by Meir Eidelbaum - Tel Aviv
Translated by Jerrold Landau
The Jewish community of Mezritsh (as its name appears in documents and literature until the modern era) was not one of the earliest Jewish settlements of Poland and Lithuania. Many settlements preceded it. The exact date of its founding is difficult to determine, but we can estimate the date from what is known to us.
We have two sources available to us. One explicitly mentions Jews. The second makes no specific reference to Jews. Reb Yakov Szapira, a native of our town, writes in his correspondence with Professor Simon Dubnow (source: Dubnow Archives, YIVO, New York), that a Christian official in Mezritsh, having researched the town's history, told him [Szapira] that King Jagiello gave the villages of Stolpno-Mezritsh to the Jew Avraham Hartz (perhaps Hertz or Hirtz M. E.) to establish a city for Jews. According to the official, 400 years had elapsed since this gift had taken place. The official also noted that he had written and printed documents confirming the gift. Szapira advises in his letter to Dubnow that he is attempting to obtain these documents.
If we accept the premise of the Szapira-Dubnow correspondence, and include the years elapsed between the writing of that letter (the date was 3 Tevet 5655 1895) until the Nazi destruction overtook the community, Jewish settlement of Mezritsh would have begun in 1495 and existed for 428 years. Using these calculations, King Jagiello would have died 52 years before the gift of the towns was said to have occurred. Obviously this would not have been possible because the king would no longer have been alive when he purportedly made the gift to establish a city for the Jews. This contradiction can be resolved if we concede that the Christian official had not been precise about the number of years in his correspondence with Szapira; all he meant to convey was that Mezritsh was a very old town built by Jews.
The second source seems more reliable. In the geographical atlas Stara-Zaszitna Polska, it is written that King Jagiello gave the villages of Stolpno and Mezrtish to Avraham Chamiec in 1390. In comparing the two sources, we find both corroboration and contradiction. The sources corroborate each other in that they both refer to the same king and the same villages. Both sources also mention a man named Avraham. Contradictions lie in the surname - the first source refers to a man named Hartz while in the second source, it is Chamiec. Chamiec is not a Jewish surname, but was common amongst Polish people. The name Avraham is not exclusively Jewish. It is known that Christians also used
Biblical names, though much more rarely. Having said this, it still seems that the Avraham mentioned in both sources was likely a Jew, because very few Catholics used Biblical names. With regard to the surname Chamiec, which is without doubt Polish, we can surmise that this is a corruption of a Jewish name. For example, Ben-Chaim, which would be translated as Chaim's in Yiddish, could be corrupted to Chamiec. (Or perhaps, the name Chamiec arose for entirely different reasons.) In any event, we can conclude that the Jewish community was founded in 1390, or in any case no later than the beginning of the 1400s. Jews lived in Mezritsh for approximately 587 years.
In the entry for Stolpno-Mezritsh, the editors of the aforementioned geographical atlas made no mention of Jews. This is not surprising. It is known that the Poles refused to regard the Jewish residents as citizens, certainly not as equal citizens. It was only after the First World War that Poland was forced to sign a treaty granting Jews equal rights and the right to develop their own cultural, religious and national life. A Pole, even a historian who should be guided by historical truth, would not be so audacious as to state that Mezritsh was founded as a Jewish city and built up by Jews.
Both sources mention the two towns [Stolpno and Mezritsh] in one breath. However, Jewish settlement, from the town's beginnings until almost the middle of the 19th century, was only in Mezritsh. There was no Jewish settlement in Stolpno, not even in our day. The reason is not known, but it is possible to surmise that the owners of these villages were not interested in living in a city of Jews, and preferred that their private estates and palaces be isolated. Since Stolpno borders on the large palace garden, that village remained within the bounds of the area that was not favored for Jewish settlement.
The first Jews of Mezritsh began to build their city on the northern side of the Krzna River, from east to west. The river formed the southern border. The village owners lived on the other side of the river. Stolpno was also across the river. One explanation for the establishment of Jewish settlement in Mezritsh rather than Stolpno might be that the spread of the Jewish settlement from north to south was blocked by the river. Though this was certainly the case, the river could not have been the obstacle, because there were already Jewish towns and settlements on the southern side of the river, and there was no obvious reason for Jewish settlement not to have begun in Stolpno and spread northward. With the passage of time, the Jews began to drain the banks of the Krzna River and to build structures. The old cemetery formed the northern boundary of the newer part of town, with the old settlement directly behind it. The old Yiddish name of the street was Di Tzebrochene Gasse, The Broken Street. Its Polish name is Staromiejska, which means Old City. From there the settlement spread southward, eastward and westward. As has been noted, it only spread to the other side of the river when the river banks were drained and bridges were built.
Where Did the Residents Come From?
There is no doubt that the first settlers of Mezritsh were Jews from Western countries such as Germany. They did not come only to Mezritsh. During that period, Jews from the west streamed eastward to Poland as they fled their oppressors and killers. Poland was the only country that opened its gates to the Jewish refugees.
