Eliahu Motie Bokshtein




In our little town there were: two rabbis, two ritual slaughters, two popular bath houses and two groups of firemen as well: one of Jews and one of non-Jews…


The non-Jew's firemen station was outside the town, besides Sidelsky's house, near to the non-Jews collective housing. There were also the court, the school, and the police station. Building was built on wooden planks and it seemed like a big stable. It was settled close to a great water and mud mirror, which never got dry, not even in hot summer days . Inside the firemen station were two huge wooden barrels and a water pump that was always broken down. Very close, there was another building where police was located, and a jail.


The Jew's firemen station looked like a stable too. It was near to main road, on the main street of the little town, and there was an everlasting pool of about 1000 square meters and 1 meter depth. In winter when water got frozen, we, children of  "Cheder", used to slide on the ice. In summer, cart men would submerge their carts init, in ordere to moisten wooden wheels so they wouldn't get dry in the hot. On Jew's firemen station there were four wooden barrels, two water pumps and about ten tall wooden poles with a hook in their ends.


The Jew firemen's director was always a Christian. He was a kind of landowner , who always liked strong alcohol, no matter where it came from, whether it was Jew or non- Jew. In summer days Jews used to do maneuvers in town end, near the river. In that place were located smithies. There they set on fire a heap of straw and yelled: Fire! Then firemen came with their barrels and their water pumps and tried to extinguish fire. They took places strategically, threw water, climbed up roofs and carts; in short, it was funny. Once fire was extinguished, commandant would drink until he was drunk, and young firemen raised him in their arms and cried: Hurrah!


We children, who liked a lot to watch maneuvers, received a fresh water bath, and sometimes a few blow, for being in middle of firemen feet and disturbing their work.


After  maneuvers, it was usual to take tools to get repaired by two town specialists.. They were YAKOV the locksmith and YOSEF CHAIM the blacksmith. Sometimes a fire was bursting just in those days, so they went to look for this specialists, but in general they hadn't finished repairmen yet..


I don't know when where the two aforementioned firemen groups established, and maybe it's not important,. The important thing is that's the way it was until WWI. In 1915 our town was conquered by Germans, and Russians were shooting from outside over our town. All houses in Market Place were set on fire, and there wasn't any chance to extinguish that giant fire.


When WWI was over in 1918, Jewish firemen station was established again, but with the purpose of facing the "Petlyura" (hooligans) gangs, which were thoughtlessly destroying all surrounding villages, and arrived to Kobrin. There was organized a self-defense group as well, leaded by SHEIKE SHAPIRA. This group used to do maneuvers, get weapons and in the meantime Red Army arrived and conquered the little town. Almost a month later, Poles expelled Bolsheviks, but they also moved backwards too, not for a long time. One week later, they returned strengthened and re-conquered the town.


In all this arduous time, Jewish firemen were the only defense for Jews in Bereza. There was no police, and firemen defended day and night.


In 1920 Polish army withdrew, alleging that they were searching Russian soldiers who might be hidden. Then polish soldiers assaulted Jewish houses, emptied closets out, and took away everything they could. Of course they also gave blows, and pulled Jewish beards out.


CHANOCH LISKOVSKY organized firemen in groups of five-people. They addressed to commandant and asked him for help. They supplied him ten Polish gendarmes who helped to keep order. Therefore, lootings were stopped, and so did Jews punishment. With Polish withdrawal, a shooting fight began and a part of the Market that hadn't been damaged on first fire, was totally destroyed now. It was also burned a part of the Road, and a big part of Olner street. It was impossible to extinguish that fire.


In 1923 firemen got organized one more time under direction of YACOV SELETZKY KOVAL. His house was near to firemen station and he used to enjoy military maneuvers. He organized again fire brigades and was devoted to that task with big enthusiasm. He added a wing to  firemen's building and opened there a club.


In winter he kept water barrels inside it to prevent them from freezing, and in summer the place was destined to cultural activities. He organized firemen's orchestra, bought new cars and also an automatic water pump. Also women were designed as nurses. Prettier uniforms were made up, caps were bought, and also special helmets for fires protection. During Polish festivities it was always a wind instruments orchestra marching ahead, and on its rearguard went  police and army units. It was an honor to belong to firemen group. They were all working as volunteers.


I want to remind an incident. One Friday a fire broke out in the limits of town, by the river, in LEIBL BROIDE the shoemaker's house. The firemen went to extinguish the fire thinking it would be an easy task, since the house was beside the river! But half an hour later SHLOIME the cart driver's house located beside the market near to the route was on fire,. Then another house, SHMAIE the saddler's  stable. In other words, three fires in a short time! The non- Jews from near houses were staring there and no one came to help extinguish the fire. One of them, whose name was PUZNIAK the crippled, said: "Oh! The Jewish "kugl" (traditional potatoes pie for sabbatical meal) is burning!" Soon another a new fire started in Zditshev street, and the first house to burn was PUZNIAK's...

When gentile's houses started burning, fire seemed to have no end, given that house's roofs were made of straw.... It's interesting to mention that, a long time later, Christian people still used to remind to PUZNIAK his joke about the "kugl" issue.

When WWII broke out, firemen had to carry out other tasks that had nothing to do with their specific functions. The truth is, on certain moments, they were guardians of town. This has been already told in another chapter of our book.

In 1940, when soviets conquered our village, all activities of voluntary organizations were interrupted. Only some salaried firemen remained. The director of the brigade was a Russian who had come from Soviet Union. In 1941, when Germans entered the town, they set fire to the synagogue and also the houses close to the market; they forbad to extinguish the fire. More than a half of town's houses were consumed by fire. In 1944, when Germans withdrew, they set fire to the rest of the houses, but... there wasn't anyone to extinguish it...