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[Pages 31– 39]

The last Kaddish

brz031a.jpg - Yehiel Erlich

by Yehiel Erlich (Kfar Saba)

Translated by Renee Miller

Edited by Fay Bussgang

Whosoever was once of the opinion – and some are still today – that no great Jews of stature ever came from Brzezin, he is mistaken. Historical facts will show that the opposite of this is true.

In the year 1768, approximately, when Gonta, the successor to Chmielnicki, had destroyed entire Jewish communities in the Ukraine with his murderous army, the Belter [Belzer?] rov [official town rabbi] Reb [title of respect] Jozef Jehuda Szpiro, with his four children, was rescued from the butchers, and one of the four sons, Reb Fiszele Szpiro, was brought up in our shtetl Brzezin.

Reb Fiszele married Laja, the daughter of a rich wine merchant in Brzezin. He received kest [room and board given as part of marriage agreement] from his father-in-law for a few years.

Reb Fiszele devoted himself to Torah during his kest years. He was one of the founders of the Hasidic movement. The Hasid Abraham, the old Tchekhanover [Ciechanow] rebbe [Hasidic rabbi], and also Reb Levi Yitzhok of Berdichev, the saintly Levi, Reb Henoch of Aleksandrow, and the rebbe Reb Bunim of Pshischa [Przysucha] were his Hasidim. The great virtue of love of the Jewish people that was found in Reb Levi Yitzhok of Berdichev he derived from Reb Fiszele Szpiro, who later moved to the nearby town of Strykow twenty kilometers from Brzezin. Reb Abraham from Ciechanow also traveled to rebbe Reb Fiszele Szpiro (Hevrit Os [Hebrew Encyclopedia]). The rebbe Reb Fiszele Szpiro was crowned the Rebbe ben Yokhai [founder of Cabala] of his generation. He never understood how one could sacrifice eternal life for material pleasure.

Legend tells us that after he had kest for a few years, his wife, the rich wine merchant's daughter, began to demand that he make a living. Reb Fiszele was so steeped in the Hasidic movement and Cabala that he was not at all able to understand that such a thing existed in life. Every time she demanded that he earn a living, he told her that it would all be fine…God would help. Once coming from the besmedresh [house of prayer], he noticed a Jew selling bagels. He asked the Jew how he was making a living. He went home delighted and told his wife, the rich wine merchant's daughter, that she should stand in the street and sell bagels – then she would make a living. One can imagine what kind of impression that made on his wife and what kind of day of material pleasure he had.

A powerful mystery of our town also has to be explained – Where did the tomb in the Brzezin cemetery of Reb Szymon bal Rakhmones [man of mercy], the father of Reb Yitzhok of Warka, come from? It is possible that he also was one of Reb Fiszele Szpiro's Hasids, as he remained in Brzezin and died in Brzezin? Incidentally, it is worthwhile to remember that after the tragic destruction of Brzezin, whereas Hitler's beasts defiled the Brzezin cemetery, the grave of Reb Szymon bal Rakhmones was the only grave that they could not tear apart; until today the grave of Reb Szymon bal Rakhmones remains untouched.

 

brz031b.jpg - At the grave of Reb Szymon bal Rakhmones
At the grave of Reb Szymon bal Rakhmones
the only tomb that remains in the old Brzeziner cemetery

 

Rebbe Reb Fiszele's children and grandchildren remained in Brzezin – a large family with many branches. They lived in Brzezin until the tragic end.

The only son of Reb Fiszele, Reb Jankel Szpiro, lived his entire life in Brzezin in Nowe Miasto [New Town]. Like his father, he was completely devoted to God. The shtetl called him Jankele Reb Fiszele's [i.e., Jankele, son of Reb Fiszele]. Reb Jankel had two sons in Brzezin – Reb Mojsze and Reb Szymon Jozef. All his life Reb Mojsze was a devoted worker for the community, a leader in the town. As early as those years he managed a large business in partnership with his father, Reb Jankele. Reb Jankele devoted himself to Torah and the Hasidic movement, and Reb Mojsze managed the business. He would take the goods that the first Germans who had settled in Brzezin had manufactured. Then he would sell them to Warsaw. Reb Jankele himself did not want to carry out any of the offices of rabbi, and all his life he spent in fasts. Reb Mojsze's brother, Reb Szymon Jozef, was also devoted completely to God, like his father, Reb Jankele, and was not concerned with material pleasure.

The Froman families in Brzezin and the Erlich Family came from Reb Mojsze; from Reb Szymon Jozef came the Holcberg families. Reb Aron, father of Hillel, the shames [synagogue caretaker], was Reb Szymon Jozef's son-in-law. Reb Abraham Froman, whom the town called Reb Abraham Warszawer [man from Warsaw], the father of Reb Icek Froman and Malka Chana Erlich, was Reb Mojsze's son-in-law.

When the first German Futerliebs and Ninenbergs immigrated from Germany, they also settled in Nowe Miasto. Because of the language they could not communicate with any of their Polish neighbors, only with Jews. Therefore, they had to approach Jewish merchants to sell their wares, since they could easily talk together with them. Living in Nowe Miasto, Reb Mojsze Szpiro therefore became the main recipient of German merchandise.

