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[Page 55]

The Last Fire (May 23, 1867)

by Adela Landau Misis

Translation by John Kallir

Note: This selection was translated from Adele Landau Misis's original German manuscript by John Kallir, a
descendant of the author, rather than from the Hebrew version which appears in New Tamid—Yizkor leBrody

When, in the middle of the last century, a fire alarm sounded in our native town of Brody, panic fear would seize old and young. From past experience they knew: the town is lost! There were no defenses against the raging element. Neither in Brody nor in its environment was there a river, not even a little brook, not a pond, not a spring with sufficient water. Pumps found in a few streets would, after strenuous efforts, send forth a feeble flow of greenish-yellowish water. The wise town fathers had ordered a large barrel (katjke) to be placed near each pump, to be filled with water all the way to the top in case of an emergency. The barrels were there but half empty, filled with a thick greenish sludge, more likely to stick in the hose than put out a fire. In the yard of every house there stood a rain barrel, with buckets and fire hooks nearby. But rainwater was used for the laundry and other domestic purposes, while in many houses the buckets had lost their bottoms and the hooks their iron. In addition, the town had a few antediluvian engines of ancient design and, I'd guess, about a dozen firefighters. Now, unless there was absolutely no wind, if a shingle roof in the poor quarter caught fire, it would swiftly spread and the entire town (which was really three-quarters poor) would be reduced to ruins within hours. That happened again and again, every eight or nine years. The most recent fire had occurred in 1859, but I don't remember it because I was only a year old then. The stories of parents and grandparents, however, made it very real and frightening.

One morning in May, 1859, Alexander, who slept in our parents' bedroom, woke up crying. He had dreamed the town was on fire, all the katjkes were empty, and the fire kept going. Our parents were surprised how a five-year-old could know the connection between “katjkes” and “fire.” In the afternoon of that day (Lag B'omer), there was a wedding feast of people we knew in a heifel (villa) in the suburbs. Grandmother Landau loved to attend such occasions. She borrowed the carriage of the Kallir grandparents and took Alexander and me along. Returning in late afternoon, we had reached Lesznow Lane close to our home and grandmother was preparing a tip for the coachman. In those days, small denominations were printed on sheets, like postage stamps, to be cut as needed. Next time you're in Vienna, I'll show you a few. Anyway, grandmother pulled a penny sheet from her bag when a sudden gust of wind tore it from her hands. She was about to shout something to the coachman but, just at the same moment, the storm bell began ringing from the church steeple and desperate cries – Fire! Fire! – arose from all sides. Within two minutes we reached home, where everyone was already frantically preparing for our flight, even though the alarm had rung only a few moments before. The office personnel carried massive ledgers that had to be packed in special bags. In the living room, mother and grandmother had opened the big iron “cash box,” where silver candlesticks, dining utensils and jewelry were usually stored. These, too, went into special bags. Also, food, warm clothing and whatever else was needed for our flight. The horses were unharnessed from the carriage and hitched to the dray. Then Uncle Jules raced with the dray to the nearby hospital, loaded up the patients and drove them to safety. I don't know where he took them. Upon his return, women, children and bags were put on the dray and taken away, while the men stayed behind to protect the house. Fanny was only three months old and mother not well. Nurse Libe's baby was brought to us by the woman who usually took care of it. She probably was busy with her own kids. Since no one else was available, they entrusted her baby to me and I watched it all night long. The dray took us far enough away so sparks from the flames couldn't reach us. There we camped on a freshly ploughed field on bundles and bags like emigrants. All around us there were similar groups. Weeping, moaning and children's cries could be heard. There were sick people, as well as pregnant women, and we had to help to the best of our ability since not everyone was as organized and practical as my mother and grandmother. And so we spent a long May night, watching the burning city, trying to guess whose house was going up in flames. Suddenly, little Alexander said, “You see, that's just how it was burning last night!” That reminded us of his dream. When men came up from the city from time to time, their reports were not encouraging, although there were occasional miraculous exceptions with houses remaining untouched in a sea of flames. My dear father came once, reporting that the house of the Landau grandparents had caught fire. Entering the burning house wrapped in wet sheets, grandfather, Uncle Doctor and he were able to salvage some things. Actually, that may not have been necessary for, so far as I remember, only the roof, the entrance gate and a few windows and doors burned, but the interior had remained unscathed. In “modern” fires much that's been saved from the flames is destroyed later by water. That's one problem we didn't have in Brody.

