Jewish Life in Brzostek
A memorial for murdered Jews who went on Kiddush Hashem
Remember . . .don't forget
I wish to leave behind a memorial for murdered Jews who went on Kiddush hashem in the years 1939-45 at the hand of the Hitlerite-Germans
Brzostek, a village in Poland in the Carpathian Mountains in the jurisdiction of Jaslo. There were 30-40 families altogether living in the village – altogether less than 250 individuals.
The life and occupation of the Jews
40% were small businessmen, 20% artisans, 10% merchants who traveled from market to market and some 30% were farmers who worked their own land. On the whole, lifewas very hard. Only a small number of Jews managed to make a livelihood. The rest lived from day to day. Around Brzostek there were small villages and in each village there lived a few Jewish families. The greatest proportion of Jews lived from farming.
The social and cultural life in Brzostek
The old wooden synagogue burned down during World War I in 1914. The Jews from Brzostek who had emigrated to America sent money in order to build a mikve and a brick synagogue that is still standing. Today the Synagogue building houses an agricultural institute. In the pre-second world war days, there were a number of organizations in Brzostek on both the political Zionist right and left. There was even an illegal communist cell. Its leaders were two brothers who were the grandsons of the local dayan (religious judge knowledgeable in Halachic Jewish law), whose name was Bronstein. They had both been in Russia and returned. There was a Yiddish library and books in three languages. My sister Hannah (may she rest in peace) was its secretary. There were a few Yeshiva boys who studied with the Rabbi. They were from the Agudas Yisrael organization. There were a few talmidei hachamim (wise students); a tehillim society (for saying psalms); a bunch of layabouts, some ignoramuses; a gemilut hassadim (charitable society) for helping needy Jews; a women's organization; taharat hamishpacha (family purity) to help the sick, bring them food and be with them at night. My mother, Hinde bas Yitzhak (may she rest in peace) was the leader of Hevra Kadisha (burial society). The responsibility for each Jew to one another was very great.
Jewish boys of 20 years old went into the Polish army. The writer of this autobiography was also in the army. There was an amateur theater circle with Bernard Reich as its director. He was nicknamed Beshua and had been in Russia and returned. His wife, Michal, and a daughter survived the war in Germany, by using Polish Aryan documents. The actors' troupe traveled around the small neighboring towns of Pilzno, Jodlowa, Kolaczyce and Frysztak and performed Shalom Aleichem's works. Among the actors was a girl named Mindl Kaufman who was a true beauty and a talented singer and dancer. Sadly she perished in Kiddush hashem. Her brother, Asher, fell in the forest in a battle against Nazi bands on 6th December 1944 a battle in which I too took part in.
The Jews of Brzostek had a Talmud torah (Hebrew school) of two classes. A dardekei melamed (basic teacher) taught children between the ages of three and seven. He taught them starting from aleph-bet (Hebrew alphabet) and through humash (the Pentateuch) and Rashi (a 12th century commentator on Jewish holy books who lived in France). He also taught them Yiddish reading and writing. He taught boys and girls together. The gemara melamed (Talmud teacher) taught mishna and gemara with tosafot (additional commentary). The teachers came from outside Brzostek and "ate days" (a system of eating at different homes on different days of the week) at various homes. The congregation paid for the education of children from poor families. Every evening a group learnt daf yomi (a page of the Talmud designated for that day's study). My father, Mendel Schuss (may he rest in peace) led this group in their learning
Life with the local Christian Polish population
I can only write about what I experienced and saw until the age of 13.
In Brzostek daily life the village people were very liberal towards Jews, because they needed one another. There were no anti-semitic disturbances. However, the Church, the priest and a small group of Poles were anti-semitically inclined. They had an organization called Endecja. In Brzostek there was a priest called Proboszcz, 100 years old who was very friendly to Jews and helped poor Jews. But another priest, Stepien was a Jew hater. I personally saw this because we lived next-door to the church.
The Jewish children went to school together with the Polish children. There, there were two anti-semitically inclined teachers. I remember in 7thgrade, Jewish boys were locked out of school. There were three Jewish boys- the writer amongst them.
The principal of the school, Tracilowski, was an anti-semite. I had some good friends among the Polish boys. One got used to life. We went swimming together in the Wisloka river, played together and went to the army together.
There was a rabbi in Brzostek by the name of Wolkenfeld, he had 10 children. He was a great pauper. He lived from the produce that Jewish landowners sent him and a little from the proceeds of shechita (ritual slaughter of kosher animals). Only one son, Meir remained alive from this large family. After the war he returned to Russia. In 1943 the Rabbi (may he rest in peace) and another thirteen Jews from Brzostek were shot in the village of Strzegocice by the Jaslo Gestapo. They remain buried until today in that village.
There were two ritual slaughterers in Brzostek, neither could make a living and both subsisted on what relatives sent them from America.
Ten Brzostek girls managed to survive the war in Germany on Aryan papers. And also a Jewish boy managed to survive, who worked in Germany on Polish papers.
The Liquidation of Brzostek Jews
When the Germans entered Brzostek in 1939 they passed strenuous laws. You were not allowed to wander among the surrounding villages. The Star of David had to be worn. People between the ages of 13 and 60 were taken away for hard labor. People died of hunger. In 1942 all the young people were taken to Pustkow, a liquidation cap in Debica. Everyone perished in that camp, including my brother Joseph (Yossel). Many young boys escaped into the forests. The local Polish people were equally guilty and helped the Germans to liquidate the Jews of Brzostek. Howevr, there were a small number of Poles who risked their lives to save Jews. Many of those Poles were shot by the Germans.
I survived the war because of the help I received from these few Poles. Those years were cursed by "plagues that were not described in the Bible".
Of the Brzostek Jews only 65 survived after the war. The greatest number returned from Russia. Many died in Siberia from hard labor. A few fell in battle against the Germans while in the Polish army in Russia – Armia Kosciuszkowka.
This in short, was the life of Jews in that part of Poland tucked away in the Carpathian mountains where they had lived for hundreds of years together with the Poles, and were destroyed by the Germans in the years 1939-1945.
In the winter of 1940 a few Jewish exiles arrived in Brzostek from Lodz, without anything and with small children. The man who helped them was called Fishel Goldman, an intellectual. The Germans demanded from him more and more until he was unable any longer. He committed suicide in 1941. The leader of the community, Israel Schonwetter, was taken by the Gestapo to Jaslo where he perished a horrible death. His wife Sarah and two children survived, thanks to some Poles. I have to remember one more Jew. His name was Herschel Schperber. He was a butcher and a great machnis oreach (hospitable person) All good deeds he did quietly and with a smile. He had ten children, only one son managed to survive and now lives in Israel.
The small village of Brzostek was a world unto itself. The Jews lived together in sorrow and in joy. They did not permit another Jew to die of hunger. So lived the Jews of Brzostek until 1939. They tragically perished by the hands of German murderers and their helpers during 1939-1945
May their souls be bound in the bond of everlasting life
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