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[Page 105]

The Self-Government of the Kehilla

By A. Ludski

Translated by Dr. Samuel Chani and Jenni Buch

During the Tsarists reign there existed in Brest a city Duma (council), whose members were elected through a limited small number of voters from restricted categories, or they were nominated through the Government in Grodno (Brest-Litovsk belonged to Grodno Province).

The Jews who were representatives in those times were the Rabbi of the Minyan, and the sons of the town's community who were represented in the Duma by 2 or 3 delegates. These were wealthy merchants and rich landlords who had close relations with the ruling powers. However, they had no close local contacts with the kehilla (the Jewish community council), and their function was, in the best case, as emissaries for specific individuals, or for specific cases close to their hearts. In their position, they saw their role as the supporting basis for social and political Jewish day-to-day activities. The majority of Jews were robbed of their basic civil rights as citizens, as they were in the whole of Russia.

The national rights of a unified Jewish community collectively had never been claimed, as no one had ever had the courage to demand it. The Tsarist powers saw the Jewish kehilla only as a religious entity that satisfied their religious needs and served as an institution, formed by the Gabbeys (synagogue deacons). The authorities charged these Gabbeys with the responsibility of overseeing the collection of the Karafke (meat tax), the schools and the houses of learning, sacred matters and other religious institutions. They ruled over the community with a strong hand and with arrogance, not taking into account the real needs of the community, and doing as they pleased.

Because the town of Brest and it's fortress were on the frontline in World War 1, in August 1915, before the German took it over, the city was forcibly evacuated, especially the Jewish residents. The Jews were scattered over the surrounding towns and villages, which subsequently also became occupied by the Germans. The majority of the Jewish inhabitants were deported into Greater Russia. At the end of 1918, the Jews who were refugees in Poland and neighboring towns returned to the destroyed and damaged city, as well as the refugees who escaped back from Russia. Brest soon developed back into the typical Jewish town. The city also received a great amount of aid from American Jewry. The renaissance and rebuilding of the city took 6 years. When Poland occupied the city in 1919, many Poles were settled in Brest, taking over all the key government positions and sinecures. The Polish authorities did not however, alter the character of Jewish Brest and the composition of it' representative organizations. Although Jewish Brest by far had the majority of numbers, they were not represented in the administrative and municipal powers of the city.

The main influence was retained by the older, original residents, the White Russians who had lived there previously, as well as those who came from the neighbouring villages to settle in the city, and who intended to take from the Jews their economic livelihood – (their shops, market stalls and small factories). These aims were embedded in the city council, which was led by the spirit of Polish nationalism without any connection to the broader community.

Circled around these 'representatives' were several Jewish landlords and businessmen, as before, under the Russians, they simply represented the Jewish inhabitants, they did not represent any Jewish institutions. During the years 1922-1925 Greenbaum, established a division of the Jewish national council, and the fully elected member of the above council who represented it was a Mr. H. Milner. He was very much involved in the restructuring the official representation to the district government of the Polesie region, of which Brest was the capital.

The abovementioned period saw a blossoming of Jewish community activities. The local populace founded political parties, economic, cultural and educational institutions. Amongst the workers various movements arose – those were all connected to the activities of the American Jewish community and welfare organizations, which affected all Jewish life in Poland. Especially in Brest, a town who had accepted many refugees and with the help of American aid, was helping to rehabilitate them. Thanks to the great economic assistance from overseas Jewish communities, their positions strengthened and they were able to accommodate the refugees who came from Russia, providing medical help, soup kitchens, housing, schools, pre-schools, religious schools and clubs.

Following World War 1, in an environment of economic upheaval and development, the majority of the Jewish 'street' turned to left wing politics and extreme left political parties.

From within the community, there arose factions amongst the economic sectors - merchants, small businessmen and tradesmen, who saw the importance of guarding their professional and economic interests. These factions were under the influence of the 'Peoples Movement', they had their own means of dealing with the Polish authorities, and they behaved and acted quietly, so as not to antagonise the ruling powers.

