During the first 20 years in this role, Rybak didn't have any special problems. His work consisted of issuing passports and of inspecting shepherding fields and collecting special taxes to Jews, as for example meat tax and candles tax. Together with four people, of whom two were gentiles, he forced the population to pay official taxes. The rabbis of Kartuz Bereza didn't intervene in city matters. This was because of rivalry existing between the rabbis the difficulty they had talking with each other.
In 1905 new winds began to blow and, as in other towns, turbulent groups arose in Kartuz Bereza. The police used to come to the City Council to watch the behavior and places where suspects inhabited. It was evident that when they suspected somebody, nothing good was waiting for him. The Town Council was located in Rybak's house and every time a policeman came to receive details about a suspicious Jew from a gentile, they immediatley brought the gentile an appetizing meal and a bottle of alcohol. The genteil ate and drank, and meanwhile somebody of Rybak's family ran to warn the suspect, who already knew what he should do.
The chief of police in Kartuz Bereza received a fixed bribe as annual compensation, so that nothing bad would happen to the Jews of the town.
Of the 1905 events, I remember one related to a Jewish soldier by the name of Horwitz who was stationed in Kartuz Bereza. He was detained by mistake and he was going to be very severely punished. The case came to the attention of youth's that formed the town revolutionary movement, and they decided to free him. They knew the detainee would be transported by the main road. At a preset hour, they left in a sled, and came face-to-face with those that took the detainee. One of youths stopped the guards to ask them something. When they stopped to answer him, he threw tobacco in their eyes. In that moment Horwitz escaped by getting onto the revolutionaries' sled.
The military began to look for the detainee. The revolutionaries arrived at Rybak's house and asked him to help them hide the Jew. Rybak had a brilliant idea: his house abutted the chief of police's house and a door separated the attics of both houses. They hid Horwitz in the police chief's attic! He was hidden there for two weeks, and when the military inspected each car that left the town, they didn't find him. When the military action subsided, Horwitz escaped to a nearby town, and then he left in a train to the German border. After a while, a letter arrived from him in the US.
Shimshon Dovid Shapira, intelligent man, Rybak's son-in-law, helped his father-in-law in complicated cases. With the help of Shapira and with money from Israel Grinberg (one of richest Jews of town), a Jewish state mixed school was founded in 1905, where Russian was taught. About 120 Jewish students studied there. Until 1915 it was directed by teacher Girashov.
With the help of both Shapira and Grinberg, the first Savings and Loan Fund was founded in 1909.
The Library had books in Russian, German and Yiddish, and was directed by Shapira. Many youths gathered there to read.
In February 1919, the Poles conquered Kartuz Bereza. The above-mentioned Naftaly Levinson, was named Mayor. The son-in-law of Shapria, Yechiel Nisan Zakheim was named Vice Mayor. He served for about ten years was in this position until he resigned. He was a studious and arrogant Jew, who defended interests of Jews with great effort. He offer them great support for Jewish institutions.
In 1939 Zakheim returned to Kartuz Bereza. He participated in community life,
and during the Nazi conquest he tried alleviating Jews suffering in ghettos. He
predicted the tragic end of Jews, and together with his wife Libe Shapiro (a
dentist) and other activists, he committed suicide the night before the
ghetto's liquidation. Their two children survived; both are outstanding
engineers who were active in the secret French Jewish movements, and they
fought with courage from there.
The first thing the residents of Bereza asked me when I arrived was "What is happening in Warsaw? You of course know Peretz Markish, is it true that he is a great writer?" I didn't doubt that each person that asked had read his famous composition "Di Kupe" (The Mound), and certainly they were embarrassed of not having understood it.
In a School meeting, I suggested inviting Markish to give a lecture, and was surprised at the total silence that followed. Finally, the President asked "Are you serious? Would this be possible?" My suggestion was taken, and we communicated immediately with Warsaw but we didn't receive an answer.
Two weeks later I received a postcard of Markish regarding my invitation. He said that he would come for three days, from Friday until Sunday. It is clear that, from this moment on, Markish's visit to our town had begun. I was worried that Markish might be disappointed by the community and that he would not behave himself in front of it. I knew very well his spirit and his whims. He was accustomed to Warsaw's fanfare, and I hoped that he would not be depressed in our small town.
That Friday, together with my friends from the School Management, I went to the train station that was a few kilometers from the city. Before the train arrived, I mentioned to my friends that Markish would certainly be in a bad mood after a long trip that lasted the whole night (the trip from Warsaw to Bereza, was from 11 PM to 8 AM). We came closer to the cart that was waiting for us. The cart driver, father of school students, asked me with smiling eyes, "Is this is your Markish?" The famous hair cowlick of Markish was jumbled. His face was gray and tired, his eyes were almost closed. He was crouched due to morning cold, and he was smaller. When we sat down in the cart, we hardly spoke. Finally we arrived at the hotel that was end of town. We waited for him while he put organized his room, took a bath and had breakfast. I didn't want to leave him alone, and suggested to him that he try to sleep. I also explained to him that I would sleep, because that day didn't have to teach.
"Then I will go with you, I won't stay here alone ", he said. "He has already began" I thought, and I told him aloud: "Well, then come with me"
It was a pleasant summer day and it was not far from the hotel to my house. When we entered my room, the sun shone in all corners. The windows were open, and from the orchard came fruits smell. "This is a true paradise," said Markish, and he added smiling "Do you remember Motel, Peisy the chazan's [cantor's] son? Do you teach in school the symbolic aspect of this issue? This book is a blessing! Only with this issue could be filled the whole system of studies."
