Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine

Beta version

Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine

Beta version

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Mayn shtetele Berezne

Gathered, written, edited and published by: Dr. G. Bigl with the assistance of Berezne Landsmanshaft Committee in Israel. Published thanks to the support of Berezne Landsmanshaft in Detroit, Canada, and Argentina. Tel Aviv 1954. Translated by Wojciech Szwedowski.

Berezne city, synagogue
Berezne city, synagogue (Author: unknown)

Rabbi dynasties in Berezno - Raw Arele Peczenik

Fifteen kilometres from the Malińsk train station on the route Równe – Vilnius. A Jewish township, similar to other Jewish townships in the region – courtyards, streets and back alleys. A large synagogue and small Beth Midrashes [houses of learning] and on the other side, a large market with a round hut in the middle. Berezne had its own scholars of the scriptures and the respected people. It had its own maskilim [supporters of the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah] and dissenters, tax collectors and social activists, even its own lunatics. And the Jewish life went on undisturbed like a calm river. Szuls [synagogues] were full of Jews studying Talmud and yellowed books by candle-ends.

The youth joined the contemporary organisations with energy and zeal, promoted the ideas of Zionism, socialism, and Tarbut [Education – a Jewish cultural and educational society], as well as Jewish literature, all with the love for their nation and thinking of its future. Can Berezne see a minyan [a quorum of 10 men, necessary to say the Kaddish for instance] gathered to have the gold chain of generation continued after the slaughter by the Nazis?

Berezne became famous in the world thanks to its Rabbinic dynasty, which settled in town at the beginning of the 19th century. Landlords owning the lands and townships (remnants of the Middle Ages) wanted to get rich by any means possible, so they would invite Rabbinic families to their lands, knowing full well that Jews would follow them. Hasidism was in full bloom at that time. So it happened, that such a landlord brought reb Jechiel Michele Peczenik, who before that lived in Stolin in the Polesia region, where a separate Hasidic court was located. He granted him land and aided in building a house. From reb Michele, a dynasty of Berezne's rabbis begun.

Michele was a son of a magid [preacher] from Stepań, a student of a magid from Międzyrzec, a grandson of rabbi Dawid Heloj, and a son-in-law of a great Hasidic activist rabbi Jechiel Michele, a magid of Zlotchov. Even back in Stolin, rabbi Michele spent days and nights studying the Torah in the town's Beth Midrash with his son Icyk, a son-in-law of rabbi Aron from Czernobyl.  Rabbi's wife worked in a shop, she was the breadwinner in the family so that her husband and son could devote themselves to their studies. Rabbi Icykl was considered an iluy, a genius. He was deeply respected and loved by the residents of Czernobyl.

Berezne's dynasty developed greatly during the times of rabbi Icykl, who was respected and asked for advice even by Christians. Most Hasids were simple craftsmen however, who blindly followed their rabbi and believed him wholeheartedly, entrusting him with their fates. Rabbi Icykl tried to uplift his Hasids to have them study the Torah and fulfil the commandments with a deep faith in the Highest One. If somebody was troubled by something, they would go to the rabbi. In his presence, they would forget their plight and feel uplifted and filled with spiritual strength.

Rabbi Icykl died in 1865 and was replaced by his son, rabbi Josele, only for four years, however. That was still enough for him to leave behind plenty of wonderful stories. His death had wide repercussions among Hasids. Many of them came to the town for the High Holy Days [from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur] and the rabbi kept them all until Simchat Torah, telling them they would not regret it. On the night before the Simchat Torah, he called his sons and told them what they should do. He spent all night with the Hasids, went to the mikveh in the morning, and after his return to the Beth Midrash – he died. He was only 36.

After the death of rabbi Josele there still lived rabbi's wife Perele and his great-grandfather reb Aron Czarnobyler. His oldest son was eighteen. Rabbi Aron Czarnobyler instructed that his eldest son, reb Szmuelke should be Berezne's rabbi. And so it happened – he kept spiritual care over Berezne's Hasids for 49 years. He died in 1917. He was related to a family of a famous worldwide rabbi from Bełz [probably Issachar Dov Rokeach, an incredibly conservative rabbi, antagonistic to Zionism]. After the death of rabbi Szmuelke, his position was taken by his eldest son, Icykl. Rabin Nachamke settled in Dąbrowica while rabbi Josele left for Sarny.

