The Beautiful Tradition Continues
From its early origins Brest was an important Jewish center. There are traces of the early centuries when the Jews settled in Poland. We find Jews mentioned by Polish historians around the time of the treaty of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Union of Lubelska), more references are found in the reports of a war between the revolting Cossacks against the Polish nobility. For a short time the Polish Hetman Vishnevitski made Brest his capital in the 17th century. At the time of Napoleon's march on Moscow in the early 19th century Brest was a leading Jewish center of learning and spiritualism that radiated to the neighbouring towns that all participated in the rabbinical issues and debates.
One must say that the French Revolution and the arrival in Poland of Napoleon had a great effect on both the Jewish and non-Jewish populations of this era, used to the oppressive Tsarist rule. Napoleon promised freedom for all the oppressed, and was regarded as a liberator.
The 19th century was a time of great development for Brest, which was already a great Jewish center. The city was reinforced with strong roots in the flat earth of Polessie. Tragically, there were 3 great fires that destroyed the city, and none of the original ancient buildings remained to assist us in any historical research.
It so happened that I personally witnessed excavations in the very center of the Brest Fortress. It was in 1924 at the second tower, not far from White Square where the peace negotiations of 1918 were held. They dug there to make a pathway and on the first day came across skeletons, and the bones of human limbs. We puzzled over where these bones had originated. According to the terrible positions of these skeletons, we concluded that they were Jewish skeletons, as on the second day they came across tombstones with Hebrew inscriptions. This was proof that they had uncovered ancient graves that had been partially built over by the erection of the fortress. The ancient cemetery had been shifted to its present position. The fortress was built on the banks of the river Bug at its junction with the Muhkavets River, forming a natural line of defence.
The second old Jewish cemetery was on the banks of the Muhkavets at the old marketplace. There one could find large tombstones made of granite or basalt lying flat on the ground for all to see, until the 1930s when the cemetery was moved out of the town.
The third cemetery was at Kievski Subatska (a suburb) and had existed for several decades before the 20th century.
It is clear that the fortress greatly strengthened the economy of the city that was strategically placed on the border of Russia and Poland, in the Old Russian (Tsarist) economy. Nowadays its' border position reflects the importance of commerce between East and West. It was not by accident that Brest was the crossroads of roads that led to Warsaw, Moscow, Vilna, and Kiev, as well as an important railway junction.
When Poland annexed the city in 1920, the city fell into economic stagnation and was bankrupted and poor.
One of the flowering periods of Brest's spiritual existence was in the late 19th - early 20th century. Brest was renowned for it's yeshivas. It was also a famous center of the Mitnagdim who vigorously opposed the Chassidic movement and took part in heated discussions and debates with the followers of the Baal Shem Tov.
An entire series of rabbinic books and Talmudic works were written there, which resulted in I.L. Peretz's book: Between Two Mountains, which was a dialogue between two schools of philosophical thought. This alluded to the Brisker Rabbi and the Bialer Rebbe.
Brest was a Jewish center from the Middle Ages with sometimes medieval concepts. The warm winds of the French Revolutionary movement brought the seeds of democracy, and awoke the Russian people's movement. Tchernichevski, Plebinov and later Lenin deeply influenced Jewish youth, also those in Brest, who thirsted to drink from the spiritual well of Russian literature - Lermentov, Pushkin, Dobroluchov, Tolstoy, and Turgeniev. Later, Gorki and Korlenko were the figures that influenced the Brest Workers movement.
During this era, the youth of that time searched for a path to the outside world, dreamt of equality and freedoms for all people, and were willing to sacrifice their most treasured possessions in the battle against backwardness and despotism. This atmosphere of seeking and wanting to cast off the restrictive thoughts and medieval opinions was characteristic in all the Jewish towns and villages of Russia. There was support from all ages for the revolutionaries that endured exile, prison camps and forced labor for the revolutionary movement. In Brest at the end of the 19th century these revolutionary groups were the S.D.P.L, the Bund, and the socialist Zionists.
In 1905, there were already class-conscious Jewish workers who were part of the Russian proletariat's struggle. Over the years they were attracted to groups such as the 'Zasiadanyes', the 'Yavkes' and the 'Zavastavkes'. These groups forged the fighting spirit of the organized labor forces in Brest in the historic days of 1905 when they took to the barricades and fought against the police and military. The date was a turning point in the revolutionary movement and Brest was strengthened into a stronghold of the Revolutionary Workers Movement within a period of a few years.
This was expressed in various historical events such as the participatory role of the Brest workers in the liberation of Brest by the Polish Pilsudski forces when the Soviet Army was nearing the city in 1920. The underground 'Revkes', young mostly Jewish revolutionary men and women, organized both active and passive resistance to the occupying Polish interventionist forces that were led by officers of the French general staff. These 'Revkes' organized economic and cultural measures in the city at that time that culminated in a giant assembly at the Brest Fortress of 1000s of Brest workers and peasants that remains etched in my memory. They established the Brest Workers Kitchen, and allocated the best and most beautiful of the remaining buildings in the town for primary schools. This was in a building on the corner of Zygmuntovska and Litovska streets. One could write a great deal about this short period, but that is my nostalgic thinking .
When the Treaty of Riga was signed in 1921, Brest was transferred to Polish control. Thus began a period of underground worker activity against the Polish regime and its reactionary and anti Semitic policies, and later the Senatzia system. It is inscribed in the glorious pages of the Jewish workers, intelligentsia, and men of the people. Their fight was against the three-fold pressures of capitalism, racism and nationalism, as the White Russians fought for their national independence.
