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[Page 93]

The Jews of Brest in the 19th Century

By M. Kaplan

Translated by Dr. Samuel Chani and Jenni Buch

Great Synagogue

In the year of 1793, after the partition of Poland, Brest fell into the hands of the Russians. Then Brest- Litovsk came into a new and difficult period. The ruling powers decided to build a fortress in the city.

The orders to build this fortress and to move the town to a new suburb, Kobryner Forshtadt, were issued in 1837. Under these edicts, the government was to pay the full value of the property assets that were in private ownership, so an assessors' office was established.

The order of moving the houses in order to build the fortress was established according to the street plan. It was also forbidden to bury the dead in the old town's cemetery.

The committee set aside an area for burials in the new town, which later became Spitalna St., the intention being that the new town would be established away from this area.

After a competent authority finished the plans for the new town, it became obvious that the area allocated for the new cemetery (people were already buried there) had become developed with small factories, so they were forced to move the cemetery to another area.

The Jewish community received a certain sum as compensation for the old synagogue and decided to build a new synagogue. The plans were presented to the military authorities at the fortress and from there it was sent to the 'Supreme Power'. After personally inspecting the plans and not liking them, the Tsar wrote the following remarks with a pencil, saying: 'not beautiful, the synagogue should be built according to the Viennese design'.

The Tsar's wishes were presented to the head of the kehilla, and the Jewish community sent a man to Vienna to design a synagogue based on the Great Synagogue of Vienna. The Viennese architect prepared plans that were adorned with artistic drawings of men and women in the grounds of the synagogue. The men wore shtreimls (fur hats) and the women wore wigs in the style of the orthodox Viennese Jews. The drawings were delivered to the office at the fortress and endorsed as being in accordance with the wishes of the Tsar. The community leader and historian A.L. Feinstein discovered these drawings in 1885. This is the story of the Brest –Litovsk synagogue being built in the “style of the Great Synagogue of Vienna”.

The historic synagogue in the old city was built in the time of Saul Wahl, on the wall of its lobby was a white marble plaque about one metre in length, which read: In memory of the Sage and Genius Saul Wahl, under whose patronage and generosity this synagogue was built in the year …. During the transfer of the holy vessels from the old synagogue to the new one, they tore this plaque off the wall and rebuilt it in the lobby of the new synagogue, also in the rebuilding of the plaques, words such as the year were missing, so they just inserted dots.

Opposite the white marble plaque there was a black marble tablet with the inscription:

This Synagogue was built according to the plans and under the supervision of Tsar Nicholai 1.
The terrible fire, which broke out in the town on the 4th May 1895, destroyed half the city – 45 souls perished by fire or suffocation. But the fire did not spare the beautiful Great Synagogue of which only four walls remained; also the historic plaque of Saul Wahl was destroyed. The synagogue was rebuilt in 1896, but it was not as beautiful as before. During the German occupation of 1915-1918, the synagogue was also badly damaged, but thanks to the dedication of the Gabbehs, the synagogue was restored and surpassed the earlier building.

Rebuilding of the New City with Its Institutions

The Jews of Brest were very diligent in commerce, and in this sphere they showed a wondrous talent, after all the fires and wars and pogroms and plagues that the town endured, after all that, the Jews managed to rebuild their town with great energy. The city was built anew after several years and became much larger and more beautiful than before. An important factor in the development of the Brest was the digging of a canal connecting the Dnieper with the Bug in 1841. This canal connected the Pina with the Mukhavets, thereby allowing the movement of ships between the Dneiper and the Vistula. In the year 1899, 11 steam ships, 279 cargo ships, and a great many smaller fishing vessels used it. The export of timber and wheat also developed. - almost all the trades and manufacturing were entirely in Jewish hands. Industry could not be developed more because of the law prohibiting the building of tall buildings, higher than the fortress. Yet there were factories of soap, leather, luggage, uniforms and others. Brest was a Jewish town, the tradesmen and skilled artisans were all Jewish.