Rabbi Icykl married rebecn Chajele who ran the entire house. She gave him two sons and two daughters. Rabbi Arele settled in Równe while reb Michele studied for a time at the university in Jerusalem. None of the kids survived. Rabbi Icykl was beloved throughout Volhynia and on Polesia he kept the rabbi's position from the end of 1917 to the end of 1939 and was lucky not to have lived to see the time of Hitler.

From the same dynasty came rabbi: Chaimke Tojbman from Berezene.

Berezne city, synagogue
Berezne city, synagogue

Synagogues in Berezne

A big synagogue, where the majority of Berezne Jews prayed, both during religious holidays as well as during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, mostly the Hasids of rabbi raw Szmuelke of the blessed memory. Two Beth Midrashes, a "komorczeska" [merchant's] synagogue, where rabbi Icchok Biczkes was the gabaj [gabbay, synagogue's manager]. The old Beth Midrash, where Jews of all social strata came to participate in the afternoon and evening services [mincha and maariv] as well as others, like Mitnagdim and Stolin Hasids. It was also the Beth Midrash of preachers. Beth Midrash of carpenters, tailors' synagogue, there was also a synagogue Beth Abraham, and in the so-called New Town a minian gathered. During religious holidays, the Zionists organised a separate minian, where donations for various goals were accepted.

The big synagogue

At the Szkolna street on one side and the Korecka street on the other, a big synagogue with a central bema with a star and moon was shooting up over the other buildings. There was an emud (a lectern) at the eastern wall, at which rabbi Icyk, son of Josel, during the Days of Awe would pray to the Aron Kodesh, where many scrolls of Torah, with silver crowns and golden bells, were placed. The Aron itself was adorned with a red pomegranate fruit. At the entrance there was a crate with candles, and to the right, upstairs there was babiniec [women's annex]. In the big synagogue there were also small separate prayer rooms for carpenters, tailors and shoemakers.  People would pray there on weekdays (the large hall was reserved for the Sabbath service).

Small synagogues include: two rabbinical Beth Midrashes – the older Beth Midrash, where preachers prayed on every Sabbath, and a Beth Abraham synagogue at the Komisarska street.

Major figures in Berezne

Raw Nachum  Ruben Gutman „matef” [speaker], of blessed memory.

It was him that brought the first signs of Haskala [Enlightenment] and Zionism to Berezne. An extraordinary individual with outstanding oratory skills, a broad traditional and modern knowledge, full of faith in his mission. His sermons drew hundreds of worshippers, who sat as though chained to the benches of the old Beth Midrash, during summer and winter Sabbaths alike.

His words rang like a prophecy. Lo, he calls for good deeds. Lo, he discusses ethics, his words full of love, faith, and hope. The clock strikes an hour.

The rabbis' order to close the doors of the synagogues on him was to no avail. Beth Abraham opened up (thanks to his wealthy son-in-law Waks) and lo, the preacher has his own rabbinical lectern. In poverty, he promotes the ideas of Enlightenment and Zionism for the ten years preceding World War II. And so came the tumultuous days of war, while he wandered from place to place like a vagabond.  He spent his final days far from his students and companions, in an unfamiliar place.

[...]

Pinchas Lubliner – he devoted his entire life to Zionist ideas. Even when married, he would abandon all his personal matters and attend meetings. He was active in Gordonia [a Zionist youth organisation, a branch of the Hitachdut party] and in Keren Kajemet leIsrael [Jewish National Fund], he was a member of the tarbut. There was no institution without Pinchas on its board. He outlived Hitler. He was killed only after the liberation of Berezne.

[...]

Herszel Kajler, son of Babel Makwiner, was a prominent figure even at young age. In 1938 he was a vice-mayor. He married a daughter of Klejtesowie. During the war Kajler died in the Kostopol ghetto, where he arrived to meet his brother Szmuel working there.

