Short history of Brzesko Jews

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, בריגעל). 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. The High Governorship, and thus the Austrian administration, issued a decree on December 20, 1784, that suggested creation of qahals in towns of Wiśnicz area with larger Jewish communities (prior to that there was only one qahal in Wiśnicz). Under this ordinance, representatives of the Jewish community were called in to question them regarding the possible separation of the inhabitants of Brzesko from  Wiśnicz qahal. Jews were represented by qahal elder  Jakob Maier, treasurer Wolf Josef and Lemel Josef, who, unlike the first two, was a delegate of  Bresko community. Back then 53 Jewish families lived in Brzesko, whereas according to  Jews’ estimate, the community should have at least 137 families to ensure the support of all the necessary institutions, including  rabbi, kantor or qahal elder. Therefore, it was suggested that Jewish families from the villages in Brzesko area located at a distance enabling a trip to the seat of the commune and back in one day, would join the new  community. As Brzesko was located by the Imperial Route often used by Austrian troops, Jews of the town were burdened with expenses related to this. Thus, it was important for the new separate Jewish community of Brzesko to be big enough to be able to cover these costs. One of the first rabbis of the local commune was Arie Leibusz, son of Chaim Aszer from Wiśnicz.

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 city of Brzesko. However, Brzesko Jewish community had many more members, 4886 people in 1870, and thirty years later – 5664 due to the fact that it embraced ьany 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. In 1907, an inn with kosher wine was opened in Brzesko, run by Ryfka Dachner, who enjoyed a good reputation from the town’s fathers.

Brzesko Market Square, 1929.
Picture from the family archive of prof. Charles Weiss Jr.

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 sickness 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 and a gift of 500 kronen and 120 tons of material gifts. Shortly after the fire, Brzesko Jews took the burden of rebuilding the burnt objects. By the beginning of World War II, there were several synagogues in the town. The so-called Nowa located on Asnyka Street was destroyed by the Germans in September 1939. Another, located between the square of Kazimierz the Great and today’s Jordan garden, was an impressive larch building. Probably, dayan (religious judge) Teitelbaum had his office there. Not far from it, in Łazienna (now Pushkina) Street, there was a synagogue adjacent to the mikvah, or ritual bath. It was the synagogue of Moshe Lipschitz, who lived opposite the church, in a two-story house on Długa Street. The first floor of the building, above the prayer hall, was used as cheder, religious school for boys. Moshe Lipschitz, who came from the Lipschitz rabbinical dynasty,  became the chief rabbi of Brzesko in the interwar period.

Mykwa i za nią bożnica Mosze Lipschitza na ulicy Łaziennej (obecnie Puszkina), 1929. Zdjęcie z archiwum rodzinnego prof. Charles Weiss Jr

Another house of prayer and a cheder were located in the area of Zielona street, near today’s bus station. And Hasidic shtibl was located on Berka Joselewicza street. In addition to the above-mentioned, there were other prayer places organized in residential buildings. Most likely, one of such prayer houses was located in the building on Głowackiego 13.

Hasidic house of prayer (shtibl) at Berka Joselewicza street, 1929.
Picture from the family archive of prof. Charles Weiss Jr.

The large size of the Jewish community was reflected in the municipal council laws regulating the principles of city 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 12 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 honor.

World War I and the post-war period were a difficult experience for the residents of the city. It was the time of several anti-Jewish demonstrations , including a pogrom in 1918, during which at least six Jews were killed. 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.

Not only material but also medical help was organized. 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 wqere 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’

Orphanage for Jewish children in Brzesko during Purim festival, 1930-ies. David Teeman (1888-1942, marked with an arrow) was one of the organizers and manager of the orphanage. Picture from the family archive of Pnina Doliński, granddaughter of Dawid Teeman.

In addition to associations offering economic assistance, Brzesko Jews also organized 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 in Brzesko, ie religious schools. These cheders provided general education for boys who were 4-5 years old when starting their education.

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 reading room. Sport became more popular thanks to Machabi club founded in 1931, which included which 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 intelligence and 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 city. The other one escaped observations and knowledge of Catholic nejghbours. 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 (there is some controversy about this date, but most likely at the beginning ghetto was not closed – A.B.), where by spring 1942 about 6-7 thousand Jews from Brzesko 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 at Czarnowiejska street, and it’s mainly due to his efforts that few remaining traces of Jewish life in the city survived.

Szymon Platner by the grave of his father at the Brzesko Jewish cemetery, 1946. Picture from the family archive of Ewa Platner-Przybyło, daughter of Szymon Platner

© 2001, Brzeska Oficyna Wydawnicza; Iwona Zawidzka