04.02.2024 | Redaktor

Family of the Brzesko dayan Menasche Kapel

The patriarch of the Kapel/Kapler family (this surname was first written as Kapel, but later changed to Kapler) Menasche was born in Brzesko on June 3, 1866, as the son of Hersch and Perel Kapel.

Birth crecord of Menasche Kapel, son of Hersch and Perla, born in Brzesko on June 3, 1866 (entry #32)

He came from an ordinary – not rabbinical – family, and yet he became a dayan (rabbinical judge), which was very rare. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of him, but in the Brzesko Yizkor book (the Book of Remembrance written after the war by surviving Brzesko Jews) you can find very touching testimonies which provide a glimpse into his life.

Menasche Kapel married Chana Schindler, and between 1888 and 1906 they had 9 children, five of whom died in infancy. The Kapel and Schindler families lived in Brzesko for at least several generations. The matzeva of Chana Kapel’s mother, Chawa Sara Schindler (1828-1887) has survived at the Brzesko Jewish cemetery.

Matzeva of Chawa Sara Schindler at the Brzesko Jewish cemetery

Here is buried

Kosher and God-fearing woman

Important, modest and righteous

Her deeds will be praised in the gates

Mrs Chava Sara, daughter of Mr  Aharon

Moshe Meshel, died on 5 of Av

5646 [July 26, 1887]. May her soul be bound in the bundle of life

Chana Kapel née Schindler died of tuberculosis at the age of only 41, and Menasche Kapel remarried. In the second marriage he had 11 children, two of whom died in infancy. It would seem that this man had created such a big family. However, none of Menasche Kapel’s 13 adult children survived the war. His son Chiel Ascher died in an accident in Germany in 1935, remaining 12 children were murdered in the Holocaust years.

But before we get to the times of World War II, I would like to quote a few fragments of Tuvie Mingelgrun’s testimony (Brzesko Yizkor Book, pages 229-238, English translation for JewishGen by Libby Raichman).

Tuvie Mingelgrun, photo from the Brzesko Yizkor book https://archive.org/details/MemorialBookOfBriegel-BrzeskoAndVicinitySeferYizkorShelKehilatBriegel-BrzeskoVe-ha-seviva

“We lived together with Reb Menashele in one house, our door opposite his. When it was not too cold, Reb Menaschele would open the door of his house on Shabbat to hear the Shabbat hymns that flowed from our apartment…

I don’t remember ever seeing him without a book in his hand. It seemed to me that even as he walked, he was reciting the Mishnah. He was one of the Talmudists in our town, considered the most intelligent one. He was a great scholar who earned himself a world of knowledge in the Talmud and in the scriptures, without having ancestral lineage, as was customary in those years, in the villages of Galicia and Poland, where the merits of lineage, preceded knowledge. Reb Menashele did not wear rabbis’ clothing, but rather dressed like one of the townsfolk. He was not haughty in any way – on the contrary, with all his intelligence, wisdom and knowledge, he always knew how to address the youth around him. We didn’t always follow traditions. But Reb Menaschele, with his kindness and pedagogical wisdom, went straight to our hearts and our level of understanding. We respected him and were careful not to do the slightest thing in his presence that could offend, God forbid, his religious feelings…

Reb Menaschele was a wise man not only in the eyes of the rabbis, who knew and appreciated his knowledge and wisdom, but also in the eyes of ordinary people. Poles also considered him a wise man…

Every year, before the arrival of winter, a cart full of coal and potatoes was delivered to Reb Menaschele, a gift from Baron Goetz from Okocim, the owner of the largest brewery in Poland. And every year this story was told: it was back in the days of this baron’s father, who was involved in a difficult legal case. When he lost the case, he could only file an appeal before the Supreme Court in Warsaw. All legal advisers concluded that there was no chance of winning or mitigating the situation in any way. Then one of the lawyers, a Jew, advised the baron to turn to Reb Menashele. All the documents were translated into Yiddish and soon Reb Menashele put his opinion and advice in writing. When the judges were presented with Reb Menashele’s interpretation of the events, baron Goetz won in every respect. I saw with my own eyes the coal and potatoes that were brought to Reb Menashele from Baron Goetz year after year, at the same time…

Baron Jan Albin Goetz Okocimski (1864-1931), portrait by Jan Malczewski, 1916. According to the testimony of Tuvie Mingelgrun, Menasche Kapel helped him win a complicated court case.