Motl Szpetrik – he came from the so-called working intelligentsia. Among his friends were the older Fejga Liberzon and [Jankiel] Pinchusowicz, [...] he came to the lead of a small group thanks to his bearing, clear political views, and attitude. Even in gimnazjum [middle\high school] he started his revolutionary work, for which he and his friends were expelled. When the Russians came to town, he was the head of the Health Office, making himself the enemy of Dr. Piwoński, a doctor who showed his true colours during the German occupation.

Szebsel Rachlin – one of the first sports activists in Berezne. With Ber Gandelman, he set up the first football team.

Mosze Waks – one of the Cerei Mizrachi [youth organisation or religious Zionists] in Berezne. He was active in the underground army. He died in a forest from a German bullet.

Blind Rachelka –  a poor women, although not a beggar. There were houses she would visit to eat or drink. In our house there was a day for her to come eat and drink. She especially liked milk with water, and boiling one at that! The water had to be boiling. As a young boy I always stared at her drink this water and wondered why she doesn't burn her tongue.

Jewish gmina in Berezne
Chaim Ureles, Lejzor Szpira, Szmalz-Kelrich, Dodie Hendler, father of Mosze Gendelsman, Awaks senior – these are the names of people running the gmina's affairs. There was also a tax collector, Lejzor Szpira, whom people were calling baal takse.

Chewra kadisza (Funerary Brotherhood)

One of the most noble achievements of Berezne Jews was the chewra kadisza. Almost all important members of the Jewish community were also members of the ch.k. [...] Once a year there was a meeting of all the ch.k. members, when the chairman – during my time it was Icchok Peczenik (Josele) – would report on the annual activities. Then an El mole rachamim [God, full of mercy] would be said and a new board was chosen, the leader of which was the rabbi. After this official part, there was a solemn supper with a glass of vodka, fish, meat, and stewed fruit. [...] The Brotherhood respectfully cared after the dead. [kavod haMet]. They made sure the dead is clothed in his final garments, a beautiful shroud. Paying respects to the dead was a great merit and a mitzvah [fulfilment of a commandment] in all Jewish townships. [...]

In Berezne there was also Linat haCedek [Charity Care]. Helping people in need was always a high priority in our township.

Beth Hakwarot (cemetery) in Berezne

All the matzevas on the cemetery were wooden. Only in the centre there was a brick white ohel for the rabbis. The graves were overgrown and weedy, but with the help of people from the Brotherhood all graves were found and everyone could pray at their relatives' and friends' graves. Out of of the entire cemetery, only one mass grave was left [written at the beginning of the 1950s], where all Berezne Jews, except the few that were saved, found their eternal peace.

Berezne city
Berezne city

Hygiene and health in Berezne
Similarly to all townships in Poland, there was no doctor in Berezne until the beginning of this [the 20th] century. There was a Christian hospital, but no Jewish doctors. As a result, there were many feldshers and "herb grannies" [older village women, someone between a herbalist and a witch doctor]. Padszubski, and two brothers were known in Berezne, but the most popular was Lejchele known as the Medic. He was a feldsher and it was to him that the sick were brought. He practised a cupping therapy, wrote prescriptions and, as people used to mock, would send children to the other side (there weren't many medicines back then). All these people helped as they could.

Eventually, the time of Jewish doctors began also in Berezne, together with that of the Polish doctor Piwoński, who helped the local population. Dr. Piwoński worked with the Germans during the occupation and exhibited hatred towards the Jews to the full extent of the word's meaning.

With more difficult cases, people went to Równe to doctor Segal, who was well known. He was a general practitioner with a lot of experience.

Berezne was a clean town, families cared about the hygiene, children wore clean clothes both during the Sabbath and religious holidays. There was no sewage system in Berezne, nor was there any standing water. Everything was spilled in a way, so that is would soak into the ground. [...] Jews would clean the streets near their own houses, and shopkeepers cleaned around their shops. Berezne was a really clean, well kept town.

When the ghetto was here, it was hard. Hard to keep the hygiene. Lack of space, hunger, and hygienic difficulties took their toll on people. [...]