Most of the communities of Poland and Lithuania were established during that era. The prayer rite in Mezritsh, especially in the synagogue, points to a definitive influence from Frankfurt [Germany] and its surroundings. However, there is no doubt that Jews from the region also came to settle in this new place based on the privileges which the landlords granted to the settlers who hoped that this would, in turn, lead to the improvement of their own estates. Similar agreements were in place for refugees in other villages. The development of Mezritsh followed the custom for many new communities in that it was not established all at once. Even a few public services required expenditures. A small community certainly could not, at least in the first years, maintain a rabbi, a shochet [ritual slaughterer], Beis Midrash, etc. We can surmise that the settlers depended on the assistance of well-established communities in the region to provide a schoolteacher, a shochet, a rabbi, etc. This support would certainly have come from the largest city of the region, Brisk, which was even in those days, one of the most important communities in the entire Kingdom of Lithuania, of which Mezritsh was a part.
With the establishment of the Central Council for the Jews of Poland, which centralized all Jewish activity, each community became an independent jurisdiction. The leaders of each community concerned themselves with matters pertaining to the needs of their own residents, including internal affairs, as well as relations with government and local landowners. With respect to government relations, the community leaders were first and foremost obligated to collect the royal poll tax, which was paid to the royal treasury and was imposed on every individual and every head of a Jewish community. The Jews of Mezritsh paid this tax, of course. As long as the Jewish population and the number of communities remained small, the government had no difficulty collecting its taxes. Representatives of the king would travel through the communities and collect the tax. As the years passed, and the Jewish population and the number of communities grew, Jewish leaders found themselves in a new situation. The communities were no longer able to resolve the wide array of internal or external problems that arose. With regard to internal affairs, each community operated independently. No single organization supervised or oversaw matters of religion, worship, custom, education or relations with other communities. Though the leaders of the larger communities would meet from time to time to deal with common matters, these meetings did not have any legal basis, and therefore did not have the authority to represent the Jewish public.
At that time, the government also came to the conclusion that their old protocol regarding the collection of taxes from the Jews was not working. The collectors did not encounter obstacles as long as the Jewish population was small and the communities were few. But as the population grew, and number of communities increased, collectors were no longer collecting taxes effectively. King Zygmunt August the Old tried a new system: leasing out the collection of Jewish taxes to Jews, primarily rich Jews and bankers. This did not work out because for various reasons the Jews did not cooperate with the collectors. Then the authorities came up with the idea of granting autonomy to the Jews of Poland and Lithuania. In the year 1551 (or 1581 according to others), Zygmunt II August granted the Magna Carta of autonomous government to the Jews. The heads of the communities and important rabbis convened and established a Central Committee that would concern itself with organizing Jewish life in all of Poland and Lithuania, and would serve as the representatives of Jewry to the governments in those two countries. The Central Committee included the Jews of Lithuania and the four lands of Poland Greater Poland,
Lesser Poland, Wolhyn, and Red Russia. Mezritsh was in Lithuania. Each land was divided into districts. Each district had a central community, upon which the smaller communities were dependent. Mezritsh belonged to the district of Brisk, which at that time was the largest community in Lithuania.
Mezritsh the Struggle for Independence
Relations between Mezritsh and Brisk were orderly. We did not find opinions indicating otherwise. However, when administrative changes took place in the Central Committee, Mezritsh began a struggle for independence from the district to which it belonged.
In 1623, Lithuania's Jews seceded from the Central Council and established its own Central Council. The disagreement that caused the secession of Lithuanian Jewry from the Central Council was due to a political dispute between the governments of Poland and Lithuania. In 1570, the final, definitive union between Poland and Lithuania was formed. Prior to that time, the countries were independent but shared a common king. In 1570 the two countries united into one. This unification became known as Unia Lubelska. Based on the Unia, Lithuania transferred Podliasza to Polish rule. In the wake of the Unia, the Central Council decided to remove Podliasza from Brisk's governance and to establish a new district the district of Podliasza with the town of Tyktin as the district's center. Brisk opposed this decision and quit the Council. Mezritsh also revolted and refused to join the new region. Mezritsh refused to dissolve its relationship with Brisk, despite the decision of the Council. Though Brisk no longer belonged to the Central Council, Mezritsh continued to maintain its administrative connection to Brisk until the year 5436 (1675). In Pinkas Medinat Lita [Proceedings of the Jewish Council of Lithuania], published by Professor Simon Dubnow, Mezritsh is last mentioned in the year 5436 , indicating that the town's rebellion continued for 52 years. Mezritsh was apparently forced by the Council of the Four Lands to accept the authority of Tyktin in 1675. Mezritsh refused and began a struggle for independence. The disagreement between Mezritsh and Tyktin was judged before Central Council's Beit Din ha-Gadol [Supreme Court]. At first, the council found in favor of Tyktin, but in the year 5441 , the Beit Din recognized the validity of Mezritsh's claims for independence. Like other large communities such as Krakow, Lublin and others, Mezritsh gained the right to become an independent community and to send delegates directly to the Central Committee, no longer requiring the intermediation of the district. From that time onward, the delegates from Mezritsh were recognized as leaders of Polish Jewry, on a par with all the other members of the Central Committee, rather than as the representatives of a small community. Who were the delegates of Mezritsh to the Council of the Four Lands? We found only one name. The old ledgers were lost (the last ledger was lost during the Holocaust). We found his name in the final ledger of the Chevra Kadisha [Burial Society]: The Torah scholar and head, Rabbi Elia Kac, the father-in-law of the rabbi of the holy community of Frankfurt am Main, died in Nisan 5475 (1714).
