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[Pages 112-124]

Two Victims: Memories of the First World War

brz112.jpg -  Welwel Rozenblum

by Welwel Rozenblum

Translated by Renee Miller

Edited by Fay Bussgang

In our Seyfer Brzezin [Brzezin Book], I wish to renew the memory of two casualties from our town. They were from two diverse worlds, two completely distinct types. They lived differently and died differently, but both deserve to be remembered and paid tribute.

My memories of these two casualties are, incidentally, bound up with the First World War. The worst tragedy that our town lived through in those hard times was the slaughter of ten Jews, carried out by the Cossacks. They took out ten innocent Jews from their homes, took them away somewhere in a field, and shot them – without rhyme or reason. Among the casualties were: Abraham Paje with his father, both from Glowno, and another father and son, and other holy martyrs whose names I cannot remember to my greatest regret.

For a long time the town mourned the innocent victims. Every year they used to go to the cemetery to commemorate the yortsayt [anniversary of death] and to say kadesh [prayer for the dead] at the common grave for the martyrs.

The Cossacks killed another victim, but not at once. They attacked him and beat him mercilessly, and he died a short time later from the blows. The victim was Herszel Litwak, the Gemore [Torah commentaries] teacher, Tema's husband. Herszel Litwak was one of the most virtuous, observant, honest Jews in town. A pure, holy soul, who all his life, with the highest devotion, served the Creator of the Word and studied the holy Torah.

Since they were our neighbors, I knew them well. Tema had a little grocery store in Jozef Grossman's house in Nowe Miasto [New Town] and never, or seldom, found time to devote to herself, because she, Tema, was, in her great poverty, the finest saintly woman in town. She was always busy helping people in need – the sick, the feeble, orphans, widows. A poor bride was to be married – they came to Tema; attention needed for a poor, sick pregnant women – also to Tema. Somewhere there was not enough for Shabes [Sabbath] or for yontov [holiday] – Tema took my mother as her helper, and they took care of the needy. My mother was always Tema's first assistant. One call from Tema was enough; my mother would leave her kit and caboodle and set out with her, door-to-door – to collect alms to provide for someone for Shabes or yontov. The wedding of someone who was alone in the world had to be made beautiful. Tema came adorned with her decorated cap from which sparkled pearls, corals, and different beads, and she was as happy as if at the wedding of her own daughter. Also the opposite. If, God forbid, a poor woman died, Tema came with her khevre-kedishe-yidenes [women from burial society] and gave the deceased her due. Wherever, God forbid, a tragedy occurred in a Jewish family, they ran to Tema for help, and Tema never refused. Even if it was necessary to pawn her gold chain and earrings, it did not stop her from helping with an open heart.

Tema also helped free young men from conscription. How this Jewish woman, who was not dressed according to the latest fashion, was able to call on the authorities, on Dr. Stodolkiewicz, and be received and ask for the freedom of many young men was a mystery – but if you will, it was no riddle at all. All laments, all secrets were brought to Tema; she received everyone as a guest, she sought to help everyone, because she was everyone's mama.

But her own house, her own family, her own grocery store, she neglected in order to help others. And if a customer finally showed up in the store, Reb Herszel had to interrupt his studies with the bokhoyrim [young men, students] and go into the store. But he stood there as if lost; he did not know what to do in the little shop. He would stand inept, and like a child who looks for its mother, he would give a groan, “Ay, Tema, Tema, where are you?”

While Reb Herszel was absorbed in another world, in a world in which one had to serve the boyreoylem [Creator of the Word] with complete devotion, with heart and soul, he had to awaken me continuously to tell me to be pious. “Welwel, Welwel,” he would encourage and practically beg me, in his Litvak [Lithuanian] Yiddish, to daven [pray] every day and recite a chapter of the Book of Psalms. “If you can't recite all day, at least one chapter,” he used to beg me. The great goodness, the great love shone out from his deep, clever eyes.

“One has to prepare, Welwel,” he would always remind me. All his life he continuously prepared and fulfilled mitsves [religious obligations] with maysim-toyvim [good deeds], until on a cloudy, dreary day before noon, when the entire town was in hiding from the Cossacks who were killing and carrying out a pogrom, they grabbed him, Herszele, and murderously beat him. He could not survive long after the death blow, and his saintly, pure soul departed.

They had to bring the body to burial. A double fear dominated everyone. The town was bombarded from all sides by the Germans. They were afraid to lift their heads from their hiding places, and they trembled and shook even more over the Cossacks. While the town was not in anyone's hands, empty both of Germans and of Russians, my father and the tall Mene, e”h [may he rest in peace] – they both were on the board of the tailors' association and members of the khevre-kadishe [burial society] – they, and also other neighbors, began to prepare for the burial. But they could not get any hearse in which to lay the body and take it to burial. They finally succeeded in getting a small peasant wagon and a horse. They lay the body inside and covered it with straw, and in great haste and with great fear, they reached the cemetery. They dug the grave quickly, and Reb Herszel Litwak was buried in a quiet, safe place, without any fear of the Cossacks or other killers of Jews.

