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[Page 10 - English]

People I Have Known From the Shtetl
(A Letter)

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by Yoel Willner

 

My Cousin, Reb Yo'el Willner, long may he live, the son of Reb Israel Willner, God rest his souls, was born in 1896, and left Breziv for Vienna in 1915. After the Nazis, may they be damned, entered Vienna, he managed to get to America and now living in Los Angeles. This letter came in reply to my query about the shtetl people he remembered. It speaks in short about them and is given here with just a few, slight corrections. A.L.
…Well then, let's begin with the old cemetery: I have no personal memory of its being used but I imagine that people were still buried there when I was born. I know that our great-grandfather, Reb Yehoshualeh, of blessed memory, who sold brandy in his pub was buried there. Our grandfather, Reb Avruhmalek Willner, of blessed memory, called “Avruhmelah Yatshmirer”, who died in 1902, was interred there, and some six years separated “Zeide from Zeide”.

Reb Shamshon Shochet of blessed memory was the shochet of the “Beit-Midrash” of the Hassidim of Sandz, Belz, Bukovsk etc. The Rozhin Hassidim belonged to the Clois had their own Shochet, Reb Yoseph shochet (Glickman), of blessed memory, and they would eat nothing from Reb Shamshon's “shchita”, not because of any enmity between hem but because of Reb Shimshon's prodigious age and the rumor that his hands trembled.

Everybody trusted implicitly the shchita of Reb David Shochet (Lampin), of blessed memory, Reb Shimshon's stand-in. David was a young and fervent believer, “Esh lehava”, as well as an excellent reader with a most pleasant voice.

Reb Aharon Pinchovsky, of blessed memory, was a “melamed” one grade higher than Reb Ya'acov Shlomoh, of blessed memory, he who taught the little ones. You might say he was on the level of Reb Mosheleh Me'ir Yankels, of blessed memory. They taught “Humash” (the Pentateuch) and Rashi, and some of the pupils went on to teachers of the Gemarrah and Tosephoth”.

He was the son-in-law of Reb Aharon Pinchovsky and named after him – Yossef Aharons. I would like to say something about another important person whom you, Avraham never met, as he died in 1915, during the First World War. The war brought panic into the world and created a divided generation. Otherwise a Jew like him would never have been forgotten.

There was a Jew in Breziv called Reb Israel Avrumale's (Willner) of blessed memory, or Reb Israel Yo'el Hertz's (his father-in-law), who was my venerated father, of blessed memory. His love of the Torah was indescribable and his whole life was a continued dedication to its study. There was no limit to his perseverance and he never stopped studying at the Tchortkover Clois where he lived. The parents of worthy youths desiring their sons to go on studying the Torah, including myself, entrusted their sons to him. He taught “Shass” and “Poskim” until the war broke out. Could I but write like you I would describe his qualities and greatness in the Torah, but what can one do with an ordinary pen like mine?

When the Rabbi was away, or taking his afternoon nap, people would come to my father, of blessed memory, with a “Shaileh” (query). Father would send them on to Reb Leibeleh Yachmirer, a great scholar whom he respected, for all that he was a little queer, may God spare us. Reb Leibeleh would drive them away, cursing them roundly, and when they then returned to Father he agreed to give them his decision.

It happened once that Father went to Vienna for a few days to visit the Rabbi of Tzhortkow, may his privileges defend us, and to see his children who were almost all in that city. This was after the Russians had been driven from the shtetl and many refugees had returned home. A typhoid epidemic was raging in the shtetl at the time and my sisters tried to make him stay in Vienna till it was over. Father refused, saying that the shtetl was full of sick people

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with no one to tend them. When he came home he did not spend even one night in his own bed but went from house to house, helping and encouraging the sick. I remember that, in spite of his fear, he even sent me to sleep in the home of one of the victims of the epidemic. He simply had no choice for all the homes were full of sick people, with no one to give them a glass of water. This went on until I left for Vienna. After three months father was also struck down by the disease and died on the 5th of Tevet, 1915. He was the last victim, for the epidemic then died down. May his memory be blessed.

Dear Avraham, I feel that a Book of Memoriam for the shtetl in which Reb Israel Avrumale's is not mentioned would be lacking and incomplete.

