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Brzezin's Way of Life (cont.)

Without secular education, with rare contact with the world outside the four corners of their isolated town, they reached as far as the most neglected corners of European and Asiatic Russia. The growth of production was so immense that the annual export reached the sum of eight million rubles.

The golden deluge radically changed the face of the town. From Bessarabia and Wolyn, from Lithuania and Ukraine descended traveling salesmen, brokers, agents on commission, and bookkeepers. These were very different Jews, another tribe. Although very Jewish, they sounded goyish [non-Jewish] to the residents. And not only very Jewish, their Jewishness was also foreign, not the same as that of the Brzeziners. One could sense strangeness, bizarre behavior, and scandal from them. Among themselves they spoke Russian and called themselves by their Russian names. None of them forgot that he had left a wife and children somewhere . . .

The town did not have a lot of time to occupy itself with the “Litwaks” [literally Lithuanians but refers to Russians]. All of Brzezin became one immense workplace. From Shabes [Sabbath] after Havdalah [end of Sabbath], until Friday close to likhtbenshn [lighting of candles], the town worked. The working conditions of that time were dreadful. From three in the morning until late in the evening. Thursday, Jews sewed, cut, and pressed all night long. The need for working hands was great, the wages, good. Even Jews who boasted that they did not have any craftsmen in their family were not able to resist the temptation. Nine to ten-year-old youths were taken out of the khedorim [elementary schools] and sent to “ler ” [apprenticeship]. But such Jews did not make their children cutters or buttonhole makers, which was considered a bit superior. The entire commerce revolved around tailoring. Shops of accessories, linings, and yarn sprouted up. Mechanics came to town to repair the out-of-order sewing machines. The town grew.

Because of the growth in the population and the need for a place for workshops, a shortage of apartments prevailed. The entire family was involved with the work. In two little rooms – one was the kitchen – stood several sewing machines, pressing irons, and small tables for the women hand stitchers. In the midst of the noise of the machines, in the “svand ” [fumes from charcoal] from the irons, in the midst of youngsters who had the measles, cut teeth, and were sick with all the children's sicknesses, entire families ate, worked, and slept, together with apprentices and journeymen from distant places who hired themselves out for room and board.

The role of the apprentices was difficult, especially for those who came from distant places. They came from towns where poverty reigned and a hopeless future awaited them. They got the opportunity to begin again amid the plenty that reigned in Brzezin; the prospect of success forced them to leave their poor but warm homes at an early and tender age. In most cases such a youngster, without a relative, was hired for room and board, to learn tailoring. The first term the youth was a servant; he carried out the garbage, prepared the pressing irons, carried the basket of the master tailor's wife in the market, carried the work to the magaziner [owner of small clothing enterprise] or to the buttonhole maker, tended to and rocked the children, and suffered from the practical jokes of the older workers.

Because of the crowding, such a youth did not have a place to lay his head. They prepared a bed for him on the floor together with their own children. He would make the pillows wet with his tears of loneliness. It became easier and better for him when he finally became a finished craftsman. Although the pleasant, nice youngsters used to be badgered and asked for “pretensje ” money [money claimed to be owed], most of the time most of them would adjust, adopt Brzezin, fall in love, and marry girls from the town. They grabbed the prettiest ones. Until today, scattered over the entire world, they identify themselves with Brzezin and speak of the town, especially about the wives of their masters and the Brzeziner maykholim [kinds of food], with warmth and longing.

