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[Page 227]

Brest in Bygone Years

as told by the elderly Doba-Yaffa to N. Chinitz

Translated by Dr. Samuel Chani and Jenni Buch

Doba Yaffa aged 12 (1876)


Before W.W.1 there were about 50 schools and Chassidic prayer houses, or shteibls, in Brest. The Gerrer, Karliner, Slonimer, Stoliner, Nezvicher,Kobryner, and Bialer, etc. Amongst the chassidim there were some great scholars and prominent Jews. Brest distinguished itself with its beautiful Great Synagogue, which was burnt down in 1895 and rebuilt thanks to the initiative of Reb Yerucham Schatz, who worked for the community for 50 years. The drawings for the Great Synagogue bore the stamp of the Tsar- Nicholas 1. Yerucham Schatz had personally taken these plans to the province governor, Dimitri Nicholaievitch Batushkov, in Grodno and asked for financial support to build the synagogue. The governor fulfilled his request and the Great synagogue was built in all its glory. When the governor-general Swiatowpolski- Minsky came to visit Brest he met with Yerucham Schatz in the synagogue and later in the hospital, later again in the town hall, asking him “how many meetings have we had today?”

After W.W.1, Yerucham Schatz returned to Brest from his wanderings in Russia. With the help of various officials he built the great hospital. He received awards for his service as a city councillor for over 25 years. Once two Jews wagered how widely Reb Yerucham Schatz was known in Brest as an administrator – they went into the street and asked every Jew they met their opinion of Yerucham Schatz – all praised him.

In the Mishmar synagogue there was a yeshiva run by Rabbi Simcha Zelig Ryger and Rabbi Moshe Sokolovsky who would 'change the guard' every three days, taking turns in giving the youths lessons.

Rabbi Mordechai Dov (Alter) Grosleit was the grandson of Tzvi Hirsh Barlas and related to Pinchas Michael Antopoler. A rabbi and very wealthy man, Rabbi Grosleit was accustomed to write all his income into a notebook so that he could give tithe to the synagogue. When he travelled to Moscow to purchase goods, he received a substantial donation - 25,000 rubles from Rabbi Zelig Fersitz to build a hospital. Upon his return to Brest they immediately began the construction works. The Gaon Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik laid the foundation stone. He looked at Rabbi 'Alter' Grosleit and asked him, “here is the list of all those who have pledged for the hospital, how much will you pledge?” Rabbi Grosleit replied, “ I'm giving as much as the rabbi will write down, I have confidence in you, Rabbi.” Rabbi Chaim wrote down 500 rubles, after that many others wrote their pledges, each one according to his means. Just as the construction of the frame of the building was completed, W.W.1 broke out and the work was suspended. Immediately after the war, the building was completed. Every time before his trips to Moscow, Grosleit would go to Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik and leave him a substantial sum for charity.

Rabbi Chaim would farewell him with a blessing “go in peace and return in peace”, and Rabbi Grosleit said that this blessing went with him everywhere and ruled whatever he did.

Reb Butche was a Chassid, a mohel (cicumciser) and schochet (ritual slaughterer). Although he excelled in looking after the needs of the community, he refused any awards. After the war all his time and efforts went into building a religious school. He would go to the homes of the wealthy Jews and demand donations. They would ask him, “who are you?” He would reply, “ I'm a Jew, a beggar, but everything about me is kosher.

A door, a window, a piece of timber, everything and anything are useful to complete building the school.” His assistant was Tzvi Ber Mordechai Gimpel Yaffe, the gabbei (deacon) of the synagogue school. Tzvi Ber in his younger days had been a businessman trading in sugar. He returned from the war a broken man and would sit and learn Torah day and night.

Amongst the renowned teachers in Brest was Rabbi Eliakim Getzel, who founded the 'Glory of Youths' society. He would give a daily lesson there, attracting large crowds who would listen to his fiery words with enthusiasm.