I hope you will find people who knew him and could tell about him. I cannot depend on you or your friends in the matter, not, God forbid, because of any fault of yours. You were simply born too late.

Today people from America or Israel cannot even visit the graves of the Fathers because of the terrible destruction.

(Despite Reb Yo'el's doubts, I will permit myself to make some remarks about his father, of blessed memory. Recipient of the letter.)

In my youth I heard much about his greatness in the Torah, both at home and from others who knew him. He was the pride of the family. It was Reb Shimeleh Parnass, may God avenge him, son of Moshe Parnass, of blessed memory, and his neighbour for many years who told me about him: “Your uncle, of blessed memory, was not only a great scholar, but his behavior and attitude to others was that of a perfect “Tzaddik”. He literally fulfilled the injunction of “Hazal”: “Meet every man with a greeting of welcome”, and no one, including women and children, ever beat him to the greeting. I tried to trick him once, sneaking up behind him carefully, but as soon as I was about to open my mouth Reb Israel turned around and greeted me with his kindly smile: Good morning, Reb Shimon!…”)

Did you know a young man by the name of Mendeleh Avraham Ichiss (Mendeleh Dick, may God avenge him) in Breziv? He was renowned in the shtetl. His father was a butcher and Mendeleh helped him in the shop. At the ripe age of 18 he decided to study Torah and came to my father with whom he studied with great perseverance, to become in time, one of the shtetl's great sages. He was four years older than me and almost every night accompanied me to stay the night to “sleep” in the homes of the sick.

Reb Eliezer Fass, of blessed memory: I remember him well. He had two sons, Yosske and Itzhak, a musician. Old man Fass was “almost” the village doctor.

It may be said that he was the “pre-doctor”. No one ever called a real doctor to a patient before old Reb Eliezer had a look at him, deciding whether this was really necessary or his own treatment of cupping or leeches on the soles of the feet would be enough. I was a sickly child and he was a frequent visitor at our house. After being treated by him I would realize that there was nothing for it but to return to the “Heder”…

Zelig Willner. I remember his name but I did not know him personally. He sold Schnapps at the pub and had a daughter called Runia, Runia Zelig's. (Runia, Geddalya Filler's wife, may God avenge her).

Reb Yossef Willner. He was a descent, modest Jew. He owned two stone houses and had three daughters: Haitche, Reb Avremeleh Reich's first wife –Toybe, and Shprinzeh, wife of Reb Mendel Laufer, may God avenge him, the son of Reb Shalom Laufer, whose brother was Reb David Melech of the “Wilkis”, a man renowned for his charity who used to bring heavy cartloads of goods for distribution among the poor. He was connected by marriage with the son of the rabbi of Altstad, whose name escapes me, but who was a famous “ga'on” in his time. (His daughter, Breintsche of the “Wilkis”, or Breintsche David Melech's followed in her father's footsteps and before every Holyday was to be seen in the shtetl's byways, handing out full bags and baskets of goods to the needy from a cart loaded with potatoes and sundries). Both brothers, Reb Yosseph and Reb David Melech were the offspring of Reb Kalman Wilner of Yatshmir, and I assume the Reb Kalman was the brother of our great-grandfather, Reb Yehoshualeh of the pub.

Reb Eliezer Cohen, of blessed memory, father of Reb Israel Cohen (died in the U.S.A.) was the son of Toybe and Reb David Hirscheleh, his cousin, who assisted Rabbi Yosseph, the son of the renowned Reb Hirsch of Rimanov.

YossephSeigermacher”, or Reb Yosseph Teig, had the corner store in Shalom Laufer's building. His

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family did not belong to Brzozow and I don't know where he came from (he later went to Vienna).

Reb Ephra'im Stieglitz, of blessed memory, was the son-in-law of Shmu'el Kintzler and his wife of blessed memory was called Loytze. He owned a textile store, and, if I'm not mistaken, he was the richest man in the shtetl. He was a highly respected man and very learned. He had several daughters and one son, Reb Leibish Stieglitz, of blessed memory.

Reb Israel Dim, of blessed memory, was our grandmother Feigele's cousin and I still remember how he stood by her bedside before she died. He talked to her and she replied till her last breath. I don't remember what it was they talked about… He was a learned Jew and an enthusiastic Sadigurra Hassid who loved quoting his Rabbi's pithy sayings.

