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[Page 5]

PART ONE

Brest – History and Facts
about the City of Martyrs

 

Our Edition / Publication

Translated by Jenni Buch and Dr. Samuel Chani

To commemorate the thirty years of activity of the Brisker Association in Argentina – we set out to publish a book which would not only reflect on our activities that contributed to the growth and development of the Jewish life in Argentina, but also to draw official recognition of our destroyed hometown of Brest. Recognition of the 30,000 Jews who lived and toiled there and who provided the continuity over the generations of Brest Jews - the workers and artisans who formed the roots of our people that were brutally murdered by the Nazis, who intended to eradicate all traces and memory of Jewish life in our unforgettable hometown. We want to stress this acknowledgment – we don't want to erect a spiritual memorial in memory of those who perished, we are not ready to say kaddish in a proscribed manner – we are not ready to say kaddish and walk away from the tragic mass graves.

Our aim is to collect facts and data about the details of the multifaceted activities of life in our hometown. With those details we will present our book of accusations – which the Jewish nation is preparing for the Court of Nations that will judge and condemn the Nazis. Those who directly participated and their heirs should not only pay for their crimes with blood money, but also pay according to the laws instigated in the civilized world for mass murder.

This Brest book is an expression of the living branches of Briskers in Argentina. This book should also provide a link between Briskers in other countries so that we can have mutual contact and get to know each other, and encourage each other with our communal activities. At the same time we should not cease to publish articles about our hometown, so that the Nazis murders can be seen in their enormity.

We Briskers, the heirs to that city, should not just remember with sighs and sorrow, but should carry out the testament of those who perished. Never to forget, never to forgive, we must uphold the banner and fight against barbarity. They held this banner in their hands until death took them. We must continue to hold and carry this banner higher and with greater impetus.

If we are not mistaken, this publication by the Briskers of Argentina is the first attempt to link the memory of our city with the activities of the uprooted Briskers in foreign lands. This is intentional – although we are a creative element in the Jewish life of Argentina, we are very proud of the cultural and communal heritage we brought with us. It is the results of our achievements that we brought with us from our hometown that we have poured like strong foundations for our future goals. We would have liked better and larger editions to be published by the Briskers of other communities to perpetuate the unforgettable memories of our hometown so that they never are extinguished.

On the 30th anniversary of the Brest Association in Argentina we send out warm greetings to our brethren in the U.S.A., France, Israel and other countries. We send heartfelt regards to those Briskers who survived in the U.S.S.R. and afterwards decided to return and remain in the liberated New Poland. We send warm greetings to those Briskers who saved themselves by being hidden by Russian friends and have returned to their hometown, the home of their parents, and grandparents, thereby providing continuity. We send our greetings to all the communal, social and cultural Jewish institutions with which we have formed bonds as part of our productive community life here. We send greetings to the Argentinean communal, social and cultural institutions that are leading role models, and in which the Briskers have played a formative role, and have always been involved with - working for the development and progress of the Argentinean people.


[Page 7]

The 10th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Translated by Jenni Buch and Dr. Samuel Chani

Just as the three hundred thousand Jewish inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto endured great pain and suffering until the last Jew was slaughtered by the Nazi barbarians - the Jews of every ghetto, in every town, over the whole of Poland, lived in the same tragic starving conditions, due to the death sentences that the bloodthirsty Nazis imposed on the entire Jewish nation. There were battles and resistance fights everywhere – battles of heroic uprisings against the evil death orgies of the fascists and their vile Jewish servants, the Judenrat and the Jewish police. So when we commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and bow our heads to their heroic deeds, we also include the resistance and destruction of 6,000,000 Jews, who were horrifically slaughtered, the resistance and great heroism of Jews that was also an expression of the future direction of the Jewish nation.

The Warsaw ghetto uprising was a metaphor for all uprisings and struggles of the Jewish masses against fascism. It is synonymous with every heroic case of resistance that was expressed collectively or individually. At the same time the uprising was the culmination of all resistances, a heroic struggle that will last as long as there exists in the world powerful Imperialist institutions that are the root of all that is base and evil in the world.

When we pause to honor this heroic resistance, on this 10th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and on all the following anniversaries, special attention should be drawn to the leaders and be reminded with pride of those that took part who originated from Brest: Andrei Shmidt, the famous fighter and officer of the International Brigade in Spain, where he had shown great expertise and knowledge in the fight against fascism. After the Germans conquered Poland and began murdering Jews, he parachuted from a Soviet plane into Warsaw to help organize the resistance in the ghetto. Shmidt perished by a traitor's hand in the ghetto, but he had managed to sow the seeds of the rebellion that were passed on to his idealistic comrade Levartowski. Levartowski, who was one of the leaders of the Bialystok ghetto uprising was a Jew from the suburbs of Brest, a teacher whose example was a guiding light for the youth of the heroic city of Bialystok.

Although we have specifically mentioned these two men, we don't mean to give them a special position as we intended to honor all those who resisted and perished in every ghetto. We stand united in the battle against Nazism and Fascism and demand judgement against the criminals. We register our accusation against the Jewish traitors who cooperated with the Nazis and helped to murder one sixth of our nation. We call on the Jewish masses to unite with all nations of the world in the fight for freedom and brotherhood of man.


