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Translation of Brest chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin
Translation of Brest chapter from
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Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Volume V, pages 226-237, edited by Shmuel Spector, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
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(Brisk D'Lita, Brześć nad Nugiem, Brest Litovsk)
(Capital of the Polesie District)
Translated by Jenni Buch
Edited by Ellen Stepak
|1667||?||525||Over the age of 10|
|1929||46,448||21,769||City council statistics|
|1930||47,234||21,772||City council statistics|
|1938||57,153||25,000 (ca.)||City council statistics|
In the 10th century, Slavs inhabited Brest. In 1015 it was mentioned for the first time in the ancient Russian Chronicles under the name Berestov or Berestya. Because of its proximity to the Polish border, the city changed hands many times. The king of Poland Boleslav Chrobry conquered it from the Russian Prince Turovski and held it for 22 years. In 1182 King Kasimir Spravedlivy conquered it and built a fortress there. In 1141 the Mongols raided this area and destroyed the city. The prince of Volhynia, Vladimir (the Philosopher) rebuilt the city and built a fortified tower there. In 1316 the Lithuanian prince Gediminas conquered the city and from then on it was consideredone of the important cities of this princedom. In 1390 it was granted full rights under the Magdeburg Charter by King Vladislav Jagiello. These were reaffirmed and renewed in the Sejm (Polish Parliament) and by King Zygmund I in 1511. Brest was made the capital city of Brest province. In 1594 a pact of unity was signed in Brest between the Pravoslavian (Russian Orthodox) and the Catholic Church, a pact that created the Greek Catholic Church.
Brest was severely damaged during the Chmielnicki rebellion of 1648-1650; when the Muscovites entered the city in 1660; and in the SwedishRussian wars in the early 18th century. In the partition of Poland in 1793, Brest was annexed to the Russian Tsarist Empire as a regional city; at first it was in the Slonim district, and from 1831 it belonged to Grodno Guberniya (province).
In 1837 construction of the Brest Fortress began, and in accordance with the orders of the Tsarist authorities, all the residents were evacuated from their homes, and the old part of the city was destroyed to accommodate the building of the new city. All the inhabitants including the Jews received compensation and resettled in new neighborhoods.
With the outbreak of WWI, Brest came under German domination from August 1915 until January 19, 1918. On March 3rd, 191, the Peace Treaty was signed in Brest between the representatives of the Soviet Union (headed by Leon Trotsky) and Germany. In August 1920, the city was finally annexed by Poland and was declared the capital city of the Poleie district. Brest remained under Polish rule until its annexation to the Byelorussian Republic of the USSR in Sept 1939. From June 22nd, 1941 until July 1944, Brest was under German , and until June 1942 it served as headquarters for the German General Command for Volhynia and Poleie.
Jews had apparently begun settling in Brest during the time of Lithuanian rule, which means in the middle of the 14th century. On the 1st of July 1388 the Lithuanian prince Witold (Vitovt) issued the Right to Inhabit to the Jews of Brest, which then also applied to the rest of his princedom. This Right of Habitation document was later reaffirmed by King Zygmund (Sigismund) I on the 4th of June 1507 and later again by Zygmund III on the 26th of June 1570. This document was based on similar ones made by King Boleslaw of Kalisz and Kasimir the Great, and adapted to the conditions in the princedom of Lithuania. On August 4th, 1447, King Kasimir IV issued a Declaration of Rights to the Jews of Poland and Lithuania and in this he confirmed all their previous privileges. In this document the Brest community (kehilla) is mentioned as one of the foremost communities of that time.
Most of the economic and financial activities of the Lithuanian princedom were managed Brest Jews. They were the tax and tariff collectors princedom, controlling all major trade, and owning estates and villages. Around 1470 the Rabbi of Brest was Rabbi Yehiel ben Aaron Luria, grandfather of the Maharshal (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yehiel Luria).
In the year 1495 the Jews of Brest were expelled from their homes together with all the Jews of Lithuania, in accordance with the orders of Prince Alexander. Their houses were given to Christian residents and their synagogue was converted to the Church of the Holy Spirit. In 1503 the Jews of Lithuania were permitted to return to their towns. The former homes and the synagogue of the Brest Jewish community were returned to them. OnSeptember 25th, 1511, King Zygmund I permitted the Jews of Brest to refurbish their synagogue and even issued an edict to supply them with bricks and materials needed for this.
The expulsion caused some wealthy Jews to convert to Christianity. One of them was Abraham Jesofovich, who later was made a nobleman and served as Treasurer of the Lithuanian princedom. His brothers, Michael and Isaac, did not convert to Christianity. After their return to Brest from the expulsion they continued with their many branches of business. Michael was one of the chief tax collectorsin the princedom, controlling most of the tax and customs stations in the country. He was involved in many branches of commerce and controlled credit activity on a large scale. His clients were from the families of royalty and the aristocracy. Michael amassed a huge amount of wealth and he was a favorite and close advisor to King Zygmund I. By a royal command issued on February 27th, 1514, Michael was appointed Head of the Jews of Lithuania, and represented the Jews before the ruling powers. He was granted the role of collecting their taxes, and also the power to judge them and to impose fines on them. By this command, Michael had to choose a rabbi who would judge the Jews according to the laws of Israel.But it seems that this order remained on paper only and was never brought into practice, as documents from the following years that mention Michael give no details of this. Possibly the Jews opposed a this mandated appointment. This incident is similar to the incident of Rabbi Mendel Frank, whom the king appointed in 1531 as Chief Rabbi of the Jews of Lithuania, but the Jews did not want him. In 1525 King Zygmund I personally rewarded Michael Jesofovich by appointing him to the aristocracy. He was the only Jew ever to receive such a title without having to convert for it. Besides the brothers Jesofovich there were other renowned tax collectors and merchants in Brest such as: Reb Avraham Dlugatz, Reb Yitzhak Borodavka, and the brothers David and Lipman sons of Shmarye.
In the Charter of Rights dated March 19th, 1527, King Zygmund I confirmed the previous document that was issued by King Alexander, according to which the Jews of Brest were permitted to trade and participate in all professions with the same rights as the Christian inhabitants. In addition the Jews were entitled to receive one quarter of the income raised by the city administration, and to share with the Christians in the taxes collectedfor passage through the city. In return, the Jews had to the building and maintenance of bridges and roads, and the purchase of arms and gunpowder for the defense of the city. The Jews had to struggle against the Christian inhabitants for the right to receive one quarter of the city's income.OnMarch 14th, 1580, the leaders of the Jewish community of Brest filed a complaint before the king's official that the Christian city councillors were not fulfilling this agreement.
In the year 1567 the Lithuanian Sejm (parliament) that had assembled in Grodno levied a general tax on the Jews for the sum of 4000 Lithuanian currency. The Jews of Brest were required to pay half that sum, although their number in the Jewish population of the Lithuanian princedom was proportionally much less than half. A year later in 1568, the city burnt down and the king, Zygmund Augustus, exempted all the residents including the Jews from paying one third of their taxes for the next nine years. He also encouraged them to build their houses from bricks. The great tax collectors of that time, Lipmanson of Shmarye and Mendel son of Isaac invited an architect from Warsaw to design and build homes and the magnificent synagogue. The synagogue building was considered at that time to be the most beautiful in Lithuania/Poland. This synagogue stood until 1842.