Reb Itzche Ber Winer was a fine Yeshiva student and very learned, highly respected by the whole town. His wife was called Toybaleh. All I know about him is that my father thought very highly of him.

Reb Shmelke Braff, of blessed memory, did not come from Brzozow but from Viellipolla. His wife's name was Nehama. I knew his four sons: Yehi'el, David, Ya'acov and Mendel, the last being my friend who died some years ago in Antwerpen. They were a fun-loving group and were always cheerful, even when things were at their worst. When they sang “zmirot” many people always collected outside their house for the pleasure of hearing them, especially during the summer when the windows were open. I remember once the oldest brother, Yehi'el, may he rest in peace, Wolf Engel (?) and my brother Kalman, arrived unexpectedly on leave from the army and were faced with the problem of entering the Tschortkower Clois without side-curls. They bought some “Peyes” in Przemysl and stuck them on their temples, then came into the Clois. You can imagine the impression these “peyes” made on the congregation…

Reb Koppel Tzwik of blessed memory. I didn't know his father or where he had come from to the shtetl, but I did know his brother, Reb Israel Tzwik, who was called Uncle Israeltche in our family. He died some 80 years ago and his wife was Aunt Leah, grandmother Feigeleh's sister. Reb Koppel Tzwik had six sons and two daughters. The eldest was Nathan and, in order to avoid serving in the army, he amputated his own finger. The other sons were Itzhak Mendel (died in Lvov), Shlomo, Moshe, Kalman and Leib. One of the girls was Feige and she married Mendel Goldfisher, of blessed memory. She was widowed before the war.

Reb Anshel Shertz, of blessed memory. He had several brothers of whom I remember just one – Reb Mendel Shertz, who lived near the Beit Midrash. He was the father of Reb Eliezer Shertz, father-in-law of Yehoshua Roth, of blessed memory, whom we all knew.

Reb Shmuel Penner, of blessed memory, father of Reb Yosseph Penner, may God avenge him. He was the oldest veteran in the shtetl and died at the age of 97. To his last day he needed neither spectacles nor a cane.

Reb Abish Weiss, of blessed memory, the father-in-law of Reb Leibish Seiler, may God avenge him, about whom you have written in the name of Avrumeleh Reich, who had received an important mark of commendation from the Austrian Government. His family was proud of the fact that he had spoken with the Kaiser when the latter visited Yaslo, though I never heard about it.

Der Deitcher Bekker”. This was the name we knew him by, and I don't know his real one. Some thought that he was actually called “Der Deitcher Bekker”. His buns really melted in one's mouth but were intended for the sick only. A healthy person couldn't afford them and had to be satisfied with just looking. He lived where the “great Fire” broke out in 1906, a date you surely recognize…Do you know where Reb Noutta Wilner used to live? It was near the steps beside your grandmother Feigele's house.

And last but not least is my grandfather Reb Yo'el Hertz, of blessed memory. I'm surprised you know nothing about him. He was a fervent Boyan Hassid and the “whole world” knew of him. How is it that you, my own cousin never did? And you insist that you are a Brzozow man! Who will believe you? Certainly not me…

Truth to tell we, the grandchildren, knew very little about him. He died in the shtetl of Spass, in Eastern Gallicia, not in Brzozow.

These are more or less my answers to your questions. Where I wasn't one hundred percent sure I turned to my sister, Sheindel, long may she live. If you have any more questions of this kind, ask and I will answer you gladly and as best I can.

With love,

YO'EL

Los Angeles, January 1983


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Memories of Brzozow

by Dr. Yaakov Schechter

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Translated by Herzlia Dobkin

I see it through a mist…

Brzozow, the small shtetl where I lived for twenty years with my family. Five thousand people lived there, a quarter of them Jews.

Two roads connected it to the outer world: one leading eastward to Sanok, capital of the region, and one to the north, in the direction of Przemysl.

For six days of the week things were quiet, the shtetl seemed to be sleeping; then came the seventh day, a Monday – the day of the weekly fair. Farmers with cartloads full of produce and livestock flowed in from all the surrounding villages to sell their wares and buy goods from the Jewish shopkeepers.