Markish began to step along the room, and each instant he came closer to the
open window. His face was illuminated as if it absorbed all garden light.
"Warsaw tires me. I am tired. Everything there is noisy. Streets are full of noise. People are moving, and in this whole tumult, I sometimes feel stunned. Let's leave by the garden."That evening after dinner, Marskih's lecture was held in the living room of the Yiddish School Theater (it was a wooden construction, kind of summer theater that was settled down with the effort of school activists). The living room was full. The spirit was high. There was a feast sensation. Not only youths, but also old men and children came to see and to hear Markish. When the poet saw the audience, he was moved a lot. "It is a long time" he said, "I do not feel fear before an audience". His eyes radiated light and warmth.
"My G-d" he exclaimed. "How nice and quiet everything is. Clear and calm light. How much I miss all this! Before being a poet, I had all this, in my childhood years. Now I am excited and tormented!"
"Your state of romantic spirit is not in agreement with your work, as for example, "Di Kupe" (the mound)" I told him smiling.
"Ah! Again you remind me of my "mound" he answered me. And he added "I know that "Di Kupe' brought out criticism. Most of critics, as for example Hilel Tzailin, said they don't understand it, but poetry is first to feel, to live it, and sometimes even the poet himself doesn't understand his work.
"You made me remember Tzaitlin', I told him. "I listened with attention at your lectures and speeches against Tzaitlin. They were interesting, full of enthusiasm, brilliant, and full of feeling. But they were not always convincing. It is natural that the new fights against the old, but the old was also new at some time, and it arose out of life's real needs. Your polemic gives the impression that a new of creation begins with you and with modern literature!"
Markish looked at me. A shade covered his illuminated face. With a very low voice he asked me "And you don't fight against old things? Maybe you don't want to destroy the old school, a cell of ghetto that suffocates boys, all their instincts, which teaches him not to feel humiliation, blows? If you don't proceed this way, you are neither a revolutionary teacher nor a modern educator!"
"One of the objectives of education" I said "according to my approach, is to sincerely and truthfully recognize the positive, the pretty and the good. Of course that is your stormy attacks on previous culture, it's poetry, your sour criticism of the old that has to give way to the new, delights the youth who is passionate to fight, and pushes to new worlds. Also the book by Spengler "Decline of Western Civilization" interests the youth. But in transition times, danger exists of losing the old, without ever having acquired the new!"
"You speak as an old man", observed Markish very serene. "Let us defer this conversation. Please tell me how should I prepare for my talk tonight. What type of people will be in the audience? Are they maybe able to listen and to understand a serious conference"? Before being able to answer him, he said to me seriously: "I ask one thing of you, control me so that I do not drink, you know me Here my behavior should be different. Here silence " I did not answer him but I made sure all encounters and meetings were "dry", that alcoholic drinks were not served.
"It is good to be able to speak to this audience" he said. "They understand and they feel", I replied.
The title of his talk was "The essence of poetry". We decided that the lecture would last an hour, or at most an hour and a half. Markish began his speech, and an absolute calm reigned in the living room. At the beginning his voice was weak and trembling, but soon he exalted, his voice grew, his eyes glowed, and his face paled and for moments blushed. Everybody had the sensation that this man fought with his many thoughts and feelings, and his effort was to be able to express them in a clear and evident language. I heard Markish speak many times, but this time was for me a new revelation. His whole body trembled. His hands, as wings, looked to draw images in the air, and his voice ascended and lowered, filling any hole in living room.
When Markish finished his talk, calm prevailed. Listeners were not willing to end his words. Several minutes later, applause exploded. Markish sat down when his legs trembled. "One more minute and I would have fallen" he murmured. He was pale, covered with perspiration, and breathed with difficulty. His speech lasted three hours!
After the lecture, a snack in one of the activists' house was served. The atmosphere was warm and sincere, and there were no speeches. Markish understood very well the recognition, love and enthusiasm of the people present there. He was as excited as a boy. He came close to each one and kissed him. Many people present were simple town people, The house owner was also a typical character of "Tevya the Milkman" stories.
Markish enjoyed his own jokes and his humor. At the end of the reception, when Markish rose to say some words, his eyes were full of tears. "I cannot speak dear people, I love you so much I decided not to travel on Sunday I will stay with you." It is easy to imagine the happiness that broke out after the poet's announcement. "Then we must drink a toast in honor to our dear guest" one of the participants said. I was perturbed, I did not suspect that the house owner would offer drinks immediately. Markish had asked me to keep him from drinking alcohol. I should have announced that they don't serve alcoholic drinks, but I forgot. Participants were surprised, how could I forget such an important matter? There was an agreement: I would be forgiven for not having warned them about serving alcoholic drinks on the condition that on the following day the blame was fixed.
The next day, on Saturday afternoon, Markish's second lecture was to be
delivered. It was on "The idea on modern literature". A few hours
before noon he was going for a walk in the garden near my room. I hardly
entered, when he continued with our interrupted previous day chat.
