Tzipora Brener




Summer. We, a group of children, used to take for a walk around the old fortress's ruins, in the Kartusian monastery. We strolled and search for treasures underneath stones covered by plants, between broken bricks covered by moss. Every shiny stone we found, every piece of colored glass, was for us like a precious stone.


In winter nights, around "Chanuka" (festivity of candles) time, the house was warm; then we plucked the gooses fatten for that occasion, and we fried their fat and made "gribn" (crackling).


In those moments, we children used to hear tales about the "Holy Brothers" monastery, the Kartuzian monks who built the monastery in XVII century, on Prince Saphia's times.


During those times, it was also used as a fortress with its towers and watchtowers, and high walls around. The inner walls were covered with polished marble. The floors, built on coloring and beautiful mosaics. The furniture was charming, there were amazing paintings on the walls, dishes and kitchen rudiments were magnificent.


A large number of legends about its treasures went round: gold, diamonds and precious stones. When temperature was nice, we used to seek for treasures... but during night we were afraid of getting closer, since was said that, after monastery was destroyed, in ruins were ghosts and evil spirits. In dark of night they would crawl and leave their hiding places, in order to go in Jewish homes, particularly stables, making  horses run in a ghostly dance...


That's the way cart drivers of town used to tell. All these tales accompanied us as we were wandering on the monastery's ruins. We breathed more calmed when we reached the green meadow around the ruins, and we watched landscape around us. There were high white trunk pines all around. From all of this, both the destroyed monastery and the trees, our town's name was born: Kartuz Bereza, which is Bereza Kartuzka in polish.


We Jews used to call our town intimately "Bereze". My town, with wooden houses and tiled roofs, between two or three buildings of two floors, about ten streets, and a large and wide street in the middle, the route that begins in Warsaw and ends in Moscow. Lime trees groves, lilac plants, acacia that grew in my town and filled the summer air with nice scents for heart. Old evergreen oaks and citrus trees full of red and yellow leaves in fall, that covered the ground with a coloring carpet.


In summer, our old house was hot. On the contrary, winter was cold with loads of snow and freezes. Between both, rain used to fall. We had no chance but to step on the muddy non-asphalted streets. Also wooden sidewalks, in center of town, were immersed in mud. In dark evenings we had to walk with a candle, otherwise we'd sink into mud.


In the '30s some streets were paved by prisoners of concentration camp that was settled on our town. Due to this, our town had a shameful renown in Poland, and overseas too. We already mentioned the concentration camp, and we must tell something else about it. In 1934, polish fascist-anti-Semitic party called "Sanatzia" mimicked the ideology of its "brothers" in the near nazi Germany, and installed a concentration camp in Bereza, in the same place where military headquarters used to be during tsarist times. They also annexed a little stone building at town's entrance, where army units were located. All the area was surrounded by a plank-fence of 3 meters high, and on both sides there was some barbed wire. The buildings inside the concentration camp were also surrounded by barbed wire. Completing the concentration camp model, they built cells. Some were full of water. They also built a torture-room.


A relative of mine, whose "fate" led him to taste that camp, told me that during  investigations, they used to torture prisoners frightfully. They emptied urine on his nose. Prisoners suffered from hunger, and they were forced to exercise out in the open in worst weather conditions. That was hard work!


There was built a concrete-stones factory for paving routes and sidewalks. It was hard and exhausting to drag the concrete planks down to its destination, and all this was done under a punch shower. In the beginning the camp was set aside for communist who had been punished in an "administrative" way, without any judgment. Youths, men and women, among them many Jews, were transferred here for distributing communist pamphlets, for hanging red pennants on May 1st eve, or taking part on mass meetings against the regime. Sometimes they imprisoned speculators and criminals.


We used to see the prisoners when they were pushed into their paving-work. Dressed in rags, crestfallen... I want to emphasize that, when they were hurried up to complete their work, we had to close our curtain, to avoid seeing who were the people under arrest and so not to have to tell their relatives about it.