In those days they took Jews as soldiers for Nicholas I, and they had to serve twenty-five years. Reb Mojsze at that time freed as many Jews as he could from the “prisutstvie” [recruitment office].

The old Reb Chaim Icek, Jacob Berg's father, once told me that as he was facing the drawing of lots, everyone at the recruitment office positively wanted to pull him into the Russian Army for twenty-five years. In those years this was simply to ruin your life. Reb Mojsze stood up and as a protest wanted to leave the meeting, because they did not want to free Reb Chaim Icek, the Hasid from Warka. They soon all agreed with Reb Mojsze, and that is how Reb Chaim Icek had a narrow escape.

Reb Mojsze had several daughters, for whom he made world-class shidukhim [matches]. Reb Azriel Lewi, the old Strykover rov, was a son-in-law; Reb Abraham Froman was a second son-in-law. Reb Syna Sapir, the Brzeziner rov, was also a son-in-law. Just as Reb Icek Froman was devoted to the community in Brzezin all his life, so also was Reb Jankel Lewi a leader in Lodz and devoted to his community all his life. Reb Issachar Lewi's children were all askonim [workers for the community], leaders in society, and distinguished Jews, scholarly Hasidic Jews, until the tragic downfall.

Reb Lajbele Zychlinski, an old, handsome Brzeziner leading figure, once told the story that at the same time that Reb Syna Sapir, z”l [may his memory be blessed], became a widower, Elke, the rebetsn [rabbi's wife] of Reb Azriel Halewi, the Strykover rov, also became a widow. After a time, Reb Syna sent matchmakers to Elke, the rebetsn, daughter of Reb Mojsze Szpiro, to say that he wanted to take her for his wife. Reb Azriel was a Kotzker [from Kock] Hasid, Reb Syna was a misnaged [opponent of Hasidism], and therefore the widow would not agree. Reb Syna called the top leaders of the town, and among them the teller of this story, to consult with them, and he also asked Elke, “Elke, why don't you want me?” – of course, Elke could not decline and accepted.

In his time Reb Syna was one of the greatest and most renown of the group of rabbis in Russia and Poland. The other two were Reb Yitzhok Elchonon Spektor, the Kovner [Kowno] rov, and Reb Eliahu Chaim Meisel, the Lodzer rov. Reb Syna must certainly have been a great personality, since the Brzeziner Jews had taken him, a misnaged, many years earlier as their rabbi. The entire kehile [Jewish community] in Brzezin was, at that time, in the hands of the Hasidim, Vorker [Warka] and Kotzker Hasidim. When one leafs a bit through Reb Syna's books, one immediately sees his greatness.

I would have to take up too much space if I were to include excerpts from our contemporary grandfathers and great-grandfathers on his moralizing. Merely that in the Parshe [Torah section] from Shabbos Hagodl [Shabbos before Pesach], he would say with unquestioning faith in God, “Have you already taken care of the true Jews, that they should have what they need for Pesach? Oy, my shtetl Brzezin, we lock the doors and then we call out, 'All who are hungry come and eat.'”

I did not know Reb Syna. He died more than ninety years ago. But I knew his grave that was destroyed together with the entire Brzezin cemetery. Reb Syna's gravestone in the Brzeziner cemetery was an oyel [tomb]; half-round, it had on the top a four-cornered opening for placing kvitlekh [notes of supplication]. They used to pray, and the broken-spirited shed tears.

When Reb Syna died, all the Brzeziner leaders who had sons born that year gave them the name Syna. I will list all the Synas I can recall – Syna Sapir, Eliezer Melekh's son; Reb Syna's grandchild, Syna Mojsze Kopels; Syna Szeps, Reb Eliezer Szep's grandchild; Syna Reb Hersz Krauze; Syna the little Koyrekh's son; Syna Zychlinski; Reb Lajbl's son, Syna Kliankets [Bliankets?]; Syna the Koliviziner's son with the little rings; Syna Reb Icie Ber Dymant's son; Syna, Eliezer Map's brother; and Syna Herszel Bercholc.

This is the way the Brzeziner leaders showed their respect to the memory of their rov so that he would not be forgotten.

Reb Szymon Jozef Szpiro took as a son-in-law for his daughter Perla, Reb Aron, the shoykhet [ritual slaughterer] in Brzezin. From him developed the great family Holcberg. A sister of Fiszel Holcberg, Laja, married the Zychliner shoykhet, Reb Mendel Majer Rozenblum. One of their sisters married Berl Blat, the shoykhet from Kalisz, Mene the nafta [kerosene] dealer's [son]. From all these branched out great families. A son of Reb Berl, Mojsze Blat, was killed in Israel in the fight with the Arabs during the time of the English-mandate government. Perla, e”h [may she rest in peace], was the second wife of Reb Aron, the shoykhet. Reb Hillel, the shames, Reb Jojne, and Szyfra, the iron merchant – Aaron Fogel's grandmother – were from the first wife. Many victims of the destruction came from these families.

Reb Mendel Majer Rozenblum, the Zychliner shoykhet, Perla's older son-in-law, was a great scholar and a leader of Mizrachi [religious Zionist organization]. At that time, because of this, he was greatly persecuted until he left Zychlin to go to Israel. Reb Mojsze Kalmas, member of the Knesset, was a pupil of Reb Fiszele Szpiro – or as Reb Fiszele from Strykow was called – “the Rov.