The Zionist parties represented the national identity. In the front line was the organization of the general Zionists, led by L.Winnikoff and his supporters, who came from 'El Hamishmar'. There was also a Mizrachi organization - in general the ordinary Jew in Poland leant towards the rabbinical movements, which were affiliated to the 'Agudat Israel'.

The Jewish intelligentsia circles in those days had not shown a great inclination towards community activity. The majority were not involved with and had no agenda for social reform, with some exceptions, they were isolated from the general community – they would meet in social clubs and were occupied with the activities of daily life.

Amongst the prominent (Herschaftnikes) there were extreme left circles – in the forefront were the Jewish communists, then the Poale Zion (leftists) and Tzirei Zion who later formed the Poale Zion party, and the Bund. These parties all conducted cultural and propaganda activities, and obtained important positions in all the communal institutions.

In 1926, at the beginning of the Pilsudski upheaval, the demand grew for new elections; there was talk of nominating a Jewish deputy to the town's president. To this aim, H. Wilner was appointed. Together with the Polish military takeover, which resulted from the Polish victory over the Soviets, they announced that there would be new elections held for the Brest City Council, with democratic overtones.

Then the Brest Jews had an opportunity to take part in an active manner in democratic elections for the 1st time. These elections stirred the Jewish community and shook them out of their apathy. The Jews received a proper representation according to their proportion of the local population. In 1922, the Brest Jews were part of the 2nd Polish Parliament of the Polesie Province. On the general list of national minorities, they elected a Jewish member, H. Minzberg of the Agudat Israel Party. They elected representatives of the townspeople, Zionists, and also trades and artisans, and representatives of all the Jewish workers' groups that were active in Brest. However, because the Poles did not get number of votes that they had expected to, or because of the groupings of the persons on the Polish lists, the district governor (Vovoide), cancelled the results and called for new elections that took place two months later. The second elections did not alter the ratio of Jews to Poles. This was then followed by a change in the Polish representative system. The government accepted the newly elected and the election results were ratified, and the first meeting of the city council was called.

Before the elections, the Senatzia Party (Pilsudski's followers) were seeking contact with the Jewish representative with a view to unite to overthrow the ruling powers of the Nationalists in the city council.

At a meeting at the home of one of the Jewish councilmen, H. Zablud, (representing the artisans), several members of the provincial government participated and almost all the Jewish members of the city council. They came to an agreement to do everything possible to avoid the re-election of the former head of the city council (an articled judge), even going as far as walking out of the meeting to force the nomination of a new chairman. And so it happened. Three times the Jews and the so-called progressive Poles left the meeting, forcing the provincial governor to exert his full power and nominate Tomasz Tsalon as head of the city council. Tsalon was a locksmith by profession in the Zaglembie district, he was a member of the P.P.S., who had been accused of revolutionary activity in the past and sent to Siberia.

On the occasion of the Polish resurrection, he was elected chairman of the city council, at that time he was an outspoken man with socialist, worldly outlooks, which he later abandoned when he attained high office.

With the advent of Tsalon as Brest's representative, there began a new era in the community and of Jewish life in particular. Tsalon sought affiliation with the Jewish councilors and also with the members of the socialists groups – P.P.S., the leftist Politieren, Poale Zion, the Bund, Ukrainian Socialists, and non-party workers (Communists). He sought, and received, the support of the progressive groups in the city council, and benefited from their support, as he was therefore not beholden to the Provincial Government. Tsalon thereby created an expectation to a certain extent that the aims and demands of the Jewish councilors and the working classes represented by the socialist groups would be achieved.

Regarding the position of deputy Mayor, they were unanimous that this should be held by a Jew. Within a short time the delegate elected was H. Wilner, however, he did not hold this position long, because shortly after, he became ill and died. His sudden death hit the Jewish community hard.

