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by Avraham Levite
For many years we hoped and aspired to publish a memorial book of the martyrs of our shtetl, and the idea was much discussed during our meetings and yearly memorial services, but the difficulties were so many that they seemed insurmountable.
First of all there was the lack of contributors. Our shtetl was small with not many Jews in it. It had produced no writers to describe its way of life, no historians to research its past.
But the main difficulty facing us was that we couldn't find anyone who would devote himself to the project. A few years ago this task was undertaken by Mr. Chaim Bank, Chairman of the Publishing Committee. He threw himself into the job without sparing himself; activated others, influencing and encouraging them until finally, thanks to his activity and devotion, this book emerged. We all owe him our thanks.
Work on this book was begun very late, at a time when the generation of survivors and remnants was itself dwindling away. Though we turned to all our townsmen in Israel and the Diaspora, very few responded.
A wider participation would have shown a more comprehensive picture of the shtetl and its people, would have given expression to additional aspects of its life from different points of view. Some of the people we approached were certainly willing to write but found it difficult to begin, being emotionally inhibited. We all know this feeling. The burden finally fell on a handful of us we agreed to deal with the matter.
Far be it from us to claim success for our work, for we are well aware of what is lacking in it. But, even if it is beyond our powers to put up a magnificent monument to the memory of our beloved ones, something must still be done, even if on a much smaller scale.
We have tried to describe some characteristic village types of all classes, gentle-fold and commoners, eccentrics and run-of-the-mill Jews, but much as we wanted to, we could not describe them all. Each individual was a world in itself, unique in his aspirations, feelings and hopes; his past obliterated, his future cut off at the roots. Each and every one deserves his place in posterity, just as he deserves a grave and a tombstone of his own. The book mentions only a few and we pray that this book will serve as a communal monument for those that have inadvertently been passed over without mention.
We also tried to convey the ambiance of the shtetl, all the facets of everyday life; the weekdays of hard work and the cruel struggle for survival, the Sabbaths and Holydays transcending reality and inspiring.
The shtetl Jews had deep mutual ties, each participating in the joys and grief of the others. They all grew up to manhood close to each other while the girls, who usually married someone from a nearby shtetl, would bring their husbands to their homes, there to settle down and become part of their peer group. The sons, on the other hand, would, after their marriage, move to their brides' village, returning from time to time to their native shtetl to visit their relatives and the graves of their dear departed. Thus it went on for very many generations. The children bearing the names of their great grandparents, long since dead, would give the names of their own parents to their children in the fullness of time. Mosheleh Yankale's fathered Yankaleh Mosheleh's and Zelig Runia's was the son of Runia Zelig's.
Link by link the chain of generations was forged until the coming of the Nazi bestiality which ripped it apart with unparalleled cruelty.
Obviously one cannot give a definitive picture of the shtetl nor can any uniform description do it justice; it was continually developing and re-forming like the waters of the river, the human scene changing with it.
Progress reached the shtetl abruptly, breaking down its doors and windows like a stormy wind.
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Within a few years its ways of thinking and behaving as well as its social fabric were revolutionized. The once all-dominant influence of the older generation which permeated the whole village began to weaken, gradually becoming more marginal. The spirit of the age blew away all that was secondary and meaningless while the seeds of the future sowed all that was healthy and rich in values.
We have tried to describe the shtetl according to what lies farthest back in our memory. The farther back the era - the more interesting its concepts. We hoped to grasp the magic of that time with all its authenticity before it was lost forever. Our children who have been deprived of the privilege of knowing t heir grandparents might learn about their naοve and colorful world, and in this way be made aware of their own roots.
The chapter dealing with the holocaust and the devastation contains evidence and descriptions of this terrible period from the outbreak of war in September, 1939 to its end in May 1945, when the survivors, in their attempts to renew old relationships which had been broken, began to realize the size of the calamity and the numbers of the victims.
The coming generations are commanded as follows: Remember what Amalek has done to you. We, the survivors, are duty bound to tell and retell the facts so that they will be remembered to the end of time.
We shall never be able to forget, and the horrors we have been through are engraved upon our very souls. We try to repress them, whether as an exigency of life or a fear of the consequences of dwelling upon them, but they rise up in our nightmares and during our sleepless nights.
