(40 years of Fundraising for the United Brisker Relief)
As in a dream the beautiful city of Brest appears before our eyes. Brest with its wide streets and boulevards, the Nevski Prospect on the beautiful Mukhavets River, the City Gardens, with it's hidden corners and paths where the young could dream of organizing themselves against the Tsarist regime to make a better and freer life.
Brest with its great markets and fairs where the poor would come seeking to make a living.
Brest with its many religious institutions, with the Great Synagogue, with its first Zionist conferences, and with its first of May proclamations. The great fortress of Brest where Shlomo the tailor, Michaelevitch, Pessele Katalanski, Reuven (the tailor) Saltzman, Pesach Novick the teacher, Weinstein and many others were held. The 'Butchevnik' who sold potato cakes on the banks of the wide river where the boats were moored, and the singing on the moonlit nights where beautiful ideals were dreamt for a better world.
The first act of retaliation from the revolutionary elements was when the 'dog' Orgenisov paid with his life on the street for his murderous acts against the working classes.
The period between the First World War and the Second World War were difficult ones full of much suffering the Pilsudski pogroms, wars and destruction. Brest was the battleground for opposing armies that came and went. The Tsarist army burnt more than half the city when they left the German army dismantled everything they could find in Brest furniture, machinery, metals, building materials, timber, even the street poles were ripped out and the bricks from the destroyed buildings were all sent back to Germany. Already then, the Germans showed what they could do, they banished the entire population of the city, and for three years the inhabitants of Brest wandered around in exile in the towns of the surrounding district: Biala, Lukow, Mezrich, Antopol, Radzin,Siedlce,Kobryn, Drohicyn, Pinsk, Pruzany, Bereza Kartusza and other towns further away.
When the Briskers returned to their city, they were confronted by the Poznanchiks (non- local hostile Poles), who tore beards off the faces of orthodox Jews and threw them out of train carriages, and beat the beautiful elderly Jew Michael Weisman to death.
Brest became a living hell of anti-Semitism, economic boycotts and pogroms. The intention was to make our beautiful Brisk D'Lita a Polish city, and the Pilsudski and Grabowski governments wanted to erase the remaining Jews of Brest.
Then Brest once more came under attack from the murderous Hitlerite animals that attacked at 3 a.m. on the 21st June 1941 and overran the city. People were still asleep whilst the Nazi murderers were already burning and looting. From then onwards it was the destruction, torture, murder and extermination of the 30,000 Jews of Brest.
From the dreams of my youth until the destruction of the Brest Ghetto it should never be forgotten that the Briskers in North America have worked for 40 years in the name of Brest to help the city and also to assist their fellow Briskers in all different parts of the world.
39 Years of Activity For Our Brest Brethren
Next year will be the 40th anniversary of the Brest Relief Fund. This was the only organization in the U.S.A. that awakened the conscience and requested donations for the Brest Relief to assist Brest and Briskers for the entire 40 years of our welfare and relief work. We still hold dear the beautiful city of Brisk D'Lita.
The idea of creating an assistance fund arose in 1914 with the outbreak of W.W.1
At that time the yearning for the 'old home', was even stronger we understood that there would be a great demand for assistance from the city when the war ended.
A group of 5 Briskers (including the author) met at 179 East Broadway in New York at Sarzer's restaurant, and laid the foundations for this organization. Two months later in January 1915, all the Brisker associations assembled at a large conference under the chairmanship of Yankel Rosenberg. It was unanimously decided to establish the Brest Relief. Today it is called the United Brest Relief.
The whole long journey of providing assistance and help for our needy brothers and sisters has not been an easy one.
A year after its establishment there was a dispute with the older members of the organization. They said that it was not necessary to raise money for Brest because there was no one left in the city to help as the Germans had exiled all the residents. The younger element that were the driving force in the organization felt that the war would not last forever, and that there would be a great need for help from us when the war ended. We conducted this fight to support the fundraising work of the Brest Relief, but the older members stubbornly left the organization, and the younger members continued the work.
At the beginning of 1917 we found an announcement in the Warsaw press that a committee for Brest had been formed in Warsaw with Mordechai Baraks as its chairman. The purpose of this committee was to provide assistance to the Briskers scattered around various towns and villages in dire impoverished circumstances. We immediately sent $1000 to this committee and this proved how right we had been not to stop with our fundraising work. However, until this day there are elements that do not want to support the Brest Relief.
Nevertheless, this stubborn group steadfastly continues with its welfare and assistance work and does not let itself be provoked thanks to them the prestige and status of all Briskers has been elevated (including their opponents). Their fundraising has occupied a prominent position amongst all the Landsmanschaften in the U.S.
Brest Relief Delegates Travel to Brest
After W.W.1 the problems of sending money from person to person was made more difficult due to the great devaluation of money money deposited in the bank lost its value. The Brest Relief decided to sent 3 delegates to Brest P. Rabinovitch, Hyman Kleinberg and Y. Finkelstein. We brought with us over $200,000 cash to the city. This was a colossal sum and a huge achievement for the Brest Relief. As the city had been largely destroyed this money was mainly used for rebuilding the city. People began trading and doing business, workers got jobs and the institutions began to develop.
In 1937 there was a pogrom in Brest there had been a period of inaction in the Brest Relief, but it reorganized itself and resumed its fundraising and sent over $10,000 to the various institutions in Brest. From this time on, the Brest Relief has never stopped its work, although in 1941 we had more advisors who told us to cease our fundraising activities, but once again we did not heed this advice.
