Berezne - guidebook
Ukr. Березне, Yid. בערעזנע
The city by the Horyn River
The first written mention of this settlement dates from 1445, when Grand Duke Švitrigaila (Svidrigailo) presented it to Dymitr Sanguszko. The County of Berezne is mentioned in documents from 1552 – at that time, the town was an administrative centre. It used to be called Jędrzejów, Bereżenka, or Bereżne (Berezhne), but in the 19th century the name Bereźne (Ukr. Berezne) finally became formalized.
The Jews of Berezne
The first Jewish community in Berezne dates back to the second half of the 17th century. There were 48 Jewish houses in the town in 1764, 29 in 1784, and 37 in 1787. Still, it was a small community: its first kahal, umbrella communal organization, was established in the 18th century. It maintained synagogues, educational institutions, a cemetery, the Linat Ha-tsedek Society (Heb.: A Nightly Shelter for the Righteous), and a hekdesh for the almsseekers.
At the beginning of the 20th century, 70 percent of the town residents were Jews. According to data from 1927, Jews made up 93 percent of the 2,900 town dwellers in Berezne (this does not include those residents who owned plots of land). There were also Ukrainians (1.3 percent), Poles (4.3 percent), and Czechs (0.6 percent). In 1928, 17 out of 21 members of Berezne town council were Jewish.
At the beginning of the 19th century, a local landowner invited Rabbi Yechiel Michele Pechenik (d. 1849) from Pinsk to Berezne. As the legend has it, the local town-owner was jealous of Stolin, a town in Belorussia (today Belarus) that had developed thanks to a tsadik who settled there and his followers, the Hasidim who continually came to town as pilgrims. The town-owner gave Pechenik a slot of land and helped him to build a house, hoping that the famous rabbi would attract Jews to Berezne and that this would bolster the town’s economic development. This happened indeed, and the Pechenik family established here a new Hasidic dynasty, stayed in Berezne from that time onward, and contributed to further economic development.
The Jewish quarter
In Berezne, the typical shtetl architecture has survived in relatively good condition: the town center still has wooden and brick houses with wooden porches. The front part of the houses served as stores or workshops, whose clients could enter from the street. When the children of a Jewish family married, new rooms were built as an addendum to the house. A characteristic feature of the houses in Berezne was their high hip roofs, almost as high as the buildings themselves.
In the 1930s, most Jews lived in several streets of the town adjacent to the marketplace, including 11 Listopada, Zamkowa, Kopernika, 3 Maja, Korzeniewskiego, Pocztowa, Joselewicza, and Kilińskiego, forming a Jewish district associated after the war with the spatial memory of the shtetl.
The 1922 map of the town indicated Szkolna Street, a small lane forming part of what is now Bukhovycha Street, running perpendicularly to the central Komisarska Street (now Andriyivska St.) as far as Lipki Street (now Kyivska St.). On this street, there were two synagogues and the rabbi’s house in the 1920s–1930s.
On 11 Listopada Street (currently Nazaruka St.), in 1934, there was a pharmacy and many craft shops. In 3 Maja Street (now Andriyivska St.), there were buildings housing a club and a reading room. There was also a mill here, owned by one of the Jewish families (a building that today houses a music school).
In the market square, there were small stores run by the Berezne Jews. In total, about 90 stores functioned in the town. Regular market fairs also played an important role in the town’s commercial life.
The Great Synagogue was built in 1910, on the basis of a square-shaped foundation with sides measuring 9 × 12 m. It had separate small rooms in which carpenters, tailors, and shoemakers had their separate prayer quorums and prayed on weekdays; the main sanctuary was used for services on Sabbath and holidays.
After World War I, the building housed the Registry Office. Located at 3 Bukhovycha St., it has been completely rebuilt and is hardly recognizable.
Educational and cultural facilities
In 1917, a Tarbut school was founded in Berezne, with instruction in Hebrew. The best-known teacher at the school was Yakov Ayzman, who used Hebrew to inspire his students with Zionist ideas. There was also a secular I.L. Peretz School in town, with Yiddish as the language of instruction.