Jozef Henoch, his son, crying all the while, said kadesh. But before returning after the burial, shooting flared up again, and bullets flew over their heads. My father, the tall Mene, Tema and her children, and the few neighbors miraculously – but barely – made it home alive, and they again had to hide themselves from danger.

All his life Reb Herszel prepared himself. He was very pious, very observant, tsadik v-ish tomim [righteous and faultless]. Cutthroats came and murdered the saintly Jew, and together with the other ten martyrs, an eleventh was also murdered, martyred as a Jew – Reb Herszel Litwak, e”h.


brz123.jpg - The Family of Reb Herszel Litvak and his wife, Tema
The Family of Reb Herszel Litvak and his wife, Tema
Sitting in the first row from right to left: Jakob-Icek, Tema (known as the mama
of the shtetl), Sima, with her child Isroelik on her lap, Cywia, and Sura-Chana.
Standing, from right to left: Cyna Ruchl, Josef-Henoch, and Hersz-Chaim

* * *

The war in our town quieted down and was carried over to other fronts, each time further away and deeper into Russia. During that time, the Germans took power and governed with a strict hand. They requisitioned everything, took it over and sent it to Germany, and for the population in Poland, there was little left to make a living. They struggled and did everything possible in order to be able to exist. However, the Germans of that time gave the population a certain freedom. They were permitted to organize various associations.

The youth used it and organized a Zionist association – Hattechija – a people's association, a Bundist one, and many others. Libraries were created around the associations. Lecturers were brought from Lodz or Warsaw. They arranged evenings of entertainment and lectures, established drama groups. I myself joined the Zionist association Hattechija and later became a member of the Zionist youth organization Hashomer Hatza'ir. We had a wonderful, sincere youth group of fine boys and girls.

Majer Rozenblum is the one most strongly engraved in my memory. We had the same name, but we were not related. Majer was very gifted and artistically inclined. He painted with an artistic talent and also possessed other abilities. His grandfather, Mojsze-Jojne Rozenblum, raised him. His father, Hersz-Iser, was in prison and was also deported to Siberia because of his revolutionary activities. If his mother was alive and shared the same fate as his father, I do not know. I only know that Majer was a delicate, dreamy young man, with dark-brown sparkling eyes. His youthful mischievousness very often banished the sadness that would spread across his refined face.

On the various excursions we made together with our friends from surrounding towns and villages, our Brzeziner Hashomer Hatza'ir-nikes [members of Hashomer Hatza'ir] always excelled in various ways. One of those occasions was in Glowno, at a well-to-do landowner's. We played various sports games and sang Yiddish and Hebrew folksongs. Majer drew caricatures and good-naturedly made fun of everyone. Together we authored humorous songs and helped create a joyous, sincere, friendly atmosphere.

We ate near the estuary, cooking in the camp kitchen. We slept in barns and carried out our joyous singing until night disappeared and morning stars showed that a new day was born. We returned to the town singing and marching in rows and dedicated ourselves once again to our organizational tasks.

We had success in the field of theater plays. I dramatized the recently published Yizkor Book [memory book], which depicted the heroic fight and death of our guardians of Eretz Isroel [Land of Israel]. I wrote a play in three acts. The entire winter we prepared, rehearsed, and learned our roles. During Khalemoyed Pesakh [days between first two and last two days of Passover], we raised the curtain before a large crowd in Firemen's Hall. My heart trembled, I was scared. Would we succeed in portraying the dramatic battle, the sacrifice of our guardians in Eretz Isroel? Would we pass the test? When the curtain came down after the last act, the people applauded loudly and showed great pleasure and recognition for the Hashomer Hatza'ir-nikes and for the memorial play.

Not long after that, shocking events occurred. The Germans began to lose the war on all fronts, and the revolution broke out in Russia. Poland became an independent country. In 1920 I was forced to flee and save my young life. Luck was in my favor, as I came to America. My friend Majer Rozenblum and many other friends of mine, unfortunately, remained stuck in anti-Semitic Poland. Repression, pogroms, and political and economic oppression induced my friend Majer to join the Communist Party.

It did not take long before he was arrested. Then began his horrible suffering in Polish prisons. When he was finally freed, his health was already undermined. But Majer had one desire – to get out of Poland and run to the “Socialist Garden of Eden.” After great difficulty, he finally succeeded. He thought that he was finally rescued, but there, new troubles began for him. They looked at Polish-Jewish communists with a particular suspicion, and at the time of the great purges, Majer Rozenblum was also purged with a bullet in his head.

Majer Rozenblum came from a family of idealistic revolutionaries. His father, Hersz-Iser Rozenblum, was a well-known Bundist activist. When Majer was very young, his father and mother were exiled to Siberia for revolutionary activities, and the child was brought up by his grandfather, Reb Mojsze-Jojne Rozenblum. Because of this, he called his grandfather “Papa” and his grandmother “Mama.” Only later, after many years, returning from exile, did he get to know his real parents well.