Not only in the sphere of commerce and industry did the Brest Jews show remarkable talents.

They also established welfare institutions which lightened the load of the poor and sick.

In 1838, before the new city was built, there was already an institute for the poor and sick which was called 'Hakodesh' (The Holy). This institution had a pharmacy, 40 beds for the sick, and was maintained wholly by donations.

The second important institution which was founded in during the cholera epidemic of 1865, which caused a great loss of lives, was Bikur Cholim – the visiting of the sick, founded by the Rav Hersh Orenstein. This society had the following aims:

To support widows and the destitute.

To distribute food and medicine to the poor and sick at a very small charge.

In 1876 an old age home was founded which had a hospital ward and a synagogue, and later in 1906, a 'welcome visitors' hostel was founded for travellers passing through. Wandering destitutes came to this house, and in the time of W.W.1, this house played an important role as a refuge for the homeless.

Another institution was the Woman's Society, which was established to provide poor women with milk and nourishing food, also this organization established an orphanage in which both boys and girls received an education, and later training in a trade to help them in later life.

There was also a 'Righteous Fund' where the poorer business people could get an interest – free loans.

In 1906 a Talmud Torah was established where many children studied, subsequently there were 1200 pupils aged 6 – 18. There were 24 teachers for 26 classes, besides Hebrew and religious studies, pupils were taught in Russian, on the orders of the Russian government.

Special teachers had to be hired to teach Russian, so special taxes were raised for this by taxing kosher meat, and donations.

As well as the four communal Jewish schools, which were attended by 800 boys and 900 girls, there were seven State Schools, in which Jews also studied – 10% of these students were Jewish. There was a Business School (Handelschule), a Technical High School called Realschule, and a High School (Gymnasium) for boys and girls.

At the pre- Gymnasium level, 50% of the pupils were Jewish.

Fire and Pogroms

The terrible fires that broke out in 1895 and 1901 have destroyed almost all the city – many people perished, and the damages amounted to tens of millions of roubles. Interestingly, the fires occurred at the same time of year and in the same street, although six years apart.

The great fire of 1895 destroyed half of the city; the second fire of 1901 destroyed the other half. Ten people perished in the first fire. In the second fire, the fire spread to a beautiful and large part of the city, wreaking wide-scale destruction and damages. Jews from abroad sympathised with Brest's plight and rushed to help the victims of the fire – sending aid, money and food. Also the Tsar, Nicholai 11 donated 300,000 roubles towards the victims. The railways provided free transport to all the victims of the city and vicinity. The second fire caused a great exodus from the city with masses of people fleeing, many returned, but many settled elsewhere.

Until the fire of 1901, almost all the whole town had been built of timber, because of the frequent fires, it became forbidden to build houses of wood, and in time Brest was rebuilt with buildings of brick and one and two storeys high.

The wide waves of pogroms that spread over the country in 1905 did not miss Brest. The anti Jewish propaganda and hatred was spread through the “Organization of King Michael”

(Soyuz Mikhael Arkangel). This organization caused the excesses of the 29th May, 1905. This was after the disastrous Russo-Japanese war when the returning soldiers and reservists came to Brest, which served as a transit station and camp to the army.

At the time there were clashes between the Jewish self-defence and the hooligans who were assisted by police patrols. Amongst the Jewish self-defence force there were many dead and wounded. A Jewish doctor, Ksaveri Shteinberg, showed great heroism in saving lives, giving medical assistance to those in need. Running around in his colonel's uniform, he showed great skill in evading the hooligans and the police

During the Revolution

The role of Brest in the general revolutionary movement was significant. Exactly as in other towns, there was in Brest and underground revolutionary movement. Which subsequently built the movements that led to the formation of revolutionary parties – the largest of which was the Bund. The head of the Bund was Moshe the'Weisser', the teachers Schmaltz, Weinstein and others. Later they were arrested and sent to Siberia. Besides the Bund, a large role was played by the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party, known as “Iskrah'. On the Jewish scene there were also active smaller parties such as Poale Zion and S.S. and the Polish Socialist Party (P.P.P.S.), which existed in Brest.