The sanitation and the working and living conditions were only one side of the coin. There was plenty of opportunity to earn a good living. One can say without exaggeration that not in any city or town did Jews eat as well as in Brzezin. My father, e”h [may he rest in peace], used to tell me what they used to eat at his home on Shabes . After the Shabes-davening [Sabbath prayers] there was sweet liquor with ginger cake, sweet and peppered gefilte fish [ground fish patties], with challah [braided holiday bread], chopped liver with onions – a short intermission for zmires [Sabbath songs] – cholent [dish of meat, potatoes, and legumes kept warm from previous day so as not to cook on the Sabbath], “raybekhts ” (grated potatoes) and roasted mutton, sweet kugl [noodle pudding], cooked plums with apples, and washed down with a couple of glasses of tea. After a nap, “gute brider ” [good brothers, comrades] went to the tavern where they ate a quarter of a goose and peppered peas with a tindl [keg] of beer. Four or five glasses was the average. There were those who drank down twenty glasses! For shlush sudes [evening meal of the Sabbath] there was herring and jellied little calves' feet (ptscha ). In wintertime at the evening meal at the end of the Sabbath, they served borscht [beet soup] with marrow bones, potatoes, and fried cutlets. If, after that they played “oke ” [a card game] or “telephone” [a game], which used to last until late at night, they would again drink beer and eat fried liver.

True, here we are talking about a group of well-off tailors and buttonhole makers, but, in general, one can say that with respect to eating, the craftsmen lived very well.

In those days we did not know about vacations. The difficult working conditions almost literally forced the tailors to invent tricks to ease the burden of work. A system was put into place to stop work right after Purim [festival celebrating saving of Jews by Queen Esther] until a few days after Pesakh [festival celebrating exodus from Egypt]. This long awaited holiday, yearned for and awaited during the long winter nights, when the town was covered with snow and frost, was celebrated not only as the freeing of the Jews from Mitsrayim [Egypt] but also as the freeing from one's own heavy yoke.

They took out the double windows, and homemakers washed, brushed, and cleaned. The well-off craftsmen used to travel to Lodz to buy wines, mead, expensive silk clothes, and expensive shoes for the womenfolk for the holidays. They themselves and the young boys were also not neglected. The custom tailors, artists in their trade, the kamashnmakher [spats/gaiter maker] did not have time to breathe before the holiday. At prayer time on erev [eve of] Pesakh , Jews and their children, with haircuts, bathed, dressed up in begdi-malkes [royal garments], gravitated toward their friends and to the shul [synagogue]. In the light of the brightly lit bote-medroshim [prayer houses], Jews with a critical eye fingered the new clothing, sometimes even finding a defect, and wished each other tiskhadesh [to wear it in good health]. In the morning at prayers and especially after noon, the tailoring people seized the opportunity to go to Rogow and Koluszki Streets, where the wealthy lived and sat on their balconies to watch the parade of silk and satin. During Pesakh, Brzezin smelled of spring, of the odor of very familiar food, and of full stomachs and peace of mind.

Khalemoyed [days between first two and last two days of a holiday] was even more relaxed than the holiday days. They did not work, they ate just as well, but one was freer to go about. What didn't they do in those days? It was the shidukhim [matchmaking] season, when one came to look over brides and grooms. They traveled to Lodz to enjoy themselves and see a Yiddish theater presentation. They went for visits and came back. How odd that although the town was small, parents seldom went to visit their children. Khalemoyed was the exception.

When the season was a good one, they bought new furniture, a second-hand sideboard, a mirrored closet, a dresser, and an oak table with upholstered chairs. The home was freshly painted, the table covered with a green, plush tablecloth, and freshly pressed curtains were swaying lightly from the mild spring breeze. On the table – red wine in polished little glasses, brown nuts and golden yellow mead, dark brown honey cakes, and sliced sugar cakes. The odor of fried bubele (matzo meal pancakes) came from the kitchen, and boiled, strong tea with lemon.

My grandfather used to sit at the head of the table and keep silent. The kheder student, in his holiday clothes, could hardly wait until the guests left. His friends were waiting for him outside to play with nuts.

During khalemoyed journeymen changed masters, masters changed magaziner s. They used to hire new teachers for the term for the youngsters. After the hard winter, the several weeks of rest, milder weather, the knowledge that during the summer they did not have to work such long hours blew a new soul into the Brzeziner tailors, who were very weary from their heavy toil.