His aunt, Basia Rozen, Syne Naczelnik's wife, the mother of several grown children at that time, was put forward by the united workers in Brzezin as the first member to the town council. The list, however, was declared void. She would certainly have been elected.

Majer read a great deal, was a sensitive young man with a fine sense of humor and satire, physically weak, with an artistic sense for painting. His portrait of Ber Borochov [Marxist-Zionist leader] adorned the Poale Zion library in Brzezin and was praised strongly by art connoisseurs from Warsaw and Lodz. He had the possibility of a far-reaching future, and they predicted a great career for him as an artist. But his path was destined to be different.

After the decline of Hashomer Hatza'ir, he, together with several friends from bourgeois homes, organized the Communist Party in 1924. He, more than the others, involved himself with boundless, unlimited devotion and idealistic fervor with the active workers from other workers' unions and especially with the professional unions, participating in cultural evenings and discussions, teaching the workers the importance of class struggle.

Majer became secretary of the Communist Party in the Brzezin region and also party “technician.” Under his authority were the local technical people who carried out rigorous covert conspiratorial work, such as spreading illegal literature, hanging out flags and banners at important places – even under the nose of the police – with anti-government slogans, calling on the workers and the people to rise up and revolt.

Because he was a photographer with his own studio and had business with different strata of the municipal population, his address was less suspicious. As a matter of fact, illegal meetings were held at his home, but that did not last long. In March of 1927, his home, on the third floor of Arje-Dawid Perlmuter's house, was surrounded by the police. As secret agents were coming into his room, he still had time to throw a considerable amount of illegal literature out of the window, which the police, standing outside, found and later brought to court as evidence against him. After the search, he and other active leaders – such as Lajb Sieradski, Jankiel Dawidowicz, and others – were arrested and sent to the political prison in Lodz at 13 Dluga Street, where he stayed several months before being sentenced to four years in prison.

After the Warsaw appeals court confirmed the sentence, despite a good defense by two first-class lawyers, he was sent to the famous Leczycki prison for political criminals. The prison regimen there was not severe. Majer had additional privileges because of his artistic ability, painting large portraits of the prison head's family. At that time, in addition to communists in the Leczycki prison, there were also Ukrainian and White Russian nationalists who strove to secede their territories from Poland. A great percentage of intellectuals, writers, and important political leaders, as well as former Sejm [parliament] deputies were there. Majer also took a course in the Russian language and studied with great zeal.

However, in a year and a half, even the milder prison regimen undermined Majer's weak health. Efforts were made to exchange him for a Polish political prisoner in Russia, but this would have taken a long time. After great effort, he got a six-month health furlough, and after the six months, he was supposed to return to prison; also every day that he was free he was to report to the police. Majer used the health furlough to flee to the free city of Danzig, with the idea of going to Russia. After waiting several months, he and his wife, Lyuba (youngest daughter of the late Mojsze-Aron Szotenberg, a rich man) traveled on a Soviet ship to the land of “freedom and equality” that he had so longed for. Later, his friends from prison also went there – Lajb Sieradski, Aron Rozenberg, and later Judke Lechtreger.

In 1933, Majer and all his friends, because of their Russian comrades, were shot there as spies.

A tragedy, Majer, that your young life was so dreadfully, horribly shortened. If you had not been seduced by false Messiahs, perhaps you would now be in Israel, in America, or somewhere else in the free world. You would have had influence and perhaps been famous as a Jewish artist. I often think of you, and it grieves my heart. Even now I shed a tear for you. Blessed is your saintly memory!

Leftist Poale Zion in Brzezin in 1931

In the Poale Zion Almanac of 1931, a list was published of all the members of Poale Zion Left in Brzezin who were active that year. The names that are listed here were signed on a greeting for the 25th-year jubilee of the Poale Zion movement. Only a few of the listed individuals remained alive after the destruction.

1. Benkel
2. Liberman, Melech
3. Pakula, Zelig
4. Rozenblum, Chaim Rafal
5. Szajbowicz, Monish
6. Biedak
7. Winter, A.
8. Brejtsztajn, F.
9. Krauzchorn, H.
10. Minc, Z.
11. Pajczer, R.
11. Pajczer, S.
12. Rozman, H.
13. Kon, P.
14. Lisman, M.
15. Cynamar, B.
16. Kalmus, L.
17. Lerer, I.
18. Szajnzilber
19. Zygmunt, R. L.
20. Rotsztajn, I. L.
21. Hamel, W.
22. Rotsztajn, F. L.
23. Dajcz, R. L.
24. Szwarc, M.
25. Sztajnberg, Sz.
26. Gerszonowicz, I.
27. Mandel, H.
28. Kolski, M.
29. Kalmus, A.
30. Frydman, A.
31. Grinszpan, I.
32. Majerowicz, D.
33. Herszkowicz, L.
34. Fogel, Melech
35. Pajczer, A.

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