I will mention another unique situation. On Shabbat, in the intermediate days of Sukkot, we sat with Reb Menashele in a sukkah. As was his custom, he quoted words from various verses and sayings from the Bible and Talmud and explained them. Among other things, he mentioned a portion of the Law that is read on Shabbat on the intermediate days of Sukkot, and my father sighed heavily and said, “My arduous work leaves me neither time nor energy to study the Torah in accordance with the commandments.” Reb Menashele answered him with these words: “Isn’t it enough for you, Reb Chaim, that you are not among parasites, that you live and support your Jewish family with the sweat of your brow? Do you think that all those who run to the ritual bath to immerse themselves, fulfill all the commandments, are superior to you? You are making a big mistake; because every day you fulfill the commandments through the work of your hands. You will eat the fruits of your labor, and it will be good for you now and in the world to come. People who work hard are worthy of everything that is most important. What more can you ask for, Reb Chaim?”

Menasche Kapel died of pneumonia in Brzesko on December 10, 1935. Unfortunately, his matzeva has not survived in the Brzesko cemetery. I only know that he lived at Mateiki street,  #218. But we can gratefully remember this wise man.

Death record of Menasche Kapel, rabbinical assessor in Brzesko, who died on December 10, 1935 at the age of 69 years, 6 months and 7 days and was buried at the Brzesko Jewish cemetery the next day.

As I have already mentioned, Menasche Kapel first married Chana Schindler, and after her premature death he married again. Pascha Biena Leimsieder became his second wife. Of the 9 children born in the first marriage, five died in infancy. Here’s what we could learn about the fate of the remaining children:

Menasche’s eldest daughter Perla Kapel (born in 1888) married Gecel Gunzig/Abusch who also came from Brzesko. The couple settled in Brzesko and had four children: Golda (1918), Juda Schabse (1920), Kalman (1921) and Szyje (1925). At some point before the war, the family moved to Krakow. In 1940 they lived at Wąska street, 12. Perla’s younger brother Menachem Aron Kapel also lived with them at that time. At the beginning of 1941, they were ordered to leave Kraków. Most likely, they returned to their hometown and shared the destiny of majority of Brzesko Jews – were deported to Bełżec and murdered there. The photos kept in the archive of the Central Jewish library (https://cbj.jhi.pl/) are the only trace of their lives:

Gecel Gunzig (1884-1942).
Perla Gunzig z domu Kapel (1888-1942)
Ankieta wypełniona przez rodzinę Gunzig w Krakowie w 1940 roku, zdjęcie ze strony https://www.ushmm.org/online/
Golda Gunzig (1918-1942)
Juda Schabse Gunzig (1920-1942)
Kalman Gunzig (1921-1942)
Szyja Gunzig (1925-1942)
Menachem Aron Kapel (1895-1942)

The next son of Menasche and Chana, Chiel Asher Kapel (1898-1935) emigrated from Poland to Germany, where he married a Jewish woman who also had Brzesko roots. Although Chiel Asher’s two children, son Martin and daughter Elfriede, were born in Leipzig, they still had Polish citizenship. After the father’s death in 1935, the family stayed in Germany, but in October 1938 the children and their mother were deported to Poland. For some time they lived with relatives, the family  of Gecel and Perla Gunzig in Krakow.  Martin Kapel, who was only 8 years old at the time, recalled that it was a very religious and rather poor family; every Saturday they went together  to the Hasidic shtibel for Shabbat services:

It was a large family. They were a very friendly affectionate family, there were no quarrels. When in Kraków, it was for the first time that I lived in a Chasidic household. And their attitude towards life was completely different from what I’ve seen in Germany. Their religion was very-very important to them. In Chasidic families often only one member of the family would earn a living, and the others would devote their lives to religious study and religious practice. And it meant of course that they lived in self-imposed poverty. They were not interested in becoming rich and making a lot of money. They had to earn a certain amount in order to live, but religion was the one thing that was important to them…  It was the purpose of their lives – to live in accordance with Jewish law. In a big city, in Kraków, it meant that although they lived in poverty compared to other communities, it was still not as poor as in Brzesko.  In the village, in the shtetl there was a great deal of poverty…” (From a talk with Martin Kapel, January 25, 2022)

After a few months, Martin Kapel, his sister and mother had to move to Brzesko. The children survived thanks to the fact that their mother managed to place them in one of the so-called “kindertransports” – in August 1939, Martin Kapel and his sister Elfriede left for England. They survived the war in a foster family. Most likely, they were the only surviving descendants of the Brzesko dayan Menasche Kapela.

Martin Kapel, born on June 6, 1930, was registered in the Jewish community of Leipzig. This registration card, kept in the Arolsen archive, contains the following data: Martin had Polish citizenship; in 1938 he was deported to Poland; in July 1938 moved to England. There is one mistake here – Martin and his younger sister got to England in August 1939. Photo from Arolsen database, https://collections.arolsen-archives.org/en/

Martin Kapel still lives in the UK and often speaks about his war-time experiences. Here is a fragment of his testimony:

“Brzesko was in those days a very small village… There I saw a way of life which was different from that in Cracow. In Cracow my relations lived in a flat which was part of a house. Here the family lived in a wooden hut. And it was still a completely Chasidic form of living. The one member of the family who earned living for the whole family (I believe, he was one of my uncles) was what we call a dayan. In the Jewish community dayan was the judge. It meant that occasionally he had to ajudicate disputes that arose between individuals or between families in the village. But dayan had other functions as well. When Jews eat meat it has to come from certain animals and animal has to be slaughtered in a particular way and then the meat has to be prepared in a particular way. But sometimes when meat is being prepared one notices a blemish on it. And sometimes that is enough to prevent that piece of meat from being kosher and at other times it isn’t. So, every now and again we were visited in the morning by somebody from another part of the village, usually a young girl, who had been sent by her mother to take this piece of meat with a blemish to the Dayan who will then ajudicate if it was kosher or not. That was one of his functions. And the rest of the family apart from household tasks, devoted its life completely to religious study and religious observance. And my uncle the dayan would get up very early in the morning, something like 4 or 5 o’clock and spend a few hours studying Talmud before he started his day’s work…”

Martin Kapel. Photo taken from https://holocaustlearning.org.uk/stories/martin-kapel/

„When we moved to Brzesko, to the house of my uncle Shulim, ordinary daily prayers took place at home, but for Sabbath prayers we would go to Chasidic shtibel. Uncle Szulim helped me study the Torah. I think, if it was not for the Holocaust, we would probably have stayed in Poland and that’s the kind of life, I would have wanted. Whether I should have succeeded in it and whether I should have been capable of it, it’s another question.

Chasigic shtibel at Berko Jozelewicza street in Brzesko, 1929. Photo by Schaje Weiss.

We lived quite close to a field. When the weather was good, we would go out with a blanket and some food. We would sit there and talk and eat something. It was only the younger members of the family The youngest of my aunts [Rebeka] was only 4 years older than me,  and then there was an uncle who was 17 [Jeruchim] and another who was 18 [Leibisch], sometimes they joined. We talked and sat there and enjoyed sunshine.

I don’t remember any family of uncle Shulim. But his younger brother Mojshe did not have a family when we first came, but he married when we were in Poland. And they had a child. But they did not live in Brzesko.