[Page 8]

The History Of The Jewish Community Of Brisk D'lita
From Its Early Origins To The First World War

By M. Wisznitzer. Vol.4

Translated by Jenni Buch and Dr. Samuel Chani

Brisk D'Lita, Brzesc nad Bugiem in Polish, was also formerly referred to as Berestov and Berestya in Latin and Russian, and Brisk D'Lita in ancient Jewish documents that signified it as an important Lithuanian city. During the time of the former Polish rule, Brest was the capital of it's own district. Brest was the largest and most important city of Lithuanian Jewry that had its origins in the 14th century, and maintained this position until Vilna took over the leading role in the 18th century.

Jews had already settled in Brest before the rule of the Grand Duke Kaistut 1341 –1382. His son Vivovt had an especially good relationship with the Jews – his first edict that was issued on the 1st July 1388 granted privileges and rights to the Jews of Brest, was later extended to all the Jews of Lithuania. These privileges were similar to those granted to the Jews of Silesia by the Austrians These privileges were reaffirmed later by King Boleslaw Chobry (famous for the Statute of Kalisz) and Kazimierz the Great. However the details varied as the privileges were adjusted to suit the different conditions in Lithuania.

The Flowering Period of the 15th and 16th Centuries

The Polish –Lithuanian Edict pertaining to the Jews issued on the 14th August 1447, by Kazimir Jagiellonski reconfirmed all the previous rights and privileges. Brest was counted amongst the great communities during the time of his reign 1447-1492. Almost all the commercial and financial operations of the Lithuanian nation were conducted by the Jews of Brest. Brest Jews held the leaseholder rights of various tax collections. The owners of farms and estates, they conducted wide ranging commercial and business enterprises.

There was a short interlude in the history of the Jews of Brest. At the end of the 15th century, the Brest Jews together with all the Jews of Lithuania were expelled from the nation by Alexander Jagiellonski. 1n 1495 Jewish homes and buildings were occupied by the local population and the Catholic Church. In 1503 when the Jews returned to Lithuania their synagogues, houses and cemeteries were returned to them. Alexander's successor Sigismund (Sigmund) 1st was crowned in 1506 and reigned until 1548. On the 25th September 1506 he issued an Edict for the Jews of Brest allowing them to restore and renovate their synagogue. He further reconfirmed their previous rights and privileges and discounts. He said “we permit the Jews to build a large synagogue where they can pray to their God for the wellbeing of our knights and servants. We order that the necessary building materials be suppled to them.”

Jews paid their taxes together with the other city residents. Two years later King Sigmund granted the Jews the right to benefit from a share of the city's revenues obtained from taxes and tariffs on the proviso that: “ they will build and maintain the bridges over the rivers that flow through Brest, repair the city streets and roads that lead to the city, as well as providing arms, powder, and other small weapons to defend the city, same as the other city dwellers such as the Christians.”

According to the census of 1566 there were 106 Jewish house owners (gentiles 746) in Brest. These houses were almost entirely built of timber – small and crowded, and inhabited by large families - up to 14 inhabitants. Nevertheless the material circumstances of the Jewish community were good. The Edict of 1567 issued by the Grodno Sejm (parliament) confirmed that the Jews of Brest paid 50% of the taxes paid by the Jews of Lithuania, although their numbers were proportionally far less.

Around 1568 there was a great fire in Brest that caused much suffering to the Jews. King Sigmund Augustus exempted them for 9 years from one third off their taxes. (Except for the taxes on goods that traveled by road or river and bridge taxes). However, the king obliged the Jews to build their houses from brick or stone instead of wood. If a Jew did not build a stone house within 6 years, or lay the foundations in stone, and if he built a house of wood, he would lose his rights to the tax exemption –only building in stone or brick was permitted.

A year later in 1569 the Arendars (leaseholders) Lipman, Sherlevitch, Mendel Itscovitch, Lipa ben Shmerel and Mendel ben Yitzhak, brought an architect from Warsaw to design a stone synagogue and their own homes. Due to the constant repetition of fires the king Stephen Batory again freed the Jews of Brest from the above-mentioned taxes for another 4 years in 1576.

Leaseholding concessions and commerce were the main sources of income for the Jews of Brest in the 16th century. From the Brest Ledger book of 1583 (where the import of foreign goods and exports are listed), we see that the Brest Jews played a significant role in the importation of goods from Germany and Austria that were then transported on to Lublin. Goods from Slutsk that were exported through to Lublin and Gniesaw – the imported goods included furs, wax, paper, butter, iron, lead, hats, cloth from Moravia and Glogau, Hungarian linen, mirrors, sheets, salt, wine, sugar and silks. They exported soap, Moscow handkerchiefs, various furs, belts, polished saddles, and metal harnesses and reins for horses.