Reb Elia Kac was not a Mezritsh native. His roots were in Germany. His father was the famous rabbi of Furth, Rabbi Shmuel, author of the classic book Beit Shmuel, which is a commentary on the Even Haezer section of the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Laws]. This is a fundamental book on Hebrew jurisprudence. Rabbi Shmuel
married a woman from Mezritsh. We do not know the name of Rabbi Shmuel's father-in-law or mother-in-law [who were from Mezritsh]. We do know that [Reb Kac] was the father-in-law of the famous Rabbi Avraham Abosh, who was born and raised in Mezritsh, and later left for Frankfurt am Main to become the rabbi of that community. There he was known as Reb Aboshl Frankfurter. Rabbi Elia Kac was the parnas [community leader] of the Council of the Four Lands. He was, evidently, one of the great leaders of the community.
The Expulsion from Mezritsh and Disturbances
The latter half of the 15th century was full of disasters for Jews. The clergy and various anti-Semites worked tirelessly to convince the rulers to expel the Jews from Poland and Lithuania. The Jews were expelled from Bavaria, Wurtzburg, and Magdeburg. This terrible time culminated in the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal two years later. The Polish clergy and noblemen who wished to rid themselves of the Jews were happy to learn of these disasters, and they redoubled their efforts to expel the Jews. King Jan Kazimierz who had engaged in wars against the Tatars and the Muscovites, died. He left behind many debts to the Jews, as he had borrowed money from them to finance the battles against his enemies. His two sons Aleksander, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, and [Jan I] Olbracht, of Krakow, inherited their father's debts. Aleksander, who was influenced by the clergy, gave in to them in 1495 and expelled the Jews, freeing himself from the Jews and the debts. His brother [Jan I] Olbracht, on the other hand, stood up to the pressure of the clergy and anti-Semites. Aleksander died in the interim, and [Jan I] Olbracht was crowned as the King of Poland and Lithuania. Not only did he not listen to the advice of the instigators, but he also permitted the Jews of Lithuania to return to their estates. He did, however, impose a special tax on them called powrotni, which was a returnee tax, as well as a financial obligation to support 1,000 riders during the wartime. The Jewish returnees, who were poor for the most part, had to redeem their property and belongings from the people who had taken possession of it. The Jews of Mezritsh also had to restore their lives from the ruin that had befallen them.
The glorious era of Polish Jewry, which began with the autonomous rule in the latter half of the 16th century, did not last long. In the years 1648-1649, the [Ukrainian] Cossack leader Bogdan Chmiel (Chmielnicki) led a successful rebellion against the Kingdom of Poland, and unleashed a surge of wrath and anger against the Jews. More than 200 communities were destroyed and at least 150,000 Jewish men, women and children were killed. Thousands were sold as slaves, and Jewish women were raped. Jewish property was pillaged. Rabbi Natan Noteh Hanover writes about these events in his book Yaven Metzula . He writes, and from there they went to the country called Podliszi and from there they walked along the border for eight days, for there were no Jews there. Then they went to the border of Briszkfa and came to the large holy community of Mezritsh. There, there were 300 householders, and almost all were murdered. Chmiel and the Muscovites perpetrated this entire destruction.
The book Teet Hayaven cannot be compared to Reb Natan Noteh Hanover's Yaven Metzula, because Rabbi Natan Hanover was still alive and took up the wandering stick himself to escape from Chmiel. Historians nevertheless acknowledge the great importance of Teet Hayaven, whose author, Reb Shmuel Feibisz wrote down what he had heard from the refugees. Perhaps the numbers he cites are not accurate,
perhaps names were switched, but there is no doubt that our Mezritsh is in Podliasza and is close to Briszkfa, known today as Brisk. There is also no doubt that the community of Mezritsh was subject to pillage and murder by Chmiel and his Cossacks, because Yaven Metzula also tells about the slaughter that Chmiel perpetrated in Brisk, Wlodowa and Lukow, towns that surround Mezritsh. Direct testimony to this is found in the Memoirs of Ber of Bolechow. He [Ber of Bolechow] reports that when Chmiel approached Mezritsh, his grandfather and family escaped from there. These years are known in the Jewish calendar as the years of Tach veTat. The Tisha BeAv dirges also mention the decrees of Tach veTat. The rebellion against Poland ended with a peace treaty, but within a year Chmiel and his confederates, the Muscovites, returned to warfare, and yet again killed, murdered, raped and pillaged. The situation improved with the election of Jan Sobieski as the king of Poland [in 1674]. Sobieski was a faithful friend of the Jews, and did everything he could to protect them. This protector and defender died in 1695, and misfortune befell the Jews once again. August of Saxony was appointed King in his stead. Certain Polish noblemen preferred another contender for the crown, Stanislaw Leszczyñski. A bloody battle broke out between the supporters of the two candidates for the crown. The noblemen sought assistance from the outside. The Swedes came to the aid of Leszczyñski, and Moscow came to the aid of August. Both Sweden and Russia invaded Poland and the Jews were the first to suffer. Both sides pillaged and murdered Jews. More than 350,000 Jews were lost during these wars. Polish Jewry, wealthy and splendid, was turned into a community of beggars who appealed for donations to sustain themselves and their families. The Jews of Mezritsh were also made to drink from the poison cup.
