The city of Brest was entirely destroyed by the Nazis, our sacred martyrs will never come back to life but they will always be indelibly etched in my memory. There is the Kobryner street, the steam mill, the small house in which we lived, the wide fields with the windmill in this field we played war games as children. Also the Tsar's soldiers would have trained there. This whole area (Kobrynska) was called a suburb.
Here are my Jewish neighbors: Itzik Leizer the stone mason, a tall Jew with a thick beard who always carried day and night, a heavy hammer with which he split stones to surface the main roads. His face was always drawn with worry.
Reb Leib the shingle maker a thin Jew whose house was full of small children he worked feverishly for his bit of bread.
Susser the wine maker - he made a kind of sour mash drink from cherries with which people would refresh themselves on hot days, his main income was from the Sunday markets.
Isser the blacksmith, a deaf Jew with a pointy beard and a soot smeared face, dressed in a leather apron, the sounds of his hammer and anvil could be heard at all hours, but there was no income and if not for his wife's dairy products they would have gone hungry.
Zalman the cart driver. A humble Jew dressed in a black coat tied with a red belt. He sat on his cart seat everyday and waited for income, he did not miss any opportunity.
Hannaleh the potato-cake baker. A small emaciated woman, her entire life was spent at the oven, putting in and taking out the baking trays. For a kopek she would sell her warm tasty potato cakes with a blessing for your health added.
Who can list and remember them all? There were so many of them, they have all vanished, all my neighbors. Brest, my hometown, I spent my youth on your streets and soil. In the cheder I already recited the Torah. My eyes have seen a great deal there. Days of joy and days of disaster. I recall the images of the 'Epidemic' that raged over the city. Hundreds of dear and loved ones were taken away forever. However, their burial place was known and once a year one could go to that place and open ones heart. I remember the windowpanes when I returned from cheder and could not recognize my street. The walls of the houses had been covered with whitewash and the ground with handfuls of white chalk. The acrid odors still remind me of illness. Mother was waiting outside for my return with tears in her eyes.
Years later a new trouble came to Brest. I remember that Friday morning when I was studying in Rabbi Moshe Berezer's cheder the Boverdlicher rabbi was pacing up and down the room, stroking his long beard with pleasure that the children of this cheder knew their lessons well and by heart. It was time to dismiss the class and he went out to collect money for the Sabbath. Suddenly, there was a scream from the street: Fire, it's burning!
The youngsters did not wait for the rabbi to dismiss them, we ran outside, each to his home, it was known that the fire was spreading everywhere, God have mercy on us.
I ran through Kryvier Street to the suburb, near the Yehezkel prayer house the road was blocked with wagons, horses and people. The house of Shabtai Shenker is burning and the fire had spread to the neighboring roofs that were alight. Burning timbers fell at my bare feet, the possessions that people had dragged outside turned to ashes in the blink of an eye. A Jew whose body was encircled by ropes spoke angrily to me: why do you stand here in such danger? Quickly run home. I show him my blackened toes which I can't move from the spot he lifts me in his arms like a sack of flour and takes me to a street where the fire is not burning and gives me directions to get to my house.
I remember the wide-open fields where entire families sat on their belongings lamenting this disaster that had struck their city in the middle of the day. Every now and then people would return with some rescued item from their homes. Soldiers were sent to guard against looting. From all sides the would come more bad news, those who had lost all their fortunes would wring their hands and cry to God in heaven to pity them. Within one day the fire had spread over half of the city. In the evening the sky looked like a sheet of fire. Fear and anxiety grew many people were burnt alive in the homes. The fire raged all night and the next day we could only smell and see clouds of smoke emanating from the charred ruins. Dozens of prayer houses went up in flames.
Brest was rebuilt. The Jews built new homes and prayer houses and the city again became the center of Torah study for Jewish children. The new study houses were roomier with many shelves and cupboards full of books. Yeshivas and Chassidic circles also sprung up.
The Rabbi of Brest was the famous Gaon (genius and sage) Chaim Soloveitchik. Brest was rich with Jews who were people of the Torah. Amongst them was Reb Sholem Menashe he was small in stature but a giant in intellect. Every time when it was needed to ask for money for charity, the sons of the city would not go without him. The wealthy of the city would double their donations upon seeing Sholem Menashe.
Rabbi Chaim Shimshon the Dayan (religious judge). His name was on the lips of every pious woman; they blessed their children with it. Fathers would pray that their children would be like him when they grew up. He lived in a small run down house next to the courthouse for the poor. Whist delivering his verdict, Chaim Shimshon was not swayed only by the law, but always made an effort to find mitigating circumstances to reduce the sentence with compassion.
One day my mother cooked noodles in milk, which had to sustain the five hungry mouths in the house. She was in a hurry and mixed the food with a meat spoon I happened to have just entered the house-crying Mama I want to eat! She looked at me with tears in her eyes and could hardly speak until she said: Moishele run to Rabbi Chaim Shimshon and tell him what has happened so that he should give a ruling on this matter. Nothing more needed to be said, I had seen the meat spoon in the milk noodles and understood. I ran to Chaim Shimshon who listened with closed eyes he opened them and looked at me with fatherly concern and asked how many there were living in the house. He pinched my cheeks and said: Go home and tell your mother that the food is kosher but that the spoon has to be immersed and cleansed.
In Brest there were many prayer houses and synagogues to be found on every street. This saved us from having to remember the street names, it was sufficient to know the name of the prayer house that one would find there and that would serve as an address. I f someone said that they lived near the Yehezkel synagogue, or near a certain prayer house, or next to the 'Mishmar' synagogue, this was an excellent guide one could not err.