"You are suspicions that the old will be destroyed and the new won't be built. Yesterday in my lecture, I convinced myself that the audience yearns the new, and I am certain they will achieve it. Could you evaluate with how much interest they followed the flow of my complicated thoughts? Call it what you want, but I didn't control myself, I felt my words penetrated the listeners' heart and I avoided finishing the lecture in the established time frame. With regard to my attack on Hilel Tzaitlin, that was an issue of a certain moment. An order that time "determined". We live days of idols destruction, of contradictions, and in ways of the past." Tzaitlin claims to occupy the place of Saadia Ha"Gaon [wise man of old time who introduced fundamental renovation in normative Jewish thought]. But Saadia Ha"Gaon introduced advances in ideology of Jewish thought, and Tzaitlin causes its setback"!I remained silent. In front of me was the great poet Markish who, more than anybody, introduced in Yiddish poetry the flame of the Russian Revolution, and was one of most important poets. Markish had faith in the Russian Revolution as a religious Jew has faith in the Messiah's arrival. His second lecture was no less successful than the first one. Markish developed thoughts of modern literature, and mainly of poetry. In doing this, he reflected the chaos of revolutionary storm. The old forms of life would be destroyed, and new poetry is not the enough a sensible and very balanced thing, at the light of irrational human instincts.
"Which is your idea of modern Jewish Warsaw?" I asked him.
Marvels of marvels! A wonderful mosaic of Judaism! I can learn a lot there and be inspired! It is felt each step Jews fighting for its existence by different means: the shitblach [Encounter places to study Bible] of the chasidim " in Frantziscan Street, yard meetings of Tzaitlin, "Bund" movement [Jewish workers socialist movement], Jewish community, revolutionary labor movement, Jewish journalism, editorials, Jewish theater. Our people fight, suffer, create
Then why do you leave us"? I asked.
"Didn't you maybe read Valin's poem? Markish asked me. "Every person, and in particular a poet, is attracted toward the place where he was born and grew. There, in the Soviet Union a new life begins, full with light, and this light irradiates everybody. I won't ever forget the deep feeling, when I was a child and studied in cheder in Poland, when the teacher told us how G-d called to Moses from the burning bush but was not consumed. The burning bush of our generation is the Russian Revolution. The flame burned with its fire for everybody!"
That evening, a farewell meeting was held. A lot of people participated. There were speeches and drinks. The meeting became a popular party. People danced and sang. Markish "stepped out the measure" (drank too much). The meeting lasted until very late and when the people dispersed, we loaded the poet who was intoxicated with drink and with the participants' warmth.
In spite of his desire, Markish was not able to spend more time in town, and the following morning we accompanied him to the train station. Suddenly, we heard a sharp scream. We went back and saw Markish in the middle of the Brest-Moscow road with his hands extended toward sky, claiming: "I want to return home! To my house, to the country of the Revolution!" We grabbed him and brought him to the hotel room, removed his clothes, put him in bed, and took care of him whole night. The following morning, he said to me a little embarrassed "I asked you not to give me alcoholic drinks"
In the train station, Markish looked towards the town with nostalgia and murmured to himself "How wonderful is Kartuz Bereza! What so dear Jews! For sure there are many towns like this! They are a spring of Jewish life! Here it is necessary to repair Jewish thought!"
From time to time I remember that night scene when the Jewish poet Peretz Markish stood in the middle of the road and said:
"I want to return to my house, to the country of the Revolution!"
In that moment we did not think of the possibility. Neither Peretz Markish thought that in the fire of that burning bush, its most faithful children would immolate on the blaze, those who gave their lives to revolutionary ideal, among them our own Markish.
Redaction Note: Peretz Markish was murdered by communists headed by Stalin. His
descendants went to the Jewish State.
The gentile firehouse was outside the town, beside Sidelsky's house, near to the gentile collective housing. There were also the court, the school, and the police station. The building was built on wooden planks and it seemed like a big stable. It was settled aside a great water-and-mud mirror, which never got dry, even on hot summer days. Inside the firehouse were two huge wooden barrels and a water pump that was always broken down. Very close, there was another building where the police station was located, and a jail.
The Jewish firehouse looked like a stable too. It was near the main road, on the main street of the little town, and there was an everlasting pool of about 1000 square meters and 1 meter depth in this place too. In winter when water froze, we children of cheder used to slide on the ice. In summer, cart men would submerge their carts in order to moisten the wooden wheels so they wouldn't get dry in the heat. In Jewish firehouse there were four wooden barrels, two water pumps and about ten tall wooden poles with a hook in their ends.
The chief of the Jewish fire department was always a Christian. He was a kind of landowner, who always liked strong alcohol, no matter where it came from, whether it was Jewish or gentile. In summer days the Jewish fireman used to do maneuvers at the end of town near to the river. The smiths were located there. They would ignite a heap of straw and yell "Fire!" Then firemen came with their barrels and their water pumps and tried to extinguish the fire. They took their places strategically, threw water, climbed up roofs and carts; in short, it was funny. Once the fire was extinguished, the fire chief would drink until he was drunk, and the young firemen raised him in their arms and cried "Hurrah!"
We children, who liked to watch the maneuvers, received a fresh water bath, and sometimes a few blows for being in the midst of the firemen's feet and disturbing their work.
After the maneuvers, it was customary to take the tools to be repaired to the two town specialists.. They were Yakov the locksmith and Yosef Chaim the blacksmith. Sometimes a fire would burn only during these maneuvers, so they could go to the specialists they didn't have ordinary repairmen yet.
I don't know when the two aforementioned fire departments were established, and maybe it's not important,. The important thing is that's the way it was until World War I. In 1915 our town was conquered by the Germans, and the Russians were shooting from outside over our town. All the houses in Market Place were set on fire, and there wasn't any chance of extinguishing that giant fire.
