by Yehoshua Shnir
Translated by Libby Raichman
I was born and raised in the small town of Briegl. The town has become engraved in my memory. One of my memories is from the time when I was 6 years old, I mean, a small boy, because for us in Briegl, our childhood years lasted until the age of 3. When a boy turned 3, his hair was cut from his head and he was immediately sent to cheder. There he was showered with sweets and as he bent his little head over the large alphabet, he became a cheder boy and no longer a child.
The Fire in The Town
As already mentioned above, I was then a boy of 6 years old and I was studying with the teacher Reb Shimon Leib, of blessed memory, sitting at a table with a number of other boys, studying Chumash and beginning to learn Rashi. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, my sister Malka burst in and shouted: Reb Shimon Leib! A fire has broken out in the town! And my mother expects me to come home quickly; and when he asked how and where? … in the blink of an eye, we boys took advantage of the opportunity and freed ourselves of the tension of our studies, left the cheder and went out into the street at the site of the small marketplace, close to the Shtzianke. From a distance we heard screaming and heartrending cries. On that day, an exceptionally strong wind blew, causing the fire spread quickly from one house to another. People grabbed whatever they managed to take from their homes and ran to the river. They gathered at the flowing little river in the town where they felt more secure, and as the fire grew larger, they alerted the firefighters from Bachnye, Tarnov and Krakow, but by the time they arrived, the whole town was ablaze, in one flame. They only managed to extinguish the wooden walls that were still burning and had fallen in, on one another. This was how 90% of the town was burned. All that remained was the house of Sholem Kas and the Shtzianke on one side of the town, on the second side, Kvoretz Street, and the little street of Menashe Dine, and on the third side, a few houses near the wooden bridge that led to Akatzim. So, of all four sides of the town, what remained, resembled the burnt side branches of a burnt tree, the little town. And when the timber was still burning, many families whose houses had been burned, began to leave the town, some went to friends, and some to relatives in the surrounding towns and villages. Many of those who left then, did not return to the town. It is worth noting, that the wooden houses at the four corners of the town that were not burned in the fire, remained standing until the last World War. It is also notable that all those who left the town, received free train tickets.
The AidCommittee, or, as it was called in the town, the FireCommittee, was established on the same evening that the houses burned down, and people remained in the town without a roof over their heads. They were housed in the remaining houses that survived the fire. When the darkness of night enveloped the town, a downpour descended on the town truly a cloudburst. The oldest residents of the town said that they did not recall ever experiencing such a torrent of rain in Briegl. During the night, the rain brought so much water,
that in many of the lowlying areas, whole rivers were formed that were covered with halfburned doors, beams and boards. Soon, we boys, small ones, and older ones, took advantage of every pause in the rain, and headed for the rivers. Here we immediately began making things from whatever we found in the water and made rafts and boats. We bound the beams, the poles and the boards with wire, string, and nails, and sailed on our own rafts on the rivers, that were gifted to us from the heavens. Oh! Our happiness was so great, that many of us expressed the wish that we would have a fire in the town every year and a cloudburst of rain and a flood. This lasted for three days and three nights and the fourth day, was a beautiful summer's day. Then the residents of the houses that had burned down, came out and began to clean up and search for sections that could be used to repair the houses that had not entirely been burned. From these they built rooms and booths. In these days, the AidCommittee from the surrounding towns and villages arrived, bringing food, utensils, clothing, and money, for those affected by the fire.
Over a period of four weeks, the town was covered with rooms, booths and makeshift booths. In these structures, shops were organized, and the Jews began to rebuild the town again this time, no longer wooden houses but concrete houses built with bricks, twostoried, modern houses, according to a new plan: straight, wide streets with sidewalks, like all new, modern towns.
This is how the town burned down before my eyes, and this is how the Jews rebuilt the town before my eyes.