The struggle was centred in the workers hall at first in the workers kitchen on Dluga St, and then in the worker's exchange at no.5 Kosciusko St. that was the heart of the Jewish worker's movement. This is where the large strikes and demonstrations were organized. This is where generations of young people were trained in the glorious tradition of continuing the struggle against Fascism. One can remember 100s and 100s of names of fallen comrades who fell deeply believing that their sacrifice would contribute to the righteous cause to a sunny morning in a world free of exploitation of men by other men.
These strong roots that nourished generations of Briskers produced social and communal activists who operated in all areas of Jewish life, who had high moral codes and dedicated themselves to progressive ideals and activism. It was not by chance that the Brest Landsmanschaften (Societies) in New York, Paris and Argentina were strongholds of these ideals and over the decades conducted a beautiful unity and cultural activities for the benefit of their compatriots. At the same time they showed great love and warmth for their hometown of Brest. One must mention the United Brest Relief in New York that was immediately in the frontline from 1919 and dedicated itself to the welfare of Brest, and was responsible to a large extent for rebuilding the city and it's institutions - institutions such as the Jewish primary schools, libraries, the Talmud Torahs, and even vital work such as supporting the prisoners sitting in the Brest prison, and everywhere that Briskers found themselves in the hands of Fascist forces.
Now on your 30th anniversary, allow me to send you heartiest warm greetings in these difficult and fateful days of humanity, and wish that you all continue in your paths and stand firm and strong in the camps of lovers of peace against the foreign reactionaries, who together with our own Jewish reactionaries and Jew haters for whom the sacrifice of 6 million Jews is not enough, are ready to unite with the forces of yesterday. The remainder of the Jewish folk must now more than ever; stay united and stand firm against the new storms that are gathering.
In the deep belief that your actions today will guarantee that tomorrow you will also stand high, we celebrate with you your 30th anniversary as a festival for all the Briskers in the world. This anniversary celebrates the tradition of great communal work that originated in Brest and continues everywhere that there are Briskers.
Why The Election List Was Not Returned
In the election lists of pre W.W. 2 Poland, Brest was known as a stronghold of workers and peasants. This was evidenced by the results of the first Parliamentary elections for the City Council in 1926 that confirmed the truth which due to the widespread poverty amongst Jews and non-Jews in Brest resulted in a high vote for the progressive parties.
Despite the persecution and oppression some candidates were arrested; the workers received the highest number of votes and would become the largest faction of the 5 elected city councillors. However the Mayor of Brest, under orders from Warsaw, cancelled the elections on the pretext that they had not been advertised, and new elections were to be held several months later. Those were incomparable days when the youth of the progressive movement threw themselves with burning enthusiasm into the election campaign. The hall of the electoral committee was a booth on Dabrowska St. this was the hub of all the electoral activity. In this period new forces had arisen from the Jewish primary schools and trade schools there was competition between the Jewish and general population progressives. Late at night posters with the No.30 of the Progressive List would appear on top of the highest poles, trees, and even the walls of Great Synagogue. It was to no avail, as the leaders of the reactionaries Demionyuk, Rudkowski, Stashek, the red haired Censor and others - took draconian measures to stifle and subjugate the wave of trust and unity among the
Masses. Free thought and the will of the inhabitants of Brest to have the opportunity to develop without unemployment, poverty and isolation was stifled in their nationalistic and anti Semitic persecutions.
The results of the city elections were shattering to the reactionary clique. Instead of 5 councillors, and despite all the deals, combinations and swindles, 7 progressive councillors were elected to the city council, representing the will of the greatest variety of classes.
As already stated, the Polish and Jewish reactionaries, who often went hand in hand, did not have any illusions about the authenticity of the election results, and the many justifiable reasons of the Brest inhabitants to vote the way they did. One did not have to search too deeply for the cause.
Indeed, as once again we prepared for the 1931 elections for the Sjem elections, it became clear to the progressive leadership that every effort would be made to eliminate all the workers and peasants from the election list. Already at that time there had been dissolution of the White Russian organizations such as the Sel - Rab and others. Firstly, they established a whole row of formalities and bureaucratic procedures to complicate the attainment of the correct number of signatures for the application. In principle and according to the Constitution, a certain number of citizens could put up a list of candidates. In reality, various attempts were made to complicate and frustrate, making it almost impossible to deliver the proposed district candidates list on time.
From certain information given to the progressive forces at that time, it became clear that every effort would be made by the reactionaries to destroy any proposed progressives list that would represent accurately the mood of the masses. It was shortly before the events that culminated in the Kobryn trial the growth of the revolutionary movement, and the upsurge in class-consciousness, which was a result of the poverty of peasants, workers and middle classes who all found themselves in a situation of economic need. This conflict was due to the heavy taxes, the draconian collecting of the last stalk of wheat from the fields and the last stick of furniture from people's homes, the permanent unemployment of the masses, and the loss of any future prospects for the Jewish intellectuals and students.
These new elections to the Polish Sjem would be a great defeat for the Worker's Party list. This would reveal to the whole world the actions of the population of Polessie against the repressions and exploitation of the Polish regime.
It was a very difficult task to create a list of candidates in order to dull the alertness of the reactionaries and their defenders. It was decided to submit the list on the last day that it could be delivered according to the regulations. The reasons for waiting until the last day were: firstly, not to give the opposition any chance to terrorize any of the candidates on the list, force certain of the names to withdraw, or arrest some of them.
Secondly, to limit the time of formal excuses as the election committee had to submit the names within a certain time according to statutes in the Constitution.