During the summer they mostly worked until sundown. The crowding in the house was lessened, because the small children played in the street. The days were sunny but not too hot. Doors and windows remained open, wide open. The outdoors – which smelled of fields, forest, and blooming orchards – drew, called, and lured them. Apprentices and journeymen and even masters were often unable to resist the temptation to stretch out on their backs under a tree or to submerge themselves in the cool waters near Probaken, Stawianen, or in the dzika [stream]. After the harsh winter's groats, and bread and garlic borscht, it was a delight to eat schav [sorrel] borscht with new potatoes, crumbled farmer's cheese with green onions, and the early summer vegetables and fruit.

Sfire [counting of the Omer, the 49 days after Passover] was counted until Shavuos , which was the crowning holiday of the summer. The town was flooded with bright sunshine, steeped in green plants, lilacs, and blossoms. The houses and houses of prayer were decorated with leafy branches and kvitchers [screamers – long grass that produced a screaming sound when blown upon]. With great efficiency Brzeziner homemakers used to cook and bake dairy dishes and pastries that would give their men great pleasure.


brz102.jpg -  A market day in Brzezin of stalls and booths
A market day in Brzezin of stalls and booths
with all kinds of merchandise and foods


It was difficult to part with the summer. It was not so much the fear of the Days of Awe [Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur]. The early autumn days were shorter and cooler. The Polish autumn blazed with all the colors of the rainbow. The red flaming sunsets, the bare fields, the falling leaves, the blowing of the shofar, and the chilly dawns reminded one of the passing of summer, of the long, harsh Polish winter.

Although the town was then a little more “enlightened,” a little less God-fearing, the yomim-naroyim [Days of Awe] were observed according to all the Jewish religious laws and customs. During Succos [Festival of Tabernacles], they used to eat in common sukes [tabernacles]. Brzeziner homemakers on this occasion did not bring shame to their men.

Although khalemoyed Succos was casual, just as the Pesakh one had been, the upcoming winter covered it with gloom. At that time they used to think about double windows, a few kert s [cartloads?] of coal, a small wagonload of wood, and warm clothing. The expected rains, the snowy blizzards, the fear for the older generation whose sons would have to “shteyn tsum las ” [take part in the lottery for military service] lay heavily on their mood. Simkhas-toyre [celebration of ending old and beginning new cycle of Torah reading], when Jews danced, sang, ate, and drank until oblivion, was like the last spree of a recruit before he went off to serve his four years.

With the tumultuous growth of the clothing industry, the population also grew. The shortage of apartments for personal use, as well as for the expanding magaziners, became even more intense. The newly rich merchants and the better paid craftsmen wanted to live better, more comfortably.

In the early years of the present [20th] century, a building boom began in town. On the sites of the old small wooden houses, solid brick buildings were erected. Just before the First World War the two most modern houses were completed for the Ikka brothers in the marketplace on Rogow Street, which, by then, even had running water.

Only building for personal use was limited. The new shul [synagogue] was one of the most gorgeous and expensive synagogues in Poland. The impressive building – the highest in town – stood near the meadows, opposite the old besmedresh [prayer house], whose walls had absorbed the prayers and tears of generations of Jews. The prayer house and the new majestic, richly decorated synagogue symbolized the old and the new Brzezin more than anything else.

For the new shul they brought a new khasen [cantor]. Although Reb [title of respect] Mojszele Sterns was devout and observant – he was also the shoykhet [ritual slaughterer] – he was far from an outmoded zoger [preacher]. As a former meshoyrer [synagogue choirboy] with khasen Gerszon Sirota – a fine musician, violin player, and music expert, he adhered to the modern style of khazones [cantorial art]. One could feel the influence of worldly music in his compositions. A capable conductor, he established a first-rate choir. Shabes Reshkhoydesh [first Sabbath of the month] during the Yomin Naroyim, the synagogue was packed with youngsters from the shtiblekh, friends, and even Christians, who came to hear his kidushes [prayers of sanctification], which he and the choir performed. His musical pieces were heard and sung for months by the journeymen in the workshops.

