The Jews of Braslav
The Jewish Community of Braslav
The first evidence of Jews in Braslav dates to the 16th century, a period characterised by the migration of Jews from Vilna to the small towns that surrounded it. A census of 1569 mentions the names of three Jewish families with a long history in the area - Byk, Krawitz and Nemirowitz. They were involved in typical Jewish professions of the Pale of Settlement - commerce and trades such as tailors, cobblers and innkeepers.
During the 17th century a report of the envoy-extraordinary of King Stanislaw-August Poniatowski of Poland rather strangely states that Braslav's Jews and its district enjoyed equal civil rights similar to those granted to the Jews of Britain and Holland. However, other documents give a contrary impression. The rights of Jews under the Russians and Poles was precariousness. They were mistrusted and viewed as spies and enemies of Christianity. In a situation where the border lines were fluid, Jews found themselves in an impossible position, pincered between the two powers, with the each new ruler challenging their loyalty. At times Jews could practice agriculture, at others not, community organisations were created and then broken. Still life continued and more Jews arrived in Braslav between the 16th to 18th century making their living from the trade of wood, flax, grain and the operation of inns in the surrounding area.
In an attempt to settle empty lands, the Czarist throne distributed land for the establishment of Jewish colonies in 1847. This settlement, which included the resettlement of Slobodka, would develop into the small shtetlach of Dubene, Jajsi, Drujsk, Plussy, Kislowszczyzna and Ukazne. Colonisation was encouraged by exemption from the draconian enlistment to the Czar's army and from the head tax. But government was fickle and by the mid-19th century the regime began to obstruct the same Jewish settlements, such that by 1864 it decided to proscribe the purchase of agricultural land by Jews and two years later Jews were even prevented from working the land. Still many Jews continued to be active farmers. Thus HaMelitz (a Hebrew language newspaper) of January 1885 referring to the shtetl of Drujsk, only 18 km from Braslav, criticises Jewish farmers for abandoning their agricultural lives to pursue trade and commerce.
During the nineteenth century Braslav was a town with 1234 of the 1500 residents belonging to the Jewish community. The Jews of the region were organised into independent communities in the larger towns of Braslav, Druya and Vidze, while the smaller shtetlach in Plussy, Slobodka and Drujsk were subordinated to the towns.
Articles from HaMelitz - 1884-5
The articles describe the conflict between the Chasidim and the Mitnagdim in Braslav that followed the burning of the Mitnaged Beth Midrash in 1884. The Chasidim objected to the rebuilding of the structure and complained to the Russian authorities. This led to the temporary closure of all the synagogues in Braslav by the government.
With the outbreak of war with Japan many of the Jewish youths were mobilized to the Czarist army during the Russo-Japan war, a fact that did not prevent Russian nationalists from blaming the Jews for the downfall. A result of this was a pogrom that took place in the town that caused many Jews to leave, the richer to establish businesses in Danzig and many others started to emigrate, especially to the US and South Africa. Their houses were soon taken by Jews from the surrounding shtetlach. A similar anti Semitic event took place after the retreat of the Germans in 1918, but his time the youth organised to form a self-defense group to prevent attacks on the community and the looting of its property.
Jewish Recruits to the Polish Army
Purim Ball for Getzel Seligman in Braslav Marking his Emigration to Africa - 1934
Synagogues and Religious Life
Braslav supported four synagogues. Three were located in the synagogue court, the Chasidic Old and New Minyanim and the Beth Midrash of the Mitnagdim. A further synagogue, known as the Sandy Minyan, was located beside the Castle Hill. It too operated in the Chasidic tradition. The Mitnaged shul also functioned as a yeshiva for sixty students under the tutorage of Rabbi Chaim Tarshish from Jaisi under the title - 'Etz Chaim'. As part of a long tradition the students were fed in a communal kitchen supplemented by meals given one day a week in the homes of the community. But funds were limited and the Yeshiva was often short of them, as it relied exclusively upon donations. Still graduates of the Braslav Yeshiva managed to move on to higher Yeshivot at Volozyn, Mir, Vilna, and Nowogrudek, some even receiving semicha as Rabbis.