The house of the Kallir grandparents remained untouched, thanks partly to Uncle Jules, who tore down the shingle roof of the adjoining house in back, ignoring the protests of Mrs Tysmenitzer, its owner. Another guardian angel must have protected the front of their house. Their neighbor's house burned, and so did Nirenstein's in the narrow lane opposite. When the iron shade covering our parents' living room window was pulled up afterwards, they discovered a small burnt hole in the window frame. A spark must have sneaked in but it died from lack of air. Even stranger, the wooden garbage bin in the yard had burned without spreading the fire. The roof of our house was made of iron, whereas that of the Nirensteins was made of zinc, which turned out to be very dangerous. The zinc melted and ran down in hot streams, so no one could come close. Long after the fire, we liked to play with those odd shapes, shining like silver, which we found lying all around. People teased Hirsch Braun that his head was so hard, he didn't mind when the molten metal dropped on his bald spot. One of the undamaged buildings belonged to a certain Mr. Czaczkes, who sent this telegram to his brother in Lemberg:

With the dawning day the fire, though less violent, was still burning. We were freezing and exhausted when the cart came to take us and our bundles to Uncle Jules' villa at a safe distance from the fire. We joined a crowd of strangers who had also found refuge there. We stretched out on straw mattresses, brewed tea and relaxed until, finally, we could return to town.

Our townhouse had turned into a campground. People who had suffered merely the loss of their roof or other outside damage to their home returned and adjusted as best they could. But others, who had lost everything in the flames, turned to the lucky few who could offer them a temporary abode. Of course, our house was a popular refuge and we took care of many relatives and friends. The fiery sky had been visible for miles around and people from neighboring villages brought clothing and food (mostly bread). Aunt Libe, a sister of Grandfather Landau (I'll tell you more about her some other time) came to Brody from nearby Witkow and shared a room with Grandmother Kallir and me. She grumbled about the frivolity of “big city people,” because grandmother owned a few nightingales which kept singing all through the night.

The terrible news of the disaster spread around the world. Newspapers published extensive reports, as well as appeals, with gratifying results. Contributions arrived from all over. I remember the large sums from Hamburg, which might have once suffered a similar misfortune. Next, it became essential to distribute the collections fairly, to make sure not even the smallest amount was spent wastefully. In this, my dear father played an important role. He had contributed to the public welfare on previous occasions, founding the first orphanage in Galicia in 1859, distributing food and Rumford Soups during times of rising prices. Now he became the head of a “Committee for the Fire Victims,” organizing the entire project and leading it to completion. As a consequence, he was awarded Honorary Citizenship although he was only 41 years of age. (Uncle Alexander will show you the handsome diploma, next time you're in Vienna.) All applications, referred to as Bietes (from German Bitten), were addressed to him, to be investigated thoroughly and fairly. Father insisted that the town's reconstruction must receive top priority. Everything else had to wait. All those little houses were rebuilt with better material, better construction and, most important, with iron roofs. Shingle roofs were outlawed. Clearly, that was the right thing, as can be gathered from the fact that no major fires have occurred in Brody since then, i.e. in 62 years! One additional credit is due to the young people who organized a Volunteer Fire Department, with modern equipment and frequent practice sessions.

[Page 59]

Brodyites in Leipzig

by A. Yehuda (Osterzetzer)

Translation by Dr. Nitzan Lebovic

Donated by Dr. Lebovic and Stephen Fein

Not too long after its founding, Brody became an important center of commerce for many countries, from the coasts of the Black Sea to the lands at the North Sea, from Odessa to Hamburg. Merchants from Milan to Hamburg and merchants from Berdyczów, Poltava, Nizhni Novgorod and other towns opened in Brody branches of their businesses. The geographic location of the town enabled it to develop as a trade center between Eastern Europe and Western Europe.