Poland broke apart. Despite this, the Poles continued persecuting the Jews to the point of annihilation. The final blow came in the year 5522 (1762), when the Polish government annulled the Jewish autonomy. Only local communities managed to remain independent, because Polish rulers were unable to collect taxes from the Jewish population without the involvement of Jewish leadership. Polish Jewry became a community without any rights.
In the years 1772-1793, Poland was divided up among Austria, Prussia and Russia. Mezritsh fell under Austrian control. In 1793, a revolt broke out in Poland headed by [Tadeusz] Kosciuszko. The community of Mezritsh sent a message to his provisional government via a delegation, promising to do everything in support of the revolt, even to sacrifice their lives for the homeland. In spite of this, the revolutionaries pillaged Jewish Mezritsh. They also plundered the entire supply - 8,000 liters - of copper filling that was stored in a well-known factory of copper boilers and implements in Mezritsh. The factory's owners were robbed of their property and never re-opened their factory. Jews continued to manufacture copper utensils until the middle of the 20th century.
With the passage of the decade, Napoleon's star began to rise. After his victory in Vienna (1809), the Duchy of Poland was established, and Mezritsh returned to the jurisdiction of independent Poland. However, the downfall of Napoleon there quickly led to the end of Polish independence. The Congress of Vienna (1815-1824) officially annexed the Duchy to Russia. Czar Aleksander of Russia was also made the King of Poland, and his representative acted in his name. Poland was granted autonomy. A new revolt broke out in 1830. Mezritsh again promised its full support [to the revolutionaries]. The revolt was once again put down. In 1863
the Poles revolted for the third time. In their memoirs, the revolutionary leaders mention Mezritsh with accolades. One states that the Jews of Mezritsh gathered in the synagogue and swore their allegiance to the leader who spoke at that gathering. This final revolt was also suppressed, and from that time onward, Russia ruled Poland undisturbed.
Blood libels against Jews were commonplace throughout Poland. The Jews of Mezritsh experienced their own confrontations over blood libels. The first one was in the year 5351 . In the village of Szwiniarowa, the Jewish tavern keeper and his family were accused of murdering a Christian child to use his blood for religious services. At first, the investigation proved that the Jews were innocent of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, the clergy and others did not give up. Through the clergy's influence, the matter was brought before the court in Lublin. The witness, who was the maid of the tavern keeper, retracted her testimony under pressure from the priest. She admitted that the child had been murdered, that the blood had been removed from his body, and that she had personally removed the corpse from the house. Furthermore, she stated that her friends, who served in other Jewish households in Mezritsh, had also assisted their masters in the murder of Christian children for use in Jewish religious practice. The Jews of the village were brutally murdered. We do not know what effect this incident of blood libel had on the lives of the Jews of Mezritsh. Perhaps one clue can be found in a legend that went through Mezritsh. According to the legend, Reb Izak offered his life to protect the Jews of Mezritsh from the threat of execution by admitting that he had carried out the murderous deed. Before being put to death, Reb Izak is said to have made his children swear that neither they nor their descendants would ever walk upon the street where he was taken to be killed.
In 1815, three leaders of the community were threatened by blood libel after the death of a child. A neighbor, a priest and the physician who had examined the corpse did not find any signs of murder. A corrupt thief named Waluly, angry at these three men who had brought about his imprisonment on the eve of the great market day, informed the investigator that the accused men had falsely had him imprisoned to silence him because he had witnessed the child's murder. Eleven people, including four women, were sentenced to imprisonment, and suffered for 20 months before they were exonerated. Three of the accused died while in prison.
Reb Yakov Szapira, a native of our city, wrote about these libels. Professor [Simon] Dubnow published it in his journal of Jewish historical research Juriskaya Starina. In his account, Reb Szapira added that Waluly was murdered in the fortress of Zamosc where he had been sentenced to hard labor for his act of murder.
Jews of Mezritsh Advise the Autonomous Government
When the Councils were abolished in 1764, the government allowed the local community to retain its status as an autonomous entity. This was done, as has been said, so as to ensure the government's ability to collect the head tax and all other taxes.
The community retained its autonomous status when Poland lost its independence.
In 1815, when the Congress of Vienna granted home rule to Poland,
the Jewish problem rose to the fore once again. The government appointed a Jewish Council in order to obtain advice on Jewish matters. The Council was also charged with developing a plan to solve the problem.
The following important Jews of Poland were appointed to this Council: Rabbi Shlomo Eger the son of Rabbi Akiva Eger the renowned rabbi of Pozno. He was a son-in-law of the wealthy Natanson family. He later filled his father's position in Poznan; Michael Etynger and Izak Janosz, representatives of the assimilationists; Reb Shlomo Pozner, a well-known manufacturer, scholar, and even-tempered intellectual; Reb Avraham Sztern, a great Torah scholar and famous mathematician, who was also an intellectual. He was the son-in-law of Ch. Slonimski; the Tzaddikim Rabbi Yisrael of Koznitz and Rabbi Simcha-Bunim of Pshicha as representatives of the Hassidim; Reb Chaim Halbersztadt; Avraham Blumental of Dzialoshitz; A. Mejzel who owned an estate in the region of Krakoy; Reb Yakov Minc of Ostrova; Rabbi Shlomo Ashkenazy, the rabbi of Lublin, and a zealous opponent of Hassidism; Chaim Rozen of Mezritsh, and others.
