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What’s in This Name?

Paul Baron writes in an e-mail:

“Ikh bin a higer geborener un ikh bin fier un akhtzig yor alt. [I was born in this country and I’m 84 years old.] My father came from what is now Lithuania. He told me that his father, my grandfather, was a shafer (with the ‘a’ pronounced ‘ah’) and that he worked for a German firm that contracted for cutting rights from the large landowners. My father said a shafer was the estimator who determined how much timber his company could expect to get from a certain tract over a certain period of time. Can you confirm whether that is a fair description of what a shafer did? (My father once told me that his father had an opportunity for a promotion, which he turned down because the job would have required him to carry a gun.)”

Jews were prominent in the timber business in 19th- and early 20th-century Eastern Europe, most of all as intermediaries between the landed Christian gentry that owned the forests and the sawmills that cut and sold the wood. After the mills — many of them German-owned in the Baltic port city of Danzig — bought the timber on the recommendation of the shafer (a word that, generally speaking, simply means “agent” or “middleman” in Yiddish), the work was turned over to what was called the transportierer, the person in charge of cutting the timber and getting it to its destination. One Lithuanian Jewish transportierer, whom Paul Baron’s grandfather may even have known, was the father of Chaim Weizmann, the first president of the State of Israel. Weizmann wrote of his father’s work in his autobiography, “Trial and Error”:

“He cut and hauled the timber and got it floated down to Danzig. It was a complicated and heartbreaking occupation. The forests stood on marshland, and except in times of drought and frost it was impossible to do any hauling [since] in the rainy seasons of spring and autumn the rivers overflowed…. The cycle of work would begin in November, after the festival of Sukkot. My father would set out for the heart of the forest, twenty or twenty-five miles away. His only communication with home was the sleigh road, which was always subject to interruption…. We were never easy during father’s absences in the forest, even when my older brother Feivel went with him, for there were wolves in the forests and occasionally robbers…

“… It was [my father’s] business to mark out the trees to be felled and he had to be able to tell which were healthy and worth felling. He had to supervise the hauling. The logs were roped and piled on the edge of the little river, to wait there for the thaw and the spring flood…. If the winter lingered, we did not have father home for Passover, for he could not leave to anyone else the responsible task of setting the timber afloat.… After Passover began the spring and summer work, the floating of the rafts [of cut logs] to the sea….

“The rafts had to be fairly small to be able to negotiate the first streams; but they had to hold together strongly, against exceptional flood. The first job was to get them on the Pina [river] and down to Pinsk, which they usually reached by Shevuot, seven weeks after Passover. There, instead of floating onward with the stream [to] the far-off Black Sea, the rafts were maneuvered in the opposite direction through a canal which connected the Pina with Brest-Litovsk on the Bug [river], the main tributary of the Vistula, which flows into the Baltic Sea at the port of Danzig.

“… As the [Bug] river was never dyked or dredged, it formed sandbanks, especially in the summer. If the rafts consisted of oak, or were unskillfully piled up and drew too much water, they often stuck fast. Then there was nothing to do but wait, and bake in the sun, and pray for rain, or for a fresh flow from the headwaters of the Bug in the Carpathians. Meanwhile days, perhaps weeks, would pass, and you watched your slender profits being eaten up by the delay. Sometimes scores of rafts, floating easily, would be held up by one or two heavier rafts which were stranded…

… “When at last you floated on to the wide Vistula, you were faced with troubles of another kind. The rains and freshets which you welcomed on the Bug were often a bane on the Vistula. The waters became swollen and turbulent and the rafts might be torn to pieces. Then you would tie up to the shore, and watch the flood, and wait for it to subside. At Thorn, which was German, everything changed. The river was regulated, order prevailed. From Thorn to Danzig it was a peaceful journey… Father would generally be back from Danzig for Rosh Hashanah. Then, when Sukkot was past, and the heartache of collecting payments was over — and sometimes it wasn’t — the annual cycle would begin again.”

Being a transportierer was tough and indeed sometimes heartbreaking work, in which money could be made but also easily lost. It’s undoubtedly the job to which Paul Baron’s grandfather was offered a promotion — and it’s little wonder that he preferred to remain a shafer. Having to carry a gun against wolves and robbers may have been the least of his concerns.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].


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