Shortly after W.W.2, we began to receive letters from Brest survivors in Poland, France and Germany, in D. P. (displaced persons) camps. A group in Stettin Poland organized themselves with a committee. In France there was an organized Brest Assistance Committee. The Briskers in the D.P. camps in Germany were under the leadership of Avraham Lutenberg. All these committees received help from us: France $5,500, Stettin Poland $4,500, over $1,000 for parcels of food for the D.Ps. plus $500 for clothing and cash to the Briskers that were in Italy. The Brest committee in Tel Aviv received $1500.
When the War of Independence broke out in Palestine, the United Brest Relief sent a fully equipped ambulance and first aid station to the Haganah fighters with the name of Brisk D'Lita on it. When the State Of Israel became a reality the Brest Relief decided to commemorate the name of Brest in Israel. At present there is a kibbutz in the Negev called Kibbutz Gal-On in memory of Brisk D'Lita. The Brest Relief has sent this kibbutz farming machinery worth over $12,000 that was urgently needed. Recently there was a Tel Aviv Brisker Loan Fund set up with $6,000 to provide loans to newly arrived Briskers.
Besides our fundraising for assistance, which was the basic aim of our organization, we did not shirk our community responsibilities. The Brest Relief strongly protested when the Polish Pilsudski hooligans threw Jews out of railway carriages, and tore their beards. They savagely beat the elderly Jew Michael Weisman to death in Domski Square, and boycotted Jewish businesses. When the pogrom broke out in 1937 in Brest, we organized a huge protest rally with many U.S. government and city officials attending. When Hitler began his destruction the Brest Relief together with the other Jewish organizations went to the Jewish Congress to protest. When Brest was liberated from the Nazis the Brest Relief celebrated by holding a great night-time function with various dignitaries addressing the audience, including the Soviet ambassador. We held a large nighttime function to celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel, and many other events that were part of the Jewish community life.
This limited space does not permit me to mention too many details about our long, hard road, the huge efforts made by our volunteers people who dedicated their lives and gave generously to assist their fellow Brest brethren. I would like to single out the different Brest welfare groups that collected money in the cities of the U.S.:
Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York and Los Angeles.
This would be an entire chapter on its own the story of how these Brest fraternal organizations distinguished themselves with their hard work. The few Brisker survivors who managed to arrive in the U.S. would by met at the ship, and we would assist them to settle in. Amongst them was Dr Y. Kagan with his family. This talented social and community activist had been the Director of the Jewish Hospital in Brest, and chairman of the Jewish community council (kehilla). He said finding myself amongst my Brest brethren, my wounds from the years of pain and suffering during the bitter Hitler hell have been made lighter.
The Brest Relief was the only organization in North America that maintained direct written contact with Briskers in all parts of the world and provided direct assistance to them. The historian who writes the history of the Landsmanschaften in the U.S. will have a great and beautiful chapter about the Brest organizations and the United Brest Relief, which will only add to the greater glory of the city of Brisk D'Lita.
On the subject of the publication of a Brest Memorial Book I would like to clarify matters if I had more space to elaborate, however as I must conclude I will say these few words on this subject. When our brother Yankel Goldblatt sat with us at our celebratory function he said: I saved myself from death in Treblinka and will not touch upon this great wound today. I have lost my entire family and was left alone, and Brest was wiped out. But I cannot tell you all how happy I feel today when I see the Brest Jews in North America who still hold dear the name of the great city of Brisk D'Lita. I say that the leaders and activists of the Brest Relief should be blessed.
Although the membership of the Landsmanschaft was drawn from former Brest residents, the organization was funded largely by the United Brest Relief that took an active role in helping them grow we always went to the United Brest Relief in New York with our list of needs for Brest and were never refused. Therefore it did not matter where the source of the financial support came from the support of the Relief was the impetus that helped the Brest community workers themselves raise the extra funds that were needed. The funds raised and given to Brest enabled the fundraisers in Brest to go to their compatriots and say: Look at your brothers in the U.S. who don't see the need for this particular organization - you must also give as much and more.
This quote often helped us raised the needed funds.
The dedication, devotion and brotherly love was so strong that after every crisis, e.g. the pogrom of 1937, the Brest Relief would respond immediately with substantial material assistance as well as moral support. This helped 100s of ruined Brest families of tradesmen, workers and merchants the chance to rebuild their destroyed properties, small factories and shops and to get on their feet again.
The Jewish Hospital got a guaranteed annual budget from the Brest Relief, and received supplemental funds to purchase medical equipment and instruments, set up a laboratory and enlarge it's pharmacy.
The city of Brisk D'Lita, a city in the Nation of Israel, lies on the banks of two rivers the Bug and the Mukhavets. The city of famous scholars and teachers of Torah such as Shlomo Zalman Luria , Yoshe Ber, Chaim, and Velveleh Soloveitchik - who all lived and studied in Brest, and added many bricks to the foundations of Jewish religious life.
Already in the middle Ages, Brest played a significant role in the life of the Jews of Lithuania and Poland. It was at the head of the Council of Lithuanian Nations, and was a leader of the political and social activity of those times. The city greatly enriched the Yiddish language and literature with a whole plethora of Jewish writers and literary figures.
Today, the city of Brest that exists after W.W.2 has a minimal Jewish participation.