Rabbi Abraham Joszua Borensztajn in Brzezin was, at the same time, well-known among brilliant men in Poland and the author of Sanhedrin Ktane [minor religious court].He was moyre tsedek [a guide to justice] in Brzezin. His son, Reb Zalman Jekutiel, occupied the chair of the rabbinate in Brzezin after Rabbi Reb Israel Dwarter.


I remember the small building that stood in the marketplace. It was Jozef Aszer's little building. Later, in the same place stood Mordechai Ikka's large building. The small building is so engraved in my memory because the Aleksander shtibl [house of prayer of Hasids from Aleksander] was there. Reb Szlama Icek, whom the town called the lomer [lame] Szlama, his small store was also in that little building. Reb Szlama, like his father, Reb Icek, was from the esteemed Kotzker Hasidim – a handsome Jew with a stately appearance. The town leaders would buy from him in order that Reb Szlama would be able to support his son-in-law, so he could study. They all came from Brzeziners devoted to piety. His two even peos [side locks] added charm to his beautiful Hasidic face. From birth, one foot was a little shorter that the other.

I spent most of my childhood years in the Aleksander shtibl located in the courtyard. There, Hasidim sat until twelve o'clock and often actually all day. Devoted to Torah prayers, they took meals and drink there. Aleksander Hasidim were famous for that.

Everyone contributed a groszen (coin) or two. Reb Danielekhl Pajczer, a small, charming yidele [Jew, diminutive], used to gather the groszen with great eagerness – it was the estimated cost of a small flask – and he ran quickly to the Russian liquor monopoly that was located at the tavern in Optek-Gas [Pharmacy Street]. Cutting a herring into fifteen pieces, Reb Danielekhl, the continuous provider of alcoholic drinks for the Aleksander shtibl, gave everyone a very small amount of drink and herring, and the exchanging of good wishes with one another began.

A long time ago, Brzeziner Jews contributed, despite their considerable poverty, to build a temple synagogue building with a magnificent appearance. The synagogue was an exception among hundreds of synagogues in Poland. A rich woman by the name of Perla, the widow of Mojsze-Zajdl Goldberg, contributed several thousand rubles at that time for the Holy Ark. Indeed, it was artistically carved with all the musicians from the Temple in Jerusalem and with an eagle [Polish national symbol]. And how artistically the eastern wall of the synagogue [where the most highly privileged sat] was carved! The fiddlers and all the other music makers made an unforgettable impression.

There was an old Jew in the town, Reb Chaim-Lajbele Kotsker. An Aleksander Hasid, he used to come summer and winter to daven [pray] in shul [synagogue]. All alone he used to move about in the great synagogue, praying out loud, using the Aleksander intonation, as I, from outside, would always listen to his sweet prayers. Reb Chaim-Lajbele's prayers still ring in my ears today.

In the small Orthodox synagogue were to be found prayer books, copies of the Talmud, and post-Talmudic commentaries – on tables made from thick wood so they could survive the hefty Rambam's Mishneh Torah that diligent people over generations had used to study from and sing from in chorus.

Hard working artisans also prayed in the besmedresh – tailors, shoemakers, butchers, water carriers, turners [of lathes], and bread bakers. The besmedresh was fuller in wintertime, because a very hot fire was kept burning. Early Shabbos morning Szmytke, the Shabbos-goy [non-Jew who could work on Shabbos], used to light the two large stoves. At the crack of dawn on Shabbos the Book of Psalms readers already had hot tea, and therefore, in winter, they used to sit there more than in the synagogue.

In addition to the besmedresh, there were also scholarly Jews, handsome Jews, in separate small Hasidic houses of prayer, such as the Ger shtibl, the Aleksander shtibl, the Ostrowiec, the Grodzisk, the Skierniewice, the Rozprza. In addition, there were various khevres [societies] – Khevre Tilim [Society for the Reading of the Book of Psalms], Khevre Eyn-Yankev [“Jacob's Spring” Society], Khevre Kadishe [Burial Society], Khevre Lines Hatsedek [Society to Care for the Sick], and Khevre Kheytim [Tailors' Society].

The Hasidic shtiblekh [small shtibls] were almost overflowing with young kest-eser [young men supported by in-laws], and the Torah roused them from a quiet provincial life. They were not satisfied only with Torah study; they were always concerned about the poor Hasidim of the shtibl.

The shtibl used to furnish dowries and trousseaus for young women, also pay wedding expenses. The entire burden of an impoverished comrade fell upon the shtibl. Everything was done without noise, without commotion, with charity given anonymously, so as not to shame the recipient.

The besmedresh bokhoyrim [prayer house young men], the kest-eser, became well-known scholars. I still remember from my time Reb Abraham Icek Gutkind, Reb Nachman Gutkind's brother, whom the Brzeziner rov, Reb Israel Dwarter, took for a son-in-law. Later he became the Brzeziner rabbi who could answer religious questions and the author of books on pilpul [subtle argumentation on Talmudic texts]. Yekl [see below] Rozen, Yekl Tyla Aba Hersz's – as they called him – was a great scholar, with a name known throughout all Poland.

