In the year 1764 the Polish king proclaimed the closure the Council of Four Lands in Poland.
This council consisted of the leading kehillot (Jewish communities) in Lithuania and all the provinces and presided in Brest. The last committee of the five main kehillot consisted of::
Vilna, Grodno, Brest, Pinsk and Slutsk. It was in Slutsk that the last meeting was held and several rabbinical laws were introduced with the purpose of strengthening their autonomy, unaware that the Council was nearing its' demise.
It was then that the Chassidim appeared, who made concerted efforts to organize their own customs, especially synagogue services with public singing, which they introduced in addition to what had been traditionally accepted and sanctioned by the great 'Maharal' (Rabbi Loewy) of Prague. They made great efforts in reaching out and spreading their teachings to all levels of Jewish society. The old order that controlled the kehillot, and by the way, trivialized the synagogue traditions and the collective singing at weddings and other festive occasions was weakened, whilst the Chassidic movement kept on growing and strengthening.
The Lithuanian Rabbis came out to battle the agitators and destroyers''. At their head stood Eliahu, the Gaon of Vilna. The Chassidim had already extended their influence on the Lithuanian cities, in Pinsk, a city of orthodox Mitnagdim, the seeds of Chassidism were already taking hold through the great Rabbi Aharon, who was a pupil of the Mezricher rabbi and one of the authors of 'The Secret Chassidic Sect' in Lithuania and Russia.
From Karlin they pulled the thin threads that were woven into a net and spread out over many Lithuanian towns. In this town which was known for its' many Gaonim (sages) who had occupied the rabbinical seat, and it was there Rabbi Levi Yitzhak (the Magid of Mezrich) became head of the rabbinical court and head of the Yeshiva Holy congregation of Pinsk and district.
After the first excommunication ban was proclaimed by the Vilna Gaon and his followers in 1772 against Chassidim and Chassidism the Jewish masses in Pinsk were outraged and came forward with insults and curses against Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, and attacked him in his house, which was robbed and looted.
Also in Vilna the rabbinic stronghold of the Mitnagdim, the Chassidim succeeded in infiltrating their influence. And it was in Vilna, headed by the Gaon of Vilna and other religious leaders that the community decided to make a stand. In the year 1774, after Pesach, they proclaimed an excommunication order on the 'Chassidic cult. From Vilna they sent out letters to all the main communities in Lithuania and regions towns with a 'Kol Koreh'. That everywhere the Chassidim be excommunicated. On Rosh Chodesh Iyar, a letter signed by the Vilna Gaon, and 16 Dayanim (religious judges) of the Vilna community was sent to the Brest community addressed to Rabbi Avraham Katzenellenbogen, who was a Gaon but he had no understanding of the Chassidic spirit. Therefore, he resisted and fought it with all his might.
This 'Kol Koreh' (proclamation) was spread under the name of the 'Brest letter'. After this letter there was sent from Vilna a circular in which all these accusations were repeated and more accusations added, with a list of specific details. Also in this letter the Vilna fanatics requested that all the communities drive out the Chassidim and exile them as far as a Jewish hand could reach. To chase them out so that they could not even unite for a minyan, and especially not to allow them to pray in a minyan. In the meantime, there was published a collection of all the letters which had been sent out against the Chassidim this booklet was called the Songs of Tyrants and Jagged Swords. It was printed in the same year, 1776. This booklet was distributed at the request of the Vilna Gaon and the rabbis of Lithuania and Galicia.
The Chassidim bought the booklet widely, and burnt it.
It turned out that in Brest, there was no concentration of Chassidim as in other Lithuanian towns. There were several Chassidim but they did not have the nerve to publicly profess this.
The fanatical Rabbi Katzenellenbogen had already participated in the first polemic that year with the Chassidic leaders, and would often debate them. It is to his credit and should be noted that he did not follow the role of Avigdor the Informer, who was crowned rabbi in Pinsk, replacing the Chassidic rabbi. He had Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Lyady and other Chassidic rabbis betrayed to the Russian authorities, who arrested them. Only after much effort from leading personalities were the rabbis released.
Approximately nine years passed since the first excommunication order and in the month of Elul, 1781, in the days of the great market of Zelva, Grodno province, the rabbis and the leaders of the kehillot of Brest, Grodno and Slutsk, gathered in Zelva. Once again there was heard the shofar blowing, and again an excommunication order was read out in the same fashion as had been done in Vilna:
To chase them out and cause them troubles and uproot them like weeds and other instructions to add to the great excommunication so that the Chassidim do not have a place to pray, do not allow them to stay overnight, forbid their ritual slaughter, do not do business with them, do not marry with them, and if any of them dies, do not bury them .
Prior to this, there had been a meeting in Warsaw between Rabbi A. Katzenellenbogen of Brest and Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, for an open debate about Chassidism. This debate took place in the Warsaw suburb of Praga, attended by a huge audience. Rabbi Katzenellenbogen of Brest opened the debate, the majority of the audience was made up of his supporters and followers, and they encouraged him. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak answered all the questions of Rabbi Katzenellenbogen.