That day the shtetl was all agog and the noise was deafening: curses, singing drunks, and the occasional fight. By evening it was all over and the farmers returned to their villages. The Jews, having earned enough to sustain them for another week, returned to their daily grind. But there was a day I shall always remember…

I was twelve at the time, a few months before the end of the 1st World War. The events unfold before my eyes as if they had taken place yesterday. That morning my father, just recently discharged from the Austrian army, had piled up the heavy furniture against the entrance door to our house and stood, his gun cocked, behind the barricade. Ear-splitting shrieks could be heard through the windows. The drunken peasants had come to the shtetl without any produce. They had been planning a pogrom for some days now and finally their moment had come.

Peeping through the window I saw some peasants dragging a man whose head was all covered with blood. It was the only Jew who, since the days of Kaiser Franz Joseph, had served on the local police force.

The rioting continued till late that evening without any intervention by the authorities. All the shops belonging to Jews were looted. There were many wounded but fortunately no one was killed. Instead of slaughtering Jews the peasants preferred to take over the pubs they had broken into and got drunk “on the house”. This, apparently, made them forget the Jews and they finally quitted the shtetl, loaded with spoils looted from the Jewish inhabitants.

The riots at Brzozow were just a link in the chain of tragic events taking place throughout Gallicia where, after the breakdown of the Austrian empire, an independent Polish government had been established. The disturbances certainly provided an enormous impetus to the awakening of the National Zionist idea. Wide masses of Polish Jews became finally and absolutely convinced that their loyalty to the establishment, which had more or less protected them till then against anti-semitic violence, would be of no avail in the new reality of the aftermath of the war.

An intensive Zionist activity ensued. During the first post-war years a “Shomer Hatza'ir” kernel had been formed which was active both nationally and culturally, bringing to the shtetl guests from the large cities and from Israel. An amusing incident comes to my mind from the time: an envoy had arrived from the Holy Land, but when he stood up to speak at the public meeting it transpired that there was no common language between himself and his audience. All he knew was Hebrew and Russian while they understood only Yiddish or Polish.

I was 14 at the time and remembered the old, orthodox tutor who had, shortly before, prepared me for my bar mitzvah. Quickly I ran out to bring him to the meeting and somehow or other he succeeded in translating the Hebrew lecture into Yiddish which all understood.

In 1923 a great change took place in the Zionist

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activity in Brzozow, when the “Beit-Yehudah” Association was founded by Prof. Friedel Korn, a prominent and unforgettable figure among the elite of Brzozow Jewry. He was one of the few remaining Jewish teaches left in the Austrian high schools bequeathed by the Austrians to Poland.

All through my high school years and until my maturity, he was my teacher and mentor. A proud Jew and a fervent Zionist, not only did he not try to hide his national identity and his views – he displayed them at every opportunity both to his teacher-colleagues and his pupils. Paradoxically enough, it was because of this that everybody treated him with respect and affection. It was due to his initiative and enterprise that the cultural-national center of “Beit-Yehuda” was inaugurated at the end of 1922 or the beginning of 1923.

Though pupils of Polish schools were forbidden to participate in any public activities without permission from the school administration, Prof. Korn did not hesitate to enlist the two Jews in my class, Shmuel Rosner, rest his soul, and myself, to work in the establishment of the center. Donations were collected from the Jews of the village and the surrounding shtetls and a hall rented in the main street, near the gymnasium. There was a library boasting the best of Polish and Yiddish literature, as well as a lecture hall and social gatherings.

Every Saturday lectures were given by local speakers or some brought from outside the shtetl on literary, social, Jewish and Zionist subjects.

I well remember the festive atmosphere of the opening ceremony of the center, when a local lawyer, Dr. Hertzig, gave the opening lecture on S. Ansky's “The Dybbuk”. Hertzig was a warm-hearted Jew, an intellectual who continued to support the development of the center and the enrichment of cultural life and Zionist activity among Brzozow's Jewish community, giving unstintedly of his talents and extraordinary erudition.

With the passage of time, when political development within the Zionist movement created division and sectarianism, the “Beit Yehuda” Center continued to serve as a meeting place for all the factions in the Zionist movement. The General Zionists, Gordonia, Hashomer Hatza'ir, Mizrachi and the revisionist “Menorah” succeeded in coordinating their use of the center's meeting room for their Zionist activities.