When World War I was over in 1918, the Jewish firehouse was resurrected, but with the purpose of fighting the petlyura [hooligan gangs], which were thoughtlessly destroying all surrounding villages, and came to Kobrin. A self-defense group was organized as well, headed by Sheike Shapira. This group used to do maneuvers and get weapons. In the meantime the Red Army arrived and conquered the little town. Almost a month later, the Poles expelled the Bolsheviks. Then they retreated but not for long. One week later, the Poles returned stronger and they re-conquered the town.
During this arduous time, the Jewish firemen were the only defense for the Jews in Bereza. There was no police, and the firemen defended day and night.
In 1920 the Polish army withdrew, alleging that they were searching for Russian soldiers who might be hidden. Then the Polish soldiers assaulted Jewish houses, emptied closets out, and took away everything they could. Of course they also blowed, and pulled Jewish beards out.
Chanoch Liskovsky organized the firemen in five-man groups. They addressed the commandant and asked him for help. They supplied him with ten Polish gendarmes who helped to keep order. Thus the looting was stopped, as well as Jewish harassement. With the Polish withdrawal, a shooting fight began and a part of the Market that hadn't been damaged in the first fire was totally destroyed now. It also burned a part of the Road, and a big part of Olner Street. It was impossible to extinguish that fire.
In 1923 the firemen were organized once more, now under the of Yacov Seletzky Koval. His house was near the firehouse and he used to enjoy military maneuvers. He organized the fire brigade again and was enthusiastically devoted to that task. He added a wing to the firehouse and opened a club there.
In the winter he kept water barrels inside the firehouse to prevent them from freezing, and in summer the place was used for cultural activities. He organized a firemen's orchestra, and bought new cars as well as an automatic water pump. Also women were trained as nurses. Prettier uniforms were made up, caps were bought, and also special helmets for fires protection. During the Polish festivities it was always the wind instruments orchestra that marched on ahead, and in the rear were the police and army units. It was an honor to belong to fire group. They were all working as volunteers.
I want to tell about an incident. One Friday a fire broke out inside the town limits, by the river, in Leibl Broide the shoemaker's house. The firemen went to extinguish the fire thinking it would be an easy task, since the house was beside the river! But half an hour later Shloime the cart driver's house, which was located beside the market near to the main road, was on fire,. Then another house, Shmaie the saddler's stable. In other words, three fires in a short time! The gentiles from the nearby houses were staring there and no one came to help extinguish the fire. One of them, whose name was Puzniak the crippled, said "Oh! The Jewish kugel [potato pie] is burning!" Soon another fire started in Zditshev Street, and the first house to burn was Puzniak's
When the gentile's houses started burning, the fire seemed to have no end, given that the house roofs were made of straw. It's interesting to note that, for a long time after that, gentile people still used to remind Puzniak of his joke about the kugel issue.
When World War II broke out, the firemen had to perform other tasks that had nothing to do with their specific functions. The truth is, at times, they were the guardians of town. This has been already told in another chapter of our book.
In 1940, when the Soviets conquered our village, all activities of voluntary
organizations were interrupted. Only some salaried firemen remained. The
director of the brigade was a Russian who had come from the Soviet Union. In
1941, when the Germans entered the town, they set fire to the synagogue and
also the houses close to the market; they wouldn't allow anyone to extinguish
the fire. More than half of the town's houses were consumed by the fire. In
1944, when the Germans withdrew, they set fire to the rest of the houses, and
there wasn't anyone left to extinguish it
When a boy was 4 year old, he was sent to cheder. The melamed's [Jewish teacher's] assistant sometimes brought him to cheder. His mother accompanied him the first time, and an angel threw him a kopek [coin], so that he would always be a good student worthy of receiving gifts. Until 1905 there were different categories of religious teachers: those that taught the aleph-bet [reading], blessings and prayers, while others taught the Pentateuch commented by Rashi [French sage of XI century] and Gemara [post biblical treatise of Jewish rules].
The school year was divided in two periods: from Pesach to Rosh Hashanah, and from Sucot to Pesach. After the first period, when the boy knew a little Hebrew, he was passed to another religious teacher who taught him Pentateuch with Rashi comments. During childhood, the boy who completed four periods, was passed to study Gemara with the religious teacher Yosl Ulinover or sent to a yeshiva in another city, for example Malch.
Wealthy children studied Gemara with the teacher Aizik the judge. The girls didn't study. Daughters from wealthy homes studied some writing with the teacher Arke. I remember that in the town there were some teachers who taught Hebrew grammar, and some who taught Yiddish writing and reading. Children from wealthy families studied with the teacher Aizik Molodovsky (poet Kadia Molodovsky's father); he taught grammar and Jewish history according by grades (first, second, third, etc.).
In the town there was a Talmud Torah [study house]. This was for poor children, who were taught prayers and Pentateuch. Religious teachers used a stick to stimulate the students. In 1908 a graduate teacher appeared in Bereza, dressed with clothes adorned with "golden bellboys". His name was Guerashov. He opened a school that had three degrees and that taught Russian. There, boys studied up until noon and girls starting from one o'clock. He accepted children who already knew the Russian alphabet. The cycle was of three years and Saturdays was not a learning day.
For this reason a protest broke out in town. It was said that this school converted Jewish children in gentiles, since they studied with "discovered head", but in spite of this many children went to this school. Other children continued outside state high school system, and they were called "externals". In 1910 the teacher Vainsthein arrived in our town, and together with his wife he opened a school for adolescent girls and taught manual labor. Shloime Gandz gave classes in Yiddish and Russian.