Our reasoning was sound but we had not foreseen that the reactionaries would resort to great terror and gangster methods. Masking themselves as the greatest defenders of openness outside the borders of Polessie. The last day, the following occurred:
The list of candidates with the correct number of signatories was to be received by the election committee on Bialystotska St. by the correct date- I think it was a Friday. We had decided that Yasha Yungerman, one of those least compromised by the political police, would make a quiet visit to the offices of the electoral committee. Everything had been prepared in the correct manner. In the early morning it was arranged that Yasha would receive the documents and deliver them. Thus he approached the electoral office building with a sense of responsibility and readiness to fulfil his mission. In front of the building there suddenly appeared in before him two plain clothed men who introduced themselves as the police and asked him to come with them, as he was under arrest. Before he could orientate himself, a car appeared at the kerb and he was forced into it. Inside were another two agents. Yasha noticed that they were not taking him to the nearby police station but in the direction of the fortress. They did not reply to his question of where are you taking me? Being physically strong, Yasha began to fight them he opened a door a tried to get out. It turned into a tragic struggle observers stopped to look at the men fighting in the modern car Yasha's shoe fell off sadly he received several blows to the head from their gun. The agents overpowered him and continued until they left the city and reached the suburb of Grayevska Slobotka. Next to a ruined old fort that was used by the dogcatchers they searched him and took away his election papers. They said: you Jewish communist, now you will pay with your head. They tied a rope around his neck and went to tie it to a tree to hang him. As fate would have it, not far away there was a group of Polish soldiers who were carrying out exercises. Their sergeant was intrigued by the presence of the car and the strangers. Seeing that they were about to hang someone with a rope around his neck and the other end over a branch, he ordered them to stop what they were doing. The agents told him they were from the police and that he should go away and let them proceed; otherwise they would do the same to him the sergeant then called his soldiers. Seeing that the agents quickly got into their car and fled.
When the sergeant cut the rope Yasha Yungerman regained consciousness, tore their hands away and not knowing what was happening, began to flee towards the city. He was bloodied and with red marks around his neck from the rope. Upon reaching the railway bridge he collapsed and was brought home by a passing droshky (carriage) driver. For weeks he lay sick and was permanently injured from those bashings. By the way, upon his later deportation to Auschwitz his illness was the reason that Yasha was selected and sent to his death as a martyr at the hands of the Nazi Fascists in the death camp.
Thus ended the tragic affair of the efforts to deliver the list of candidates to the 1931 Sjem elections. Possibly at that time the wider public did not know why there was no list of peasants and workers represented in the Polessie electoral district. The only reason was terror.
The Polish and Jewish reactionaries could boast that they had had a victory the best proof was that there was no list of representatives, but the workers and peasants voted for a number that had been allocated to the progressive movement in significant numbers.
This little episode is just one of the hundreds and thousands of the great struggles fought by the Jewish masses in Brest for human rights and freedom.
The history of the city of Brest was closely linked to its fires. The older generation would reckon the ages of their children by the time of the event, according to the first, second, or third great fire. The last one was the greatest it went from one end of the city to the other, and was caused by the retreating Russian army in 1915. The Germans, who then entered the city, systematically destroyed the rest and did not permit the return of the inhabitants until the end of 1918. They had originally exiled the inhabitants for being enemy agents this was in order to loot the city of any remaining possessions. The inhabitants had fled to the neighbouring villages and towns. The Germans dismantled the bricks and metals by the wagonloads and sent them through Bialystok to be taken into the heart of Germany.
Thus the permanently homeless status contributed to the extreme impoverishment of the economic situation of the Jews of Brest. Torn from their homes - under new political and economic conditions that they had no chance of acclimatizing to and forced to survive in appalling situations. One must add that the Polish towns such as Lukow or Mezrich,etc. where the Briskers lived in exile were suffering from extreme economic stagnation.
The war years had a huge effect on the education of the children of Brest. For almost four years the children had not seen a school and a certain percentage of them remained wholly or partially illiterate. This education of the youth was a vital part of the broad field of activity that occurred in the first period of return from exile after the Russian Revolution. The Jewish community endeavoured to open schools and the first Jewish school was opened on Topolowa St. in Boychin's building, which was a large house. This was followed by the Techiya school on Topolowa, the Mizrachi, the Talmud Torah, cheders, and the beginning of a high school.
Sadly, the poverty of the parents was great and only a small portion of parents could afford the small fees. Eventually they were forced to send the children aged from over 10-12 years to learn a trade in order to assist the family to earn a piece of rye bread. Such was the hard, depressing reality, very often without any future opportunities.
However, new winds blew. The scale of the events all over Russia gave rise to hope and belief in the future, and from the depths of the cramped prayer houses and synagogues that people were living in without any hygienic standards, and the barracks in the suburbs, there grew a tremendous thirst for knowledge and education. The youth wanted to have open eyes about the events in the outside world it was not enough to have some evening courses about the lessons of Jewish history and popular science. The trend to immerse oneself in study was noticeable, and the hunger for books was great. Unfortunately the treasury of books in Brest at that time was small. The youth at that time could barely read Yiddish, Polish books were a foreign language to them, and only a small proportion knew Russian and German.
It was essential to establish a library in those early days. The first library with some contents was located in a house at Topolowa 10 (now I.L. Peretz St). This was the center where the youth would meet in the early years with a book under their arms. There was competition amongst them as to who would be the fastest to read and understand a book from the limited stock that was to be found there.
Later on, when the ideological divisions sprang up, their influence was evident in the only library that was situated for a long time on the corner of Dluga and Zygmuntowska Sts. This library contained about 1000 books and had a steady management. From time to time readings and lectures about cultural and political subjects were held there.
The second significant library that held a greater number of books than the first was on what we called Bialistotska St. This institution was patronized by the Right Poale Zion, although it was a party that did not have a strong influence on the Jewish masses. The leaders of this movement put their entire energies into this library, which was situated for a time on Pietrowska St. in a primary school called Tel Chai where a great deal was taught in Hebrew.