Besides a few pale faced Jews, yeshiva students and small businessmen, Brest also had its share of sturdy Jews many of them horse and cart drivers, butchers, porters, well built strong robust young men who would frighten away the Gentile hooligans. Many times these hooligans would be reluctant to start an incident in the marketplace, as they knew that they would receive a bloody outcome. What has become of them? Where are these dear Jews now? What has happened to those super healthy young men?
At the beginning of the 20th century there arose in Brest an organized working class. In the boulevards where one strolled one would hear new words Socialists, capitalists, Jewish youth, workers in black shirts, they would argue about revolutions and strikes.
Fathers and mothers would worry that no good would come from all this
In the revolutionary years of 1905-6 the Jews of Brest changed their opinions. Together with the constitution there was an outbreak of anti-Jewish unrest. At that time the young men with their black shirts were the first to defend Jewish lives. On the Shossenaya Avenue in an attic Jewish workers with guns in their hands assembled to hear the 'orator' with a bouffant hairstyle and thunder in his voice: Comrades, here in this city, we will not allow pogroms to take place. It seems that at that time, Jewish workers defended Jewish lives with bravery and national pride.
Brest remained a Jewish town when the new rulers, the Poles, came to power. Until the bloodthirsty 'Master Race', against which the workers of Brest had no defense to counter their murderous instincts. They did not spare anyone young, old, women, children. Jewish Brest was totally destroyed.
|Jewish Watercarrier in Brest|
On one side were the Bolsheviks, the other the Petliorvites, but neither had entered the city. In the meantime, the local peasant militias from the surrounding villages maintained law and order. By the way, the militias did not behave too badly, but the guarding was not especially effective. Thieving and looting were daily occurrences. On the roads one found murdered Jews from Brest and the neighboring towns.
I'll never forget the widow of Meier the Watercarrier and her three daughters. How they ran in the night to find that their breadwinner had been found dead on the outskirts of the city. Meier the Watercarrier had been blessed with six daughters and one son. During the German ransacking of our city he had fled with his family to Lukow, where he provided his children with plentiful income. Their house was open to every Brisker, myself included. After I fled the German's forced labor I came to Lukow, which was in a more civilized area with somewhat limited military activities. There I stayed at Meier home, a simple warm house with good standards and welcoming to guests.
His oldest daughter, Liba, was an educated girl who managed a restaurant in Lukow, she made sure that I would never be short of food. I had returned starving and racked with injuries from the German forced labor, also I was infected with malaria. I had to be hospitalized and lay for several months fluctuating between life and death. It was only thanks to the Jewish German Dr Yudah that I left the hospital healthy and returned to the house of Meier the water carrier. When the news came that Brest had been reopened to civilians, Meier the water carrier was one of the first to return. His income from before the war was ruined, so he bought horses and a wagon and started to transport passengers he traded whatever was possible and he lived a decent respectable life until he met his death on the roads.
Before the war, if a person was found murdered in Brest, the entire community was shaken during the war years people had been accustomed to death. Especially when news came through from the southeast about mass murders of people, now this did not make a great shock anymore. They just stood quietly on the destroyed wooden sidewalks and silently looked at the distraught widow and her daughters who were lamenting their deceased husband and father with bitter tears.
There were swings and a place to play ball the schoolboys who came to this school from the old neglected cheders, breathed in the airy spaciousness and learned with enthusiasm. At David Kupchiks they did not however gain a great deal of knowledge, and after finishing his school they would transfer to the school of Eliahu Sini. To tell the truth, his school was not so spotless or clean, but at his school one would learn a lot of Hebrew, Tanach, and a good grounding and preparation for the Gemarrah. There were very good teachers there: Avraham Ber, a learned Jew who taught Chumash, Rashi and Gemarrah.
Elyahu Elyon, who taught grammar and essential punctuation in which he was an expert, and prophets and writings. A youth that finished this school would leave with full Jewish knowledge. The orthodox Jews looked upon Eliahu Sini as a frivolous person but had to admit that he could teach.
It was said of Eliahu Sini that he was a teacher of the new style, but he was not just a teacher, he was always by his nature an artist and poet. He wrote Hebrew songs and poetry with great outpourings of his soul. He could write and speak beautifully. When he would read from a chapter of Joshua, he seemed like a prophet in the eyes of his high school students, as he thundered sons I have brought up and elevated and they have sinned against me or, console, console my nation. We could almost see the prophet as he stood on top of the mountain, punishing and consoling. When Eliahu Sini taught us from Jeremiah, his voice would tremble and tears appear in his eyes: on the destruction of my nation, I was broken and in the ruins of her name I prophesize. The books lay open in front of us, but our eyes were focused on the teacher - we did not see the chubby Eliahu Sini with his beautiful broad beard. Instead, we saw the starving emaciated prophet Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of his people, and we were not ashamed to let a tear fall .
We were the youngest group and when I finished Mashli and began Job, I thought that we wouldn't learn anything more after chapter three, which ends with the story of the deed, and then the reproaches from above began. The teacher excelled himself with an intense and passionate explanation. The older students and I were not capable of understanding the bitter complaints from Job and the arguments of Elipaz the Yemenite. Arriving at chapter 13 in which to his honor and alone he goes out into the storm, we were overcome by fear. The presence of the Almighty was over our classroom, his voice could be heard like thunder - we felt small and insignificant as did Job in his time, and when Job began his reply with humility - we repeated his words with trembling lips.
