When the shooting of the cannons had stopped and the air was cleared of the suffocating gun powder, people came out of the trenches and saw that all the bridges to the outside world had been cut off.
Everything that had been built over the period of generations with effort and toil was no longer there. The chaos was almost total. Business and industry that had been built and developed were altogether destroyed. The large Russian market that was developed by the pioneers from the Brzeziner clothing industry had disappeared entirely. The institutions that were created along with them had also disappeared.
The worst happened to the pioneers themselves. Most of them sought to save themselves in great and deep Russia. But with few exceptions they all perished, some from the revolution in Russia and others from various afflictions and misfortunes that multiply in times of war and unrest.
The result was that our town looked like the world after the deluge, and the entire population stood as if before the time of Creation.
Anyone with a little imagination can envision the picture of that time. Each person by himself and everyone together had to begin anew. Consequently, it is no wonder that the years after the First World War brought with them a great exodus of the younger set. Emigration was either to the United States or to France and Belgium. A small number of idealists emigrated to Palestine, to Eretz Isroel [Land of Israel]. One way or another they had to start from the beginning, so one could start at least where there were opportunities, both financial and spiritual!
However, the majority remained and made great efforts to organize a new life in every way economic, communal, and cultural.
It is remarkable that in all areas new elements and new strengths arose. In almost all cases, the leaders of the different institutions were people who had played no role at all before the First World War. The war had brought an immense psychological revolution, and the crisis in every strata of the population was so great that that of itself is worth a study by sociologists especially since all this happened in a natural, democratic, and evolutionary manner, in a manner that today one could barely imagine possible without bloodshed.
The world has reverted considerably from that liberal democratic springtime that dominated the period after the First World War, but my task is not to bemoan that lost era. My task is to briefly record what happened from that time until the destruction, the total destruction of our town.
As the Torah has already stated, Am eyn kemakh eyn toyre [If there is no flour, there is no Torah]. It is therefore necessary to begin with how our town earned its first bit of bread during that time.
From the accounts in this book, it is already known that our town consisted only of tailors. Not, God forbid, that one did not find other trades, only that for us, without scissors and an iron, nothing could get started. My grandfather, who came from Warsaw and was called the tavern keeper in town, used to say that when he went to Warsaw to visit his parents' graves, they asked him, Reb [title of respect] Szulem, is it true that your rabbi also sews pants? Understand that these were exaggerations, and as for exaggerations, I think, no one had a greater pedigree than our Brzeziners. Not, God forbid, because they were bad people, but only that they had imagination. And often this was all they had. But in this case, it actually helped.
Therefore, when the Polish war began and a war surely requires an army, and an army must certainly be clothed as you can probably guess, the first order to outfit the new Polish Army was actually filled by Brzeziners. Tailors cleaned off the heads of their machines, and they took to the work with gusto. One could feel such a fever in the town, as if everything had renewed itself; the machines, nature, and especially the feeling of again becoming a productive element grabbed kith and kin, and the tempo increased from day to day.
I myself was still a child, but I remember how the town blessed two men for this accomplishment Pincie Jakubowicz and Szlama Szwarcpelc. The first was a son of Perec Jakubowicz, who was already renowned as an important magaziner [owner of small clothing enterprise] before the war. And the second, who did not play any kind of significant role in the industry before the world war, made the projects possible because of the fact that he could finance them.
After them others came. It did not take long before the Brzeziners had outfitted the Polish Army.
What else? There were no longer any sales markets. Russia was shut tight with seven locks, especially from Poland. The economic situation began to worsen again. But this time it was after a period of relative prosperity, and as we know, it seems harder following a time when one has had the taste of better times.
People were very embittered. At that time help came from America. Not only from our countrymen, but also general help came by way of JOINT [American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee], an organization that was very well-known in those days, and also from other general American Jewish charitable institutions.
Then various economic institutions were created first of all, a bank that would help develop commerce, a master-tailors' union that would organize the masters from the small workshops, and together with these a workers' union, a union that would speak in the name of all workers. Also as a result of the organization of the working class, the magaziners and also the other merchants of the town organized themselves.
