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Brzeznica, Poland


This page is dedicated to the memory of my grandparents Szmul Yakob and Krajndl, my uncles Icyk, Fajwel and Nachma and my aunt Zelda (the Berkiensztat Family) of Brzeznica, who perished at the hands of the Nazis.


A special thank you to Aliza Besser (formerly known as Frymet Lipszyc), Daniel Rudnitsky and Sol Flatowicz. all former residents of Brzeznica, who graciously and generously shared their memories of their birthplace.

Other Names

Pronunciation

According to the book "Where Once We Walked: A Guide to Jewish Communities Destroyed in the Holocaust" by Gary Mokotoff and Sallyann Amdur Sack, Brzeznica is pronounced either Berzhnitse or Bzhezhnitsa.

Location

Brzeznica is located at 51° 26' /18° 43' along the Fisha River, a tributary of the Warta River, in the province of Lodz, 181 kilometers WSW of Warsaw, 32 kilometers NNE of Czestochowa and 20 kilometers E of Radomsko.

Map
Current map indicating the location of  Brzeznica can be viewed at Google Maps

Population

Based on information from "Pinkas Hakehillot: Encyclopaedia of Jewish Communities, POLAND," there were ten Jews living in Brzeznica as early as 1793. By 1808, there were 32 Jews. In 1827 the number of Jews reached 172, in 1857 there were 299 Jews, and in 1921 the Jewish population of Brzeznica numbered 406 out of a total population of 1,899. At the start of the Second World War there were about 150 Jewish families, comprising 60 percent of the total population. Today the population of Brzeznica is less than one thousand and there are no Jews.
 

History
 

Brzeznica was a town with many white birches, known in Polish as 'brzozy.' The village takes its name from these 'brzozy.'

Brzeznica was established as a royal possession in 1287, and, in 1718, was presented by the king to the Pauline Monastery in Czestochowa which was reportedly not happy with the arrival of Jews. In fact, Jews were not allowed to live in the town until the secularization of the royal possessions during the second division of Poland in 1793, when Brzeznica found itself ruled by Prussia. A Jewish community committee, which included representatives of Jews in several neighboring villages, was in existence in Brzeznica by the year 1825. At that time, the shtetl had two synagogues, a house of study and a cemetery.

A former resident described the  First World War as it affected Brzeznica from his perspective as a young child: "The government kept changing. The Germans came in and chased out the Russians. Then the Russians came back. In school we started learning Russian. Then the Russians were chased out and we started learning Polish. And then for a while the Germans came back and then the war was over."

A resident living in Brzeznica before the start of the Second World War described Brzeznica as "...a nice small Jewish town where every Jew knew everyone else. The town had one synagogue, one police station, one court and one post office."

Economic Life

Most of the Jews and their businesses were located in the center of the town, with the majority of the rest of the population living in the outskirts. Business life in Brzeznica was dominated by Jews. Every two weeks there was a market in the center of the town. Residents of the surrounding towns and villages, Jews and Poles, came to stock up on supplies. A Pole who remembered life in pre-WW II Brzeznica said that all but two of the small shops had been owned by Jews and Brzeznica had been a thriving town. Grain and cattle were traded. He added that after the war, and the destruction of the Jewish community, economic activity was very limited. Today there is no sign of commercial activity in what was the business center of the town in the 1930's.

Nazwy Dyreksyj Okregow Poczt i Telgrfow Podane Zostaly w Skrotach, a telephone directory of the area published in the 1930's, records only two telephones in Brzeznica. One belonged to the Policja; the other phone was in private hands.

Daily Shtetl Life (drawn from descriptions by former residents)

The walls of the houses in Brzeznica were mostly white-washed. The floors were made of either  wood or clay. Wooden shavings were put down on all of the floors. After a few days, they were swept out and replaced by new shavings. The windows had curtains.

The streets were made of cobblestones, with some streets bordered with sidewalks and others not. A curb ran in front of the houses. This is where the water ran off. The local authorities strictly enforced a requirement that the curb be painted. On Mondays after market day, the areas in front of the houses had to be cleaned.

Most houses had shutters inside the windows. They were kept hooked shut during the winter for insulation against the cold. A few houses had electricity; those houses that did not, used kerosene lamps for light. During cold weather the houses were heated with turf, which farmers would bring for sale in their wagons.

The town was centered around the square where the twice monthly market was held. There was a water pump in the center of the square.Town residents came to the pump to get water for drinking and cooking, because there was no running water or plumbing in the houses. During the winter, the pump sometimes froze, so straw was  packed around the pump to keep it from freezing and to keep the water flowing. If it became cold enough so that the straw could not keep it from freezing, the straw would be set on fire to thaw the pump. During the winter, water could also be drawn from the river that flowed through Brzeznica. No cows or horses used the river in the cold weather, so the water remained clean enough for human consumption.
 