A respected cultural position was held at the Jewish workers union building at Topolowa 5. It was set up in 1925 in a wooden annex leaning on the side of the worker's club. This was a library that influenced and was a guiding light for the working youth of Brest for many years. A center that lit the way for Brest and the surrounding district. There were many issues and problems discussed and debated until late at night in this worker's library between members of the various movements. Opinions were expressed and listened to and much knowledge was gained from this spring of learning.
Books were purchased from the meagre savings of zlotys and groschen. Later on the various unions took over the management of the library. There were shelves full of new books, but the waiting lists were so large that one often had to wait a long time for a new book. The Brest Relief in the U.S. sent a large number of books in 1937. There was also a donations fund collected for the worker's library both in Brest and abroad to buy Polish books. I remember the joy when the first translated works of the French writer Romain Rolland arrived one could see the effect on all the youth of his large work 'Jean- Christophe'.
The worker's library contained the largest selection of sociological works. One could obtain anything from the lightest writings to the classics to the writings of Marx (the censored versions). The fact that the 5,000 or so members of the working class in Brest could obtain these books for a very small amount of money was extremely significant. The library's aim was to bring to its readers the very best that had been produced about philosophy, literature, and the arts. The books purchased omitted sensationalist and cheap romances.
Our reading masses did not include pampered girls and bourgeois connoisseurs. The readership of the workers library consisted of people who were self-made and educated, and had a deep desire to serve the revolutionary movement. In Brest there grew up a group of cadres who were joined by their revolutionary activities many of them sat in Polish prisons and concentration camps. For a certain period the workers library supplied books to the Brest prison and also sent books to Siedlce and Verancer prisons. A great number of these books were never returned because the prison authorities confiscated them.... the workers library was like a thorn in the eyes of the Polish reactionary authorities.
From the beginning of 1929 more members were persecuted and especially the members of the library committee. The Polish agents Butkowski, Stashek, and the 'red haired' Censor persecuted them. Their reign of terror was designed to curtail our activities by reducing our membership so that the library would collapse. They did not succeed in this despite their chicanery and scheming. The working class members remained faithful to their library. It's existence endured and the workers library remained active until the late 1930s.
In 1939 when Brest was liberated by the Soviets Army, the workers library together with all the other libraries were unified into a large single Soviet State progressive library with a Jewish branch that was situated on Dabrowska St. The Nazi gangsters destroyed this branch, together with other foreign language books.
I awoke in the morning on the train that had travelled from Warsaw and asked my fellow passengers where we were. Terespol they said. Terespol! It rang in my ears. As a youth I had walked there daily from Brest. Terespol was considered as belonging to Brest although it was situated on the other side of the River Bug, the western side.
Nowadays Terespol is the last Polish stop before entry into the Soviet Union, it is a border town, close by is the border station on the Soviet side. In Terespol already? I asked, disappointed that I had slept through stations such as Siedlce, Mezrich and Biala, although what would I have been able to see in the middle of the night?
I stood next to the window and would not leave it until we reached my birthplace of Brest, until we disembarked from the train. Meanwhile the train stood for ages in Terespol. There was a new white station building that reminded me of the small station at the last Polish stop of Stolpe. But the gendarmes are absent. Much has changed my heart was heavy because my thoughts were in Brest. As in all my previous visits to Brest, I would become impatient in Terespol who of my loved ones would be there to meet me? Which of my childhood friends would still be in the city? Now I knew that no one, no one would come to greet me at the entrance to my hometown.
This time I was also impatient, but reluctant, because I wanted to travel there to find out the truth, to hear and see everything, but will there be anyone left to tell me anything
The train stopped at Terespol for a very long time, at least that's how it seemed to me.
Finally it moved and my insides moved too we were travelling to Brest.
We travelled slowly; the bridge across the River Bug was a temporary wooden one, near it in the water lay the broken ruins of the old bridge, next to it in the river and on the bank the broken pieces of a German train. We are already on the Russian side; there is a glimpse of the first Russian flag. The train entered a wide network of railway tracks, amongst much construction activity.
I see a familiar bridge that we pass under; I see the words Brest Litovsk in Latin script a remnant of the German occupation. I know that soon we'll be at the station - I tighten my glance to catch the first glimpse of it there it is, just as it was when as a youth I returned home from Warsaw.
And what would happen if all those who came to greet me on my previous visits would come to greet me now? Why not? It was the same station my fantasy lasted for the blink of an eye . we had arrived and the train stood at the wide platform. In front of me was emptiness, although in reality there were many people. On the platform there were crowds of passengers and porters and carriers with white aprons, carrying their luggage. Brest was a very important station for the Soviets Brest was the main junction for a great deal of traffic to and from Poland and Germany.
The station was packed. On the inside it was the same station, different to that of before W.W.1, but the same as during the Polish regime. However, it was livelier and noisier. As I waited for a porter to carry my luggage to the border control, I inspected the crowd. I am thinking of one fact would anyone recognize me as a local who had come from far, far away in the west to once more gaze upon my father's house?
The border control went quickly and smoothly - we were checked at the luggage pick- up and our passports stamped. I left my luggage at Intourist (the Soviet govt. tourist agency), and went into the buffet restaurant with all kinds of emotions and thoughts jumbled in my head. I look at a nearby table it was at that table I had sat with my sister in 1932. I try to drive out such thoughts of the past and decide to go into the city immediately.
Where to? To whom? Where am I hurrying to? Perhaps there are still hidden people who will make the truth clear to me? I cannot stop, I walk faster and faster I want to go by the road over which the horse drawn carriages would travel to and from the station. One cannot the bridge has been destroyed. I recall that there was a footbridge over the many railway tracks that led back and forwards to Poland, Germany and Moscow. My thoughts chase after me here I am a small boy and my father is taking me to the station for the first time. I was frightened by the noise and tumult. I awaken from my reverie and I am still afraid. In front of me are the steps that will take me to Brest. At the bottom of the steps I reach Organitke St. I cannot recall its former name . I think it was called Oxenhendlers (Ox Traders) St. Our part of the city was far from the station.