To fill this position, Avraham Levinson was proposed. At the time, he was a member of the Polish parliament, and through this position was appointed temporarily as deputy mayor until the subsequent elections of the city council. With the arrival of A. Levinson there began a period of more intensive and widespread activities in the city council, and also in the Zionist movement in the city. The phenomenon of Jewish city councilors brought out and accentuated the national Jewish pride. This was an appropriate opportunity to demand the rights of the Jewish community, who were the majority in the Polesie district. These demands were aimed at enabling the participation of Jews in all the activities of the civil self-government.

For instance: the proportional employment of Jewish workers in the public works and construction projects of the city council, as well as its' bureaucracy.

Substantial financial assistance for Hebrew and Jewish classes that the government had classified as private.

Strengthening the Jewish medical and social institutions, such as hospitals, orphanages, old-age homes and youth hostels.

Subsidies for 'TOZ' (The society of public health), which was active in the Polish health institutions. As well as subsidies for the ORT trades schools, evening courses in Hebrew and Yiddish and for public Jewish libraries. The Jewish councilors never missed an opportunity to bring forward these demands and to make every effort to realize them.

The independence of the Mayor, Tsalon, made it possible to present these demands, as the ultimate decision- making was in the hands of the provincial government. The Jewish representatives were present at every city council meeting and they presented their demands in Yiddish. This had a resounding effect; each of those councilors presented his demands in the name of his organization, made clearer and more understandable, and with the correct motives. The proposers, who had the full support of the Jewish masses, often used descriptive and heart-rending terms in their speeches.

The reaction to these demands was slow and frustrating. The mayor Tsalon, tried to satisfy the basic demands, such as employment of Jewish labourers, hiring a Jewish employee in every municipal department so that Jews could communicate with them in Yiddish. He also made efforts with the provincial government not to cut the funding for the Jewish schools, social and cultural institutions in the city.

However, he did not succeed, and cuts were made in a drastic fashion. The ceiling on funds for the Jewish institutions rose from year to year - they never received their full allowance.

As the establishment of the State schools was financed by the city council and the provincial government, the Polish city councilors and the provincial government argued that the Jews could send their children to the public elementary schools and trade schools which were supported by the city administration and financed by the government. Theoretically. Jews could benefit from the government social and health institutions (the city hospitals, orphanages, etc.), but the reality was entirely different. The administrations of those institutions, the attitude of it's Polish speaking employees, the Polish language that most of the Jewish residents had not mastered, the anti-Semitic atmosphere, all these had taken away from the Jews the possibility of benefiting from these facilities, and they quickly chose the Jewish institutions. It was also possible that the government cut the funding allotted to them by the city council because it was widely known that the Jews greatly cared for their own institutions and would resist any government interference. It was revealed that at a time when the city council was greatly concerned with education, health, and social work, all which it supported and subsidized with a broad hand, that the Jews were forced to pay for their own services and be dependant on the support of the Joint, which donated generously.

It must be stressed that this relationship improved in the period 1930-1933, when the allotted subsidies have helped the annual budgets of the hospitals, orphanages and schools.

The chief element of the city's administration were the Jewish councilors from the working classes, who united in a Socialist grouping which included the P.P.S. (Polska Party Socialist), both branches of the Poale Zion, the ultra left groups and the representatives of the Ukrainian socialists. Those groups unity was not an official one, they were united by their common needs and goals at the time., and one should realise that in all the Jewish demands and needs that were incorporated into the city budget, the Jews had the support of these socialist councilors, in contrast to the attitude of the P.P.S. in the main cities of Poland and the capitol (Warsaw).

To a certain extent, this attitude of the P.P.S. councilors was the result of their identifying with the cause of Polish nationalism. Polish nationalism as a whole was imbued with anti-Semitic spirit. The P.P.S. in Brest had friendly relations with the Poale Zion and the Bund. They would march on the 1st May, they would organize public demonstrations and large public meetings at which they would appear with fiery speeches.