That world, out of whose ruins we have arisen, was an integral part of ourselves; it continues to live within us as we go to living in it.
I shall tell just one of my recurring dreams:
I have reached the shtetl, out of breath and with a pounding heart. Everything around me is empty, as I had imagined it would be. I walk, no, run, to my home. I know I'll; find no one there but I must see the house at least. The door is open, the cupboards have been broken into. The nest has been trampled and looted by a bloodthirsty predator. Some household effects are rolling around on the floor, abandoned and covered with dust, left by them before they were taken away. My heartbeats quicken; I am seeking something to hold on to, to help me sense THEM.
Restlessly I move from object to object: What did they hold in their hands in their last moments?
My eyes fall suddenly on the Mezuzah on the lintel of the door. It was the Mezuzah upon which they had let fall their last tear on parting from home and life, all collapsing around them. One could still feel; their last breath emanating from it, their farewell kisses.
In a spasm of weeping I clasp the Mezuzah and awake from my dream…
Even now, as I write these lines, I am choked by tears…
No, we cannot eulogize them, for greater men than us have failed in the attempt and it is beyond flesh and blood to do so Let us join our voices to those of all the orphaned and say together: Yitgadal veyitkadash!
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by Avraham Levite
Our town Brzozow, or, as it was called in Yiddish Breziv, was located in southeast Gallicia in the Sub-Carpathians in an area where healing springs and oil wells were to be found.
The town was a part of the district (Powiat) which encompassed about 70 villages and towns including Dinov, Yashnitza and others. During the elections to the Seim (Parliament), which occurred once every few years, the country was divided into different election areas, and each area was represented by a number of seats. Brzozow was associated with the Przemysl electoral area.
During the period of Polish independence, between the two World Wars, Brzozow belonged, from an administrative point of view, to the region of Wojewodztwo Lwow.
Although several villages in the region were Ukranian settlements, in the town itself, and in a definite majority of the surrounding settlements, the population was decidedly Polish.
As a result of internal (political) policy, the Polish authorities amalgamated several districts of a pure Polish nature with the Lwow region, which was a predominantly Ukrainian in order to increase the overall Polish influence in the area.
Incidentally, the Austrian monarchy, which preceded the Polish government, adopted a similar policy in order to create a heterogeneous population with conflicting national aspirations using one group to neutralize another.
The town was small and almost unknown. The population numbered a few thousand, including a relatively small percentage of Jews compared to other cities and towns in Gallicia. An estimate placed the Jewish population at only 1300 souls.
One of the reasons that Brzozow was not known outside of the immediate surrounding areas, was the lack of a direct railway link to the town. To travel east or South, one had to use the station at Sanok, and to go West or North, the station at Rimanov, both the stations being about twenty kilometers from the town.
Each day, in the early morning hours, wagons loaded with passengers would leave the town for these two points, and would return towards evening or even later. From Sanok, with which there were also commercial links, the wagons would also return laden with goods for distribution at the stores.
In the final years before the war, there was also motorized transport, a bus formed the connection with Sanok each day, and a taxi with Rimanov. Goods continued to be transported by wagon.
In order to assist the postal authorities to identify the town (postal codes were not yet in use), the addresses on letters bound for the town stated next to Sanok Mala Polska, Little Poland, as Gallicia was called.
Town affairs were administered by a few influential, established Polish families who were called mieszczany veteran townspeople, and from among them was chosen the mayor. Jews were also chosen as representatives to the municipal council.
The town lighting system, from after the first World War, consisted of simple paraffin lamps. In affluent houses and public buildings, there were special paraffin lamps with round wicks that were called blitz lampen -- storm lamps.
In houses of learning, the students who learned in the evening were granted the use of candles, and they sat, at their books, each holding a candle in his hand.
In 1928, the town was connected up to the electricity supply, and that was certainly one of the major events in the town during that period.
There were no industrial factories or army camps in the town. Apart from the intelligencia and those involved actively in religious activity, the Jews of the town made their livings from small businesses and workshops, and served, in the main, the needs of the farmers in the surrounding villages.
Being surrounded by a large agricultural community whose products far exceeded the needs of the small town, certain individuals also made a living by exporting agricultural surpluses to outside areas,
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mainly to Katowitz, from where the goods were sent to the industrialized western nations.