Knowing the history of the city of Brest that had been wiped off the face of the earth more than once, and has endured many fires, wars and social upheavals, we know that in a matter of a few years the city will be rebuilt and enriched and beautified in many ways. Its institutions will grow and it's trade and industries will be developed. The resilience of the city will enable it to adapt and grow into a larger format as it did after W.W.1. The years 1920-1939 showed that the Jews of Brest were capable of rebuilding their city bigger than before and with larger institutions by their own initiative, and with financial support and co-operation of the Brest Relief in New York.
During that period (1920-1939) the city of Brest grew into a city of 30,000 Jews that was more than 50% of the total population. It had a great number of educational institutions such as the Tarbut High School, the Tachkamoni School, the Bet Yakov School - the most famous Talmud Torah in Polessie with it's three storey building, was a yeshiva that drew students from all over the world.
The Trades School (ORT) that was extremely popular and staffed by professional tradesmen, many of who later went to South America. The Yiddish primary school named after the writer I.L. Peretz was a beautiful two-storey building that produced many social activists, writers and poets. There were two primary schools belonging to the left and right Poale Zion, and famous libraries such as Tel Chai, Scholem Aleichem, and the Worker's Circle, the sports clubs such as Maccabi and the Jewish soccer club. There were 36 synagogues and prayer houses in Brest.
Lastly, the Jewish press with its daily and weekly newspapers that gave a detailed coverage of Jewish life in the outside world generally and Brest specifically. I personally know that many of these articles were reprinted in the modern Yiddish press in other parts of Poland and abroad.
Social welfare for the Jewish poor in Brest was concentrated in the Jewish Community Council (kehilla), but community work was also represented by several welfare institutions that ran large enterprises like the orphanage (Beth Israel) with it's 120 orphans, the children's hostel that cared for about 100 children, and the crèches that fed and cared for 100s of poor children.
The many and varied activities of TOZ - the medical organization, that was famous for its medical services and care. The TOZ activities in the battle against tuberculosis and trachoma, and their publicity campaigns for hygiene and cleanliness in the Jewish primary schools. TOZ organized and ran summer camps for children at the nearby health resort of Domachevo, providing full and half board.
The Jewish Hospital had 150 beds, and its fully equipped medical departments could provide every medical service to the Jewish community. This hospital served as a focal point for all Jewish doctors who were not allowed to practice in the government or city hospitals. This was where the young Jewish doctors received their medical internship in all fields of medicine and social work.
All of the above institutions had their own buildings, as well as the financial institutions such as the Jewish People's Bank, the two Merchant Banks and others.
Flowers lie on the fresh grave- Yitzhak Kagan is no more. The heart that pulsated with so much love and dedication for his people is still. The faithful brother who had so much warmth, idealism and wisdom in his approach to the community work that influenced his whole life. Dr. Kagan, the faithful man and friend is no more who was he?
Already as a child in his birthplace of Narevke he had begun to help the needy of Narevke.
Later, as a medical student in the city of Prague he organized the Jewish students into a literary and cultural club, and gave lessons before W.W.1. As a young doctor he already played a significant role in the Jewish community - he saved many Jews from death, who had been falsely sentenced by anti Semitic officials.
He was appointed medical director for the Joint and organized hospitals and ambulances for the whole of the Bialystok and Polessie districts. In Brest he was the director of the Jewish hospital, president of the Community Council, one of the organizers of the Trade Union movement, and a city councillor. Appointed as a Polish government doctor, he took upon himself the welfare of the children of Brest. He participated actively in the welfare and communal work of the city and lectured on many subjects.
Dr. Kagan managed to save himself and his family from the claws of Hitler during W.W.2. They hid in an attic for 28 months, hidden by one of his patients - a Christian woman. This woman looked after them the whole time (how did she do it? This is an entire chapter by itself). When the Russian Army liberated Brest Dr. Kagan again became active and was appointed as director of TOZ in Wroclaw. He set up several hospitals for Jewish survivors in Poland. After the pogrom in Kielce in 1946, he decided to leave Poland. Upon his departure Dr. Kagan accompanied 500 Jewish children who had been 'reclaimed' from Polish families to Paris. The majority of these orphans are now in Israel, Canada and the U.S.A.
Upon his arrival in the U.S., the United Brest Relief searched for ways to alleviate the suffering that he and his family had endured and to assist them in their new country. He had high hopes of being active in the Jewish community, but the difficulty of adjusting to a new country plus all the sufferings he had undergone had affected him greatly. Eventually we found him a position as a doctor in the new retirement home for the elderly members of the Workingman's Circle.
There he began once again to resurrect his career as a medico, as well as that of a worker for his community. Within a short period, he managed to achieve miracles. The residents of the home idolized him for his selfless dedication, his compassionate understanding of the elderly, just the same as it was for the young. However, the great suffering that he endured as he witnessed the slaughter of the entire Jewish population of Brest appears to have affected his health after finishing work (having saved a member who had a heart attack), Dr. Kagan himself had a heart attack and died in the arms of his patient.
As soon as he disembarked from the ship in N.Y. the Briskers in N.Y. felt enriched by his great and beautiful spirit. He was a man who loved his people with broad understanding and insight. During the 5 years that he lived amongst us, we always felt his warmth and love for his compatriots. One felt that it was a special occasion just to spend time with him in his home. The more you got to know him, the closer one was drawn to him not as a doctor, linguist, Talmudist, but as a sincere friend.
To the Brest compatriots here he was the symbol, a living witness to the Nazi slaughter of 30,000 Jews in Brest.
He would grind his teeth when he read in the press of the revival of various Nazi movements only yesterday they had murdered 6,000,000 Jews and millions of other nationalities. We would sit and converse for long hours, not about personal matters, but about the great social conflicts that were taking place worldwide. Although he had experienced great personal ordeals, he nevertheless was full of optimism and belief for a better future, and in the goodness of man. He believed that in the end, all mankind would live in a beautiful free world.
Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rav or Chaim Brisker as he was known, was greatly renowned as a scholar and rabbi, and renowned even by today's rabbis. After the death of Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan he became recognized as the greatest Torah sage of his time and the leading authority on all religious subjects. From all the corners of the world, rabbis would turn to him for advice, with many questions and answers. The highest authorities on the rabbinical and Talmudic councils of Russia listened to his opinions with the greatest heed. To the modern world the name Chaim Soloveitchik represents an image of passionate fanaticism, which would not accept any compromise with the modern world, or with secular Jews. Such was the reputation of the Brisker Rav around the world.
One only needed to spend a few days in Brest to realize that this interesting and diverse personality had a different image in Brest. Little was spoken of the learned sages and the fanaticism of Rabbi Chaim. The Jews of Brest knew a different aspect of their beloved rabbi he had made a deep impact on all circles of Brest society by his high moral principles and personality. All were in agreement from the young freethinkers to the elderly orthodox Jews they all would relate various stories about theirrabbi Chaim. These stories resembled the legends of the ancient rabbinic sages.
Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik was a short broad Jew with broad shoulders and large brown eyes that looked out at the world with childlike innocence. He did not possess any forbidding rabbinic airs he never looked down on people or frowned at them. His face was untroubled as he heard the complaints of his followers - he was a simple down to earth Jew, who knew the world from his viewpoint; perhaps better than we did, never resorting to any trickery. And although everyone said that he had a great brain and great intellect, due to which he had attained fame around the world he did not live through his brain but through his heart. His heart was full of love for all mankind, for all oppressed peoples that were fallen, downtrodden, and on the lowest rung on the ladder of human fortune.
The Brisker Rabbi was the last of the bygone generation of rabbis who did not know of financial worries. The shames (beadle) of the Jewish community council would bring him papers with requests, including donations. Rabbi Chaim would take the papers and envelopes without looking at it. Several minutes later, an elderly Jewess enters and complains of her sick children, they have no money for food or doctors and medicine. Rabbi Chaim takes the envelope out of the drawer and gives it to her without a thought it contained 20-30 roubles a large sum. This would happen frequently, it also happened that the rabbi himself would sit down to eat and that there would be no food .
It was then decided by the Kehilla (Jewish council) not to give him any money personally but to give it directly to the Rebbetzen his wife. The Kehilla sent wood for heating to the rabbi it allotted 500 roubles per year for firewood. It was quickly seen that the rabbi was a huge user of firewood. The question occurred to everyone how was it that the rabbi had no firewood? It must be that the timber merchant was stealing from the rabbi they conducted an investigation and found that the timber merchant was not guilty. The rabbi had received all the allotted timber they discovered that he would use less than 20 % of the wood for his personal use the poor, not stealing, but invited by the rabbi to take what they needed, had taken the rest away. The shed was open to all. They decided to put a lock on the woodshed the rabbi would not permit this saying: how can we be permitted to sit at a warm fire whilst the poor sit in the cold?
It was not only the poor who came to Rabbi Chaim, also fallen women like the girl that had sinned. She wanted to kill herself and her illegitimate child who had no father. Who would employ her with her bastard? The entire community had excluded her and everybody pointed at her. Without the child she could travel to another town in another country - the world would be open to her. But the child is her badge of shame she is constantly reminded of her sin. Which rabbi could such a woman approach with her heartache? She approaches Rabbi Chaim with her dilemma. Rabbi, what should I do? Rabbi Chaim does not abuse or accuse her, he listens silently without reproach, and then says: bring the child to me.
The sinner is stunned, she does not believe her ears, people will see this, and what will people say? But Rabbi Chaim quietly says: bring me the child early in the morning, at 5.a.m. nobody will see you knock on my door, I will open it myself and personally take the child.
At 5 a.m. the next morning when everyone lay in deep sleep, the streets and lanes were deserted and dark, all the attics and stores were silent, and an unhappy young woman wanders through the side streets with her basket in her arms she arrives at the rabbis door and knocks. It opens immediately, and a hand stretches out and takes the basket and it's contents from her without a word.
Such legends abounded in Brest about Rabbi Chaim and they said that the rabbi took dozens of such children. How many times did Rabbi Chaim exemplify the words of the Torah? Whoever saves a life and a Jewish soul is the example of the whole Torah. I doubt whether Rabbi Chaim thought about the Gemarrah at such times as he lived more with his heart than with his head.
Brisk there are those to whom it is a mere word, amongst other words, a synonym, a description, a meaningless sound. But for me Brisk is an echo of a great and wonderful symphony, a reflection of the joys and sufferings on its boulevards and marketplaces. The struggles, victories, defeats and final destruction. The final bitter fate of your sons who have sung of their dreams and aspirations there, of your sadly missed forests and rivers, and of your still blue evenings and surroundings.
Brisk you were a wonderful symphony. A tragic wonderful unfinished symphony. Your sons who have roamed over all the paths and fields in all the corners of the world, still quiver like broken violin strings every time they are reminded of you.
They are reminded of you (although perhaps not exactly as you were) you were their first home, the place where the mother rocked her sons. The first time the son walked - one does not exactly remember when, but one always remembers that bunch of childhood memories, just as one carries inside oneself memories of a dearly beloved person.