The Brest Rabbi then took out a proclamation, which was also signed in Zelva on the first day of Elul, 1781. And there we read these new words:
Listen to the mountains and to godly conflicts and seek if there is a greater pain than mine, because in the house of Israel I have seen various deeds spreading out like leprosy, the recent amassing of sinners to falsify God and his Holy bible men from the Chassidic community (may their names be struck out), who separated themselves deviates and heretics who have cancelled the honour of the Torah and the law of the Sages. Woe! Every heart trembles, every Jewish home cries when it becomes known in the whole of the land about that argument I had in the city of Warsaw and my victory over the hoodlum, the Chief Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Zelichower over the matter of the well that was dug by the wisdom of our Sages of Torah. The most highly esteemed leaders of the nation, men of wisdom and knowledge, these are the predecessors that straightened out the paths with customs and improvements.
Now he is stuffed full of unworthiness, and the same person was silent and twisted the expression from his lips, and became like a mule that cannot open his mouth. Frightened and wounded, when I proved his guilt to all, and the masses celebrated in Gods' victory, in the synagogue in the city of Praga. And I stepped forward and objected with my civil words to the band who call themselves 'the fighters for God', so that we can tell of their shame, a small group of them and their silly and foolish deeds . etc.
Thus spoke he that fought for our God today, Thursday, the second day of Elul, and all that witnessed were amazed.
Avraham Katzenellenbogen stayed in the Holy Congregation of Brest, mother of Israel. The book of the name 'Wars of God' of the Brest Rabbi was never printed. Apparently, the author wanted to publish the first debate but it did not work out for him. The second debate became available in pamphlets. Also Rabbi Levi Yitzhak held himself to have been the winner of the debate and let it be known to all that he answered all the questions that were put to him by his opponent. This angered and upset Rabbi Katzenellenbogen and he came forward, writing a letter to the Honourable Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Zelichow. In this letter, he castigated the Chassidim for distancing themselves from the accepted rule of not deviating from beyond Gods' teachings. The famous Sages, the steadfast souls of this world, people of the highest morals and behaviour had set the highest standards. At the end of 1781 the Brest rabbi decreed that they would be put into excommunication this was called for in Vilna.
But with all that, he had still not calmed himself. He endeavored to defeat the Chassidic leader in a second debate, which was to take place in the presence of important people from both sides.
In the end, he suggested that the questions be put in writing to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, and that the answers should be in writing, so that all could see who was in the right. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak agreed to this so around 1784 it came to a written battle (The War of The Writers).
On the 8th of Tammuz, 1784, Avraham Katzenellenbogen, the Rabbi of Brest and District, wrote from Warsaw to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Zelichow. After a long introduction, which contained punishing words about the 'crossings of the border' (breaking the rules) which had been delineated by our predecessors, and at the same time he included certain questions. In the second part of the letter, Rabbi Avraham Katzenellenbogen asked Rabbi Levi Yitzhak to repent of his sins and chastised him with restrained words: That every Chassidic custom is only according to Satanic evil inclination, which forced the Sages through verbal persuasion and advice to perform these transgressions under the guise of worshipping God.
According to his opinion, the new Torah (teachings) meant to overthrow the three pillars upon which the world stood: 1. Torah. 2. Work 3.Charity.
Our Sages who wrote the Torah She Baal Peh consider the people of this new sect to be peasants and worthless people. Their prayers are tasteless and made idiotic. In particular the changes to the prayer, Tefillat Keter, which the Chassidim introduced by Tefillat Mussaf on the Sabbath, and which can be said, according to Kabbala in the Holy Land, but not in the Diaspora. He admitted that the spirit of peace had been destroyed because of this conflict that made the Diaspora into a flame of fire. At the end of this letter he appealed to the heart of his opponent and implored him to return to the righteous path, without any personal motive, and with all his efforts to avoid the desecration of the Holy One. He asked his opponent to desist from his ambitions and admit the truth that he had erred. He should endeavor to go along the path and not split the nation into two camps. According to the testimony of one who lived in those days, this letter from the Brest rabbi was delivered to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak in Zelichow.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to establish whether Rabbi Levi Yitzhak answered this letter.
The witch hunt did its' work. As the Chassidic prayer gatherings in the Lithuanian cities sprang up, they were shut down. There is no doubt that in those early days the numbers of the Chassidic prayers meetings were reduced, or held in secret. After a time, they were able to re-emerge and repair the damage; many began to support the Chassidim, seeing that they were truly Orthodox. Also Brest opened up its' gates to the Chassidic movement.
The Chassidic movement has been able to find writings, which have accused them wrongdoings in their behaviour and publications, and in the way they spread their Chassidism.
Many of the Misnagdim had encircled and verbally abused them. Others poured on them their wrath and frustration, and interfered with the Chassidim. We don't have much information about Rabbi A.Katzenellenbogen's personality, only what was written about him in the book 'Ir Tehila (City of Glory) by A.L. Feinstein, published in 1886 by the printing press of Rabbi Yechiel Halter in Warsaw. This was the only book that contained material about the story of Brest. Rabbi Avraham Katzenellenbogen was the son of Rabbi David Katzenellenbogen, the head of the Beth Din in Keidani and the son of Rabbi Yehezkel Katzenellenbogen, author of the book Knesset Yehezkel. Earlier (1746) he had been the Rabbi of Slutsk, and later wrote a letter from Slutsk to Rabbi Yonasson Eybshutz regarding the question of Kameot (amulets). When he was only 6 years old his name was mentioned in the book Aliyah Eliahu, which was written about the Vilna Gaon. As the head of the Beth Din in Slutsk in 1752 he signed as the head of the sages of his generation his approval for the book called 'Luchot HaBrit'.
