ONLINE NEWSLETTER
No. 20/2000 - 21. December 2000

Editor:
Elsebeth Paikin
The editorial staff:
Mario Kampel - Lori Miller

The Belarus SIG Online Newsletter is able to republish this article thanks to the great efforts of the following:
  • Eileen Price who found this wonderful article
  • Risa Heywood who scanned the article
  • Lionel Sharpe, member of the committee of the AAJS (who owns the copyright for the "Menorah"), who gave permission to republish the article and who also found Avram Chani's son, Dr. Sam Chani, and obtained his permission on behalf of himself, his late father and his late brother-in-law, Dr. Harry Rosenberg, to republish the article.

BRISK D'LITA (BREST-LITOVSK)

An historical review of its joys and sufferings

by Avram Chani
Translated by Dr. Harry Rosenberg (Canberra)
October 1946 - (handwritten notes)

(Click on photos to see enlarged copies)

The river

Synagogue

Brest on fire

Ruins after WWI

One of the finest and oldest Jewish Communities in Poland was destroyed and has perished at the hands of the German barbarians. The town of Brest-Litovsk was the domicile and centre of activity of such Gaonim as Rabbi Shelomo Luria (mhersh'l), zc'l; Efraim Zalman Shur zc'l, the author of "Tvuoth Shur"; the rabbis and Gaonim of the Soloveichik Family, Rabbi Yosef Ber zc'1 and his son, Rabbi Haim'ke zc'1, who occupied the Rabbinical Seat until World War I and whom I.L. Peretz pictures in his novella "Between Two Mountains", and whose disputes with the Rabbi of Bialy zc'1 are famous; also the great Labour leader Beinish Mihalevich (Izbitski); the great Yiddish poet Menahem Bareisha (Goldberg), who enriched the Yiddish literature with his works; and his brother, of the staff of the newspaper "HAYNT". As well, a whole series of poets, graduates of the Brest Yiddishe Folksshule, V. Perlov, Goldberg and others, whose poems sang praises of our town, Brest on the (river) Bug.

Now, on the fourth anniversary of the total destruction of the Jewish Community of Brest, I would like to offer a short historical review of what the town had gone through, from its ancient past until its ruin.

It can be gathered from historical documents that, already in the fifteenth century, Brest was the greatest Jewish center of learning and wisdom, the home of the greatest Yeshivoth of Lithuania and the domicile of the greatest minds of that time. Brest was also considered then to be the richest Jewish town in Lithuania. The Jews of Brest were already engaged at that time in major commerce with neighbouring Poland, as well as with foreign countries (Germany and Austria).

The expulsion of the Jews from Lithuania in 1495 brought with it the destruction of the Jewish Community of Brest as well. However, eight years later, when the Jews were permitted to return to Lithuania, the Jewish Community of Brest was quickly re-established, so that by the year 1511 the great Synagogue was rebuilt (the old one had been taken over to become a church) and Jewish life was stabilized at the level existent before the expulsion. A terrifying fire broke out in the year 1568, destroying some three quarters of all Jewish dwellings. It did not, however, take long for Brest to be rebuilt, larger and more beautiful than before. We see it, in the eighties of that century, at its pinnacle of fame and splendour.

The attainment of these heights was due by great measure to the efforts of the then head of Community, the renown and legendary Shalom Wahl, a favourite of the famous Prince Nicolaus Radziwill, whose support of the Jews of Brest Wahl sought and secured.

Thanks also to the efforts of the same Shaul Wahl the Jewish Community obtained permission to rebuild their Synagogue to a desirable height (Government laws restricted the height of Synagogues to those of surrounding houses). Shaul Wahl (a wealthy man) personally funded the reconstruction of the Synagogue, which became the tallest and most beautiful building in the town.

In the days of "The Council of Four Lands". which governed the entire contemporary Jewish religious, social and political life, Brest occupied a position of importance on the Council. When, following a dispute, the Jews of Lithuania withdrew from the Council to establish their own "Council of Lithuania", the inaugural meeting took place in Brest. This Council was also responsible for the proportional allocation of the special Jewish taxes, such as the "Capitation tax" and the "Povrotnyi [Return] tax" levied by the Government on all Lithuanian Jews. It usually allocated to the Jewish Community of Brest nearly half of the total tax levied on the entire Jewish Community of Lithuania, amounting to three times the share carried by Vilna. It is clear that Brest was considered to be the richest Jewish town in Lithuania. This golden epoch of Jewish life in Brest went on until the year 1648, when Hmelnitsky with his bands invaded Poland and Lithuania, laying waste Jewish settlements, Brest amongst them.