Almost the entire town was organized, the worker sector as well as the balebotishe [boss/owner] sector. And everyone, each in his own way, worked intensively to improve the economic situation of its members.
It is also interesting to add that most of the organizations had their own minyens [groups of at least ten men] where one also went on Shabes [Sabbath] to daven [pray] together.
In the interim the situation in the country had begun to improve. The Polish government received large loans from America, and the peasants in the country (71% of the population) began to clothe themselves for the first time in their history. The Brzeziners developed the production of clothing to such a high level that one could get a pair of trousers practically for groszen [small change], so that at least once a week, Sunday, one could go to church in a pair of new pants. The pants did not last long, but in the meantime, they sewed new pants, and many of the new entrepreneurs (magaziners) became well-to-do.
One of those new magaziners was Mojsze-Icek Frankensztajn. He had already worked his way up and had begun to travel around the world looking for new markets where inexpensive goods made by Brzeziner tailors could be sold. He discovered what we all already know today, that most of the world goes around naked some because they have nothing with which to buy clothing and others who did not believe in dressing themselves. In any case there were still enough places to market pants, men's jackets, vests, greatcoats, overcoats in one word, We had plenty to do.
In this way a new stampede for foreign markets began in the town. And prosperity came again for a time until they saturated one foreign market, and then they had to find a new market. So we see the cycle of boom and bust, always an attendant phenomenon of the entire economic life of our town.
It is interesting to describe a few features of the work process itself, how it was all organized:
The magaziner was the one who worked to fill orders or to generate stock. He bought material for winter clothing such as bolts of fabric and material for linings in Lodz, Zgierz, or Bialystok. The wagon driver brought home the material late at night. The town already knew that they would be cutting [the material] at such and such a magaziner, and so all the master tailors set out to go there to get work. Some sewed pants, some made jackets, and some made vests. Each tailoring workshop made one part of the suit, and later the garment was assembled. It was usually on Friday that the various craftsmen brought back the completed work to the magazine.
It was an interesting scene when all the gates opened to send forth the apprentices, no bigger than Lilliputians so that they could barely be seen under the stack of jackets that they carried on their small bellies. They ran to turn in the work to the magaziner before candle lighting time.
Only on Saturday night did they return to settle accounts. The magaziner would find all sorts of defects in the work there a sleeve hangs a little twisted, there the fold was not properly pressed. All, you understand, aimed at one thing to take off a tsenerl (10 groszen) from the piece of work. But in the end they came to an understanding and asked when Reb Chaikel would again be cutting, meaning when would they have a new batch of work.
Most of the time, among the different craftsmen, the vest tailor came off best. They criticized him the least. And it is interesting that they were the most respected. It is still a mystery to me today why this was so. After all, it was the least important part of the suit, and yet these craftsmen were more respected than the other tailors. It seems the secret was in the people themselves. The vest tailors were a more intellectual group. They were also small in number, and consequently, they kept themselves a little apart from the larger mass of tailors.
With time, a large number of entrepreneurs developed. I want to list here just a few of them the firm Frankensztajn-Wolek and Tuszynski, two firms of the brothers Sulkowicz, the brothers Dymant, Mojsze Raszewski, and the Celcer brothers.
Among the tailors there were a number of very respected Jews who played a role in the community's social life. Later a number of them became magaziners themselves and worked themselves up, not only financially but also to occupy important positions in various institutions. Among them it is worthwhile to mention Zachariasz Tandejter, Chakel Grynszpan, Mojsze Friede, Mote Bercholc, and others.
Often when you speak or think about our town, it seems that the impression that my grandfather's friends in Warsaw had about Brzezin was justified. But the truth is, there were other elements in town. As in the saying we had, As the wheel turns (meaning the wheel of the machine), so also turns the town.