In 1928, when a large tract of land was given to the council for its' disposal, a Jewish plan surfaced – to employ the Halutzim (Pioneer Zionists) movement to develop the land into a village, to be used for the purpose of agricultural training (Hachshara). However, this village was transferred to the authority of the central government.

The Jews were represented in the city council's commissions and presided over important commissions such as the budget and finance, but in reality, the majority of economic decisions were not made by the city administration, but by the district government. This government governed according to the national trend against minorities in general and Jews in particular. The aim, held by both the central government and the provincial government, was to make the Jews life more difficult, and to hinder their progress and development.

All plans and projects for technical and sanitary improvements were designed in reality to eliminate the Jews from any economic advantage and to transfer their positions to Poles.

A glaring example of this was the question of the town's market. This market had always been in Jewish hands and served as the source of the livelihoods and economic income for thousands of Jewish families. All the region's peasants came there to trade; there was a flourishing trade in horses, cattle and agricultural products. The artisans and tradesmen that the peasants needed all worked there, the majority of small businesses were all in this market.

Suddenly, in 1928, the Polish provincial government that presided in Brest demanded that the city administration enact the transfer of the market to a district inhabited solely by Poles.

This demand was made on the argument of health and sanitation.

The Jewish representatives, without exception, saw in these demands an attempt to undermine the very existence of the Jewish masses – the workers and tradesmen of the small stores, workshops and factories. They delayed and obstructed the tabling of this issue on the daily agendas – and when the matter was eventually presented, they mobilized all their powers to defeat the motion. Because of this, the supervising authorities (the provincial government), several times proposed that the city council hold new elections, occasionally bringing about changes, sometimes there was an addition of several councilors to the Jewish group, sometimes to the Polish groups, but basically nothing changed because the city council did not have the required majority to reach a conclusive decision. Thus, after every two years, the city council was dismissed and reassembled after new elections, thinking that this time the situation would change – until the time that the government attained the essential majority of Poles and Jewish sycophants. This occurred after the government introduced the concept of district elections that was especially detrimental to the Jews and other minorities.

The Polish government in 1934 enacted this law for the whole of Poland.

Let's recall several positive decisions which had been adopted due to Jewish demands, and which were ratified by the supervising authorities:

1) The I.L.Peretz street. Several times, at the Jewish workers' representatives' insistence, the city council decided to change the name of Dluga St. to Peretz St. The provincial government on various pretexts never confirmed the decision (in that street there were several Polish government high schools), and they resisted the pressure to rename the street after a Jewish writer. Later the renaming was proposed for another street in the centre of town occupied exclusively by Jews. This proposition was accepted and enacted by the government so that Topolowa St. became Peretz St. The name remains until today, although there are no Jews left in Brest.

2) The department of Hebrew and Yiddish literature in the municipal library. We requested a separate department in the town's library, the majority of whose subscribers and readers were Jewish. Instead of a reply, came the excuse, that there was no librarian that would be able to manage this and that it was not possible to employ Jewish staff specifically for this purpose.

Agreement was eventually reached with the head of the city council that the city's budget would set aside a certain sum to open a separate department for Hebrew and Yiddish books.

However, because of technical difficulties in relation to opening such a department this sum was given to the Tel Chai Yiddish library that was under the leadership of the Poale Zion, and became known as the Zionist library in the city. The money was diverted to buy books on the list that had been approved by the city administration. The city budget introduced a column titled 'Judaica' without mentioning the above agreement and the provincial government later endorsed it. The sum was handed over to the Tel Chai library and new Yiddish and Hebrew books were purchased bearing the stamp of the city council.

3) In all the religious events, especially holy days, attention was given to divide equally between the Jews and the gentiles. Subsidies were handed over to the religious leaders under the supervision of a special committee of councilors. This is how, for example, the Hachshara kibbutz was able to obtain matzos for Passover, bought by these funds.

4) It remained established that amongst the delegates who assembled from all the Polish cities (which was a basic part of the government constitution), that there were always Jewish representatives – ranging from the workers groups to the general Jewish public.

