10 facts you may not know about Brisk and Briskers
This city’s name is tricky— while official one is Brest (with different geographical specifications), Jews always called it Brisk. 500 years ago Brisk was the Jewish capital of Lithuania. Lucky and adventurous Briskers (Jews from Brisk) found favor in eyes of the King of Poland. The 300 years of “Briskere Golden age” came to an end — the further Brisk’s story was a chronicles of decline — and death.
BREST is a city (population 310,800 in 2010) in Belarus at the border with Poland, opposite the Polish city of Terespol, where the Bug River and Mukhavets rivers meet. It is the capital city of the Brest voblast.
Brest became a principal border crossing since World War II in Soviet times. Today it links the European Union and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Because of the break-of-gauge at Brest, where the Russian broad gauge meets the European standard gauge, all passenger trains, coming from Poland, must have their bogies replaced here, to travel on across Belarus
1. For Litvakes, Brisk was more important than Vilno — that was ‘only’500 years ago!
Jews born in Brest were called Briskers — based on Yiddish name of this old European town, Brisk, also known like Berestya or Bierascie, then Brześć (Brześć Litewski) in Polish language, Lietuvos Brasta in Lithuanian, Brest-on-the-Bug in Poland or Brest-Litovsk in Russian empire. Briskers were proud of their native town’s name not less than Vilners — citizens of Vilno, now Vilnius, well-acknowledged center of Jewish scholarship in the Baltic region. However, Vilno has become a “Jerusalem d’Lite” only in XVII century. But much earlier, during for more than 300 years, Brisk — widely known as “Brisk d’Lite” — was the major and most important trade, commercial and religious center of Lite, Lithuanian Yiddishkayt.
Actually, the city was founded by the Slavic tribes. Berestye was first mentioned in the Primary Chronicle in 1019, when the Kievan Rus took the stronghold from the Poles. In 1388 the Grand Duke Vitold granted the charter to the Jews of Brest. Later it was extended to the other Jewish communities of Lithuania and Volhynia. Brest-Litovsk soon became the center of trade and commerce, as well as of rabbinical learning, and the seat of the Va’ad of Lithuania and Volhynia.
Jews from Brest were managing almost all major commercial and financial operation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania under the king Casimir IV Jagiełło (1447–1492) — they were in charge of custom duties and tax collection throughout the country.
2. There is a legend about one Brisker who became a ‘King for a day’
Legend has it, that one of the Briskers has managed to become the Polish king — though, for one night only. According to this story, rich Brisker Saul Judich Wahl was elected the King of Poland for a one night after the King Stephen Bathory death in 1589.
Actually, Wahl was a real person: he lived in Brześć Litewski during the times of the King Sigismund III, who liked him and conferred a title of the Royal Servant upon Wahl in 1589, as well as chartered Lithuanian Jews with several privileges, upon a petition of Wahl. The most important was the achievement of maximal juridical independence for the Qahal of Brisk: all internal Jewish disputes were reviewed only by the Rabbinical court, ‘bet-din”.
Saul Wahl has built a synagogue in Brisk, and there was a memorial sign inside of it, saying:
“Saul Judich, having authority, has built this synagogue in memory of his wife Dvora”.
Perhaps, that sign could be the source of those controversial rumors. Polish historian J. Karo admitted the possibility that “drunk Polish nobilities could reign rich and respected Wahl as the Polish king for one night — just for fun!”
3. We will never see the “real old” Brisk :-(
In fact, modern Brest has nothing to do with the historical Brisk-Brześć-Bierascie, one of the most important centers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This is related to the decline of Brisk that started after 1654. One of the main reasons was the fall of the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom after several conflicts with Moscovia. Frequent fires, wars, and the plunder of the armies utterly destroyed the city. With the second partition of Poland, Brest, which had been rebuilt, came into the possession of Russia, and in 1796 was made a district town of the government of Slonim.
In 1802 and 1828 wooden buildings of the Jewish district were burned down again and again, and in 1832 the Brest fortress construction was started. As a result, the ancient Jewish cemetery and synagogue, as well as many other historically important for Jews buildings in Brisk were demolished.
In fact, during 1830–1835 the city was rebuilt from scratch — a “new” Brest was built east from the historical town of Berascie. And what’s happened with the old Brisk? Beautiful city, full of fabulous churches, mostly in Baroque architecture, monasteries, synagogues, the Castle and the Town Hall — was totally destroyed by new Russian authorities for the sake of the fortress building.
However, even that Russian-Polish town, built in XIX century, was relentlessly demolished by the Soviets after 1940, when Brest, as well as all the territory of Western Belarus was annexed by Stalin’s USSR. Modern “old town” of Brest is basically just a few blocks consisting of quite ordinary architecture of XIX century, that was not preserved properly. Perhaps the most interesting buildings are dated 1920–1930 years, when Brest was part of inter-war Poland.
4. The 1st World War ended for Russia in Brest-Litovsk
The XIX century didn’t bring any relief to Briskers. Strong competitor, Vilno, was stealing superiority in all areas where Brisk once was unbeaten: theology, religious authorities, commerce and schools. New Jerusalem d’Lite was Vilno — unfortunately for Brisk.