In the last decades of the 16th century a communal activist distinguished himself. He was Saul Wahl, son of Yehuda Wahl, of whom the legend is told that he was the king of Poland for one day. Wahl used his influence at the royal court for the benefit of his community. In 1580 Wahl, together with other representatives of the Jewish community complained to the mayor of Brest that the city had not paid the quarter of the revenues allocated to the Jews, that was rightfully theirs according to the privileges previously granted to them.

Wahl obtained an important right on behalf of the Jews in 1593 – if Jews were wronged or were involved in disputes they could turn to a rabbinical court (Beth Din) for judgment, and the civil courts could not interfere – neither the city or provincial courts.

At the same time it is interesting to note that the rabbi of Brest, Mendel Frank, complained to King Sigmund in 1531 that the members of his community refused to accept his rulings and turned to the king's (civil) courts for judgments. Then king then ordered that the Jews of Brest were obliged to turn to the Jewish courts that had the power to issue punishments and penalties up to expulsion and excommunication. The Brest city leaders and their followers did not have the right to interfere with matters against Jews, or to impose special taxes on their Jews, only the same as for the other inhabitants.

Shaul Wahl also cared for the spiritual life of the community. He built two large structures – one a synagogue and one a yeshiva. He also established several other community institutions. Wahl really was not a spiritual leader; he was a worldly representative of the Jewish community to the outside world of those days.

The yeshivas of Brest were famous and attracted students from Italy, Germany, and the whole Jewish world. Rabbi Mordechai Reis and Rabbi Shimon were the heads of the Brest Yeshiva in the mid 16th century. During this time it was Rabbi Klonimus (mentioned in the 'Questions and Answers' of his son in law, Rabbi Shlomo Luria (the Maharshal) who was rabbi in Brest at that time and founded the yeshiva. We must mention the following rabbis of this period: Naphtali Hertz who was called Hertz the Brisker, Moshe Lifshitz the author of 'Zichron Moshe', a book published around 1569, and Beinish Lifshitz, the son in law of Shaul Wahl.

In addition there were great scholars who lived in Brest who did not occupy rabbinic positions – amongst them was the above-mentioned Shaul Wahl who had great knowledge of the Talmud and general learning, his father in law David Drucker, Rabbi Feivish in whose yeshiva the famous Joel Sirkis (the Bach) studied, Fishel Sirkis of Brest who wrote comments on the 'Turim', Rabbi Ruder, Moshe Isserlich and others.

The Period of Decline in the 17th and 18th Centuries

During this period there were no more community leaders of the standard of Michael Yesopovitch or Shaul Wahl. A prominent position was occupied in the beginning of the 17th century by Rabbi Joel Sirkis until 1618, and then by Rabbi Meir Wahl, the son of Shaul, and other rabbis, but they had no links with the reigning powers, and were unable to influence and mediate between the official authorities and Jews.

Meir Wahl was the rabbi of Brest until 1631, and was famous for founding the Council of the Lithuanian Nation with the permission of the King Sigmund in 1638. The council met frequently during Wahl's lifetime and the meetings took place in Brest.

The relationship between the kings and the Jewish community were friendly at this time. For example, King Sigmund the Third in 1615 exempted the Jewish community from paying the rent tax to the aristocracy, his successors, King Sigmund Vladislaw the Fourth and Jan Kazimierz confirmed the old rights and privileges for the Jews in edicts issued in the years 1631, 1644, and 1649.

The relationship between the Brest townspeople and the Jews had deteriorated and was acrimonious and culminated in a violent encounter in 1637. Jewish shops were set alight and widespread looting took place. After this incident there was a voluntary agreement between the Jews and the Christians on the following issues:

1) The magistrate was obliged to order the return of the looted goods and chattels to the Jews, if they were found. He was ordered to report the debts owed to the Jews – the looting and arson had essentially been to steal and destroy the books of recorded debts in order to wipe out their tax debts.

2) All the accusations and charges of stolen goods, property and documents destroyed during the fire were to be cancelled. The Jews had the right to reclaim their property if it was found.

3) The townsmen were obligated to cooperate with the Jews in order to catch criminals that had escaped from prison.

4) The Jews and other residents were permitted to rebuild their burnt houses and shops, but only to the same dimensions as before.

5) There would be a security guard established consisting of equal numbers of Jews and Christians.

6) That strong measures would be undertaken to avoid similar events occurring again.

The Christian and Russian orthodox churches were especially hostile in Brest as in other Polish cities. The students of the local Jesuit seminary organized frequent attacks on Jews (so called student riots). The Jews did not only defend themselves but would retaliate with force, causing the director of the Jesuit seminary to complain in 1644 that several of his students had been injured.

The Brest Jewish community suffered greatly in the time of the Ukrainian Chmielnitski massacres of 1648-49. Over 2,000 people were murdered and the rest fled into greater Poland and Danzig (Gdansk).

The Russian orthodox priest Grigory Kunakov records in his account of the events of that time which he witnessed: ' Brest Litevski was destroyed; nothing remains in the market place, no wooden or stone buildings remain – all the gates of the courtyards and windows are broken. All the Jews have been murdered – the remaining few have fled. The Polish soldiers came and picked through the ruins searching for any valuables left by the townspeople and the Jews – they have dug everywhere and destroyed everything. The remaining citizens were tortured and burnt alive'.