The subsequent wars with Russia (1666) and with Sweden (1706), brought with them repeated fires and slaughter resulting in the destruction of some three-quarters of Polish and Lithuanian Jewry. Not until the second and third decade of the eighteenth century did conditions stabilize sufficiently to allow the Jews to commence the re-establishment of their settlements, including that of Brest. But, with the impoverishment and decimation of the Jewish population, Brest could no longer make a full and rapid recovery. It remained a quiet, average town.

The second partition of Poland, in the year 1793, brought Brest under Russian domination, and the resulting access to new markets boosted the development of Jewish trade and commerce.

In the year 1831 the Russian Government decided to erect a fort on the actual site of the town, and Brest was shifted further East. Owners of houses were compensated in accordance with valuations carried out by an official Commission and proceeded to build replacement houses on the new site. The newly-built town was more beautiful and more spacious than the old one. The intense building activity, both in the fort and in the town, attracted many tradesmen, both Christian and Jewish, and brought about increased employment and an upsurge of life. This period also saw the proliferation of the rail reticulation around Brest and the construction of massive railway workshops near the station, all of which presented the town with a potential for economic development.

During this period both the general and Jewish population of Brest grew considerably, so that by the year 1856 the number of Jews in the town reached 8136 souls. The Jewish population grew yearly and their welfare improved to such an extent that by the nineteen-eighties the Jewish Community was able to build the Great Synagogue, which became the largest and most beautiful in the district. Brest now had many Yeshivot, also both hassidic and orthodox prayer houses, and the Jewish life flowered to the full extent in the town.

Brest suffered two great fires, in the years 1895 and 1901. These events caused tremendous repercussions all over the world. A great deal of relief arrived from various towns within Russia, as well as from overseas, which allowed Brest to rebuild again and to "get on its feet".

Brest's one disadvantage which stemmed from the presence of the fort was the ban restricting the height of houses to two stories. This prevented it from developing into a large industrial city.

In the year 1905 Brest lived through a "bit of a" pogrom which was quickly quelled by .... a Jew. Because of the extraordinary nature of this phenomenon, it is worth taking a closer look at this historic event. It started with a soldier grabbing something from a Jewish woman trader. This led to a series of "grabbing things from the tables on the market". Later windows were broken in Jewish homes. When the "street of the meat halls" showed some resistance, the formal pogrom started, involving beating up of Jews and the demolition of Jewish dwellings. When the vigilantes of the "Bund" appeared with some pistols and fired shots to frighten off the soldiers, the latter withdrew to their barracks, but soon re-appeared, carrying weapons. They fired several shots at the vigilantes, killing one and wounding several. Who knows how many more victims would have fallen, but for the arrival by drozhky of a colonel who commanded the soldiers to march back to the barracks. After this, quiet returned, the Jews of Brest having got away with some broken windows, some ripped-open eiderdowns, several wounded and a lot of.... fright.

Who was this colonel? There lived in Brest an elderly Jewish doctor by the name of Szteinberg. In his younger years he had been an army doctor with the rank of captain. Having distinguished himself in the Russo-Turkish war, he was made a colonel. When he grew older and retired, the Government granted him a pension, and made him a proposition: If he was willing to convert to Christianity, he would be promoted to general and receive a general 's pension. This offer he rejected with the quip that he preferred to be a Jew with a white lining rather than a non-Jew with a red lining (generals' coats were lined red).

Despite his advancing age, Dr. Szteinberg continued with his medical practice, not for the money (he was quite wealthy), but because he loved his profession. He provided free treatment to the poor Jewish sick, often giving them his own money to buy medicines. Although he was an assimilated Jew, he had a Jewish heart. His were the largest charitable gifts to Jewish institutions, and he gave most generously to the "maot hayatim".

It was this Dr. Szteinberg, who, upon hearing what was happening in town, donned his full colonel's uniform and hastened to the "battle-field", where he commanded the soldiers: "Return to your barracks". Incidentally, that, as a result of these "unlawful dealings" Dr. Szteinberg was arrested several days later on a trumped up charge of socialism and had spent several months in prison. However, because of his impeccable record in his "service of the tzar", he was released without a trial. Several years before the outbreak of World War I he died while visiting his son in St. Petersburg. In his will he bequeathed several houses which he had owned in Brest to its Jewish Community and also stipulated that he was to be brought to Brest for burial. His wishes were scrupulously carried out.

Before the first World War the Jewish Community of Brest exceeded 30,000 souls, comprising 65%. of its total population. However, in actual lifestyle, both in commerce and trade, Brest was an one-hundred per cent Jewish town. The entire commerce, as well as all trades, were almost entirely in Jewish hands. It is worth mentioning that the brick structure known as the "commercial row" at the market, which encompassed some 400 stores, contained only one Christian shop - one that sold religious articles. The same proportion held for all other stores, whether at the market or on the main streets of the town itself.