I feverishly looked around; my eyes catch a sign advertising a new restaurant on I.L. Peretz St.
Yes, there was a street in Brest named after I.L. Peretz !
I move more briskly along a street called Cosmoskolskaya, and reach the boulevard that is situated in front of the church at what is now Mitzkevitch Place. I turn slightly left into this boulevard and follow Sovietskaya St. into the city. I can't recognize the street because there are fewer buildings than before and many vacant plots where houses once stood so that it is possible to see the neighbouring streets from afar. Before 1914 Sovietskaya St was called Milianeh St. Further up was the newer boulevard called Poletzeiska (Dabrowska in Polish). I soon arrived at Pushkin St where everything including the name was the same as before 1914. There I crossed into Kubyshev St (I later found out that this street was formerly Dluga and my home street), but at that time I was unaware of this fact. The traffic on Pushkin St. was not exactly as before there were Russians, White Russians and Jews I search for any familiar face I pass by a familiar house someone looks out of the window, I don't know the face he wonders who this sweaty person going past is
I cross Kubyshev and travel further along Pushkin St. I arrive at a street called 1st of May St., and turn right to go uptown. I see an old Polish sign that says Piotrowska . I know that this will lead me to 'our' quarters. I walk up this street and arrive at a wide tree lined street. Are these new boulevards? Where are the former benches and handrails? The homes on both sides of the street are gone the trees are the only witnesses that this was once a boulevard. This street is now called Gogolia St.
I am now in the part of the town that was so well known to me in my youth. Again thoughts of promenades and walks on these formers boulevards - thoughts of the people I met when I came here as a visitor - but I chase these thoughts away. The harsh reality is in front of my eyes. I orientate myself to the new names my eyes catch sight of a familiar round roof yes it was the Great Synagogue. I hurry back through Gogolia St. to Sovietskaya and there is the familiar corner (Steinberg's wall) of Steinberg's pharmacy that is now a burnt out shell. Further along all the houses stood exactly as before and for an instant I thought that I was back in the former Brest. The fantasy feels warm and friendly, but the reality does not vanish as I am overcome with longings. Again I find myself next to the Great Synagogue I stop and study the familiar building. It was exactly the same as before, but had many dark colors painted on it by the Germans as with many other building to camouflage them from the Soviet airplanes. The stone fence with its iron palings around the synagogue was exactly the same as before.
I can't stay long I am impelled to find my 'home'. I cut across to where Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik once lived (the rabbi's house is as it was before). Along Sovietskaya (Dabrowska) I reach a street that was once Krivaya and there I see familiar houses. There I am near Shossenaya that is now called Moscovskaya, I turn right into a boulevard and I see an area of shops that look exactly the same as before I turn left into the street that was once Dluga, now Kubyshev St.
I stop at the corner of our street here my questions would be answered., the questions that had haunted me since I left New York. Is our house still intact? Who was living in it? Strangers? Or had it been destroyed? What was better? I constantly ask myself. I talk to a young Jewish woman on the corner, one of the many Jews who have settled in Brest. She told me that they survived by going deep into Russia, I envy her experiences she has her own family. I finally turn into my street.
There are fewer people there and it is quieter but it is almost as it once was. The houses are almost all there a row of houses is missing but I do not notice this at first. From afar my eye caught sight of the high wall in front of number 154, my home. Who would I find there? The stress carries me forward I am at the gate looking into the yard. Inside there was nothing - no buildings, and one could see far into Kozlovitch St. where ruined houses stand. Slowly I walk to the place where my home once stood. In my mind I can see the door here was a window, here there were another two windows. I picture the interior - thousands of images flood before my eyes images from my early youth until the last time I visited in 1932. But now I stood on empty ground.
Scattered around the foundations were broken bricks and rubble. One wall remained as a kind of Wailing Wall where one could cry. I pick through the broken bricks, here is a broken samovar maybe it is one of ours How did it get there? My sister and her husband and their two little daughters Fraidele and Feigele lived there until the ghetto was liquidated. Who knows who else was crammed into this house when they were brought into the overflowing ghetto from all over the city?
I dig further and find an old ladies shoe, rotten from the damp. How long had it been lying there? I convince myself that it belonged to my sister. Who can tell me? Where are the former neighbours? Who can tell me anything?
There is no one around; I stand alone with my memories and my unanswered questions I am reluctant to leave, but I must find someone - someone who can tell me something, but where should I go and to whom?
Not far away on Shossenaya St (Jagiellonska) stands Uncle Yossel's large building. I step into the courtyard everything is the same as it was in 1932 when I was last at my uncle's for tea. I knock on the door and ask if my uncle was there? Other people now live there they are very sorry but don't know who the previous occupants were. Like the majority of inhabitants they came to Brest, found an empty house and moved in. They do know that this was in the ghetto and that when Germans came and liquidated it all the Jews were taken to Bronnaya Gora, which is on the railway line to Baranovitch and murdered there. A great many were shot there into large pits.
The strangers empathize with me, they moan and curse the Germans but I quickly leave. I am on my way to the mass grave that is at 124 Dluga St, across the road and not far from where Israel Wolf's prayer house stood.
I stop at 130 Dluga, where several of my acquaintances once lived. Several Russian women (whose husbands work for the railways) spoke to me and showed me where on the other side of the road, rivers of blood poured. But the largest slaughter, they say, was at 124 Dluga. At the back of the former 124 Dluga St, now Kubyshev, was an empty plot, not large and enclosed from all sides. This is where the Germans chose to slaughter thousands of Jews. Who know why? What's the difference where they were slaughtered?