Your mornings and evenings, your flowery spring with the lilacs, acacias, and sweet summer blossoms. Your sad forlorn autumn with the fallen yellow leaves. Your frosty winter days with the tinkling bells of the gliding sleighs, and the ringing laughter of your youth. Who can forget all that?
Brisk You are a melody, a melody that has lingered with me wherever I went, from Heidelberg to Rostov, from Paris to Buenos Aires. Wherever fate took me, the fate of a Jew in our stormy century, everywhere I went I sang the song that was deeply imbedded within me. A song of your living days and of your cut-off unlived days. Your fate, the fate of my home Brisk was the same fate as all the other Jewish towns and cities of our Old Home. In all time and over all the generations, you were just a speck on the great expanse of the world map. It was your fate to be wiped off the face of the earth. They tore your strings out and a strange miracle occurred you went on singing the song of the Jewish home with your torn strings.
Memories of youth, this is a lump that chokes in the throat one cannot cry or swallow. This emotion is always near and painful, and one cannot rid oneself of it. On the contrary, these feelings inside me flutter with a strange vitality under the huge mountain of the torn leaves of our lives.
The Bug and the Mukhavets
These two rivers flowed past your shores. Two currents of water that were bright and silvery on your moonlit nights. They carried the sounds of songs of your longing sons and daughters from distant places back with them, and the longings of those who wanted to swim away to the faraway places of the outside world. Certainly for us those moonlit nights were not about going to the railway station .
The railway station, what a gamut of memories it touches upon. Going to the station fanned a feeling within us of going out into the larger world. Going to Kiev, Kharkov, St. Petersburg, Riga, and Berlin, going far away into the unknown world wherever the shiny rails led to. Those shiny unending railway tracks on which one was carried away with the sad long whistles of the train. It evoked a yearning for distant and unknown places, and above all for the student cap and uniform with its brass buttons those lucky enough to go away to study on those shiny unending rail tracks and return for their summer vacations. Those in the student uniforms brought back with them Heidelberg, Paris and St Petersburg, and the renaissance of new ideas that promised a new bright morning in the New World.
The envious feelings towards the 'elite' who were fortunate to go away to study and especially towards their uniforms did not erase the new ideas that had captured us and to which we gave all our youthful enthusiasm and passion.
In secret groups we would meet in the forests, and in boats on the moonlit nights on the Bug and Mukhavets rivers, on the never-ending promenades over the boulevards and along the riverbanks. We would heatedly discuss, debate and argue amongst ourselves about a chapter from Plekhanov, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Lermentov, or over Goethe and Heine. These intense and emotional discussions led to the formation of several groups and circles. It spread in all directions to those who pledged to improve the world and beautify mankind's life.
These groups that would fight like lions over a chapter of Plekhanov, or a passage from Goethe, would however unite against the outside enemy the older generation. The older generation that declared war against going out with girls, against singing songs, against any wrong doing. The struggle was not an easy one wars against ones own fathers as well as the opposition of the orthodox with their 'staff' the porters and wagon drivers who did not like our rebellious behaviour and the promenading with girls and singing songs at night. They tried in their manner, with threats of money and then violence to return us to the righteous path. They had the quiet assistance of the infamous police chief Organiev, who was later killed by a revolutionary bullet, and who did not like our young revolutionary groups. This shows how deep and intense was the belief of these young people who in the end triumphed.
Won and Lost
The revolutionary bullet that pierced the dark heart of Police Chief Organiev was an alarm bell to the higher powers to make an end to all this 'modern' thinking. Especially in a military fortress city like Brest. This was executed by the heavy hand of the Kurlander Baron General Leeming (Commandant of the Fortress). The first step in carrying out his mission was to strengthen the Brest garrison by bringing the famous Libauer Battalion to Brest, which was brought in but later served for other purposes
But the waves of freedom that flowed through Greater Russia also shook the foundations of the Brest government authorities. That year was also met in Brest with red banners and the magic slogan of 'freedom'. Like a strong wine it inebriated the waves of the surging masses that streamed through the streets and lanes of the city where they fell upon the poor. In the 5th year (1905?) the stormy songs of revolution from the exultant youth were mixed with the tears of joy from those older, down trodden, and spat upon, who believed that the end had come to their oppression and persecution, and their anguish and loneliness.
And when the Governor, the famous general Voroniev, holding his grandson at the spontaneous street demonstrations and speeches, embraced his Jewish neighbours who previously would submissively bow their heads and doff their hats to him then the Jews felt that the messiah had arrived.
However, this great joy that spread like a forest fire on a hot day, and had infected all young and old, Christians and Jews alike, was extinguished by a terrible word, that carried within it the cold gleam of a sabre and glowed like the mark of Cain this terrible word that hung over the Jewish streets like a dark cloud and curdled the blood in Jewish veins, this word that brought a beautiful dream to an end was POGROM.
The famous Libauer Battalion stationed in the Brest fortress undertook the true mission for which they had been brought to Brest - they were sent out, not in their military uniforms, but in plain clothes. They roamed through the Jewish streets in gangs, to carry out their mission of splitting Jewish heads to terrorize, rob and loot.
The old classic method of shaking out the bagels from the basket of an elderly poor Jew at the market was the signal for their disguised soldier gangs to begin their activities of beating and looting.
And now there was another surprise the young men who helped their fathers carry their heavy loads and deliver millions of envelopes and cigarettes into Greater Russia the two industries that gave a great number of Brest Jews their livelihoods these young men, who learnt grammatical formulas and arithmetical puzzles, and who would meet after their studies and work in the evenings to discuss Marx and Engels. They would promenade along the boulevards with girls and sing songs of Pushkin and Bialik, recite poetry and express their longings with delicate fingers on a balalaika, dreaming of quiet nights on the Bug River these romantic dreamy youths suddenly awoke to the reality and became cold and with hearts of steel.
