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[Page 108]

A Shpatsir (Stroll) Through Our Shtetl

by Yechiel Erlich

Translated by Renee Miller

Edited by Fay Bussgang

I try, in my imagination, to stroll though our shtetl Brzezin when our town was still full of Jewish life. I begin in the marketplace at Nachman Gutkind's, e”h [may he rest in peace], tailoring accessories shop. Right after his place is Chaim-Dawid Klinger's galanteria [haberdashery] store, and then Reb Abraham-Pesach's haberdashery shop, where his wife, Chana-Golda was in charge of everything. Later, the shop was taken over by Reb Mojsze Tajerman, Reb Hersz-Icie's older son-in-law. When Reb Mojszele Tajerman became rabbi in another city, Hersz-Icie's second son-in-law, Berish Rozenblum, e”h , took over the shop. Then I see before me Reb Josele Hercke's, Icie-Ber Mandel's father's, kashemakheray [kasha making shop] and food store; Reb Herszel (Szacher) Bercholc's tailoring accessories store; Reb Herszel Lachman's haberdashery; Reb Chanina Janower's haberdashery; Reb Szmuel Jehezkiel's, Szenker's son-in-law's, haberdashery shop; Lajbusl's, Jehezkiel Szenker's son's, food store; Godel and Henoch Fidler's hardware shop; Reb Szlama Hasid's, the big Szlama's, dry-goods shop.

And further on – Reb Wolf Szep's lamp and blue enamelware store; Reb Hersz-Icie's haberdashery store; Lajbele Zychlinski's tobacco, cigarettes, and sugar shop; Icie-Ber Mandel's grocery store; Reb Eliahu Rozenberg's dry-goods shop – Eli, Cypa-Ruchel's, as he was called. He was the father of my friend, Fajwel Rozenberg.

I go further – Chana's beer tavern; Reb Mojsze-Kalman, Hajker's son, Rozenberg's paint and kerosene store; Wolman-Jankielewicz's apteczny sklad [drugstore]; Reb Mojsze Froman's cigarette store; Reb Szymele Krongrad's haberdashery; Reb Hersz-Mendel Pinczewski's tailoring accessories shop; Reb Szoel Fogel – a baker, Aron Fogel's father; Reb Welwel Zydak's son-in-law – haberdashery; Reb Dawid Kaufman – paper and writing instruments store; Herszel Srocker – tailoring accessories; Reb Lajbele Henrykowski – teahouse; Herszel Mojsze Zindel's dry goods store – his wife Tyla was the shopkeeper; and Aron-Mojsze Jukiel's flour shop.

And from the marketplace, we go over to Apothecary Street – Reb Chaim Icek Ajnbinder, Jakub-Dawid Berg's father – paper, books, and writing materials; Bendet, Fajga-Machel's husband – a butcher who had the Varshever Yatke [Warsaw butcher shop]; Reb Jankiel Froman – grocery store; Zysman Beker – cotton wool factory; Reb Hersz Liberman – grocery store; Reb Kalman Rozenberg – paints; Aron Kalman's, Reb Mendel Liberman, and Henoch Princ – textiles; Reb Abraham Jeszaja Grosman, the “fat Jeszaja” – grocery store. Later, Ezriel Froman took over the grocery store; Reb Jehezkiel Kalwizner – grocery store; Reb Dawid Hanower – dry goods; a store belonging to the dark-haired Chana-Bila; Herszel Lederman's son-in-law – grocery store; Jankiel Froman, in Malka-Chana Erlich's house – a grocery store; Malka-Chana Erlich – a soda-water factory; Mendel Liberman – a grocery store.

We go on from Apothecary Street:

Reb Mendel Hanower – a dry-goods store; Etje the herring vendor, Pesa Nar's mother, the tall Abraham's wife. A little further on Surele, the borscht vendor, had her shop. There you could get pickled bran borscht and beet borscht, as well as sour pickled cucumbers. Lozer Malamed also lived in the same house:

And further on: Reb Emanuel Cemak – a small grocery store; Reb Dawid Jakubowicz – made chlebny kwas [drink made from fermented bread]. He used to make it in Goat Lane and carry his wares to the peasants who enjoyed themselves greatly with the kvas. A little further – Reb Eliezer Opolian's grocery store; we called him the “fat Lozer.”