I stand and gaze at this empty plot later I was told that over 6,000 Jews were murdered there, mostly those discovered hiding in cellars and attics after the Brest Jews were taken away to Bronnaya Gora. I stand and look whose bones lie here? Who can talk?
Whilst in Poland I was given the address of a Piotr Grigoriev, a Russian who was a great friend to the Jews and personally knew thousands of them. I hurried across to other side of the city to Piotr Grigoriev's home. I met the elderly tall Russian and his whilst they were having a meal they were typical good-hearted, hospitable Russians, and likeable people. Yes, they knew many Jews. Piotr had once been a bank teller. Looking at me, he recounted the names of my near ones. He told me about Jews that had survived and immediately took me to the homes of Brest Jews. We went to the home of Mama, the mother of all the formers Briskers who now lived in Brest. Fania Lichtenberg lived at 32 Sovietskaya with her daughter Rachel, son-in-law Ben Zion Kaplan, and their baby Moishele who was the first Jew to be born in Brest since the end of the Second World War. We went to a Dr. Kummel's who also lived on Sovietskaya St, to Dr. David Gotleib's on Budiane St, and to the young boot maker Boris Berchtchev, (Tzalke the locksmith's son) at no. 4 Peretz St.
Piece by piece, the strands of the story were woven together. I was taken to Israel Manker's home in Grayevka near the railway station to sleep. But our conversation continued well into the night. Manker tells me an incredible story with all the gruesome details of how he and his two children were hidden in an attic by a Christian family for 18 months. The next morning this hospitable, warm man of the people Israel Manker harnessed his horse to his cart and drove us both around the city, in search of Brest residents, old and new, and to visit formerly familiar places. I was given the concept of what the ghetto had looked like. We met a boy who was an eyewitness of the slaughter at 124 Dluga. We talked about those who were no longer alive and the 'former' Briskers and the 'new' Briskers. We talked about Briskers in the U.S. and in the new Soviet Union.
After leaving Israel Manker's in Grayevka we went to the Jewish cemetery that was not far from Grayevka. When we arrived I saw the thoroughness of the German work. Whilst travelling through Europe, Poland and the Soviet Union, I had heard a great deal about the barbarity of the Germans. I thought that I could not be surprised anymore nevertheless when I witnessed what had been done to the Jewish cemetery in the city of Brest - I was left speechless.
The Briskers who were with me said that the old cemetery contained about 62,000 Jewish graves. I don't know if more than a few hundred remained essentially the very ancient graves with the small weathered tombstones. All the monuments and crypts had been removed what they couldn't take away they broke up. Mostly it was an empty unrecognizable field. I told myself that the Germans had done far worse; they had set fire to living human beings, poisoned, suffocated and buried people alive but it was of little consolation to me.
From the former cemetery we again went into the city and to 124 Dluga where 6000 had been brutally murdered by the Germans. As we stood and gazed at the yard, a Jewish woman came out to meet us, she was from another part of the Soviet Union whose husband worked in Brest. She told us of a youth who had witnessed this slaughter we found him, his name was Scholem Reisman, aged 18, and who was 14 at the time of the massacre in 1942. Scholem hid with his father Fishel Reisman in the attic of the house at Pieratskiego 22, but the Germans discovered them after the ghetto was liquidated. After a short time of imprisonment, they were taken to Dluga 124 and ordered to undress. The 14 year old saw how his own family was shot. He managed to conceal himself under a mountain of clothing from which he emerged at nightfall. A Polish woman at Krivaya 22 his him for 3 weeks, then disguised as a Polish youth he travelled on train after train until he arrived in Cologne Germany. There the Germans discovered that he was a Jew and sent him to a slave labour camp. After the U.S. Army liberated Cologne, Scholem Reisman wandered around and went back to Brest after the war ended to seek for any surviving relatives.
This sounds unbelievable, but in Europe there were many such unbelievable stories.
There was so much to talk about with Scholem, how he saw his own family being shot and thrown into a pit. Obviously it was too difficult to discuss this further in detail it was enough to meet this likeable, thin, and wise young man, who had shown so much courage at 14 years of age. It was enough to meet this living eyewitness.
Afterwards we went to the post office that formerly (before 1914) had stood in the King's Gardens, now changed to the City Gardens. Thirty years before, I used to meet many of my friends there and wander through the streets. I found myself once more gazing at the remains of my family home on Dluga St. Then I went to Mama's home - Fania Lichtenberg and her daughter Rachel where the 'former' Briskers had gathered to meet me.
Most of those present had survived because they were not in Brest at the time of the Nazi invasion. One young man had been in a health spa in the Caucasian Mts. Several of the young people had been in the Red Army. Israel Manker and his two small children survived because he had a permit to leave the ghetto to bring in potatoes. (When he heard of the impending liquidation they hid in the attic of a Christian home). 'Mama' Fania Lichtenberg had survived because she was visiting one of her daughters far away from Brest. She showed me photos of her beautiful daughters who had perished in the ghetto. She could not stop crying and asked me why is America silent? How could I tell them that in the U.S. they care for the poor Germans, and how they pity them .
We made up a list of 30 or so names of Briskers who were living in Brest (I later met some that were living in Moscow and elsewhere). What was the total number of Briskers who had survived?
When the Nazis treacherously attacked the Soviet Union on the 22nd June 1941, they were in Brest on the same morning as happened in many border towns. The Soviet garrison in the Brest Fortress bravely held out for some time, but all sacrificed their lived to hold back this 'Blitzkreig'. It is thanks to the heroic actions of tens and hundreds of thousands that this Blitzkreig was eventually stopped.
