31.07.2022 | Redaktor

The main Brzesko synagogue

In April 2021, we received several new photos from the family archive of prof. Charles Weiss Jr., including a photo of the main Bresko synagogue. All photos from this collection were taken in 1929, when the father of prof. Weiss, Brzesko-born Schaje (Charles) Weiss visited his hometown while traveling around Europe. (The Weisses emigrated from Brzesko to the USA at the beginning of the 20th century; Schaje Weiss completed his studies there and after some time became a recognized scientist.)

Although Brzesko was a small town before the war, there were four brick synagogues, a wooden one and several smaller prayer houses. It is difficult to say when the main Bzesko synagogue was built. We only know that from the very beginning it was located next to the Market Square. It was already standing in 1847; back then it was one of the few brick buildings in the city.

Brzesko map from 1847. Wooden buildings are marked yellow, and brick ones – pink. You can see St James Church and the main synagogue on the opposite side of the Market square. Scan of the map from szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl website

During the great fire of 1904, when about 400 houses burned down in Brzesko, the church of St. Jakub and the synagogue also suffered greatly; its reconstruction took many years.

Brzesko after the 1904 fire. Ruins of the main synagogue can be seen on the right. Photo from the website https://picryl.com/search?q=Brzesko
The main Brzesko synagogue after the 1904 fire. Photo from the collection of Marek Sukiennik, https://brzesko.ws/_brzesko/documents/historia/judaica/Brzesko-po-porzaze-1904_c.jpg

As the photo of prof. Weiss shows, in 1929 the building still did not have a roof.

The main Brzesko synagogue, 1929. Photo from the family archive pf prof. Charles Weiss Jr

Renovation of the synagogue was completed only in mid-1930s. This is how it is remembered by Brzesko-born Joseph Polaniecki:

– Can you describe the synagogue, what did it look like?

– The synagogue was destroyed some years before (during the great fire of 1904 – A.B.), but they renovated it, it was restored. I believe, it was restored beautifully in early 1930ies. It was just absolutely gorgeous. It was like a long hall and it was a big partition between the synagogue and the rest of the building (cheder – A.B.). This partition was made of glass, all way along, beautiful, like crystal. Polished, very nice. And on the other side of that hallway was our cheder, that’s where I went to cheder. Women had a separate section in the synagogue, I think it was up high, although I don’t really remember.

– Were there any paintings on the walls of the synagogue?

– Yes, there were different designs and on both sides of Aron haKodesh there were some inscriptions in Hebrew, some prayers. What was interesting: I participated in this prayer design. When I was in cheder, my rabbi was very artistic. And in order to paint these prayers on the walls, both sides of the arc, they needed a template, so he bought special cardboards and with a little knife he cut out every Hebrew letter by hand. He made a template for the painter just to put paint on that template. I was also artistic and I participated in designing these letters before he cut them out.

And another family aspect of this synagogue was that my uncle, Leo (Leib) Epstein who lived in Katowice, had a wholesale business of paints. He was distributing paints. So he contributed paints necessary to restore the synagogue…” (From the talk with Anna Brzyska recorded in January 2021)

Jozef (Joseph) Polaniecki (born in 1924) in Brzesko before the war. It’s around that time that he attended cheder in the main Brzesko synagogue. Photo from the family archive of Joseph Polaniecki.

At the beginning of September 1939, several days after entering Brzesko, the Germans burnt the synagogue. “When the Germans entered, I saw from my window how they set the synagogue on fire. All the neighbors came to us, we looked at the burning synagogue and cried.” (From the memories of Dov Landau.)

Brzesko map, 1939. Similar to many Galician shtetls, he church and the main synagogue were located on the opposite sides of the Market square. Photo from “The chronicles of the town of Brzesko” by Jan Burlikowski.
Photo of the main Brzesko synagogue in 1939, after it was burnt by the Germans. Photo from the collection of Marek Sukiennik, https://brzesko.ws/…/synagogi/zs_synagoga_asnyka.html

We do not have any photos of this synagogue after its reconstruction was completed, perhaps because it was standing only for several years. The more valuable is the photo of prof. Weiss. You can see how big and beautiful this building was supposed to be.

Unfortunately, now there is only an empty spot at the place where this synagogue used to be – the ruins of the synagogue were pulled down after the war.

Ruins of the synagogue being pulled down. Photos from “The chronicles of the town of Brzesko” by Jan Burlikowski.
Brzesko. Market square, St James church and the empty space where the synagogue used to be. Photo from google maps.

© Anna Brzyska, 2022