In our class there was also a 16-year-old youth, Davidov, a pupil of the city's trade school. He would steal away and come to be with us for a while. He was full of pride, he had read Pistorov and would pester the teacher with questions about God, and worldly matters. He would often say that he actually had little interest in school but was only fulfilling the wishes of his parents. However, Job, as taught by Eliahu Sini had impressed him. We teased him and asked him, where are all your questions now? He would get angry and say: Leave me alone boys, if you knew the passage from Job as well as I do, then you would be silent
After finishing school, I became a visitor to Eliahu Sini 's home. He would read me his poetry written in his beautiful handwriting and would talk a lot about the rules of punctuation. Sometimes, in his own way, he would explain the problems and difficulties that preoccupied the minds of the youth in the years before the First World War. We would discuss everything and everyone about God and man, joys and suffering.
Righteous and evil - he who does evil and he who is good to him.
His political persuasions did not appeal to me and until this day I cannot understand how come he was a dreamer and stood against the side of the Zionist movement that had sprung up in our town in those years.
The last time I saw Eliahu Sini was in 1920 after W.W.1.I was then a teacher in the Hatechiya School where the instruction of all subjects was in Hebrew. Eliahu Sini came to see me at work; he went into all the classes, heard Hebrew spoken in all the classes, and the playground. I asked him, Rabbi what is your opinion? He answered, What is this work in your eyes? I was disappointed in his answer - I was ashamed in front of my colleagues who stood around the honored guest awaiting his opinion. The man from whom I had learned so much and who had instilled in me a deep love for the spoken Hebrew this man was not pleased by the method of teaching Hebrew in Hebrew, and that the language lived both in the mouths of the teachers and pupils.
Today, I understand that his opposition came from the fact that he could not bear hearing the language of the prophets being taught to the common people and used in secular subjects such as arithmetic, geography, and gymnastics. Tanach and grammar, his beloved subjects, were taught according to a dry system. As every actor or folk artist that sees all his roles performed by amateurs in the theatre, but without the artistic passion, this ruled his feelings of bitterness and depression. Incidentally, he himself gave other reasons for his displeasure with the school.
He would come to the synagogue very early for the first prayers and sit through all the minyanim. In between, he would manage to finish all his prayers and answer all those who appealed to him for charity. At first, he would become irate and refuse - then he would relent and donate very generously.
On the day of Herzl's death, the Zionists of the city decided to mourn him in the Great Synagogue. The opponent of Zionism (Schatz) decided to leave the city, taking the synagogue keys with him so that they could not hold the memorial service.
The second son, Isser, was entirely different relaxed and approachable. He was not involved in the affairs of the community. He was a great metal merchant and had a great leaning toward knowledge and education and Zionism. This resulted in several members of his family settling in Israel.
Yeshivas came to study and learn from him. He passed away in Eretz Israel.
Also his son, Reb.Tzvi, had the same leanings towards Zionism but did not achieve his ambition of making aliyah. Reb Tzvi Yaffe was a Jew of splendid appearance, a talented and great student of the Torah, well versed in all its chapters as well as a deep knowledge of books and rabbinical literature. He went to Israel after his father's death and returned with to Brest with his father's large library of books that his father had left him.
I remember talking with Tzvi Yaffe when he returned from his trip to Israel. He was asked about the land and the settlers and if they were really observed the Torah, or as was being written, were they free thinkers? He was very cautious with his words and answers. His children live in Israel.
The second was known as the prodigy from Meytshat. Both of them were prodigies, great students who accumulated much knowledge and learning, mainly in physics and higher mathematics. Reb Shloime was a quiet man, thin and haggard, always immersed in his thoughts, his face always drawn with worry.
Reb. Yakov was a tall and always happy man. Both were great friends and good comrades to all the yeshiva students. Reb Shloime was elected to be a department head at the yeshiva of Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan in America. He died in the prime of his life.
Reb Yakov also reached the rank of assistant and colleague to Professor Einstein in Germany. He later became professor of mathematics at Minsk University.
Reb Simcha Zelig was a skinny Jew, really a bag of bones. The holiness shone from his face. Besides his greatness in Torah, he was a master of teaching. His lessons were simplistic, he did not hold in debating the points of the Torah. His lessons made a great impression, as if the world was an ordinary page of the Gemarrah. In truth, Reb Simcha went into the depth of the issues and simplified the answers to all the questions from Rabbi Akiva and other interpretations. He taught his students a method of understanding the Talmud simply. According to Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, he was one of the outstanding teachers of the Volozhin Yeshivah. He was the right hand man of Rabbi Chaim in matters of instruction and in all matters pertaining to what was permitted or forbidden in kosher or unkosher food. He became renowned as an expert in this and all came to him with questions. He was also renowned as a righteous man and many came to him for his blessing. Rabbi Chaim also sent people to Simcha Zelig so that he would pray for them.
His face was always happy and radiated with goodness and compassion. We never saw him angry. His whole life was one of poverty and denial. It was said that he was amongst the last to perish, until the last moment he was consoling and reassuring the Jews in the Brest ghetto.
Reb. Moishe Sokolovsky was different. His place in the synagogue was a corner near the Holy Ark. For many years he sat and studied with great diligence. He would study the Torah for 20 hours a day. Of him it was said that he had difficulty in grasping, but thanks to his perseverance he achieved much and became a learned man. His method of teaching was argumentative, his lessons were published in a booklet called Torat Moishe', which was warmly received in the yeshivas. In my time, he had begun to teach but not in order to receive any reward. He was also involved in the management of the yeshiva and was interested in the students and looked after their needs. He liked the students and would invite them to his home to discuss matters of Torah.
|Dr. A. Eisen|
I was born in Nissan 1886 in Brisk D'Lita. When I turned three, I remember my first cheder where my teacher was Reb Avraham. It was a large room with a long table with two benches each side where the pupils sat tightly squeezed together, learning the alphabet with a tune. On the sand covered floor in large numbers lay scattered pamphlets. And there were about 30 little Moishelehs and Schloimelehs
After that there was my second teacher of Chumash and Rashi. In this cheder there were ten or twelve boys in a corner with a bed stacked high with bedclothes. In another corner sits the teacher's wife darning socks or peeling potatoes. The teacher, Reb Yossel was a tall thin man given to fits of coughing. His meal in the winter evenings was usually several pieces of bread, a plate of peas or beans, and to finish - a tea as pale as chalk. Reb Yossel would smoke the short cigarette stubs that he would find in the streets or in the entrance to the synagogue.