There was also the Peretz Library on Pocztowa Street and a Zionist library on Komisarska Street. In both of them, one could obtain the current newspapers suchas as Der Moment (Yid.: The [Present] Moment) and Voliner Shtime (Yid.: The Voice of Volhynia). The town also boasted a drama group that gave performances in the “Ogniwo” club, located on Komisarska St. (the building has survived to this day).
Jewish cemeteries were located in the northwestern part of the town, on the banks of the river. The old cemetery was situated on the eastern side of the river, and the new one, established in the 19th century, was on the western side, next to the Catholic cemetery. According to witnesses, all matzevot at this cemetery were wooden, and only the central ohel over the graves of the famous rabbis was made of brick. In the 1960s, the Soviet authorities established a new park with an artificial lake, thus, the cemeteries were flooded and destroyed.
World War II and the Holocaust
In September 1939, the Red Army entered Berezne and established the Soviet rule which lasted for a year and a half. In June 1941, the Germans arrived and established a ghetto in the centre of the town (the area is now occupied by a marketplace and a secondary school with a boarding house). More than 3,000 Jews were confined there. On August 25, 1942, all the inhabitants of the ghetto were led out of the town, forced to dig a grave, and murdered by the Einsatzgruppe soldiers.
The local residents remember Doctor Lerner, who used to live with his family in a house on the hospital premises on Piłsudskiego Street (now Kyivska St.). To avoid the ghetto confinement in August 1942, he administered a lethal dose of morphine to his wife and little son, and then to himself. All three of them were buried in the garden next to the hospital.
Few people managed to escape from the ghetto. The fugitives remained in hiding in the woods until the arrival of the Red Army. Seeking to save their lives, they forged identity documents or baptism certificates, and some joined Soviet partisan units.
The grave in the Dendropark
Towards the end of the 1960s, at the place of the Berezne mass executions, they found exhumed human remains – the result of the sinister activities of grave robbers looking for valuables. Later, a dendropark (Arboretum, a kind of the botany garden with a variety of trees) was established in this area, which to some extent, protected the site and put an end to the practice of digging up graves. In the late 1980s, a memorial plaque commemorating the victims was established.
The story of the survival of Rejzele Scheinbein and her family
I had a cousin Beniamin, who was a year older than me, and he was there [in the ghetto]. He was very clever; he would go up and down the streets and see what was going on. He came back to the house and he says to his mother and my mother, and to his sister: “We’re getting out of here!” He could see that something was underway – one could see the preparations. So, how do you get out of the ghetto as a Jew? My mother and my aunt put kerchiefs on their heads to look like peasant women [...]. And they ran into the forest [...], because they knew that in the forest they were safer. [...]
We went earlier into the forest too – my uncle, my father, and me. And we thought that the others were all killed [...]. My uncle picked ten trees to represent a minyan [Jewish payer quorum]; he put on the tallit [...] and he said kaddish for his family, as we thought they were probably dead by now. [...] And then we heard that my mother and my aunt survived and were hiding somewhere. So we had a reunion in the forest – a very happy reunion. [...] And all this because my cousin, who was only a year older than me, and who had enough sense and enough presence of mind to say: “We’re getting out!”
Author: Natalia Trochliuk
National Dendrological Park: in the park there is a place of executions and burials of the Jews of Berezne murdered in 1942; memorial plaque in 2 languages (Ukrainian and Hebrew)
National Museum of Local History: building from 1901–1905; in the 1940s and 1950s, in the basement of this building the NKVD had its place of torture, Kyjivska 8
Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas (1845)
In the vicinity
Mokvyn (3 km): former Church (19th century)
Zirne (6 km): the Malinsky Palace (19th century)
Sosnove (28 km): Jewish cemetery; site of the execution of approx. 3 thousand Jews (1942)
Hubkov (30 km): ruins of a medieval castle (16th century)
Marynin (34 km): open-air museum; wooden Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration (1801)
Sarny (58 km): monument at the site of the execution of 15 thousand Jews (1942)
Rokitno (75 km): Jewish cemetery (19th century)
Regional Landscape Park "Nadsluchansky" (28 km)