We were not able to obtain information about Chaim Rozen, a native of our city, because we did not receive any material from Poland. However the fact that Chaim Rozen was appointed to the council testifies not only to Rozen's personal status, but alto the economic standing of Mezritsh. Rozen must have been an important person in the community and a very wealthy man. No good came from the autonomy that was granted to the communities. The communities did not have actual authority. All decisions required the review of higher echelons of government. They were allowed only to appoint rabbis according to quotas set by the governments. There were some communities with larger quotas, and other communities which were permitted only one rabbi. Mezritsh was allotted one rabbi and two assistants, who were known as dayanim [judges] and morei-tzedek [teachers of righteousness]. The community's sources of income were diverse. A communal tax was recognized in Poland, and collected by the local community authority. The community also received a share of the income from shechita [ritual slaughter] as well as from the sale religious objects [such as mezuzot, tefillin, tallitot, etc ed.]. The community paid the salary of the rabbis and helped fund the Talmud Torah [primary school for boys of modest means]. This was the state of affairs in Mezritsh.
Sources of Livelihood of the Jews of Mezritsh
From its inception, the community of Mezritsh was based on commerce. Some of the Jews earned their livelihood from trades, particularly trades that were needed by fellow Jews, such as tailoring. Due to the halachic ban on shatnez, there was a need for Jewish tailors to ensure that clothes would not contain this forbidden fabric. There were, of course, other tradesmen such as shoemakers, tzitzit [ritual fringes] tiers, bakers, butchers, shochtim [ritual slaughterers], schoolteachers, and others. There is evidence that the Jews of Mezritsh maintained commercial contacts with Germany. Mezritshers would travel to the fairs in Germany, taking with them wax, olives, mushrooms, fibers, and other such products. They would return with textile and silk products that were not available in Poland, and then sell the imported merchandise at the local fairs. Until 1775, three annual fairs took place in Mezritsh. These fairs took place at specific times and seasons. In 1775, Prince Czartoryski, the owner of the city, received a permit from King Poniatowski to establish a fourth fair for eight consecutive days. These fairs attracted visitors from near and far who came to buy and sell their wares. Mezritsh was
a primary supplier of textile products. Businessmen came from Lomza and the surrounding area to purchase textiles in Mezritsh.
Many changes took place when Poland was annexed to Russia . The guilds and professional unions, which had always been under Polish leadership, and had restricted Jewish labor, were abolished. Jews had not been accepted into the professional unions, so they could not legally work in many professions and trades. For their own reasons, the Russians abolished these unions. This resulted in an increase in the number of Jewish tradesmen. The Poles lost their advantage, and Jewish merchants were able to conduct business undisturbed, at least in cities in which allowed them to live without restrictions. The large Russian marketplace was thus opened to the Jews of Poland. Jewish merchants owning large companies were able to conduct business in Russia without limitation.
Bristle manufacturing seems to have developed in Mezritsh in the latter half, but perhaps as early as the first half, of the 19th century. According to a legend of the Bromberg family, Moshe Michel Bromberg employed 300 workers in his workshop, which was already in existence in the middle of the 19th century.
As has been stated, this is only legend, and we do not have actual facts to support it. It is possible that the numbers are exaggerated. It does indicate that Moshe Michel had a large combing machine. His combing machine was not the only one in town, which means that manufacturing on a large scale was already present. It must have taken some time for manufacturing to take root and flourish. From this evidence we can surmise that bristle manufacturing must have developed at the end of the first half of the 19th century.
Mezritsh was not the only place that was engaged in bristle combing. There were several centers in Russia and Poland, such as Vilna, Minsk, Trestina, and others. Mezritsh quickly surpassed these other centers. In 1906, a survey indicated that Mezritsh employed 3,000 workers in bristle manufacturing, half of all the bristle workers in Russia and Poland. That year, Mezritsh sold half a million silver rubles worth of bristles, a large sum in those days. The volume increased from 1906 until the First World War. Only Trestina's workforce could be compared with that of Mezritsh, but its numbers were still significantly smaller.
Even before the establishment of bristle manufacturing, Mezritsh was a leader in the hide tanning industry. Mezritsh became famous for tanning several types of hides, which were sold throughout the country. The production of sheep hides ranked third in importance. The merchants of Mezritsh would travel to the large fairs of Russia to sell their hides. There were other factories in Mezritsh, including a pen factory, and a match factory that employed more than 100 people, mainly women.
Mezritsh was also a center for the trade of wild animal hides. Representatives were sent abroad from Mezritsh. Foreign merchants would send their buyers to Mezritsh to purchase the merchandise from the local businesses. The Jews of Mezritsh made their living mostly from manufacturing and commerce, which were the biggest employers in the town. Even people not employed in manufacturing and commerce directly were influenced by them; a recession in the areas of bristles and hides would influence
everyone, from baker to shopkeeper, the various tradesmen, and even the teacher. This was the uniqueness of Mezritsh in relation to other cities of Poland and Russia.