The Polish residents were teachers at the primary and public schools, government clerks and local administrators, land owners, tradesmen, small holdings owners of service branches and others. In the 30's, with the growth of anti-semitism and the declaration of the boycott on Jewish businesses, the Poles began to become involved in trade, and were the recipients of aid and assistance from various official bodies and patriotic organizations.
In the surrounding settlements there were only a few Jewish residents, a few scattered families in each village, and they were associated with the community in our town from which they received their religious services.
In almost every settlement there were minyanim for the Sabbath and festivals, and these were held in the houses of one of the congregants. In those villages which had difficulty collecting a minyan for festivals and the main religious holidays (yomim noroyim), all the men above the age of Bar mitzvah
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would come to our town before the festival in question, and stay for its duration in order to pray in one of the synagogues.
During the period of Austrian rule, the Jewish community (which was referred to as the Kultus Gemeinde) was an independent body with autonomous authority in the areas of religion and Jewish culture.
The Austrian authorities gave its minority groups freedom in the areas of religious observance, as compensation for the limitations on their national and political rights.
Even in the Polish period, the Jewish community was officially recognized by the authorities, and its authority was guaranteed under the laws of the state. The community council was democratically elected once every few years, and this council appointed one of its members as head of the community.
All Jews belonged to the community, and paid community taxes which had the same legal status as city taxes.
Drawn up after the Second World War. The border near Przemsyl was made after
the annexation of Eastern Galicia (today to the Western Ukraine) to the U.S.S.R.
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In the community council elections during the 20's, a struggle ensued between various Hassidic factions. All the involved groups polarized into two main opposing organizations: The Hassidim of Ruzin, who were called Kloyznikim (since they worshipped in Kloyzim of Sadigora, Tchortkov and Boyan) on the one hand, and the Hassidim of the Rabbis of Galizia who were called the Beit Midrashnikim (since they worshipped in Beith Midrash and at the Chevra Linat Hazedek) -- this group included Hasidim from Dinov, Sandz, Ribitish, Bokovsk and others. Both of these main organizations had their own Rabbi.
In later years, with the growth of political consciousness and party activitism, these groups competed against each other in elections, in the Zionist movement, and in the orthodox Agudat Yisrael.
Community activities in the town were quite restricted, and were limited to a small number of religious activities only, such as kosher slaughtering, rabbinic work, maintenance of the Mikveh and the public bathing house, and the cemetery (dealing with the deceased, purification, and burial were performed on a voluntary basis by the Chevra Kadisha).
Those who performed kosher slaughtering did not receive payment directly from the customers. They, like the Rabbis, received their salaries from the community, which sold authorization slips granting the bearer the right to receive the service.
The primary activities in the areas of culture and education were performed outside the community by political movements and volunteer organizations.
Welfare and help for the needy was also provided on a volunteer basis, the town operating on the basis of a large family. For example, the practice of Nechtikn -- i.e. spending the night at the house of a chronically ill person who needed constant supervision, was customary. As such, a number of young men at the synagogue would organize, or this would be done by neighbors, and the duty was divided into shifts. Someone would sit at the bedside of the afflicted the entire night and attend to their needs, and by doing so would enable the members of the family to rest and regain their strength.
The welfare funds were limited, and generally fell below the needs of those in distress. The activities in this area were primarily those of individuals, and not a few of these would regularly lend their own money to small stall owners and peddlers to enable them to purchase goods for market day. They would also help distressed traders who were having difficulty in meeting their debts on time, and were in danger of having the debt collection going to protest (i.e. having their goods impounded).
Organized social welfare assistance was almost nonexistent in the town. By the nature of things, official assistance implied a request, preliminary discussions, registration in the books etc., and only those who agreed to accept the stigma of being supported, could avail themselves of this option. It was considered traditionally worthy to suggest assistance to those of the needy who were too ashamed to request help. It was done with tact and discretion in order not to insult them.
It was customary for a pair of youths to go from house to house collecting for the needy.
No one would ask the purpose to which the money would be put, or who would be the recipient and those for whom the money was intended would also be unaware of the collection. They would only know the individual who dealt directly with them.
