Eight-four-year-old Pinkhus Karlinskii, supervisor of the Chernigov floodgate, on a ferry dock along the Marinskii Canal system, Russia, 1909. Photograph by Sergei Mikailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Prokudin-Gorskii Collection, LC-DIG-ppmsc-03951)

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Jewish entrepreneurs and workers were concerned with various modes of transportation that navigated the great expanses of Eastern Europe began before the advent of the modern era. Widespread activity by Jews in domestic and interstate commerce led to an intimate knowledge of the passages and highways of Eastern Europe. The first Jewish merchants operated in groups and traveled in convoys, while simultaneously establishing inns, managing refreshment stations, and providing fodder for horses of other Jewish travelers. From this familiarity with travelers’ needs, the Jewish teamster was born. That Jews dominated this profession may be seen from the fact that the Hebrew word for coachman, ba‘al ‘agalah (Yid., balagole), was absorbed into a number of East European dialects.

Jewish coach driver, Warsaw, ca. 1924; photograph by Menakhem Kipnis, who wrote a caption for it: “The oldest Jewish coach driver in Warsaw. Moyshe Dovid he’s called, and that’s what all the Polish drivers yell after him in the street mockingly. Eighty-two years old and he still enjoys a good schnapps.” (Forward Association/YIVO)

Data gathered during the second half of the eighteenth century confirm that 2–3 percent of the Jewish population earned their living from transport-related occupations, mainly as coachmen and carters who conveyed passengers and freight. As a result of rapid urbanization during the course of the nineteenth century, Jewish involvement in this sector increased rapidly. A growing number of Jews in large cities made their living from carting and portage, both of which were regarded as unskilled urban occupations. Between 1887 and 1897, the number of Jewish carters in the Pale of Settlement rose from 18,532 to 25,868. In 1897, Jews made up 21 percent of independent and self-employed coachmen and carters.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, buses and electric trains were becoming popular modes of transport. Most of the bus lines that operated in Poland’s large cities were introduced only after World War I, but the involvement of Jewish entrepreneurs in this mode of transport can be traced back to its first years of operation. In 1931, approximately 71 percent of all the buses in use in Poland were owned by Jews, and about 80 percent of the conductors and 20 percent of the drivers employed by these owners were Jewish. In regions governed by Russia and Austria, the transportation sector was monopolized by the state; Jewish involvement was thus severely limited. In pre–World War I Galicia, the various state-run transportation departments employed 2.5 percent of the Jewish population.

Jews also played an active role in water transport. Their involvement in maritime transportation began in the seventeenth century; it, too, resulted from Jewish commercial activities. The need for Jewish merchants to ship products to port cities such as Danzig (Gdańsk) and Riga contributed to their role in developing river transport and shipping. Throughout the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, Jews conveyed lumber on the river systems of Belorussia and on other rivers such as the Vistula or Düna (Western Dvina). However, the most significant involvement of Jews in maritime transportation was in Russia in the nineteenth century, when several Jewish business leaders helped to develop internal river traffic.

Zheleznaia doroga (Railroad). I. Golyshev, 1868. Lithograph. (Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

In 1876 the Gintsburg family, which by then had become heavily involved in the locomotive industry, oversaw nautical traffic on the Volga River. In 1883, another Jewish businessman, David Margolin, founded and financed a shipping line that operated on the Danube, as well as other shipping enterprises. Jews involved in the conveyance of freight and of passengers over the seas increased during World War I. With financial assistance from Jews, this mode of transport in Russia was able to survive throughout the war without having to rely on foreign capital.

Jews were prominently represented in the locomotive and railroad industries as these fields developed in the nineteenth century. Involvement of Jews in this sector was not confined to Eastern Europe, and Jewish bankers and other interested parties, including the House of Rothschild and Baron de Hirsch, planned and financed the building of railway tracks and operated train routes across a number of European countries. In Eastern Europe, the first Jewish entrepreneurs involved in setting up a rail system were in Congress Poland. Whereas in Western Europe it was accelerated industrial development that led to the flourishing of the transport sector, in Congress Poland the locomotive industry spurred modern industrial development.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Congress Poland became the prime supplier of goods to Imperial Russia; this situation created an urgent need for a railroad system across the country. The first line extended from Warsaw to Vienna and was built between 1838 and 1848. Its construction was plagued with difficulties, including gross mismanagement. Consequently, the government found it increasingly difficult to interest private investors in developing this sector; indeed, the first financiers willing to take the risk were a group of Jewish entrepreneurs and bankers.