When the fighting abated the Jews began to resettle in Brest. King Jan Kazimierz in a special decree dated the 23rd June 1655 protects the Jewish leaseholders (arendars) of taverns, inns and mills in Brest against the rival non-Jews who had opened up taverns and mills outside the city.

New disasters befell the Jews of Brest at the time of the invasion of the Muscovite army in 1660. All their previous privileges were lost as were other rights and agreements with the Jews. Of the great losses inflicted on the Jews at that time, a witness said that the King Jan Kazimierz showed his concern by the fact that he freed the Jews from all their military obligations and sent a message to all his army commanders: “under strict penalties punishable by the military courts, no one may demand money, accommodation, food, bread, or bedding from the Jews of Brest, or may generally burden them with any demands.” Several days later the king in a special letter freed the Jews of all tax obligations for the next 4 years in accordance with his recent constitution. They were also exempt from paying the liquor tax. Thus the Jews were guaranteed their rights and privileges in accordance with the law. Finally the Jews were exempted by the “Iron Letter” of the king on the 31st August 1661, from repaying their debts for the following 3 years due to the devastation caused to them by the Muscovite army.

The Marshall of the Lithuanian army, Kazimir Zharnovski, in accordance with the king's orders, declared in March 1662 that any soldier who attacked or robbed Jews would be handed over to the military courts.

In the year 1666 the king once more exempted the Jews from their military obligations and ordered the superintendent of the Brest tax office to forbid his employees from offending Jews, either by word or deed.

In contrast, the Brest Jewish community often suffered from willful threats from the aristocracy. The Brest city court heard on the 13th May 1665, that the nobleman Vespasian Kosciusko rode into the synagogue one fine morning on his horse, followed by the brothers Krisostas and Vojtech Irikovitch with their servants. Waving their swords and shouting, they killed the beadle (shammes) Joshua Aronovitch, and wounded another Jew named Leib in the eye.

After the sworn testimony of the beadle's wife, the court sentenced the brothers Kosciusko to death and ordered them to pay according to the constitution - restitution for the damages and 200 groschen to the widow of the slain man, and 40 groschen to the injured man.

The Christian church also agitated and conspired against the Jews a great deal. For example, the Augustine monks confiscated 6 rows of cemetery plots in the Jewish cemetery. The Jews had earlier paid for these plots – the superintendent of the Augustine order heard their complaint and ordered the plots to be returned to the Jews.

A long war was conducted by the Russian Orthodox church and the Jewish Community of Brest over another matter: the Archbishop Vladimir had ordered the Brest Patriarch Trazevitch to build a church on the land where there had formerly been a church – the Church of the Holy Spirit. The Jews had since purchased this plot of land and cleared it. Later Jewish houses were built there. The Jews disputed the claims of the archbishop and showed that the title to the disputed plot of land originated from the blacksmith Kazma who left it in his will to the Russian Sobor church with the stipulation that 20 zlotys of any income derived from the plot should go to the Russian Orthodox church. The Jews regularly paid this tax.

It was not until 1679 that the courts resolved the matter – it was ruled that the Jews had provoked the Christians into attacking them and that also the clergy had participated in these attacks.

At the same time the Jews were subjected to vexatious attacks from the city employees, that resulted in the deputy Mayor giving the Jews a letter of protection stating that city employees were not to harm innocent Jews under the threat of 10,000 groschen fine.

The list of Jewish merchants and leaseholders that was drawn up by the shammes (beadle) Lyovka in 1662 according to the decision of the Warsaw parliament (in order to assess them for taxes), shows varying figures:

1 shop contained merchandise worth 650 zlotys.

2 shops contained merchandise worth 400 zlotys.

1 shop contained merchandise worth 230 zlotys.

2 shops contained merchandise worth 200 zlotys

1 shop contained merchandise worth 100 zlotys.

The others had merchandise and goods of 100 zlotys or less, the least tax was on the apothecary for 30 zlotys…

3 shops contained minimal stock not worth more than one zloty and the total tax on the shops was 150 zlotys.

The list included 10 tavern keepers of which 2 had annual incomes over 100 zlotys, the others ranging down to 3 earning 30 zlotys.

The Jewish community numbered 525 souls, not counting children under the age of 10.

Despite the privileges granted to the Jews, they had to contend with the constant state of unrest, fires, and robberies. In 1660, the representatives of the Jewish community, David Shmuelovitch and Lyovka Yesopovitch, appealed to the King Michael to issue new privileges and King Jan Sobieski the 3rd confirmed these privileges and rights in 1676. This decree ensured that the Jews retained their homes and possessions that had been in their ownership before the war. They were the landlords of their own prayer houses, their schools, their shops in the city and the marketplace, their public bathhouses and their cemeteries. They had the right to trade in liquor and sell alcoholic drinks on the condition that they pay the government a head tax. They had the right to trade and to be generally occupied in business. Jews, together with the other businessmen were freed from paying the “old taxes”, and freed from the obligation of paying private taxes to the governor of the Brest district.

