(Based on the book „Jewish cemetery in Brzesko” by Iwona Zawidzka, Brzesko, 2001; used with permission from the author and the publishing house)
It is difficult to determine the time when Jews first settled in Brzesko (Jews called the city Briegel, בריגל). Most probably, they were not here until the end of the fifteenth century, but they certainly lived in the city in the eighteenth century. In 1765, Jewish community comprised about 180 people over one year of age. They lived in 14 houses, 10 of which were their property. Back then Jewish inhabitants of Brzesko were leaseholders, owners of taverns and merchants; there was a tailor, a hairdresser, two butchers as well as melamed – teacher of religion for young children and shames, or attendant in a house of prayer. Twenty years later, Jewish community of Brzesko consisted of 63 families, and eight of them, due to their poverty, were dependent on the commune. The community had a school for children and a cemetery. Both of these facilities functioned under the privileges granted to the Jewish community.
At that time, there was no rabbi in Brzesko, and Jews were subject to the qahal in Wiśnicz. The local qahal was established only at the end of the 18th century. Arie Leibush, son of Chaim Asher from Wiśnicz, was one of the first rabbis of the local commune.
As it has been already mentioned, in the 18th-century Brzesko, Jewish community was comprised of about 200 people. In the later period, this number increased significantly. In 1880, as many as 68% out of 2860 residents, were Jewish. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was already a Jewish community with 2430 members (out of 3659 Brzesko residents). In the interwar period, these proportions changed – the Jewish community decreased by about 330 people, despite the fact that the number of city residents did not change.
Presented above figures show the situation of the town of Brzesko. However, Brzesko Jewish community had many more members, 4886 people in 1870, and 5664 thirty years later, due to the fact that it embraced many Jewish families which lived in smaller towns and villages in the area. In 1900, the number of Jews in individual districts was: Czchów – 1131 people; Wojnicz – 580, Radłów – 550; Szczurowa – 385.
Most of the representatives of the nineteenth-century Jewish community of Brzesko dealt with trade. In 1867, almost all trade was in the hands of Jews. They also engaged in other professions like tannery, butchering, tailoring, shoemaking, goldsmithing, baking, blacksmithing, furriery, dairying.
The Jewish municipality’s tasks included – among other things – care for the social conditions of its members. Hence, in the end of the 19th century Brzesko Jewish community had a health insurance fund and a hospital for the poor. Back then Brzesko Jews also had a bathhouse, a religious school and two synagogues. These objects, being the main property of the community, were burnt in a great fire, which took place in 1904. Fire consumed many wooden buildings of the city, including Jewish shopping booths in the Market Square. About 300 houses burned down, and material losses were estimated at around 1 million kronen. Krakow Jews granted Brzesko Jewish community a loan of 5,000 kronen without interest on convenient terms of repayment, a gift of 500 kronen and 120 tons of material gifts. Shortly after the fire, Brzesko Jews started rebuilding the burnt objects.
By the beginning of World War II, there were several synagogues in the town. The so-called New synagogue located on Asnyka Street was destroyed by the Germans in September 1939. It was the main Brzesko synagogue; most likely, Moshe Lipshitz, who was the chief rabbi of Brzesko in the interwar period, was the rabbi in this synagogue. He lived opposite the church, in a two-story house at Długa Street. A cheder, i.e. a religious school for boys, was located on the first floor of this house.
Another synagogue, situated between Kazimierz Wielki Square and today’s Jordanowski Garden, was a magnificent larch building. Probably the dayan (religious judge) Teitelbaum had his office there. Not far from it, at Łazienna (now Pushkina) street, there was a synagogue adjacent to the mikveh, i.e. a ritual bathhouse. It is the only Brzesko synagogue that has survived to this day.
Another synagogue and a cheder were located in the area of Zielona street, near today’s bus station. Yitzhak Lipschitz was the rabbi there.
Hasidic shtibl was located on Berka Joselewicza street. In addition to the above-mentioned, there were other prayer places organized in residential buildings.
The large size of the Jewish community was reflected in the municipal council laws regulating the principles of town life. For example, there was a custom of canceling fairs if their date coincided with the Jewish holidays. A significant number of Jews was also reflected in the commune council, which – especially in the 1890s – was composed mostly of Jewish councilors. It happened that out of 24 seats, as many as 17 belonged to Jews. It was during that time that Henoch Klapholz was the city Mayor for 8 years in a row. He was also a member of the municipal council for many years, and in some periods he was its chairman. Klapholz did so much for the city that in November 1906, after he had left an office, municipal council session suggested to rename Berka Joselewicza street to Henoch Klapholz street. However, the former mayor resigned this honour.