That's how our town stands before my eyes, with its Jews from the past and their ways of earning a living.


brz108.jpg -  Lodz Street. The needleworkers' union and the workers'
council were in the house on the right
Lodz Street. The needleworkers' union
and the workers' council were in the house on the right


[Pages 109-111]

My Gate to the Great World

brz109.jpg - Icchok Janasowicz

by Icchok Janasowicz [1]

Translated by Renee Miller

Edited by Fay Bussgang

Born in the small town Jezow, I took my first step into God's great and broad world by way of Brzezin. I do not remember exactly when I was in that town for the first time, but I am sure that the trip was the first khalemoyed [period between first two and last two days of Passover or Succos] trip of my life. I must have been about eight or nine at that time, and I remember very well that this trip was an award for the zeal I had displayed studying the mesekhte [tractate] “Nadirim” [vows] with Rashi [comments by Rashi] – during the entire winter with the old Jezower rabbi, Reb Menachem Mendel HaCohen Segal, zts”l [zeykher tsadek livrokhe – may the memory of a righteous person be blessed]. At that time, he, our old rov [town rabbi], took me with him to Brzezin for a day, together with his grandson Issachar – who was my companion in studying with him during the long winter evenings in his not very warm house and not very homey besdin shtub [room where rabbi's court was held].

Between Jezow and Brzezin stretched a road that one could traverse, with a decent wagon driver, in two and a half hours. Jezow did not have its own river or its own hospital. If a Jew, rakhmone litslan [heaven preserve us], got sick in Jezow, and reciting prayers and the feldsher [barber surgeon] did not help, they used to take him to the Brzeziner doctor. If the sholem bayes [harmony] in a Jewish family was disrupted, and now the tsvelf shures [divorce] had to be written, they used to go to the Brzeziner rabbi. If God helped, and a man married off a son or a daughter, he used to bring both the klezmer band and the entertainer from Brzezin. If one sold or bought property, he used to go to Brzezin to the notary to sign it over. For a lawsuit in court, you had to go to the Brzeziner court. To take out a passport or get a permit for an amateur theatrical performance, make a large purchase, repair a sewing machine – the way always went through Brzezin, the powiat town [county seat] to which our town belonged administratively and in police matters.

Brzezin and Jezow were, as we say in plain language, a kind of house with an alcove. A Jewish child grew on the Jezower soil with imaginary fantasies about the big city Brzezin where there was such a thing as electricity. Brzeziner Jews, on the other hand, came to the Jezower fairs, bought oak-tanned oxen pelts from Jezower tanners, and sold all kinds of merchandise that twinkled with glistening sheen and quaintness. Khalemoyed Jezower grooms went to their Brzeziner brides, and the Brzeziner brides were invited by their Jezower mekhutnestes [in-laws]. The strolling about of these brides on Brzeziner streets was a review of the latest styles before the town, and from them, one found out the trends in public attire. Generally, all the news used to come to us from Brzezin, and we were closely linked to that town and bound through thousands of familial, economic, behavioral, and cultural threads from which were woven our common life on Polish soil.

Jezow was located approximately fifteen kilometers from Brzezin and approximately twenty-five kilometers from Rawa Mazowiecka. So we were farther from Rawa, and we seldom had any contact with it at all. There were two streets in town – Rawa and Brzezin. People used to go along Rawa Street to the besoylem [cemetery], and it would have looked strange if one of the young people had gone out walking on that street. The way to go for a walk from the town was on the street that led to Brzezin. Middle class Jews used to go up to the first bridge and turn back. Young people would go walking up to the second bridge, near the windmill. The dreamers like me were really not particular about tekhum-shabes [distance an observant Jew did not exceed on Shabes] and used to stray all the way to the state garden. Thereby they came closer to Brzezin, which really was a piece of the wide world, and even more, the gate to that world to which we were bound through our constant dreams of the future.

Brzezin was located on the fat, black soil of Mazowia, surrounded by thatched villages with forests and fields, hills and rivers. The peasants in the villages around Brzezin still lived the life of old feudal Poland. There they still split a match into two. They still wore homespun woolen clothing that was distinguished by its Lowicz [town known for colorful folk costumes] colorfulness; they traded with Jews and consulted them on all sorts of things. The main worry was not to be left in the winter without salt or in the early spring without seeds.

The Jews in towns around Brzezin still maintained the old ways, baking their own bread, and in the poorest homes, right after Succos [Feast of Tabernacles, in autumn], they piled up a full cellar of potatoes and prepared a shed full of wood. Both the village and the town kept far away from the big cities, and in business matters, they strove to avoid them. However, in that respect, Brzezin was an exception. By that time, Brzezin was itself a sort of big city and through its local industry was exposed to remote places. With its sewing, Brzezin reached out to Siberia and, even further, to China.

I do not know what kind of town Brzezin was before the rise of Lodz to become the “Little America” of Poland. In my time it was a town that had both big city momentum and also small town coziness. The momentum came from the rhythm of work that characterized Brzezin life. Naturally, there were, in Brzezin shops, merchants and kleykodesh [clergy]. But Brzeziner Jews, for the most part, were the needle trade's proletariat, who filled all the streets and lanes. The sound of the sewing machines came from every window and filled all the courtyards. The rhythm of work was modern and smelled of the “sweat shop,” except without all the industrial mechanization. The fact that the Brzezin Jewish craftsmen did not work for their own local use but for export, and also because they had to use the magaziners [owners of clothing enterprises] as intermediaries, made them big city workers of the industrial era. In this respect, Brzezin was the child of the second half of the 19th century, which brought into Poland the sound of rising capitalism with all its developments in social life.