In 1576 there was again a huge fire in Brest, the result of which was that King Stephan Bathory exempted the Jews of Brest from paying taxes. The Jewish populace recovered quickly. On March 5th, 1580, a complaint was lodged against the Jews with the king's official. According to the charges, the Jews had broken through the earthen walls surrounding the city, and built their houses outside the walls. From this we may assume that their numbers had grown to the extent that conditions were too cramped within the confines of the city walls.
According to the customs lists of Brest in 1583, the Jews of the city traded with Germany and Austria. They imported wax, paper, furs, iron, lead and textile products from Hungary and Moravia, and exported soap, gloves made in Moscow, furs, saddles and more. At times the Jews of Brest did not hesitate to resort to force in collecting monies owed to them by the Christians. This we know from complaints lodged with the king's official at the Brest Fortress.
In the 1570s Saul Wahl son of Yehuda arrived in Brest from Padua in Italy. At first he studied in the Brest Yeshiva, then he married a local girl and settled in the city. He rapidly became one of Lithuania's greatest leaseholders and merchants. As one of King Stephan Bathory's closest advisors, he representat all the Jews at the king's court. In 1580 Saul son of Yehuda Wahl is mentioned as one of the leaders of the Brest community who came before the Police Chief to complain that the Christian residents of Brest were not allocating one quarter of the city's revenue to the Jews, thus not fulfilling the orders of the king. In 1593 Saul Wahl obtained a royal decree that required the Jews to be judged in front of a rabbinical court, without interference from the city or king's officials. Saul built two public buildings with his own money:one was a synagogue and the other a yeshiva that became famous throughout Europe. Students came tfrom Italy, Germany, and even from Kaffa [Feodosiya] in the Crimean peninsula. There is a legend about Saul Wahl that he was King of Poland for one day. His sons and descendents were the Katzenellenbogen and Padua families, who served as rabbis and later on as public officials until WWII.
The first-known Rabbi of Brest was, as we have mentioned, Rabbi Yehiel ben Aaron Luria, grandfather of the Maharshal (Rabbi Shlomo Luria), ca. 1470. For a short time around 1514 Rabbi Moshe Rascovitch served as rabbi of Brest. At the end of the 1520s Rabbi Mendel Frank sat as Rabbi in Brest. As mentioned he had been appointed as Chief Rabbi of Lithuania by the king, but the Jewish community did not accept his appointment. Evidence of t comes froma complaint made by Mendel Frank himself. The Brest Yeshiva was apparently founded in the middle of the 16th century. The heads of the Yeshiva at that time were Rabbi Moshe Reis and Rabbi Shimon. The Rabbi of Brest in 1540 was Rabbi Klonimus, who was the son-in-law of the Maharshal, Shlomo Luria, who himself served as Rabbi of Brest around 1550. Rabbis that are known to have served in Brest in the second half of the 16th century were Naphtali Hertz; Moshe Lipshitz (1569), author of the book Zichron Moshe; Yehuda ben Ovadia Eilenberg; and Beinish Lipshitz, the son-in-law of Saul Wahl.
Already in the second half of the 16th century, Brest was the central and most important community in the kingdom of Lithuania. This status was maintained throughout the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century, until the community of Vilna assumed this position.Before the Council of Lands was established, rabbinical courts existed, and they would convene at the same time as the major fairs that took place in Poland. The rabbinical courts that assembled in Lublin, included the head of the rabbinical court of Brest as the representative of all the Lithuanian Jews. In the 1580s the organization of the Council of Four or Five Lands began. Representing Lithuania were the head of the Lithuanian nation and the head of the Brest rabbinical court.
In 1607 the above Rabbi Yehuda son of Ovadia Eilenberg signed the constitution of the Council of Four lands - he is mentioned aboveas Head of the Yeshiva and the rabbinical court of Brest. In 1640 a declaration was published at the fair of Jaroslav and signed by 30 rabbis protesting the purchase of the Rabbinate building with money borrowed from the Christians. Of the signatories, only two were from Lithuania and both of them were from Brest their names were Rabbi Leib and Rabbi Beinish Lipshitz.
In 1623 the Jews of Brest seceded from the Council of Four Lands, and formed the Council of the Lithuanian Nation. Brest occupied the premier position among the three main communities that made up the council. Of the 45 communities that were in Lithuania - 30 communities were put under the jurisdiction of Brest. To the east the authority of Brest extended to the gates of Moscow and included areas of Russia such as Minsk and Slutsk and others. To the north, under the Brest jurisdiction were: Novogrodek [Navahrudek], Slonim, and Niesvizh [Nyasvizh]; to the west: Lomaz, Amshino [Mszczonow], and Wisokie Litovsk [Vysokoye].
The importance of the Brest community (kehilla) in the Council of the Lithuanian Nation was expressed, for example,in the bylaws it was determined that the Brest constitution would serve as the model for the whole nation, and the other leading Jewish communities. In 1623 it was decreed that all Jewish tax and excise collectors should act in the same manner as the tax collectors from Brest, and that they were forbidden to charge higher taxes than those charged in Brest. The stand of the Brest council was so high that an accused Brest tax collector could only be brought before a court in Brest. The decrees pertaining to bringing a gentile before the Brest Beth Din (rabbinical court) were enacted throughout Lithuania. The authority of the rabbis and of the heads of the Brest community was greater or at least equal to the authority of the rabbis and heads of the two other main communities combined Pinsk and Grodno. In 1623 it was decreed that in honor of the aged Rabbi Meir son of Saul Wahl, that all the Council meetings were to be held in Brest. Of the 42 assemblies that took place, 19 were held in Brest or in towns surrounding Brest.
The council was supposed to convene every four years, but the Head of the Brest Beth Din had the option to decide if a meeting should be held every two years, if he found this necessary. In 1644, at the annual Lublin Fair which was the central meeting place for the Jewish delegates from all over Poland and Lithuania, the council decided that during the next six years the council would sit in judgement there, and that together with the Polish judges there would be two judges from Brest. Only after this period was there to be a judge from Pinsk and a judge from Grodno. The heads of the Brest community were given the honor of signing these decrees first. In 1647 it was decided that at the court that would sit at the Fair of Kapolya, Lithuania [Kapyl', Belarus], there would be two judges from Brest, and the third judge would alternate between Pinsk and Grodno. During the council assemblies the two trustees were paid salaries, the one from Brest on a permanent basis, the other alternately representing the twoother communities.
The importance and centrality of Brest was also demonstrated by its share of both expenses. In 1639 the council decided to absorb and accommodate 75 youths who were homeless. Brest and district was to be responsible for 35 of these youths. In 1644, the Jews of Brest paid a Loyalty tax of 270 Lithuanian currency to the king, which was proportionately a larger sum than that paid by the other communities. On the other hand, the Brest representatives received a refund of 40 Polish gold zlotys for expenses at conferences; in contrast the representatives of Pinsk and Grodno together received 35 zlotys.