The Jews were permitted to build gates around their shops and to lock their gates and refuse entrance on the Sabbath and the Holydays, as well as in times of unrest.

The mayor and the city residents were obliged to help the Jews defend against hostile attacks and anti Jewish disturbances. An agreement was made between the mayor and the Jewish community to share in the costs of building bridges.

These conditions and privileges granted to the Jews by King Michael were added to the responsibilities of the authorities whose duty it was to protect the Jews in their properties, and their cemeteries – they were also permitted to repair the old synagogue and to build a large new synagogue of stone to replace the burnt wooden one. The Jews, together with the other townsmen, were freed from the “Old Taxes”.

In 1720 Augustus the Third, who had previously in 1702 granted the Jews a document ensuring their safety and rights, reaffirmed these privileges. It was stated that: “ it is strictly forbidden to confiscate the property or assets of the Jews, or to attack their shops and homes.”

The tax collectors had already confiscated the Brest synagogue because a certain Nechemiah Nachmanovitch had failed to pay the government tax of 5,000 Zlotys. Only after the elders of the Jewish community undertook to pay the debt did the queen, Maria Kazimira, order that the synagogue be released in 1684.

Personal letters of protection, various edicts and decrees show us that the safety and security of the Jews was not always clear, and that they were forced to seek protection against different violent incidents, inflicted by the town residents, the Christian clergy, the Jesuit seminary students, as well as others.

The Jewish community began in increase in numbers from the end of the 17th century.

In accordance with the tariff on the “head tax” in 1702 the Brest Jewish community paid 737 zlotys tax. This tax had risen to 1384 zlotys in 1705 for Brest and the leaseholders in the Brest district. According to the 1766 census the Brest community numbered 3,175 souls.

Towards the end of the 17th century the Jewish community was forced to borrow heavily from private individuals and church institutions such as the Russian Orthodox Church, monasteries, and monastic orders. The fixed assets of the Jewish community guaranteed the loans. A large part of the community fortune lay in unsecured mortgages.

By 1766 these debts amounted to 222,720 zlotys just to the churches and monasteries. 122,723 zlotys were owed to other community institutions.

The annual income of the Jewish community amounted to 31,000 zlotys and was derived from various direct taxes e.g.: activities in the salt trade, tobacco, herrings, lard, raisins and other foods. A tax on meat, taxes on Jewish tradesmen (artisans), a tax on the timber yards that were held by Jewish leaseholders, a percentage of donations, and taxes from the sale of alcohol in the taverns. This revenue firstly went to pay the compulsory government taxes for their military obligations; after that it paid for the maintenance and upkeep of the rabbis, judges and synagogue officials and others employed by the community.

Brest Until the Eve of the First World War

Brest had been incorporated into Russia after the second partition of Poland in 1796, and was at first a district city of the Slonim province. In 1797 Brest was incorporated into the Lithuanian province and was transferred to the Grodno province some time after that.

In 1802 most of the Jewish district in Brest was destroyed by fire. Another large fire occurred in 1828 that again destroyed most of the Jewish homes including 5 prayer houses. During the first half of the 19th century, Brest, which had been dominant amongst the Jewish communities, was strongly challenged and overtaken by other rival Jewish communities that had booming economies.

When the Tsar, Nicholas the First, ordered the erection of the Brest fortress in 1832, this caused the demolition of many old Jewish buildings – including the ancient synagogue…. According to the decree of Rabbi Yakov Meir Padua, the rabbi of Brest 1840-1855, and a descendant of Saul Wahl, a drawing was made of the old synagogue and sent to Denis Samuel in London – this decision had been taken on the vote of the kehilla (community council).

During the construction of the fortress the old cemetery was also destroyed – the old tombstones with their illegible inscriptions were transferred to the new cemetery. In 1838 a Jewish hospital was opened that contained 40 beds and a dispensary. This was funded by an annual budget of 500 roubles that was raised from the meat tax and voluntary donations.

A new synagogue was built 1851-1861, and in 1866 a Home for Widows was established, due to the efforts of Rabbi Hirsh Orenstein, the rabbi of Brest 1866-1874. In 1877 the Bikur Cholim society was established with a free medical service, a home for the poor, and a Talmud Torah for 500 youths.

Despite the frequent fires in 1864 Brest numbered 812 houses and 19,302 inhabitants. In 1889 there were 2,063 houses and 41,615 inhabitants – of these 25,005 were Jews. Jewish tradesmen numbered 3,464, merchants 1,235, and employees of various industries 1,000.

The Jews suffered greatly in the fire of 17th May 1895. The transport minister ordered that free train travel be provided for 12 days so that many could leave to find work elsewhere. The second great fire on the 11th May 1901 caused fatalities and huge financial losses. This greatly increased the poverty of the Jewish community.

In 1797 there were 10 Jewish merchants in the Brest district and the city population numbered 2,313 men and 2,287 women. Christian inhabitants and tradesmen numbered 2,170.