I will recall another whose holy silhouette always passes in front of my eyes Reb Yoshualeh. He came from the small town of Mezrich. My grandfather, Reb Yehuda Leib Rubin, an honest and God fearing Jew lived there all his life, and was famous for his three trips to Israel and his assistance in establishing the colony of Yesod Hamaleh in 1884.
Reb Yoshualeh came to Brest to teach Torah already aged seventy. He had a sparse white beard and the good soft eyes of a child. When he would teach us children the Chumash or about the miracles and wonders of the Exodus into Israel, or about the great righteous men that God had sent to guide his people his voice would be soft and trembling - tears would appear in his eyes and it would take him some time to calm himself.
After him came my Gemarra teacher. In the cheder there were four fourteen-year-olds boys. The rabbi was a red headed Jew with a long thick red beard and rosy cheeks, as if he was just out of the bathhouse. He was known to be a wonderful teacher.
My best friend in the cheder was Velveleh who was the son of the famous Brisker Rabbi, Chaim Soloveitchik. He is now known as the Sage and Rabbi Zeev Dov Soloveitchik.
Another teacher I would like to recall was Goldberg, the famous Hebrew teacher and the father of three famous sons. One of them was the poet Menachem Berisha. The story as it happened was like this: my father Reb Moshe Michael was a great and very learned man in Torah. Besides what he had learned at the table of Rabbi Chaim Brisker and Rabbi Scholem Menashe, he was also steeped in the teachings of that time. He was not very pleased with my limited knowledge of Tanach, therefore he employed the best teacher, Goldberg, to teach me the chapters of Job, Ezekiel, Daniel, etc.etc. My father would observe with great attention the anniversary of the death of Yomtov Lipa Heller , the author of 'Baal Tosphot Yom Tov' to whom we were related. I remember that on these anniversaries I would help with cleaning the house and putting kerosene in the lamps. On this day my father would invite all my former co-students and also poor students from the Brest Yeshiva, as well as our relations.
Over time I have translated many works of the classical writers of England and America (into Yiddish). After the Great Fire of Brest (1901) I went to Vilna and prepared for study in a teacher's seminary but fate decided differently.
In November 1904 I came to America as the pioneer of our family, thus beginning a new chapter of my life. I have been involved in many newspapers and monthly publications such as Der Oifkum, Die Feyder, Die Zukunft, Chicago Tag, Tag, Vorverds, the Frier Arbeiter Shtimme (Free Workers Voice), The Wochenblatt, Literarische Bletter, and Warsaw, etc.etc.
In the 'Amerikaner' I published over seventy biographical essays as well as extracts of my translation of the Five Scrolls. Amongst my various translations were:
The Prisoner Of Chilon by Lord Byron. 1923
The essays of the Rubbiyat of Omar Khayyam by Lord Tennyson 1926
Jewish Melodies.by Lord Byron 1928
Anouk Arden by Lord Tennyson 1930
His Keys. by Lord Byron 1932
25 Songs of Henry Longfellow 1933
25 Songs of Walt Whitman 1934
Songs by Thomas Moore 1935
The Shakespearean Sonnets 1944
King Lear By W. Shakespeare 1947
Judaism by Rabbi Dr. I Lowenthal..
The generous benefactors of the city treated us well, each one of us would receive allotted days at the homes of the respected families, and where the food we received was the very best. The following personalities have remained in my memory:
Regardless of all this, I was totally immersed in my studies of the pages of Gemarra under the supervision of Rabbi Chaimke, and I was also totally absorbed in my secular studies to obtain a teaching diploma. I was greatly helped by Lalstein, a teacher at the Brest high school. Dr. Shereshevski and Noah Finkelstein paid for my tuition, as well as that for several other students.
In 1899, upon receiving my diploma, I obtained my first position in the town of Razitza in southern Russia with the help of Noah Finkelstein.
When I was about to be mobilized into the Russian army, I immigrated to the United States. There I studied dentistry at New York College. In my life I have endured much and suffered hardships, but I wanted to describe my existence in the period of my early life in Brest and the wonderful personalities that I encountered there to them I owe much gratitude for their help and guidance in my life.
The western wall of the room was allocated to the 'sons of the city'. Reb Moshe Baruch Bishkovitz, a wealthy respected Jew, was a retired flour merchant from whom one never heard a raised voice. When the Rabbi would come to Brest, he would stay at Reb Moshe's house. Moshe Baruch was not an especially fanatic Chassid in those days before W.W.1 he would buy Zionist shekels and contribute to the settlements in Israel.