Before the holydays, especially before Pesach, which is associated with large expenses, special collections Maoth Chitin were arranged. This was also done to collect wood for heating during the winter all these activities being performed under the strictest secrecy so as not to embarrass the recipients of the assistance.
It's worth mentioning another type of charitable institution found in the town, and also found in many of the surrounding areas, namely the Abfartik Geld exemption money organization. This money was given by the Gabbai to the beggars from out of town in return for their agreeing to forego their right to solicit door to door.
Since among the Jews, it is a rule that everyone who is in distress deserves assistance the number of professional beggars multiplied. They came by wagon from afar, solicited from town to town, moved between the houses, and even approached the houses of the goyim, who set their dogs on them and evicted them with curses and insults, including all Jews in their curses as parasites.
In order to prevent this scandal, the system of exemption money was adopted. The gabbais would collect money each week from the local inhabitants, and distributed it among the beggars, who in turn undertook not to solicit from the houses in the town.
This system was also advantageous to the poor,
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since it saved them the trouble of going from house to house in the town, and allowed them to reach other towns during the day, there also to receive the exemption money.
In the issue of general education, there were two primary schools of seven classes each, a school for boys, and a separate school for girls.
Compulsory education had existed since the founding of independent Poland, but at the outset, before things were running smoothly, many orthodox parents succeeded in evading the system and did not send their children to the public schools, fearing that the secular studies would take most of the study time, and would result in neglecting studies of the Torah.
In the late 20's, the authorities became far more strict in the enforcement of the law, and studies at the public primary schools encompassed all the students in the town.
The public high school the Gymnasium, had existed since the Austrian period. Because of the lack of a suitable building, the classes were spread out, and the studies were carried out in several buildings which were situated far from each other. With the completion of the new building, all the classes were gradually moved into it. The number of Jewish students at the gymnasium was low at first, but in spite of the obstacles which the management of the school placed in the way, the number rose from year to year.
Jewish education had no official basis. The Cheders were private and the parents paid school fees so that their children could attend. The Hebrew School, as it was called, gave Hebrew lessons to beginner and advance pupils. The lessons were provided for the adults by a teacher supplied by the Zionist Histadrut, and it was supported by the pupils, who paid a regular study fee. The orthodox girl's school Beit Ya'akov which was founded by Agudat Yisrael, was supported by means of study fees, and donations.
The youth movements Gordonia, Hashomer Hadati, Tze'irei Agudat Yisrael, and others, occupied themselves with diverse cultural activities. They organized lectures in Jewish thought, Jewish history, geography (of Israel), Zionism, language, Hebrew literature and others.
Lectures were given by local residents, and outside lecturers. They organized amateur shows, and from time to time, also organized travelling theatre groups.
The town also boasted two public Jewish libraries. One was situated in the Zionist Club Beit Yehuda, and the second was in memory of I.L. Peretz. The libraries possessed the basics of Jewish literature in both Hebrew and Yiddish, including educational, and new literary material. In later years, in accordance with the temper of the times, the libraries acquired books in the Polish language b y Polish authors, and translations of general literature. These libraries played an indispensable part in the development of the local Jewish youth, and in the broadening of their horizons.
The history of Brzozow begins in the middle of the fourteenth century as the history of a village. In the period of the Polish-Litvit monarchy, Brzozow was situated in the territorial region called Rus Czerwona Red Rus, and belonged to the province of Sanok, or as it was called, Ziemia Sanoka (Sanok territory).
In that period, King Kazimierz the Great began to populate the desolate areas in order to fortify the borders of the kingdom. By the accepted customs of the time, these settlements were founded in the following manner: a man of reputation and privilege would select a contractor, who took it upon himself to organize the settlement, bring in farmers, and see to the operations for a fee.
In order that these settlements develop quickly, the King exempted them from taxes, duties, and royal service for a period of twenty years. A royal document exists from the year 1359 concerning the founding of the village Brzozow. The villages of Domradz and Blizna, neighboring villages, were also founded in that year.