Reb Szlama Szufleder became renowned among the rabbis in Lodz as one of the best Lodz arbitrators.

As for the small Jankele Zadow's [son], his brother, Berl, later became a khasen-shoykhet [cantor-ritual slaughterer] in America.

Reb Szlama Holcberg, Szmuel Hillel's son, became known in Warsaw as a great child prodigy. Reb Mordechai Kochman, Reb Mojszele Tornhajm, and other great scholars also became well known.

Also several distinguished maskilim [adherents of Enlightenment/Haskalah] came from the besmedresh, such as Reb Chaim Icek Grynfeld, Reb Nachman Gutkind, Reb Szymele Krongrad, as well as Reb Herszel Lajchman, who helped spread the concept of Mizrachi.

* * *
There were Jews to whom the town gave various nicknames. As we know, almost all the small shtetlekh had this custom.

There was a Jew, Reb Mojsze Rozenberg, who while he was looking at something would wrinkle the eyebrow of one eye – therefore, the town gave him the name “kuker” [looker]. If you did not mention the word kuker, only his family name, no one knew who you meant. Reb Mojszele Kuker – that's what he was called. His brother, a good man, a tailor, was missing an eye; all his life he was called the blind Michal. Even the children inherited the parents' nicknames. They were called Josel, the blind Michal's son, or Icie Mojszele Kuker's, Mojsze Hon Dark Hana's, or son of Icie Ber the Nosher.

Icie Ber was a handsome man of stature, a well-to-do person. He used to deal in horses. During business he used to drink liquor and nibble on a piece of roast meat – so they called him Natchel [nibbler/nosher]. There was another handsome town leader with a spirited business head – Reb Michal-Lajb Bernholc's son, Herszel. If they did not say Herszel Shokher [chess player], no one knew whom you meant. They even called the children Herszel Shokher's or Reb Michal-Lajb Herszel Shokher's.

Reb Jehezkiel Rhoda Laja's [son] Najman once had a tavern in the center of the marketplace. Therefore, he was called: Reb Jehezkiel Shenker [shenk = tavern].

Mordechai Leczycki [Wenchitsky], a friend of mine, liked a shtikl [piece] of fish. Shtikl became Pikl and Pikl became Pakel. That is exactly what they called him – Mordechai Pakel. Reb Mojsze Yak's father, Reb Mendel, came from Germany, that is, he was a yekl [German Jew], and so all his life they actually called his son Mojsze Yak.

Reb Herszel Rozen, a handsome man of stature, was, for that time, very rich – they called him Herszel Korekh [a rich man in the Tanakh/Old Testament]. All his children and even his grandchildren inherited that name while he was still alive.

Reb Szymon Nowak was never called anything but Szymon Kolabik. Why…I don't know.

All those Jews with such not entirely nice names could, however, perform good deeds when Russian Cossacks were fighting with Jews – the strong, young Jews of that time, one of whom was Jankele, the Blind Kokis. He made a stand against the rioters and struck one of them in the face with a brick, knocking out an eye. The rest of the Cossacks were frightened and ran away.

With a small Jewish hat on the top of his head, Towie Haljas, Szlama Gelb's brother, once, when the Polish recruits wanted to make merry in Brzezin and began to pick quarrels with Jews, risked his life and got even with one of them by himself. From that time on it was quiet, and the Goyishe [non-Jewish] recruits no longer wandered about bothering Jews.


Brzezin also had a poorhouse. Brzeziner Jews took care of the poor vagabonds who used to wander over Poland's roads. At that time they used to be called “medine-geyers” [poor wandering men]. For those Jews there were several huts fixed up with berths for them to sleep in at night in Hercke Katsev's [the butcher's] courtyard. By day, the Talmetoyre [Jewish elementary school] for poor children of the town was there, with a permanent paid teacher. Reb David Melamed [teacher] taught these poor Brzeziner children.

On Shabbos hundreds of guests used to come to the shul, the besmedresh, and the Hasidim shtiblekh. The gaboim [wardens of the synagogue] would put them up at the homes of Brzeziner Jews to eat on Shabbos. In a number of homes two to three guests would sit at the tables set for Shabbos…many did not feel comfortable at dinner if they did not have any guests. They all had a place in the poorhouse. Therefore, they made up the saying – “kest [board] in homes and dire [room] in the poorhouse.”

In addition to the poor guests, messengers from yeshivas and ordinary preachers also used to come to Brzezin. All guests used to leave the town pleased, with a few groszen in their pockets that the Brzeziner Jews gave them.

The Khevre Khayotim [Tailors' Society] used to sew shrouds for the dead. Khevre Tilim used to recite Psalms for them. Reb Abraham Gips, e”h, was the rebbe for the Khevre Tilim and used to deliver sermons for people.

In Brzezin melamdes [teaching] was also an occupation among others. We had dardeke-melamdim [teachers of the youngest], who used to study with the little children beginning with alef-bes [the alphabet] and ending with Chumash un Rashi [Torah and Rashi commentaries], and Gemore melamdim [teachers of commentaries on the Mishneh], beginning with Shas [the Talmud] and Poskim [post-Talmudic commentaries] and ending with the Hoyroe Rabones [rabbinic learning at the level of rabbi], the time to learn by oneself in the besmedresh.