The shtetl employed two Rabbis. In the interwar period these were Rav Zvi Hirsch Valin, the Mitnaged Rabbi, a well known preacher and cantor, and Rabbi Abba Zahorie, the religious leader of the Chassidic community. He would go to the death pits with the rest of Braslav's Jews. The Jewish community was acutely divided between the two groups. HaMalitz of 1894-5 described mutual denunciations to the secular authorities concerning unauthorised construction. This led to the official closure of the Mitnaged synagogue and the arrest of some of the congregants. This situation was exacerbated by a fire that destroyed the three synagogues a year later.
Synagogues, Schools, Benevolent Societies and Community Organisations
Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Valin
Rabbi Abba Zahorie
Schools and Education
Prior to the First World War, the children of Braslav were educated in traditional Cheders and in the Talmud Torah. The more affluent received additional private tutoring in Russian and general subjects. Some would even make their way to the gymnasia in the larger cities. Most however, on leaving school, would immediately enter the professions of their parents. Polish rule would bring some changes. Primary schooling was provided by the Polish government and by the community. However, in the villages around Braslav there were no Jewish schools. Children would attend the government school in the morning and the communities would give schooling in Jewish subjects at the Cheder and Talmud Torah in the afternoon. The more affluent sent their children to Braslav, to the Yiddish language Folkshul or to the Hebrew language school - Yavneh. The more religiously inclined would attend the Yeshiva.
The Folkshul, influenced by Bundist ideas, conducted its Yiddish language classes in the women's section of the synagogue. Quarrels erupted between the Folkshul and the Yeshiva due to the 'permissive' dress of the pupils of the Folkshul. During the thirties funds were raised by the Central Yiddish School Organization in Vilna and the Jewish Bank Director, Levi Yitschak Weinstein, to build a purpose built structure. The new school was erected in the grounds of the Jewish Bank and further resources were granted to sponsor continuing study in Vilna for the children from poor homes. The Folkshul became the focus of the local Jewish intelligentsia and its graduates would pass on into the government high schools and then on to institutions of higher learning, especially in Vilna. Returning to Braslav as teachers, professionals and technicians they enriched the cultural life and quality of the youth.
On the initiative of a number of townspeople and communal workers connected with the Mizrachi movement, a Hebrew language school 'Yavneh' was established prior to World War II. Among its renowned teachers was Rafael Yaakov Munitz, who in the twenties had organised the youth to study Hebrew, Bible, and encouraged the youth to prepare for Aliyah to Eretz Israel. Still in 1930 Yavneh had only thirty pupils, while the Folkshul taught 195. Many others were educated in the Polish government schools.
Class Photographs from the Yiddish Folkshul of Braslav
Etz Chaim Yeshiva - Braslav
Yavneh Zionist Religious School
Large sections of Jewish society of the Braslav region constituted of the destitute and poor. After the depression that followed WWI the benevolent 'Yakafa' society provided aid to tradesmen to reestablish their businesses. Aid was also given by the mutual fund - Gemilut Chesed that provided interest-free loans to the deprived to save them, quite literally, from starvation. Indeed, providing charity (tzdekah) was a central tenant of communal religious life. During crisis small philanthropic funds would spring up to provide a dowry or a feast for a wedding or to give foodstuffs for the poor at Pesach.
Raphael Yaacov Munitz
Yitzhak Levi Weinstein
Sponsor of Folkshul
Milk Distribution for the Poor
Bikur Cholim Society
Located in the synagogue court was the fire-brigade, maintained mostly by Jewish volunteers. A central part of Braslav cultural life was the almost all-Jewish brass band. On holidays and festive occasions such as Constitution Day, the twenty-six musicians, dressed in their ceremonial uniforms, marched down 'die Grosse Gass' playing their shiny brass instruments led by the Polish bandleader Telraszewski.