The head of the tailors, Laizerovitch, presided over the tailors' synagogue, and would castigate his congregation with sharp words and harsh tones; nevertheless they would run to hear his speeches. Alter Tzinneman was a caretaker of the Chevra Kadisha. A rotund Jew, he was a master of prayer and a master of reading from the Torah, he was also a Mohel (circumciser). He was a clever Jew who sparkled with wit. Before that he had been a caretaker in Rabbi Yehezkel's synagogue and school – he had corrected the handwriting of the book 'Ir Tehila' by Reb Arye Leib Feinstein.

An important and interesting man was Reb Sholem Menashe – in his youth he was a student of the Gemarra. Short of stature, thin and hardworking, he would walk around with his nephew, Reb Boruch Freidman, collecting donations for the poor.

At the Greener synagogue he would give lessons in Tanach. On the high holidays he would pray in front of a lectern and say, “ I have with me the Creator of the world and I can trust Him”. He had a good heart and was a learned teacher. He died at the beginning of 1904.

Rabbi Yoseph Dov (Yoshe Ber) Soloveitchik was brought to Brest in 1879 and died there in 1892. After the aliyah of Rabbi Joshua Leib Diskin to Eretz Israel, Rabbi Meir-Yona Soloveitchik was invited to Brest as head of the Beth Din (rabbinical court) and from Warsaw came Rabbi Yoshe Ber. The father of Rabbi Simcha Zelig, Rabbi Baer, was the shammes (beadle) of the rabbinical court.

Once, they wanted to photograph Rabbi Yoshe Ber, but he would not consent. Then an artist wanted to paint him, but the genius would not agree, saying “ why especially me? There is Baer the shammes, he has a bigger and better beard than I do, and his shape is better than mine. Why don't you paint him?” However, he was photographed once whilst making shmeireh matzos, he was so absorbed in his task that he did not notice as they crept up on him…. The photographer sat waiting in the next room and caught him.

When the Volozhyn Yeshiva closed down, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik came from there to his father, Rabbi Yoshe Ber, in Brest. In Volozhyn, Rabbi Chaim had been head of the community. When Yoshe Ber suddenly died, already before his funeral, Chaim was crowned as the Brisker Rav. After the eulogy, Rabbi Shalom Menashe stood up and said, “Mazel-tov rabbi! Your son has been chosen as the Brisker Rav – one should toast him with a drink in his honour'. At that time, Rabbi Chaim did not have his rabbinical ordination. Therefore, thirty days after his father's death, Rabbi Eliahu Chaim Maizel from Lodz and several other rabbis arrived in Brest to give him his ordination.

[Page 231]

My Parents' Home

By Mordechai Yaffe

Translated by Dr. Samuel Chani and Jenni Buch

Just as every man has a destiny, our city has had a special luck, and I don't mean in olden times but her fate over the last century. She was torn out of her place and shifted because of the building of a military fortress. She was burnt twice, her residents expelled, and the city itself was destroyed both by the Russians and the Germans, and then entirely annihilated by the Nazis.

After W.W.1 the appearance of Brest completely changed. Many of its former residents never returned. A portion had settled in Poland and did not want to return. Many perished in their travels and in terrible circumstance and did not survive to return.

At the same time, many Jews from neighbouring towns and villages in the district arrived in Brest and settled there. Another change was that many Christians, bureaucrats and civil servants, arrived and settled there. The nationalities of its population changed –Brest stopped being a decidedly Jewish town. A new town had arisen, completely different, and the difference was in every aspect:

The population
The social structures
The social activists
The traditions and the livelihoods
Contrasting with the above list, was the former Brest, before its destruction and the expulsion of its population during W.W.1 – exemplified here by the description of a house, one detail from which we can learn everything.

The street was the border; on one side was the business centre, these were the houses of the wealthy respected businessmen. On the other side, closer to the river was the tradesmen's district: blacksmiths, carpenters, wagon drivers, locksmiths, etc.etc, and a special type of Jew – the Paramshitshkes This was the district of the working class – of robust, strong, well-built Jews, here was organized and unorganised self defence

The house was a large building in terms of that time and place. The apartments that faced out onto the street – vast stores of a trading house, which had existed for generations. In these stores the majority of the employees were orthodox Jews, people of the Torah, amongst them some who had began working for my grandfather as boys and now owned their own stores. They were now elderly fathers of their own inter-related families with children, grandchildren, all God fearing Chassidim.

