in David-Horodok which purchased everything it needed from the Jews (the Horodtchukas were mostly merchants and laborers), as well as having a large number of surrounding villages created room for many shops in town. In time a large shopkeeper class developed. In truth few became rich and without the help of the bank and credit unions, most would not have been able to exist. The competition between the shops was considerable. In such a manner they persevered, more or less.

Meat Business

Many families in David-Horodok earned a living in the meat business. The town was surrounded by farm country with many grassy meadows for pasture and the vicinity was rich in herds of cattle and oxen. The butchers of David-Horodok would buy these cows and oxen for the town’s needs as well as for export, especially to Warsaw.

Among David-Horodok butchers were some larger merchants who traveled to the Ukraine, mainly to the Poltava region, purchased a quantity of cattle and sent them to Warsaw. These animals, along with their attendants went the entire way on foot. This was a risky business because there were no standardized prices. The prices depended on the supply and the bidding of the Warsaw merchants. Not infrequently the profit on half a delivery of cattle sold one day would barely cover the loss on the second half of the delivery sold the following day.

The great majority of butchers were not involved in such business dealing. They were much poorer and earned their bread only with great difficulty. Three to four days a week they would search the local villages trying to find one animal to buy. Once they bought it, bringing it home was not easy, and selling it involved them in intense rivalry with their competitors. To make matters worse, not infrequently an animal was found to be treyf or unclean.

The meat business brought much money into David-Horodok and contributed greatly to the economy of the area, especially for the peasants. It also created the basis for the tanning industry, which processed great quantities of hides in the region. From the processed hides the shoemakers of David-Horodok produced boots which they sold to the entire region. The meat business also produced tallow, which was used to manufacture soap and candles.

Fish Business

The fish industry was very important in David-Horodok, although not to the region in general, having brought in only 3500 rubles to the District of Pinsk in 1910.[11] It was a source of income both to the Christians, who were the fishermen, and to the merchants, who were Jewish. The fish merchants did not bother with selling fish on the spot. That was done by the fishermen themselves, the Christians. In the local trade, the fish merchants only bought up the surplus fish which the town could not consume and sent it to Warsaw. The normal business of the fish merchants was direct export to larger cities.

There were six or seven Jewish merchants who bargained for the right to purchase fish from Duke Radziwell’s lakes. The Christians caught the fish and the Jewish merchants sent them to Warsaw. This was not an easy business but it was profitable.

From interviews with Bessie Davidson, once Bossel Eisenberg

Bessie’s parents, Razel and David Eisenberg were one of the merchants who bargained each year for the right to purchase fish from the nearby lakes owned by Duke Radziwell. During the summer David and his youngest son Velvel would go to the lakes on Sunday and return on Thursday, sleeping in open boats while they were away. At the lakes, they hired a boat and peasant crew to catch fish, bringing the fish back to their house in hired wagons. Both Velvel and David were away most of the summer. According to Bessie, “The villagers were always nice to them while they were away.” During the winter the lakes froze over.

Velvel helped his father by doing the accounting. “He watched the fish being caught, and marked it down whatever is.” If the fish were not biting, the pair could be away two weeks at a time. After the fish were brought to David-Horodok, Razel packed them in ice in long wooden boxes in the family dining room, bringing chopped ice in from the ice house in back in a large bag. Then she shipped the fish by river to large cities like Warsaw or Vilna, where they were sold.

“While my mother packed the fish a man named Fishman sat in our house--all summer long, talking to her. He had this big stomach and would sit at the dining room table and talk and talk. He was a big kibitzer. He did some kind of business with my mother about the fish. Maybe he hauled the fish to the ships when she was done. He lived not far, on a gessl [sidestreet] off Olshonergas.”

Mostly during the fall, business people from the large cities would visit the Eisenbergs to reconfirm business relations for the next year. They often stayed with David and Razel. The couple entertained them in the zalle or parlor, which also had an extra bed. Razel would make tea in the samovar and bake pastries. The Eisenbergs undertook the risk and expense of shipping the fish. Merchants on the other end sold the fish, and then paid the Eisenbergs. David was the principle contact with the outside world, and not only went to the lakes but traveled occasionally to Kiev looking for business partners.