However, the city was in the hands of the Germans on the morning of the 22nd June 1942.
It is estimated that of the Jews squeezed into the ghetto during that time there were only 16 survivors. There were other surviving Briskers who were not in the city when the Germans invaded. There are a few hundred Briskers scattered around the Soviet Union in places like Moscow and other cities. In Poland there were some in Displaced Persons camps, as well as in Germany, Austria and Paris. And there were 30 former Briskers in Brest itself.
The general population of Brest now is almost as large as it was before the war. I pointed out that Brest plays a significant role as a railway junction and border city. Brest is now a center of cultural institutions, co-operatives, workshops and small factories, and government institutions. There is much building activity many streets look exactly the same as before but many are still in ruins and there is much to be done in the rebuilding field.
Most residents are now Soviets who never lived in Brest before; amongst them many Jews there is the present Brest and the present Jewish community of Brest. The Brisker Landsmanschaften in the world should be aware of this. We talked of this a great deal within the assembled group at Mama Fania Lichtenberg's.
At this stage one may say something about the experiences of a 'landsman', a Brisker myself.
I have been in many cities on my present trip through Europe. Nowhere else did I experience what I experienced in Brest. Notwithstanding that 38 years earlier I had gone halfway around the world as a youth, a birthplace is still a birthplace. Every street was dear to me. Being in the city itself my reunion with the streets and boulevards where I had spent my early years, moved me deeply.
I would say that every Brisker would feel the same way I did, and would like to have seen their city of birth, to see it rebuilt and strengthened culturally and economically.
The Soviet power is rebuilding Brest the fact that Brest has a population almost as large as before the war makes me marvel at the power of the Soviet Union. One cannot bring back to life those who have perished, but Brest is being rebuilt as an important city, which is to some degree an answer to the destructive barbarity of the Germans. I myself wanted to comment on this as I believe that my fellow Briskers share my sentiments.
I met with the Chairman of the Brest Soviet City council, and he was pleased to hear that the Briskers in the U.S. are interested in the welfare of the city of Brest, and that naturally the 30 or so surviving Briskers in the city were delighted to receive the greetings that I brought them and that they had not been forgotten.
During the time I spent at Mama Fania's I collected whatever information I could about what the Germans had done as soon as they entered the city and later on when they established the ghetto, and a clear picture emerged through these discussions...
As soon as they entered on 22nd June 1942, they began looting and stealing. On about the 10th or 12th of July 1942 they carried out their first major 'Aktion'. They rounded up Jews in the street and amassed about 4,200 people, many of them young and from the intelligentsia. Included were the veteran Zionist activist, Zev Dov Begin, the lawyer Kaplan, and the doctors Tennenbaum, Fruchtgarten, and Zylberstein over 4,000 Jews were taken away and never heard of again.
On Saturday the 28th July 1941 an edict was issued that every Jew had to wear a yellow patch with a Star of David, that Jews were forbidden to walk on the side walks and that it was forbidden to assist Jews or to trade with them. Every Saturday new restrictions would be issued.
On the 8th August 1941, all men were ordered to assemble in the large square between 'Nevski' and the cathedral in order to be registered. Thus began a series of 'contributions' on that day they imposed a tax of 2 million zlotys on the Jews.
On the 2nd of October 1941, they collected 24 of the town's leaders and openly beat them with sticks such games were performed for days on end in this manner, through terror and oppression, the Germans prepared to squeeze the Jews into a ghetto. When they issued the order establishing the ghetto they calculatedly sought to extract even more money. They deliberately reserved a small area of the city between Dluga and Siroka streets to be the ghetto only after diamonds and jewellery were delivered to them was the ghetto enlarged to Dabrowska St.( formerly Politziska) in width and the new boulevard of Kosciusko in length, across the main road to Pivovarne St.(formerly Hakadosh St.). The Jews themselves had to build the wall around the ghetto the main gate was at Pietrowska.
The front houses on Dabrowska were not included in the ghetto. The ghetto wall ran through the back of these houses such as Steinberg's pharmacy (Mrs Steinberg refused to move into the ghetto, so she went up into the attic and poisoned herself) The Jews were driven into the ghetto on the 16th December 1941 and 22,800 Jews were registered (the Germans had already murdered over 5,000). One of the first orders was that the women should all shave their heads this was an act of humiliation, and the Germans needed human hair.
Thus began the day-to-day extermination of the Jewish community through beatings and starvation. As in other ghettos, children were often the main providers of food for their families. Children under 10 years of age did not have to wear the yellow patches. They would crawl through the ghettos walls to beg, steal and bring home what they could obtain. It is true that a percentage of the ghetto Jews managed to live well by trading and business dealings with the Germans, but at least 95% of the ghetto's inhabitants were hungry. The prayer houses were set up as communal soup kitchens.
On the night of the 14th October 1942, the ghetto was surrounded. The next morning, on the 15th October the 'liquidation' of the Brest ghetto began. Led by the Germans, their work was carried out by Ukrainian and Polish police. All the residents were forced out of their houses and led away to trains that took them to a place called Bronnaya Gora on the Baranovitch line, and there they were murdered.
In the many weeks that followed they hunted through the ghetto for those people that had hidden in the cellars and attics. Hundreds were driven out of their hiding places by hunger and thirst. The several thousand people who were thus collected were all murdered at the yard of 124 Dluga St.
We had a living witness amongst us at Mama Fania's. The young man Scholem Reisman sat and talked and talked until I could not absorb anymore in this manner I found out what had happened to the Jews of Brest. There were also about 16 souls that had survived by hiding with Christians until the Red Army entered the city. Who knows how many more Jews had hidden, but to survive 2 years in hiding was no easy thing. Often they were discovered and denounced by spies. Often the gentiles that hid them would become afraid and ask them to leave. Israel Manker told me some terrible stories of the 18 months that he and his 2 small children were hidden in an attic.