The Little Town
It is true, that after the fire, the little town acquired a new appearance. Unfortunately, it was no more than a new external appearance, because the town remained with its rare intrinsic quality, as if set in its mystical Chassidic beliefs, enveloped in its specific character. Nevertheless, at that time, as in many other towns, both big and small, there was a drive towards culture and scholarship and books of Yiddish and Hebrew classics were devoured. In Briegl there was not even a recollection of something of this kind. It had not entered anyone's mind, that it was needed at all. Briegl had its welltrodden path, going back many generations. And if it desired something newsworthy, something exciting, in an otherwise ordinary life, this too, was created in the town with great effort, because there was no shortage of intrigue. In this way, factions developed in the town some in favour of the Rabbi, Reb Tuvyele and some against him. There was a lot to talk about, and a lot about which to quarrel, and the people of the town was divided into two factions. Those on the side of the Rabbi were called Achdut, and the opposition were called
Yashkes. It was normally accepted both by the Achdut and by the Yashkes that if the Achdut say ‘day’, then the Yashkes say ‘night’. And this was the politics, the social and cultural content of the town. I must also add that the disputes were caused by the fact that all sides established beautiful Jewish institutions that existed in our lives until the last war of Hitler, may his name be erased. During that time Reb Wolf Lube erected the Wolf Lube's Synagogue, and others built the large Chassidic House of Prayer. A third faction built the town's synagogue. Immediately after the fire, the only bath house was built in the town, that also housed a ritual bath. Life continued in this way for many years. When things were a little settled and life became boring and cheerless, it was as if a calamity descended from heaven. And this time, an eminent, holy man. The Rabbi of Oft. His name was very famous, and people spoke of him with great respect, but his arrival in Briegl was not good, not for him and not for the town. With his arrival, there grew, from the former Achdut, adversaries to the Rabbi of Oft. Do not ask what took place in the town. There was resistance, abuse, libel and such curses, that even the Tochachah does not even possess it.
The disputes were a daily event. They turned into hideous fights and both sides lost their moral equilibrium and sense of decency. There were those among the supporters of the Rabbi, Reb Tuvyele, who dared to frame the Oft Rabbi with false accusations and denounced him to the police. The denunciation was accompanied by a nice gift (a bribe). The police arrested the Rabbi of Oft. The news of his arrest spread like the wind. Spontaneously, 80% of the Jewish community gathered and staged a demonstration in protest against the arrest of the Rabbi of Oft. His arrest turned into a public scandal. The Jews from the surrounding towns and villages also protested strongly. Representatives of the Jewish community became involved, and on the third day, the Rabbi was allowed to go free. On that same day, all the representatives of the Jewish community and of the City Hall, gathered and came to the rabbi, asking for forgiveness and to be pardoned. They expressed their absolute faith in him, but the Rabbi of Oft had decided not to stay, and a short time later, left the town. But Chassidic history, and the history of the town remain tainted by these events.
At the Center of the Jewish Community in the town
Although the scandal of the Rabbi of Oft gradually settled, a rift remained between both sides, for many years. And as the representatives were concentrated in the Chassidic prayer house,
a clique was created around them, that dominated the Jewish community and the City Hall in the town, for more than 20 years. They knew how to maneuver regarding all the issues that arose in the town, utilizing every weakness in each issue, separately. In this way they managed to involve Advocate Dyches (by the way, the only assimilated Jew in the town) in their clique, the This was after the (pogrom) that the Poles inflicted upon the Jews of the town. Only then, a mistrust of the longstanding head of the Jewish community, Chanoch Klapholtz, arose. He was unable to avoid the pogrom in his unsuccessful negotiations with the mayor, Dr. Bzsheski, who was an outspokenly declared antiSemite, and one of the agitators of the pogrom; but then, when the Jews of the town had already paid with the lives of four victims, with many more assaulted, and many Jewish shops plundered, only then was Chanoch Klapholtz removed, and in his place, Shmuel Lefelholtz became head of the community. At the first elections after the pogrom, Advocate Dyches was elected head of the community.
