(also Brest Litovsk; Pol., Brześć nad Bugiem; Yid., Brisk or Brisk de-Lita [Brisk of Lithuania]), city now in Belarus. Located at the confluence of the Bug and Mukhavets Rivers, Brest was a district capital and a large commercial center. Jews settled in Brest at the beginning of the fourteenth century. In 1388, they received a privilegium (charter) from Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas. It repeated the terms of the Charter of Bolesław, granted to Jews in Poland a century earlier, and assured Jews of occupational freedom and communal autonomy, as well as security of life, limb, and property.
Expelled from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1495, Jews were allowed to return in 1503. In the sixteenth century, Jews owned about 16 percent of the land in Brest, and many were involved in importing and exporting goods from Poland–Lithuania to Central Europe. Among the prominent figures in the Jewish community of Brest in this period were Mikhael Jozefowicz, who was appointed by the grand duke to collect the Jewish taxes, and Sha’ul Wahl, a wealthy merchant, lessee, and shtadlan for the Jewish community, who according to Jewish legend served as king of Poland for a day.
From the beginning of the seventeenth century, the situation of Brest’s Jews began to deteriorate. Thus, 1629 witnessed a blood libel case; in 1637, there were cases of Jewish property being pillaged and plundered; 1644 was a year of anti-Jewish riots; in 1648, Jews were massacred during the Khmel’nyts’kyi uprising; and in 1663, Brest once again experienced a blood libel case and more anti-Jewish riots.
In 1655, the Jews of Brest received a privilege from Polish King Jan Kazimierz, and in 1669, a charter of privileges from King Michał Wiśniowiecki expanded the fields of economic activity permitted to Jews and also made them equal to the Christian population in all matters of taxation. About 500 Jews lived in the town during this period. Their numbers increased as the economic and political situation improved, reaching about 3,000 persons in the mid-eighteenth century.
With the second partition of Poland in 1793, Brest fell under the authority of the Russian Empire. During this period, the town’s Jewish population continued to grow, receiving an important boost with the opening of the Bug–Dnieper Canal, and another when the town became a railroad junction for lines running to Warsaw, Kiev, and Moscow. Thus the Jewish population of Brest numbered more than 8,000 in 1847; rising to 25,000 in 1886; and totaling more than 30,000 in 1897 (about two-thirds of the population). Jews earned their living from commerce (both local and international), agriculture, land leasing, and tax collecting.
View of "Honey Street," Brest (then Brześć nad Bugiem, Pol.; now in Bel.). (YIVO)
least until the end of the seventeenth century, the Jewish community of Brest was the most important in Lithuania, which found expression, among other things, in the fact that in 1567 the share of taxes paid by Jews of Brest amounted to about half the total paid by all the Jews of Lithuania. Brest was one of the three principal communities of the Lithuanian va‘ad (council). Indeed, many of the va‘ad’s meetings were held in Brest. In addition, the regulations of the Brest Jewish community served as models for some of the va‘ad’s regulations.
Brest was one of the first communities to whom the leaders of the Vilna Jewish community turned in 1772 with a request to join the ḥerem (ban of excommunication) placed on Hasidim. The rabbi of Brest, Avraham Katzenellenbogen, became a leading anti-Hasidic figure. Beginning in the summer of 1781, he participated in a bitter public debate with Levi Yitsḥak of Barditshev. Because it met such strong opposition there, the Hasidic movement penetrated Brest slowly and rather late.
Apart from its economic and political importance, the Brest Jewish community was also an important center of Jewish culture in Lithuania, famed for its Torah learning. The town’s first yeshiva was founded as early as the sixteenth century, and the community’s rabbis were for generations counted among the most prominent figures in the rabbinical world. Some of the best known were Shelomoh Luria (Maharshal) in the sixteenth century; Yo’el Sirkes (Baḥ) in the seventeenth century; Avraham Katzenellenbogen in the eighteenth century; followed in the nineteenth century by a veritable galaxy of outstanding scholars, including Aryeh Leib Katzenellenbogen, Ya‘akov Me’ir Padua (1840–1856), Yehoshu‘a Leib Diskin (1874–1877), Yosef Ber Soloveichik (1878–1892), Ḥayim Soloveichik (1892–1918), and Yitsḥak Ze'ev Soloveichik (1918–1941). [See Soloveichik Family.]
