Shtetl Economic History Project


Yoddodh Title: Shtetl Economic History Project

The project began in Spring 2002 under the direction of Professor Thomas F. Glick, with the purchase by Boston University of the Iacob Bercovici Business Archive, with a grant from the Boston University Humanities Foundation. This is a collection of some 3000 pieces representing the daily business of Bercovici, a wholesale cereal and food dealer in Bacau, Romania, mainly from the years 1908 to 1913. That the collection survived at all is something of a fluke. When an old man, Bercovici was imprisoned by the Ceaucescu regime and his papers confiscated by the Bacau police. In November 2001, the police discarded a large number of these papers and stamp dealers rescued everything bearing stamps. These pieces began turning up on E-bay, which led to Glick's orchestrating the purchase from four different philatelists.

Although Bercovici had a telephone, it was expensive to use, and the vast majority of business was transacted on government postcards, of which around 70% are in Romanian, with the rest in Yiddish. The documents provide details on the distribution of wheat in eastern Romania (Moldava province) and Bukovina through Bercovici's network of more than 350 dealers, all but a few of whom were Jewish. Grain was bought directly from farmers by agents called "cerealists" (cerealisti), small businessmen who usually had a storehouse but no office and worked on a commission basis. Bercovici provided them with sacks (owned or rented) and they purchased the grain, often with an exchange of cards with Bercovici about the prices and quality of the product. Bercovici received the sacks in Bacau and then sold the grain to local and regional distributors, also Jewish. Some of the large towns like Roman, Iasi, Botosani, Focsani, or Piatra Neamt had multiple dealers, as many as ten. Small villages, such as Buhusi, Burdujeni, Dorohoi, or Valea Rea had only one dealer.

Since Bacau is at the southern border of the Moldavia province, Bercovici extended his trade network to towns outside his local area. Bucharest, the capital of Romania and the largest market in the country, is only three hours away by train from Bacau. Eastern ports at the Black Sea like Galati and Braila (on the Danube) are historical trade points attracting sellers and buyers from all over the country. Bercovici used to take frequent trips to Bucharest to deal with his customers and agents, composed of everyone from small local traders and mills to beverage and paper factories or to various branches of the Government. For example, there is a postcard addressed to Iacob Bercovici by the Administrator of the Letea Paper Factory, even today the main paper manufacturer in Romania.

This correspondence unravels a plethora of information about economic and social aspects of the life, particularly that of small-town Jews, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Some of the topics suggested by the documentation are the way in which business was conducted (customs, etiquette, extent of a territory covered by a merchant, variety of trade, etc) and the economic infrastructure of the area:

  • roads: most of them unpaved and impracticable during rainy seasons, slowing and delaying trade.
  • railroad system: this being the main means of dependable and far-reaching transportation, traders had to interact a lot with railroad station personnel and make sure they were allocated wagons on time.
  • communication channels: such as mail, telephone and telegraph.
  • banks and financial institutions: used to make payments and fund transfers.

Bercovici's business was not restricted to cereals. He traded all sorts of other agricultural products, like fruit and vegetables, cheese, fish oil, and wine. This mix of products was a common thing for merchants at the time, and some of the postcard are personalized and transformed in business stationery with stamps showing the name of the trader and what he offered. For example: "Marin Hanulescu, Merchant of Cereals, Liquors & Imports".

Since trade requires (and in the end produces) a lot of capital, most businessmen got involved in financing transactions and lending money. Even powerful traders found themselves in situations when they were out of cash, and the solution was long or short-term loans from business partners rather than from banks or other financial institutions.

The documents shed light on Romanian social life in this period. At a time when it was unusual for Romanian women to receive education, all the women in the Bercovici family knew how to write and were empowered to supervise operations at home during their husbands' frequent business trips.

There are also numerous post cards from Bercovici's lawyers, because he was constantly in litigation over financial matters, such as collecting from debtors. It is interesting that such legal business was conducted in the open, on post cards. Liquidity was maintained by means of a complex system of private, short-term loans. The system worked like this: one would borrow money from a creditor and would sign a document called a "policy" (polita) stating "The borrower is supposed to pay back to the holder of this document such and such amount at such and such a date." Often creditors traded such documents, and borrowers would find themselves in the position of paying back their debt to a different creditor than the one from whom they originally took the loan. All Bercovici's numerous legal suits are about collecting from debtors, either people to whom he sold products or people whose loan policies he bought. This pattern is typical of peasant economies where small-scale primary production requires many middlemen and merchants.

The Project obtained a grant from the Louis Littauer Foundation to catalogue the Romanian-language documents and prepare a database. The database was created by Monica Postelnicu in an Microsoft Access format. While serving as a list of the individual documents, the database also permits the information to be sorted by dealer, price, place, date and so forth. Thus it will be possible to map the economic geography of grain distribution among Jewish communities in this region (and that is the sense of "Shtetl economic history" intended here). When the data base in complete, including the Yiddish materials, the Project will produce a CD-ROM that will include the database, the documents, photographs, and supplementary documentation.

In February 2003 the Project obtained second archive of around 1000 pieces from the business of Abe Lieber, a Jewish textile dealer in Breszco, Galicia, Poland doing business in the 1880s and 90s. This collection consists entirely of postcards, around 600 in Yiddish, the rest in German and Polish. Lieber's distribution area was centered in Galicia, as far east as Lwow (Lemberg), but also to the southwest extending into Bohemia and south from Brno as far as Vienna. Textiles are also a staple commodity and the patterns of distribution should be comparable to Bercovici's in Romania.

© 2007-15 Thomas F. Glick All Rights Reserved.