For the villages thus founded, a (neighboring) town was essential, to facilitate the sale of agricultural products, and the purchase of trade goods. Since there was no town in the area, the authorities under whose jurisdiction the village fell, endeavored to convert the village into a town. The exact date upon which the village became a town is not documented; in 1403 Brzozow still appears in official documents as a village, whereas in an official document dated 1413, in which the Minister of the Army Zindram received the village of Pshishdenitza as a lifelong fief from the Przemysl authorities, this village being situated next to the town of Brzozow.
The site chosen for the town was on the eastern border of the former village of Brzozow, adjacent to
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the border of the village of Homnisk situated on the flat plateau, a defensible area, with slopes descending to the river Stobnitza.
In order to facilitate trade, the site was located at the juncture of the following roads:
The old Brzozow began to be called Stara Viesh (old village), and was at first a suburb of the town, but later became an independent village in its own right.
The place called Brzozow appears as such in the 14th Century, but in documents from later years, the name appeared in distorted forms such as Brasan, or Bzezow, and there is even a seal of the town from the year 1775 which displays the address Sigillum Civitatis Brezow, Brezow being closest to the name of the town in Yiddish Breziv. Finally however, the name Brzozow was fully accepted.
The town was surrounded by ramparts of earth for defense, and the surrounding suburbs did not have individual names, but rather were known in terms of their relationship to the ramparts, or their topological characteristics. For example the suburb Horobick, meaning a hill, or Podowal -- behind the rampart. The suburb called Porkovka had its name derived from the Latin porcus meaning pig, and there indeed were situated the pig pens of the bishops.
The town was a fief of the bishops, and was used by them as a residential area for hundreds of years.
The above mentioned historical data was taken from the book Six hundred Years of Brzozow, which was published in 1959 by the Polish Committee for the commemoration of the event. The Jewish population is mentioned very little in the book apart from anti-Jewish pogroms during the period of the Holocaust. These sections are presented in other parts of the book.
The activities of the Jewish population throughout the generations, and their contributions to the town of which they were inhabitants, is not mentioned at all in the book. What is mentioned however is a document from the year 1748 from the town's clergymen advising the bishop in Przemysl not to grant commercial access in the town to Jews, agnostics, and Skizmatikim (those not adhering to the Catholic persuasion), and certainly not to grant them permission to live in the town, apart from (for the purpose of) fairs and Yarmarkim (the annual fair, in German).
(The amazing aspect of this document is that the clergymen assumed that the authorities needed the artifice of such advice).
In spite of the town's independence, the influence wielded by the church remained a dominant factor. It also owned large tracts of land and other assets, and this enormous property remained in its possession until the second World War. Also the giant forest next to the town, situated on the health springs, and the clergy's resort houses which were situated there, belonged to the church.
Even in the thirties, we would find placards saying Entry to Jews is Forbidden, and so, even without historical documentation, we know that during the period of the Church's influence, Jews did not have access to the town.
After the first partition of Poland in 1772, Gallicia passed over to Austrian rule. In the year 1781, Kaiser Joseph II issued a decree commanding Protestants and certain other Christian sects to settle, purchase houses and property, attain membership of Tzechim (closed trades union) in all the towns and villages. As a consequence, Brzozow also ended its period of religious homogeneity. It is difficult to place the exact year of the beginnings of the Jewish community in the town, since the archives and documents relating to the subject are unavailable to us.
It is supposed that Jews lived in the surrounding villages, had commercial connections with the town, and were the first to move there when circumstances permitted. It is known for instance that the Wilner family lived a few generations before in the village of Yatshmir, possibly before Jews were to be found in Brzozow. It is certain that there were Jews in other villages, but today no possibility exists of investigating their roots. These are all of course suppositions that cannot be proved.
R. Avraham Reich, an elder of the town, remembers from before the first World War, that from gravestones in the town cemetery, it is probable that
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the old cemetery had existed for at least 100 years, i.e. from around 1800.
Consequently we can state with certainty that Jews were not found in the town before 1781, the year the Kaiser's decree was proclaimed, commanding non-Catholic Christians to live there. Since this decree did not relate to Jews, whose rights were less than the Christians, it is reasonable to suppose that a number of years passed until the Jews were also able to take advantage of it and penetrate the town.
From all that has been said, we can reasonably conclude that Jewish settlement in Brzozow began at the end of the 18th century, and that it's duration, from its inception until it's ending in the Holocaust, was about 150 years.
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