In 1847 the following population numbers were in the Brest district:

Towns Men Women Total
Brest 3557 4579 8136
Vlodavka 147 225 372
Wysokie Lit. 780 695 1475
Volchyn 328 558 886
Kamenetz Lit. 645 806 1451
Total: 5457 6863 12,320

According to 1881 documents there were 3,837 men and 4,066 women in Brest city alone as well as 2,695 men and 2,694 women in the Brest district.

According to the 1897 census there were 46,568 souls in Brest of which 30,608 were Jews – 14,533 men and 15,575 women

Brest had 2,898 houses; the tradesmen were almost entirely Jews and numbered over 3,500 - they consisted of bakers, shoemakers, tailors, after them, carpenters, metal smiths, stonemasons, bricklayers and boot production. Brest tradesmen were renowned for their skills and were sent to work far into central Russia and the Crimea.

The Jewish employment numbers were: Industrial occupations 4%, traders 35%, transport 5%, private enterprise 6%, clerical workers including employees of the kehilla were 7%.

As well as the above-mentioned institutions one must mention that there was a society to assist poor Jews as well as a society to assist needy Jews at Passover time. There were 2 Great Synagogues, as well as 30 prayer houses. The city had 5 libraries, 8 printing presses, 2 lithographic studios, and 7 photographic studios that were all owned by Jews.

Of the schools one should mention that as well as the traditional cheders there were 2 government primary schools - one was coeducational and one was for boys and girls separately. There was another government school for girls and 2 private girls schools, as well as the Talmud Torah and 2 private boy's schools. There was also technical training for young Jewish factory workers.

In May 1905, the reservist soldiers of the Tsarist army rioted and violence erupted against the Jews. Many were killed and wounded and there were great material losses.

In the 1897 census the population of Brest and Brest district numbered 171,964 souls.

143,373 of these were of the Russian orthodox religion, second place was held by Jews 15,288 (7, 342 men and 7,946 women). This means that 8.9% were Jews. The Catholics held third place. In total there were 4,000 Jewish tradesmen (artisans) in the district of whom 70% were from Brest. One sixth of these were female who were employed as dressmakers and designers, tailoring, glove making and underwear manufacture.

Towns in the Brest district with populations of over 500 in 1897:

Town Overall pop. Jews
Volchyn 617 588
Wysokie Lit. 3434 2876
Domachevo 1180 1057
Zavastye 1288 976
Kamenetz Lit. 3589 2722
Malorita 1480 227
Militchitz 1685 814
Chernovitz 1209 481
Tcherniun 678 85

There were 3 farming colonies in the Brest district with 300 souls.

By Yakov Shebad. Ivreyski Encyclopedia. St Petersburg 1909


[Page 15]

A Page of Memories

by Yankel Raf . Montevideo

Translated by Jenni Buch and Dr. Samuel Chani

From the History of the Trade Union Movement in our Hometown of Brest

As far as we know and can remember about the establishment and growth of the organized labor movement in our hometown of Brest, we can confirm that the seeds of the union movement had already been planted by the beginning of the 20th century. However, in order to obtain an objective overview of the problems that faced our generation it is necessary to know the history of the union movement and define it's 3 formative periods:

1) Before W.W.1. 2) 1918-1920. 3) 1921-39.

The first period was of the general circumstances of fear and terror in the national oppression that prevailed in the Tsarist Russian empire. The organized labor movement was illegal in Brest and was seen as conspiracy against the government. It was also not organized in a centralized manner, and represented several workshops – such as tailors, knitters, painters, bakers, shoemakers, and various others. Actions were taken within the severe restrictions for better pay and shorter working hours. It is important to stress that there were several prevailing circumstances - the labor movement with it's 1000s of members was tied to the general struggle against the tyranny of the Tsar. The repressive laws against the labor movement and the working class masses that existed in our hometown were evidence of this.

The practical organization of the labor movement was conducted mainly on the stock exchange on the Old Boulevard on Nevsky Prospect, and on the banks of the Muhkavets in summertime and in the prayer houses, as well as in the self-education circles and in dozens of private homes.

The spreading Russian revolt of 1905 did not exclude Brest. In Brest there was a gradual organized growth in the following professional branches: needlework (clothing), leather workers, food and others. Step by step this growth took on an international flavour and was the basis for the Russian revolution of 1905 with its tragic consequences (increased terror, forced exile, and pogroms, etc). For a short period this severely weakened the labor movement. However, already prior to W.W.1, a new revolutionary era had begun over all of Russia that brought with it the resurrection of the labor movement on broader international foundations, which had a significant impact on the growth of the labor movement in Brest as well.

With the outbreak of W.W.1, the entire population of Brest was exiled to a homeless nomadic existence. Scattered and strewn near and far to villages, towns and cities, the suffering caused by the great slaughter of W.W.1 was immense.

The Germans occupied Brest and the greater part of its buildings was destroyed. The ruined streets were overgrown with weeds. Already in 1917-1918 fresh winds had begun to blow as the Tsarist and a row of other empires began to disintegrate. The opportunity opened for the mass return of 1000s and 1000s of Brest residents to return from their exile in all the corners of Russia, Poland, Germany and Austria.

