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[Page 699]

Brest In World Events

Translated by Dr. Samuel Chani and Jenni Buch

Events of great historical and political importance took place in Brest on the 20th Century. The peace treaty between the Russian Bolsheviks and the Imperial Germany was signed there, and 22 years later in 1939 the Communist Soviet Union met there for talks with the German Nazi regime. The first shots fired when the Germans invaded The Soviet Union in 1941 were crossing the Bug River into Brest.

Brest is entered in the annals of world history with various other historical events. It is impossible to mention all of these occurrences - but we publish here the recollections of Count Atkater Tchernin 1872-1932. Tchernin was an Austrian diplomat and foreign minister of Austria 1916-1918. He played an active role in drafting the peace treaty signed in Brest Litovsk in 1918. An excerpt from Trotski's “My Life” (Trotski was the famous Soviet representative). An excerpt from Winston Churchill's book “The Second World War”.

“No War No Peace”, Brest the 20th December 1917

We arrived at Brest station at 5 a.m. We were met by the Chief of Staff General Hoffman, acoompanied by his retinue of about 10 people including special envoys Von Rosenberg and Murray. After a short discussion about the latest events, I went back into the train carriage and sat and thought about what we needed to establish at the negotiating table. At 6 a.m. I traveled to General Hoffman's. He spoke about the tension and boasted that no one could equal him in the number of his successful military battles. About 100 people attended the breakfast banquet, which was presided over by the Count of Bavaria. Next to him sat the leader of the Russian delegation, the Jew Yaffe, who had only recently been released from a Siberian prison. Next to Yaffe sat generals and ambassadors. Besides Yaffe, Kaminiev also distinguished himself with his excellent conversational skills – he had also been recently freed from prison.

Later on I had a long conversation with Yaffe. He was of the opinion that first all the peoples of the world should be liberated - only then would we accheive true brotherhood. When I remarked that this could lead to conflict, unrest, and civil war in the whole world – he did not deny this and stressed that such a war would fulfill human ideals and therefore be justified.

Brest 4th January 1918

During the night there was a terrible snowstorm. The heating in the carriages froze. When I awoke the train on the tracks opposite ours consisted of the Bulgarian and Turkish carriages. Kulamin told me that they were angry in Berlin, he had proposed to Ludendorf that he himself should come to Brest to take part in the peace negotiations, but it became clear to Kulamin that Ludendorf did himself not know what he wanted, and that his journey would be superfluous. He would only spoil matters. It was clear that if the Russians wanted to cease the negotiations, the situation would only become more difficult. In the evening a telegram arrived from St. Petersburg announcing that the foreign minister Leon Trotski was leading a delegation that was departing for Brest.

The Brest Fortress January 10th 1918

Trotski gave a beautiful speech in which he conceded all of the 5 major points – he accepted the German Austro –Hungarian ultimatum. He was staying in Brest, he said, just not to give us the pleasure of blaming the Russians for further extending the war.

Brest 11th Febuary 1918

Trotski said whilst signing the peace treaty: “no peace, no war”. This slogan was written on the wall of the Brest Fortress, and covered by a protective glass. This short sentence that caused so much upheaval in the world.

From the memoirs of Count Tchernin about the peace negotiations after the W.W.1. Archives of the Russian Revolution. 1921.

To Peace by Leon Trotsky

At the request of Lenin, I traveled to Brest. Not counting the old buildings outside the old city where the German Command was housed, the city of Brest actually did not exist anymore… The Kaiser's Imperial Army had violently ransacked, burnt and destroyed the city. Food and furniture was extremely basic. Through the city ran a broad strategic road – on my morning walks I came across a sign written on a wall – “every Russian that is caught would be shot”.

From “My Life” by L. Trotsky

1939 - When the Storm Erupted

On the 17th September 19139, the Russian military crossed the Polish border which was almost undefended at the time. The Russians created a wide western front. By the 18th they had reached Vilna and they met with their allies the Germans in Brest Litovsk. The Bolsheviks and the Germans had signed a separate peace treaty there towards the end of W.W.1, demonstrating the difficult situation of those days. This time it was the German Nazis and the Russian communists who shook hands and smiled.