World War I and the post-war period were a difficult experience for the residents of the town. It was the time of several anti-Jewish demonstrations, including a pogrom in 1918, during which six Jews were murdered. The interwar period was also not easy. Majority of Jews were engaged in small trade. In 1921 there were about 70 workshops and small state-owned enterprises in Brzesko, employing 114 people, most of whom were owners and their families. These enterprises dealt with tailoring, locksmithing, production of food. Most Jews, apart from a small group of wholesalers and agents of the Okocim brewery, lived in difficult material conditions. It facilitated the creation of numerous Jewish organizations. In 1923, merchants established their union, and craftsmen joined the Association Hand of the Industrious and the Union of Zionist Craftsmen. Four years later, a system of free-of-interest loans was established, supported by the Joint. In mid-1920s, there was also created a charity association providing help to impoverished artisans, merchants and stallholders, 1500 zlotys a month. It was financed partly by Jews of Brzesko origin living in the United States.
Jews organized not only material but also medical help. In addition to the Bikur Cholim association providing medical care for the poor, Jewish physicians established the Association for the treatment of tuberculosis patients in 1930. There were several Jewish midwives in the city. A very important charity institution was the Association for the Care of Jewish Orphans. Its tasks included allocation of extra food, preparation of daily meals for about 80 children and organization of summer camps during the holidays.’
In addition to associations offering economic assistance, Brzesko Jews also established cultural and educational associations, including schools. At the end of the 19th century, a school for Jewish children was founded in Brzesko. The school had 3 classes, in which 103 students were taught. In addition to this school, in 1900 there were four cheders (religious schools) in Brzesko. These cheders provided general education for boys who started education at the age of about 4.
In 1910 a private gymnasium was established in the city. Its founders included Julia Klapholz, the daughter-in-law of the mayor Henoch Klapholz. During 29 years of its functioning prior to the outbreak of World War II, 133 Jewish students studied in this school. In addition to the aforementioned schools, Talmud Torah school was also operating in Brzesko, supported by the qahal board, and intended for poor children, whose parents could not afford to finance education of their children. It was located on Długa Street, next to the house of the chief inter-war rabbi, Moshe Lipschitz.
Tarbut association was one of the largest cultural institutions. It organized evening Hebrew courses for adults and youth, had a library and a reading room. Sport became more popular thanks to Machabi club founded in 1931, which included football and gymnastics sections. There were also other Jewish institutions, such as the Music Culture Association, founded in 1922; eleven years later, an organization focused on promotion of science and knowledge was created.
Life of the Jewish community was happening on two levels. One of them was included in the life stream of all residents of the town. The other one escaped observations and knowledge of Catholic neighbours. It concerned the internal life of the Jewish community, in particular religious, organizational and family matters.
History of Brzesko Jews was interrupted, similarly to other Polish cities, by World War II. Immediately after the German occupation of the city, which took place on September 5, 1939, Germans started persecuting Jews. They set fire to the synagogue on Asnyka street, and at the end of September, they imposed on Jews a contribution of 40 000 zlotys. In spring 1941, Germans established ghetto in Brzesko where by spring 1942 about 6-7 thousand Jews from Brzesko, other towns and neighboring villages were gathered. In September 1942, the ghetto was liquidated. Several hundred people were shot in the city and remaining Jews were deported to Bełżec.
Very few Jews survived the war, and majority of those who did, left Poland after the war. For many years – till his death in 1996 – Szymon Platner remained the only Jew living in Brzesko. It’s him who was taking care of the Jewish cemetery in Czarnowiejska street, and it’s mainly due to his efforts that few remaining traces of Jewish life survived in the town.
Jewish cemeteries in Brzesko
There are two Jewish cemeteries in Brzesko. The old cemetery in Głowackiego street was probably established in the 17th century. There are no tombstones in this cemetery today, even if people still remain buried there.
