The deposit was found in the attic of the tenement house on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the extermination of Brzesko Jews. At first, we thought that maybe we would be able to learn who these books belonged to and find the descendants of these people. However, this turned out to be impossible. The books had no signs that could indicate their owners, and research of the history of the tenement house and the people who used to live in it indicates that they probably did not survive the war. We understood that the proper place of this extraordinary find is the Brzesko regional museum.
Prof. Jonathan Webber managed to determine what was in the found deposit
1. Klaf – a strap of parchment with the text for mezuzah
Mezuzah is a piece of parchment with two handwritten fragments of the Torah placed in a container made of wood, metal, bone or glass. Mezuzas are put on the doorposts of all Jewish houses. Each contains the same quote from Deuteronomy (6:4-9):
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.
According to the tradition cultivated in Jewish homes, a person crossing the front door should touch the mezuzah with their hand. It is also practiced placing a kiss on the hand which has touched the mezuzah or kissing the fingers with which you are about to touch it.
2. A strap of parchment with the text for tefillin
Tefillin are the two small leather boxes containing the texts of four key Torah passages that are worn by men during weekday morning prayers. Each box has long leather straps to fix them in place, one on the forehead and one on the left arm near the heart. Both boxes contain the same text, except that it is written on one piece of parchment in the tefillin worn on the arm, and on four pieces in the tefillin worn on the head.
The Torah fragments are written on parchment made of the skin of a kosher animal. They are Exodus 13, 1–10 and 11–16 and Deuteronomy 6, 4–9 and 11, 13–21. They contain the commandments to wear tefillin, to say the Shema prayer, and to nail a mezuzah to the door frame of the house. The Torah fragments written in tefillin also contain the Shema prayer and the mezuzah text. The tefillin are to serve Jews as a reminder of God’s intervention at the time of the Exodus from Egypt.
The scrolls inside the tefillin are written in black ink with a quill (or reed) pen by a specially trained scribe called a sofer. The full text found in tefillin has 1594 letters. If the sofer misspells even one letter, that scroll can no longer be used.
Jewish boys receive their first tefillin at the bar mitzvah at the age of 13. After this rite of passage they are considered to be responsible for their actions and are subjects to all religious regulations.
The scroll found in the attic of the Brzesko tenement house is one of the four pieces of parchment from the tefillin worn on the head. It is in a rather good condition and includes the text from Exodus 13:1-10:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying “Sanctify to Me every firstborn, every one that opens the womb among the children of Israel among man and among animals; it is Mine.” Moses said to the people, “Remember this day, when you went out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, for with a mighty hand, the Lord took you out of here, and [therefore] no leaven shall be eaten. Today you are going out, in the month of spring. And it will come to pass that the Lord will bring you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivvites, and the Jebusites, which He swore to your forefathers to give you a land flowing with milk and honey and you shall perform this service in this month. For seven days you shall eat unleavened cakes, and on the seventh day, there is a festival for the Lord. Unleavened cakes shall be eaten during the seven days, and no leaven shall be seen of yours [in your possession], and no leavening shall be seen of yours throughout all of your borders. And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, “Because of this, the Lord did [this] for me when I went out of Egypt.” And it shall be to you as a sign upon your hand and as a remembrance between your eyes, in order that the law of the Lord shall be in your mouth, for with a mighty hand the Lord took you out of Egypt. And you shall keep this statute at its appointed time, from year to year.
Professional scribe who can transcribe the Torah scrolls used during synagogue services and other religious texts that must be handwritten, such as tefillin and mezuzas, is called sofer and is very much respected in every Jewish community. We know of only one Brzesko sofer (or “writer of the 10 commandments” as his profession was defined in vital records records), Eliezer Herbstman.