In contrast, his son Reb Yakov Bishkowitz was a fanatical fiery Chassid who would organize the pilgrimage to the Rebbe on the High Holidays. He was a master of prayer who would distinguish himself on Kol Nidrei night in the synagogue. This same Yakov Bishkowitz was accustomed to send a sack of flour to the Rebbe for the High Holidays and festivals. Also, after W.W.1, when his financial situation worsened he continued to send the Rebbe contributions exactly as he had done in the good times. He was a warm sincere person who was genuinely interested in the welfare and wellbeing of his community. If a Chassid had a celebration, he would invite all the members of his community to participate in his simcha. Also in the days of mourning he would see to it that they would not lack for anything in their homes. He did this with his whole heart, not sparing his time or money. He was especially renowned for his dancing, he would dance for hours. If someone would stop from tiredness, he would grab them and take them into his circle and further dance with them he was always the first to start dancing and the last to stop. He would spread every new melody of the Rebbe's amongst his community. He died in Warsaw in 1939.
Older Chassidim tell that Reb Yakov Bishkowitz was greatly influenced by Reb Chaim Mendel Kastramsky, who had introduced him into this Chassidic culture and enthusiasm. Chaim Mendel was a teacher of Chassidic children and greatly respected by all. He was famous amongst the Polish Chassids. In 1936 Reb Chaim Mendel traveled to Israel and settled in Jerusalem. He died during the War of Independence in 1948 in a shteibl of the Stolin Karliner Chassids in the Old City of Jerusalem.
From the street could be seen distant flickering flames Brest was burning. It was a Friday night towards the end of summer the air was hot and stifling. The congregation begged Reb Reuven to come and lead the prayers. He glanced at the red sky, closed his eyes and started to pray as usual, jumping and dancing with his eyes raised to heaven. Even the Russian soldiers who witnessed this marveled at him and said, 'what a holy Rabbi '.
Next to Reb Reuven always stood Reb Benjamin, a timber merchant. He was also a songwriter who assisted the chazan in writing the melodies for the prayers. Reb Benjamin was renowned for his 'Lecha Dodi' melody, which was much loved by the congregation.
He was an exceptional talent.
Once a year, Brest would be visited by the Rebbe. Reb Israel was a good-looking Jew, astute in worldly matters. Dressed as an ordinary businessman, he would not discuss Torah at the table. He was a learned scholar and could also play the violin. He composed a series of melodies and his sons were also musicians. He would not accept written appeals (notes) or redemption money but would bless his Chassids. His Chassids would ask his advice about financial matters and health issues. He had some knowledge of medicine. When he visited Brest, not only his followers would visit him but Jews from the whole community. They would dance for long hours and during the dancing put him into a carriage. Reb Israel died in Frankfurt Germany in1922. He was succeeded by his son, Reb Elimelech, and according to the advice of Reb Chaim Mendel, this was Reb Israel's wish.
Reb Elimelech stayed in Israel for some years, days before the outbreak of W.W.2 he left Israel and returned to Karlin where he was murdered at the hands of the Nazis.
The Chassids knew how to celebrate the exit of the Shabbath and the High holidays in an exceptional and beautiful manner. The coming week could be full of worries; the Chassids were accustomed to look forward and took the daily disappointments in their stride.
At Simchat Torah, their dancing with the Torah had no bounds to their joy and merrymaking. Rich or poor, irrespective of age or status, they would all join in the singing in friendship and brotherhood. They would go from house to house collecting all the 'goodies' that had been prepared for them for the festivals. At Purim, the Chassids would go from house to house of the wealthy lead by a musician playing melodies on a violin. I can even now visualize Shmuel Lieb the watchmaker, leading them, another playing a drum, accompanied by a crowd of children. The musician would call out a blessing and the amount of money to be donated every household had an allotted sum and a special song.
They would all sing together and ate sweet things because it was Purim and everything was permissible. Thus the parade went from all the houses, collecting extra people along the way, taking the food and drinks to the synagogue where they would sing and dance until the morning prayers.
The donated monies would go into a death fund to help bury the poor who could not afford a funeral and headstone. Amongst the well-known Chassids in Brest was Reb Noah the painter. A Chassid, an innocent straight and pure hearted man, he would freshly paint the prayer house every year, if the Rebbe would visit, he would paint it again as he considered this a sacred task.
Reb Moshe Boaz, Reb Noah Grushavsky who was the permanent Gabbei of the shteibl. Reb Asher the baker, the elderly Reb Yonatan who prayed at the eastern wall, my own father, Reb Avraham Chaim Kastrinski, who was a son of old style fervent Stolin -Karliner Chassids. From the old-timers, Reb Zeev Koval, Reb Yakov the baker, Reb Yossele Hari, Reb Aaron Bishkowitz, the Berenson family, and many others as well.
Between the shteibls of the Stolin Karliner and the Gerrer Chassids in Brest there was shared a thin wall and the door was always open. Both great 'powers', Stolin and Gur, lived side by side in peace and quiet. On Sabbath and the High holidays when we made a large Kiddush, we would celebrate together. On Simchat Torah one would go to the yard of the other to dance together
One of the dear Gerrer Chassids was Reb Berl Shereshevski, an elderly Jew with high standards, a very learned man and a businessman respected in the whole city. He had ten sons - they were great scholars, among them was Rabbi Meir Shereshevski of Bialystok, Chassidic rabbi of that town.
From my early youth, even before I saw it with my own eyes, I felt its spirit, crowned with greatness and shrouded in legends. The cheder and yeshiva students would talk of its large buildings, theatres, schools, synagogues and yeshivas. They told of their rabbis, the greats of their generation, and the glory of Judaism. The Soloveitchiks, father and son, who with their erudition could bring down mountains and they themselves, were like mountains (see I.L. Peretz Between Mountains).
The merchants, the affluent, and the wealthy benefactors who conducted business with all the major cities in the land and abroad, still followed the laws of kashrut, and wherever they were, they would not omit learning a page of Gemarra whether on foreign soil or at home.