The first known history connected to this cemetery was described at the end of the 18th century. It was then that the owner of Brzesko submitted a request to the National Authority for the transfer of the Jewish cemetery due to the planned expansion of the mill and the construction of craft houses near the Jewish necropolis. According to the representative of Count Żeleński, Antoni Krasuski, called by the commission on 30 June 1787 to settle the dispute between Jews and the count, the only reason for the proposal to move the cemetery was the reluctance of Jews themselves to bury their dead in the close vicinity of Christians. Żeleński was ready to give the Jewish community the same amount of land on the other side of Uszwica river for free. However, representatives of Brzesko Jews present at that meeting, explained that their religion does not allow arbitrary leaving the cemetery without the rabbi’s consent. They renewed the request to keep the cemetery in its current place. In addition, they expressed their readiness to raise the height of the 7-foot cemetery fence from the side of the main street, and even the remaining parts of the fence, if that was the desire of Count Żeleński. The commission decided to leave the dispute resolution to the High Governorship in Lviv.
On August 21, 1787, the opinion on this matter was sent to Lviv also by the Bochnia local government. According to this document, the arguments of Count Żeleński were irrelevant and at the same time harassing Jews. New location proposed for the cemetery was particularly negatively evaluated. The spot near the border with Okocim on the other side of Uszwica, was being flooded by the river several times a year. This was considered a great difficulty for Jews who would have no access to the place of burial during the flood. It was also emphasized that the present cemetery, located 400 steps away from the city border, met the requirements of the law. In the final part of the document, the need to protect harmless rituals of every legal religion was emphasized, especially when the burial of ancestors and relatives is a religious issue for Jews. Decision of Lviv authorities from August 29, 1787, stated that request of the owner of Brzesko should be unceremoniously rejected as an example of intolerance aiming at persecution of Jews, and Brzesko Jewish cemetery remained at its place.
The fact is that the old cemetery continued to serve the Jewish community for the following years. Over time, it became neglected and in the inter-war period its condition was rather bad. Devastation deepened in the years of German occupation during World War II, and was completed in the post-war period when a dozen or so tombstones that had survived the war and German devastation, were stolen. Currently, the area of the old Jewish cemetery is used as a parking lot. In 2018, an obelisk was erected to commemorate this place.
It is not easy to determine the cause and date of establishing the new Jewish cemetery at Czarnowiejska Street. It may have been created after the old cemetery
in the town centre became full. The oldest discovered at this cemetery matzeva dates from 1824. That does not mean that the cemetery was actually established in 1824, since there could have been earlier graves whose tombstones have not survived till today. That seems quite likely, since there are large empty spaces in the central part of this cemetery where the oldest gravestones (from the 1820s and 1830s) are to be found, suggesting that that area suffered serious damage at some point.
From the central gate, located in the southern part of the fence, the alley leads to two ohels (small buildings constructed to protect the tombstones of prominent rabbis). Graves of women are located to the left of this alley, while those of men – to the right of it. One of the ohels, funded in the 1960s by Elimelech Glantz from New York in place of a smaller one, destroyed during World War II, is a kind of center of the cemetery. It was built to protect the graves of three Brzesko rabbis from the Lipschitz dynasty and their wives, including Tzaddik Arie Leibusz son of Chaim who died in 1846. Right next to it, in the mid-nineties, the second ohel was built over the graves of rabbis from the Templer family.
Brzesko necropolis occupies the area of about 1.45 ha. This state has been maintained since 1902, when the superiors of the Jewish community asked the city council to sell part of the municipal land, adjacent to the cemetery from the west and south, to enlarge the burial site. The Council agreed to the purchase of land. A year later, the Jews were allowed to move the communal road from the plot purchased from the city to the neighboring plot purchased from private hands. Fence was built around the entire enlarged area of the cemetery. This fence was renovated in 1980ies by Brzesko town administration.
Currently, there are about 1,000 matzevas (tombstones) in the cemetery and several war-time mass graves. A separate section is occupied by a World War I military cemetery #275 with graves of 21 Jewish soldiers who served in the Austrian army during World War I, and died in the vicinity of Brzesko.
Tragic events of 1939-1945 are reflected in epitaphs on many post-war symbolical graves and monuments on mass graves:
- monument erected in 1947 by A. Grunberg and S. Bransdorfer in honor of 200 Jews murdered by Germans on June 18, 1942
- Monument at the mass grave (2017, author of the project – Damian Styrna)
- Monument at another mass grave (2018, author of the project Damian Styrna)
The key to the cemetery is with Mr. Zdzisław Martyna, tel. 500 094 339
Since 2015, the cemetery has been under the care of the Association “Memory and dialogue. Common history”. You can find more information about it here:
For questions connected to the history of Brzesko Jews and people buried in the cemetery please contact: email@example.com