From the German conquest of World War I, up until the end of the war and the outbreak of the communist revolution, all chadarim and schools were closed. Shike Berman, Temtshe Rozansky, Elie Mote Bokshtein and Zeidel Faikov opened a kindergarten where Guerashov's school was. Teachers Beiltshe Berman, Chane Biltshik, Reizel Goldman and Feigl Perlovitsh, former students of state high school, taught Russian and Yiddish, as volunteers, without salary. This organization formed a choir besides the library and the reading room. The money they obtained from the choir shows was distributed in equal parts to the library and the kindergarten.
Then teachers Yoine Reznik, Roche Kamenietzky and another morá [female teacher] of Brest were invited as paid teachers; the kindergarten became a school. In 1919, under the Polish régime, the joint organization and those people from Bereza who settled in US helped to maintain the school. Their support provided benefits to most of the Jewish population and the children in particular. They received breakfast and lunch in school. The joint organization also covered the teachers' salary.
There were two public baths in Bereza. During the German conquest, one of them became a stable. The Assistance Council that distributed the American donations decided to renovate the bath's building and to install the school there. It was possible thanks to the help of the joint organization. Five classrooms were added for the school and two more for the Talmud Torah that had lost its building after the fires of the "Batei Midrashim". In the Yiddish school, Polish and Hebrew was taught according to the methodology of those days.
In 1922 the Hebrew school was founded. The Zionists brought teachers, and they taught Hebrew in private classes. When the number of students increased, the Zionist needed a separate building just for the Hebrew school. Since the Talmud Torah was transferred to a building donated by Mere Yaches, they were two classrooms free. First the Yiddish school requested them, and then the Hebrew school did too. They arrived at an agreement by which the Yiddish school received one classroom and Hebrew school a classroom and a half.
The activists of the Yiddish school, Shloimke Vainshtein, Gotl Pisetzky, Meir Fodostrivitze, Nisl Zakheim who were members of Bund, and Naftaly Levinson, Eliahu Mote Bokshtein, Ye'hoshua Kaplen, Niome Shapira, Iechiel Solnitz who were leftist, decided to include the school in the Yiddish educational network. In the house next to the school, a theater group was formed that prepared shows, and it's revenues covered part of the school budget. A children and adults choir was also organized, under the direction of Leibl Kaplan. The theater group and the choir had very successful shows.
The Hebrew school developed and was included in Education Institutions network of Tarbut institutions. A short time later, the institution grew and had activities in two different buildings. This hindered the task of students. The activists of the school Yehoshua Zaltzman, Henach Liskovksy, Moishe Goldshtein, Faivel Yaver and others decided to obtain their own building. They acquired some property in Gmine St. and in 1934 built a beautiful building and a conference room. The youth was organized in different movements, as Ha'shomer Ha'tzair and Betar.
When day classes concluded, the youths met around Hebrew and Yiddish schools.
The shows and artistic nights that they organized were surprising, This helped
to increase the economic funds of Jews in the town, and raised up culture. The
teachers of both schools attended both presentations. Some parents sent boys to
Hebrew school and girls to Yiddish school. Life continued this way in the town
until the Holocaust, and one thing is astonishing and symbolic: only two
buildings of all the buildings of the town survived undamaged. And these
buildings that were undamaged were the Hebrew and Yiddish schools. The
buildings were intact, but
There were four schools in Bereza: Talmud Torah, Tarbut Hebrew School, Yiddish school belonging to Tsisho (Central Yiddish School Organization), and the Popular School supported by the Polish government. The Yiddish school was the most methodical and nicest. This was achieved thanks to the whole Jewish community's collaboration. The high level of studies in these schools was like a splinter in the Polish authority's eye.
One day before the school year ended, a commission arrived from Brest's zonal education authorities, and decreed that the buildings were not suitable for schools. If classrooms weren't renovated according to the authorities' indications before the beginning of the next school year, they wouldn't allow them to continue teaching.
The people shuddered and addressed to the Central Bureau of Jewish Schools in Poland. The Tsisho was concerned about other similar sanctions in other schools around the country, and left the fate of the Bereza schools in the local activists' hands. These activists summoned an assembly and decided to go on with the school, no matter what happened. They elected a Commission, which decided to ask people to work for several days without pay. Many workers contributed their time. Carpenters fixed doors and windows. Locksmiths did their work as volunteers. Cart driver transported materials and bricks, and many people helped according to their abilities, to save the school's prestige.
Even school children were summoned for this hard work. The holidays were only two months, and the main work carried out by the volunteers took place during the evening and night, after the workers finished their regular jobs. They used to work 'til midnight, and enthusiasm was big.
When the renovation was complete, an inauguration took place under direction of Shloime Vainshtein, who coordinated all the building activities.
During a festive meeting, a toast was made: if somebody donated a certain amount of money so somebody else was invited to do the same. Thus 8000 zlotys were collected, and later used to buy furniture and teaching stuff.
A delegation consisting of Shloime Vainshtein, N. Zakheim and Niome Shapiro went to Warsaw to invite the authorities to check the renovated building. When the government authorities and the Tsisho arrived in town, they inspected the building and were impressed. The Polish representative congratulated the activists, emphasized the fact that a great deal was accomplished in a short time, and he signed the requested school permission.
This piece of news flew off and spread all over population, and the town of
Bereza was glad and satisfied. To our regret, it wasn't for long.
Meir Berman the painter, teacher and instructor, he was a bright impressionist painter. He painted a lot about men, and about Kartuz Bereza and its surroundings panorama. In the days of World War I, he arrived in Byalistok and there he shared his destiny with his wife.