As if from under the ground, well organized groups sprang up in reaction to the fear of death spread by the 'heroic' gangs that fled back to the fortress. The term 'self defence' became greatly feared by the undercover Libauer soldiers, who proved to be a great disappointment to their commander General Leeming. He saw that the situation was not advantageous and was forced to make an apologetic speech to the public, and join the Jewish self-defence groups in rushing the 'progromchiks' back to the reserves camp of the military commission at the fortress.
This speech was the first and last of its kind when such an exalted personage as the Honourable Baron General Leeming had to address the lowly Jewish community, which ended just another chapter of the Jewish struggle for existence in the city of Brest.
And here in front of me lie these written pages, just a pale reflection of those wonderful beautiful days, the dawn of our generation that promised a bright new day and brought very dark nights. A terrible night in which our heroic sons and daughters went on their final path. Your song was interrupted at its awful crescendo, and we, the lucky remainder, the lucky accidental remainder, scattered throughout the world, have resumed the interrupted sounds of the unfinished song and will carry the melody further .
Dr. Shteinberg was the Russian Army doctor at the Brest fortress and held the rank of Colonel. In those tsarist times very few Jews ever reached this rank. He was also the chief of all the army doctors at the fortress because of his great knowledge of medicine. He was an assimilated Jew, but he was still linked, body and soul, to the Jews of Brest. One could say that for a certain period he was involved with the Jewish community because he stood for election as a candidate to the Russian Duma (parliament) for the Brest district. Due to various reasons he was not successful.
This was in the time that the first Duma (1906) was about to fall, and the police chief that ruled in Brest was anti-Semitic. He would not accept any bribe money from the Jews, and gave them as much trouble as he could. He specifically harassed Jews saying that they were all revolutionaries. As it happened at that time there were indeed well organized Jewish revolutionary youth groups but there was also no shortage of weak Jewish bourgeoisie (middle class) that were spies and provocateurs.
They would drop into the police chief's office to inform on their fellow Jews. This would be followed by many arrests and imprisonment. Michalovitch the Bundist was hidden at Gendrel the printer's house and was spirited away from Brest at night for fear of his arrest and Siberian imprisonment.
The second example occurred on a Friday night two young Jewish soldiers were patrolling and did not notice the two young officers that had just graduated from military school. They did not salute and the officers took their details and reported them the next day. The two young Jewish soldiers, who were not from Brest, knew that they would be arrested and cried. The Jews of Brest sympathized with them then Dr. Shteinberg drove up in his droshky and asked what had happened. He ordered his driver to take him to a certain place where the two officers were he abused them verbally and tore the notes out of their notebooks, and made certain that they would not further harass Jewish soldiers.
After W.W.1 a Dr. Michachinski practiced in Brest, he was a convert to Christianity his origins are unknown, but it was known that Dr. Soloveitchik, the rabbi's brother in Warsaw, had assisted him in his career. During the war he reached the rank of captain, but had fallen in love with a Polish nurse, leaving his Jewish wife and children for her.
He was the best doctor and surgeon in Brest. He operated in all the hospitals as well as the Jewish hospital. A Dr. Kummel, who sadly died young, assisted him. Dr. Michachinski was a great card player and would spend entire nights in the club. Whenever a poor Jewess with a kerchief on her head would appear, he would immediately drop his cards and leave with her going directly to the sick patient. Whenever it was necessary he would leave money for medicines, firewood, coal and food. However, when he treated wealthy patients he would demand $100 payment up front. Brest had several such doctors from its beginnings until the destruction of its Jewish community.
Chairman of the Kahal
After W.W.1 the chairman of the Kahal was the 'nervous' Begin, as he was called. Why was he called the nervous Begin?
Every Brisker remembers that he would walk through the streets, nervously shaking his head, talking and gesticulating with his hands, even more than most Jews normally would. On the holydays he would wear a top hat and formal black coat.
He had another nickname Chamberlain. Nevertheless he was a devout and decent Jew. He was an excellent diplomat who spoke several languages. In addition he was a good speaker his speeches were always full of quotes from the bible, he was a good chairman.
He did a great amount for the Jews of Brest, always running around here and there, whether to provide assistance for the homeless, or to squeeze more money out of the Joint to build barrack style emergency housing, the ORT school and other institutions. He was often in the company of the engineer Winikoff and other community activists.
He would intervene with the Polish district governor General Malagenovski on behalf of Jews who had no papers and help them get Polish citizenship with the endorsement of the Kahal council.
The anti-Semitic Polish government was not satisfied with its discriminatory laws against Jews, and would also send agitators to the town and villages to incite hatred against the Jews. Amongst these agitators was the convert Yadzke Kamietz. Whenever he would speak, the pogroms would follow.
When the Jews of Brest would discover that he was to speak in their town, there would be fear - Orthodox Jews would say their prayers, others would console themselves and the Jewish organizations would talk of self-defence. Jews owned almost all the cinemas, dance halls and theatres and the few Christian landlords would not hire out their halls because of their Jewish clientele. However, the proprietor of the 'Callas' theatre was an anti Semite and hired out his hall.