From the council records we learn of the disasters that occurred in Brest mainly the fires which destroyed many of the city's wooden houses; due to this the head tax was reduced, for example in 1623. Damage was also inflicted during the riots of the students of the Brest Jesuit College in 1637. This type of incident was repeated. Unlike elsewhere, however, in Brest bribes paid to the Jesuit students to refrain from rioting were of no use; but it may be that the Jews of Brest were not willing to pay bribes, but rather to repay by force. On the 10th of March 1644, the Rector of the Jesuit seminary and his deputy lodged a complaint with the deputy Police Chief in Brest. In it they claimed that Jews had beaten their students, both that year and the previous year. After a few months the Jesuit students again attacked the Jews, and this time the local Christians joined them. The mayor, who was responsible for organizing civil defense guards to protect the Jews, did not fulfil his obligation. Both the Russian Orthodox clergy and the Jews lodged complaints about the violence.
The most terrible events occurred during the atrocities of 164849. According to Jewish sources, 2000 Jews were murdered in Brest. Among them were probably Jews from the surrounding settlements; the rest escaped into Greater Poland and Danzig. The priest Kunakov described the scene in the city after the destruction: the houses, the shops, the churches, were all destroyed. The Jews were slaughtered and only a few escaped. What the Cossacks and their allies did not manage to destroy and loot, the Polish soldiers finished off while searching through the remaining property of both Jewish and Christian inhabitants.
However it did not take long, and the Jews began rebuilding. They received concessions on their taxes and other privileges. On the 23rd of June 1655 King Jan Kasimir gave the Jews a letter of protection that included protection for their businesses, and especially protected the Jewish leaseholders against their competitors. The rebuilding activities were disrupted in 1660 when the Muscovite armies invaded and conquered Brest, harming the city and its Jews. As a result of this destruction, the Letter of Rights as well as other documents and agreements pertaining to the Jews.
In 1661 King Jan Kasimir exempted the Jews temporarily from paying taxes and from certain duties such as providing accommodation, food and money for his soldiers. The king threatened the officers who would disobey his decree with heavy punishment. In addition the king excused the Jews from many taxes for the next four years and the repayment of loans for the next three years. As a result of the constant attacks on the Jews, their numbers dwindled, so that in 1672 there were only 132 Jews in Brest. Even assuming that many avoided the census and that newborn babies were not registered and that religious personnel did not take part in this census the numbers were very small compared to those of the past. This situation continued for some years in 1676 there were still only 575 Jews in Brest, far less than before the atrocities of 164849.
As mentioned, in those terrible years the Letters of Rights and other documents pertaining to the Jews had been lost. In order not to lose their rights, the Jews obtained copies of these documents and brought them for endorsement to King Michael Wizniewitski [Wisniowiecki] in 1669, and King Jan Sobietski in1676. The latter added the right to build a new synagogue and to repair the old one. In 1702 King Augustus II ratified the documents and in 1720 added the decree amongst others, which forbade the hindering of Jews who were engaged in transporting goods. In this same decree, it was also forbidden for Christian moneylenders to take synagogues and the shops of the Jews as security for their loans.
Despite the protection that was bestowed upon them by the king's decrees, the conspiracies against the Jews of Brest continued during the 17th century. In addition to the Jesuit students, the nobility also attacked the Jews from time to time. Such an incident occurred onMay 13th, 1665 when a nobleman on horseback the synagogue and murdered the Shammes [beadle or sexton] with his sword. Although the murderer was sentenced to death in this case, and his relatives had to pay damages to the victim's family, similar incidents n the 18th century ended with light fines, as Poland was at that time known as the Republic of the Aristocracy. There were cases of bloodlibel, an example of which was in a small town in 1663, and the murder of a female convert from Judaism in 1676, which resulted in several members of Jewish families being condemned to death.
Like the rest of the Jewish communities in Poland/Lithuania, Brest also began to deteriorate financially after the massacres of 164849, also as a result of the rule of the aristocracy over the nation. The Jews individually and as a community were forced to borrow large sums of money to finance the heavy expenses of rebuilding, the growing taxation burden, and the bribes that were demanded from them from time to time. The lenders were mainly the churches and monasteries, and the guarantors of the loans were the Jewish kehilla (community council). In the year 1682 the leaders of the Jews of Brest complained to the Governor that the Jews were carelessly borrowing money and placing the responsibility for repaying the loans on the Jewish community. Due to this the trustees of the synagogue were forced to sell public property to cover individual private loans. In 1720 the leaders of the Brest community obtained a decree from King Augustus II that forbade the imposition of arbitrary foreclosure by Christian creditors on Jewish debtors.
Despite the troubles and hardships, the population of Brest Jews in the census of the 18th of May 1766 had grown to 3,175 souls, in contrast to the 600 or so in 1676. But also the debts, mainly of the community, had grown and multiplied, reaching 227,720 zlotys in 1766. This was mostly owed to the churches, monasteries, and variousChristian religious institutions. The majority of the community's property was mortgaged, and the annual income from that property amounted to 31,000 zlotys, which was not enough to repay these loans.
From the time of the massacres of 1648-49 and until the 18th century, some famous rabbis served in Brest, among them Rabbi Yakov son of Ephraim-Zalman Schor (1655), and Rabbi Moshe son of Yehuda Liva, author of the book Helkat Mehokek. Others were: Rabbi Aaron Shmuel Koidanover, who was the author of the books Brachat Hazevach and Brachat Shmuel; Rabbi Mordechai Zyskind Rottenberg, who left a book of Questions and Answers (1695); his son Moshe Rottenberg, who served until 1710; Rabbi Arieh Yehuda Leib (1713) (the grandson of Rabbi Joel Sirkis), who wrote the book Shaagat Arieh; Rabbi Nahman Sirkin (1718); and Rabbi Israel Isser ben Moshe (until 1760). From 1760 until the end of the 18th century Rabbi Avraham Katzenellenbogen served as the rabbi of Brest, and after him his son, Rabbi Joseph Katzenellenbogen. The latterdescendents of Rabbi Saul Wahl.
With the second partition of the kingdom of Poland in 1793, Brest was annexed to Tsarist Russia. In 1831 Brest was selected as a provincial city in the Grodno Guberniya. The great fires that broke out in 1802 and 1828 destroyed much of the Jewish district of Brest. The second blaze also destroyed five synagogues. The Jews had barely managed to recover from this disaster when another crisis befell them the erection of the Brest fortress at the confluence of the Mukhavets and Bug rivers. The fortress was built in the old part of the city, which was mainly inhabited by Jews. In 1837 Tsar NicholasI ordered total evacuation of the area, and the demolition of all the existing houses and public buildings. The inhabitantsincluding the Jews, received generous compensation for their property and the city was moved sitand rebuilt approximately three kilometers to the east. Among the public buildings to be destroyed was the ancient synagogue that Saul Wahl had built. The Jewish community decided to rebuild the synagogue with the compensation money, and that the new one should resemble the old synagogue. For this purpose, a descendent of Saul Wahl, Rabbi Yakov Meir Padua sent copies of the original drawings to a Jewish architect in London, who was also a descendent of Saul Wahl. However, Tsar Nicholas I, who had to approve the plans, wanted the synagogue building to resemble the splendid Great Synagogue of Vienna. And thus it was done. Saul Wahl's memorial stone tablet was rescued from the old synagogue and installed in the new synagogue.