The First Appearance of a Youth Organization in Briegl
After the rise of Poland, when some of the youth were discharged from military service, a few of them stayed for some time in the larger cities and had a taste of the new trend of reading books, of theatrical presentations etc. Then a small group of the youth were permitted to establish a youth organization with a library. They collected money for the Jewish National Fund and also organized theatre presentations. When this trend appeared in the town, all the Chassidic groups used whatever means they could, to oppose them, but they were not successful. We were in conflict with the Chassidic groups for many years but the hegemony in the Jewish community and in the City Hall, remained in their hands. The reason for this was, because the central Zionist leaders did not find the appropriate manner and use of language to appeal to the common people who were more inclined to us, than to the Chassidic group.
When Advocate Krietenshtein, an active Zionist, came to the town, we began to encourage him to entertain the thought of intervening in the Jewish community and in the City Hall. The activist for this idea, was Mendl Zelengut, may the Lord avenge his blood. But in the meantime, the Zionist organization in the town, expanded. Young boys from the Chassidic prayer house and girls from Chassidic homes, joined the youth organization, that in time became the Hashomer Ha'tza'ir. The Maccabi organization also expanded. The growth of these organizations evoked a panic among the Chassidim that resulted in physical aggression and the burning of books in the library, until it reached a trial. Then an agreement was reached: both sides cancelled the lawsuits, but we all remained stressed by internal matters, and were therefore unable to participate in local political issues in the town.
Eventually Dr. Advocate Krietenshtein left Briegl while we were in the process of building a Community Centre in the town. My suggestion was, that we should make a chaincollection that each one of us, should belong to a group of five, and each one of this group of five, should establish one more group of five and the contributors should demand the equivalent of a plaske a day. This was a cigarette that cost one groshen. This came to half a zlotte per week and in a short time, we managed to collect a nice sum of money. All the revenue from the undertakings by our dramatic circle and income from the balls (dances) etc, were pledged to our cause. The entire youth applied all their efforts so that we could reach the goal of building the holy sanctuary for the town. All our activities were directed towards this Community Centre.
We purchased a site, and over a period of three to four years, we erected the Community Centre. During that time, Dr. Advocate Hurwitz, a Jew, arrived in the town from Radomishle. He stood for the common people and did not establish any connections not with the Zionists and not with the followers of the Chassidic Rabbi. At his own initiative he embarked on an election campaign against Dr. Dyches and was actually very successful. But we did not utilize this opportunity correctly. But what did happen was, that Advocate Hurwitz unmasked Dr. Dyches, and even more so, the clique of the Rabbi. Then the clique made a change to its list of candidates, and in Dr. Dyches' place, came Dr. Bloch, a Bundist, a religious socialist. The Bund stood for private religious tolerance, and when Dr. Bloch arrived in a shtetl like Briegl, he recognized that a field of communal activity was spread out before him. That was his dream. He started mixing among the circles of the clique and began to attend daily prayer services in the town's synagogue. This strengthened his campaign among the Chassidic groups, and he was accepted by them, with open hands. Another couple of years passed in this way, until the elections for the City Hall approached.
We are Going to the City Hall Elections
Only in 1931 or 32, after a long time had passed since the intensive work that was done for the Community hall, we remained, as it were, without work. It happened that some of the declared active Zionists in the town, became proprietors at age 32, that gave them the right to be elected as members of the City hall, and also of the Jewish community, and also many others who sympathized with us and expected there to be a representative of the Zionist organization. This, and the ultimate stand taken by Mendl Zelengut, that we should have our own list of candidates standing for election, put pressure on the local committee. Then we adopted a very fair decision, that we expect that our people should be represented on the general list of the Jews, together with the people of the Rabbi. This only came about because in Briegl
a precedent existed, dating back many decades earlier, that there should be only one list, both for Poles and for Jews. Thirteen representatives were elected seven Poles and six Jews, despite the fact that the Jews constituted 80% of the population of the town.
As the election days drew nearer, a warm election atmosphere permeated the town. Then, unofficial conversations began between our people and the Rabbi's group. I must point out, that there were among them, some who reacted positively to our request, that led to an official meeting for negotiations. At this meeting, the head Rabbinical authority, Reb Moshe Lifshitz, Advocate Bloch and David Lefelholtz participated on behalf of the religious group; may the Lord avenge their blood. Yehoshua Shnir, Mendl Zelengut and Ya'akov Faust represented the local Zionist committee; from the reception that we received from them, we soon felt, that there was noone with whom to speak. When we presented our proposal that one of our people should be represented on the general list of candidates, we immediately received an absolute negative answer. Then in our local committee, we decided to proceed with our own list.