Some of them had already outlived their working age but none of them would retire from sitting in their stores all day – although their usefulness was minimal. There were two full time drivers employed who were distant relatives of the family – Reb Eliahu and Reb Baruch-Hirsh, who were learned orthodox Jews, observant of all the laws.

The relationship between the owners and their employees was part patriarchal, contrasted by concern and joy - they shared in all their sorrows and joys.

The nearest neighbour was the synagogue where the aristocratic Jews of the city would pray – here would pray the great men of Torah, 'relatives of royalty', and those closest to the house of the Rabbi, the father, the uncles and others.

In this synagogue was also a yeshiva under the patronage of the Rabbi, its head was Rabbi Simcha Zelig who was one of the great torah scholars in the city and the right hand of the Rabbi and who later perished in the Ghetto. The second head was Rabbi Moshe Sokolovsky, also one of the elite of the yeshiva.

The reciprocal relationship between the house and the yeshiva was strong, partly because of the proximity and the assistance given to the yeshiva people, and partly because the young members of the house were themselves were students at the yeshiva.

The melodies of the Gemarrah were heard from there throughout the day and into the evening, especially on Thursdays, also at night the chanting voices would carry from the yeshiva into the house. The noise of the commerce and trade also reached the synagogue.

There it would reach the heavens in wakefulness and full harmony.

Inside the house there were three apartments. On the first floor was the elder brother Yerucham with his household. On the floor above lived the younger brother Issar and the brother-in-law Yakov Zalman – three households, three worlds.

My grandfather, Reb Yerucham was a wealthy and privileged man. In his home there were documents from the 16th century. He was a worker for the community, a social activist with every fibre in his soul. Active and energetic, he was a handsome figure with a long beard and a thundering voice. He was a trustee of the city and the great synagogue, the hospital and the Chevra Kadisha (burial society), a city councillor acknowledged by the central and city governments. His influence was felt in all areas of the city. He spoke Russian, but wrote with errors, however, that did not stop him from knocking on all the doors of the highest officials in the state and the capitol. He had appeared before kings.

He reigned over the city; but overall his power was derived from what he received from the rabbi to whom he had the utmost loyalty. His belief and loyalty reached the highest degree, for example, the rabbi's house was against Zionism, and therefore he was also a strong opponent.

Even in matters in which the majority of the public was against the opinion of the rabbi's house – a hint from there was enough- he would oppose everything.

When Dr. Herzl died, the Zionists, an acknowledged force in the city, decided to hold a memorial service in the Great Synagogue.

The orthodox Jews were not happy, also a wink from the rabbi's house caused grandfather to order the caretaker to lock the gates of the synagogue, and bring the keys to him. He took the keys and left the city for the day. In the meantime a crowd of thousands had assembled – imagine the bitter disappointment when they faced the padlocked heavy copper gates. They raised the alarm with the old caretaker who was trembling with fear at the enraged crowd – he directed them to the correct address, The result was that part of the crowd led by Zionist officials who were usually against my grandfather paid a visit to his home and broke the windows, doors, furniture, utensils, in short they caused havoc.

The police, who were alerted by the neighbours, arrested two of the Zionist leaders – one of whom was the father of Menachem Begin. The administration sentenced them to three months. The next day grandfather returned. The families of the arrested men came to him demanding that they be released. The essence of the matter was that although the damage to his house was large - the memorial service was held the next week, because the rabbi's house had been shaken and bowed to the public pressure. Did grandfather get pleasure because he had stuck to his beliefs?

His forcefulness was not only against the Jews; the local powers also felt it.

An example of this was: some of the city officials with grandfather at their head decided to establish a pharmacy for the city's poor. The pharmacists saw this as a threat to their incomes and did all in their power to stop it from happening. The simplest way was to bribe the head of the health department in the province not to issue a permit.

After drawn out negotiations my grandfather became convinced that there was no hope of obtaining this way – he did not hesitate for long and went to St.Petersburg – there he had friends with the highest connections to senators, ministers and former governors. Through these connections the head of the health services department ordered that the required permit be issued. This cost my grandfather much money and later setbacks with the local Brest authorities. However, the pharmacy was established.