The erecting of the fortress imposed many restrictions on the economic development of Brest. According to orders of the authorities, the building of houses of more than one story was forbidden, as was the building of factories withchimneys. All building plans had to be authorized by the army. Frequent firesimpeded the development of the city. In 1900 the majority of houses in Brest were still built of wood. Only 81 buildings out of the 2,386 buildings in the city were built of bricks. The fire of 1895 severely affected the city the flames destroyed about 1800 houses, that is, the majority of the houses in the city. Another fire in 1901 destroyed what remained from the first fire, about 800 houses, and there were also fatalities. With the help of long-term low-interest loans and donations, among them 300,000 rubles from Tsar Nicholas II, the city was quickly rebuilt.
Despite all this the city developed and grew, as did the number ofJewish inhabitants. The improvedmeans of transportation aed this. The MukhavetsPina Canal (part of the BugDneiper Canal) linked the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea. Therailway tracks between Kiev and Warsaw, and between Moscow and Warsaw turned Brest into a very important railway junction. Because of the restrictions on industry, trade in lumber and agricultural products developed on a large scale. TThousands of tons of grains and fruits on their journey westward passed through the Brest railway station, and from the west machinery and manufactured goods streamed into Russia through Brest. Each week a thousand cattlearrived in Brest to be sold to Warsaw and other cities of Poland. Most of this commerce was in Jewish hands, as were almost all the small manufacturing industries and trades. According to the census of 1897 the income of the Jews of Brest was as follows:
|M and skilled crafts||40%|
|Public Service (and private professions)||7%|
Despite this the industry in Brest was limited:
There were four factories in the city for the production of tobacco; several flour mills, a brewery for the production of beer, and a few leather tanneries. From this it is correct to say that 40% of the breadwinners were mostly involved in trades and not in industry. The number of skilled workers was about 3500, mainly shoemakers and tailors. The rest were bakers, carpenters, metalsmiths and builders. The shoemakers mainly worked for export, and their products were sent to Russia and the Crimea. The great majority of merchants were small merchants or peddlers.
Most of the Jewish financial institutions were established at the end of the 19th century. In the middle of that century there was only one banking institution in Brest: Finkelstein's bank. Over the years other institutions were founded: a branch of the Warsaw-based Soloveichik and Morgenstern bank, the Zionist Horodische bank (in 1897), the Cooperative Credit Bank of Brisk D'Lita (1905), the Moscow-Brest United Bank (1905-6), and the Savings and Loans Fund (1905-6). From 1880 there operated in Brest a charitable interest-free fund [Hebrew: gamah] for the poor. The banks that had not closed down before 1914 were disbanded in the first year of World War I.
Education was mainly conducted in heders. But there was also a Talmud Torah (synagogue school) that had been established by the rabbi of Brest, Yakov Meir Padua in 1856. This institution provided religious studies as well as lessons in the Russian language to about 500 students. At the end of the 19th century there were four Jewish public schools in Brest, two for boys and two for girls. A total of over 1700 students attended these schools. Half of all high school students, both public and private, were Jewish.
During the 19th century various public institutions were established he first of was the Hekdesh founded in 1838. This was a hospital with 40 beds, and a pharmacy that distributed free medicine to the poor. By the end of the 19th century this institution had developed into a hospital with the highest standards of medical care, and the quality of its treatment was well known outside Brest. When a society (EZA) was founded to promote the health of Jews in St Petersburg in 1912, the doctors of Brest were the first to establish a branch of this society.
During 1856 a terrible epidemic of cholera raged through Brest. At this time the Bikur Cholim Society was established an old age home was established in 1876. A year later an outpatient clinic was set up,offering free medical care. Free accommodation for the poor was also provided. In Brest there were also very active charitable organizations such as the Woman's Charitable Society that provided interest-free loans to women who were the breadwinners of their families, loans to help women in need and to provide dowries for poor girls to enable them to marry, charitable accommodations and more.
At the beginning of the 20th century there were two large synagogues in Brest and over thirty houses of prayer. From the beginning of the 19th century until the beginning of WWI, the following rabbis sat in the rabbinical chair of Brest:
Rabbi Arye Leib Katzenellenbogen (until 1837);Despite the fact that the Jews were the majority of the city's residents, at the beginning of the 20th century, they had only three representatives out of the thirty-two on the city council. These representatives were not elected, but appointed. On May 29th, 1905 a pogrom took place in Brest as the result of incitement by the anti-Semitic Angel Michael group that belonged to the infamous Black Hundred organization. The police and the members of the Jewish self-defense group stood before the rioters; among this group many Jews were wounded and some killed. Dr Kasavary Seinberg, a former battalion commander of the Russian Army, donned his uniform and helped disperse the rioters. He also gave medical assistance. For wearing the uniform, he was severely rebuked by the Russian military authorities.
Yakov Meir Padua 1840-1857 (grandson of Avraham Padua and son of Rabbi Joseph Padua);
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Orenstein 1865-1874;
Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin 18741877; he went to Israel and built the orphanage in Jerusalem that still bears his name;
Rabbi Joseph Dov-Ber Soloveichik 1878- 1892, author of the book Bet Halevy (in four volumes);
Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik 1892-1918, one of the most famous rabbis of the Russian Tsarist Empire, he was a staunch opponent of education (enlightenment) and Zionism.
In 1884 the Bnei Zion (Sons of Zion) society was founded which was a branch of Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion). The youth established a group called Raglei Hamevasser as an offshoot of this society. One of the original BILU members was Mintz who came from Brest. Briskers among the members of the first Aliyah were: Padua, Feinstein and Pochachevski. At the Hovevei Zion conference that took place in Odessa in 1890, there were two Brest delegates. In 1897 they established a Zionist organization in Brest, and sent two Brest delegates - Leon Horodische and Noah Finkelstein - to the Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland. At the Russian Zionist Conference that took place in Minsk in 1902 the official delegates from Brest in the Odessan Committee were Mordechai Sheinerman and Ben-Zion Neumark. Sheinerman and Israel Rakov attended the 1909 Zionist conference in Helsingfors (Helsinki, Finland). In the same year, the first Zionist council was elected in Brest, headed by Leon Horodische who was succeeded by Dr. Joseph Shereshevski. Amongst the active members of this council was the Zionist orator Alter Hazan, the father of Yakov Hazan, the future leader of the Mapam Party in Israel. In 1901 the Hebrew speaking club was founded in Brest. Tzeirei Zionf the Society for the Promotion of the Hebrew Language and Literature.
At the beginning of the 20th century a there was a large branch of the Bund in Brest, and small branches of the Socialist Zionists (S.Z.) and Poalei Zion. Many Jews belonged to the Social Revolutionaries (S.R.) and the Polish Socialist Party (P.P.S).