Winston Churchill “ The Second World War”

1941 – The German Military Invasion of Russia

This occurred at 3.30 a.m. on the 22nd June 1941. With the changing of the border guards on the bridge over the Bug river between the two territories. The Germans shot their Russian comrades instead of saluting them. Thus began the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Willian Exner “This is the Enemy” London 1943

The City Of Tel Aviv decided to perpetuate the memory of the
Jewish Community of Brest by naming a street - Rehov Kehillat Brisk D' Lita


[Page 703]

Brest 1954

by M. Almoni

Translated by Dr. Samuel Chani and Jenni Buch

Do not wonder that I write these few words. An extraordinary event happened to me two days ago when I visited Brest Litovsk en route on my trip to Russia, - and I wish to share my experiences with you.

I had to exchange trains in Brest and had a five-hour wait there. I took a taxi to the city center and walked through the streets of the city, strolling through the main and side streets, looking at the faces of the passers-by, searching for a Jew but could not find one.

The city had not changed a great deal, (the ruins had almost disappeared). There were many new buildings and nice gardens that had been planted in the city squares. On the corner of Dabrowska and The 3rd of May Sts. (the main intersection of the city) where I thought there had once been a cinema, there now was a small park with a statue of Stalin in the middle.

The Great Synagogue was still standing but had been changed into a cinema. I peered inside – nothing had changed except for the rows of seats in a semi – circle, where the Holy Ark once was – now stood the large picture screen.

The city was tinged with greenery. I saw many men in military uniforms – a typical provincial city. The streets have new names: Topolowska = Karl Marx St., Dabrowska = Soviet Army St. There are bus services running to Kobryn, Pruzhany and Pinsk.

I chatted to a bus driver who told me about the liquidation of the Jews of Brest. Some of them were sent to Kobryn and were murdered there. Now there are a few Jews, almost all of them had not lived in Brest before the war. The majority of residents seemed to be Poles that had remained there from before the war. Those that had come froms the towns of Biala and Janow, for example, and had occupied Jewish homes and their contents until today.

It is very difficult for me to describe my emotions duriing those hours – to walk around the streets of Brest, devoid of any Jews. When I spotted a face which looked Jewish, I stopped the person and asked him – he denied it and avoided me…

It was also strange to travel through the neighboring towns and villages such as Mezrich, Biala, Terespol, Zhabinka and Bereza etc, etc, and not find a Jew there either. I did not go to Kobryn although I was only 15 kilometers from there.

With comradely greetings and regards, M. Almoni (Anonymous in Hebrew).

The Memorial on the site of a Massacre of Jews at 124 Dluga St.

Photo taken by Dr. Sam Chani in 1965

Translator's note: This monument was vandalized and destroyed in the 1970s


[Page 705]

The History of This Book

by N. Chinich

Translated by Dr. Samuel Chani and Jenni Buch

At a general assembly of the Organization of Brest Immigrants in Israel that took place in Tel Aviv in 1944, it was decided to publish a memorial book about this famous and historic community. I undertook to manage this difficult task and issued a plea for support in the press, both in Israel and abroad. I requested that all the Briskers in the world send in their memoirs, recollections, photos, memorabilia, political and institutional records. This request was printed in the U.S., Australia, South Africa, Argentina, Europe, Mexico and Brazil. I also sent more than 300 personal letters, both in Israel and overseas.

Over the following eight years we collected enough material for a book - I also visited with elderly Briskers in Israel and recorded their recollections. When I visited the grey haired Beinish Koloditzky in Petach Tikvah he was very moved by the idea of a memorial book. With tears in his eyes, he related his memoirs to me for hours. With his faint and tired voice: “I'm already 84 years old, but I want to tell you about our city. I want to live to see the publication of this book about Brest and it's people. “ He drew from his memories great figures and personalities such as Shereshevski, Shteinberg, Rabbi Butche, and Rabbi Simcha Zelig. He said he had been an official for the Keren Kayemet for over 30 years, and had the privilege of living in his own country, and could not want anything more. He thought for a bit and then said he wanted to tell me about the co-operative movement in Brest in the old days, and that the Briskers were the first to establish this practice. He said he would tell me more about this subject later. He never did as he died a few weeks later.

I also travelled to Ramat Yitzhak to interview the elderly Doba Yaffa. The old lady told me about the Great Synagogue, about her family, about the fortress, about the community leaders, the old cemetery, and her memories of bygone years, but I did not see her again as the old lady passed away. I spent long hours recording what the elderly Levi Yitzhak Winnikoff related to me about Brest officials and personalities, who no longer were alive and had not been granted the privilege of coming to Eretz Israel.