Krosno-born Eliezer Herbstman came from a rabbinical family and moved to Brzesko after marrying Laje Templer, whose ancestors were also rabbis. The couple had eleven children. One of their daughters, Ester Hinda, lived with her husband and children in the tenement house #56 where the deposit was found. Until recently, no texts transcribed by sofer Herbstman seemed to have survived. We thought that all that remained of him was a moving epitaph on his grave in the cemetery and a few traces of mezuzahs on Brzesko tenement houses. But now this man’s life is evidenced by the mezuzah and tefillin scrolls that will forever remain in the town.
Crown of good name
The wise and famous man Rabbi Eliezer
Son of our teacher Rabbi Naftali Tzvi
His hands were occupied in the wondrous art of writing
Torah, Tefillin, and Mezuzas
All of the great scholars of Israel learned from him…”
3. “Book of life”
The book that has been preserved in the best condition and almost in its entirety (only the title page is missing) is “Sefer Hachayim” – “The Book of Life”.
Thanks to the fact that a fragment of the title page has survived, we managed to find information about the publisher: this book was printed in Krakow in 1923 in the printing house of M. Lewkowicz by the publisher Rabbi Freisinger from Brzesko.
“The Book of Life” includes the complete formula of the service and family devotion adapted for the use of the sick and for those who attend them in their dying moments; prayers to be said on visiting the burial ground and a selection of moral reflections with a compendium of the several laws and ceremonies to be observed on such mournful occasions. The newly found book has got several stamps of the “Society for the purchase of books for bet midrash in Briegel” (Bet midrash is translated is “house of study”; Briegel is the name of the town of Brzesko in Yiddish).
Bet midrash (hebr. בית מדרש „dom nauki”, jid. בית־מדרש bes-medresh) was the main place where Jewish boys and adult men studied Torah and Talmud, held discussions and read books. It could be a room in a synagogue or a separate building. Each bet midrash was equipped with a book collection, to which all members of the community had free access.
Apparently, one of the residents of the tenement house #56 borrowed this “Book of Life” from the book collection at one of the Brzesko synagogues. Almost certainly at some point this book was read by Brzesko merchant Moses Hirsch Silberman (1844-1925) and his son, also a merchant Berisch Silberman (1866-1940), as these names are handwritten on the last page of the book.
Moses Hirsch Silberman and his son Berisch had shops at the Brzesko Market square:
4. “Popular Jewish History”
This book was published in Kraków in 1895. It is written in Yiddish and provides an introduction to the history of the Jewish people. It starts with the stories described in the Torah.
5. Sidur, the prayer book
This little book is a simple and cheap prayer book to be used throughout the year. It is a collection of daily prayers, prayers for Shabbat and for holidays. The found book has no beginning with morning prayers. The prayers are in Hebrew and the instructions are written in Yiddish.
For nearly 2,000 years, Hebrew was almost exclusively a liturgical language; Jews living in Galicia spoke Yiddish. Jewish boys started their education in cheder (primary religious school) at the age of 3; they studied there, among other things, biblical Hebrew. Girls, on the other hand, usually were not taught Hebrew; women often only learned the texts of the prayers by heart. This found prayer book was rather used by women, that’s why it includes instructions in Yiddish.
6. Torah. The Book of Genesis with Rashi’s Commentaries
The Torah (from Hebrew תורה, ‘Teaching’, ‘Instruction’ or ‘Law’) is the compilation of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, namely the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In that sense, Torah means the same as Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses. It is also known in the Jewish tradition as the Written Torah. If meant for liturgic purposes, it takes the form of a Torah scroll (Sefer Torah). If in bound book form, it is called Chumash, and is usually printed with the rabbinic commentaries, especially those of the 11th century rabbi Shlomo Yitzhak known as Rashi.
Studying Torah and Talmud is considered of paramount importance among religious Jews. Jewish men often studied together in specially designated places, Houses of Study (Bet Midrash). On the other hand, Jewish women did not study the Torah in the original, and gained knowledge from Yiddish translation of the extensive portions of the Pentateuch.
In the found book, there has been preserved the middle part of the Book of Genesis with Rashi’s commentary. The text of the Torah is printed in the largest letters; smaller font is used for the commentary. This book could have belonged to the book collection in Bet Midrash in one of the Brzesko synagogues or to one of orthodox Jews living in the house..