My first rebbe was Reb Jankele Melamed. He was called the blind Jankele because he always kept one eye closed. He was a small charming yidele with a big wooden pointer. His assistant (belfer) at that time was Reb Jankel Rochwerg. Reb Jankele had also been my mother's rebbe. It seems that Reb Jankele was not a perfectionist or an angry person, because if he had been, he would not have lasted so long in the teaching profession.

Just as the artisans were not able to support a family from their trade alone, so also the teachers did not make a living solely from teaching. They had to have a side line. Therefore, the rebetsn Libele had to sell a few vegetables. She used to stand in the market with her little stall – with parsley, small carrots, and potatoes.

Wintertime, during the great frosts, the rebetsn Libele used to make a fire in a fire pot. When the rebetsn put coals into the iron cooking pot, before they began to burn, the entire kheder [school] would fill with smoke. We children helped the rebetsn blow into the fire pot so that it would burn quickly.

Therefore, when dusk came on Thursday, when the rebetsn used to peel the frozen, small field apples for tsimmes [stewed fruits and/or vegetables] for Shabbos, we children used to sit around, and the rebetsn would divide the parings among the children. We used to nibble the little frozen pieces. If a thicker piece of paring came her way, she used to give it to me, since I was the best blower into the fire pot.

Besides Reb Jankele, e”h, there were other teachers – Reb Abraham Mojsze, Reb Eliezer, Reb Szlama Peretz. Then there were the Chumash-Rashi teachers – Reb Pinchus (we called him Pinyele) and the Glovner [from Glowno] teacher. Both of them lived in Dwojra-Laja's building behind the besmedresh. I began studying Chumash-Rashi with Pinyele. The rebbe used to beat us children without mercy. We used to quake if he just looked at us. Then there were Reb Nehemiah, whom we called the Zvorny [Russian], Reb Szmuel Mojsze, the Radzyner teacher, Reb Judel Soyfer's [the scribe's] son-in-law, who was already a Gemore teacher, and the Skierniewice teacher. I studied with all of these. The last one lived at the home of Reb Lajbel Shenker in the garret room. I also remember Reb Melamed Josip and Reb Chaim-Mojsze.

 

brz035.jpg - A kheder
A kheder
the rebbe and his students, photographed by the art
photographer, A. (Alter) Kacyzna, for the New York
Forverts [Forward]. The photo was taken in Brzezin

 

My last teacher was Reb Chaim Mojsze – a little sallow, with a pallid face, and with two long side curls. He was a God-fearing Jew, a great scholar. He was a sub-tenant of Reb Gecel, the matse-shmure [strictly supervised matzo] dealer, who lived in the building of Majerke Szuster in Nowe Miasto, opposite Reb Icek Froman.

Reb Chaim Mojsze, my last rebbe, used to go to Rabbi Israel Dwarter to chat and to study. Meanwhile, we, the already grown children, used to help shake the large sieve that was held up by two sticks over stools. That is how the matzo meal was sifted. Just as we used to get black faces at Reb Jankele's from the smoke from his wife's fire pot, so we also used to become white as millers at Reb Gecele's from sifting the meal. Only six students studied with Reb Chaim Mojsze Melamed – Israelik Perlmuter, Jankel Strzyzewski, Eliezer Ledershniter's [leather cutter's] son, Elimelech Jehezkiel Rhoda Laja's, I, and one other whose name I do not recall.

Besides the teachers there were scribes, calligraphers, seyfrim-stam – scribes who wrote Torahs, tfillin [philacteries], and mezuzahs [miniature torahs affixed to doorposts] – Reb Judah Soyfer [scribe], Reb Dawidl Soyfer, Reb Jozef Soyfer, the hoarse Reb Jeszaja's son, Reb Benjamin Jozef, Machles' son-in-law. The seyfrim-stam also could not manage with their earnings and had to find another source of income. So I remember that Reb Judah Soyfer, e”h, all his life engraved matseyves [gravestones].

Reb Dawidl's wife carried around raisin wine for making Kiddush [benediction over wine] from home to home.

The unfortunate wife of Reb Jozef (the hoarse Reb Jeszaja's son) could not work, so he had to go somewhat hungry a fair amount of the time.


In our town, we had goyim who could speak Yiddish very well. They pass by now in my memory.

I remember the brothers Chroziemski, one, a shoemaker and the second, a bricklayer with a beard who always served as a fireman in addition to his bricklaying work.

Roman, the mail carrier, also used to speak Yiddish and was considered a friend of the Jews. He used to stuff himself with Jewish fish and fill his pocketbook with Jewish money. The Jews always gave him gifts; if not, their incoming letters would have become moldy…that is how the Brzeziner mail seemed at that time. He called every Jew “Rebbe.” “Rebbe Reb Jankel, I have a nice little letter for you,” he used to say. He knew for a nice little letter he would surely see a nice little coin.

We had in town a tall Polak [Pole] with a black beard – the chief of the first fire department in Brzezin – named Aksler. He spoke a good Yiddish.

