Authors: Kamila Nycz and Weronika Salamon, Brzesko high schoolnamed after Nicolaus Copernicus
Distinction in the 5th edition of the project “We know your names. Commemoration of the pre-war Jewish community of Brzesko and vicinity”.
“…I will pause with you, dear participants of this meeting, for a moment by the plaque with the inscription in Hebrew. This inscription evokes the memory of a nation whose sons and daughters were destined for total extermination. This nation takes its beginning from Abraham, who is the father of our faith as expressed by Paul of Tarsus. This nation, which received from God Yahweh the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”, was especially exposed to being murdered. In the face of this plaque, no one should pass indifferently.”
7.06.1979, Auschwitz-Birkenau, St. John Paul II
Jews are a nation that has experienced much evil throughout its history. They lived in various communities, and these communities were often hostile to them. This was due to various factors: religious, social, political, economic or cultural. We can find the origins of antisemitism as early as antiquity, when Jews were persecuted for believing in one God, because, as we know, polytheism, or belief in many gods, was a popular view in those days. Pagans did not understand and even mocked the practices of the Jewish people. In later times they were considered guilty of the death of Jesus Christ, which became the basis of antisemitism in the Middle Ages, leading to the deprivation of certain rights by the Church and secular authorities. Persecution of Jews was particularly intense during the Crusades, when Jews were portrayed as helpers of Muslims, and during the plague of 1348-1351 it was more severe than during the Crusades. Jews were expelled from England in 1290, from France in 1306 and 1394, but the most famous was the 1492 expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain, which hosted the largest population of Jews in medieval times. They were also expelled from Portugal in 1496-1497. Throughout this time, Jews found refuge in Poland, which became the homeland for the largest Jewish community in the world.
Jews in Brzesko
It is difficult to say when Jews settled in Brzesko. In 1765 there were 187 Jews living in the town, they maintained trade relations with Wojnicz. In 1867, the year when the Brzesko County was established, there were 4,747 Jewish residents out of a total population of 82,801. In 1939 there were 2,611 Jews living in Brzesko, and they were organized into a Jewish Religious Community known as the Kehilla. It was generally accepted in Brzesko was that the mayor of the town would be a Pole, and the position of deputy mayor would be held by a Jew. In 1888 Henoch Klapholz was the deputy mayor, and Bezallel Florenz and Berl Landau were the assessors. In 1904, the mayor was an Israeli, Henoch Klapholz. Dr. Bloch, Alexander Deiches (attorney), Krittenstein (also attorney), Schmaus (judge), the Stielman couple (doctors), Seelengut (dental technician), Krauter (owner of a printing house), Schiff (owner of an ironmongery), Schnur (active among Jewish youth) and Spielman (merchant, also active in various social matters) were among the more prominent representatives of the Jewish community. The Jewish and Catholic communities lived side by side in harmony and respect for each other. Jews lived in compact clusters. They were mainly merchants and craftsmen. The Catholic and Jewish populations, by living side by side, shared common fates, which included pestilence, floods and fires. The latter particularly affected Jewish families because their houses were wooden and densely located, making them even more vulnerable to the devastating effects of flames. We can read about one such situation in the “Parish Chronicle”: “on April 28, 1885 a fire broke out at night at 1 and a half o’clock in the market square of the town of Brzesko, opposite the parish church, in the house of a Jewish baker – 17 Israelite houses burned down, no Christian suffered any damage…”. The Jewish community was closely connected to Brzesko and contributed to the development of the town.
The encroachment of German troops into Brzesko
Peaceful life in Brzesko was interrupted on September 5, 1939, when evacuation trains, which had arrived from Silesia, were bombed at Słotwina train station. Forty-four people died on the spot and 200 were wounded.
In September of the same year, after the Germans entered Brzesko, they started introducing anti-Jewish measures.
History of Ryfka Passler and her family
Ryfka Passler was born on January 14, 1922 as the youngest, 11th child of Leib Hersch Passler (born in Jasień in 1867) and Laja Bruche Passler nee Steinlauf (born in Okocim in 1877). Rifka’s siblings:
- Malka (born in 1897, married Salomon Weinstock)
- Feigel Dina (born in 1898, married Chaim Rosenblum)
- Abraham (born on June 20, 1902)
- boy born on July 30, 1904, died before being circumcised
- Beila Berta (born on August 6, 1905, married Berek Brin)
- Leiser Leon (born on September 23, 1907)
- Scheindel Sabina (born on August 17, 1909, married Idel Rosenberg)
- Estera (born on February 25, 1912)
- Wolf Dawid (born on July 29, 1915)
- Kalman (born on July 30, 1917)
Matzevot (tombstones) of Ryfka Passler’s grandparents have survived at the Brzesko Jewish cemetery.