Then Begin ran around the streets more nervously than ever to collect money to bribe the police and intervened together with his friend Winikoff with General Malagenovski, who was a friend of the Jews. Before the convert agitator arrived (he would choose the Sabbath) on a Friday night, the entire Brest police force was on alert. Which Brisker does not remember that that Friday evening, when no groups were allowed to promenade on the Third of May St? The following day the expected incidents took place but the police would not allow any violent manifestations from the Polish hooligans. Thus the 'nervous' Begin saved all the Brest Jews the Brest Jews from a pogrom. General Malagenovski was presented with a gold handled sword from the grateful Jewish community of Brest.
The Brest Jewish Firefighters
Whenever there was a Jewish or Christian holyday, the fire fighters of Brest would parade through the streets in their uniforms, immaculately groomed and presented. They would be accompanied by their own music band, following them were their beautiful wagons pulled by well-fed horses containing all their fire fighting equipment and machinery.
What Brisker does not remember the light ridicule and hilarity when they would arrive after the fire was already extinguished? The most laughter was provoked by the deceased wealthy gentleman from Kobryn who wore his medals and never took his pipe out of his mouth. But nobody ever doubted the dedication of these volunteer fire fighters and their devotion to saving lives. The alarm (bugle) would sound in the middle of a cold frosty night the bugler would run through the many streets as they fire fighters did not all live in the same locality, he was often joined by half dressed fire fighters asking where the fire was
This fire fighters brigade was formed after the first Great Fire of Brest when half the city was destroyed, little children perished, and much Jewish property was destroyed. At that time the idea arose to establish a Jewish fire-fighting brigade and not to have to rely on the city's firemen.
After many long meetings and negotiations, a Brest volunteer Fire Command was established with two divisions. The first was of firefighters that risked their lives, the second was of lawyers, notaries and businessmen who would assist the fire victims and safeguard their remaining assets.
When the second Great Fire occurred in 1901, more that half the city burnt down once again, but without the efforts of the fire brigade, the entire city would have been burnt to the ground due to the strong winds. As well as the winds there was no running water in Brest at that time. Water was brought by barrels from the river. Despite these obstacles, they saved much of the goods and merchandise that were in the warehouses, several of which burnt down.
They also kept order people were rescued and took what they could of their possessions. Together with the police the second division surrounded the saved goods with chains and set up guards. During W.W.1 when the entire city was evacuated, all the fire fighting equipment was removed from the city and never seen again
Every Brest resident was afraid when they heard the bugle sounding the alarm. After W.W.1 when Brest was being resettled, there was much building activity and the fire brigade was re -established consisting of members that had returned and new volunteers. Which Brisker does not remember them? They would collect donations or hold celebratory firemen's balls to raise money, as the city council did not support them enough financially.
The ORT organization in Brest laboured from morning to night to build a Trades School. This was a place where orphans and Jewish children would learn different trades they saw to it that this school would house the most modern workshops, equipment and machinery.
One frosty night a piece of burning coal fell onto a workbench in the ORT workshop the fire ignited and spread into a large blaze. The watchman was asleep and barely escaped with his life. The Jewish fire fighters risked their lives to extinguish the fire, some were injured and risked burns, Mischa Sarver almost broke his leg they used all their powers to save what they could, once again the lack of water was a problem with all the neighbourhood Jews bringing barrels of water.
The anti Semitic Poles stood by enjoying the spectacle. By the time that the firemen from the Fortress arrived together with the firemen from the railway station, the ORT school fire was extinguished. Who knows how many of these Jewish fire fighters were themselves burnt at Auschwitz or Treblinka?
We Briskers will never forget them.
On Mukhavets St. in Brest there were two brick buildings encircled by high white walls from which one could only see the barred windows on the top floor. This was the large Brest prison, which one could say was a holding station for arrested political prisoners awaiting sentencing.
They would be held there temporarily, once their verdicts were announced they would be send on to other prisons such as Siedlce, Bialystok, Waranov, Swienta, and elsewhere.
I am reminded of an incident it is six in the evening. A shrill whistle cuts through the damp prison air. The door of the woman's cell (where the female political prisoners were held) opens. A prison elder enters to report on the events of the past day. He makes his count of the cell inhabitants to see that no one is missing with the heavy sound of the cell door closing after him, we know that we will not see their hateful faces until six the next morning. We can hear the sound of other cell doors closing and the retreating footsteps receding down the long dark prison corridors. Then a deep silence would reign, interrupted only by the night guards in the corridors: get away from the windows, you cursed dog or stop your singing, you son of dogs. Otherwise one would think that one was surrounded by the night alone.
The long hot days of summer had not yet ended and the sun is low on the horizon, but the sun has not forgotten us even in our predicament, and in her last hours sends us long caressing rays through the barred windows.
This was the resting hour in our cell, after a whole day of lectures and discussions; everyone is busy with their own private thoughts. Verka, a tall thin woman marches up and down the cell. She walks as quickly as she can, thinking that this will bring more air into her ailing lungs. She seems very frail only when one looks into her beautiful eyes does one can sees a lot of life and hope. The uncertainties about her poor health, and if she can survive several years of imprisonment that still await her must worry her. She is an excellent housekeeper - and therefore was in charge of running the cell. Who else could manage, during the punishment period when no food was allowed into the prison from outside, to divide the daily portion of bread? When we lay tossing and turning on our mats from hunger, she had managed to save pieces of the black sticky bread for each of us.
Beside Verka walks Katya with her broad Slavic features and dreamy blue eyes. What concerns does she have? Aha, it is dusk, the hour when she must take the cows out of the fields!
Then there is the comely Olga, always happy. In her mind she hurries to the nearby forest for a secret political meeting.