So, for example, there were a number of spats makers who made the boot legs for the shoemakers, both in town and also in the surrounding areas. Jews were also the owners of three brick factories that were put up beyond the town Mojsze (Kalmus) Rozenberg, my older uncle Jehuda Krongrad, and Chaiml Dymant. An attempt was also made to bring a new industry into town stocking makers, but the attempt did not succeed. In this area, a great deal was accomplished in other towns around Lodz, such as in Aleksandrow, Zdunska Wola, and others. Brzezin was, until the last moment, a center of tailoring in the best sense of the word. Its goods were varied both in quality and in quantity.
A printing shop which was always in Jewish hands also existed in town. The first owner was a certain Herr Gutsztadt, who later emigrated to America. Then for a short time, the printing shop was taken over by the yellow-haired Natan Leczycki. The only Jewish typesetter in town was Eli Mote, a Gerer Hasid who was called by his wife's name Eli Mote Genendl's. This went on until the beginning of the war for Polish independence.
Then a Leipzig printer named Landau arrived in Brzezin and took over the print shop, and in that very place, the writer of these lines received his vocational education. Later Wolf Szeps opened another printing shop, which was later managed by his son-in-law, Jakub Potasiewicz, a Tshenstokhover [from Czestochowa] young man who took Wolf Szeps' daughter, Ita-Malka, as his wife.
In order to develop industry and really help individual merchants get through difficult times, a number of financial institutions were established. The most popular and best managed of them was the cooperative bank that was supported by the Fundacja (Foundation), which was a division of JOINT. At the head of the bank for many years was Aron Buki, Jeszaja-Ber Bialer, and Mojsze Frohman. Besides his son-in-law, Jakub Potasiewicz, the Tshenstokhover, there were hired clerks Dawid Ikka, Brucha Jakubowicz, Rajze Maliniak, and others. The bank had a very good name and was managed well until the thirties, when quarrels began that caused the downfall of this fine and useful institution.
Magaziners bank:The magaziners created their own financial apparatus to help them carry out big projects that from time to time required larger investments.
Gmiles-khsodim-kase [fund for loans without interest]: A gmiles-khosodim-kase also existed that gave loans without interest to owners and other needy people. However, the loans had to be guaranteed and paid back. Mordechai Winter was at the head for many years.
Most of the payments for work and other debts were made by promissory notes and kvitlekh [informal IOU notes]. The promissory notes were obligatory contracts and furnished with stamp-marks where their price was a specified percentage of the sum for which the promissory note was drawn. By contrast, a kvitl was a private obligation, as with an IOU for us in America, and it was good only when and if the one who drew it up was willing to pay. Legally the kvitl had no value.
In addition, two government banks also existed PKO [Polish Guardian Bank] and Kasa Oszczednosciowa [Savings Bank]. There was also a private German bank. All worked with businesses and were able to exist thanks to the enterprise of the Jewish population.
It is impossible to write about Brzezin and not include the everyday way of life of all segments of the population. It would be no exaggeration if I were to say that our town was a miniature of the entire Jewish population in Poland. So, for example, one found there Hasidim, the middle class, the enlightened, the simple people, and the intellectuals of all kinds. There were a few of each type. Let me now tell you bit by bit a little about each of them just a little.
I will begin with the Hasidim. In the town there were all sorts of followers of Polish rebbes [Hasidic rabbis] such as the Gerer [from Ger/Gora Kalwaria], the Aleksander [Aleksandrow Lodzki], the Grodzisker [Grodzisk], the Skernievitser [Skierniewice], the Radziner [Radzyn], the Ostrowtser [Ostrowiec], and the Amshinower [Mszczonow], as well as two local rebbes one actually born in Brzezin. True, he did not have a great name, but he conducted a tish [rebbe's table where followers gathered], and women would run to him with kvitlekh [notes with petitions] in a word, a rebbe. He lived amid great poverty on Courtyard Street at Mojsze Kopel's [building], and his fortune was also not grand. I do not know his name or his origins, perhaps others do. The second rebbe was an out-of-towner from somewhere. He lived at Mojsze Kalman's in Apothecary Street (its correct name was St. Anna Street), and there he conducted a tish for some time with the craftsman group, but in the end he had to leave Brzezin because the Hasids did not think highly of him, and he was unable to gain any respect in town.