From 1760 until his death (some time after 1787) he was the Chief Rabbi of Brest. During that period, he issued many approvals for books that were published in his time including: Mayim Amukim, Minchat Aharon, Kochvei Yaakov, Beth Avraham, Seder HaDorot, and Tiferet Israel Zuta. Rabbi A.K. had 8 sons, most of who became rabbis of various cities. Their names are as follows:
1). Rabbi Joseph Katzenellenbogen who took over his father's position in the rabbinical chair in Brest.On his tombstone in the ancient cemetery in Brest we can read the following:
2). Rabbi Shaul Katzenellenbogen K. of Vilna
3). Rabbi Yehezkel Katzenellenbogen K., head of the Beth Din in Swisloch.
4). Rabbi Nachum Katzenellenbogen K., head of the Beth Din in Birsz.
5). Rabbi Joel Katzenellenbogen in Komarowka.
6). Rabbi David Katzenellenbogen in Wolkowitz.
7). Rabbi Moshe Katzenellenbogen.
8). Rabbi Ephraim Katzenellenbogen.
Here is buried the rabbi and Gaon, our teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Avraham, son of Rabbi David, who was the Rabbi of the Holy Congregation of Brest. The remaining details about him have been erased and are very difficult to read.
His son, Rabbi Joseph, had taken over as the Rabbi of Brest whilst his father was still alive, according to a document signed and ratified by the King when he visited Brest. An approval was granted for the book 'Resuhe Galim' and the book ' Chidush Mahary'. From the engravings on his tombstone we read that he was head of the Beth Din and Yeshiva in Brest.
Next to his grave is the grave of his wife, Echsa, who passed away on the 2nd of Adar Bet, 1772. From Rabbi Joseph Katzenellenbogen the dynasty passed to the third generation to his son Rabbi Aryeh-Leib Katzenellenbogen, who was crowned with the title ' Gaon and Prodigy Aryeh'. His books include: Shiloh, Midrash Tanchuma, A New Joseph, Vilna Grodno, Roar of the Lion, and Sefer Torah Or, all of which mention the name of the Vilna Gaon.
The name of the Gaon is also mentioned in these books:
Keren Shlomo, Mincha Belula, Shelot Ve Tshuvot from the Gaon Rabbi Shimon of Slonim, and the book 'Sheva Einayim'.According to the book Ir Tehila (City of Glory) he was unique in his generation and his congregation. A generation of world famous righteous men owes their honour to him. From him originated the rules and regulations that every Brest Jew was obligated to give an annual donation on the eve of Passover to the value of 1/6th of their own. This money was used to distribute matzo meal - only those who donated 10 roubles had fulfilled their obligation, even if their incomes were was much higher.
Rabbi A.L. Katzenellenbogen conducted the rabbinate in Brest for almost 40 years and died on the 13th August 1837. (A great tragedy for the Jews of Brest).
We see that Rabbi A.. Katzenellenbogen established three generations of Brest rabbis, one after the other. All lived dedicated and rich lives, and each had had a great influence on the life of the city and its' surroundings. And their names were engraved amongst their congregation with love and blessings.
The original Mitnagdim obeyed all of God's laws as they were written in the Shulchan Aruch (book of laws listing all the rules and customs) according to their own interpretations and the interpretations of their commentators. They trembled at every word that had any reference to obeying the mitzvoth. Every law, every custom, everything that was permitted and forbidden, every small warning that was transmitted through their lawmakers (poskim) this all belonged to the Torah in it's entirety and without deviation. The Mitnaged is by his nature very strict and easily offended. To say the least, he never smiled with a full mouth to be a Mitnaged was not an easy thing to be
In the following generations the strength of the Mitnagdim resistance evaporated.
They became more moderate in their behaviour. Brest became a city of learning and spiritual activities. The resistance to anything new and anything that needed to be renewed weakened and in the end it showed thus: between the Mitnagdim and the Chassidim the only difference was in a tzadik (a religious leader or teacher).
After all, they were very similar to each other. The Mitnagdim opposed the Chassidim with a Chassidic (messianic) fervor! With the same ecstatic enthusiasm that the Chassidim accepted and absorbed the rebbe's teachings the Mitnagdim would annul it. Even further they were as ready to punish the Chassidim just as the Chassidim were to punish them. It was no coincidence that Rabbi Simcha Soleveitchik learned Torah from the Chassidic Rebbe Avraham Weinberg (this is before he became the Slonimer Rebbe).
There was some who remarked that the Mitnagdim showed themselves as human beings with hearts that had poetic juices instilled in them. They are dry outside and moist inside if you delve inside them with understanding you will find warm Jews with a rich spiritual life. The Mitnagdim were in reality Chassidim who did not believe in 'Rebbes'. This is what differentiated them the orthodox Brest was divided into kinds of Chassidism, those with a rabbi, those without. And because of that, it was not too difficult for the Chassidim to try their luck and occupy various influential positions in Brest.