I had the nerve to approach the great professor Albert Einstein who had worked closely with Yakov Gromer as his teacher and co-worker. The great scientist sent me a personal reply and said that he regretted that he had no photo of Gromer. Yitzhak Greenbaum sent me his biographies of Avraham Goldberg and N.Finkelstein from his cell in the British prison at Latrun. The elderly Michael Pochachevsky sent me his interesting memoirs but refused to sent his photo, saying “who am I to have my photo in a book about Brest?” Friends loaned us articles from the Yiddish press – editorials from the Polessie Shtimme, I searched all the references to Brest in the Hebrew press archives: Hamelitz, Hamagid, Ha Yom, Ha Dor, Ha Zman, Ha Tzophe, and Ha Tzphira. We also collected over 200 photographs.

A huge amount of material was collected; everything remained as a collection of works as we were unable to edit the work for publication. Our comrades also lost hope that it would ever appear in book form but then we found a saviour in Chaim Barlas. A native of Brest, Chaim Barlas was the editor of the Encyclopedia of the Diaspora and he made our goal a reality. Praise should be given to the book committee of the Organization of Brest Immigrants in Israel: B. Kastrinski, A. Shtrickman, S. Orchov, M. Neumark who gave their hearts and souls to this project, also A. Zamir, blessed be his memory, who helped a great deal with the collection of material. The many people who helped collect and edit the information – M. Zinovitch who gave us valuable information about the rabbis of Brisk D'Lita.

Special thanks should be given to the Brest Relief in New York and the members of its book committee: H.H. Gonsher, Y. Finkelstein, B. Wolsky, Frieluk and others who assisted greatly to make this matter a reality and get this book published.

The Memorial book for our great and famous hometown of Brest, its people, their sufferings and torments, and the tragic demise of the ancient city of Brisk D' Lita.


[Page 707]

The Three Periods of Brisk D' Lita

by Avraham Levinson

Translated by Dr. Samuel Chani and Jenni Buch

The first mention of Jews in Brest was in the 14th century, when the first Jews settled on Lithuanian soil. Throughout the generations the city of Brest acquired a special economic, political, and social significance, which it maintained during all of these three periods of the existence of the Jewish community. These periods were defined by the name changes to the city.

The first period was the establishment of the Jewish settlement, whose existence was due to the privileges granted by the king and princes, despite the opposition of the church and the aristocracy. Their persecutions and accusations of ritual blood libel did not stop the commercial and cultural development of the city and it grew and stood at the head of all the Jewish communities of Lithuania. The city produced famous personalities, rabbis and sages. They built yeshivas and synagogues that attracted scholars from many lands.

In the period of the Council of Four Lands, the economic and political importance of Brest rose greatly. This was a bloody period of pogroms in Lithuania and the Ukraine. Over a period of ten terrible years almost the entire population of Brest was murdered – only a small number of Jews in the west of the city remained.

Gradually Brest recovered from this great massacre and destruction. The hatred from the Polish townsmen, the harassment, the charges of blood libel from the Catholic and Russian orthodox churches did not cease. The Jews were forced again to seek protection and privileges from the king who obliged willingly in order not to lose his revenue from the taxes and charges that his Jews paid him.

When Jewish autonomy was established in Brest, the city did not lose it's elevated position – the stronger the political opposition and economic need, the higher the spiritual walls of the city were strengthened. The rabbis and sages of Brest had great influence over the Jews of the entire nation. In 1796, after the second Polish partition, the city passed into Russian hands and its name was changed to Brest Litovsk.

A new flood of misfortune and troubles was unleashed. Every day brought new persecutions. One of the greatest plagues that befell the city were the fires. No other cities endured and suffered as much from fires as Brest. In a hundred years, there were four large fires –(1802, 1825, 1895 and 1901), that caused great destruction and suffering.

Despite all this, the city arose from its ashes and rebuilt its youth. Its strategic position as a junction between Moscow, Kiev, and Warsaw, the two rivers Bug and Mukhavets, on which it was positioned, the reinforced fortress, all combined to create an economic revival and an increase in the number of inhabitants of the city. The Jews were occupied in developing commerce and trade, manufacturing, communications, and supplying the needs of the large military presence in Brest.

In Brest the beginnings of a new culture were felt. Under a banner of conspiratorial secrecy sprouted the first rays of radical thought. The first of the Zionists were the Chovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), who found a responsive audience in Brest. In 1892 Rabbi Shmuel Maliever passed through on his way to Warsaw and met with Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik and Rabbi Eliahu Chaim Maizel.