Great Synagogue, Brest (then Brześć nad Bugiem, Pol.), ca. 1925. (YIVO)
At the same time, a circle of maskilim also developed in Brest, clustered chiefly around the families of Yehudah Epshtein, Yehudah Rozental, and Gershon Shteinberg. These maskilim undertook the establishment of a Haskalah-oriented educational system, as well as a public library (1865). By the end of the nineteenth century, four Jewish schools—two for boys and two for girls—were operating in Brest.
During World War I, Jews were expelled from the town. About half returned in 1919, many settling in a new neighborhood established by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). After the war, Brest formed part of the newly independent Polish state. Most of the Jewish residents made their living from commerce and various crafts. They also became very active politically in the interwar period, participating in parties of all stripes: the Folkspartey, Po‘ale Tsiyon, the Bund, Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir, Mizraḥi, the Revisionist movement, and Agudas Yisroel. Jews of Brest also took part in municipal affairs and were extremely well represented in the town council elected in the 1920s and 1930s. Organized Zionist activity began in the town in 1884, with the founding of the Bene Tsiyon (Children of Zion) association, and later with a branch of the Zionist movement. In the 1920s and 1930s, this activity intensified, and with it immigration to the Land of Israel.
Portraits of the students and faculty of the Torat Ḥesed yeshiva, Brest (then Brześć nad Bugiem, Pol.; now in Bel.), 1930. (Top center) Rabbi Ḥayim Halevi, founder of the yeshiva. Photograph by Foto Rembrandt. (YIVO)
An elaborate Jewish educational system also operated in Brest during the interwar period, including a large Talmud Torah, a yeshiva, ḥadarim metukanim, schools belonging to the Tarbut, Yavneh, and Beys Yankev networks, a Teḥiyah school, a Taḥkemoni Hebrew gymnasium, a Yiddish-language school, an ORT-sponsored vocational school, an orphanage, and libraries. Jewish Brest also boasted an active cultural life, sports clubs, and several Yiddish newspapers, such as Polesyer shtime (Voice of Polesie), Brisker vokhenblat (Brisk Weekly), and Brisker togblat (Brisk Daily). Religious life revolved around the approximately 40 synagogues and study halls located throughout the town.
The German army occupied Brest in June 1941. By the end of the month, they had murdered about 5,000 Jewish men. In November 1941, a large and a small ghetto were established. Toward the end of 1942, the Germans murdered most of the inhabitants, although a Jewish underground operated in the Brest ghetto, and some of the underground activists managed to join partisan units. After the war the community ceased to exist; the only surviving synagogue was transformed into a theater by the end of the 1950s. Only a handful of local Jews survived the Holocaust. Together with those who returned to the city after the war they numbered about 2,000 in 1970, but this number dwindled in the ensuing decades as a result of emigration to Israel and other destinations. In 2004 there were about 1,000 Jews in Brest.
Shmuel Arthur Cygielman, Jewish Autonomy in Poland and Lithuania until 1648 (5408) (Jerusalem, 1997); Aryeh Loeb Feinstein, ‘Ir tehilah (1885/86; rpt. [Jerusalem?], 1967/68); Shmuel Spector, “Brisk de-Lita / Brzećś nad Bugiem,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Polin, vol. 5, Vohlin ve-Polesyah, pp. 226–237 (Jerusalem, 1990); Eliezer Steinman, ed., Entsiklopedyah shel galuyot, vol. 2, Brisk-de-Lita, (Jerusalem, 1954); Pauline Wengeroff, Rememberings: The World of a Russian-Jewish Woman in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Henny Wenkart, ed. Bernard D. Cooperman (Bethesda, Md., 2000).
Translated from Hebrew by I. Michael Aronson