Many summer Sundays, when the peasants who owned the boats came to David-Horodok to buy things in the market, they stopped at David's house to visit. They brought large round loaves of Russian black bread and small, solid blocks of lard. They would take a slab of lard, slap it on the bread and eat it, washing it down with vodka provided by the Eisenbergs. Razel kept a large supply on hand because “the peasants had to have a little shmeer to keep things working smoothly.” The peasants would sit in the parlor and drink vodka for hours until they became very drunk. “Their faces got so red from the drinking.” David drank along with them. Once he lost his temper violently and started yelling at them. Bessie and her sister Sophie ran into the parlor and pleaded with him in Yiddish to stop making such a scene because the peasants would kill him. “He was a little Jew, a little guy. They could have picked him up with one hand.” The peasants spoke only “peasant language” [Belarusan],so they didn't understand what the girls were saying. However, the peasants were too drunk to care; besides they already knew about David's temper. They just laughed at him and told him to calm down. “Even though they were anti-Semitic, they thought my father was an okay Jew. The rest were bad Jews.”

Along the side of the Eisenberg back yard was a deep pit that was used to store ice for the family's fish business. The pit was almost twice as deep as an American basement. It was surrounded by wooden walls and covered with a wood shingle roof. Two doors were cut into the wall, leading to ladders that took you to the bottom of the pit. During the winter, the family bought large blocks of ice which the peasants cut once the top of the river had frozen. These blocks, approximately 36” by 36”, were delivered by the peasants on winter sleds. The peasants would lower the ice blocks into the ice pit, and stack them in layers, with straw between each layer. The pit would be filled to the doorway.

At the beginning of the summer, all you had to do to get a chip of ice to suck was open the door and stand on the wooden doorway. However, as the summer wore on, and the ice was used up, you had to go further and further down the ladder to get ice, until by the beginning of the next winter, all the ice was gone. Neighbors came during the summer to get ice for sick relatives, and Razel always told them to take what they needed, no charge. However, she did not let her children go into the ice shack alone, because it was too dangerous. She was afraid they might fall or freeze. Or they might drown. Naturally during the summer, a lot of unwanted melting occurred, and Bessie’s mother would have to use a bucket to lift out the water from the bottom of the pit and pour it outside onto the yard. “You know, like you take water from a well.”


In David-Horodok there was a large group of drivers who would go throughout the land with their wagons from David-Horodok to Pinsk, Minsk, Vilna, Brody and Odessa. As in other towns they were organized in David-Horodok into “companies,” and worked in partnerships. Along with other Polesye teamsters they participated in the opening of the Polesye railroad line in 1888.

(Incidentally it is important to emphasize that the development of the railroads by-passed David-Horodok to this day. To this day the town has no rail connection. The nearest train station is at Lahkva to the northwest, 15.5 miles from David-Horodok, and at Horin-Stolin to the southwest, over 19 miles from David-Horodok.)

In 1898 a group of five drivers organized and purchased a small steamboat called Vienna which shuttled back and forth between David-Horodok and Nirtcha, a town at the confluence of the Horin and the Pripyat rivers, delivering David-Horodok passengers to the large steamships shuttling between Pinsk and Kiev. Not all the drivers were trustworthy enough for this business and most of them abandoned the partnership. During the first years the drivers who purchased the steamboat continued to work with horses in the winter when the river was frozen. Gradually the business developed; the partners set up another steamboat route to Stolin and Goryn, and finally abandoned their previous vocation completely. Later Pinsker Jews joined the partnership and a steamboat link was established between Pinsk and David-Horodok.

World War I did not disturb the steamboaters, and afterwards, when David-Horodok went over to Poland, the owners succeeded in getting back the steamboats which had been left in Russian waters. However, after WWI when the Ukraine was shut off from David-Horodok due to the new Soviet-Polish border, development possibilities were reduced, and there remained only the two cruise routes between David-Horodok and Stolin, and David-Horodok and Pinsk. The continued existence of the steamboaters was made possible by these two routes.