Hassidim and Misnagdim
Mezritsh was an exception to the geographical map of Hassidim and Misnagdim. All of the towns in the area were Hassidic, meaning that the majority of the population was Hassidim. Even Brisk, a city of confirmed Misnagdim with a Hassidic minority, had more Hassidim than Mezritsh in the last few decades. By our estimates, in the last few decades [before WWII] Hassidim formed less than a quarter of the population. Despite the town's orientation, Hassidism took root in the town from the time of its inception, and Hassidic Mezritshers included well-pedigreed families. Leaders of the Hassidic movement would often visit Mezritsh. For example, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak often came to Mezritsh when he served as the rabbi of neighboring towns, and a Hassidic community formed around him in Mezritsh. Rabbi Asher the Great, the son of Rabbi Aharon the Great of Karlin, also visited Mezritsh as did the Holy Jew and his student Peretz. Rabbi Shlomo Leib of Lenchna came often to Mezritsh, as did the well-known Admorim such as Rabbi Yitzhak Meir later of Gur, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Izbitza, Rabbi Mendele of Kotzk, Rabbi Yehoshua of Ostrova and others. There was also a Hassidic Rabbi in Mezritsh, the well-known, sharp-witted Rabbi Yechiel Michel Heilprin of Kozmir. He served in the rabbinate in Mezritsh from the year 5545 to 5566 (1785 to 1806), and was of the second and third generation after the Besht. It is interesting that this rabbi had several opponents from among the Misnadgim. They were not comfortable with him because of his relationship with the masses, and his use of segulot for sick people and others. Due to these activities, the leaders of the community did not want to renew his contract, but the masses prevailed and forced its renewal for an additional ten years. Rabbi Yakov David Biderman, a native of Mezritsh from a very well-pedigreed family, served as the head of the rabbinical court of Mezritsh. Generally the Misnagdim and Hassidim of Mezritsh enjoyed good relations. Disagreements broke out occasionally, but the two sides would quickly reach a compromise. Both sides labored to prevent disagreements from turning into the types of disputes that would seep out of Mezritsh and erupt in other towns. It was actually when disputes seemed to settle down in other places that they would explode in Mezritsh, sometimes almost coming to bloodshed. Justification for these arguments could not be attributed to ideological differences because Mezritsh would not have always remained on the sidelines during the disputes between Misnagdim and Hassidim in the wider Jewish community. One example of the sudden hostility between Hassidim and Misnagdim in Mezritsh occurred in 1859 when it was revealed that the Hassidim would recite Hodu before Baruch Sheamar, say Kedushat Keter rather than Naaritzach, walk around and not stand during the times of prayers, and smoke in the Beis Midrash. Disputes, of course, would not break out without instigators. There were always stubborn Misnagdim in Mezritsh, but as long as the rabbi of the city was a calm man, he could imbue others with a spirit of composure and prevent unruly outbursts. During those days, the renowned Gaon Rabbi Yom Tov Rafael Lipman Heilprin, the author of the famous book Oneg Yom Tov served as the rabbi of Mezritsh. He was a zealous Misnaged and supported extremists who encouraged disputes so as to teach the Hassidim a lesson. This dispute ended with the imposition of a ban on Rabbi Mendele of Kotzk [known also as the Kotzker Rebbe] and on the Hassidim. This excommunication took place in a ceremony in the Great Beis Midrash attended by the community and the rabbi. Black candles were burned and the sound of the shofar blasts frightened everyone.
Rabbi Heilprin imposed a ban of Yehoshua ben Nun on the Hassidim and their rabbi, and forbade their wine. Families members turned on one another, and Misnagdim and Hassidim would no longer marry each other. The ban took place in the year 5619 (1859). The dispute affected Rabbi Heilprin in his role as rabbi of Mezritsh. All of the great rabbis of Poland attempted to make peace between the sides. Rabbi Heilprin was stubborn, however, and he was finally forced to uproot himself from Mezritsh. During the year of the ban, he became the rabbi of Bialystok.
The dispute died down when the rabbi left, but it took a long time for the wounds to heal and for the families of Hassidim and Misnagdim to once again intermarry. Rabbi Heilprin's son, Rabbi Hertz, who later became the rabbi and head of rabbinical court of Bialystok, eventually married a woman from Mezritsh, the daughter of the wealthy scholar Reb David Teitelbaum (David Yocheved's) who wrote the book Dvash Tamar on the Talmud. This incident brought to an end the disputes between Misnagdim and Hassidim in Mezritsh.
Education and Culture
As has been stated, the dispute between the Misnagdim and Hassidim was exceptional and out of character for the community of Mezritsh, where all religious streams lived together in harmony and mutual respect. Mezritsh was not a zealous community, and a liberal attitude prevailed. The main reason for this was, without a doubt, the business connection that existed between the town's Jewish merchants and Jews in wider world. By comparison with the Jews of Mezritsh, the Jews of other towns, with the exception of the largest cities, were very isolated - as though locked in a ghetto. Not only did fresh, new ideas not blow through these towns, but the Jews there did all they could to extinguish every new spark of inspiration. Jewish Mezritshers, on the other hand, returning from the international fair in Leipzig brought with them not just the proceeds of their trades, but also new and desirable objects. They also brought back the Biur , which was purchased from Moses Mendelssohn, who sold his books in the Leipzig marketplace. Naftali Hertz Weisel was a well-known name in Mezritsh. Wealthy Mezritshers married into Jewish families of Germany, and the new sons-in-law brought their spiritual inclinations with them. Mezritsh merchants learned new customs and were influenced by the practices and conduct prevalent in other places. Thanks to these connections, the town's youth studied the national language [Polish] as well as German, arithmetic, etc. All of this influenced the residents of the city and was conducive to a tolerant atmosphere.
