08.01.2023 | Redaktor

Deposit found in the Brzesko tenement house (1)

Rescued find

Although Jews constituted two-thirds of the pre-war Brzesko residents, there remain very few traces of their presence in the town: tombstones at the Jewish cemetery at Czarnowiejska street, the buildings of the synagogue and the mikveh (ritual bathhouse) at Pushkina street (former Łazienna). In the past, every Jewish house could be recognized by the mezuzah – a small container placed on the outer right door frame. Each mezuzah contained a scroll of parchment with a quote from the Book of Deuteronomy:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the  Lord is one.
Love the 
Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

However, 80 years after the Holocaust, these mezuzahs are no longer in Brzesko – only a few barely visible traces remain on doorposts of tenement houses in the town center. For many decades, the most visible trace of the mezuzah was the one on the doorframe of the tenement house at Chopina Street (before the war this building had number 56). Many times, when passing this house, I wondered what had happened to its inhabitants. Most likely, they were murdered in Bełżec, and it seemed that no material evidence of their lives remained in the town.

Tenement house at Chopina street, as of 2019, photo by Krzysztof Wasyłek
Mezuzah trace on the doorframe of the tenement house at Chopina Street

In the summer of 2022, the current owner of the tenement house began renovation of the building. I thought that maybe it would be possible to cut out a fragment of the doorframe with the trace of the mezuzah for the Brzesko museum, and on Friday, September 9 – on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the extermination of Brzesko Jews – I came to the house to talk to the construction team of Mr. Zbigniew Szczecina. We agreed that the employees would forward my request to the owner of the building and I was not expecting to get any news within the next couple of months. I was shocked when, literally an hour later, Mr. Michał Szczecina called me and shared that they had found some Jewish books in the attic of the tenement house!

I came back as soon as possible and almost cried when seeing these newly found books – actually, fragments of books and individual pages, covered with a layer of dirt and mold. The roof of the tenement house leaked and moisture also got into the deposit hidden in the attic. At first it was hard to say whether anything could be saved.

The construction team of Mr. Szczecina. These men found the books hidden in the attic of the tenement house

We called the proprietress of the house. I explained that we would like to analyze the deposit and later to donate the newly found books to the Brzesko museum. I am very grateful that we came to an agreement right away.

After a few hours of initial gentle cleaning of the books with a soft brush, it became possible to understand what had been salvaged.

Found books after preliminary cleaning

It turned out that the deposit contained, apart from books, also something very touching – two strips of parchment. I immediately recognized the text on one of them – שמע ישראל – Shma Yisrael… (Hear, o Israel…) There was no doubt that it was a klaf – a piece of parchment with the text for the mezuzah.  I wasn’t sure about the other strap, but it looked like it had been used in a tefillin (a small box that religious Jews tie to their forehead and arm when praying).

Straps of parchment with texts for mezuzah and tefillin

After a few days, I arranged a meeting with prof. Jonathan Webber, hoping that he will be able to determine the fragments of which books have been found. At the same time, I started researching the history of the tenement house and the people who used to live there before the war.

Prof. Jonathan Webber with one of the books found in the attic.

© Anna Brzyska, 2023