Leibl Kaplan the composer, musician and chorus director, also a teacher and a bright educator. His pieces were poetical and full of feeling. He spent the days of war in Kartuz Bereza, and along with his wife was murdered by nazis.
Berl Shtuker, impressive liturgical singer, he had a powerful tenor voice, that made hearts tremble and impressed his listeners. His name got to be known in Western Europe and USA. In 1935 he emigrated to Israel and died there.
May their souls be linked with life's continuity!
In the winter nights, around Chanuka time, the house was warm; then we plucked the geese that were fattened for that occasion, and we fried their fat and made gribn.
In those moments, we children used to hear the tales about the Holy Brothers monastery, the Kartuzian monks who built the monastery in the XVII century, during Prince Saphia's times.
During those times, it was also used as a fortress with its towers and watchtowers, and high walls around. The inner walls were covered with polished marble. The floors, built on colored and beautiful mosaics. The furniture was charming, there were amazing paintings on the walls, the dishes and kitchen utensils were magnificent.
There were many legends about its treasures: gold, diamonds and precious stones. When the weather was nice, we used to hunt for treasures but at night we were afraid of getting to close, since they said that, after the monastery was destroyed, there were ghosts and evil spirits in the ruins. In the dark of night they would crawl and leave their hiding places, in order to go to Jewish homes, particularly stables, and make the horses run in a ghostly dance
That's the way the cart drivers of town used to tell it. All these tales stayed with us as we were wandering on the monastery's ruins, we breathed a sigh of relief when we reached the green meadow around the ruins, and we watched the landscape around us.
There were high white trunk pines (bereza) all around. From all of this, both the destroyed monastery and the trees, our town's name was born: Kartuz Bereza, which is Bereza Kartuzka in Polish.
We the Jews used to call our town "Bereze" intimately. My town, with wooden houses and tiled roofs between two or three adjacent two-story buildings, about ten streets, and a large and wide street in the middle, the road that begins in Warsaw and ends in Moscow. Lime tree groves, lilac plants, acacia that grew in my town and filled the summer air with nice scents for the heart. Old evergreen oaks and citrus trees full of red and yellow leaves in fall, that covered the ground with a colored carpet.
In summertime, our old house was hot. On the other hand, the winters were cold with lots of snow and frost. Between those two seasons, rain used to fall. We had no choice but to step on the muddy unpaved streets. Also the wooden sidewalks in the center of town were immersed in mud. In the dark evenings we had to walk with a candle, otherwise we'd sink into the mud.
In the '30s some of the streets were paved by the prisoners of the concentration camp who settled in our town. Due to this, our town was infamous throughout Poland and overseas as well. We already mentioned the concentration camp, and we must tell something else about it. In 1934 the polish fascist-anti-Semitic party called Sanatzia mimicked the ideology of its brothers in nearby nazi Germany, and installed a concentration camp in Bereza, in the same place where the military headquarters used to be in czarist times. They also annexed a little stone building at the town's entrance, where the army units were located. All this area was surrounded by a plank-fence 3 meters high, and on both sides there was barbed wire. The buildings inside the concentration camp were also surrounded by barbed wire. Completing the concentration camp model, they built cells. Some were full of water. They also built a torture-room.
A relative of mine, whose fate led him to taste that camp, told me that during interrogations they used to torture prisoners frightfully. They poured urine on his nose. Prisoners suffered from hunger, and they were forced to exercise out in the open in the worst weather conditions. That was hard labor!
There they built a concrete-stone factory for paving the roads and sidewalks. It was hard and exhausting to drag the concrete slabs down to its destination, and all this was done under a shower of punches. In the beginning the camp was used for communist who had been punished in an administrative way, without a trial. Young men and women, among them many Jews, were transferred here for distributing communist pamphlets, for hanging red pennants on the eve of May 1st, or for taking part in mass meetings against the regime. Sometimes they imprisoned spectators and criminals.
We used to see the prisoners when they were pushed into doing their paving-work. Dressed in rags, crestfallen I want to emphasize that, when they were rushed to complete their work, we had to close our curtain, to avoid seeing who were the people under arrest and telling their relatives about it.
Of course it was forbidden to have any conversation with the prisoners. It's hardly surprising that the name "Kartuz Bereza" began to mean: a place where every person is tortured and denigrated .
The prisoners were watched over by hundreds of guards who lived in front of the concentration camp on the other side of the main road; those were houses specially built for them. It was rumored that there were 500 guards. There were also secret policemen, called compassionated, who used to go round the area and and pay attention to everything. The policemen brought prosperity to the town. Tailors and shoemakers had work to do now. They sewed uniforms, they made boots for the officials, customers came to the warehouses not only in the fair-days.
There was poverty in town, but it was even worse in the White Russian villages. Peasants used to split a match in four. In the town people would make fun of them, saying that "each byelorus had a car" because they wore rubber-boots tied with linen, and these were made of old tires. In general the peasants came to town once a week, on the fair-day, to buy and sell merchandise. Some who had shoes, used to carry them on their shoulder, and put them on when they entered the church or the canteen. Their clothing, mostly home made, was made of linen; they had sheep furs, large coats, discolored scarves, and hats on their heads.
In the center of town, down in the market, there were stalls with fruits, vegetables and fish. The peasants used to sell wooden planks in carts or sleds. In the market there were a few small stores owned by Jews, with food, material, and clothing, as well as kitchen utensils.