Brest produced a number of famous people, among them the editors of Heint, the large Yiddish daily newspaper in Warsaw Noah Finkelstein and Abraham Goldberg. A brother of the latter was the Yiddish writer and poet Menachem Barisha (Goldberg). Also the writers: Dr. A. Eisen, Nechama Pokhachevski, Dr. Benjamin Shereshevski, the poet Anna Margolin and Arieh Leib Feinstein, author of the historical book about the Jews of Brest, Ir Tehilla (City Of Glory). Brest also produced some well-known scientists such as Yakov Grumer the mathematician and Y. N. Halevy-Epstein, the professor of Talmudic studies.
In May 1915 during WWI, the battlefront neared Brest. Thousands of Jews were mobilized for compulsory labor building fortifications, etc. owever this was done in complete disorder and those mobilized quickly returned to their homes. On the 1st of August 1915, the commander of the Brest Fortress, General Leeming ordered the total evacuation of the city by August 5th.
The residents were forbidden to take many belongings with them, especially food, which was particularly abundant in the city then. After the expulsion of all the residents, the rear guards of the Russian Army began ransacking their homes. On August 24th and 25th the Cossacks began burning the city in a systematic manner. Out of 3670 houses, about 2000 were damaged. The Austrian-German Army that entered the city put out the fires, but continued the widespread damage by demolishing the houses and shipping the bricks back to Germany. Brest residents who had fled to neighboring towns returned to their homes and elected a city council. However, after a short period the Germans began expelling these inhabitants into Congress Poland and turned the city into a military base and camp for Russian prisoners of war.
Between the Two World Wars
After the Germans withdrew from Brest in 1918, Brest residents began to return to their city, but due to the drawn-out hostilities between the Bolsheviks and the Polish Government that extended until the middle of 1921, only about half of the former inhabitants including Jews returned. From 1919 the number of Poles settling in the city increased. After it was established that Brest would be the capital of the new Polish Polesie district, and the population increased even more.
Between the years 1922-1925 there was a Brest branch of the Jewish National Temporary Council for Poland, of which the founder and leader was Yitzhak Greenbaum.
Until 1926 there was a city council that comprised more than 20 members; although its composition is unknown, we may assume that there were more than a few Jewish representatives.
Elections took place on June 27th, 1926; of 31 council members, 17 Jews were elected. According to their political affiliation, the Jewish members were divided as follows: Religious: , Leftists: , Economic organizations: . However, the results were annulled by order of the provincial governor and on the 19th of September 1926 new elections took place. This time out of the 31 members only 14 Jewish candidates were elected. They were affiliated as follows:
Mizrahi: 3, Orthodox: 2, Property Owners: 1, Merchants: 2, Tradesmen: 3, Right Poalei Zion: 1, Left Poalei Zion; 1, The Bund: 1.The Pole Tomasz Tsalon was elected Mayor; he was a socialist who had good relations with the Jewish council members.His deputy was Dr B. Wilner, and after his death Dr. Avraham Levinson was elected in his place. Two Jews were elected to the city administration board that consisted of four members. This council was dissolved in May 1928 and on June 17 new elections took place. About half of the voters were Jewish 9,588 out of 18,945. This time 19 out of the 30 elected members were Jews. Tomasz Tsalon was re-elected as Mayor, and Avraham Levinson as his deputy once more. Two Jews were again elected to the city administration board (Magistrat).
In September 1930, there were again elections for the city council, but this time the Jewish representation dropped to 11 as follows: Left Poalei Zion; 2, Right Poalei Zion; 1, Property owners: 1; Non-affiliated merchants: 1; Tradesmen: 2; Financial Union: 1; Mizrahi: 2; Orthodox: 1. Avraham Levinson was again elected deputy mayor, but only one Jew was elected to the administrative board. The provincial governor postponed authorizing these appointments for almost one year. In the second half of the 1930s the Jewish representation dropped to 9 out of 30 (in 1938), but the deputy mayor was still a Jew - Yehiel Mastboim, and there was still one Jewish member out of the four on the city administration board.
The Jewish city council members did not always vote as a united bloc, often they would vote together, but the leftist members (e.g. the Bundists and the left Poalei Zion) sometimes preferred to vote with the non-Jewish socialists, especially when issues of glaring social injustices came to the vote. The Jewish members would fight together - for example, for the employment rights of the Jewish clerks and workers in the city council, and the rights of the city employees to make speeches and print municipal announcements in Yiddish. They also struggled against the discrimination in the budget allocated by the city council to Jewish charities and educational institutions. Amongst the achievements of the Jewish members of the city council were the naming of a street in Brest after the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz, and the maintenance of a Yiddish and Hebrew literature department in the municipal library. The battle for budgetary allocations usually failed, as the final decision was in the hands of the district governor, who would refuse to endorse the decisions made by the city council.
From the middle of the 1930s the obvious intention was not just to reduce the budgetary allocations to the Jewish institutions, but to cancel them altogether. As a result of this tendancy, the financial allocations reveal the deliberate reductions- in 1928 there was a battle between the city council and the district governor over the donation of 18,000 zlotys toJewish institutions. The elected Jewish city council members claimed that the financial state of these Jewish institutions was perilous, as they had been previously subject to severe cutbacks. As the city budget was in deficit, the Jewish delegates suggested that the Jewish institutions be funded from a supplementary allocation, a matter that necessitated the Governor's agreement, but he withheld his consent.
Only after pressure was exerted on him did the Governor agree that the funds should be allocated in the form of promissory notes. The monies were distributed as follows: Jewish Education 4600 zlotys; the orphanage 3285 zlotys; orphan adoption 2915 zlotys; the orphans hostel Beit Findel - 1315 zlotys; ORT 1642 zlotys; TOZ 1314 zlotys; Linat Tzedek (accommodation for the poor) 920 zlotys; old-age home 970 zlotys.
In the proposed budget allocation for 1929/30 the total distribution to the Jewish institutions came to 83,000 zlotys, that is 100% more than the allocation for the previous year. The major beneficiaries were to be: orphanage 28,200 zlotys, Jewish education 22,500 zlotys, the Jewish hospital 15,000 zlotys, the old age home 8000 zlotys, ORT 6000, TOZ 2000 zlotys, Linat Tzedek - 2000.
We can safely suppose that the district governor did not endorse these requested budgetary allocations. In reality, in the name of financial cutbacks in the financial year 1931-32, he totally cancelled all allocations to Jewish institutions. It is worth noting that Jews contributed 80% of all the city revenue through taxation.
In 1938 -39 the approved city budget totalled 1.6 million zlotys of this about 10% was allocated to institutions, that is, about 150,000 zlotys. After the district governor cut this sum almost in half, all the Jewish institutions together received a total of just over 10,000 zlotys.