The fame of Brest far transcended its borders – many Briskers wandered off to other cities and countries. They participated in the building of Hebrew and Jewish culture. Notable amongst them were: A.L. Feinstein, author of “Ir Tehillah”, which has not lost its scientific and research value to this day. It is still the greatest single writing about Brest, not counting the two small monographs from the military rabbi of the German prison camp (for prisoners of war) that was written by A Tanzer and A. Kaplan about the destruction of the city during W.W.1. The brothers Moshe and Samuel Minc who belonged to the founding pioneer group BILU that originated in Kharkov and made aliyah to Eretz Israel. The author Dr. Benjamin Shereshevski, a pioneer of the Jewish settlement in Israel, known by his pseudonym “Powers of Nature” (of which he was the author) and “Six Degrees of Science”. Senator Dr. Marcus Brodie who was the rabbi in Lodz Poland, an official of the National High School education board, and a founder of the Judaica Institute in Warsaw. Beinish Michalevitch-Itzbitski, a leader of the Bund in Poland. Professor Y.N. Halevi –Epstein, historical researcher and lecturer in Hebrew Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The famous Yiddish novelist Menachem Berisha, who settled in the U.S.A, the writer Benjamin Chaim Reis, author of “The Siberian Stories' and “Memories of a Wanderer”, the actor Mischa Apelboim and many others….

This is how Brisk D' Lita was in the Russian period – a city whose people suffered oppressions, troubles, endured fires and wars - survived, but still did not stop radiating life and light. After the First World War, the city entered its third historical period – it became the Polish “Brzesc nad Bugiem”.

The old Jewish residents returned together with newcomers from the surrounding towns. It was the beginning of a superhuman task to rebuild the city from its ruins. The central responsible authority and source of financial assistance was the Joint Organization that built the Warburg Colony (the new model suburb), the orphanage, schools, health organizations, and the Artisans Union building. Gradually a new Jewish community re emerged with a new Jewish identity and pride.

It turned out that the New Poland had learnt nothing from its former history of enslavement. The Polish republic was actually a continuation of the Old Polish Monarchy. In this Poland there was no room for privileges granted to Jews, for further spreading the oral traditions, the legends about Esterke, and Saul Wahl, who was king for one day. The political and economic reality was depressing; the conditions were miserable and insulting. After a short period of liberalism there was a rising militarism from an aggressive and chauvinistic Polish government. In Brest just as in the other towns of the Cressy (former Russian held territories) the authorities began to wipe off any traces of the former Russian rule, eradicating any traces of the Old Russian Regime. This was followed by the Polonization of the soul, the culture, and the economy - the provincial Mayors, Governors, chiefs of police and military leaders executed the chauvinistic policies with a heavy hand.

Their presence in the streets and schools was meant to strengthen the Polish element and weaken the Jewish community. They imposed heavy taxation, distanced the Jews for obtaining government employment, and blocked Jews from getting government projects. The blocking of funds to the Jewish high schools and the erection of modern Polish suburbs isolating the Jewish community further weakened the Jewish community.

Apart from a few, Brest with all its merchants and shopkeepers, tradesmen, artisans, office workers and labourers, was a city of poor people who struggled for their daily existence. The Jewish representatives in the city council were well aware of their opportunity to defend their rights and resist the injustices. The entire Polish administration was riddled with anti Semitism.

Despite all that Brest remained Brest Litovsk - the Jewish Brest with all it's political parties: Zionist, Mizrachi, both branches of Poale Zion, the Unity party and also the Bund. They understood the importance of preserving the purity of their idealistic struggle. The Zionist organization with all its factions was the center of all our social life – it did not rule by the power of numbers but by its moral influence on the Brest institutions. It also had economic power in its hands – its influence with the Jewish banks, and its moral authority found direction in the Jewish education and schools. The Hebrew High School was officially accredited for university entrance examinations. There was also a trade school run by Ort, a children's orphanage and hostel, and a Jewish hospital and library.

In the last years we saw the gathering clouds over our heads. The horizon darkened but no one could have foreseen the horrible end. However, we were never without the feeling that we were going from one disaster to another – spinning downwards. The bloody events of 1937 showed the brutality in frightening detail - the helplessness of the Polish Jews. The day of the terrible destruction arrived – the final conflagration in which the entire Jewish population was destroyed in a sacrifice to inhumanity. The executioner's final blow to the beautiful Jewry of Poland, severing 1000 years of Jewish culture.

There is no consolation in revenge.

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