In the town there were about 500 Jewish families and the rest were Poles and White Russians. In the Jewish homes and streets, Yiddish was the main language. Many gentiles understood and spoke Yiddish. The Jewish stores were closed on Saturday; and on Sunday they used to serve on the back door. The train station was far from town. It was rumored that Jews were influential in having the station built in Bluden, about 5 kilometers from Kartuz Bereza, so it wouldn't disturb the sabbath rest.
There were a few wealthy families in our town, and the others lived modestly. Many men emigrated to America, in search of sustenance, leaving their wives and children in God's mercy, hungry and indigent. I remember I used to take in secrecy "Chala" (plaited bread for sabbatical use) and food to poor families windows
The Jews were in charge of small commerce and crafts: traders, tailors, shoemakers, blacksmiths, and there was also an electrician and a clockmaker. Some Jews had stables with horses, cows and goats, and they worked in the orchard too. Milk and greens production helped to lighten the situation of many families. They hardly built in town, and for that reason many young couples had trouble finding a house, and they were forced to live with their parents. Like every town in Poland, Lithuania and Besarabia, after World War I the social and cultural life in Kartuz Bereza flourished.
Jews always stood out because of their solidarity feelings to their brothers, and they created social institutions to help the needy. There was in Bereza a Room for the poor to stay overnight [Linat Ha'tzedek], a Joint Savings Bank [Kupat Gmilut Chasadim], a Union of Women for Social Aid, a Popular Bank, and the Hospital. There's no need to emphasize the importance of these institutions. Jews always minded their children's education. There was a Hebrew school [Tarbut], and a seven-degrees Yiddish school. There was a Yiddish library, and of course right and left wing political organizations. There were also youth movements like The Pioneer [He'chalutz] and Betar. They collected money for KKL [Fund for land purchase in Israel] and for other Zionist purposes. The Yiddish trend organized a chorus and formed an amateur theatre, in which parents were very active they attended the the shows, and they took part too.
I was a student at the Yiddish school, took part in the theatre shows and sang in the chorus. Also the orthodox Jews, no less than the lay ones, had their own world where they fulfilled their spiritual needs. Their children studied at the cheder and the Talmud Torah. In the town there were some of these houses of study, built of wood, in front of the small Old Bet Medresh there was one, the Tabulitzky's, the worker's, and, in front of these, the shtibl [little house of religious studies]. The Bet Medresh of Chevra Kadisha [institution mainly in charge of funerals] was well built, not far from the market, and finally the Bet Medresh of the wealthy, in the street where they lived.
On festive days, even lay families that only observed Jewish tradition, went to pray. Although I wasn't the daughter of a chasidic, I was attracted by the chasidic shtibl and I keep it etched in my memory. This was the reason for it: my birthday, and my brother Berele's, was on Simchat Torah. Friends came over to my house and we all received presents, like a small flag with an apple and a little candle on its end. With flags in our hands, we rushed to the shtibl; there the party was specially crowded, and everyone danced and sang. Reb Osher, the famous painter and poet Moishele Bernshtein's father, always stood out because of his singing and dancing. Bernshtein's paintings reflect Jewish life in town, and it's tragic loss. Their pieces are like a prayer not only to our town Bereze but to all the Jewish communities destroyed by the nazi killers.
That's the way Moishele Bernshtein sang to our home town in his poem "My
little town Bereze":
Here I am, I come to you, Bereze town of mine,Poor but pretty town, pure and ethical. The rooted Jewish life beat in it until September 1939, when nazi Germany attacked Poland and lit the terrible bonfire of World War II. In this flame 6,000,000 Jews were consumed and Jewish life in Eastern Europe came to its end.
When the dawn slowly clears up.
I come to hear the tune of my father's Gemará,
Along with the bird's song at dawn.
I come to smell the scent of flowers
All this brings memories to me:
The smoke rising from chimneys,
The turmoil of cart drivers saddling their horses up,
Busy mothers very early in their kitchens,
And pigeons murmuring on the roofs.
Jews rushing very early to Beit Ha'midrash,
God-fearing, reverent and religious.
To you, Bereze, I come in late hours of night,
When couples take walks on the route,
Young men whispering between them,
Walking by wooded paths.
Streets and alleys, submerged in mud.
Down to the river stream around the town
To you, Bereze, consumed by fire, I come.
Nostalgic and trembling.
I weep in the nights, and for my days, your weeping, Bereze
My dear unforgettable home town!
It was my hometown, it was the Jewish Kartuz Bereza, it was and it no longer exists.
(From "The first half of my life", by Fanny Brener. Ed. Y. L. Peretz,
Tel Aviv, 1989).
I see with the eyes of my spirit the houses, orchards, streets and people who lived there. Everybody knew each other. It was a typical Jewish town, although Russians and Poles lived there as well. We certainly didn't notice them because their houses were on the side streets, not the main ones.
In our town there weren't employment offices; instead there were social and mutual aid institutions. One of those was the Linat Ha'tzedek [Room for Needy to Stay Overnight], something like our current Yad Sarah [Sarah's hand] for aid to the poor. For instance, at the end of every winter they collected ice in a dark basement, in case somebody might need it. They also supplied medicines to sick people. Another institution, Kupat Gmilut Chasadim [Savings bank for joint aid], made interest-free loans.
The Kartuz Bereza community looked after supporting those families that had no sources of income. There was an old slaughter man in our town, father of two widows with children. This old man passed away and the families were in need of support. The Town Council managed things so the slaughter man's grandson, a teenager, was able to learn the slaughter profession, and then take care of this task in town, to support both families.
Another example: for the local rabbi to have a little extra income, they decided that nobody would sell yeast in any store; only the rabbi's wife was allowed to sell it, in order to obtain a few pence.