There was another, a short, thin Russian, a plain policeman in the Russian police of that time in Brzezin; Pieczana was his name, with a long two-pronged mustache and sharp jaws. He was a small person. His smallness was offset by how stiff and erect he always appeared. In his time he instilled terror in all Brzeziner inhabitants. He wore epaulets, as all the Russian police did, of twisted red thread like Faygele's little braids (the sister of Iciele Midlak). On the twisted red threads, three brass rings were drawn up, like tailor's thimbles, so that the rings would add Russian police charm. This Pieczana, like Aksler, spoke Yiddish, ate fish at respectable businessmen's, and filled his purse with money from Brzeziner Jews. He was a partner in all large and small thefts. After almost every successful theft, Pieczana would search at the home of the honest businessmen, the rabbi, the bathhouse attendant, the shoykhet, and even the sacred priest (only at the real thieves' did he not search). He even hauled them off to jail. He would make noise that he would uncover the theft. He would also search at Bobes' the gravedigger's, or at Elija Mojsze's, the gravedigger's assistant, whom the town called Elija Koyke (berth). But he did not search at the homes of the real thieves.

I remember that when Bobes and his assistant, Elija Koyke, would just appear in the market square, Brzeziner Jews would begin to cry, not yet knowing who had died. Elija Mojsze's income was not only from victims. He used to go every Thursday door to door begging for groszen. Often Pieczana's partners had a hiding place with him.

When the freedom movement began in our town, Pieczana took revenge on the leaders. His name remained infamous among all Brzeziner Jews and Christians.

I remember once when a meeting of artisans took place in the besmedresh in Brzezin. While the speaker stood on the platform and was making a blazing fiery speech about the oppressors of the freedom fight, one of those present suddenly cried out, “Pieczana is coming!” The people began to jump out of the windows. Such terror Pieczana instilled over all Brzezin.


When tailoring had fully developed in Brzezin, the town got a whole new look. The narrow provinciality began to disappear. They got big city desires. Counting houses opened where merchandise was handled as in the great cities in faraway places.

A Russian Jew by the name of Gracz opened the first counting house. He had a large-wheeled wagon with a nice white horse that would go around all day gathering purchased goods to take to his counting house on Rogover Street. The merchandise was packed in cases. One began to see Reb Icek Tuszynski's wagons loaded with cases of goods on the cobblestone-paved streets, as Emanuel Dymant's wagons were also. They used to travel to the railroad stations in Rogow and Koluszki. From there the merchandise was shipped away to all corners of Russia. Magazines [small clothing factories] multiplied from day to day. New businesses arose, such as tailoring-accessories, button dealers, and katazir [fabric finishing] factories, and new ways of earning a living began, such as producing cotton-padding and making buttonholes. The biggest magazine owners were Mojsze Aron Szotenberg, Reb Emanuel Zygmuntowicz, Reb Peretz Jakubowicz with his children, Reb Chaim Ber Dymant with his children, Reb Emanuel Grosman, Roman Winter, Reb Lajbus-Mendel Winter, Majer Dymant with his children, Reb Herszel Korekh, Reb Jankiel Herszberg, Reb Lajbl Gotlib, Reb Jechiel Mojsze Gotlib, and Reb Szymon Gotlib.

The first accessories dealers were Reb Hersz Mendel Pinczewski, Reb Nachman Gutkind, Reb Szymon Krongrad, Reb Eliezer Apelson, and others.

Reb Icie-Majer Berger had established, in partnership with Mojsze Pinkus Zelig, a katazir factory, as had Reb Aron Aszer's Szymonowicz with Reb Dawid Mendel Michrowski. Reb Aron Aszer's and Reb Dawid Mendel made their katazir factory in the basement apartment of Reb Aszer'l Groman's building that stood in the marketplace, corner of Synagogue Lane. The katazir factories used to steam-press [for shrinkage control] the Bialystok, Zgierz, and Tomaszow fabric from which were sewn suits, pants, and vests. By day and by night the foul odor was carried out with the katazir steam from their small factories.

Tomaszow and Bialystok factories delivered hundreds of bolts of fabric to Brzezin. All this passed through their small factories.

Ten small factories for cotton padding were established and about twenty buttonhole making establishments. The development of the tailoring trade grew from day to day. Day and night the banging of the sewing machines was heard. A specific rattling drifted from the buttonhole sewing machines. The neighbors who lived next door to them were not to be envied, and they themselves were also not so happy.

At that time no one knew anything about a noontime break. Only that you ate quickly and sewed again. At that time, the workers were seriously exploited. Therefore the Bund [Socialist Workers' Party] found a broad opportunity for their activities when it appeared on the Brzeziner horizon.

The freedom movement in Brzezin had nothing to be ashamed of. At that time we already had worker leaders who were aware of their status, such as Jankel Staszewer, the blind Chune, and the hunchback, who the town said could speak seven languages. About the blind Chune, they also said that he was the leader of the bojowka [fighting squad].

At that time, the liquidation of the voyle yungen [tough youth] began in town. I still remember the names of some of them – Fiszele Wike, Abrahamele Bobes, Dawid Wald, Aron Brilliant, Jeszaja Lerer, Eliezer Moyfes [magical sign], Szymon Katsev [butcher], Jozef Budnik, Eliezer Paker, Majer Bunim Szpicer. Most of them were born in Brzezin.