As automotive transportation developed after WWI, a larger group of teamsters organized and purchased an auto to work the route between David-Horodok and Goryn. This time, however, the venture was unsuccessful. The two reasons were the rapid deterioration of the auto because of the poor Polesye roads and the huge taxes imposed by the government.

David-Horodok teamsters were well organized. They were divided into two groups. The first group worked in the town and transported goods arriving on the steamboats to businesses and warehouses. The second group traveled by wagon to the train stations at Lakhva and Stolin, and in winter traveled by sled to Pinsk. The teamsters all worked in partnership, and divided up their earnings each week. It was not an easy way to earn a living but with a few exceptions it was a respectable trade and a few teamsters were even well-to-do.


David-Horodok was a town with many craftsmen who worked independently. There was no special item produced that was characteristic of David-Horodok. However, because David-Horodok had a population of 10,000 and was surrounded by many villages, a variety of tradesmen earned a respectable living working for the populace.

The major trades of the David-Horodok craftsmen until the outbreak of World War I were as follows:

1) Tailors, who were divided into two categories: those who worked for the Christian population on order or prepared finished products for shipment to the fairs in the town and nearby villages, and those who fashioned finer things for the Jewish population.

2) Shoemakers, who worked only for the Jews and for a few Christians. The Christian population was provided with boots chiefly by Christian shoemakers who sold their products not only to the local Christians but also throughout the entire land.

3) Blacksmiths and locksmiths who worked mainly for the peasant farmers. They would repair wagons, forge plows and axes and make a variety of other tools for construction work in the town.

4) Architects, carpenters, bricklayers, glaziers, painters and roofers who were in construction work. They were the greatest number of craftsmen.

5) Those engaged in shipbuilding. Jews were found in this work but the majority were Christian.

There were a few Jews who had two trades--one for the summer and one for the winter. Tradesmen also spanned several economic strata. Some were quite well-to-do and others made barely enough to exist on. The great majority, however, led a modest but secure and respectable life.

From an interviews with Bessie Davidson

At the end of the street where the Helmens’ lived, Boroch Daliorker, a shneider [men’s tailor] lived. Poor tailors remade and patched the clothing of the poor while tailors for the wealthy turned out new garments of expensive fabrics. Boroch Daliorker tailored for the wealthy.

“Daliorker” in Russian means “far away.” Baruch Dailioker was a slight man always running around. He ran around like a chicken. He was very short, a bachelor. He was a very good tailor and worked for the very rich. That time he charged more than anyone else. He had a shop in the front of his house and several young men worked for him.

From an interview with Ann Helman, once Hashke Glassman

My husband Leo told me that before Yom Kippur their family would get some shoes and clothes made for them, and they used a tailor there called Baruch Dailioker. And he used to go running with a stick all over the market and he made clothes. He used to hang around, but a couple days before the holidays he would start working. And my husband said he used to mark whether it was long or short. But then he would make one pant’s leg shorter than the other anyways. Always. And the shoemaker always made one shoe shorter than the other.

The above description of the economic structure of David-Horodok until World War I shows us that the town did not have any really wealthy men among the merchants nor any really poor among the laborers. In general living standards were not high, but the demands of the people were also not very great.

Summer in the town was quiet. The majority of the village Christians were occupied in the fields and the Horodtchukas were wandering. The Jewish merchants were on the rivers. The tradesmen worked in the villages, often repairing things. With the peasants busy in the fields, they had to go where the work was. In such a manner, the town would stand still in the summer.

In the fall things began to liven up. Fairs were held. Peasants brought their surplus produce to town and purchased their needs for the winter. Berlinis arrived from the Ukraine with flour, salt and a variety of food articles that were sold in and around the town. Lumber merchants and watermen arrived to reconfirm the arrangements of prior years and acquire new business. The Horodtchukas also returned before winter and bought supplies. Winter was for them the season of marriage. All of this revived the town and its business. If the winter was normal and the byways (both water and land) established at the right time, the lumber industry would be strongly revived and produce a great deal of income for the town.