But Jews have not gone. By 1900, more than 20 thousand Jews were living in Brisk (about 60% of all population). In 1910 there were more than 30 synagogues functioning, including Chassidic ones. More than 1000 Jewish kids were studying in the major heder, Talmud Torah.
In 1918 Brest-Litovsk has gone down in history as the place, where the First World War finished for Soviet Russia and Germany. According to the terms of the “Treaty of Brest-Litovsk”, a vast areas of the former Russian Empire, covering almost all territory of Belarus and Baltic states, were ceded to Germany. After the series of new conflicts, Brest-Litovsk was ceded to Poland, and got new name — Brześć nad Bugiem.
5. A Brisker ruled Israel
During 1920–1930s, Brest was a provincial Polish town — boring and even depressive one. Young Jews were escaping Brisk for bigger cities, where they had more chances to make the grade. One of the most famous Briskers, future Prime Minister of Israel, founder of Likud party Menachem Begin, who was born in Brest-Litovsk in 1913, also decided to leave the town. He went to Warsaw, where was developing Zionist movement, calling Jews to go to Palestine. In September 1939, after Germany invaded Poland, Begin escaped to Vilno to avoid inevitable arrest.
However, the town was soon occupied by the Soviet Union. As a prominent Zionist, on 20 September 1940, Begin was arrested by the NKVD and detained in the Lukiškės Prison. He was accused of being an “agent of British imperialism” (standard formulation for USSR of those years) and sentenced to eight years in the Soviet gulag camps. But Begin was a really lucky man: in July 1941, just after Germany attacked the Soviet Union, he was released from the camp under the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement. In 1942 Begin joined the Polish Anders’ Army as a corporal officer cadet and sent with the army to Palestine. But this is another story…
6. Synagogue turned into a cinema…
Brest was the first Soviet city that was exposed the invasion of German army in June 1941: the Brest Fortress became for Soviet people a byword of patriotism, fortitude and high spirit (all defenders of the fortress were killed during the first days of war).
Nazi entered Brisk on the first day of the war, June 22, 1941, and of course nobody has managed to evacuate. Already in 2 weeks, all Jews were obliged to wear on back and chest yellow signs, “laty”. There were 2 ghettos in Brest — “big” and “small”, they were divided by the turnpike Moscow — Warsaw. 26 thousand of Jews were forced to move in there, and 34 thousand were killed during 1941–42— including people from suburbs and shteytels located near Brisk. Only 19 Briskers have survived the Shoah…
The main entrance to the ghetto was organized at the Great Choral Synagogue, Di Groyseh Shul. Polizais (local castigators, collaborated with Nazi) turned the beautiful synagogue into the warehouse, where they kept goods they confiscated from Jews.
But the worst thing for the synagogue happened after the war. In 1959 Shul’s original six-sided stone was enclosed by a circle glass construction to hide its original form and turned into a cinema called “Oktiabr” (rus. “October”; currently is called “Belarus”). Hebraic writing is preserved in a room on the ground floor, which is converted into a toilet…
7. …and Jewish cemetery turned into a soccer-field…
Another sorrowful episode from Briskers history in XX century is related to the old Jewish cemetery, one of the biggest in Belarus: more than 10,700 grave markers were registered there by 1941.
It was totally destroyed by the German Army and Nazis in 1941–42. Nothing was spared.
In 1959 the Soviets dismantled the Jewish cemetery and turned it into a sports stadium. As the dismantling process got underway, Communist Party members, along with enterprising locals, recognized the high quality of the headstones and “recycled them.” As well as in the foundations of houses, these Jewish graves have since been discovered in the makeup of Brest’s road surfaces, pavements, and gardens. Technically, the modern “soviet” Brest was built out the Jewish tombstones.
8. Historical Jewish district being demolished…
Another sad story of Jewish Brisk
In 1941 all Jews who lived in the Colony were displaced to the ghetto. The colony was converted into the camp for Soviet prisoners. In 1944, when the town was seized by the Red Army, German and Italian war-prisoners were imprisoned in the camp. In the beginning of 1950s, the colony buildings were turned into living complex again.
People lived there till 2010, when Brest municipality ordered all Colony residents to be rehoused. The abandoned buildings quickly went to rack and ruin. A few houses were torched down. Another memory of Jewish Brisk, a really unique project by European standards, is fading away…
9. Still there are Jews in Brisk!
Yes, after all those horrible stories, it sounds almost unbelievable, but there is an active Jewish community in modern Brest. Moreover, there are even several Jewish communities in the town: secular “Brisk”, orthodox Litvish and Chassidic communities, as well as Brest subdivision of Belarusian Jewish Union of Holocaust victims. In 2011 museum “Jews of Brest” was opened there, the memorial of Brest ghetto was also opened in 2011.
According to the 2010 census, currently more than 1000 Jews live in Brest — and they proudly wearing famous name of Briskers.
10. “Brest-Litovsk” is… yummy
Amusingly, the name of Brest-Litovsk is still a buzz word in Belarus. One of the most popular dairy and fermented milk brands, produced by “Savushkin Product” company, called “Brest-Litovsk”. Their sour cream, cheese, kefir and ryazhenka are really tasty — and all of those products are made in Brisk!