In Brest, the rabbinical city of the fanatical Mitnaged Rabbi. A. Katzenellenbogen, the Chassidim opened up their own prayer houses. The Rebbe's courts of Lithuanian Poland - of Karlin, Stolyn, Kobryn, Radzyn, Niezvitch, Kotsk, Novo- Minsk and so on all opened up Chassidic branches in the prayer halls which were led by prayer leaders accompanied by many Chassidic melodies. Prayers were led with warm soulful songs, with excitement and heart-rending melodies. Their righteous sages would visit Brest from time to time, and their followers were overjoyed to find themselves amongst these composers of their new melodies that were to the liking of their rabbis and had spread widely amongst the Chassidim. These melodies were used on the Sabbath and the high holidays, as well as in the singing of prayers and also the rabbi's prayer celebrations.
In Kamenetz near Brest there was a Chassidic composer, Reb Yisroel, who was a Kotzer Chassid, and he would compose to order. For example, he composed music in honor of the visit of the rabbi of Slonim, Rabbi Avraham to Kamenetz, to welcome him. His melodies touched the hearts of all the Chassidim who would swoon with pleasure at his melodies.
Upon the uprising of the Poles against the Russians in 1863, he wrote a special melody, a march for the victory of the Poles. Two of his marches were openly mentioned in Yehezkel Kotik's book 'Zichroines' (Memories). He also composed a Cossack march for the daughter of the Karliner Rebbe to the son of the Trisker Rebbe. This march was also sung by the Cossacks of the Stolyner Rebbe whilst riding to accompany the groom as he met his bride.
This same march was later sung in Kamenetz every year on Simchat Torah.
The influence of the Chassidim in Brest had grown, but had not engulfed all it's inhabitants, and the two streams in Brest each streamed quietly along as if there had always been an eternal peace between them. The Chassidim typified the longing for the Land of Israel, they produced loyal and community minded officials who worked for the public, occupied themselves with Zionists causes, helping pioneers make Aliyah. Those pioneers, who had been brought up in a Chassidic home and had absorbed the chassidic warmth, did much work for their communities, even far from Brest.
The stubbornness of the Mitnagdim and the warmth of the Chassidim became positive factors in bringing the people together into one national loyalty in Brest. They put their stamp upon the Brest Jewish community, the various Diaspora lands, and the State of Israel.
The cantor belonged to the holy class, which was included into the expression Rachash - rabbis, chazanim (cantors) and shamashim.(beadles). From the several tables of rules this existed we establish an opinion about the significance of the cantor, and his standing among the people who took upon themselves the strictness of keeping kosher. The cantor would also occupy himself with community work outside of his profession because being a cantor would not have provided him with sufficient income for his needs.
In the regulations it is stated that there should not be any compromises when they choose arbitrators, rabbis, cantors or beadles. To protect the positions of the cantors they would use the old excommunication system from the olden times. In electing a rabbi, a cantor or a beadle, the decision making power lay with the elders, rabbinical judges (dayans) and the honorary synagogue officials the most respected in the congregation.
Among the taxes collected through the Lithuanian Land Council, which presided in Brest, there existed a special tax, which was called the chuppah geldt - a tax was collected from marrying couples. This tax was collected as a percentage of the brides' dowry, not only from cash, but also from silver and gold items. It was agreed that these chuppah monies were to be used to support the rabbis, cantors and beadles of the town.
A poor man who married off his daughter was exempt from this tax. The cantor would receive only half of this sum as was determined by the size of the dowry.
Amongst the rules, which touch upon the activity of the cantors, it was determined by decree and law that no cantor was permitted to sing more than three melodies on Shabbat, at Shacharit and Mussaf also on Shabbat Rosh Chodesh and at weddings .
The strivings to be stricter and more dominant in this restrictive life between the four walls of the prayer house caused conflicts between the synagogue officials and the holy men- the rabbis. Grim and unchanging was the situation of the cantor who tried to specifically please his followers, the people that had appointed him, and his critics.
In Brest it was forbidden for the cantor to sing from music notes so that he would not forget in keeping with 'Know before Whom you stand'. There were many famous Brest rabbis in whose books one could find descriptions of the conditions of cantorial singing and cantors in the synagogues, for better and worse.
The majority of these rabbis frowned upon the custom of cantors imitating Christians by using melodies taken from Christian music. Rabbi Joel Sirkis, who was a rabbi in Brest was not overzealous about this adoption from Christian melodies and did not issue warnings against it. However, he did speak out against cantors for bringing into the prayers 'children from foreign lands', which referred to theatre music.
Rabbi Shlomo Luria, known as the Marshal, who was also a rabbi in Brest, mentions in his book 'The Two Tablets of the Covenant' the cantors who took on other jobs such as teachers, scribes and shochets.
Cantors were very closely associated and involved with general everyday life. The majority of the cantors came from the middle class, amongst them some exceptional individuals in whose hearts burnt with a holy flame and were blessed with great musical talents. After all, in the end, their names have been forgotten, as we don't have the most minimal information about these famous cantors of Europe. Specifically before the massacres of 1648-9 which tore at the hearts and the necessity of music to reduce people's anguish.
We hear of a cantor during the summer pogrom of 1648 from Reb Nathan (Nuta) Hanover:
The four kehillot, men women and children, approximately 4000 people who fled to the Tartars and amongst them was a cantor with the name of Reb Hirsh Zhutov. When they neared the Tartars the cantor began to lament and sing in a strong voice 'El Male Rachamim' for their murdered brethren and the entire people with him broke out in an anguished cry. Their cry surely must have been heard in the heavens, and their captors were filled with mercy and compassion for them.This is the first time a cantors name was mentioned in the history of our nation in this area.