There were four schools in our town: one state-run Polish school, and three private Jewish schools. One was for Yiddish learning, the second was the Talmud Tora and the third was called Yavneh [also known as Tarbut School as it joined the Tarbut net]. Children also studied privately. The religious teachers of the cheder were called Rabbi and they taught Yiddish reading and writing. Jews didn't send their children to the Polish school, although it was free. Almost every Jew sent their children to the Hebrew or Yiddish school, depending on the families beliefs. Each school had a joint council in charge of teachers, secretaries, cleaning staff and general maintenance staff salaries. Parents had to pay for their children's education.
We had four synagogues, one public bath house and one ritual bath house (mikve) in town.
Now I think about all the activity displayed by my town's people, their concern
and responsibility at the head of so many institutions, and all of this without
getting money or compensation, but voluntarily as we use to say now. Then I
didn't understand nor appreciate the effort and the personal devotion of
everyone who worked at the head of all those institutions without asking for
compensation. Now I admit the spiritual greatness of all these people. Right
now I can't remember, or perhaps I never knew who they were, but I feel I must
thank them in the name of my fellow citizens still alive and myself: thanks,
thanks a lot for all their work.
Because of the belief that souls rested in garbage, it was forbidden to say: "There's a lot of garbage in your house". This sentence would bring, God forbid, the disappearance of some member of the house.
A curse: "May the earth eject your bones".
Anyone who's born on Saturday, dies on Saturday (according to a reference from the post-biblical treaty "Gemara").
The angel of death is a black angel with a thousand eyes. When dogs bark, the angel of death is in town. One has to turn shoes and glasses upside down (paraphrasing a Gemara's saying)
A raven sitting on the roof is a bad sign.
Cows are mooing: a fire will happen soon.
Hens are crowing: bad sign. One has to measure a house's area with a hen up to the threshold: if the tail touches the threshold, it's necessary to cut it; if the head is touching the threshold, then the hen must be slaughtered and it's forbidden to eat its meat.
If a man thinks somebody has called his name, but nobody has, it means that he'll die soon.
If a house is located on a place where formerly there was a forest, members of that house will die.
To lose a ring is a bad sign. To find one is a good sign.
Future can be predicted according to a match's flame. In the past, people used to foretell the weather according to smoke and fire, then man's destiny was foretold this way too. Tomorrow's weather can be foretold with a lit match. If the match burns and remains in one piece, it's going to be good weather. If match is broken, a storm is coming.
It's forbidden to live in shadows; otherwise someone could come along and slap you in the face.
If a man dreams of a dead person giving him something, the dreamer will live many years.
To change the name of a sick person is a healing virtue.
It's possible to heal a sick person if somebody gives him teeth, but it must be the teeth of the donor himself
If a dying person moves his nose and bites his nails, it's a sign of his soon recovering.
A dead man can resuscitate if he's called by his name three times, but this won't extend his life very much. That's why is not really useful to revive dead
It's forbidden to point at the sky with a finger, and if somebody does, he must bite his finger (especially children).
To die on Saturday's eve is a good thing, at least you're exempt from hell, since it's closed on Saturdays.
Righteous and pious men usually die in the month of Elul.
When a man dies and there's a lot of people in his house, they must stand in two lines, in order to clear the way for the Angel, as if (symbolically) they were facing a bride. Kids are not allowed to stay in the house. The more that candles are lit around the deceased, the better for him. The water used to wash the deceased must be collected and thrown far from a human settlement.
It's forbidden to tight the thread when the shroud is being sewed. Only old women can sew the shroud. Above the shroud a white coat or "ritual robe" (talit/tales) is placed.
When the dead lies in the house, you must turn over the chairs and sit there.
It's dangerous to look through the eye of a needle when a dead person is in the house, because you can see Satan or the angel of death. The angel of death whets his knife's edge on three houses near the deceased's house two on the same side of the street and the third in front of it. If there's no Jew living there, the neighbor of the nearest house must throw the water away.
If the dead lies a whole day, a copper coin, bread and salt must be placed on his belly. If a bird eats the bread, that means that the man died from hunger and he's coming back to eat, or his soul comes dressed like a bird in order to take care of the dead.
If we move our ears closer to the threshold of a room where a dead person lies, we'll hear his laments asking for his sins forgiveness, but if somebody hears it, he'll die immediately. Therefore, listening is inadvisable.
The deceased must be carried on the palms if the cemetery is near. This is the procedure for dead commoners, but the righteous and pious must be carried on the palms even if the cemetery is far.
If two righteous people die on the same day, the shofar [ritual music instrument made of ram horn] must be played. People at the deceased's house must tear their clothes. The person who tears the clothes must be on one side of the deceased, and the one whose clothes are being torn, must be on the other side. The kaddish [prayer for the dead]) must be said at the cemetery.
If a bride dies after her wedding dress was made, she must be dressed in that dress and a veil. If the wedding dress wasn't ready, she must be covered only by the veil.
If a child dies, his body must be removed through the window; thus other children won't die. Nobody must pass through that window, or he'll die immediately.
When coming back from cemetery, people shouldn't enter the house immediately. First they have to throw the water [in which they washed their hands] outside, and the receptacle must be placed on the ground. After each person wets their hands, they must put down the receptacle and the next person must pick it up off the ground. Hands must be dried off on the walls, and if a handkerchief was used, it must never be used again.
Before going to bed, the ground must be swept, for that night angels are coming
to visit, and the house must be ready.
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