Translation of the inscription from Hebrew by Idan Livne
Innocent and honest
Aged in years
He earned his living through hard work
Rabbi Isaak Yosef
Son of Rabbi Eliezer of blessed memory
Died on the 2nd of ljar 5679
May his soul be bound in the bundle of life
We could to identify this tombstone with the help of Iwona Zawidzka’s book , “Jewish Cemetery in Brzesko ‘”, Brzesko 2001, archival materials of Iwona Zawidzka and the death record of Chana Passler
… Daughter of Yehoshua…
… Died 1 kislev (5)679
Jewish tombstones provide the date of death according to the Jewish calendar. 2 Ljar 5679 corresponds to April 14, 1918; 1 kislev 5679 is November 5, 1918.
The Passlers lived in the central part of Okocim.
Ryfka’s neighbor and best friend was Stanisława Adamus.
The girls attended elementary school in Okocim.
We don’t know if Ryfka finished her education because we could find only certificates of completion of the 2nd and 3rd grades of elementary school. However, the documents show that Ryfka had to repeat the third grade due to a failing grade.
Ryfka and Stanisława every day spent some time at the Adamus home. Being friends and especially helping Jewish families was forbidden during the German occupation, and it was no different in the Okocim area. In the case of Ryfka and Stanisława it was particularly dangerous because Wiktor Adamus, Stanisława’s father, was known and respected among German soldiers for his knowledge of foreign languages, so German commanders often stayed at the Adamus house. One of those days could have ended tragically had it not been for the incredible attitude of Maria Adamus, Stanislawa’s mother. During their father’s absence, the girls stayed at the Adamus house as they did every day. Maria Adamus was doing chores around the house when she suddenly noticed a German commander heading her way. She decided to quickly hide Ryfka in the closet. The man’s visit was unexpected. Maria was also disturbed by the fact that the commander was clearly looking for someone. When the woman saw that the German had left she freed Ryfka from the closet and ordered her to escape quickly through the garden to the house.
In this picture you can see the Adamus house at the time when Ryfka Passler had to escape from it. Her house was about 500 meters away.
We know the story presented above from the testimony of the granddaughter of Mrs. Stanisława Gurgul née Adamus, Mrs. Joanna Pajor. She told us that that was the last time her grandmother saw Ryfka. The only physical reminder she has left of her friend is a picture that Ryfka gave her before she had to go to the ghetto. However, we can’t say when exactly this took place.
Ryfka hoped to return to her schoolfriend, but it never happened.
We do not know the exact fate of the Passler family. From information obtained from Mr. and Mrs. Pajor, we know that they ended up in the Bresko ghetto. Only one brother of Ryfka, Leiser (Leon), survived the war. Almost certainly it was him that Stanisława Gurgul (née Adamus) knew as Romek and her note about Romek’s survival in the USSR refers to him.
In 1977, more than 30 years after the end of the war, Leon (Leiser) Passler submitted testimonies to Yad Vashem about his murdered relatives: parents, six sisters and two brothers. According to these documents, they all perished in Majdanek or in unknown concentration camps. Most likely, Leon did not know the circumstances of their deaths, especially if he had really been in the USSR during the war. He only knew that they were all murdered. According to the information we obtained from the State Museum at Majdanek, the name Passler does not appear in the museum’s records. In all probability, we can assume that Ryfka Passler, her parents and siblings were murdered in the Belzec death camp like majority of Jews from Brzesko and vicinity. Unfortunately, after so many years we are unable to verify this.
This was the end of friendship between the Polish girl Stanislawa Adamus and the Jewish girl Ryfka Passler.
- Brzesko Jewish community birth records 1877-1917 (sygn.30/337/1-3,7-17) Brzesko Jewish community marriages records 1877-1923 (sygn.30/337/4,18)
- Archives of the Okocim primary school
- Chronicle of the town of Brzesko 1385-1944 by Jan Burlikowski