The primary Hasidim were the Gerer. The most distinguished inhabitants of the town belonged to this group. Several of them, such as Reb Lajbus-Mendel Pinczewski and Perec Jakubowicz, were even tish-zitsers [those who sit at the table] at the Gerer rebbe's. Also well known were Arje-Dawid Perlmuter; Chanina Janower and his father-in-law husband of the dark-haired Sura who was named Mojsze-Majer (incidentally their son Abraham-Icek later became the moyre-hoyroe [rabbi who renders decisions on rabbinic law] in town); and then an important resident like my great uncle, Abraham-Pejsach, who was the treasurer in the Gerer shtibl and for some time treasurer of the Khevre Kdishe [Burial Society]; Szmuel-Zeinwel Broder; Jozef Sojfer; Benjamin Herszenberg; Benjamin Swiatlowski; my grandfather; and the Gerer khazn [cantor] (Leczycki). Later, younger Hasidim joined who were no less prominent and in most cases were more aggressive in the domain of piety and Yidishkayt [Jewishness] as they understood it.
Among the younger Hasidim were Pincie Jakubowicz, Pincie-Noech Parzeczewski [pronounced Pazhenchevski] (Fiszel Szochet's son-in-law), Fiszel and Lajb Gostynski (Jancze's two sons), and others. They were the pirkei kehune [young priests] who also took upon themselves to fight against the growing apikorses [heresy] in town.
Quarrels and fights in public places broke out when the young and free desecrated the Sabbath in public. Some of those who desecrated the Sabbath were worshipers from the Gerer shtibl who were thrown out of there for wearing a necktie or some another offense. In later years this behavior was not seen, since most of the children of the Hasidim remained within the confines of orthodoxy and grew to such strength in the town that all groups drew their leaders from among them.
The Gerer shtibl was located in Szotenberg's house [building] and took up two large rooms, which were always crowded, both during the week as well as on Shabes. The din was very great. Someone was always arguing with someone else, sometimes about study, sometimes about politics, and often about business. In a word, the shitbl was the center of all kinds of activities religious, educational, and political, as well as economic.
Although there were other places than the shtibl for carrying on business, nevertheless, all arbitration and controversies were settled there by the Hasidim, strictly among themselves. About tsdoke [charity], it was arranged. The Hasidim knew what was going on among themselves, and they saw to it that whoever needed it got help. Understand that everything was discreet. Retaining a confidence was not always successful, but nevertheless things were done with tact and good intentions.
The shtibl subsisted on small fees paid by those who were better off. The poor Hasidim were not charged any fee. The chief income of the shtibl was from the aliyes [calls to read from the Torah] that were purchased every Shabes before the Torah reading. Anyone who wanted to buy a prestigious aliye, like Shishi [sixth aliye, a very desirable portion] or Mafter [special aliye before the reading of the Haftorah], had to pay well.
Those interested in good aliyes were not lacking, and dramatic scenes were played out during the purchase of aliyes. And they had readings in both rooms. They did daven together, but the reading of the Torah was arranged so that one could buy the aliye twice for the same minyen.
In the first room, where the less ardent Hasidim or the youngsters who also loved to shmues [chat] were getting ready to read from the Torah, the aliyes were a little cheaper, and the competition was not as great. There the bal-koyre [reader of the Torah] was Eliezer-Mendel Rozen (Majer Melamed's son); in the second room, where it often came to quarrels and rivalry, Jakub-Aron Badower was the reader, a nice quiet man who would not hurt a fly. Often, however, he was pulled into various political games about which he himself had not the slightest notion.
For example, this is what happened once during an election campaign when my father got a desire to have Shishi, but no matter how much he raised the price, Henoch Pinczewski always outbid him. And when Henoch grew tired, the yellow-haired Natan (Leczycki) raised the price until my father gave up his desire to have Shishi.
I myself was by that time a less ardent Hasid and prayed in the first room. While chatting, I overheard Fiszel Szulc (Lipman's son), and he related with great excitement that Josel Szolem's [the author's father] (Maliniak), a member of the Mizrachi party [Orthodox Zionists], had been properly taught a lesson he had a yen for Shishi, that Tsinist! [Zionist]. And since I was involved in the story, and my father's honor was also important to me, I, in the Gerer Hasidic manner, did not think about it a long time and threw a punch at him, so that he saw his great-grandmother [saw stars].