My grandfather only had one daughter, a beauty with rare qualities. She died in Israel several years ago aged 87. She was named Shaindel. As was the customs with rulers, he married her into a family of many generations of rabbis. His son in law was Reb Tzvi, the son of rabbi Mordechai Yaffe of Rashenai, one of the greatest rabbis of his generation. He was one of the first Chovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), who in his later years went to Eretz Israel and lived in Petach Tikvah and Yehudiah.

In my opinion, the rabbi's son, Reb Tzvi, a student from the Volozhyn yeshiva and a learned expert in Torah matters did not fit easily into the household. A house that was freely open all year to all: Chassidim, Mitnagdim, religious and secular, government officials, friends and followers, a house in which there was always noise - it was hard for him to adjust to the practical, material world into which he had been dragged.

A child of a house that was steeped in the love of Zion, it was difficult for him to accustom himself to the extreme fanaticism, although he immersed himself in his traditions and deep faith and did not associate with the fanatics. He trusted every religious Jew - and more than once dishonest people led him astray. Nevertheless, he did not stop trusting them.

In time, a harmony was created in the house between spirituality and practicality, between the rooms of the great library where he spent most of his time and the world of commerce and business. By the way, the greater part of his library went to Israel and was handed over to the settlement of Rabbi Kook

In the matter of educating the children, who, by the way, all received a traditional education in cheder and yeshiva – not one attended a secular school – my father's spirit prevailed, and there was no fanaticism. He was once asked from where he knew foreign languages- he gave a strange reply,” Gemarrah and poskim (rabbinical lore) you learn, but languages you know!”

The First World War had greatly affected my grandfather financially. Also the new order in society, the previous powers which had declined and been overthrown by the new powers – all this hit the elderly man who was in his eighties very hard. He was not able to come to terms with the new order, a democratic community with open government and critical opinions, and the liberation from the ruling elite. He was broken down together with the destruction of the city and it's traditions.

In a wing of the upstairs floor lived his younger brother, the esteemed uncle Isser, with the various members of his family. Another world, with different inhabitants and different upbringing. His older brother Yerucham had relinquished his share of the inheritance of a family store in favour of his brother and brother-in-law. However, his brother Reb. Isser was more preoccupied with his 'weaknesses'.

His entire life he was afraid of catching colds - he would walk around swaddled in sweaters and scarves. The jokers of the house said that when Reb Isser went through a street with open windows on both sides, he would lift his collar against the cross draft!

Despite the many servants and maids in our house, everyone had serve themselves- no one was spared from physical work. In contrast the uncle's children were very spoilt and pampered and as a result had physical weaknesses and were always sick

The second wing of the upper storey lived the esteemed uncle Yakov Zalman Lifshitz with his wife Masha. They had inherited and managed a family business. Reb Yakov was the son of the famous rabbi Baruch Mordechai Lifshitz, the rabbi of Siedlice, a man totally immersed in Torah and orthodox affairs.

They had no children of their own. Their home was full of books and learning and was open to every rabbi and passing yeshiva student, and officials of 'Mechaskei Hadat', (strengtheners of the religion) the ultra - orthodox society which had it's roots in Russia.

In their home I saw the famous Rabbi Yakov Rabinovitch the Poltava rabbi, Rabbi Yakov Lifshitz and his son Noteh from Kovno, and people from the 'Black office', Rabbi Eliezer Atlas from the 'Pales' publication, and other rabbis and officials of this society that had existed even before the Agudat Israel. This society had surpassed Agudat Israel in its struggle against Zionists and Zionism – from there were issued the directives of how to conduct the battle

Here I also met with emissaries from various yeshivas and institutions, amongst them were interesting personalities and great scholars of the Torah. All were bound and united in their negative attitude to Zionism and the new settlements in Israel. A frequent guest to their home was a Rabbi Yakov Klotzkin, he would take part in Torah discussions – my uncle ignored his fanaticism and liked him a lot.

Their home often resounded with debates and arguments about Torah issues and matters in general.

I have perhaps offended some people and have not represented the complete characters - but I have just tried to give a short picture of life in my parent's home.

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