Of course, at the outset, education was religious only. The purpose of the education imparted by every Jewish community was to raise a generation of devout believers in Torah and commandments who were not boors. It was expected that some of them would reach a level of great expertise in Torah. Prior to this time, it was customary for the rabbi of the city to also serve as the head of the rabbinical court, where he adjudicated court cases related to monetary, religious and personal matters. He was also the head of the Yeshiva, where he taught Torah to the residents of the city. Sometimes, students would come from outside the city to study Torah with the rabbi. Local householders would support these students. If the community had a sufficient economic base, it would maintain a separate Rosh Yeshiva [head of the Yeshiva] who was appointed solely for this role. It seems that by the latter half of the 16th century (and perhaps even before that time we do not have data about these years), Mezritsh maintained a Yeshiva with its own Rosh Yeshiva. This is clear from a responsa
written by the Maharam (Rabbi Meir) of Lublin to the Desired and beloved one the esteemed prince and head of the Yeshiva, the strong hammer, Rabbi Hirsch, May G-d protect and preserve him. (Responsa of the Maharam of Lublin, response 56). The illustrious responder did not call him Head of the Rabbinical court and Rosh Yeshiva as was usual. From this, we can surmise that Mezritsh maintained a Rosh Yeshiva in addition to a rabbi. As was the custom, students streamed into the Yeshiva from outside the city. This demonstrates that already in those days [late 16th C to early 17th C], Mezritsh was firmly established from an economic perspective and was able to maintain a Yeshiva. This is corroborated by two additional responsa of the Maharam to the aforementioned Rabbi Hirsch (responsa 113 and 115). These responsa indicate that the rabbi had either died in or had gone to serve in a different city, and the Rosh Yeshiva was appointed as the rabbi of the community. In those two responsa, the Maharam also refers to him as the head of the rabbinical court. This is not surprising, for in the year 1575 (5436) there were 425 houses in Mezritsh, the majority of which were certainly Jewish. In those days, a population of that size was considered quite large. We find additional testimony regarding the existence of a Yeshiva in Mezritsh which attracted students from out-of-town. From the biography of Rabbi Yakov Kranc who was known by his popular name, the Maggid of Dubno, we know that he studied in Mezritsh during his youth where he developed a reputation, and responded to the community's wishes that he become a Maggid [preacher]. It is said that he married a woman from Mezritsh. During his old age, he once again received the post of Maggid in Mezritsh, where he had first become famous, but he died before moving to Mezritsh for a second time. He died in Zamosc, where he had served as Maggid. His son Rabbi Yitzhak inherited his position in Mezritsh and was married there. In the ledgers of the Chevra Kadisha we find that in the year 5612 (1852), during the days of Rabbi Eliezer Charlap, the Rosh Yeshiva died. His name is not mentioned. Perhaps this was because he was so famous that it was unnecessary to mention his name. In any case, we learn from this record that Mezritsh maintained a Yeshiva that attracted students from outside they city. Years later, there was only a small Yeshiva in Mezritsh. Approximately two years before the outbreak of the First World War, a Yeshiva was founded through the efforts of Reb Baruch Meir Rozenblum. This was a Yeshiva without a dedicated Rosh Yeshiva. The Yeshiva students were scholars. Most came from Brisk and had studied Torah under Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk. The Yeshiva closed when the war broke out. It was re-opened at the beginning of the 1920s by students of Rabbi Yozel (Yosef) of Novohorodok. Customarily the first educational institution in any community was the Talmud Torah, and Mezritsh was no exception. It is not known if it had its own premises, rented its location, or if they studied in the Beis Midrash. A Talmud Torah in its own building would surely have been burnt in the many large fires that broke out in Mezrtish. Fires spread quickly, as the houses were constructed of wood. In the year 5637 (1877), a large, splendid building was erected as a Talmud Torah with money given by the head of the community, Shraga Feivel Dagensztejn. During the 1890s, Reb Shimon Ber Minc was the chairman of the board of this institution. Reb Shimon Ber was a cautious and deliberate scholar, a Zionist, and the owner of the Sh. B. Minc commercial bank. His aim was to turn the Talmud Torah into an exceptional educational institution, so that the wealthy people of the city would not be embarrassed to send their children to study there. To this end, a program of secular studies was instituted. After several years, the quality of education declined, and the Talmud Torah once again reverted to an institution for the poor and destitute. Only between the two world wars did the institution turn into an upper school through the efforts of the city residents Rabbi Yakov Wachtfogel, Rabbi Baruch Meir Rozenblum and others.