Immediately after the exiled residents returned to their homes after WWI, they elected a community council (kehilla). The Polish authorities officially recognized this council. The chairman was a member of the Orthodox community with close links to the Rabbi of Brest, Yitzhak Zeev Soloveichik. In the first Jewish council elections that took place on the 9th of September 1928, the Jews of Malorita and Czernowice were added to the Brest Jewish community. There were 15 lists of candidates and from those 20 members were elected. The division of the candidates according their political affiliations was:
|Achdut (Orthodox)||8 members|
|Zablud Artisans||2 members|
|Left Poalei Zion||2 members|
|Right Poalei Zion||1 member|
|The Bund||1 member|
|Civil List||1 member|
|Small business||1 member|
Elected to the administration committee of the kehilla were: 4 Orthodox, 2 Zionists, 2 each from the Bund and Poalei Zion (left), and 1 from small business and the artisans.
The chairman of the kehilla was chosen from among the Orthodox. Due to the [political and religious] splintering and the lack of a majority for the Orthodox, the kehilla was a battlefield for the various representatives of the different movements and factions and consequently its activity was paralyzed most of the time. Meetings of the administration committee took place once a year, essentially to endorse the annual budget.
In 1935 the second kehilla elections took place and this time the elected members to the administration committee were more representative: this committee met 2-3 times a week and conducted a vigorous campaign against antiSemitism and was involved in the issue of the ban on kosher slaughter ofmeat, and the collection of funds that were distributed to the unemployed meat workers. The kehilla administration was also very actively involved in helping Brest's Jews during the pogrom that took place on May 13th, 1937. During this pogrom local peasants with the help of the police, robbed and looted the Jewish stores and beat up Jews. The deputy mayor, Yehiel Mastboim appealed to the office of the district governor for help but received no response. His pleas and those of the leaders of the Jewish community to the police chief were denied. Only after the leaders of the community appealed by phone to the government in Warsaw was there an order issued to the police to stop the pogrom and so before evening fell, the police finally intervened in the affair. The damage in economic terms was widespread. The kehilla set up a relief committee to assist the victims. In 1929 Rabbi Yitzhak Zeev Soloveichik was elected as rabbi of the Brest community a position he held until September 1939.
The majority of Brest Jews earned their living from small business and trades. As well there was a thin layer of industrialists and wealthy merchants. There were few large enterprises the factories were generally small. The city had a few flourmills, sawmills, one chemical factory, a cigarette factory, a paint and oils factory, and several soft drinks factories. Jews owned most of these.
In the census that was conducted by the Joint Distribution Committee in 1921, it was found that Brest had 882 factories and these employed 1959 employees, that is an average of slightly more than one employee per two owners. In reality these were small workshops - the main industry was clothing manufacture 341 businesses, which were operated by the owners and family members, and employed only one worker. The situation in other industries was the same. The employment opportunities for all the artisans/tradesmen were very limited, and they received very little pay. For example, in 1929 only 50 out of the 300 Jewish shoemakers residing in Brest received a reasonable income. The artisans and tradesmen organized in the 1930s; there were even two professional (white collar) unions in Brest. Each of these maintained health benefits and a clinic for their members.
In order to survive, the Jewish breadwinners were forced to rely on the help of the financial institutions the oldest and most stable of these was The People's Bank (Volksbank), that was founded in 1921 and survived throughout all the crises until September 1939. In 1930 this institution had 2000 shareholders. There was also an independent Merchant's Bank that dealt with large businesses; in 1929 this bank had 436 shareholders and an annual turnover of 158,500 zlotys. The Merchant's Union Bank that was founded in 1928 got into financial trouble and was forced to close in 1931. It reopened in 1933 under the name People's Cooperative Union and existed until1939.
At the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s there operated in Brest the Cooperative Industrial Bank or the Industrialists Bank, a General Bank (Powszechny), and the Credit Bank. At the end of the 1930s there was another bank that operated in Brest the Shares Bank (Bank Udziolovy), which was Zionist in character. An important financial institution was the Savings and Loans Fund that was founded at the beginning of the 1920s and existed until September 1939. It supported small businessmen, peddlers, and poor tradesmen with interest-free loans of 40 to 100 zlotys. In the years 1934-1938 this fund distributed loans to 549 small businesses and to 507 tradesmen.
Brest was rich in Jewish educational institutions. The oldest of these was the Talmud Torah that was founded in the mid-19th century and was active until the expulsion from the city in 1915. At that time it had about 800 students. At the beginning of the 1920s this institution reopened and despite ongoing financial difficulties continued until September 1939. Also the Torat Hesed Yeshiva that was founded in 1898 by Rabbi Haim Soloveichik, continued after the end of the war (WWI). The head of this yeshiva was, until 1939, Rabbi Yitzhak Zeev Soloveichik, the community's rabbi. On October 26th, 1930, this yeshiva was granted its own building.
From 1905 there were several Hederim Metukanim (modern schools) in Brest that taught in Hebrew. In 1918 the Young Zionists organization opened the leading one of these schools the Hebrew public school Hat'khiya attended by about 200 pupils. This institution grew and developed and added a Hebrew kindergarten. In 1924 the Hebrew high school Tarbut was established in Brest. In 192930 the lower classes received full government accreditation, but for a short time only. In 1929 there were over 500 pupils attending these schools. In 1929 there was an attempt to open another Hebrew primary school and kindergarten called Ehad Ha'am. But apparently they existed only for a short time. In 1938 there was an additional Hebrew school in Brest called Hinukh, but we have no further details about it. In 1919 the Young Zionist established a dual-language school in Hebrew and Yiddish, called Tel Hai. This school existed until the end of the 1920s, with about 150 pupils. The Mizrahi organization also administered a school called Yavneh which was Zionist and Orthodox in spirit. The Mizrahi network also ran a Hebrew kindergarten in Brest, and two Hebrew primary schools called Hahaim (later named Takhkemoni), one for boys and one for girls. Takhkemoni also had a Hebrew high school that ran into financial difficulties by the late 1930s; nevertheless, it struggled and survived until September 1939. In 1938 there were two Agudat Israel schools in Brest Bet Yakov for boys, and Darkhei Noam for girls.
There were two Polish public schools in Brest, No. 4 and No. 10, in which the Jewish students learned Hebrew, Bible studies and Jewish History in Hebrew. Both in the lower classes of the private Polish primary school run by L. Perlis, and in the Dvir evening school, the classes were taught in Hebrew - as demanded by the parents.
In 1919 the left Poalei Zion and the Bund founded a Yiddish primary school. A year later the school split into two schools the Poalei Zion school soon closed, but the Bundist school, which was named after the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz, lasted until 1937. Many Jewish children in Brest studied in Polish schools, both public and private. In the private high school run by Levitsky, for example, 60% of the students were Jewish.
The ORT organization ran two technical schools in Brest. For boys there was carpentry and metalwork. For girls there was dressmaking. At the end of the 1920s these institutions suffered from severe financial difficulties, and for this reason, the 1931-32 school year only began in February 1932. These schools continued to operate until September 1939. There was an orphanage and dormitory for children in Brest called Findel House.
