On January 26, 2023, on the eve of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we opened a new exhibition at the Brzesko regional museum.
The meeting was opened with klezmer music played by the accordion teacher at the Brzesko music school Mr. Paweł Dyjak. It allowed us to feel the atmosphere of pre-war Brzesko, of Jewish life that had been so vibrant in the town, but was so brutally destroyed by Germans.
Anna Brzyska shared about the history of the unique deposit found in the attic of one of Brzesko tenement houses and about the Jews who used to live in that building.
Prof. Jonathan Webber, who has been supporting our activities on commemoration of the pre-war Jewish community of Brzesko and vicinity since 2014, was the special guest of the event. It’s him who identified all the fragments of the newly found Jewish books.
Prof. Jonathan Webber is a British anthropologist and Jewish activist living in Kraków. Specializing in modern Jewish society, Holocaust studies, Polish–Jewish studies, and Jewish heritage, he taught for thirty years at Oxford and Birmingham universities, and then five years at the Jagiellonian University, Kraków; he is now retired. Among his many activities, he co-founded the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków and restored Jewish heritage in the small town of Brzostek in Subcarpathian Voivodeship, the hometown of his ancestors.
Here is the text of the talk by prof. Webber:
“This is a marvellous new exhibition, and it is a privilege for me to participate in the formal opening. The materials on display are a wonderful collection of books that were unexpectedly found last year in an attic during renovations of a derelict house in Chopina Street here in Brzesko. They are religious texts which would have been widely used by the Jews of this town. The most important and best preserved book in this collection bears the stamp of the Brzesko association for the purchase of Hebrew books for public use. That stamp is a particularly moving record of the Jewish community here, and to see it on the day when the world marks International Holocaust Memorial Day is surely a strong reminder of that community and its culture and values.
The printed books which were found in that attic in Chopina Street and which the association ‘Memory and Dialogue. Common History’ has now put on display here, with the permission of the current owners of the house, cover a very good range. What I mean by saying that is that they include books in Hebrew intended for men, books in Yiddish intended for women, and books in Hebrew and Yiddish intended for children. They are mainly editions which would have been standard in the early years of the twentieth century – so they are certainly very valuable for social historians and also for ordinary people interested in the culture of the vanished Jewish population of this town.
As is well known, Jews have often been called the people of the book. In this collection of Hebrew books, what we have here is in fact what one might have expected to find in the home of a typical Jewish family of pre-war Brzesko, a family that was neither particularly wealthy or particularly educated nor particularly poor or particularly uneducated. Anna Brzyska says that despite her detailed research we will never know for certain who was the original owner of this particular collection of books hidden in the attic of this house, because there were a number of different families who lived there during the war before they were all deported and murdered in September 1942. In a sense it doesn’t really matter who owned them. All over Poland — in villages, small towns, and larger cities — there were collections of books just like these, found in very many homes, indeed probably also the very same titles and editions. After the end of the war, book dealers were not interested in acquiring and selling them, since the books were popular editions of standard works, and moreover printed on cheap paper. Antiquarian book dealers would have looked for rare editions of rare books, which they could sell at a large profit; so they took no interest in more popular books like these. The result was that nobody bothered to preserve such books after the Holocaust, which is what makes this new exhibition so very special and so very important. I don’t know of any other museum in this country which has a similar exhibition. It does make this museum in Brzesko a very special place!
Let me now say something more specific about the exhibition and the books themselves. The exhibition opens with two pieces of parchment with inscriptions from the Hebrew Bible expertly written by a top-class scribe – they had to be expertly written because they are used for ritual purposes. One is part of a mezuzah, a piece of parchment in a case that should be put on the frame of every door in a Jewish home, and the other is another piece of parchment that is used for the small black leather boxes called tefillin which should be worn by Jewish men at weekday prayers. These two sets of inscriptions are really very beautifully handwritten. The scribe is most probably Rabbi Eliezer Herbstman, who lived here in Brzesko and died in 1930 at the age of 70. His tombstone has survived in the Jewish cemetery. There is now a very useful information board next to his tombstone there, giving more details about this excellent Hebrew scribe. It turns out that his daughter lived for a while in that house in Chopina Street. At any rate, the quality of these two inscriptions handwritten on parchment really do demonstrate that Jewish traditions were properly followed in Brzesko, and in that sense offer a very good introduction to the basic idea of this exhibition about everyday Jewish life in this town before the German occupation.
The printed books in this exhibition begin with a copy of the Sefer Hachayim, the Book of Life. Sefer Hachayim consists primarily of the prayers to be recited at a funeral and during the period of mourning following a death, but it also includes moral reflections and a selection of suitable commentaries as well as the laws and customs relating to death and dying. Sefer Hachayim was for several centuries the standard Jewish text on this subject, and I must say that the fact that a copy of it finds its place in this museum, in memory of the destroyed Jewish community of Brzesko, is unquestionably very powerful and hugely significant. If someone had asked me to suggest one book which could serve such a purpose in this museum, I might well in fact have proposed Sefer Hachayim – and indeed here is a copy of it, an edition prepared by a rabbi from Brzesko and published in Kraków in 1923.
