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[Pages 98-100]

Brzezin's Way of Life

brz098.jpg - Abraham Rosenberg

by Abraham Rosenberg

Translated by Renee Miller

Edited by Fay Bussgang

Until the rise of the tailoring industry, the way of life of the Brzeziner Jews was almost the same as that in hundreds of settlements in contemporary Crown Poland.

As for making a living, they lived a lot better. A large number of the villages that surrounded Brzezin were settled by German peasants, who, thanks to their well-known industriousness, became fat and rich from fertile Mazovian soil.

Brzezin was beautiful. Superbly beautiful she was, with fruit-laden orchards and cool forests within which the town was set like a diamond in a green frame. Brzezin lay in a valley. From the marketplace, which was in the center of town, the streets and paths that went to and fro from the surrounding towns spread out like veins.

In the blue summer pre-dawn – long before the sun rose from behind the meadows – in wintertime's extreme cold, dozens and dozens of Jews, either by foot or by axle, set out from the surrounding towns and villages.

From the villages the cobblers, glaziers, butchers, grain merchants, and horse dealers made their way. From the neighboring towns traveled old clothes dealers, hat makers, the not so well-off dry-goods merchants, bakers – carrying bread, stritsl [type of strudel], baked ferfel [pasta], and pastries with them, and petty merchants with various beads and inexpensive jewelry. These were wholesome Jews, not some shipe-zipelekh [weakling].Trudging over the Polish side roads in heat, cold, snow, and rain, enduring the highly pitiful competition at the market fairs – where you often had to fight until you drew blood for a better space – the people earned a living with such hard work that seldom did anyone dare to pick a quarrel.

Brzezin presented an entirely different picture on Thursdays, when the weekly market fair, which was the major source of earning a living, took place. The stars still shone in the heavens when Jews davened [prayed] hashkoma [first prayer upon awakening] and barely had time for a meal in expectation of the big day. On all the roads that led to town stretched great numbers of wagons, with entire peasant families loaded down with all kinds of food – poultry, grains, and fruit, fresh butter made from sweet cream, wrapped in green leaves, soft and hard cheeses, sour cream, green onions, radishes, parsley, carrots, berries, fresh-picked cherries, apples, pears, strawberries, currants, and green gooseberries. Behind the wagons, which could barely move because of the lack of space, were cows, calves, often a goat and a horse. In cages that were attached to the wagon were hens and roosters, turkeys, ducks, and geese.

The four-sided marketplace and a part of Lodz Street were so overcrowded with stands that you could not toss a pin to the ground. The stalls were stuffed with everything good. There they sold cotton burkes [three-quarter length jackets], jackets, trousers, colorful vests, caps with leather visors, fur hats, boots, gaiters, women's shoes, slippers, “trepes ” (shoes with wooden soles), men's underwear, women's bloomers, colorful slips, blouses, aprons, colored ribbons for braids, combs, beads, tin or brass finger rings, bracelets, and cheap watches.

There were stalls with all kinds of nosheray [snacks] – caramels, candies, sweet and sour candies, and halvah. The ginger cake baker sold sweet baked goods – honey-ginger cakes, cheesecakes, pastries filled with berries or cherries, long strudels and sweet griskelekh [??]. At the fair there also were jugglers, organ grinders with parrots, blind beggars, the crippled – who sat on the ground near the old church in the marketplace and begged and sang heartrending “moralizing” songs – and pickpockets.

Trading of horses and animals was done at the pig market. That was “man's realm.” The robustly built butchers and horse-handlers, whose blood just about spouted from their necks from strength, with much experience in critiquing, looked at the horse's teeth, felt the beasts, haggled in fluent peasant Polish, and at the end clasped the hands of the peasants with such might that they just about caught their breath. The women peasants sold fowl in the marketplace, dairy foods, and fruit. The goyishe [non-Jewish] youths wandered about the marketplace, gaping, examining, and touching everything. After selling their products, the “sgayes ” [non-Jewish men] took off among the stands to the deep dark hardware shops where you could get anything from shovels to glittering scythes.