The "one-hundred-percent-Jewish" nature of the town was particularly obvious on Sabbaths and other Jewish festivals, when everything would be closed and locked-up. With the exception of the Christian drozhky drivers (also "shmeyer" [stand-ins] for Jews) serving the military, there was no traffic in the streets. The true Sabbath reigned. This was contrasted by a lively commotion in the morning around the many prayer-houses, hassidic places of worship etc., as well as on the various boulevards and other places favoured by the young for promenade.

When World War I broke out in 1914, its vagaries were soon felt in Brest. Always an Army town, it was now, in war-time, flooded with the military, with many private houses requisitioned to accommodate military personnel. The many hospitals installed in the town gave the impression that the front was quite near. In the year 1915, when the German army captured Warsaw and the front did draw near, the inhabitants of Brest received an order from the Fort Commandant, General Leiming (himself a German), giving the civilian population three days to evacuate the town. One can well imagine the panic amongst the population, especially the Jews, who owned most of the businesses, when they had to abandon everything and leave the town. Brest was the only centre to be thus emptied of its population. When the German army marched into Brest, it was a town without people, but with a great abundance of merchandise in the stores.

The Jews of Brest were scattered far and wide throughout Russia, with just a small handful remaining in the surrounding townships and villages. Brest remained free of civilian population (with the exception of those in forced labour) throughout the period up to the end of 1917. The Germans appropriated to their own use all the goods which the population had no chance to rescue. The merchandise from the well-stocked shops and store-houses, as well as the furniture from private homes was removed by the Germans and dispatched to Germany.

Early in 1918, after the Germans concluded a separate peace treaty with Ukrainian "representatives", the civilian population was allowed gradually to return to Brest. Its first Jews began to trickle in from the surrounding countryside. But what did they find in Brest? Half the town was gutted, its streets overgrown with weeds. There were remnants of a narrow-gauge railway track which the Germans had laid through the middle of the town in order to move bricks from the burnt-out houses. Of the houses which remained standing, the better ones were occupied by the various German offices and establishments, while the poorer ones were in need of restoration. The necessary materials for repairs could not be had. Yet the Jews "patched up" a few houses, in which they established themselves.

By the end of 1918, following the revolution in Germany, more repatriates, both Jewish and Christian, returned from Russia. Gradually the small stores and workshops re-opened and there was "trade" with the Germans. The Jews gradually began to make a living. In the beginning of 1919 the Germans left the district and in their place appeared the first Polish Legions, bringing little joy to the Jews. Under the guise of "confiscation of German merchandise" there took place common plunder, accompanied by the cutting of Jewish beards and the press-ganging of Jews into working parties. In the wake of these "nice deeds" of the "heroic" Poles Jewish life in Brest remained unstable, even though the Community already counted several thousand souls. In the course of the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1919-1920 the Jews led a troubled existence.

It was not until the "Riga Accord" in March, 1921, when Brest with its surrounding district was officially ceded to the Polish Republic, that the situation began to stabilize. Residents of Brest were arriving en masse from Russia so that by 1922 a steadily growing population, in excess of 20,000, was in residence. Lively building activity set in thanks to considerable relief funds being received by the Jews from American relatives as well as from the JOINT, which alone built houses for several hundred families. This created a great deal of work in the town, which saw also the opening of many shops; life began to flow again in Brest. Thanks to the support from JOINT a number of institutions became established, amongst them the ORT, TOZ, a hospital et al, as well as a number of various "American Committees", unions and parties of all sorts. Brest took on the appearance of a large town, with all the advantages and disadvantages which this entailed.

For the first time in its history, Brest witnessed the establishment of trade unions and workers' parties of all kinds. The lively nature of the parties and unions was adequately demonstrated in the various election campaigns, such as those of the Sejm [Polish Parliament], Town Councils and social institutions, where each party and union endeavored to capture more seats.

Although the Polish Administration practiced gerrymander in defining electorates so as to preclude Jews from (God forbid) capturing local power, nevertheless, in each campaign, the Jews won large numbers of seats on the Town Council and the Jewish word and opinion sounded loudly from the podium at the Council meetings. Even during elections of the town's President the Jewish vote was sought after, and Brest was one of a small number of towns that boasted a Jew for a Vice-President.