About 15,000 residents settled in the city. Two thirds of them were Jews. Their languages were Yiddish and German, because they had originated in Germany. In 1772, the city was annexed to the Kingdom of Austria. Seven years later, it was declared a free city for trade, which meant that there was no need in Brody to pay customs, not for trade coming in and not for trade going out to any country.

So the importance of Brody grew as a transportation city between east and west. Many trade houses were opened in the town, from many countries. The cultural tendency was pro-Western, with the German language prominent. I remember the street called Kallir, after Alexander Kallir, who came from Germany to Brody in 1785.

Tradesmen from our town used to travel to Lipsia [Leipzig] often, in order to buy textiles, household products, and everything anyone could trade in; and they transferred to Lipsia raw materials such as calf leather and furs. Trains did not exist at the time, so everything was transported in hundreds of wagons carried by horses. The convoy used to leave at the beginning of the fall from Brody to Berdyczów, Kharkov, Poltava and the other urban centers in Poland and Russia, as well as to the west. The wagons always visited the most important fairs. Upon arrival, success was guaranteed.

The wagons transported thousands of tons of goods. When in 1800 a large fire broke out in Brody, the trade fair collapsed in Lipsia. The importance of this trade can be gleaned from the decade between 1770-1780, when our townsmen added to Lipsia gross income of about half a million ducats (gold coins) in cash.

The most important professions of the Brodyites in this town [in Leipzig] were fur and leather work, industrialism and trade. For example, in 1800 there were in Lipsia around 50 small business merchants from Brody. They received a temporary license to reside in town, and after a few years received licenses for permanent residency. They were forced to swear on the Bible in a festive celebration, with representatives from the city hall and witnesses (59) from the Jewish community. Only then did they get public positions as city clerks.

Brody was one of the first cities in the world to trade in fur and different professions related to leather cultivation. In 1818, of 35 traders in Lipsia who were sworn in, 28 were Jews, among them 14 from Brody. These posts carried much weight in the eyes of our townspeople, because their occupiers won in time also license for permanent residency in Lipsia. Those Brodyites did not leave their businesses in Brody. They conducted business in both cities simultaneously. At the end of the last century, when emancipation was decided on in Germany, there were already around 1000 fur merchants in Lipsia, about 500 of them Jews. Also, 50% of the 1200 shops were owned by Jews. Those shops traded and sold coats and suits, hats and gloves, shoes, boots, sandals, hand bags, toys etc. The improvement in rights was obvious if we take into consideration that up till the 16th century, Jewish presence in Lipsia was forbidden. Nevertheless, at the same time Jews had the right to visit the town as traders at fairs and to build there storage places and shops. In mid 18th century the traders and visitors started to establish their own little prayer houses, still temporary. The Brodyites also established their own synagogue, which is called the “Brody Synagogue” to our day. Next to their synagogue they opened also a schul. If during the fair someone died, they'd transfer the corpse to be buried in Dessau, till in 1811 Yoel Schlesinger paid to the city of Lipsia hundreds of talers as rent for a cemetery. That was the first and only [Brody] cemetery [in Leipzig].

Other Brodyites who received licenses to stay and work in Lipsia were: Moshe Hischl Yechis, Yaakov David Risberg and Meir Michael Torkotan. Other than these, whose names we know, in 1872 there were other merchants from Brody, including the trade place of the Hermlins. This family is known to have conducted business in Lipsia for five straight generations. One Yeshiva-Bucher with an ability to write, Yosef Ehrlich, who was born in Brody, published at the end of the 18th century a booklet in which he described the history of this family. It is possible to read [information] there about the situation of the Jews of Brody and about the family atmosphere and economy of the Lipsia Jews.

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