Holocaust

When the Nazis came to power in Germany, German anti-Semitism spilled over into Poland and increased in Brzeznica. There were riots in 1937 and Jews were beaten and had their goods stolen at one of the markets held in the town marketplace. Pickets appeared in front of Jewish stalls and Jewish shops. There were suspicious fires from time to time, and the windows in Jewish homes and shops were broken.

On September 2, 1939, the day after Germany invaded Poland, starting the Second World War, German troops burned the market and set fire to Jewish streets.  German aircraft bombed Brzeznica on Friday, September 1st, after the war started. A survivor remembered:  "No one knew that the war had begun. Saturday, September 2nd, the Germans came to Brzeznica and arrested all of the men and took them to the church. On Sunday, September 3rd, the Germans told them to run and they fired on the fleeing men." Those who died included Aron Kokocinski, Josel Sieradski, Avrum Ajzner, Israel Lasker, Avrum Lasker, Godel Rozen, Jakob-Hirsz Rozen, Yechiel Rudnitski and Berl Rudnitski.

German authorities changed the name of the town to Berenthal and annexed it to the Third Reich. During Passover of 1942,  most of the Jews still in Brzeznica were transferred to the Pajeczno ghetto. A Jewish presence in Brzeznica ceased to exist in August of 1942, when the last Jews remaining, women who had remained as 'forced domestics,' were deported to unknown areas. The local Polish population then looted the properties left by the Jews.

As soon as the Nazis arrived in Brzeznica, they used the Jewish population for forced labor. The Jewish area had been heavily bombed and those houses still standing housed many families, as in a ghetto.

In the section on Brzeznica that appears in Memorial Book of the Community of Radomsk and Vicinity, a survivor describes the reaction of her Polish neighbors to the expulsion of Brzeznica's Jews this way: 'I remained as the last Jewish woman in Brzeznica in the month of Nisan (April) 1942....I shall never forgive our Polish neighbors, with whom we lived, played, and studied in school. They stood in the streets, watching our suffering [as we saw our mothers, women and children for the last time], as if it were a festival ceremony. Clapping and laughing, they watched this tragic expulsion of our parents and children, as our women and children were being sent to their death.' (Translated by David Goldman.)
 
 

Synagogue
 

The building now housing the apotek or pharmacy (at left) was the Brzeznica synagogue up until the start of the Second World War. Arriving in Brzeznica from the nearby city of Radomsk, a visitor would see the synagogue on the edge of the small town on the right side of the road immediately, after crossing a small bridge. The synagogue, situated on about ten or fifteen acres of land, was a large brick building. It was located near a stream running through the town. On the first floor, the men's section could hold about five hundred people. The women sat in the balcony. Attached to the synagogue was a Bet Midrash, or House of Study, which could accomodate one hundred men, and that is where the Hasidim prayed. There were trees on the synagogue land near the river where the Jews of Brzeznica went to cut branches to build the sukkahs for Sukkoth.

The last rabbi of Brzeznica's synagogue was Yechiel Urbach. He succeeded his father-in-law,  Rabbi Yisrael Lasker, who had been Brzeznica's rabbi during the 1920's.

Photograph taken July 1997
©  1999 Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The Jewish children of Brzeznica played in a yard next to the synagogue because it was considered a ‘Yiddisher territoria,'  and the area provided safety from anti-Semitic attacks.
 
 
 

Cemetery

The cemetery dates from 1850 and is located about two and a half to three miles south of Brzeznica, on the road to Czestochowa,  in a wooded and forested area with no marker indicating its location or existence. There is a broken masonry wall but there is no gate. There are few standing headstones.

Pictures

 
From right to left: Tema Gliksman Berkiensztat, her husband Mordka Berkiensztat and his sister Zelda.

This photograph (©  1999 Gloria Berkenstat Freund) was taken in the summer of 1938 and shows the road running through Brzeznica with some of the then existing buildings. Just over a year later, in September 1939, German aircraft bombed Brzeznica and many of the buildings shown were destroyed.

 


 
 
 
©  1999 Gloria Berkenstat Freund
This 1938 photograph of a building located at the corner of  Kosciuszko and Zabia Streets in (Nowa) Brzeznica was the home and bakery of the Berkiensztat family. The one-story section of the building housed the bakery. The two-story section was the family home. The bakery provided challah, bread and rolls to the residents of Brzeznica and the nearby smaller towns and villages.

©  1999 Gloria Berkenstat Freund

 

This is the abandoned bakery owned by Stanislaw Bednarski as it looked in July, 1997. A Catholic Pole, Bednarski provided work for 
the Berkiensztat brothers after the Berkiensztat bakery was bombed during the first days of the Second World War.

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