When new young people arrived in town, they had to give “aynkoyf-gelt” [an initiation fee], that is what the law [custom] was…Reb Szymon Krawiecki's wife, Chana Chaja, had a beer tavern, and indeed at her place, they did this by drinking “lechayim” [to life] and afterwards eating a piece of roasted goose. This lasted until the freedom movement took on real character. All these voyle yungen later became fine, respectable, important, and esteemed men of stature in the town – with the exception of one of the last voyle yungen who did not part with his tough guy behavior until the liquidation of the Jews by the Nazis.

A group of apprentices in town were known for their carryings-on at weddings. I still remember the preparations for a Jewish wedding in town, which began weeks ahead. All of Brzezin also prepared. Reb Fajwel Majer was giving in marriage…Reb Kalman Hoyker [the hunchback] was giving in marriage … Reb Hersz Icie was giving in marriage. If Kalman Hoyker's son was getting married, or Tamar, Hersz Icie's daughter, was getting married, or Frajde, Szlama the Hasid's daughter, was getting married…they kholile [God forbid!] never spoke of it. It was only said that Papa and Mama were marrying off [their child].

And now, especially, the klezmorim [musicians] – Jankele Kordelas, who once played for the Polish Uprising in 1863, Reb Mojsze with his little fiddle, Fiszel with the trumpet, Wachler, Nehemia's uncle, with the big bass fiddle.

They prepared doubly. I can see the beautiful besmedresh bokhoyrim walking alongside the khosen [groom], the groom standing in front of the khupe [wedding canopy], the reception for the groom by the finest leaders of the town dressed in Shabosdike [fit for the Sabbath] velvet caps, with satin and silk caftans. They are seated at long tables covered with gleaming white table cloths, decorated with silver candlesticks holding large flickering candles. The smoke of the shared cigarettes given by the groom, with the scent of Aquavit and fresh cake, fill the rooms where the recliners sit – a little tired, with their heads resting on the side, after the drinking and smoking.

The interpretation of some passage by the groom, an exhibition by the jester, his calling out, “Groom, today is your Day of Judgment!” The way the groom puts on the kitl [white robe worn during the ceremony], puts a pocket handkerchief to his eyes. He remembers the yom hamise [day of death]…he wipes off the tears with his cloth. “To remember!” cries out the jester. Then the bringing to the khupe.

Most often it was at the shul. Half a town of Jews awaited the khupe – young, old – wanting to see the way the groom cried, the way the bride walked, the way they stood under the khupe. A trifle? A khupe, a khasene [wedding]…

After the holy prayer, after the singing of the cantor, after Aron the shames's carrying-on, the klezmorim used to strike up a cheerful tune. Only then began childish antics of the apprentices, who inherited the mischievousness of the former voyle yungen.

They used to smear their caps in the bake ovens of Zisman Beker [baker] or Smoluch Beker. Later, full of soot, they used to smear the faces of other girls and boys. Only then did the real merrymaking begin. They began to pelt each other with pebbles and lime. I still remember at Kalman Hoykers child's wedding in the courtyard, Elija Leczycki, the sallow Icie-Majer's son, was hit by a piece of lime in his eye and became blind forever after.


The rapid development of the tailoring industry in Brzezin brought about a great change in the entire small-town appearance of Brzezin. The glory of the esteemed custom tailor – such as Reb Josel Rogodzinski (Reb Josel Warszawer [from Warsaw]), Reb Jehezkiel Szmuel Bendkower [from Bedkow] Blianket, his brother Syna Blianket, and the brothers Sosek – was diminished, and also that of the slightly less important ones – Reb Jerachmiel Tuszynski, Shirhamayles, and others. While it may have taken them a week to sew up a suit or a short jacket, people wore them so long that the fabric fell apart, but their workmanship remained.

 

brz038.jpg - The fence around the Brzezin cemetery that the hooligans destroyed
The fence around the Brzezin cemetery that the hooligans destroyed

 

The modern tailors had the work done in one day. Their speed made the Brzeziner entrepreneur capable of competing with many other manufacturing places in Poland and in Russia. But the custom tailors lost their means of making a living. Those who had no earnings on the side could not manage just on their hard work.

Josel Rogodzinski fell into the same situation – or as we called him, Josel Warszawer, a Jew, not a tall one, with a bit of a stomach and a graying beard combed into two points, similar to a Russian general. His clients, the Russian bureaucrats, permitted Reb Josele to sew their custom-made uniforms. Therefore Reb Josel was quite well acquainted with the Brzeziner district chief, Bazilewski, since Bazilewski, a former colonel, was also one of Josele's frequent clients. When Jewish tates [fathers] found themselves in trouble – a son was about to be conscripted by the Russians – Reb Josel was the only big angel with Bazilewski. Reb Mojsze Aron Szotenberg, the town millionaire, the “champion” of the modern tailoring industry, was taking lessons from Reb Josele.

Since I recalled the name Bazilewski, I will also recall Chana Golda, wife of Reb Abraham Pesach, the gabe [treasurer] of the Khevre Kdishe [Burial Society]. She was the daughter of Reb Fiszel Shoykhet and the sister of Reb Lajbele Zychlinski. Since Reb Abraham Pesakh had a nice haberdashery, and he himself had no time for the business – since he had to sit in his shtibl and practice Hasidism and bury the dead – his wife, Chana Golda, was the merchant. The wife of Bazilewski needed everything, and she was a customer of Chana Golda. That is how she became acquainted with her husband. Reb Abraham Jubiler also used to prevail upon Bazilewski for everything.