There was a racket and a shouting until my father came in and first properly slapped my face for raising my fist and especially on Shabes. In short, my father decided to leave the Gerer shtibl. If it actually comes to punches and indignities, that is no place for us, he said, and we actually left for home immediately.
But before I leave the theme of the Gerer shtibl, I want to relate one more episode about the odd custom among the Gerer Hasidim.
As I previously mentioned, everyone had to pay a membership fee. But very rarely did everyone pay on time, and the shtibl found itself in financial difficulties. Therefore, once a year on Shabes, they would take away the talesim [prayer shawls], and since no one could possibly be without a talis, then for sure everyone would have to redeem the talis immediately at moytse-shabes [close of Shabes].
What tricks went on during such a Shabes in the shtibl is not hard to imagine. People fought like lions, sprang through the windows. No one wanted to give up his talis of his own free will. They were taken from everyone from those who had paid and also from those who did not have to pay because of poverty so that no one would be shamed. At moytse-shabes the gaboim[synagogue trustees] went around to everyone and returned the talesim to those who were not guilty and squared accounts with those who were in arrears, and after that, everything went along normally until the next seizure of talesim.
The Aleksander shtibl was located in my uncle Jehuda's (Krongrad) house. They davened there for many years. They did not conduct any widespread activity like the Gerers did. Also they were not the same sort of Hasidim as the Gerers no great scholars were to be found among them. But the people were middle class and distinguished. Among them were Hersz-Icie Edelson (Abraham Pejsach's son-in-law), Szymsi Erlich, Abraham Szafman (secretary of the Jewish community), Fiszel Shoykhet (Lasker), Chaskel Najman, Jeszaja-Ber Bialer, the tall Szlama, and others. Actually the tall Szlama had a house in the marketplace and a large vacant square behind the house that he had donated to the Hasidim so that they could build a building for themselves there. They did accomplish this, and the Aleksander shtibl was the only one that had its own building.
The Aleksander Hasidim did not behave like the Gerer, but piety was not lacking there either.
Among the Ostrowtser rebbe's Hasidim was rov [official town rabbi] Reb Jekutiel Zalman Borensztajn. Although he had to pray in the town synagogue among the ordinary middle class people, he nevertheless found occasion several times a year to pray in the shtibl.
The shtibl boasted about the rare visits of the rov, and a greater number of people always attended on such a happy occasion. My uncle Jehuda was also an Ostrowtser Hasid.
My rebbe, Reb Szmuel-Mojsze (Litwak) Gajer (although not a Hasid), also prayed in the Ostrowtser shtibl (we also studied there and in those years it was almost the largest kheder [elementary school] in town). His father-in-law Reb Judel Sojfer [scribe], who was a tombstone engraver incidentally, the only Jewish tombstone engraver in town prayed there also.
In the Ostrowtser, as in almost all the other shtiblekh, with the exception of the Gerer and Aleksander, they only came together on Saturdays and holidays. During the week there were no minyens there.
The Grodzisker shtibl was a kind of modern center. Even active Zionists were found there, such as Herszel Lachman and Uncle Szymele (Krongrad), who not only aspired to have their own land but made aliye [emigrated to Palestine] themselves and lived out their lives in Eretz Isroel. On the other hand, one found people like Szmuel-Lajb, the bal-musef [acting as cantor], who happened to believe that only the Messiah could deliver the Jewish people and carry them into the holy land. The only Jewish farmer in town, Joel Bialek, was also one of the Grodzisker Hasidim. He was truly a real farmer. In addition, he was an observant Jew and a saintly man. He spoke in a shrieking voice but was very easygoing. They called him the Kosher Brother, because that is how he addressed everyone he called upon. He never got anyone angry, and he himself never got excited. In the town they said that his wife, Ester, was an educated woman and even read French. Nobody had heard her, but everyone had respect for Reb Joelsie, the Kosher Brother.