The next item is a popular book on Jewish history and folk tales published in Yiddish in 1895 by the main Jewish printer of Hebrew books in Kraków, Josef Fischer of Grodzka Street; most probably it was written for women.
Then there is a small pocket-size edition of the daily prayer book, and then a standard edition of the Book of Genesis, the opening book of the Hebrew Bible, complete with a translation into Aramaic and the commentary by Rashi, an eleventh-century scholar from France. Like the other books in this collection it is damaged – the pages are bent and there are many pages missing. As I said, serious book dealers would never be interested in such damaged books – but those defects, of course, are highly evocative of the circumstances. This particular exhibition needs damaged books – they are what it is all about, very graphically representing the damage done to Jewish life here. In a rather powerful irony, the open page seen in the display here happens to come from the story in the Book of Genesis of what happened after the great Flood, where God says he will never again wipe out humanity as he did during the Flood. Seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, he says, will never cease – and then, at the bottom of the page, the text continues with God going on to bless Noah and his children. It’s certainly a strong positive message to see this page in this exhibition.
The next item in the exhibition is a single damaged copy of one volume of the Talmud. The Talmud is a massive collection of Jewish laws, customs, and other traditions. Because it consists of more than 2,500 double-sided pages, it is usually printed in many volumes. Studying the Talmud adequately takes a lifetime of commitment, and so it is entirely appropriate to have found just one volume of Talmud to put on display in this exhibition. The title page is damaged, so we cannot see where and when it was printed; but it is from the standard edition of the Talmud, printed in Vilnius at the end of the nineteenth century. The final two items are books for children, one of them with stories and grammar lessons in Modern Hebrew, the new language of the Jews coming back to live in the Land of Israel, and the other one in Yiddish, though focusing on stories and songs connected both with traditional Jewish life and also with the Land of Israel.
So there you have it – a small library of damaged books in Hebrew and Yiddish that give us today a glimpse of how ordinary Jews here in Brzesko, your former neighbours, saw themselves before the German occupation – their dreams, their values, and their hopes and aspirations. Opening with the Sefer Hachayim, the book dealing with death, we have here a book of history and folk tales, a daily prayer book, a volume of the Hebrew Bible with commentaries, a volume of Talmud, and two books of stories and songs written for children. And at the beginning we have two important texts written on parchment, in perfect condition, which ordinary Jews needed to have in their homes and for their daily prayers. I think we must all be grateful to the association ‘Memory and Dialogue. Common History’ for having the energy and imagination to rescue these items and to the director of the Brzesko Municipal Culture Centre for kindly agreeing to put them on display in what we must all hope will be a permanent exhibition here.
A final brief word on tomorrow’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This exhibition celebrates life – the life of Jews living here in Brzesko but then tragically swept away in an unimaginable catastrophe. No one could have imagined that the Jewish inhabitants and the Jewish voices of Brzesko could ever disappear at all, let alone disappear without trace. But in fact, I cannot think of a better way to celebrate their memory than by an exhibition of the Hebrew books they had in their homes — as islands of traditional Jewish wisdom and piety, they are the final physical traces of their existence here, fragments of the world that was destroyed during the Holocaust, who the people were and what they believed in. So now, in conclusion, let me chant the Prayer for the Dead. The text of this prayer, which begins with the words El Mole Rachamim (God full of mercy) focuses on the idea that the souls of those who were murdered should find their rest among the angels in the Garden of Eden. We have to say this prayer for those souls — they may have no one else to say prayers in their memory unless we do it. We must bless the Lord God who created those human beings, who nourished and sustained them in life, and who forgets no one who ever lived. We are all affected by the Holocaust, each of us in our different ways and perspectives and histories. Remembrance is a necessary element of the wide process of cultural healing that takes place through dialogue between all of us. So thank you, thank you, for this exhibition and this ceremony.”
Here is the English translation of the prayer El Mole Rachamim:
O God, Who art full of compassion, who
dwellest on high,
Grant perfect rest in Thy Divine Presence
To all the souls of our holy and pure brethren
Whose blood was spilt by the murderers in extermination camps in Europe;
Who were killed, strangled, burned and buried alive
For the sanctification for Thy Name.
For whose souls we now pray.
May their resting place be in the Garden of Eden,
May the Master of Mercy shelter them in the shadow of His wings for eternity;
And may he bind their souls in the Bond of Life.
HASHEM is their heritage, and may they repose in peace in their resting places. Now let us say: Amen
Jewish books found in the attic of the tenement house at Chopina street are now part of the permanent exhibition at the Brzesko regional museum (Brzesko, Kościuszki st., 2). Visiting the exhibition is possible after prior arrangement at the Municipal Cultural Centre, tel. +48 14 684 96 60
The photos used in this article are by Krzysztof Wasyłek (#1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11), Lucjan Kołodziejski (#4), Agnieszka Mastalska-Sowa (#8, 10) and Anna Brzyska (#6, 9).
© Anna Brzyska, 2023