At that time the woman Tyla from the dry goods store was a respected woman. As I already said, the Bazilewskis were customers for everything, so they also bought from Tyla. So Tyla actually came to the rescue in an urgent situation.

Reb Jerachmiel Tuszynski was a custom tailor. He used to do alterations, that is, make something from an old garment, from an older brother's garment, for a younger one. The important Parisian artist, the painter Tuszynski, was a son of the deaf Icek, Reb Jerachmiel Tuszynski's grandchild, who was born in Brzezin.

Another well-known tailor with the name Shirhamayles was very popular in Brzezin. They called him by this nickname because he was truly similar to the other psalm reciter. Shirhamayles was a God-fearing Jew. When he was short two or three day's work in a week, he finished it up with reciting psalms. That's why the town called him Shirhamayles.


There also were other miserable ways of making a living, occupations such as wagon drivers, water carriers, used clothing dealers, shoemakers, wagon drivers to Lodz, day laborers, and porters who would shlep [drag/carry] large packages bound one to the other with thick rope. For this type of shlepping the porters used to earn enough to buy themselves a portion of herring for a groszen from Etja, the herring dealer in Court Street. It also seemed that Reb Fajwel Wyrobnik's [worker's] son, for dragging two youngsters to kheder, used to get enough to buy himself a portion of cheese from Dark Hana, for a groszen, and a rogalik [crescent-shaped roll], for one and a half groszen.

Dark Hana, also a Brzeziner merchant of that time, used to stand with her store near Lajbele Hendrykowski's beer tavern. Her “store” consisted of a basket of baked goods – rolls, kaiser rolls, bagels, and rogalki. On the basket lay a board and on the board, cut portions of cheese, a groszen a portion.

The water carriers, with Jankele Brasz, used to carry two pails of water, hanging on strong oak rods strengthened with iron, cut out in the center for the carrier's neck. For ten pails of water they would get ten groszen of pocket money. The pails with the rods were so strongly made that they remained an inheritance for children and grandchildren, since the water carriers had no other inheritance to leave but the pails, just as the porter had his rope.

The earnings of the wagon drivers came to a bit more. They used to take the town merchant – on top of fully-packed wagons – to purchase goods in Lodz. On the way back on the Riser Road, with packed merchandise, they used to pile on passengers, and for three hours dragged themselves home that way. The Lodz wagon drivers were Reb Abraham Mojsze Tshes, Reb Icek Maszes, Mendel Zomb's brother-in-law, Zelik Reb Icek Maszes's, Reb Joel Majer Beker's, Reb Lajb Israel Kashemakher's [kasha maker] Make, Reb Icek Nuta's brother.

Koluszki wagon drivers belonged to a higher category than the Lodz ones. These were wagon drivers who drove coaches, and they took well-to-do passengers to the train. The coach drivers were Reb Icek Nuta's, Reb Lemel Bik, Reb Abramele Tuszynski, his son Icek Tuszynski, Szymszon Tuszynski, Emanuel Dymant, and Reb Zalmele.

Earning a living became easier when a highway to Lodz was built. The contract to make the highway was undertaken by Szlama Silski, e”h. He became rich from it. Reb Szlama became connected by marriage to the Radomer rov when he took his son, Reb Arje Dawid, as his son-in-law. He [Reb Szlama] actually gave him the contract, and in that way Reb Arje Perlmuter also became rich.

The seven members of the Jewish community council made Szlama Silski a dozor [overseer], since at that time no elections took place. Reb Szlama died while he was still a dozor.

The oppressive economic situation caused a large part of the Jewish youth of Brzezin to emigrate to America. Reb Chaim Icek's son, our Professor Berg also did the same.

Professor Berg's father, Reb Chaim Icek, e”h, was an old Vorker [from Warka] Hasid. Afterwards he became an Aleksander Hasid. Reb Chaim Icek was also a fine merchant, had a paper store with writing instruments and schoolbooks. He had keyn ayen hore [no evil eye should harm them] a houseful of children. He even owned a britchke [small half-covered carriage] with a horse, which he used to supply schoolbooks to the German colonies around Brzezin. But a considerable amount was lacking from making a living…Friend Berg deliberated for a while, left the provincial happiness, and emigrated to America.

And when you talk about Professor Berg, you must also remember his brother, Issachar, known by the entire town.

The stream of emigration created an oppressive mood among the older religious people. Observant Jews in Poland at that time wanted very much for their children not to go to America, but they had no words of advice. They had to make peace with their fate. Resisting the stream made no sense, and thanks to the farsightedness of the youth of that time, today we have a large Brzeziner Society in America. Today Brzeziner Jews are scattered and spread all over the world.

 

brz039.jpg - A group of Zionists and intelligentsia of the town
A group of Zionists and intelligentsia of the town
Seated from the right: Adele Gotlib, S. Sulkowicz, E. Gotlib.
Standing from the right: Kujawski, Szulzinger, A. B. Gips, Waldman

 

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