The peasant women and their daughters descended upon the dry-goods stores. Just before dusk the non-Jews, faint from a day of haggling, clappings on the shoulders, and vigorous handshakes, set out for the taverns. There they allowed themselves to have a fling with roasted goose, chicken livers, gizzards, boiled peas, marinated or shmaltz herring, sour pickles, foaming light or dark beer, and various kinds of liquor – from aquavit to 90 % alcohol, followed by hard, salty cheese and a hard roll.

 

brz099.jpg -  At Icek Bialik's [the tall Icek's] pond
At Icek Bialik's [the tall Icek's] pond

 

There was no lack of fighting at a fair. It could be a peasant who got drunk and had to be thrown out of the tavern, or a pickpocket who was caught red-handed, or even a braggart who annoyed a good-looking shikse [non-Jewish girl]. The tavern keepers were somehow all strong and able to handle things by themselves. In exceptional cases, when a tavern keeper could not manage, the butchers with hatchets and the wagon drivers with crossbars joined in.

Late in the evening, when the peasant wagons gravitated toward their homes, the marketplace and the side streets looked as if after a battle. The Jewish merchants were weary, barely standing on their feet near closed shutters, counting out the pidyon [payment to the Hasidic rabbi for advice] from the day's earnings.

Brzezin was also the capital of the powiat [county] and served as the administrative center of the entire county, which included such cities as Tomaszow and towns like Ujazd, Strykow, Glowno, and Koluszki. The kaznodziejstwo [church rectory] and all bureaus of the civil authorities were in the town. Although no Jews worked for the government – in town hall there was one administrative office employee, Haskiel Najman – this added to their income.

Also the annual los (conscription) was a source of income. Annually hundreds of conscripts would descend on the town to report to the military commission. The Jews of the town had several anxious days. The recruits – especially the Christians – were usually lawless and went wild. The reputation of the Jews of Brzezin was such that no real disturbances took place. A very few occasions are known when the fights were out of control. There are maybe a few stories about the strength that Jewish youth displayed on these occasions.

Although there was no lack of flour in Brzezin, there was no Torah center [reference to Torah saying “If there is no flour, there is no Torah”]. Observant and God-fearing, the Brzeziner Jews packed the Hasidim shtiblekh [small Hasidic houses of prayer]. Almost all Hasidic rebbes [rabbis] had followers in town, with the Gerer [from Ger/Gora Kalwaria] and Aleksanderer [Aleksandrow Lodzkie] in first place. The old besmedresh [house of prayer] was packed at all the minyen s [prayer groups with quorum]. Men and women wore traditional clothes. They even frowned on women who wore wigs instead of kopkes [women's caps]. They sent the youngsters to kheder [Jewish elementary school]. Perhaps there was not a single Jewish boy who did not know some Hebrew, but there was no yeshiva [school of advanced religious instruction] in the town. True learned men were very rare; few people had a secular education. Also the Haskalah [Enlightenment] movement that was wide spread in those years in Galicia, Lithuania, and in the larger cities in Crown Poland, had practically not reached Brzezin.

In this manner, Brzezin lived a quiet life, traditional, almost an idyllic life, until long after the second uprising in 1863 [against the Czar], until the waves of industrialization, beginning slowly but surely, undermined the firmly established generations-long way of life that had dominated this Polish Jewish town.

Many causes contributed to the rapid and tumultous growth of the tailoring industry in Brzezin. The proximity to Koluszki, which was one of the most important railroad junctions; the nearness to Tomaszow and, principally, to Lodz, which, in a short time, had become one of the greatest textile centers in Europe; and the fact that in Brzezin tailoring, in general, was a widespread trade. Also, the majority of Brzeziner tailors produced finished clothing, contrary to the custom tailors who sewed garments made to measure. Third was the lack of a Torah tradition that in other towns gave rise to a sharp resistance to the new way of life accompanying industrialization. All these factors transformed Brzezin, in a very short time, to become one of the largest centers of the ready-made clothing industry in the Russian Empire of that time.

Brzeziner Jews displayed amazing ability to be enterprising. It is worthwhile to take the opportunity to point out the fact that those who were most energetic, daring, and with the most creative ideas, came from the deepest Brzezin poverty.

 

brz100.jpg -  Stream near Probaken
Stream near Probaken where Brzeziner youth played during the
summers and carried on love affairs during moonlit nights . . .

 

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