Then the election campaign flared up in the town. The governor of the province tried to get involved because the government institutions were not interested in candidates being selected from different lists. This began to be uncomfortable for them as this could unmask the entire rampage that took place in the town every year. Advocate Tzigi, a liberal Pole, a friend of the Jews who settled in the town in 1918, at the time of the pogrom, called a public gathering in the town and delivered a fiery speech, denouncing the pogrom. At the gathering, this gentleman shouted out: a disgrace, a stain on the existence of Poland. Is this what we fought for, that Poland should become independent so that we can crown her with pogroms? Advocate Tzigi pleaded with the Rabbi's group to include us in the list, but under no circumstances, would they change their attitude. They convinced the governor of the province and Advocate Tzigi by assuring them that nothing would come of our list.
Legally, I was voted out as mayor, and in such a hostile clique atmosphere, we entered into an election campaign. Today, I can say that the hostile attitude that the clique adopted against us, was one of the most favourable reasons for our list. But at that time, it had a serious effect on us, yet it created assurance among us. We searched for a way to forgo our decision in an honourable way, so we submitted our list for only one candidate, and his deputy. I was the town councillor and Mendl Zelengut, the deputy, and when we began our election activities, we discovered that our list evoked great sympathy and support among various circles in the town. In the course
of a few days, we were already certain that we had reached beyond the four hundred votes, that we needed for our list. The mood in favour of our list, grew from day to day. It was, however, already too late to submit a new list. Then Dr. Bzsheski and the Catholic priest, called upon us and asked us to support the candidate on their list and they would support our list. Our reaction to the two of them, was one of mistrust because we still remembered them from the pogrom in Briegl. And what else? We knew that they had a secret agreement with the clique, [the supporters of the Rabbi] for many, many, years and thanks to the clique, Dr. Bzsheski was elected mayor in the town. Many people in the town called him The Pogrom Mayor.
On the day of the elections, tens of Chassidim of Velipol gathered and requested a meeting with me, about the elections. I went to them. They expected me to promise that I would support them. My answer was that we had organized our list, not for our Jews, nor for yours. We did this because we wanted to break, once and for all, the principle of our Jews, and your Jews, that was introduced by the clique, together with the Rabbi, who used their position in their own interests and in the interests of those who were close to them. And if I am elected, I will be a spokesman for all the Jews in the community regardless of the group, to which they belong. Their answer was that 150 of their voters will be voting for our list. At 10pm, the ballot boxes were sealed and at the first count of a few hundred votes, our list stood in first place and when the numbers reached the first 1000 votes, we already had double the number of votes that we needed for our candidate.
The Last Outcome of the Elections
Finally, what was evident was, that our list attracted the largest number of votes: 2970 votes. No candidate in the town, had ever attracted such a large number of votes, and according to local stipulations, the candidate who receives the largest number of votes, becomes the mayor. This is how I was elected mayor in the town, but due to local politics by the clique, that introduced the ruling that only a Pole could be the mayor, and we did not want to quarrel with government organizations in the town, we relinquished the position, and Suyay became the mayor. He came in second place (more than 2,200 votes). Of the Rabbi's clique, only one candidate drew 400 votes and the great Advocate Bloch, suffered the greatest defeat he received only 270 votes. In order to avoid new elections, we agreed to the request of the nonJewish candidates that their 5 candidates on the list of the clique, be included, despite the fact.
that they were not elected. And we gave them the bread of kindness this time! After the elections, they walked around with their heads down, as if they had been whipped. They felt that they were no longer the leaders in the town.