Fires of Berezne
The entire Berezne was built out of wood. Farmers' roofs were thatched. All it took was a spark and a house would be on fire. The fires were usually a result of mutual antagonisms between farmers. Jewish houses were also thatched, and would instantly catch fire. During the crisis, craftsmen would burn houses to earn money rebuilding them later. That was the case with the 1908 fire, when both craftsmen and merchants made a great deal out of it. Half the town burned down.

Twelve years later there was another fire. [...]

Cultural Life in Berezne

In 1917/1918 Tarbut schools were created, and later kindergartens were organised, too. A group of Zionist activists such as Szmuel Zilbersztejn, Mosze Bulba, Welwl Litwak, Naftali Bejgl, and others founded [in Berezne] a Tarbut school, headed by Sz. Rozenhak. [...] Bencjon Bejgl, one of the teachers, also taught Hebrew in rabbi Eliezer Fajwisz Medwed's cheder. Jakow Ajzman was the best known teacher. He was also an intellectual and a Marxist philosopher, a promoter of Kant's and Hegel's ideas [...]

Even the older residents of Berezne largely knew Hebrew [as a lay language, the language of prayer books or Talmud was widely known among men]. There were also people reading [Hebrew] papers: "HaMelic" [a title meaning a translator and defender both; the second Hebrew weekly paper in the Russian Empire, set up by  A. Zederbaum in 1860], and then "HaCefir" ["Aurora" – the first paper in Hebrew published in Congress Poland since 1862] published in Warsaw. [...] Teachers came to Berezne, but they lived modestly, because they would not get their pension each month – parents had difficulties paying tuition fees. Still, no child was expelled from school. [...]

In Berezne there was, among others, a school named after Perec, where children of the so-called Yiddishists were taught.

Berezne had two athenaeums – one located near the Perec library, the other was founded at the initiative of Naftali Bejgl at the Komisarska street. There were also literary soirées and loud readings [...]

In Berezne two theatrical circles were active – one at the Perec library, the other – Zionist. The two circles would perform for each other or cooperatively stage performances in Yiddish. Some circle members exhibited great dramatic talents, so acting people would come from outside of Berezne and together with local troupes  stage performances, which drew crowds from the entire town.

For a long time, the most popular paper in Berezne was "Moment", promoted by Pini Sznajder and his sister. Of course Zionists tried to import Zionist press – like the newspaper "Hajnt". [...] "Woliner Sztime" was also popular in Berezne and published letters from the town.

Not only the young were culturally active. Berezne's Jews were active also in Chewra Misznajot [Mishnah studies], Chewra Tehilim [Psalm studies] and Chewra Kadisza [...]

Tarbut's library was active here, with books written mainly in Hebrew, but welcoming Yiddish ones as well. [...] The librarians were: Gendler, Szmuel Tojbman of blessed memory, and others. Neither asking anything in return.

Perec library was located in the house of Efraim Litwaka in Pocztowa street. It was a large room, along the walls of which there were spacious cabinets holding books in Yiddish. They contained Jewish classics as well as masterpieces of literature from around the world. Especially the young had drawn knowledge from this source, as it was one of the best stocked libraries in the area. Librarians: [Jankiel] Pinchusowicz and Fejga Liberzon capably helped the readers and knew each of them well. Thanks to their knowledge, they helped to bring up a full generation of readers. The Tarbut library could not compete with the Perec library. [...]

The small Berezne not only had the dynasties of rabbis and dayanim [rabbinical court judge] and Talmudists, but also [...] connoisseurs of literature and scholars of philosophy (although their names are not famous). Apart from Jakow Ajzman (currently Barzilaj) mentioned above, there is also our dearest Arele Peczenik, a reporter from the United States; our respectable Lejbele Tojbman (currently Jonatan), who is active in "Hasziloah" [a Hebrew paper] and previously, occasionally, in "Hacofe" [the first Hebrew paper published in the United States]. There is also Ben Baruch, who used to write for "Woliner Sztime" [...]. And then there was Simcha Kelrich. [...] Our beloved friend Cwi Lubliner, a known activist with the Mapam party [labour party, a successor of the left wing of Poalej Syjon, currently Merec haJachad], he also writes for the party press, as does David Glezer.

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