Parallel to the industrial growth of Brzezin, a series of far-reaching and radical occurrences took place in the life of Jews in Eastern and Central Europe. The rise of Polish Zionism, the rise of the Bund [Jewish Socialist Party], the blossoming of modern Yiddish literature – their echo, like distant thunder, was also heard in Brzezin. People began to subscribe to and read the Jewish press in all languages – Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian. A private library was established that had the works of the classics and younger writers. Half-organized groups of Zionists arose that sold shekels [Hebrew coins] and collected money for Zionist causes. The bold slogans and the agitation of the Bund, the revolutionary winds that blew over Russia, the economic crisis that was a result of the Russo-Japanese War also had their repercussions in Brzezin – among the working youth and the youth with precarious professions, such as bookkeepers and so forth. It did not come to any serious disturbances, but there were a number of arrests, and one of the Bundist leaders, Iser Rozenblum was exiled to Siberia. [1]

The Czarist reaction, to suppress the freedom movement, was successful. The Zionist movement became semi-legal, the Bund went underground; however the seeds of unrest and revolt that they sowed did not go to waste.

Although the economic situation in town became normal – and the outlook very good – a discontent that took several forms was, nonetheless, apparent in town, especially among the working youth. The mass emigration to America was one factor. In truth, a large number that left came back, because the conditions in America then were not better than in Brzezin. These “Americans” with their modern attire, the few English words that they had grasped and used at every opportunity, whether or not they were appropriate, the couplets from American operettas and melodramas they sang, the poems that they recited and sang from popular revolutionary poets – such as Edelstadt, Bashever, and Morris Rosenfeld, which had become widespread – also contributed a lot to the dissatisfaction and vague longing.

The old way of life no longer fit in with the new Brzeziner climate. The Hasidim, the older middle class, held on with tooth and nail, but they were a minority. Most of the Jews had been transplants from other areas, a number of them half-assimilated sons-in-law with a little worldly learning, who had already dabbled in the Enlightenment; workers who simply had no time to observe the laws and customs; and those who returned from foreign lands, who had lost their traditional baggage during the trip. These elements could no longer be content with the generations-old style and had, without confidence, shakily begun to build a new one.


brz103.jpg -  Iciele Midlach, one of the town fools
Iciele Midlach, one of the town fools


Characteristic of that state of mind was the group Lines-Hatsedek [group dedicated to help the sick]. Outwardly it was a group like all other groups – a place where one prayed and helped the needy. Actually, however, it was something else.

The composition of the group was mixed. More better-off tailors, cutters, buttonhole makers – trades that were considered among the more “elite,” smaller magaziners, and a number of former Americans. Although most of them outwardly behaved traditionally, their side curls were cut a little shorter and their beards trimmed. The majority were secular and pro-Zionist. In their homes they were already less strict about kashrus [keeping kosher]. At the conclusion of the Sabbath or get-togethers on Shabes nights during winter, instead of singing zmires [Sabbath hymns], they sang, with a glass of beer, “There near the cedar tree,” “Hatikvah,” [Jewish national anthem], and songs from the Jewish theater repertoire.

This was a generation born and brought up when Brzezin was already an industrial town, which had been pulled into trade or business at an early age, whose knowledge of Yiddishkeyt [Jewish customs] was slight, and the old way of life no longer satisfied.

It is not hard to see in advance what kind of spiritual and physical appearance Brzezin would have had, had it not been for the war in 1914, which engulfed Europe like a forest fire and singed the flourishing yishev [colony] – Brzezin.

1 His son, Majer, a talented painter, was liquidated by the Bolsheviks in the 1930s. Return

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