On the other hand, the Brzeziner Jew, nonetheless, had his distinctly old-fashioned life style and psychologically did not allow himself to be turned into a proletarian. Even in the years between the two world wars, when the town already had a considerable awareness of social issues and militant youth and well-organized professional unions, a definite patriarchal quality was still preserved in the way of life and left a certain stamp on the battle between wage earners and the master and between the master and the magaziner.

True, in Brzezin they carried out the same social battles as in Lodz, and strikes there were not infrequent, but all the battles lacked the sharp bitterness of the large cities, and they almost never led to the outbreak of serious hatred as in some other places. In Brzezin the capitalist, and also the master and the worker, were from good families, and even though I would not want to exaggerate the idyllic quality in their attitudes in comparison to other towns, there certainly was an idyllic quality. At least, the kind of separation in Brzezin was not as great or deep as the separation of the classes in other places.


brz110.jpg -  Masza Zychlinski
Masza Zychlinski was one of the first
to open a library in Brzezin


Measured by the present American scale, Brzezin was a small town bordering on technological primitiveness. According to our views of life at that time, however, it was a town with all the frills. True, the local electric plant furnished light only for a few hours in a 24-hour day, and the shine from the ancient Edison bulbs was a pale yellow and stung the eyes with its radiant quivering rays. Also true, the sewing machines were powered by foot. I am doubtful that you could find in all of Brzezin even one sewing machine that was run by an electric motor. But, nevertheless, the town for us, the inhabitants of the smaller towns, was truly a big city. When my small town Gemore [Torah commentary] teacher wanted me to translate from the maymer [learned treatise] called “Yeshivas Krakhim Kashe ” [Yeshivas of the Big Cities], he would use Brzezin as an example, its three-story houses and its cobblestone streets on which, according to him, you “twisted your ankle” as you walked along.

Now, after my wandering over the towns of the world on three continents, I would really have to smile at my Gemore teacher's notion of urbanization, as well as at our own concept. My smile is, however, frozen on my lips in a grimace of sorrow when I remember that all the large cities on the terrestrial globe have never brought forth the emotion that Brzezin brought forth in me, in my youth, the town that was the first trep [flight of stairs] of my climb, or descent, on the ladder of life.


brz111.jpg -  A class of children in a state school in Brzezin
A class of children in a state school in Brzezin
The lererin [teacher] is in the middle


I cannot write about Brzezin the way a resident could; I cannot, however, utter the word “Brzezin” as a stranger, because I was not a stranger in that town. I had relatives and friends there, and I left there a piece of my youthful fluttering heart. In those streets and lanes, life wrote chapters about my youthful happiness and youthful sorrows with the handwriting of naive illusions and rosy expectations. Although my first steps on God's earth were not taken in Brzezin, Brzezin was, nevertheless, the town where I took my first step into that near and far world in which my adult life was formed and matured.

It is remarkable that when I remember Brzezin, I always think of it as that town of good Jewish workers, which, until the last moment of its downfall, was not damaged by the assault of assimilation in Poland. Naturally, in the last years before the Second World War, there were already a lot of young boys and girls who studied in Polish gymnasiums [high schools] and spoke fluent Polish. In general, however, Brzezin was still a natural Jewish fortress, and both the language and the life were and remained fundamentally Jewish. How that tailoring industrial town defended itself from the winds of assimilation that raged so strongly in the 30s, is a surprise to me to this day. Apparently, the value of the folk style of life and the traditional patriarchal way of life gave them the strength to withstand and maintain their own generations-long Jewish countenance.

Brzezin was only one of the hundreds of cities and towns that the enemy wiped out from under God's heaven. But even so, it was a town with its own color and its own scent. Writing these lines leaves me only with the mournful satisfaction that a part if its uniqueness will be sealed in the dafim [pages, especially of the Talmud] of the Yizkor book that its devoted sons and daughters publish with such great effort and love. I pray that in the sea of love and longing, my tears shall not be left out and that in the chorus of the painful kadesh [prayer for the dead] will be my own sincere kadesh for that world that was so beautiful and everlastingly radiant and is no more.

  1.  Icchok Janasowicz [also known as Yitzhak/Isaac Janasowicz] is a well-known Yiddish writer and poet who is currently a resident of Argentina. His A House in Town celebrates and mourns the town Jezow, near Brzezin. His book With Soviet Jewish Writers acquired a reputation throughout the entire Jewish world. [Footnote from Yiddish edition] Return

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