Among the more highly esteemed Grodzisker Hasidim were Reb Mojszel (Khasen) [the cantor] Sterns, who always prayed in the Grodzisker shtibl, as, according to his contract, he did not have to pray in the [great] synagogue; Jekiel (Siedlewicer) Amzel; Jakub Herszenberg (who was the bel-shakhres [led the morning prayer] in Grodzisk with the rebbe during Yomim-Naroyim (Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur); Eliezer Krongrad (my grandfather), the ample Eliezer, and his son-in-law, Mojsze-Josel Opolion, and also Berl Lachman. Berl Lachman contributed to the industry of the town. He had taught his children to be mechanics. They were the only ones who knew the trade of servicing sewing machines and, because of this, assisted in the development of the tailoring industry in Brzezin.
When Poland became independent and Brzezin was declared powiatowy (a county seat), the impression was often created that the town was under the rule of an external power. The reason for this was that the town proper was completely Jewish, but the surrounding areas were Christian; in addition, the leadership of the county lay in Christian hands.
While elections to the town council (municipal authorities) were in reality Jewish elections, nevertheless, a number of liberal Christians were also elected. One of them was the long-time mayor of the town, Herr Niedzwiedz. He himself was a former freedom fighter and a leader of the Polish Socialist Party PPS.
The small number of Christians who lived at the edge of the town did not take any great part in the social life.
However, this situation changed along with the sobering up of the Polish masses from their strivings for freedom and their retreat to national chauvinistic slogans.
At that time several neighboring villages were assigned to Brzezin with the clear intention of offsetting the Jewish majority in town. The number of municipal representatives of the Jewish population then became smaller, and their influence continued to decline.
But in the first years of independent Poland [after WWI], the leaders of the town council were, with the exception of the previously mentioned mayor, exclusively Jews. Among them were: the vice-mayor, a well-known Zionist, Mordechai Wolf Ginzburg, and all Lawniks [Wavniks] (members of the town council) Mojsze Pinkus Zelig, Pincie Jakubowicz of the Gerer Hasidim, Jekiel Rochwerg from the business owners, and Natan Wolf from the tailors all councilmen.
It is also no wonder that the majority of the councilmen were Jews, since, in fact, Brzezin was almost a Jewish town. When you think about it today, that there is not one single Jew in the town, it is impossible to comprehend, since once there were entire streets where with the exception of the caretaker, there was not one single Christian to be found.
It remained that way for many years. It is also understandable why Brzeziner Jews never felt that they were in a ghetto, which was the case in the majority of towns in Poland.
In the course of time the political-societal face of the population changed. On the one hand, the proletariat element grew among the Jews, and on the other hand, the Christian portion of the population increased. In 1929 the left wing Poale Zion, together with the professional unions, succeeded in electing a number of Jewish councilmen to the town council. At the same time, the local Endeks (right wing reactionary Polish party) elected a large number of councilmen, thanks to the artificial disticting of the town. A demonstration started while Mordechai Biedak, the leader of the Jewish workers' faction, was reading a declaration in the town council in Yiddish. The session exploded, and this was the beginning of subsequent conflicts between Jews and Polaks [non-Jewish Poles] in the town council.
That is how the situation continually deteriorated until the Jewish population realized that future cooperation in the town council was not possible.
The attention of the leaders of the different Jewish groups and parties was at this time dedicated to greater internal consolidation.
The leftist Poale Zion, which had been able to attract a young and energetic membership, created evening courses for adults. Many of the working youth got their only education there. The Poale Zion also had a well-run library. Among those who energetically carried on this work was Perel Majerowicz, daughter of the custom tailor Sosek (that is how we called him). Later she was also elected to the town council. Among the younger ones were Chaim Rafal Rozenblum, son of the coal dealer; the Shajbowiczes, Monis and Jozef (now in America); the glazier's son, Jankiel-Mojsze Zygmunt; Mojsze Kalmus, a son of the dardeke-melamed [teacher of the youngest]; and others. Most of them were children from poor families.
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