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Bruce Drake

The advent of railroads in Jewish Eastern Europe during the latter part of the 19th century was a turning point in the lives of many towns and, like all bellwether changes, brought with it the good and the bad. The trains connected shtetls that had been isolated from each other and greatly increased the speed of travel. It enabled information to travel and for the spread of ideas, and for isolated shtetls to have access to wider society. There also were less happy consequences: The Yivo Encyclopedia notes that the building of railroads and the rise of major urban centers helped create new regional and national markets that undercut the economic base of many shtetls.
“A Train Passes Through Town,” from the Yizkor book of Mlawa (Poland) captures the changes in life after the railroad arrived. Before then, it took half a week to get to Warsaw by wagon. Now the trip took less than four hours. New means of livelihood sprouted up that had to do with trains. Hotels and restaurants opened for the travelers coming from far away. While the train may have taken away work from wagon drivers who had provided much of the transport to other places for people and goods in former times, the fact that the train station was several miles from the town created new opportunities for coachmen to take passengers and merchandise to the depot.
“The Jews of Mlawa set out much more readily for other cities. New government institutions appeared in town. Slowly the patriarchal forms of life began to disappear.”

Bruce Drake
Silver Spring, MD

Towns: Wojnilow, Kovel