The Jewish schools, mainly the Zionist schools, served as the basis for Zionist and Jewish cultural activity, in which the teachers, students, and the adult community all participated. The Tarbut high school had a library with over 1000 books, almost all in Hebrew. In its reading room were Hebrew and Yiddish periodicals. Next to the library there were evening courses and lectures. The Tarbut high school had a student council that occasionally put out their own newspaper called Tzohar. From the beginning of the 20th century, there was a large Jewish public library in Brest with 8000 books. This library closed in 1915, during WWI, and reopened in 1918, but then split into several libraries. One of them was the Tarbut library named after Shalom Aleihem, in which half of the books were in Yiddish, a third in Hebrew, and the rest in Polish and Russian. The second library was called Tel Hai and had a busy reading room. In addition to the libraries there were clubs in which various cultural activities, including lectures, evening readings, and debates took place.
From the middle of the 1920s there was a drama club in Brest that performed in Brest and neighboring towns appearing as far away as Pruzhany. The top artists in Poland, Jewish musicians and choirs would frequently visit and perform their best repertoire in Brest. Also artists from the Land of Israel who had come to Poland to perform would appear in Brest. In 1929 the singer Brakha Tzafira appeared in Brest.
In May 1930 a group of writers called Young Poleie was formed in Brest. Among its founders were the writer and poet Yitzhak Perlov, Benjamin Sheinman, and Mendel Boim. They began their activity by preparing to publish the first collection of their writings. At the end of May they held a literary party and read aloud from their works.
An important cultural element was the Jewish press that appeared in Brest. They sometimes proclaimed that their paper was the clarion for the entire Polesien province. However, they mainly reported on events in Brest, and their advertisements were from Brest. In reality most of these were weekly papers in Yiddish. The first of these was Polesier Shtimmeh [The Voice of Polesie], which made its debut on the 18th of September 1923 under the editorship of M. Drachler. On the 11th of April 1924, it ceased publication for a short time until the summer of 1924, when it reappeared until the early 1930s. On April 24th, 1925 the first edition of the Poleier Wochenblat (Polesien Weekly) was published. This closed down at the end of the same year and reappeared in January 1926 under the name: Neie Polesier Shtimmeh (New Polesien Voice). After several editions were printed, the name was again changed to Brisker Wochenblatt (Brest Weekly). This appeared until the 14th March 1930. Between 1934-1938 Drachler published a daily paper called Poleier Neies (Polesien News). Due to an agreement with the Warsaw newspaper Express, there was a daily newspaper published in Brest called: Brisker Tagenblatt (Brest Daily Page), and after that a Polesier Tagenblat. In the 1930s there appeared for short periods Unser Wort (Our Word), and Polesier Tag (Poleien Day).
Among the Jewish institutions in Brest we should recall the Jewish Hospital that originated in the mid-19th century. It was reopened in 1919 after the Jews of Brest returned from exile. The city council, which allocated sums of money to the hospital, had the right to send a certain number of patients there for treatment including non-Jews.
The TOZ organization was also active in the medical field in Brest. It ran a few health clinics: for Jewish schoolchildren, for dental treatment, trachoma, tuberculosis, an x-ray station, advice for pregnant woman, and immunizations. The Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick) Society and Linat Tzedek (the hostel for pregnant and poor women) were also active in these areas. In Brest there was also an old age home, and a branch of the Tzentos administered the orphanage and was involved in promoting the adoption of orphans by private individuals.
From the 1920s there was a Jewish Sports Club in Brest (Yiddisher Sport Klub - YSK). This club began with a football team that played in the local league, and then also became active in athletics. From 1933 this club was known as Maccabi YSK. In the 1930s additional sports organizations appeared in Brest: Hapoel, which belonged to the League for the Workers In Israel, Nordia, which belonged to the Revisionists, and Stern which was connected to the Bund.
The activities of the Zionists and the Bund, which had ceased with the expulsion of the city, were renewed in the early 1920s. The Bund was mainly involved with the trade unions, participated in the city council elections, and those of the kehilla, and also supported a public Yiddish school that existed until 1937. The first of the Zionist movements that was active in Brest was Tzeirei Zion (Zionist Youth), and later the Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion) and the Halutz [Pioneer] movement. In 1918 Tzeirei Zion opened a Hebrew school called Hat'khiya, a Hebrew institution for children called Yoldot, and a dual language Hebrew Yiddish school called Tel Hai. During the split of 1923, most of these members went over to the Right Poalei Zion. In 1925-26 a united branch of Poalei Zion was active in Brest, and after that they all worked together in a group called the League for the Workers in Israel (from 1929).
In 1919-20 the Left Poalei Zion opened a worker's communal kitchen, and this became the center of their activities. They were very active within the trade unions, controlled the union of the commercial workers, and the building trades workers. Their cultural (educational) activity was also very important. The general Zionists worked through their two factions: Al Hamishmar and Et Livnot and also the Zionist pioneer movement that was founded in 1923 and ran a training kibbutz (hakhshara) for some time. The Mizrahi movement that had been active in Brest already before WWI, renewed its activity and supported several Hebrew educational institutions. At the end of the 1920s branches of Mizrahi Youth and Mizrahi Pioneers were founded in Brest in 1929. In 1929 a branch of Brit Hatzohar [Revisionists] was also founded and by the end of that year had a membership of 600. This organization founded a branch of the academic group El Al, and a branch of the national women's movement, the Kadimah club, and a sports club called Nordia. In 1938 a secret cell of Etzel was established in Brest and two of its members participated in the military training at the Ivaniki camp outside Pinsk. The Brit Haayal group in Brest had 300 members.
In 1929 Agudat Israel founded a branch in Brest, at the initiative of the Rabbi of the Brest community, Yitzchak Zeev Soloveichik. In the 1930s WIZO [Women's International Zionist Organization] and WIZO Youth operated in Brest.
In 1919 a branch of the Zionist Pioneers was founded in Brest and within a very short time fourteen of its members made aliyah to Israel. At the beginning of the 1920s its activity was stopped, but it resumed in 1925. In the 1930s a branch of the artisan pioneers was also founded. Hashomer Hatzair Scouts was founded in 1924 and within a year had 300 members. Until 1928 this was the only youth movement in Brest. In this year Kadimah was founded, which was the general Zionist youth group that included college students and older pupils among its members. In 1933 the Pioneer (Halutz) group established a hakhshara kibbutz outside Brest. In 1929 a branch of Betar was founded in Brest with 150 members and by the end of the thirties reached 800. In addition there were also the youth movement Gordonia, the Zionist youth group Akiva, Freiheit, Hashomer Haleumi, and Masada, which belonged to the working students and numbered 150.
At the 14th Zionist Congress that took place in 1925, 133 people from Al Hamishar voted, and 233 from Et Livnot, a total of 366 members. At the 21st Congress in 1939, which was the last congress before WWII, 1532 voted out of 2272 delegates. The General Zionists received 347 votes, Mizrahi 203, the National party 5, the Israeli Workers party 698, and the left Poalei Zion 248.