This was the way David-Horodok carried on a normal existence until the outbreak of World War I, which disrupted these well-established living patterns.

Absence of Industry

A picture of developing industry in David-Horodok is absent; this was largely true for all of Belarus. Belarus’s economy relied mainly on the export of raw materials. Belarus exported lumber, flax and honey, and imported grain, salt, herring, finished products and a few luxuries such as wine and furs. Lumber was floated down to the Baltic and Black Sea ports, while only 13 per cent of the annual cut went to the country’s own mills. Most local industry consisted of small distilleries on private estates, a tiny glass factory here, a textile workshop there. Only in the Grodno region were there factories able to process 1.5 million pounds of native wool. Before 1917, Bialystok, a city with a population of 50,000, was the industrial center of the country. Although the total production of native industries reached 98 million rubles in 1913, the per capita output hardly exceeded 10 rubles, the equivalent of $5.00 at the time. On the eve on the 1917 Russian Revolution, there were 10,000 industrial enterprises employing together fewer than 70,000 workers, thus averaging 6.56 workers per enterprise. In European Russia as a whole, 1.43 per cent of the population was engaged in industry; in Belarus the figure was only .5 per cent.[12]

Belarus was clearly no incipient industrial powerhouse, which added to the difficulty our grandparents had earning a living there. In 1897 there were 27 providers for every 100 persons in Russia as compared with 36 in the United States and only 24 in Belarus.[13]As Bessie Davidson expressed it, “People were poor because they didn’t have nothing to do.”

[1] One sajen equals seven feet

[2] One arshin equals about one meter

[3] One virshak equals almost three inches

[4] One pood equals about 36 pounds

[5] Also spelled Ekaterinoslav; also known as Dniepropetrovsk

[6] In Rudnitsky, Ukraine, the Land and its People, p. 302-3,the difficulties were described in 1910 by a geographer at the University of Lemberg:

Traffic on the Ukrainian waterways was, in former times, much more important than at present, not only because of the lack of [other] convenient pathways, but also because of the [waterways’] former greater length and capacity.

“The Ukraine possesses almost no artificial waterways. The only ones in existence--the Orginski Canal ... and the Dnieper-Bug Canal ... --were built back in the days of Polish rule. They are antiquated, shallow and neglected, so they can serve only occasionally, and then only for log-floating ... The most important waterway of the Ukraine is the Dnieper system. The main river is navigable in its entire Ukrainian section by the largest river vessels ... The rapids section, however, as a result of the incomprehensible negligence of the Russian Government is, to this day, accessible only to the smaller ships and rafts, and then only for sailing downstream. The canals built by the Government in the Porohi [from] 1843 to 1856 are so badly placed that navigation to this day must still keep largely to the natural ancient “Cossack paths.” ...

Thus the rapids hinder Dnieper navigation to this day, and not least for the reason that the insurance companies will not insure vessels for the rapids section. For this reason the river fleet of the Dnieper is separated into two parts [at Yekaterinoslav]. Above the rapids in 1900, 208 steamboats and 1002 other ships, and below the rapids 148 steamboats and 1203 other ships were plying.

[7] Rudnitsky, Ukraine, the Land and its People, p. 284. Later on, on p. 318, he again references David-Horodok. “Another important river port is Davidhorodok on the mouth of the Horin, the people of which carry on ship-building and navigation and engage in sausage-making and cheese-making.”

[8] Katerynoslav is yet another name for Eketerinoslav or Dniepropetrovsk

[9] Editor’s note: I believe she means a “shoal”

[10] Many women brought in a low but steady income if their husband’s wages were seasonal or insufficient to support the children.

[11] Rudnitsky, Ukraine, the Land and its People, p. 250

[12] Vakar, Nicholas P., Belorussia, p. 35

[13] Vakar, Nicholas P., Belorussia, p. 31

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