The typical cantorial music in Eastern Europe was created on the foundations of Oriental music, and originated in the south, in the Ukraine, especially Podolia, Serbia, Wolyn, and the shores of the Black Sea. From there it came to Lithuania. In every single generation there were in Brest cantors who did not use written melodies and could not read musical notes. Their cantorial skills were inherited from their teachers and they created their own tunes and melodies. Because of the incomplete and inaccurate list of cantors that were in Brest, it is impossible to describe their characters and their histories over the first centuries since Jews settled in Brest.
At the beginning of the 18th century there were outstanding cantors in Eastern Europe who laid the foundations of synagogue singing and had a lasting influence on the style of prayers in later generations. The highest level of cantorial artistry was reached in the 19th century. Also in Brest there were cantors who protected these traditions and were very famous throughout Europe. The great synagogue in Brest hosted a long history of cantors, but we do not know their names or have any information about these cantors. In the book 'Ir Tehilah' by A.L.Feinstein, there is mention of a cantor who lived in the year 1690, however, there are no details of him. We should mention some of the outstanding ones:
Weintraub was appointed as Cantor by the city of Zamosc, and then he came to the Great Synagogue of Brest. He had a unique and original style. His high and low notes and quavers came out of his throat with astounding clarity. He would awake a holy shiver in the congregation. The cantors of that time have remained legendary because of their great musical accomplishments. He was a man of Torah and principles. An orthodox Jew that knew his worth and position, and an artiste that valued and treasured his craft. Koshton was one of the greatest cantors in the Jewish world and the only one who understood how to unite emotion with prayer.
His book 'Shirei Shlomo' (The songs of Shlomo) contains heartrending melodies that have become famous, and there is not one cantor who has not used his beautiful creations. He was the first to write down his musical compositions on paper. He died in Durno in Kislev 1829.
He began his career as cantor in Karlin, then went to the great synagogue in Kovno, and was later invited to Brest, where he was very highly regarded. Despite his greatness as a cantor, he remained a pauper. From Brest he went to Kamenetz-Podolsk. However, he died in Brest in 1871.
Reb Noah played violin and wrote compositions that were very successful and sung in the whole Jewish world. He heft behind a manuscript in book form titled 'The prayers of Noah and the worship of Elijah'.
His Hebrew songs 'Go to Zion, Miracle and Flag', 'The Eternal Jew', 'What happened to you, My Soul, that you fell asleep', etc. were very popular with the people but the name of the composer has been forgotten. He belonged to the most important cantors in Russia who could unite prayer and emotion in the synagogue. He was not only a cantor but also a teacher of cantors and conductors. Hundreds of his students today occupy important positions as cantors and conductors in various countries. He went to live in Kalish from Brest and there he died.
The appointment of the cantors in Brest was in the hands of the gabbays the synagogue trustees who were lovers of singing. Of them we should note the following: Shmuel Pomerantz. The last gabbey of the great synagogue in Brest.
Benjamin Padua. A gabbay of the great synagogue who was a lover of music.
Isser Gvirtzman. Chairman of the burial society (Chevra Kadisha) and a gabbey of the great synagogue. He died in Kiryat Motzkin.
In Brest there were some individuals that decided on the hiring of the cantors such as Zev Dov Begin who was the secretary of the kehilla (community council). In the synagogues there were also choirs that accompanied the cantors in their singing. The synagogue choir occupied the highest place amongst them we should note:
Berel the bass a second hand clothing dealer.There were over 40 different participants in the choir including many children. The cantor would also conduct the choir. Only in the time of Menachem Zapovitch was there a special conductor Yehoshua Katz. The choir would perform at religious festivals such as Channuka and Purim. There were no non-religious choirs in Brest until closer to W.W.2, when the Poale Zion and the General Zionist formed the first secular choirs.
Meier the tenor a shoemaker.
Yehoshua Katz the conductor a tailor. He was occupied with training the choir between one meal to the next. Murdered in the Brest ghetto.
Let us be reminded of the best of the Brest prayer leaders:
Kwiatkowski, he was the prayer leader at the Rabbi's prayer house, he was a Chassid.
Pollig, he was the head shammes and prayer leader in the Greener prayer house. In the same prayer house there was another prayer leader, Reb Hershel Alyenik, an oil merchant.
Reb Yakov Wishikowitz, a Stolin Chassid.
Reb Moshe der Groisser (the Tall), a Stolin Chassid.
Reb Reuven Kanel, a Stolin Chassid.
Reb Gershon who was the Shammes and prayer leader in the Koskles prayer house.
Reb Mordechai Beinish, a prayer leader in the Rabbi's prayer house.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Bleiweiss, who was a Dayan (religious judge).
Zalman Hauft, the Shammes and an exceptional prayer leader in the Pauper's prayer house.
Reb Yitzchak Bruchin, a businessman he possessed a beautiful voice. He prayed in the Ox Traders synagogue.
Reb Bobel the Shammes and Reb Itche Stoliner, who both prayed in the Funeral Society prayer house - a prayer house of the common folk where they prayed all day long without interuption from early morning until the middle of the night.