Perhaps every one of them is hurrying in her private thoughts, perhaps they are thinking of recent discussions. They all come from similar villages hardened by manual labour, their roughened hands are now without work. Most of them could stand up on their folded mats and look out of the windows that were up high in the wall. One had to be very careful that the guards on the other side of the wall should not notice - the punishment was that the privilege of receiving food and newspapers from outside was taken away.
For us Brest girls the windows had a special significance and drew us like a magnet. We were in our own hometown, separated from our loved ones by high white walls. Malka the redhead said that if one could look through a couple of streets, one could see what was cooking at home, see what was happening and almost hear her mother crying. And how far away was Rachel's house? Only a few minutes walk. The river held a special attraction for us the magical river that wound itself from afar like a blue scarf. It reminded us of May excursions and summer evenings when it's gentle waters would refresh and caress us after the heat of the day. One would imagine that one could hear snatches of quiet conversations from groups on the river shore, the still night waters carrying the secret conspiracies away and spreading them over wider horizons.
The sun has almost set and nightfall takes hold the small and pretty Freydl appears close to the prison. Sorka is close to the window and quickly throws a letter out through the bars. The letter is weighted down with a stone so that it will not fly away and stuck shut with sticky breadcrumbs. Freydl picks it up and quickly begins to distance herself but suddenly there is a whistle what is happening? Every one's heart stopped - from the cell, we can see Freydl running from the pursuing prison guard he is very tall, his black shiny boots are almost as large as Freydl herself. We all ask ourselves, why is she running away, she'll be caught anyway? We don't have to wait long for the answer. Freydl is close to the river, and with a strong throw she hurls the letter into the water where she knows that it will be swallowed into the deep waters that seem to be on our side. Freydl stands breathless. A large hand grips her shoulder, through our gritted teeth; we curse him with terrible revenge.
One by one, we return to our mats, some singing a fighting song, some cursing. We can't sleep and all are certain that in a few days Freydl would be joining us in the cell, bruised and beaten, but smiling and asking us: how are you doing girls?
After a while we are all seated in a circle - we would not miss our night lesson which was given by Lubka and Mifka. These two girls were from Vilna Mifka was an intelligent girl that had graduated from high school. Beside that, she had obtained much knowledge in prison. Lubka went to 'university' in prison, she is an open book, and every question put to her is answered fully and clearly, just as she is herself.
It is now late at night and we are lying on our mats. Mania quietly sings a White Russian song she has a beautiful voice, and when she sings it is as if a great eagle has soared from the clouds and put was into a cage. The prison guard listens from behind the locked cell door only when she finishes singing does he call out: be quiet you dog's blood!
Several years have passed since that time, but in my mind the whole group is alive: Rushka and Leska - two teachers who yearned for their students. Little Esterke, for whom the prisoners had a special respect. They were wonderful girls, and I would ask myself how could so much knowledge come out of such small bodies? Genia from Lublin this young Polish girl with her upturned nose had an exceptional memory, whatever she had learnt was retained in her head as if written in a book. Sorka from Slonim, Esther Malka, the black haired Manya, little Mirka, our Sorka from Brest, all of them showed exceptional talent for educating and changing themselves. There were many others, who knows what happened to them and what terrible fate the Nazi beasts prepared for them?
Perhaps their blood stained the river's waters red, or their ashes fertilized the fields. One thing is for certain, that their ideals have conquered and that the ruins of our destroyed city will be rebuilt into a city such as we all dreamed of. But who of you have survived Hitler's living hell to witness the new Brest?
A living, flowering memorial that we will never forget.
He was born in Brest, for a short period he attended cheder, but he was orphaned early and was shuttled around between various relatives, including his mother's family in Krakow.
At twelve years of age, he went to work as a bookbinder and later in an envelope factory. From 1900 until 1911 he served in the Russian military. After that he worked for several Warsaw newspapers - 'Neies', 'Freindt', 'Heint' and 'Moment'. His poems were published in the 'Lemberger (Lvov) Social Democrat'. He was appointed head master and teacher of the Yiddish primary school in Terespol.
From 1920 he was employed as an editor for the 'Polessie Shtimme', which appeared twice weekly in Brest, and published a weekly edition which was concerned with politics and social issues. He encouraged the concepts of productive labor, using the Jewish agricultural settlements in the Crimea as his example.
A letter from Brest was received by Shmerel Gershenboim, a Brest born compatriot living in New York. Shmerel sent it Yankel Finkelstein, the executive secretary of the United Brest Relief. Shepsel Ramo writes:
I received your letter today, my dear friends Shmerel and Beile you cannot imagine my joy upon reading your letter, it brought tears to my eyes. You write that surely I must be the only one left of my entire family. You are not wrong, my dear friends the Nazis criminals murdered all of my family my mother, brother, the same for Zelig, Chaya,Mindel, Laibl, and David. Laibl and his wife Chaya were all murdered in October 1942 and buried at 124 Dluga St.
When comrade Pesach Novick (the editor of Morgen Freiheit) visited Brest in late 1946, I was then on leave. I walked with comrade Novick through the city and showed him the great sacrifice our city had made. I showed him the place where my whole family and all our friends were buried. Over 28,000 Brest Jews had perished. In 1940 I went away with the Soviet Army. I survived the war intact; I was never wounded and have been awarded medals.
I beg of you, my dear Shmerel, to give my heartfelt greetings to comrade Novick - he remembers me well as I travelled with him through the whole city and escorted him to the railway station when he left.
Your eternal friend,
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