Right after the elections, I was invited to the Governor of the Province who thanked us well for our active management of the elections, and we discussed future activities of the Town Hall. I requested that one representative of the Jews should be included in the district council. This was a Government organization that ruled over the town and its surrounding small towns and villages. He answered positively to my request and actually emphasized, that despite pressure from the rivals, it was generous on our part that we are interested in the whole district. It should be noted that Briegl was the largest district in Poland. It included 126 small towns and villages. I feel it necessary to mention Mr. Shteinhof, of blessed memory, and his printing works he helped us very much at the elections.
Our Activities at the Town Hall
Our great victory did not spoil us. I did not even take up the position of Deputy Mayor, only the Social Division. With the way we conducted ourselves, we won the trust of both the Jews and the Gentiles. The general population were convinced that we genuinely wanted to do something for its good, and indeed, I introduced a reorganization of the Social Division. I initiated the notion that the people should not need to come to the Town Hall to take their share of coal, potatoes, and other district allotments, and drag their filled sacks. They dragged these as they could not afford to pay for transport. I implemented that the council should deliver these items by horse and cart that were housed at the fire brigade. I also implemented changes that were favourable for the people. It should also be noted that in Briegl, more than 25% of the Jewish population were in need of social assistance. Within a short time, a list was created of the names and addresses of everyone, both Jews and Gentiles, who made a request, a wish, and turned to Yehoshua Shnir. I do not recall a single occasion that I was not able to satisfy someone's wish.
At the first meeting in the City hall, I suggested that every proposition put forth, should be forwarded to the towncouncillor, four days before the meeting so that each one of us could give it some thought, develop a point of view and a position, for each question. In this way we would not have to sit at the meeting and fume about each question. My proposition was accepted, only thanks to the stand taken by the Gentile towncouncillors. I handled a longstanding struggle against a proposition that was put forward by the previous council's term of office who proposed, that on the days of the local fairs in the town, it should be forbidden
for wholesalers of various foods, to make their purchases until 9am. The idea was in favour of the civilian population, so that they would not have to bear the pressure of the small merchants and the wholesalers. If the proposition was accepted then it would have served as a precedent, and it could come to the point that shopkeepers with tables at the marketplace, would lose the right to sell their wares before 9am. In order to reject the proposition, we had to come up with quite an extraordinary, spectacular, secondary statement. We based our argument on the fact that it would actually affect the farmer. The peasant farmers arrive in the town, mostly by foot, before dawn, so that they will be able to go home and return to work as quickly as possible and if the proposition was accepted, we would restrict them considerably. The debate about this question stretched over many sessions. We received support for our stand in the District Council, that was the representative and the defence for the peasant farmers in the surrounding areas. With its assistance, we succeeded after a long struggle, to annul the proposition.
The Electricity Issue
Many of the residents of the town who used electric lighting, were in arrears with their payments for electricity, so much so, that the City Hall found itself with a great deficit in the electrical statistics. As the Akatzimer electricity station was owed a lot of money, the City Hall wanted to take drastic action against those who were in debt to them, by cutting off their electricity and collecting their outstanding debts through the courts. I exerted great effort to ensure that such a decision should not be taken. My suggestion was, that we should divide the debts into 12 monthly instalments, to enable the residents to continue to enjoy the benefits of electric lighting, and to repay the debt. For the City Hall, the benefits would be twofold: firstly, for their actions towards the residents, and secondly, we would collect double the amount of money that would enable the City Hall to lower its debt, and with time, settle the whole debt. My suggestion was finally unanimously accepted. And as an arrow from a bow, the news that my suggestion was accepted, spread through the town. Then a festive atmosphere prevailed in the town, as it was said: and for the Jews there was light and happiness. Oh! There were many, many cardinal questions that we read, that were in favour of the general population, as well as for the City Hall; but memory wanes when trying to remember it all.
There is still one thing that I must mention at the second elections, we were the ones who dictated the list of candidates in the City Hall. Of us, there were:
Yehoshua Shnir, Mendl Zelengut, Ya'akov Faust and the teacher, First. Of the clique, there were only two: Dr. Bloch and Dovid Lefelholtz.
May these words of mine, serve as an eternal remembrance of our dear, sacred Jews of our small town. Yes, they once were, they are no longer here and will no longer exist.
What a pity!
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