In the survey that was conducted in the year 5648 (1888) regarding the number of workers, tradesmen and the like in Mezritsh, we find 125 melamdim [teachers], 6 of whom taught foreign languages and secular subjects, and 10 morim [teachers] who taught the Hebraic languages, which is Modern Hebrew meaning that they did not teach prayer, chumash etc., but rather Hebrew as a language. It seems to me that this is an accurate accounting of the educational system in Mezritsh.
|The Talmud Torah building|
At the beginning of the 20th century, we find modern cheders [traditional religious elementary schools] in Mezritsh. In two of them they used the Hebrew in Hebrew methodology. They stressed Hebrew language and literature. The students spoke Hebrew, and also studied secular subjects. One was coeducational. There were also two girls' schools. In 1912, the well-known educator Mrs. Anuszka Adler opened up a four-year pro-gymnazjum [pre high-school] where they also taught Hebrew.
Aside from these schools, classes for the general population were conducted in all of the Beis Midrashes. Chumash and Rashi, Mishna, Ein Yaakov, Menorat Hamaor and Chayei Adam were taught. Working class people would come to study Torah. Some even attained the status of a talmid chacham [scholar]. They also studied Gemara in Talmud study groups a separate group existed for the scholars.
The great majority of the general population, who no longer studied in the Beis Midrashes as did their forefathers, were not neglected. Members of the intelligentsia, who were for the most part left leaning, organized courses in Yiddish. The girls learned to read and write, and listened to lectures from writers and experts in literature. Among the writers who visited the city and conducted readings of their works were Sholom Aleichem, Y. L. Peretz, H. D. Nomberg, Sholem Asz, Avraham Reisin and others. Ninety years ago [late 1880's ed.], a large library opened in Mezritsh containing books in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and German. The library was called ARZ in memory of the well-known writer and editor of Hamelitz, Alexander Zederbaum, who died
a short time before the opening of the library. The library served as a meeting place for Maskilim for many years, until other libraries opened in the city between the two world wars.
The Jews of Mezritsh enjoyed theater. Theater troupes would often come to perform plays which were received with appreciation by the audience. The Kompanyetzes Troupe in particular attracted large audiences to its performances. During one such performance, a ballerina committed suicide by drinking poison. She was buried next to the fence as is the law, but with the passage of time, the cemetery spread and her grave came to be located almost in the center. Mezritsh also had its own amateur theater troupe. Its members would appear at times along with professional performers who came to stage productions in the city.
The Jewish firefighters maintained a band. This band was organized by the well-known violinist Mendel Szpilman. He was a very talented musicologist, who raised the ensemble to a high artistic level. Mezritsh's band was famous, and it was often invited to perform concerts in other towns in the region.
Approximately two years before the outbreak of the First World War, Yeshaya Yosef Rogoszyk opened up a printing press which published several books, including the books of Reb David Weisman and Chaim Eliezer Muskat, who was a Maskil and a great scholar. Mezritsh was first made known as publishing center by Reb Yakov the son of Reb Avraham, known as The Bookseller of Mezritsh of Lithuania, and a native of the city. Reb Yakov went to Frankfurt am Main and Basel [Switzerland] where he published Machzors, Selichot books, and prayer booklets containing the grace after meals with its laws, all in Yiddish. He was the first to publish a pocket size Machzor. His most famous book, which made a great impression lasting until our day, is Maaseh Buch, published in 1602 in Basel.
Historians are divided on the question of authorship of the Maaseh Buch. Most are of the opinion that it was not the native of our city who wrote it. However everyone agrees that he edited it and improved its language and style. Some claim that he was also the author, but those who disagree claim that the book already was in existence before its publication in 1602. In truth, to this day no evidence exists that supports the opinion that it was not our city native who wrote it. The Maaseh Buch is a primary source for researchers of the Yiddish language and literature, and many people use it to study the art of writing.
Charitable institutions existed within the communities from the earliest days. Mezritsh was graced with many charitable institutions. As in every community, Mezritsh supported Hachnasat Kalah [support of needy brides], Bikur Cholim [visiting the sick], Linat Tzedek [providing lodging to wayfarers], a guest house with its own Beis Midrash, an organization to provide food for the poor, an orphanage, an old-age home, a cooperative bank, and various other charitable funds. The largest of all the benevolent organizations was the hospital, which was established approximately 140 years ago [the late 1830's, -ed.]. The building was large, even by modern standards. It had large halls, spacious rooms, special rooms for communicable diseases, an operating room, recreation rooms, a kitchen for the sick, and a large garden so that the patients could stroll about
and breathe fresh air. The garden extended as far as the opposite road which was the distance of a large housing block. There was also a special building for laundry.
The chief physician, whom the writer of these lines remembers, was Dr. Tovia Rozenblum. He was a native of the city, who had studied regularly with the rabbi of the city. Dr. Rozenblum was a good and well-liked doctor, who observed tradition and was close to his Jewish brethren. Despite his being Jewish, and despite the pressure of the anti-Semites, he was appointed as the physician overseeing the health care of the entire region to which Mezritsh belonged. He joined the army during the First World War. He attained the rank of general in the Russian army. He died in a foreign land during the wartime years. After him, other physicians from the city were appointed to head the medical staff, including Drs. Kaplan, Lichtensztejn, and Kozes.
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