The ordinary Jews, the tradesmen, and laborers would say a chapter of Psalms; learn a portion of the Chumash (Pentateuch) a chapter from the Mishna, and a commentary of the Book of Legends, and the Book of Laws (Chayey Adam).
There were famous doctors, greats of medicine who would not accept money for a visit to the poor and would leave medicine for free.
The method of giving charity, openly and with generous open hands and hearts.
They would tell of one Brest businessman whose wife's jewelry would be at the pawnbrokers for the whole year in order to help marry off a poor bride. On the eve of the High Holidays she would redeem her jewelry, only to pawn it again immediately after the holidays. Just as the only Jew in Antopol that dressed in clean and fresh spotless clothes, a talented and brilliant Talmudic student was betrothed to a rich man's daughter, because the Glory of Brest influenced the rich man.
The marketplace and places of trade, which seethed with activity all week, as noisy as a huge fair, the marketplace with the shops on all four sides, full of merchandise and food products.
The King's Park, a large and well cared for park with grassy lawns, trees where birds would nest in their branches, and a stork built its nest at the top of the tallest tree. On Saturdays and High holidays the Jews would wander around this park and marvel at God's wisdom and beauty.
The river Mukhavets that in summertime swelled its waters, which flowed away to distant countries and the rest of the world. It swallowed the sins of the townsfolk that were cast into it and took them away
The fortress was at the same time both a border and a barrier between the Jewish Mitnagdim from Lithuania and the Chassidim from Poland. It built up a dividing wall between countries and governments with established borders and different destinies.
Above all, the railway station - built broad and high and world famous. It was said that from Zashmerinke to Brest there was no other railway station to equal it in the whole of Russia.
Of all the gifts that God gave the world, Brest received a beautiful portion. There was a story about the leading nobleman of the district his name was Sztar would eat an entire roasted stuffed turkey at his mealtimes as if it were nothing. His weight even exceeded that of His Honor the Tsar Alexander the Third himself, who was renowned as the heaviest man in all of Russia in his time. Once, during military maneuvers conducted in the Tsar's presence, he broke the back of the horse he was riding. Maneuvers. The Tsar himself congratulated him and said:Bravo Molodetz!
Of the ten fires that raged through Jewish towns, nine of them broke out in Brest. A Brisker fire was an event that was mourned for generations.
The station was huge building that overwhelmed me and reminded me of the paragraph and we are like grasshoppers in their eyes. The noise and tumult of the station was as if in a waterfall, a train arrives, pulls up at a platform, a bell rings, the train whistles and then disappears into the distance.
I freely wandered around the streets, looking at the city, the tall buildings, the beautiful trees and gardens and sidewalks, the droshkies, the shops and the store windows with their displays of clothes and jewelry and tasty delicacies. It seemed that the people of the city had holiday food all week and the potato cakes hot, warming, and melting in the mouth. They were called 'Brisker Holnikes' (potato cakes).
But above all, the Brest synagogues and schools, full of people all day long. I swear that I saw with my own eyes long lines of empty droshkies outside the Greener synagogue, without their drivers. When I asked what this meant, I was told that their owners were religious Jewish drivers who had sneaked into the synagogue and between Mincha and Maariv would study a chapter of Mishna and commentaries, and a chapter of Gemarra.
Brest and Warsaw - because to Brest, Warsaw was like a magnet, a means of achieving the aim to springboard to the wider world.
It was then Warsaw that I met Menachem Goldberg (from Brest) later known by the name Menachem Beirisha, a good-looking young man with a moustache and a refined almost feminine soul. Blue eyes, with long eyelashes, overshadowed with mischievous chestnut brown, add to this a perceptive awareness. His early verses were immature and childish I.L. Peretz himself remarked that they amounted to nothing much, but if the great author become close to someone, then he was worthy of it.
We were a group that had liberated itself from traditions and family, and we described ourselves as 'creativity artists'. In truth, we were learning the chain of Jewish literature - we barely amounted to ten people.
I still remember Menachem's room; it was actually a kitchen in an apartment of a coworker of 'Heint' (the daily Yiddish newspaper) in Cholodna St. directly opposite the publishing offices. The apartment was on the top floor; it took one hundred steps to walk up. There Menachem would sit and work for half the day the room was really a kitchen, and in the afternoon they would put in a bed, stool and table
I often traveled with Menachem to Brest his birthplace and had the opportunity to befriend him in another atmosphere and environment. His home was warm and friendly and his parents lovingly received me. His father was an educated and spiritual man, was a broad boned man, always worried that his clothes were too tight and short for him. His mother was a refined charming woman, small and thin, self-preoccupied, with an expression of love and care on her face that was a prototype of Menachems. The other brothers resembled their father.
In later years we parted ways and our friendship was severed because of love.
My love for Eretz Israel. Because of this sin he could not forgive me
Also my Rebbe and my former fellow students could not forgive me. The manner in which they reacted to my strivings was like this. Several weeks before my departure to Israel, I was visited by a delegation of my friends and coworkers at the newspaper.
We heard that you are of the opinion to got to Israel. This is simply suicide, perhaps it's because you don't have enough work. Thus I came to the attention of the editor, I went to him to explain and he appointed me as a permanent member of staff.
I left Warsaw as if running away, without farewells from my friends.
Quiet streets, single storey houses built without any planning permits - no architects ever built them everyone did according to their own taste. In keeping with the influence of that time, there were large and empty front yards surrounded by wire fences, vegetable gardens, broken and bent fences, just ruins, a reminder of the first fire. A house behind a garden, a garden behind a house, there was no order or planning in this suburb.