1918-1920 saw a rapid upsurge in the labor movement. This period was influenced by the general revolutionary spirit (Bolshevism) that many Briskers who returned from Russia brought back with them. Also those Briskers who were taken to forced German labor had to some degree become organized as railway workers – laying rail tracks, forestry - cutting trees, road building and agriculture. A wide variety of workers unions were housed in the historic location of the workers communal kitchen at Poplovski's on Dluga St. next to Chai Adam's prayer house.

In those years the labor movement in Brest was involved in ground breaking missions of freeing the former tight restrictions, laws of conspiracy, national repression and pure capitalism. Due to the destroyed and ruined condition of the city, the question of feeding and nutrition was vital, and the cooperative self-help measures were popular. This helped in mobilizing the wider masses of workers and bringing them into the ranks of the labor movement. At the same time, we had to avoid them from falling into the net of the existing and growing philanthropic organizations.

At this time the workers kitchen was changed into a cultural worker's club with lectures and courses. The hall and the courtyard was always packed with workers, both residents and new arrivals to the city – some returning from the German forced labor or some that were just passing through our city and were received in a brotherly fashion by the committee of the workers kitchen. They were provided with work or essential help in order to return to their homes and families who lived outside the city. It is essential to stress that the vital purpose of the workers kitchen was the reality of primarily organizing and allotting work in an organized fashion to the workers, and fighting for their urgent needs such as accommodation and medical care, which were then in appalling and miserable conditions.

It is necessary to mention here that between 1921-1927 Brest had several manufacturing cooperatives established, both in the metal and timber industries, and that the ORT trade school with over 100 students was also established. There were several long-term strikes and lockouts organized by several trades, especially in the needlework (clothing) industry – there were temporary production cooperatives organized by the respective unions. Accompanying this organization of sections of the working class was the strengthening of the labor union movement in our city.

The above-mentioned developments reached their peak during the time that our city had gotten rid of the occupying German forces and before the 'aristocratic' Polish regime had established itself. For a short time in 1920, our city was liberated and was run by cooperatives and communal unionism. This unionism grew very quickly in strength and quality, and became part of an international movement that gave it perspective and goals. But as in all beautiful dreams, that period vanished quickly. In 1921 our city came under the occupation of the New Polish regime. The population of our hometown with its long history of suffering faced a new terrible reality of a series of crises, miseries, unemployment, loss of opportunity (especially for the young), racial hatred and anti Semitic hooliganism.

The enforcing of the Polish rule in western Belarus, brought with it great hardship for the Jews, especially the workers and the poor. A stream of Polish officials, bureaucrats, inspectors, military officers and soldiers, flooded into the city and district. Jews were driven out of their employment and the racist and anti Semitic policies of the government leaders ruined many 1000s of middle class people. These difficult economic conditions caused the strengthening of the idealistic struggle of the workers of Brest and the resurrection of the labor movement in our city, which will remain forever etched in golden letters in the history and struggle of the workers movement in our city.

Beginning in 1921 the development of the labor movement in Brest was conducted along 3 parallel lines, with varying successes:

  1. The working class unions.

  2. The road to internationalism.

  3. The movement towards centralization.

In general, not counting the few insignificant exceptions, there were never any trade union limitations on our professional movement. On the contrary, our trade unions movement was an international one with policies dictated by a central labor organization that followed a certain political direction like the construction workers, leather workers, and food industry. In contrast there was the mass unionism of the tobacco workers that later became non-existent due to the nationalization and monopolization of this industry by the government. The tobacco factories were taken over by the government leaving 100s of workers without jobs. Even in unions such as the railway workers and metal workers there were no Jews employed due to the discriminatory policies of the government, just as there were no Belrussians, Russians or Ukrainians (minorities). This practice went on for years even though it was opposed by the internationalists who were against chauvinism and racial hatred.

The professional labor movement developed in a centralized direction and was full of slogans, both in the halls and the group branches. The clothing workers union with its sub-branches of tailors, knitters, hat makers, dressmakers, furriers, etc. The building unions with the painters, plasterers, carpenters, joiners, bricklayers and manual laborers. The food industry with its sub –branches of bakers, cooks, mill workers, oil production, bottled drinks and soda water. The leather industry with all its varied divisions. A total of about 20 unions were represented in the Brest city council by the professional unions. At the same time all the unions were also represented by their respective headquarters in Warsaw, all of which had excellent political connections in Warsaw. The development of our labor movement was further assisted by the influence of the Polish Socialists Party, and the powerful working class movement in the Polish Kressy (Vilna, Bialystok and Grodno). In the end, the conditions of Polish occupation, terror and repression and the clashing of the 5 nationalities that lived in our city (Jews, Russians, Poles, White Russians and Ukrainians) all contributed to the general situation of isolation and helplessness. The labor movement in our city went through all the historical zigzags and ups and downs in each era of victory and defeat. However, despite all the struggles and difficulties that the labor movement encountered more than once – generally we went forwards thanks to the support of the broader Brest working class which numbered in the thousands and were absorbed into the numerous labor unions.