7. Talmud, Tractate on Sacrifices
Talmud (Hebrew: תלמוד, “science”) is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law (halakha) and Jewish theology. It provides commentaries on the Torah, which explain how to follow the law of the Torah in the conditions that prevailed among the Jews expelled from Palestine in the second century.
The Talmud, as an ordered collection of religious laws, was written down around 400 CE (the Jerusalem Talmud) and around 500 CE (Babylonian Talmud). The Talmud consists of two parts: the Mishnah and the Gemara. The Mishnah is a collection of rabbinical responses to believers who asked how to practically observe the commandments of the Torah.
The Gemara, on the other hand, is a very extensive commentary on individual fragments of the Mishnah, even more precisely determining the proper behavior of a pious Jew in a given situation.
The found book is part of the standard Vilnius edition of the Talmud with commentaries by Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhak, who compiled the first complete commentary on the Talmud in the 11th century). It includes one of the tractates of the Talmud, Zevachim – Tractate on Sacrifices. The book misses part of the title page and the end.
The entire Talmud consists of 63 tractates with commentaries. On each page, the main text consists of the Mishnah (Hebrew for “repetition”) and the Gemara (Aramaic for “study”). The Gemara text is printed below the Mishnah as an analysis and elaboration of its material. Commentaries added in the Middle Ages are printed around the core text. They were written mainly in France, Spain and Germany between the 12th and 14th centuries.
The edition of the Babylonian Talmud printed in Vilnius, Lithuania (37 volumes), is the most common printed edition of the Talmud in use today. This version was first printed in the late 19th century. It is the basic text for Torah study in Jewish religious schools.
The tractate on Sacrifices discusses the topics related to the sacrificial system of the Temple in Jerusalem, namely the laws for animal and bird offerings, and the conditions which make them acceptable or not, as specified in the Torah, primarily in the book of Leviticus.
8. Textbook for children for modern Hebrew study
There have survived only a few pages of this textbook written for children. Grammar rules intertwine with short stories: Eve of Passover. Right after Purim, Jews start thinking about Passover. They put signs in the windows of theirshops “Kosher for Pesach” …
In the beginning of the 20th century, Hebrew was still used almost exclusively in synagogue services. But Zionist movement was developing and in the 1920s groups of Zionists appeared also in Brzesko. Rafael Perlman recalls those times in the Brzesko Yizkor Book: “We invested much effort and money to acquire books in Hebrew and Yiddish because most of the youth did not know Hebrew. This is how the first library was established in the town, outside of the walls of the synagogue. So, we arranged a “reading room” next to the library and this attracted many from the non-Chassidic community, mainly the youth.”
Maybe one of the residents of the tenement house was thinking about emigrating to Palestine and was teaching the children Hebrew – not the holy language of the Torah, but the language that could be used in everyday life?
9. Book for school children in Yiddish
This book includes short stories, poems, jokes, and could have been used at home or in a secular Jewish school. In Brzesko, Jewish children attended both cheders (primary religious schools) and secular schools before World War II. At the end of the 19th century, a school for Jewish children was established in the town, with the money from the foundation of Maurycy Hirsch from Paris, who financed elementary and vocational schools in Galicia and Bukowina in order to spread education among the Jewish population. 103 students studied in this three-year school under the supervision of 3 teachers: the headmaster Majer Morecki, Ernestyna Muller and Lipe Waltuch. Who knows – maybe this book belonged to one of the students of this school?
This deposit, found in the attic of the Brzesko tenement house, will soon become part of the permanent exhibition of the regional museum. The Germans wanted to annihilate not only the Jews themselves, but also all traces of their presence. And yet, 80 years after the Holocaust, these people return from oblivion.
At the end of this article, I would like to express my deep gratitude to the current owner of the tenement house and the construction team, who have found the books and made them available for the public. I’m also very grateful to Professor Jonathan Webber for the thorough analysis and identification of all the surviving fragments.
© Anna Brzyska, 2023