The Jews of Brzozow were very proud of their center and it was much frequented by both the intellectuals and the common people who all fostered its upkeep and development.

Later on the management of the center passed from its inaugurators to the younger generation – local high school graduates and intellectuals.

The center and its manifold activities exerted a profound influence on the social and cultural life of Brzozow's Jewish community up to the outbreak of the 2nd World War.

After the violent manifestations that followed the independence of Poland in the form of a pogrom, as I( have described above, relations between the Jews and the local Polish inhabitants became stabilized. No love was lost between the two communities, there were no social or cultural ties and cases of molestation and temporary confrontations were not unknown, yet, in general, order was maintained. Business relations went on as usual, with each side living its own life. This state of affairs resulted, perhaps from the fact that the Jewish community of Brzozow boasted many intellectuals whose services were necessary to the non-Jews.

It would be worthwhile, perhaps, to mention one of the first cases which marked the deterioration of the shaky relations existing between Jews and Poles.

As in all the other towns of Gallicia, so too in Brzozow, there was a branch of the “Sokol”, an organization dedicated to the development of physical fitness and well known for its extreme Polish-nationalist bias. The building of this organization boasted a large hall for public meetings and cinema shows. A new movie was brought every week and the number of Jews among the audience was high. It was they, actually, who paid for the upkeep of the cinema and ensured its profitability.

During one of the summer months of 1930 the “Beit Yehuda” center decided to bring one of the troupes of the Yiddish theatre to the town for a number of performances. I no longer remember the name of the troupe or the play (the reference is to the actor Yonnas Turkov and his company – ed.), but it was decided to lease the “Sokol” hall for the event, as clearly the majority of the Jewish inhabitants would come.

The “Sokol” management agreed to lease the hall but a few days later they were pressured by the local anti-semites to refuse the Jews, and the lease was annulled. This was just before the arrival of the company and there was no possibility of putting them off. We therefore rented a shoddy wooden structure

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which served as storage space for the local fire brigade, put up a temporary stage and, bringing in all the necessary equipment, made it fit for a theatrical performance. All the Jewish youths were enlisted for these preparations and they went to work with a will, if only to prove to the anti-semites that they could get along without them.

The Company arrived and gave a number of performances which were watched by practically the whole Jewish population. The event, in fact, turned into a spontaneous demonstration of solidarity among all the political factions, and a sharp protest against the anti-semitic plot. Not content with this, however, we decided to make the anti-semites pay for their unfair behavior and it was decided to boycott the cinema shows at the “Sokol”. For weeks no Jew appeared there, and the management was on the verge of bankruptcy. Attempts were made to organize a reprisal boycott of the peasants against the Jewish merchants but it failed, and finally the “Sokol” was forced to publicly apologise to the “Beit Yehuda” center and undertake to maintain fair and acceptable relations in the future. (It should be noted that this affair occurred in the 1930. Had it happened later on, when anti-semitism increased and became more violent, things would have developed far otherwise.)

My family left Brzozow at the end of 1930 and, up to the breaking out of the 2nd World War, I was there only twice to attend the elections for the Zionist Congresses.

I was to meet Prof. Korn once more after the Germans invaded Poland, during the flight eastward, in Lvov. He, too, was killed in the Holocaust, like most of the Jews of Brzozow.

Many years later I met a few survivors from Brzozow in Israel and they gave me the details of the annihilation of our small, ill-starred congregation.

A few years ago, before diplomatic relations were broken off between Poland and Israel, I received a letter from a gentile friend of mine with whom I had studied and become close during our high school years. Having learnt that I was in Israel he had managed to get my address, wanting to renew our personal ties. From our correspondence it transpired that during the war he had joined the Polish underground against the Nazis in the vicinity of Brzozow. One of his letters contained two photographs of Jews there during the Holocaust, taken by the underground to serve as evidence of what the Nazis had done to the Jews.

These photographs showed desolate faces and miserable, broken-down figures. He promised to send more, but in the meantime our contact was cut off. Sometime later I chanced to meet a young woman, a gentile from Brzozow now living in England. She was visiting one of my friends in Israel and told me that the town had developed greatly, becoming an industrial center. She knew nothing of the Jews of Brzozow. The inhabitants of the town had forgotten them completely, as if they had never existed.

 

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