5) From the first elections in 1926 until the first half of 1934 there were four elections of the city council. Every two years the provincial government had dismissed the city council and called for new elections. The last time was 1934 when it decided on a revolutionary ruling on the elections, which was directed against minorities, especially the Jews. In Brest as elsewhere, new elections were declared according to this new law with the district system.

Every district was nominated in a strongly proscribed manner with the number of mandates that belonged to it dependent on the decision of the government bodies.

The Senatzia party that existed in Poland prior to World War 11 (1934-1939) imposed their will on all the Polish inhabitants of the Kressy (the formerly Russian territories). An exemption was made for the general Zionists of the Al Hamishmar group headed by L. Winnikoff. This was not to the liking of the ruling Senatzia party and the city's Polish rulers. H. Winnikoff did not agree to appear under their patronage in the last elections in which the ruling powers embraced the methods of intimidation and fear. They did not allow the Jews to vote according to their own free will. Thus ended the chapter of independent representation of the Brest Jews in the city's self-government that in practical reality had lasted from 1926-1935. From then until the outbreak of World War 11 in 1939 there were Jewish representatives in the city council, but in reality they had no influence over the resolutions or decisions on the various issues.

At the time of the Brest pogrom, on the Eve of Shavuot 1937, the Jewish councilors were almost silenced; they also could not react later to the events that occurred as they should have at the city council's tribunal. They were suppressed by the dominating power of the Senatzia Party, which brought Poland to the brink of disaster.

The Kehilla Committee

Until 1915 there existed in Brest a council (Gorodskaya Uprava) whose members were only Russians and Poles. There were only two employees who were responsible for Jewish affairs – Yoineh Gurnreich and Gvirtzman. In addition the city administration took the advice of the head Gabbeh (deacon) of the Great Synagogue, Yeruchum Schatz, who was aggressive and stubborn. The entire community work of the synagogues' minyanim (congregations) was concentrated in supporting the existence of the hospital named Linat Zedek, visiting the sick, and a visitor's hostel.

After the expulsion order by General Leeming in 1915, the town was burnt down and only 25% of the buildings that remained were habitable. In 1918 when the expelled Brest inhabitants returned to their city, they organized a new kehilla council. The town was then under Ukrainian domination, and a Ukrainian governor was in power until 1919.

When the refugees returned they elected a reputable businessman, Reb.Zalman Tennenbaum as chairman of the kehilla council. When the Ukrainians left the city, they were replaced by Poles, and Reb. Avraham Yitzchak Bleiweis was elected as chairman of the kehilla council. He was a Jew with a good heart and the highest morals, a man of the people, and a Dayan (judge) of the rabbinical court. Among the leaders and members of the kehilla were Itzchak Winnikoff, Aaron Ludski and Shmuel Pomerantz. They were followed by Shmuel Lichtenstein who was elected as president of the kehilla; he was an orthodox Jew, a shrewd businessman and the right hand of Rabbi Zeev Soleveitchik. Shmuel Lichtenstein was a tireless social worker who achieved much in the field of education. The fourth representative of the kehilla was Chaim Boruch Kaviatopski, an educated orthodox Jew who was burnt to death by the Germans when they entered the city…. it was said that he confronted them and was murdered.

The period of the kehilla administration under Rabbi Zelig was ended by royal patronage from Moscow. Dr. Dov Kagan was the president of the kehilla in the time of Polish rule. The son in law of Benjamin Vigdorovitch, a rich Brest merchant and landowner, he donated 25,000 with which they began to build a new hospital, which was finished in 1921 together with financial aid from the Joint. During this period the kehilla council built several buildings.

The kehilla council had no official authority but it took on the registration and issuing of birth records. It was only after the Second Sejm (parliament), that a law was passed giving the kehillas of the Kressy (former Russian territories) the full rights of an official government institution.

1917 Conference of Jewish Communists


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