The Yiddish theatre troupe, formed by people associated with the cultural stance of the Bund and the Folkshul, also used a hall in the fire-brigade building. The troupe staged plays - such as the Dybbuk and Chasia the Orphan, vaudevilles and a variety of other performances. The whole courtyard would come alive during Purim. Scores of boys would throw firecrackers filled with gunpowder against the synagogue walls creating a deafening noise. After the establishment of a power station the town featured a cinema which screened silent films to the accompaniment of a violinist and a pianist, a post taken by Nuita Kantor-Zelikman in the thirties.
Gaiety and excitement reach fever pitch on the day of a wedding. The Chuppah was is set up on a flat, clean-swept spot. The shtetl turned out to a man and all gathered round the excited families of the young pair. All along the way where the bride and groom passed windows are lit up with candles. The groom, escorted by his close relatives was led to the canopy, accompanied by klezmer musicians playing the traditional 'nigun'.
Then the bride arrives with her mother and female relatives and walk around the groom seven times. The ceremony over, the groom breaks the glass underfoot - a reminder of the destruction of Jerusalem - and joyful cries of Mazel Tov erupt. The bride and groom walk hand in hand through the excited crowd, past the poor lined up on either side with buckets of water, into which the groom and guests drop coins. With lit candles in their hands, all escort the newly-weds to their wedding feast.
The Volunteer Fire Brigade Band
The Yiddish Theatre Troupe
Politics - Zionists, Bundists, Communists and Traditionalists
Zionism had first made its mark on Braslav with the establishment of Chovevei Zion in the town in the 19th century. The political activism of early twentieth century Eastern Europe formed the catalyst for various groupings of political parties and their associated youth movements to develop. Dominant amongst the Zionist parties was HeChalutz, General Zionists, left and right factions of Poale Zion, HaShomer HaZair, and Mizrachi. Some later immigrated to Eretz Israel as chalutzim prior to the Shoah, including Moshe Valin, the Rabbi's son who joined Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh and later founded the Li-La-Lo theatre in Tel Aviv, working as an impresario. Others were aficionados of the Revisionist movement, forming branches of Betar and Brit Hachayal.
Socialist adherents of the Folkshul were influential among youth and Jewish worker circles and established a branch of the Bund. Beyond this there was also a small Communist party with a majority of Jewish members. Amongst then was Ephraim Amdor who after being jailed during the dictatorship of Pilsudski, was appointed mayor of Braslav after the Soviets took the town in 1939.
We should also remember that many Jews remained traditionally orthodox. From their ranks sprang an influential branch of the ultra-orthodox Agudat Israel.
Members of HeHalutz
Members of HeHalutz
Members of HeHalutz
With Yizhak Zukerman
Members of HeHalutz
On Holiday and Partying
The vibrant Jewish community of some 1500 souls that charged Braslav with economic, social and cultural life would come to a sudden end with the entry in June 1941 of the Nazi Germans to Braslav and the subsequent massacre of Braslav's Jews (and many others from the surrounding area) a year later. After the war a small community regrouped in Braslav, though most dispersed to other towns in the Soviet Union, Poland and to Israel. Those that stayed left a few simple burial markers on the site of the desecrated Jewish cemetery of a town that had been home to Jews for five centuries but is no longer.
The Cemetery in Braslav Prior to its Desecration and Burial Markers of Braslav's Surviving Jews
This article is based on secondary unreferenced research. Most of the bibliographical material available is written in Polish, Russian and Belarusian, languages in which I am not proficient. Please feel welcome to contact if you wish to correct or augment the information.
1 - Emesh Shoah - Darkness and Desolation, In Memory of the communities of Braslaw, Dubene, Jaisi, Jod, Kislowszczizna, Okmienic, Opsa, Plusy, Rimszan, Slobodka, Zamosz, Zaracz; 1986; eds. Machnes Ariel, Klinov, Rina; Ghetto Fighters House. . (Hebrew with English and Yiddish summary).
2 - Braslav. In. Pinkas Hakehilot: Poland, Vol.8 - Vilna, Bialystok and Nowogrodek Districts. Shmuel Spector. Ed. Yad Vashem. Jerusalem. 2005. Pp. 191-195 (Hebrew).
3 - The Internet sites linked throughout the text.
Copyright © 2008 Jon Seligman. All Rights Reserved.