Reb Moishe Laizerovitch, the preacher at the Tailor's prayer house. (He was the father of the journalist Laizerovitch of the Heint newspaper).
Reb Alter, the proprietor of a soap factory, he was an outstanding prayer leader on the High Holidays at the synagogue of Reb Yitzchak Malish in the Brest suburb on the Mukhavets River. There was another prayer leader there by the name of Reb Yitzchak Fisher, a fish merchant.
Reb Zuske Pollak Rashkes, in the Novominsker synagogue.
Reb Baruch Hirsh, famous prayer leader of the Israel Wolf synagogue, and many more that are difficult for us to recall through the passage of time.
Also in Brest, a centre of Lithuanian Jewry, there were groups of Klezmer who were popular with the Gentile population of the city, inviting them to play at aristocratic weddings and celebrations. Not seeking fame, their individual names were never renowned. In the period before the Second World War, Brest was famous for it's Klezmer of which there were two groups:
1). Anschel and his son, both born in Brest. Anschel was the premier violin player.At Chanukah they would play in the synagogue. They were invited to play at weddings in Brest and the neighboring areas as well as further away. They were so popular with their sweet music that the Chassidim made every effort to benefit from the Brest Klezmer who they would use together with their own musicians and entertainers at weddings of wealthy people. They would invite the Klezmer from both Kobryn and Brest. Kobryn had a Shapses Klezmer Group which became renowned for it's beautiful music. The Russian Governor, Paskievitch, was made aware of his talent, and sent for him. Shapse played his violin for him. Paskievitch then proposed that Shapse convert to Christianity. Shapse became enraged and said that he would not forsake his religion, even if he made him a Count. For three days Shapse stayed at the home of the Governor who invited guests from the highest society to hear him play. Shapse would not eat the non-kosher food so Paskievitch ordered that food be brought to him from a kosher restaurant. In the end the Governor gave him 1,000 rubles and proposed that he introduce him to the Tsar, but Shapse declined. With the money Shapse bought himself a house and kept on playing at wealthy weddings, travelling all over Grodno Province..
2). Shedletzki and his sons who played wind instruments.
In Brest there were very popular melodies and folk songs about various events, even about the Chmelnitski pogroms (1648-9) as well as songs specifically about Yeshiva students and their lives sadly these were not preserved and over time have been forgotten.
This matter was very difficult because most people had not stored more than their immediate urgent needs, but because of the efforts of several volunteer friends a lot was collected that had been stored away. The first transport had already left at midnight on Saturday, and I wanted to take the second transport with me on the above-mentioned Sunday. Dr. Bichowski, H. Zezinski, M.Shereshevski, and Luria had all donated to the food collection. An especially a large amount was brought in by Michael Shereshevski.
The train passed through many small stations at which it did not stop, all around it was a refreshing spring on the trees were already white sprouting flowers. The countryside did not vary much; the land around outside was flat and wide, steeped in quiet reflection. In Mrozi we stopped to take water for the engine. We arrived past 9pm. at the Brest railway station. Before our arrival, the passengers looked out the windows and could see the burnt out city. Nearing Brest, one of the passengers remarked that he could smell burning - this was not exaggerated.
The wind carried the smell over many miles, as we approached Brest we could already see flames, no-one believed it possible that Brest could still be burning. The fire had begun Saturday afternoon and on Sunday, 9pm, the city was still burning. As we neared the fires, the flames on the horizon became larger. There was no doubt that the fire was not yet extinguished. Also the smell was very distinct, almost tearing at the throat.
No one awaited me at the station. In fact, a telegram had been sent advising of my arrival, but those to whom it was sent never received it. In general there were very few people at the station . I thought that the townspeople were more likely to come to the trains that departed rather than arrive. I didn't know the streets and lanes of the city. However, I did remember the name Burshtein and that he lived on Topolowa St. I walked through the station, which was larger and more attractive than our stations. I took a droshky (horse and cart) that was much lighter than the ones we had but a lot more speedy, and requested that the driver take me to Burshteins' house on Topolowa St.
How could this fire happen? These were my first words. In the houses I passed I saw confusion and disorder. The reason was simple all household goods had been gathered together in order that they could be taken outside as soon as the fire threatened the house. The private home to which I came had become a public meeting place. An elderly Jew sat at the table, his eyes red and face swollen. He was not an exception, just one of the burn victims of the fire yesterday (Saturday). He was an honest businessman with a store and goods worth several thousands of roubles now he was left without any income. Who would give him a piece of bread?
The Present fire (1901) destroyed half of city, the most important part, and the part that had been left untouched by the previous fire. I was tired and exhausted by dragging my feet and the unnerving sights I had seen I needed to have a rest. Where was a place to stay overnight? Burshtein hosts visitors, but in his house there was no room to insert a needle. After a great effort and for more money then the grandest hotel or the most luxurious apartment I just managed to obtain a room in a guesthouse untouched by the fire. It was already 1.a.m.but who could sleep after such a panic? At the guesthouse I met a Mr. Horodiche, he was burnt out in the best way, he had managed to take with him his promissory notes and expensive belongings. He had fled with his with and children, leaving everything else he owned behind utensils, clothing, papers, and all the superfluous things that were in his beautifully arranged and elegant house everything was destroyed. He knew the city well and the possessions of its' inhabitants. He told me in great detail the extent of the damage, 1000s of people have lost their entire fortunes, the frightening situation and difficulties in obtaining aid. One wanted to help, but one is not sure how. It was he who had sent out the first telegram about bread. In reality we all thought the same way now that it was clear that the fallen must be helped to their feet. For this purpose, it was obvious that a huge amount of money needed to be raised.