After the failure of the 1905 revolution Brest returned to it's quiet normal everyday life. The city's commerce and industry was almost entirely in Jewish hands -70% of the population was Jewish. In 1913 there were 57,000 inhabitants in Brest, 40,000 were Jews, 10,000 were Russian, and 7,500 were Poles. However, there were only 3 Jewish representatives in the city administration., whereas the Christian community had 29 representatives.

The outbreak of war in 1914 hit the Jews like a thunderclap, and deeply shook the community's existence as the city was on the Russo-Polish border, and at times the Russo-German border. As well as that, Brest was a fortress and the military powers gave special attention to the city, and made great efforts to fortify it. To this purpose, the inhabitants of Brest, especially the Jews, dug trenches and erected wire-fences around the outside of the city.

The issue of the mobilisation of the civilian labour force was like pawns in the power-play of the authorities, men were forcibly taken to work whether they were needed or not. During 1915, thousands of men were taken and conscripted for forced labour, they were detained all night by the police and the Cossacks, they were held in the city gardens, and in the morning they were marched on foot towards Wlodawa, driven by clubs and truncheons, hungry and thirsty, arriving beaten and exhausted at night to the village of Kostamalitz, near Klodny.

From there they were expelled as they were forbidden to stay in the village. There they spent the night in the forest, stiff with cold, trying to warm themselves around bonfires.

The next morning they were walked to Wlodawa, there they were welcomed by the local military leaders, who gave a speech about how important it was to protect the Fatherland. From Wlodawa these 'workers' were taken to work and distributed around the surrounding villages to dig trenches, however, suddenly the order came to send them home, as the Germans were approaching Brest and their work was all unnecessary.

On the 1st August, 1915, the city authorities ordered the city's inhabitants to evacuate, over the next 3 days, the 3rd, 4th and 5th August, the exiled inhabitants received free train tickets, but there were not enough trains sent, so many had to leave on foot or on carts and wagons.

In the city there were large supplies of bread, but they were forbidden to take food or belongings with them. Many left their entire fortunes behind, it was heartbreaking to witness the Cossacks and Russian soldiers ransacking and looting the abandoned homes.

On 25th August, the Russian army withdrew and set fire to the town, and if not for the German army which arrived the next morning and extinguished the fire, there would not be a trace of the city left.

The New Brest

The Russian military power depended on the fortress, with the evacuation of the city's inhabitants, the military began an all-out assault on the Germans and they held up the advance of the Austro-German army for a lengthy time, but in the end, on the 25th August, 1915, they retreated, setting the city alight with inflammable material and grenades. On the entry march of the German army, a terrible scene was revealed to them – the whole city was ablaze, the German fire fighters began extinguishing the fires and saved a quarter of the town's houses.

There was not a living soul to be seen in the city. When the fire subsided, amongst the clouds of smoke, there appeared the first inhabitant of the city, a crazy man. He spoke a good German and came from the old city dressed with a prayer shawl and a book under his arm. His behaviour aroused the suspicions of the Germans who took him for a spy, arrested and shot him. Afterwards, several others of Brest's inhabitants who had hidden from the Russians in the cellars appeared. Over the next days, the slow return of the expelled inhabitants who had fled the city and had found shelter in the surrounding towns and villages began.

The returnees formed a city committee to assist the rights of the returning Brest citizens, and provide them with food and shelter.

This was not the end of their wanderings and trials. The Germans, according to their methods carried out the second expulsion of the Brest Jews. One day, trumpets were heard in the street, the people went outside and were surrounded by German soldiers, who stopped them from returning to their homes, and marched them to the train station. From there they were sent by special trains into the towns and villages of Congress Poland. After this expulsion, the Germans declared the city as an exclusively military town and a military camp designated for Russians prisoners of war.

The Great Synagogue

 

The Interior of the Great Synagogue

 

The Orphanage

 

The Town Hall in Brest before W.W.1

 

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