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.

Artem Gurevich
Mar 9, 2015 · 10 min read

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

from Wikipedia

1. For Litvakes, Brisk was more important than Vilno — that was ‘only’500 years ago!

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.

Brisk was called “Venice of Lithuania” — the old town was located on the Bug river bank.

2. There is a legend about one Brisker who became a ‘King for a day’

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 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.

Brisk / Berascie in XVI century.

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.

The Brest fortress, present day

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.

Pedestrian Savieckaya street in the centre of Brest — most part of the buildings are modern replicas of old houses.
Brest historical museum’s building is an example of typical Polish architecture of the beginning of XX century
More often Brest nowadays looks like this — ugly Soviet architectural legacy, unfortunately very common thing for Belarusian towns

4. The 1st World War ended for Russia in Brest-Litovsk

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.

Choral synagogue, Brest-Litovsk

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.

Brest-Litovsk during German occupation, 1918

5. A Brisker ruled Israel

“British spy” Begin arrested by NKVD in 1940

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…

The house where Menachem Begin was born and raised, was not demolished by Soviets, like many historical buildings in Brest. A memorial plaque commends the 6th Israeli prime-minister in Hebrew and Russian.

6. Synagogue turned into a cinema…

Jews in Brest being deported to a concentration camp, 1942

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…

Cinema “Belarus” stands on the place of the Great Synagogue of Brisk

7. …and Jewish cemetery turned into a soccer-field…

The Brest Litovski Jewish cemetery in the beginning of XX century

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.

Jewish tombstones are found throughout all Brest

8. Historical Jewish district being demolished…

Warburg colony in Brześć Litewski, 1924

The Warburg Colony was established in 1923 in Brześć Litewski for poor Jews who had lost their homes during the war owing to the funds provided by the Joint. The district comprised 12 wooden Zakopane-style houses, each for eight flats. There were also a mikvah, two laundries and a shop.

Warburg colony in Brześć Litewski, 1924

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…

Most part of Warburg’s houses are demolished by now

9. Still there are Jews in Brisk!

Museum “Jews of Brest”

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

YIDDISH STORIES

All about language of Eastern European Jews

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