During the Second World War
With the outbreak of WWII onSeptember 1st, 1939, the fortress of Brest was bombed. OnSeptember 8th the German Army bombardment of the city of Brest began in earnest. Many houses went up in flames, 100s were killed and 1000s injured, among them many Jews. On September 15th, 1939 the German Army entered Brest. Immediately some of the leaders of the Jewish community and some of the Polish city leaders were summoned to appear before the new powers. The Germans treated them very harshly. A group of German soldiers together with a group of local hoodlums ransacked and looted Jewish property. Against them was a Jewish self-defense group that tried to stop the looting. On September 22nd, 1939 the Red Army entered Brest, and the edge of the city delineated by the River Bug was determined as the border of German-occupied Poland.
The Soviet authorities immediately stopped any Jewish community life. They closed all the Jewish educational and public institutions and confiscated their assets. In December 1939 they arrested some Jewish leaders: 2 from the Poale Zion, 2 from the Revisionists, 2 from the Mizrahi - and exiled them all to Siberia. Among those arrested was also the leader of the Bund. A little later other prominent Jews with their families were sent into Russian exile, and some Polish refugees that refused to accept Soviet citizenship and had requested to return to Poland. Others had their houses confiscated because of their proximity to the border.
On June 22nd, 1941 at four a.m. a division of the German intelligence unit Brandenburg blew up the bridge over the River Bug that led from Terespol to Brest. This action allowed the German Army to enter Brest almost unopposed. Only the Soviet soldiers that were in the Brest fortress did not surrender they continued to fight and held out against the Germans for almost six months until they were all killed.
On the very day of the German conquest dozens of Jewish men were rounded up, taken to the suburb of Kotelne and murdered there. On the 28th-29th of June a manhunt was carried out on the Jewish streets. The Germans organized a house-to-house search and assembled 4,870 males (some accounts say 5,000). They were all taken to Kotelne and shot into prepared pits next to the brick factory. We have the testimony of von dem BachZalevski, the Commander of the elite S.S. and Police Central Command about this Aktion. According to evidence given by him after the war onOctober 30th, 1945, Himmler himself ordered him to execute 5,000 men from Brest and its vicinity as an act of retribution for so-called looting. The Germans tried to hide the murder and claimed that the men were sent away to work. But the men's clothing was brought back to be sold in Brest and was identified by members of their families. The peasants of the district also talked about the murder of the Jews.
In August 1941 the Judenrat (Jewish Council) was established with 20 members, mainly former public servants, and a Jewish police force was established. The police commander and some of the members were not local Jews, and the Brest survivors later accused them of excessive harshness and cruelty. A demand was made on the Jewish population to collect a ransom of two million marks. To ensure that this payment be made, the Germans held the members of the Judenrat as hostage.
The Jews were ordered to wear special identification at first it was a white patch with a blue Star of David to be sewn on the sleeve, and in September 1941 it was changed to two yellow patches.
In September 1941 Brest was annexed to the Volhynia-Podolia district of the German Military Command Ukraine, and the Commissar-General of the district, General Schoene, was stationed in Brest until June 1942, when he moved to Lutsk. The concentration of Jews into a small and large ghetto began on November 15, 1941, and they were sealed off in December 15, 1941. There was great congestion and the ghetto became very dirty. In the ghetto there was a hospital and a communal kitchen that distributed soup to support the needy twice daily. The Judenrat gave small sums of money to those families most in need. The daily bread allowance was 150 grams per person. Despite the efforts of the Judenrat to assist with some nutrition, tens of people died of starvation. There were several workshops set up in the ghetto and the workers received certificates stating they were essential laborers.
The ghetto commandant was a German called Rude, a cruel man who severely mete out punishment for the smallest error and who showed no mercy.
At the beginning of 1942 preparations were made for an uprising two groups were established. The smaller one was made up of pupils of the former Tarbut and Polish State high schools. The second and larger group was headed by Jewish communists and Soviet Jews that had been stranded in the city by the German invasion. This group had contacts with the Soviet underground that was in Brest. This Jewish underground cell collected arms that they purchased from Italian soldiers or stole from warehouses of booty. In addition to some rifles, several pistols and hand grenades, they succeeded in obtaining ten machine guns. This underground unit had a printing press and possessed a radio. According to the plan, this group was supposed to open fire on the Germans with all their firepower on the day that they came to liquidate the ghetto, and to ignite homes and warehouses, and to break out and flee to the forests.
One day the Jewish underground cell captured a Jewish policeman who had handed over their Christian contact person with the Soviet underground to the Germans. He was executed. The Gestapo heard of this matter and the Judenrat was forced to pay a huge bribe to prevent the Germans from carrying out a retribution operation.
At the beginning of October 1942 forces that were known as extermination units assembled in Brest. They included German, Ukrainian and Lithuanian policemen. Members of the Polish underground in Brest gave this information to the Jewish underground. The group began to mobilize its members and dig up its buried arms. However, the Germans and their cohorts left the city and quiet prevailed. Despite the calls from the underground leaders, the members dispersed and returned to their homes. Evidently this was a German diversion. During the night of October 15-16, 1942, the ghetto was suddenly surrounded and the liquidation action began. The Jews were taken to the railway station and were transported by train to the station of Brona Gura, and there they were all murdered. The underground was taken by surprise and had not succeeded in mobilizing all their members. Only a very few small groups managed to reach their hidden arms and to escape to the forest. The Germans, who probably had been told of the locations by informers, surrounded the hiding place of the printing press and radio and blew them up, along with the people there. Before the liquidation of the ghetto the Jewish underground had links with the group headed by Sashka of the golden teeth, that represented themselves as Soviet partisans. Only afterwards did it become clear that this was a gang of thieves that would meet those that fled to the forest, rob them of their clothing, boots, and arms and then murder them. The majority of those who managed to flee the city during the liquidation met a similar fate. Only very few managed to avoid the hands of Sashka and his murderous hooligans, and after various adventures to join up with Brest Soviet partisan division.
The siege of the Brest ghetto lasted for a month and after that the searches continued to uncover those in hiding. All that were found were taken to a pit in the center of the ghetto and shot dead.
At the liberation of Brest by the Red Army on the 12th July 1944, only 14 survivors came out of hiding in the city and in the forests.
M-1/ E 2552, M-1/E-1336, M-1/Q-162, 0-18/90, 03/1162, 03/3434, 03/3637, 03/3657, M-9/34/12/368.
Aryeh Leib Feinstein Ir Tehila (Brest, City of Glory) Warsaw 1885
Notebook of the Nation or Notebook of the Leading Communities of the Nation of Lithuania, (Editor S. Dubnov), Berlin, 1925
Encyclopedia of the Diaspora, Volume 2 (Hebrew), Brisk D'Lita, Jerusalem, 1955
Encyclopedia of the Diaspora, Volume 2 (Yiddish), Brisk D'Lita, Jerusalem, 1958
The City of Brest Budget for the year 1930/31, T. Tsalon, Brest, 1930
Poleier Wochenblatt (Weekly), Brest
Brisker Wochenblatt, Brest
Poleier Neies (News), Brest
Tzohar, The Student Newspaper of the Tarbut High School, Brest, 1932
Akty Vilenskovo Arkhivnova Komiteta, Volume V1,Vilna, 1900
|The Great Synagogue|
|A new suburb in Brest built by the Joint after WWI|
|Rabbi Joseph Dov-Ber Soloveichik|
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