Later my mother was told that non of the family survived. My mother’s grandmother died before all the Jews were killed in Brzesko, but after the German invasion, she was over 90 (widow Rudla Guntzig, daughter of Mendel and Bluma Guntzig from Brzesko, died in Brzesko on January 11, 1940, at the age 93 – A.B.). And all the rest of them were killed by the Nazis.” (From a talk with Martin Kapel, January 25, 2022)

It may be worth adding that two matzevot of Martin Kapel’s ancestors from his mother’s side have survived in the Brzesko Jewish cemetery: those of his great-grandfather Josef Guntzig (1850, Kraków – 1928, Brzesko) and great-great-grandfather Menachem Mendel Abusch (1816, Brzesko – 1890, Brzesko):

Matzeva of Josef Gunzig

Here is buried

Mr Josef Gunzig

Son of Mr Eliakim Getzel

His soul left on Cheshvan 24, [5]689 [November 7, 1928]

Elderly man, advanced in years, served

The Lord till the end of his life. May his soul be bound in the bundle of life

(Deciphering the Hebrew inscription and its translation by Jolanta Kruszniewska)

Matzeva of Menachem Mendel Abusch

Here is buried

A noble and righteous man, following the path of the righteous,

God-fearing and avoiding evil, our teacher, Mr

Menachem Mendel, son of Mr Yeschaja

Abraham Abusch, his soul left on 21

Kislev (5)651 [December 3, 1890] May his soul be bound in the bundle of life.

(Deciphering the Hebrew inscription by Jolanta Kruszniewska)

The youngest child of Menasche and Chana Kapel, daughter Bruche Kapel, born in 1901, married Aron Salamon Spielman from Tarnów in 1933. She was murdered in the Holocaust

After the death of his first wife,Chana née Schindler, Menasche Kapel married Pescha Bina Leimsieder, 19 years his junior. The couple had 11 children born between 1908 and 1926, two of whom died in infancy The remaining 9 children perished in the Holocaust:

Salomon (Shulim), born on March 28, 1909. He was a very devoted Hasid. It was Salomon who became the Brzesko dayan (rabbinical judge) after his father’s death in 1935; in the Brzesko Yizkor book you can find a testimony of Chaim Teller about it And it was with him that Martin and Elfriede Kapel lived for several months before their mother managed to put them in the kindertransport. Shulim was murdered in 1942.

Isaac Majer, born on September 17, 1910. He married Laje Kling, daughter of Abraham Leib Kling and Rachela Springer, born in Brzesko in 1918. They were both murdered in 1942

Isaak Majer Kapel/Kapler, photo from the Yad Vashem database
Hela (Laja) Kapler née Kling, photo from the Yad Vashem database

Moses Josef, born on January 21, 1912. He dedicated many years to studying Jewish law together with his older brother Solomon under the guidance of dayan Chaim Teitelbaum. He married in 1938, had a child. Murdered in the Holocaust

Dawid, born on May 23, 1914, murdered

Rywa Rosa, born on September 24, 1915, murdered

Abraham Jakob, born on February 17, 1917, murdered

Leibisch, born January 1, 1920, murdered

Jeruchim, born March 19, 1921, murdered

Rebekah, born on January 22, 1926, murdered

Data on the destiny of Menasche Kapel’s children come from the testimonies of Martin Kapel, Rachel Kigel – the niece of Lea Kapler née Kling, and two surviving Brzesko Jews, David Flank and Yitzhak Tidor.

Menasche Kapela’s second wife, 4 children from his first marriage and 9 children from his second marriage were murdered, most likely in Brzesko and Bełżec death camp. Just think about it: from such a large family, only two of Menasche’s grandchildren survived because they left Poland in 1939. And the only material trace of the existence of this family are a few photos and three matzevot of their ancestors in the Brzesko cemetery.

May the memory of all Holocaust victims be an eternal blessing

© Anna Brzyska, 2024