Jan Wiktor Brzeski was born in Brzesko on July 17, 1909. His father, Jan Władysław Brzeski, was not only a doctor, but also the mayor of Brzesko and a prominent social activist. His son also became a doctor. During the Second World War the Germans arrested and imprisoned Jan Władysław Brzeski in Tarnów, Kraków and later in Auschwitz, where he died of pneumonia in March 1942. However, this did not stop his son Jan Wiktor from becoming involved in underground work and helping Jews. In recognition of helping Jewish families during the German occupation, Jan Wiktor Brzeski was awarded the Righteous Among the Nations medal on January 8, 1990.
“Jan Wiktor Brzeski practised in his hometown of Brzesko and in the immediate vicinity. Before the war, as his wife Władysława pointed out in a letter to the Yad Vashem Institute, he was a man of nationalist views, and in his youth he was even active in an anti-Semitic youth organisation. However, these views did not prevent him from actively helping Jews during the occupation.
On May 3, 1941, on the anniversary of the national holiday, Jan Wiktor Brzeski was arrested because of his patriotic views and transported to the prison in Tarnów. He was released on July 7, when an epidemic of typhus broke out in Brzesko. Germans ordered him to return to work as there was a shortage of doctors in the town.
Before the war, Brzesko was home to a large Jewish community which constituted about 60% of the town’s population. In the spring of 1941, Germans established a ghetto there; about 6,000 people were confined in it. The ghetto was liquidated in September 1942, with the sick, elderly and those unable to work being murdered on the spot and the rest deported to the Bełżec death camp.
During those days, during the actions carried out by the Germans in the Brzesko ghetto, Jan Brzeski hid Naftali Schiff and a Jew from Bochnia in the basement of his house. He also provided medical assistance to Jews who managed to escape after the liquidation of the Brzesko ghetto and were hiding in the town and its vicinity. Regina Sperber (wife of Herman Sperber) was one of his patients. The couple lived before the war on the border between the villages of Dębno and Porąbka Uszewska. Brzeski assisted in Regina’s difficult childbirth.
Brzeski also treated Lili Matzner, who during the occupation stayed in a hiding place with a farmer called Topolski in the village of Jadowniki. “During the occupation I was staying in Slotwina in Brzesko, as a Jewish woman displaced from Bielsko. My sister and I were both without resources as displaced persons.
During my stay in Brzesko, I benefited several times from the medical assistance of Dr. Brzeski, a doctor in Brzesko, who always, on every call, came to us, even though Polish doctors were not allowed to treat Jews. Moreover, Dr. Brzeski helped us even when we were already confined in the Brzesko ghetto, even though Poles were forbidden to enter the ghetto. Dr. Brzeski helped us selflessly, he never asked whether we could pay.
After the liquidation of the Brzesko ghetto (autumn 1942, I don’t remember the exact date), I was hiding in a nearby village, Jadowniki, with a local farmer, Józef Topolski. I had several hiding places on his farm. During my time in hiding, several times I fell very ill, once with pneumonia, once with haemorrhage, then I had severe arthritis. Called by my host Topolski, Dr. Brzeski came several times at night, and had to travel part of the way on foot.
He did this each time completely selflessly and could not even count on payment after the war, because my state of health was such that it was doubtful whether I would survive. After the war, I learned from the Jews of Brzesko that Dr. Brzeski helped Jews during the occupation and even hid a certain Schiff from Brzesko in his cellar.” (From the testimony of Lili Matzner submitted to the Jewish Historical Institute on December 1, 1949; archive of the Jewish Historical Institute, ref. 301/4460). Lili Matzner survived the war, emigrated to Israel.
Dr. Brzeski also provided medical assistance to Stefania Liban, her sister and niece, who were hiding on so-called Aryan papers in the village of Jasień. Brzeski also paid for medication for a Jewish boy who was hiding with his mother in the village of Pomianowa. In addition, during the occupation he kept Helena Taub-Jachcel’s clothes and valuables, which he returned to her when the war ended. Brzeski also helped her to organise a so-called Aryan kennkarte in the name of Helena Janicka and provided her with a baptismal certificate. The woman survived the occupation.
Jan Brzeski’s exact pre-war contacts with the Jews he helped are not known. It is therefore not excluded that some of them were his pre-war patients. After the war, Jewish survivors provided a testimony: “The undersigned Jews of Brzesko testify that Dr. Jan Brzeski of Brzesko went to the medical assistance of the Jewish population with all readiness during the occupation period, both in the first period and in the hardest times of hiding and the pogrom.”
People who were helped by Jan Brzeski (all survived):
Chaskel Blonder; Jozef Glassner, Szymon Goldberg, Helena Taub, Stefania Liban, Bronisława Malawer, Lili Matzner, Naftali Schiff, Herman Sperber, Regina Sperber, Maurycy Zuckerman.
The Righteous Among the Nations medal and diploma were presented to Jan Wiktor Brzeski by the Israeli ambassador to Poland at a ceremony held in the “Prussian Homage” hall of the National Museum in Sukiennice in Krakow on January 20, 1992. Brzeski’s son, who was present at the ceremony, recalled that his father was deeply moved that after so many years his occupational efforts to help his fellow men were finally recognized.
Jan Wiktor Brzeski died in Kraków on January 14, 1993. He is buried at the parish cemetery in Salwator, Kraków.