We compiled a list of these 16, most of who were not in Brest anymore, and a list of the 30 or so survivors who were in Brest at that time:
Israel Manker with his son and daughter, living in the suburb of Grayevka, Republicanska 59.
Leib Weizman with his wife and 4 children at Kubyshev 143.
Fania Lichtenberg at Sovietskaya 32.
Rochel Lichtenberg with her husband Ben Zion Kaplan at the same address.
Berl Borshever (Tzalke the locksmith's son) and his wife Bracha Heifetz at Peretz 4.
Shepsel Ramo, Sholem Berezhniak, Avraham Goldman, Mordechai Roizel, Genia Shedrovitska, Yankev Wachterman, David Gotleib (dentist) with his wife and child,
Dr Mendel Kummel, Menache Chatzionski, Yosef Goldman, Scholem Reisman, Sara Weinstein, Michal Woliniec, Moishe Engelman, Shaya Grynblatt, Leizor Chumetzm Mottel Ratnofsky, Avraham Hirsh Goldfarb, Zelig Ras, Chaya Shuchman (daughter of Berl Shedrovitski),.and Leibl Guzenfitter
Brest was liberated by the Red Army led by Marshal Rockasovsky, by using an encircling manoeuvre they aborted the German plans to destroy the city. About 70% of the city remained standing.
Whilst walking around the streets or travelling through Brest by carriage many memories came flooding back to me. I was happy that the hand of the enemy had been too weak to destroy the city. When I finally walked to the station accompanied by a group of 'former' Briskers including the youth Scholem Reisman, I knew that this would be my last parting from my birthplace, my home until early adulthood. But I knew that this visit would be deeply etched into my brain This greatly tormented city of Brest, the city of great fires, and of learned men and sages and world famous rabbis. This city that had a revolutionary movement in Tsarists times that I was a part of for 15 years - I had joined in 1906. The city that the Germans had mostly destroyed during W.W.1 and this time had tried to completely eradicate. Brest Litovsk, Brisk D'Lita, and Brzesc nad Bugiem under the former Polish rule.
This was my much-tormented birthplace where the Germans had murdered over 28,000 Jews, amongst them my sister, her husband, children, uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces the entire family. They had even destroyed the tombstones and graves of my parents and grandparents in the Brest cemetery.
I was hurt to have to leave the streets and boulevards were etched into my brain - those remaining and those that had been destroyed. The rebuilding that was taking place in the city. Especially dear to me were the 30 surviving Jews, they were so few and I will not forget them.
When my train to Moscow began to leave they raised their hands in farewell, higher than the others was the boyish hand of Scholem Reisman. To me he symbolized those murdered and buried in the mass grave at 124 Dluga St.
As in all other towns and villages, in Brest Jewish education began with the cheders. These cheders only gave a religious education to each new generation and were the sole influences in shaping the child's character and in introducing him to the outside world.
It is impossible to describe just what these institutions were like, and what an influence they exerted. I myself remember the dirty rooms, packed with children chanting the same refrain, read to them by the rabbi all day long, year in, year out.
The two large Talmud Torah buildings housed the higher levels of orthodox education - the yeshivas.
Altogether they taught thousands of youths from Brest and the surrounding district.
The most renowned cheders in Brest were those run by Eliahu Sini and Kupchik.
During the First World War, the Talmud Torah buildings were burnt down. When the Jews of Brest began to return home from their exile in the surrounding district and further away, they began rebuilding the Talmud Torahs, but at the same time, new concepts of a Jewish primary school arose and were embraced by the young people and the ideas became reality.
In 1920 the doors of the first Jewish primary school were opened in Brest. The prevalent teaching language was Hebrew, but under parental pressure Yiddish was also taught. This is how it got the name Yidddishe Folkschule, and was located at Topolowa 12.
The second Jewish primary school was called Tel Chai - it was the official Hebrew Jewish School, and was located on Dluga St.
It didn't take long before two Yiddish secular schools were established by the Jewish working classes. These schools were distanced from any reactionary influences- all the teaching was in Yiddish. The first Jewish secular school was at 5 Kosciusko St. and was named after the creator of a universal Yiddish I.L. Peretz. It had 6 classes and was directed by the teachers Fanaberia and Shneider.
The second Jewish secular school opened at 4 Zygmuntovska St. and was directed by the teachers Moishe Menachovski, Esther Menachovski, Broitmacher, Zigman, Paviner and others. This school ran seven classes as well as an evening school for adults. All of the general subjects were taught in Yiddish.
These two schools produced hundreds, even thousands of students who later became famous activists in the Brest worker's movement - migrating from there to many countries in the world where they contributed to the communal and cultural life.
The more affluent classes also had their own educational institutions. These were the Delatycki and Ashkenazi high schools on Dabrowska and Jagiellonska streets, the Tarbut School on Jagiellonska, Levitski's high school on Bialostoska, and the last one was the orthodox (Mizrachi) Tachkamoni School on Dluga St.
ORT also built a large trades school that was wonderfully well organized into 5 separate divisions: joinery and carpentry, metal smithing and lock smithing, mechanical, dressmaking, and building.
The wide network of Jewish educational institutions that served the entire Jewish community of Brest over the years was like a beacon to the Jewish youth that grew up into productive adults.
We don't have the information on what directives the Russians issued when they took over Brest in 1939, only that there was one large department established for Jewish education. However, that was short lived as the Nazi criminals attacked Brest like wild marauding animals and destroyed everything and murdered everyone.
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