In summer at noontime in the suburb, its wide unpaved streets would be deserted and empty. The narrow shops were without customers. The window shutters of the houses were closed to keep out the heat. Tired women in light dresses and uncombed hair nursing their babies sat sprawled on their balconies or doorsteps, drowsily chatting. The children played in the middle of the street, rolling in the sand and the dirty puddles with green slime. The men and the older children were all employed in the city. In the evening the suburb would come alive when the fathers and sons would return from the city. The older girls would go with buckets to the wells for water. Through an open doorway one could see the flames of the fires in the kitchen, and from the chimneys dark blue smoke would come out in waves. The women are busy; the men would sit in their shirtsleeves and trousers in the front of their homes interrupting their conversations with yawns, waiting for their dairy supper.
Yossel the carriage driver, a broad boned Jew with a gray beard tells a small group of the day's journeys and events. Some person seated himself in his carriage and asked to be taken to the station for the train to Warsaw. Yossel knew that the Warsaw train had already left at five o'clock, but what did he care? The passenger should know how to look at his own watch, but as he rushed to the station, what did the driver care? In short, they arrive at the station, the train has left, and the passenger has to wait for four hours. But what did Yossel care, just take out your wallet and pay, but the traveler was obstinate and a whole argument ensued .
The circled group listens, one of them groans, the second yawns, from the other side of the street, one can hear casual chatting. This is Naphtali someone said, and he had a fare to Terespol today, two rubles there and return. The darkness grows and the green of the trees becomes a large inky mass. The dark sky deepens over the suburb and gradually silence descends.
Soon after supper, in the shadows of the fences, between the trees and the dark streets, and in the dark corners, couples meet. Youths and girls with shining eyes and racing hearts, heavy breathing - the darkness covers everything and the suburb falls into stillness
Winnitski was a former military official. But he considered his military career as a sideline, the most important work of his life was the creation of these gardens, which he had planted and cultivated by himself. He had no wife or children and no relatives, it seemed. He lived alone and was solitary, but was very polite to the Jewish passers by who would greet him, he would sometimes put a sweet in the hands of every Jewish child.
The elderly official was very popular with the youngsters of the suburb. The Cheder boys would see him as he passed their windows, they knew this was a sign that it was lunchtime as he would always go for a walk at this time. The children in the street would touch their hats and greet him as he passed them in the street, They knew that on the Sabbath when they would come to the gardens of this nobleman, he would give them berries.
Winnitski's gardens were open to all the Jews of the suburb on Saturdays and high holidays. It was not an especially large garden, there were several walkways, some flower beds behind the house where Winnitski lived, and a large orchard, larger than the public garden. The orchard mostly was rented to a Jew and therefore, one could not walk there.
Winnitski himself would sit on the veranda of his house in his dressing gown, drinking tea, smoking and watching the crowds who had come there to stroll around. He took pleasure in watching the younger generation promenading in his gardens that he had planted and cultivated himself, and had laid out the pathways and benches. He had also built a small arbor between two oak trees, so that it should be a real garden.
A strange gentile was this Winnitski. He would hardly talk all day, but Fusia the shopkeeper and Hayaleh the trader knew enough to tell that he liked to give others a livelihood, and would not argue and bargain over pennies. Shmuelke the bricklayer had earned money from him almost his whole life. Shmuelke was an elderly Jew without any remaining strength, his hands were not as they once were. David the work supervisor would not hire him anymore, in the city there was no work for him if not for Winnitski, Shmuelke would most likely have died of hunger.
Shmulke worked for him solely strengthening the fencing around the gardens, fixing the roof over the storehouse, making the benches for the gardens. He erected the arbor. He worked on fixing the steps to the veranda of the house, took down the old timber shed and built a new one, bigger and better than before. What did this aristocrat need with all these 'improvements'? No one knew. The truth was that he had a lot of money, he had a brother, a general, who had died and left his entire fortune to Winnitski. It was said that it was a sum of tens of thousands of rubles. He kept the money in the bank and in stocks and shares. The people of the suburb didn't exactly know his circumstances, just that he was rich, and just that Shmuelke earned his living from him, week after week.
On Sabbath the garden was full of youths and girls from the suburb. Some of them were not dressed well enough to show themselves in the city gardens. A group of girls, seamstresses, sat themselves inside the arbor and one of them reads a novel aloud.
On a bench opposite the arbor a discussion between apprentice tailors about the proletariat and socialism. Yoske Garber, a good looking youth with a red scarf around his neck, sits with his friends and sings a song from 'Shulamit'. Yoske can sing beautifully and is handsome. The group goes over to some girls, amongst who is Raisele, the daughter of Itche-Leib Rachkes. Yoske cannot look at her without his heart thumping and blushing.
Peals of laughter break out. Yossel the carriage driver is searching for his 'jewel'; he wants to take it with him to the synagogue for prayers. The 'jewel' is found amongst his friends, youths of his age. He gets a smack and then another one, his hat falls off his head and rolls about between the flowers. Shmuelke the bricklayer, who has come over in his Sabbath clothing to admire his new bench, wants to defend his 'jewel'. Yossel gets nervous and complains in a loud voice. The groups all leave their places and come over to see the dispute. The sun sends its rays, the birds twitter in the branches of the trees. A quiet breeze blows through the grass all around sweet scents fill the air.
Yoske Garber watches from the side as Raisele leaves with her friends, now he feels freer, and begins to sing in his beautiful resounding voice, but for whom?