The matter was hugely complicated; the majority of the fire victims were not insured with the insurance companies. Those who were insured had large debts to the banks, and the banks wanted to take those insurance monies and leave them with nothing. After the previous fire, the banks of the landowners had lent money to all that wanted to rebuild. This time the banks would not lend much. The banks sat on their money, their rules set firmly to a stalemate. Their doors were closed to those who needed to borrow. An enormous amount of aid was needed, for risky loans for new building. Here darkness and shock still reign. We still don't know whom or where to ask for help, but the situation is far worse than 6 years ago, this was obvious.
That was his entire belongings, also his books. With bitter irony he said: also my time was destroyed. He had been a teacher in a wealthy home, and that had burnt down, so he was left naked without any means of support Later on I found out hundreds of other hitherto unknown details, Neumark knew the town well, as he had lived there for many years, he knew the political parties, the people and the social issues, he saw everything from a Zionist point of view, and from the point of view nation building. They attack the Zionists and say that the society Linat Zedek has been infiltrated by Zionists, and say that Jews should not mix charity organisations with the volunteer firefighters. They say that Jews should not be involved with the volunteer firefighters that they are hotheads that have mixed everything together. The firefighters, the Zionists, the Linat Zedek society, the religious gabbeys (synagogue officials), and the bureaucrats don't feel that they have to fulfil their obligations. They fantasize and the religious fanatics put their heads together with the opponents of Zionism. Also the social activists did not do their duty - the community was full of fighting and conflicts and yet it all began to unravel. They were rich, middle class people with incomes and all of a sudden the fire. What will happen now? All was destroyed and in ruins. Whilst chatting an old man came to see me. He came in the name of many, they wanted me to go to the district Gaon (Rabbi), only he could oversee the relief work of the committee .
The whole of the commercial/business district was damaged, the entire foundations of the city were shaken and falling down. Rabbi Nadel spoke in an official style; he had already been present at yesterdays meeting with the Governor and other high-ranking officials. They had sent various telegrams informing of a new committee, it is even now formed, and Nadel was taking a count of the Christian and Jewish members. As Rabbi, he was a permanent member; besides him there were four more Jews. My guide, together with Rabbi Nadel, undertook to scrutinize individually the character of every member who was competent and who wasn't? Perhaps they would have to add several advisors. The second committee had already sent telegrams to the administrations of all the major cities
Nadel reported that there was already loud talk about those Jews who lit the fire with their own hands; possibly, during the fire there were such criminals. But it was proved that the fire did not originate this way, those who were suspects were proven not to have done so. On the other hand, according to general opinion, it later became clear that the accused arsonists were exploited, because of the opportunity and didn't cause the fire. These were additional tragic events, but not of great importance. About an organized relief system, the rabbi knew nothing. The committee would investigate, establish facts and make its' findings
From there we went to Dr. Steinberg, he was standing in the grounds of his home, amongst his broken and damaged belongings. Here was an expensive Venetian table with exquisite workmanship and here was a cupboard with volumes of books and manuscripts.
Here was a booklet that I had written about the previous fire. Soon you'll write a book about this fire. He invited us inside to the empty rooms. In addition to the burnt house he has suffered unheard of losses. We tell him that he was nominated to the new committee. He said that he would not take up this position, as he has not got the time or patience for community affairs, he has too much to do by himself. We knew that he would take up the position, but it was not possible to spend time with him in those distant moments, and we agonized with his dilemma. Zion was not burnt down, he said, and took out from a cupboard a container in which there were writings relating to Zion, there also were some bonds. Other people's bonds were burnt and destroyed. Brest generally was a big spender on bonds and shares to the sum of 25,000 rubles. Dr. Steinberg takes out from his garden wrapped copies of East and West (Ost and West), this I rescued with danger to my own person he said laughingly. This victim of the fire consoled us that maybe we would see each other again in better situations.
We meet Dr. Sherechevski, and active and pleasant man it's a pity that he was not elected to the committee. He himself was not amongst those who suffered, but was very close to many that had he stepped down from his carriage to talk to us and we
converse with him in the middle of the street. I take note that he has very good intentions and that he aims the critics in the right direction of order. He is a person close to the people, a type of community worker, and an intelligent and intellectual man who was a social activist through and through. He speaks emotionally and one can see that his words come from the heart. With not a moment to lose we proceed to the local Sage and Rabbi, we pass by a synagogue of which there is a legend it was built according to the design of Tsar Nicholas.
I like to ponder about the old synagogues and think of the new social institutions.
We are received by the Rabbi, a man in his middle years, short of stature and with large beautiful eyes, burning intensely a sign of a man with a good memory. His clothing was very modest. Without any excessive preliminaries he led us from one room to another. At the table sits one of his best pupils, his right hand, they say he is a prodigy. If it enters the Rabbi's thoughts and attitude about city affairs, then he is the living spirit of the planners.
I immediately approach the matter at hand. I ask the Rabbi about how to organize help for the present tragedy. I must admit that I approached the rabbi with certain misgivings. Already a long time ago, I had heard unpleasant stories about him that sounded not productive, his opposition to Zionism and his extreme piousness. But even those who talked about the Gaon's religious fanaticism at the same time added in hindsight that he had absolutely no interest in money matters. Some added that he was clean and uncorrupted, but that there was a possibility that he would be influenced by others close to him. There was a possibility that when he had the means in his hands that he would only support the pious Jews and not those whose religious opinions he does not agree with.
I do not want to comment here on what sort of relationship I have had with the system of extreme religious fanaticism in general, and with this system of this group of rabbis in particular. I made it clear a long time ago in my treatise Lemarnen VeRabbanim.
But in the instance of my meeting with one of these rabbis, I could not avoid telling him of what I had declared openly in print. But there are pressing matters where there is no place for antagonism and quarrelling. Where those in need request full assistance. This is why I went to the local Rabbi with mixed feelings, which I did not hide my attitude.
I must confess that I was pleasantly impressed with my conversation with the Brisker Rabbi. I have personally seen the rabbi's look of sincere concern about the situation of those who were burnt and affected by the tragedy. When others said to me that the fire affected mainly the rich and middle classes, I felt that they were wrong in their observations. I felt that something was missing from these remarks they did not understand the causes and they did not understand that even indirectly the fire would directly affect the poor, no less and perhaps more than the rich. This came out specifically in the conversation between the rabbi and myself. He pointed out that assistance was needed for the masses the tradesmen and laborers that were left without food. He also understood well the close relationship between the Jewish merchants/ shop owners and those tradesmen who did not own their own businesses only small-shared places where they could work and support themselves financially in the Jewish traditional manner. He also stipulated that the delivery of the bread was to be properly distributed 'there are those who are ashamed to take, but later they will not be ashamed to take' the rabbi said. One should deliver the bread to their homes'. The rabbi did not speak of the usual complaints about the previous committee. In his opinion, the previous committee handled what it inherited. We informed him of the new committee. The individual members did not interest him, the vital point being that there was a need for money and a huge aid operation to help the victims back on their feet. Bit by bit we were surrounded by many different types of people with various requests. Some burn victims, a rabbi from a neighboring town. The comments that were made there were not bureaucratic or formal, I recognized that they came from genuine people. During our conversation telegrams arrived for the rabbi inquiring about his health and wellbeing, and about what was happening in the city. There was no doubt that to some extent the rabbis' house was the center for lots of people. The rabbi did not have specific details, but he knew a great deal. He was knowledgeable and traditional. I regretted my previous conversation with him and before taking my leave I reminded the rabbi that I had known his father, the previous Sage . Yes, he had also seen me in Goldman's' printing shop, this was the truth, he remembered far more than I did .
It was a hot day, the air was full of smoke and dust it was difficult to breathe, the pressure and tumult were frightening. Here and there were still burning pieces of timber with flickering flames. People were digging and searching, jostling and quarreling.
At every step passed by a cart with broken goods. Feathers flew through the air, metal was melted, but the feathers were not burnt. One couldn't even collect a sack of coal; all was burnt and gone with the wind. At every step, one asked the other what's with you?
As you can see I came out empty. At every corner-weeping women stand. They tell of a man carrying the injured from a ruin, he panicked and fled to his village, when he arrived home, he collapsed and died. We went out from the marketplace to the avenues, the young trees were burnt, some half burnt, a terrible picture. We were not far from Finkelsteins house, we hesitated, to go to him or not? Over the course of one day, there has been havoc and chaos for him, we approach him, his face is pale and drawn, but he is braves and smiles at us: only the manuscripts and copies have been burned. Who knows if one will ever find a copy?
Overall, the estimated value of the damages was in the vicinity of five to six million rubles. The total population of Brest was about 50,000, of which 32-33,000 were Jews.
Apprentices would not suffer less than the shop owners and businessmen.
As far as we can detail the information in some order, the fire destroyed the following streets: Politzina, Topolowa, Bialostowka, Meadowa, Kshiva, etc. etc. The public high school burnt down, as did the nearby Jewish school. Various bureaus, both royal and military. From the Bank Vysaminikredit (managed by Finkelstein) all the money and promissory notes had been saved . Close by was the branch of the Moscow Bank, and the trading houses of Winograd and Soloveitchik and the merchant house of the Nadiesta Company, shops and trading houses whose annual turnover was over 150,000 roubles.
The Jewish 'Hakdash the destruction of which one can hardly complain because it was very old. About 10 Jewish religious schools, offices to the southwest, the prison the prisoners had been transferred to the fortress. Three pharmacies, four bookshops, four large printing presses, five photographic studios and twelve hotels.
The Colonels' two beautiful houses and widespread damages suffered by the following merchants: Winograd, Halperin, Kantrovitch, Rosenberg, Berlin, Barlas, Nierdevski, etc.etc. In the park we recognized many faces, we met and talked to Finkelstein and Neumark, my companions pointed out many details that a visitor like me would not notice. I wanted to meet the old man Rabbi A.L. Feinstein but it was impossible to find him. I was told that his home and large collection of books had been burned. Also the booklet that was in his possession was destroyed. Not long before David Yellin was in Brest and had implored Feinstein to give him the booklet in the 'Name of the Faithful'.
He refused and thus was lost the most important of memoirs; one cannot describe the worth of things until they are fully lost.
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