Porter, Warsaw, Poland, ca. 1935–1938; photograph by Roman Vishniac. (© Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy the International Center of Photography / print courtesy YIVO)

In 1857, the management of the Warsaw–Vienna railroad was assigned to a private stock company led by Herman Epstein. His efficiently managed company expanded the railroad system, adding a number of new junctions. After Epstein died, management passed to another Jewish entrepreneur and industrialist, Leopold Kronenberg. Between 1862 and 1902, Kronenberg, with Jan Bloch and other Jewish businessmen, set up stock companies to finance the construction of a network of railroads to traverse Poland, Ukraine, and southern Russia. Though Kronenberg and Bloch were related, they were business rivals.

Under these leaders, five separate railway lines were set up in Congress Poland, producing 11,200 kilometers (6,788 miles) of track between the early 1860s and the early 1880s. Railroads connected the main cities of Congress Poland, as well as places beyond its borders, thus enabling, for example, the transfer of commodities from the industrial region of Łódź to remote destinations. The planning phases of this network were complicated by the Russian government, which had to approve each stage and for its own reasons decided to leave vast areas with no access to any type of transport. However, despite its shortcomings, Congress Poland’s rail network was the only effective mode of transport in the entire region. In 1912, the administration of all trains there was relinquished to the state.

The establishment of a rail network within Russia, as elsewhere in Europe, was the result of industrialization. The complex process created unique problems for the empire, and there too the majority of tracks constructed before the 1870s were financed with the help of local and foreign Jewish capital. At the beginning of the 1860s, the Russian government began to award concessions to private bidders. A significant proportion of these went to local and foreign Jewish businessmen, including, most conspicuously, the Poliakov family headed by the brothers Samuil, Ya‘akov (Yakov), and Eli‘ezer (Lazar), whose involvement began at the end of the decade. The Poliakovs were involved in building and operating a large number of railroads connecting central Russia’s main cities. Not least among their achievements was the construction of the Kharkov–Taganrog railroad, stretching to 806 kilometers (504 miles) and built in just 21 months. Samuil received concessions to build other lines, and the Poliakov family extended its involvement even beyond the imperial Russian borders, leading to Samuil becoming known as the Railroad King. Although Jan Bloch was also known by this nickname, Poliakov’s activity overshadowed that of his Polish competitor.

Magazine advertisement for locomotive factory of Smoschewer & Co., a Jewish-owned firm, Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Pol.), ca. 1920. The company had branches in Prague and Bucharest, among other places. Published in Deutschlands Städtebau—Breslau by Georg Hallama (Berlin: 1924). (Wrocław University Library, Poland)

Other Jewish entrepreneurs involved in this enterprise included the Gintsburg family. Thanks to the influence of Jewish entrepreneurs, the range of the railway lines across imperial Russia was extended from 1,227 kilometers (762 miles) to 21,772 kilometers (13,528 miles). Jewish professionals also worked as contractors and suppliers, and often hired Jewish workers from the Pale of Settlement. From the 1860s until the beginning of the twentieth century, 9,000 train carriages were manufactured in Russia. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the Russian government began to nationalize the railroads and the various routes, and there were those who claimed that this was done in order to decrease the involvement of Jewish entrepreneurs in this enterprise. Although by the end of World War I the involvement of Jewish promoters in the various transportation industries had declined, it is important to note that the contribution and the participation of Jewish entrepreneurs in various modes of transportation was not merely central but in fact was essential to the development of modern economies around the entire region.

Suggested Reading

Salo W. Baron, The Russian Jew under Tsars and Soviets, 2nd ed., rev. and enl. (New York, 1976); Bina Garncarska-Kadary, Ḥelkam shel ha-yehudim be-hitpatḥut ha-ta‘asiyah shel Varhsah ba-shanim 1816/20–1914 (Tel Aviv, 1985), pp. 65–73; Louis Greenberg, The Jews in Russia: The Struggle for Emancipation, vol. 1 (New York, 1976); Richard M. Haywood, Russia Enters the Railway Age, 1842–1855 (Boulder, Colo., and New York, 1998); Henryk Hilchen, Historia drogi żelaznej Warszawsko-Wiedeńskiej, 1838–1989 (Warsaw, 1912); Raphael Mahler, Yehude Polin ben shete milḥamot ‘olam: Historyah kalkalit-sotsi’alit le-or ha-statistikah (Tel Aviv, 1968).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler