Jewish boys from religious families usually started their education at the age of three. At that time, their parents enrolled them in cheders, i.e. elementary religious schools, where the boys mastered the art of reading and writing for the first two years and later began learning Chumash (the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses). The teacher was paid by the community and parents. Only boys could study in traditional cheders. Girls usually received their education at home with their parents. This education usually did not extend beyond learning to read and write.
In Brzesko, Jewish children attended both cheders 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. In addition to that, there were 4 cheders and a Talmud Torah school for poor children in Brzesko. Jewish boys attending a public primary school in the morning, studied in the cheder in the afternoon.
Jewish children also studied together with their Catholic peers in public schools, including the seven-class girls’ school and in the gymnasium.Two members of one of the most influential Brzesko Jewish families – Henoch Klapholz (member of the city council in 1877- 1919, and Mayor of Brzesko in 1898-1906) and his daughter-in-law Julia Klapholz directly contributed to the creation of this gymnasium.
“Until 1910, there was only one 5-class school in Brzesko … Youth who wanted to continue their education could take the exam and study in high school. The closest schools were in Bochnia, Tarnów, Krakow … But the vast majority of students finished their education at the level of 5-class school. Hence, a group of citizens took initiative in establishing a high school in Brzesko so that talanted children would have an opportunity for furter education in Brzesko …
During the meeting of Brzesko Municipal Council, the deputy mayor Henoch Klapholz took the floor and said: ” After the 1904 fire, Brzesko was beautifully rebuilt according to the regulation plan, now it’s got wide streets and sewage system, commerce and industry have developed, and residents crave for knowledge and education complaining about the lack of high school… Why our poviat town should be so impaired that children have to be sent to schools in other cities, when nothing prevents Brzesko from having a high school of its own?..” After this speech, a resolution was adopted unanimously: “The magistrate is advised to send a motivated petition to the competent authorities in the shortest time for the establishment of a secondary school in Brzesko.”
Julia Klapholz was also one of the founders of this high school. Her father, vice mayor of the city Henoch Klapholz (here Jan Burlikowski made a mistake – Henoch Klapholż was Julia’s father-in-law – AB), was a long-term member of the high school parent committee and together with the mayor Stanisław Wisłocki provided the school with all the help it needed. Julia Klapholz and the judge Antoni Kozubski organized the first lessons at the Brzesko high school … ” (quoted after Jan Burlikowski, “Chronicle of the Town of Brzesko”, Volume II, pp. 69, 105)
Education in the newly established gymnasium began in September 1911. First, the classes were held in the Brzesko town hall and after several years, the gymnasium was moved to the building at Kosciuszko st..
In the years 1911-1939, 129 Jewish students attended Brzesko gymnazium. Some of them studied for only a year or two; others graduated from high school and continued their education at universities. Among the first 16 high school graduates (1918), six were Jewish: Leib Kanner, Gusta Klapholz, Benedykt Klapholz, Hirsch Krauter, Ekiwa Siedlisker, Zelman Wasserman.
School certificates of all students of the Brzesko gymnasium startin from 1911 have been preserved in the high school archives. These documents often provide information not only about the grades in individual subjects, but also data on students’ parents. There exists also an unobvious source of information – a congratulatory letter addressed in 1926 to the American nation, “Polish education in tribute to the American nation in memory of the 150th anniversary of the independence of the United States.” Among the signatures of 5.5 million Polish citizens, there were also signatures of all students of the Brzesko gymnasium
Research conducted in several archives allowed to establish that 62 former Jewish students were murdered in the Holocaust; 26 people managed to survive the war (mostly because they left Poland before 1939). The fate of 37 people remains unknown. Almost certainly, most of them were murdered by the German occupiers, but there are no documents to confirm it.
The data presented in the following articles are based on the analysis of the main catalogs of students of the Brzesko gymnasium and documents from the archives of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN Kr 1/1312/2) – materials of the District Commission for the Investigation of Crimes against the Polish Nation, Brzesko poviat, 1975. Additional important sources of information are:
– Yad Vashem database, https://yvng.yadvashem.org
– Vital records of the Brzesko Jewish community
– Files of the Brzesko District Court
– “Bernacki’s Archive” (Karol Bernacki, a former Home Army soldier from Jadowniki, was the chairman of the Historical Committee of the Association of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy; Karol Bernacki’s archive, donated by his family, was digitized in the District and Municipal Library in Brzesko).
The obtained data were then compared and verified with the help of databases:
– United States Holocaust Memorial Museum https://www.ushmm.org/online,
– Arolsen archive https://collections.arolsen-archives.org/en/search,
– State archive of Israel https://www.archives.gov.il/en/,
– Database of immigrants entering the US via Ellis Island https://www.statueofliberty.org/ellis-island/
– ŻIH (Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw)
– Auschwitz-Birkenau archive https://www.auschwitz.org/ and several others
© Anna Brzyska, 2023