In this period, the Brest workers conducted countless strikes and industrial action under the leadership of the unions. There were long lasting strikes, and short strikes; there were actions against the employers and solidarity strikes. There were demonstrations and marches of the unemployed to the city hall, accompanied by the clashes with the police. During the time of preparation for action, there were always feverish activities at the labor movement hall at 5 Kosciusko St. and the Workers Exchange at Chai Adams' prayer house. There is no disputing that at its peak, Brest had about 5,000 organized workers. This is a significant number, especially when we take into account that Brest was not an industrial center.

The strikes and industrial actions of the unions awoke fear in the merchants, businessmen and manufacturers, just as it did in the city council. The police said that the city looked like it was in a siege during the largest strikes with the increased police patrols and secret police in the workers district, and around the headquarters and offices of the labor movement. In 1923 there was a mass strike organized by the tobacco workers unions and a general strike of the railway workers. In 1924 there was a protest march at the funeral of a builder who died whilst working. On the 1st May 1925 there were demonstrations. From 1927-1930 there were several unemployed marches and demonstrations with thousands of workers participating despite the provocations and hindering by the police. These were conducted with a high level of discipline and political awareness, as were 100s of similarly organized smaller strikes.

Kosciusko 5 was the workers headquarters. Meeting were also held at the nearby Chai - Adam prayer house, and other locations where interesting topics and lectures were held.

The workers exchange at the Chai- Adam prayer house was mainly used by the building workers and in reality was an early morning venue. The proximity of the workers union building to the historic worker's kitchen and its nearness to the prayer house was the main factor that it gradually became a workers exchange. The hall at Kosciusko 5 was overcrowded – a building built with the donations of the workers and with land purchased with money donated from the Brisker immigrants living in North America. This building was hugely popular with the workers, especially after the cramped conditions of the workers kitchen. Kosciusko 5 broadened into the workers union building and became a cultural and political center, with a library, lectures, discussions, and conferences held there.

The building was also a home for political visitors from outside Brest and all representatives of the union movement and the labor parties that visited Brest. They were the worker's guests and could come face to face with the wider working masses at Kosciusko 5. In addition Brest also had a seasonal workers exchange (office), a labor exchange for the tailors on the new boulevard of Dabrowska, for the painters on Bialystotska, and an exchange for the transport workers- carriage drivers and porters, on the old streets next to the marketplace.

Over a certain period (1924-1928), there were definite organizational sections of the unions established. The trades unions were involved to a large extent with training and employing young people. The needleworkers and leatherworkers union had organized young people who led the protests against the economic crisis that hit the youth the hardest. As a result, the working class youth developed a fighting revolutionary consciousness. They participated actively in the working class and general labor movement in Brest and occupied a respected place amongst the politically active and the leadership. Efforts were made to understand their positions and interact between the older and younger workers, which were often crowned with success, resulting in the youth leadership playing a large role in the labor movement.

It is important to note that the Brest workers movement made great efforts to organize the provincial workers in the entire Brest district including Terespol, where the workers were directly attached to the Brest unions. There were efforts to organize the following: Kobrin, Pruzhany, Kamenetz Litovsk, Wysokie Litovsk, Domachevo, and several other small towns. Despite the strict policing that prevailed in the Brest district – the efforts yielded positive results. The majority of the Brest worker's unions and especially the Council of Trade Unions had paid employees, which lifted the standard and professionalism of our movement.

Finally - a few words about our active labor movement and the brilliant measures that were undertaken to push forward the struggles for workers rights and justice, despite the chicanery of the factory owners and the police. Showing everyone an example of fearlessness and class loyalty – they ranged from young to old, men to women, boisterous to quiet, political party members to non-political. They were united in their desire to better the conditions of the working classes. They were many in number and performed exceptional work -it is not possible here to touch upon the many problems in detail that influenced the various political factions and the labor movement in our town of Brest.

Our hometown of Brest is now forever freed. There will never again be enemies of the working class, and the whole of peace-loving humanity to tread the ground of our martyred city with its heroic history and working class struggles. This should be some consolation for us, for all the Briskers scattered to all the corners over the world. At the same time we must not forget the deeply wounded imperialist war-mongering beast that again is sharpening it's murderous claws to once again to engulf humanity in a terrible Third World War slaughter. So beware, dear brethren, be uplifted and united together with the peaceful forces in the countries that you live in – together with the hundreds of millions of peace lovers in the world. Fight for peace between nations and countries. Fight that there should never again be such a terrible ordeal and tragic outcome as befell the victims of the last world war, and the entire Jewish population of Brest. Our eyes, flesh and blood. Be uplifted and alert.

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Jewish Economic Institutions in Brest

There were 3 financial institutions that played a large role in the economic development of the city and in the lives of the Jewish traders and workers. The largest bank was called the People's Bank and was situated in a large building on Dabrowska Street. The second was the Merchant's Bank, which was situated on the corner of Dabrowska and Krutka. The third was the Savings and Loan Fund, which was on Ksziwa St. These institutions played vital roles in the economic lives of the entire Jewish population of Brest.

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