The Jewish Councillors were even successful in passing a resolution to name one of the town's streets after our great man of letters, I. L. Peretz. The social and political life was generally highly developed in Brest, which lacked none of the usual institutions. No Jewish movement or happening took place anywhere without being also reflected in Brest. A few examples may best illustrate the concept of what Brest represented in the area of social life: Apart from various charitable and religious organizations, Brest possessed the following institutions: "TOZ" with many branches; "ORT" with three trade schools; three Yiddish primary schools, three Yiddish public libraries and one Jewish kindergarten; two Hebrew primary schools, one kindergarten and one Hebrew gymnasium. This does not include the many private Yiddish and Hebrew schools. Brest also had three Jewish Sporting Clubs, Trade Unions covering all trades as well as associations of merchants, small shopkeepers and artisans. According to the latest census of 1931, the population of Brest was 30,000, composed of 50% Jews, 35% Poles and 15% Byelorussians.

All attempts by the Polish Government to Polonize Brest (since it was the seat of the Voyevodstvo [County]), were without success. Although the Jews accounted for only half the population, almost the entire commerce and trades were in Jewish hands, as witnessed from the following statistics: Out of more than 3,000 commercial licenses issued, Christians held fewer than 200; they held but 100 permits for trade workshops out of a total of 1,000; only two of the eight trading banks were in Christian hands, employing 10 persons, compared with some 65 employees in the six Jewish banks. It can be said boldly that Brest was a 100% Jewish town. It pulsated with a deep Jewish life, both in the religious and worldly aspect. The Yiddish word was heard in the houses, streets, boulevards and other places of promenade, and one did not bother to think "what the gentiles will say".

The waxing of Hitler's power in Germany brought a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Poland where a powerful campaign of boycott and picketing of Jewish businesses took place in all Jewish towns and townships. These "actions" met with little success In Brest. At that time, when the news arrived about the "excesses" in Przytyk, Minsk, Mazowiecki and in other Jewish towns, the Jews of Brest persisted in their secure belief that "this could not happen here". If "they" tried it, we would show them "what Brest can do".

And then the "turn" of Brest came, too, and the Jews of Brest discovered that, when the "powers-to-be" are interested in these "excesses", there is nothing one can do. From the morning of May 17th, 1937, until the evening, hooligans under the watchful eyes of Police, beat up Jews in the streets and plundered Jewish property. Any Jews who showed resistance were arrested and charged with "resisting authority". Only late in the evening came the command from "above": "Establish order!". The next morning Jewish and Polish Deputies arrived from Warsaw. They investigated the occurrences, but the results of their probings remained in the archives... Later, several gentiles, as well as a few Jews were actually brought to trial. The culprits were each sentenced to several days in jail.

Some representatives of the "JOINT" also arrived in town and established a Committee which included representatives of all Jewish parties and organizations. The Committee investigated and listed all damages suffered by the victims. These amounted to about one million zloty, or 20,000 dollars. Considering the fact that the richer members of the Community did not choose to register their losses, that estimate should be at least doubled.

In the course of the following months the Committee, out of funds forwarded from America, compensated the victims to the extent of 50% of their losses, with additional loans of up to 500 zloty each, repayable over 12 months. It is interesting to note that the fuss in town over the "American aid" and the traffic around the office of the Committee prompted rumours amongst the Christians that the Jews made a profit out of the affair.

Following these "excesses", the Jews of Brest came to the conclusion that the foundation upon which they stood was, perhaps, not as firm as they had imagined. Their thoughts turned to emigration, but where to? America was closed, Israel half-closed. So everyone ran continuously to HIAS for information. In the course of the period 1938-1939 a couple of hundred Jews emigrated from Brest to Argentina, Brasil, Palestine. A country called Australia was also "discovered". But not everyone could dream about Australia, since, apart from the need to have 200 pounds of "show money", there was the problem of considerable travel cost for a family. Nevertheless, over 100 families applied for Australian entry permits. Regrettably, no more than 25 families were successful in obtaining these. All others were refused. These 25 "lucky" families who, in consequence of the pogrom of May 17th, 1937, found themselves in Australia, represent the "sheerit hapleite" - the surviving remnant of the beautiful Jewish town of Brest Litovsk, and they now mourn the fourth anniversary of [the passing of] their brothers and sisters who perished at the hands of Hitler's murderers.

So, this is the sum-total of a Jewish Community which existed and functioned amongst Jews in the course of many hundreds of years, lived through good and bad times, minor and major disasters, and which perished in the Holocaust on the sixteenth of October, 1942.


NOTES ON ABBREVIATIONS AND HEBREW EXPRESSIONS:

  • zc'l stands for "Zihron tzadik l'kavod" ("righteous of honoured memory")
  • mharsh'l stands for "Morenu harav Shlomo Luria" ("Our Teacher the Rabbi Shlomo Luria")
  • "maot hayatim" (p.4) Lit.: "Taylors' monies" - probably means charity to provide clothes for the poor.


Copyright © 2000 Belarus SIG, Avram Chani, Dr. Sam Chani, Harry Rosenberg and "Menorah", Australia.


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