The Sabbath afternoon has come to its end; the evening sky is already tinged with red, spreading red through the clouds. From the distance one can hear the mooing of a cow, returning from the field. The streets of the suburb become full of life, noise and movement. A year old toddler wants to test his strength and walk by himself; his mother follows him with open arms, ready to help him. Suddenly, a pig escapes with a fearful screech from the large yard next to the laundry. The pig just runs into the elderly Reb Leib and knocks him over onto the footpath, Reb Leib yells, the toddler is thrown onto the ground and lies spread out with a frightened wail. A group of boys chase the pig
Winnitski's garden is emptied of people. The young men and girls go home for their evening meals Afterwards they want to walk into the city, this is the best time to stroll about the streets, past the large stores.
Old Winnitski sits on the veranda of his house in the darkness of the vanishing evening. He smokes and looks at the fully-grown trees that spread their crowns towards the skies; he is lost in his thoughts. And Shmuelke the bricklayer goes to the synagogue and raises his voice in a song and thanks God.
By asking this question a heaviness falls on my heart and an inner bitter feeling tells me that, no, you will never go back to the gates of the city in which you were born, studied, dreamed and enjoyed because it does not exist anymore.
It is possible that a small house, in which the rays of love and the shadows of poverty were merged together, is still standing today. But the home of my parents has vanished and does not exist anymore. For what would I come home? To roam the streets and ask questions that cannot be answered? To seek and not find, to follow shadows that would lead me to the graveyard, but not to find, as we were children not granted even the privilege of going to the graves of our parents.
No, it would be pointless to follow these shadows because they are deep within me and never have left me since the first time I heard the most gruesome bloodcurdling scream that had ever been heard since the creation of this world. Living shadows, eternally inside me and never will leave me.
As if in a dream, I see Zygmuntowska Street, the street named after one of the Polish kings, the street in which I spent my childhood. I was a child of a generation which was thrown into universal chaos by W.W.1.
In that same street I saw for the first time the bayonet carrying soldiers of another revolution. In 1920 for the first time the Soviet soldier was illustrated to my inquisitive child's eyes entirely different from the revolutionary guards that I encountered 20 years later when I was arrested as a Zionist.
Trotski's and Tuchachevski's soldier sat in our kitchen and warmed his feet and dried his wet leggings. He chatted to my mother in a drowsy voice about the good life victory would bring. He requested, not demanded - a piece of bread to satisfy his hunger.
Later on, Stalin's revolutionary guards knew how to proclaim that Trotski and Tuchachevski had damaged communism and were traitors to the revolution in 1920.
In Zygmuntowska Street, my childhood eyes saw gentile regimes arise and disappear.
They also saw the hardships the Jews endured under those regimes. The constant danger of pogroms cast it's shadow of fear over us. This fear influenced the activities of little children and made them serious. On one of these horrible days, my father became alarmed and was called out into a nearby street where armed soldiers were conducting their pogrom with revelry and beautifying it with an anthem for the new Poland. My father left and soon after a rumor reached our house that he would never return as he had been shot.
The truth was that a Polish soldier had turned his bayonet on him and pulled the trigger, but to his luck, the bullet did not hit my father. The news of this rumor brought my father quickly home. From that day on, I remember my father as a defender of his brethren against attacks, pogroms and oppression. As a defender on occasions of a mass slaughter or great danger, not always could he avert a tragedy, but he was always ready to act when someone was threatened, even at great danger to himself.
At that time the pogrom shadows spread out from afar and came towards us. I learnt a folk song about the Pinsk martyrs who were murdered on the order of a Polish general, an enemy of Israel. The song began with a negative invitation: better that you don't come to the Seder night a song that was not sung loudly but that echoed the bitter sacrifices of the screaming victims of an eternal hatred. The words were etched into my brain and have remained in my memory. The simple word pearls have bit by bit infused into my heart's memory and the drops of blood of the innocent murdered Jews.
Memories from those days remain in my mind, the waves of the same anti-Semitism, and if I'm not mistaken of General Listovski, who raised his slingshot against two others of my people. Over twenty years later, when Jewish youths stood up to battle to break the whip of another general that was an enemy of Israel, it awakened in my thoughts the Jews who were openly murdered in the Brest Park.
The house on Zygmuntowska, what terrible and sacred memories were wrapped up and imbedded in its walls. The dilapidated house where I first acquired some knowledge, learning the alphabet with the other Jewish children, chanting Kamatz,Aleph,Vav.
There stands the two-storey building with the large yard where I first began to think in Hebrew. There is the synagogue wrapped in darkness and the rabbi with his black eyes and stooped back who taught me .294
At the edge of the town stood a large, red brick house, a terrible house. There we learnt foreign literature. For the hundreds of Jew- hating Christian children there were about twenty Jewish children. We bought our knowledge for the price of daily beatings, and the same amount of insults, shoving and discrimination. All this happened, sadly, in a large school. We learnt to defend ourselves and return the blows to our attackers. Betray other betrayers. We learnt more from our 'comrades' then we ever did from our teachers.
And on the other edge of the city there was a large brick house that was also a school where there were no more Jewish students than gentiles. On the Sabbath it would change into a symbol of resistance and defense of Jewish honor. They were the offices of the Jewish Youth Committee, a youth that dreamed of a free life, a youth that carried the flag of Judah with pride, a youth that revived the building of the Jewish nation, and were steeped in the love of Zion.
Such was the youth that I knew, I have never found any better in any other place, because better than them does not exist.
No. No. I will not allow myself to go back to Brest. Yet Brest will always follow me and be with me. Because the three main things I have learnt were instilled in me in sorrow and also in joy that I have carried with me from my childhood home with me during the nights of conflict and the days of joy. Here they are:
1. Love your fellow Jews.
2. Do not fear the gentiles.
3. Lucky is the man who carries the yoke of his childhood with him.
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