Of course it was forbidden to have any conversation with the prisoners. It's hardly surprising that the name "Kartuz Bereza" began to mean: a place where every person is tortured and denigrated....


Prisoners were watched over by hundreds guards who lived in front of concentration camp on the other side of the route; those were houses specially built for them. It was rumored that the number of guards was 500. There were also secret policemen, called "compassionated", who used to go round the area and were attentive to everything. Policemen brought prosperity to town. Tailors and shoemakers had now work. They sewed uniforms, they made boots for officials, in warehouses customers appeared not only in fair-days.


There was poverty in town, but it was even worse in White Russian villages. Peasants were used to split a match in four. In the town people used to make fun of them, saying that "each byelorus had an autobus", because they wore rubber-boots tied with linen, and these were made of old tires. In general peasants came to town once a week, on fair-day, to buy and sale some stuff. Some who had shoes, used to take them on their shoulder, and put them on when they entered the church or the canteen. Their clothing, mostly home made, were made of linen; they had sheep furs, large coats, discolored scarves, and a hat on their heads.


In center of town, down on the market, there were stalls with fruits, vegetables and fish. The peasants used to bring to sale wooden planks in carts or sledges. On the market there were a few little stores of Jewish owners, with eatable stuff, material and clothing, as well as kitchen elements.


In town there were about 500 Jewish families and the rest were Poles and White Russians. On Jewish homes and streets, Yiddish was main language. Many gentiles understood and spoke Yiddish. Jewish stores were closed on Saturday; and on Sunday they used to serve on the back door. The train station was far from town. It was rumored that Jews had influenced to build the station in Bluden, about 5km from Kartuz Bereza, so it wouldn't be disturbed sabbatical rest...


There were a few wealthy families in our town, and the others lived modestly. Many men emigrated to America, in search of sustenance, leaving their wives and children in God's mercy, hungry and indigent. I remember I used to take in secrecy "Chalá" (plaited bread for sabbatical use) and food to poor families windows...


Jews were in charge of small commerce and crafts: traders, tailors, shoemakers, blacksmiths, and there were also an electrician and a clockmaker. Some Jews had stables with horses, cows and goats, and they worked at the orchard too. Milk and greens production helped to lighten situation of many families. They hardly built in town, and for that reason many young couples had troubles to find a house, and they were forced to live with their parents. Like every town in Poland, Lithuania and Besarabia, after WWI flourished social and cultural life in Kartuz Bereza too.


Jews always stood out because of their solidarity feelings to their brothers, and they created social institutions to help the needy. There was in Bereza a "Room for the poor to stay overnight" (Linat Ha'tzedek), "Joint savings bank" (Kupat Gmilut Chasadim), Union of Women for Social Aid, Popular Bank, and the Hospital. There's no need to emphasize the importance of these institutions. Jews always minded their children's education. There was a Hebrew school (Tarbut), and a seven-degrees Yiddish school. There was an Yiddish library, and of course right and left wing political organizations. There were also youth movements like "The pioneer" (He'chalutz) and "Betar". They collected money for KKL (Fund for land recovery in Israel) and for other Zionist purposes. The Yiddish trend organized a chorus and formed an amateur theatre, in which parents were very active, they attended to the shows, and they took part too. I was a pupil of the Yiddish school, took part in the theatre shows and sang in the chorus.


Also orthodox Jews, not less than lay ones, had their "own world" where they fulfilled their spiritual needs. Their children studied in the "Cheder" and the "Talmud Torah". In the town there were some of these study houses of study, built in wood, and in front of the small "Old Bet Medresh" there was another "new" one, the Tabulitzky's, the worker's, and, in front of these, the "shtibl" (little house of religious studies). The "Bet Medresh" of "Chevra Kadisha" (institution mainly in charge of funerals) was well built, not far from market, and finally the rich's "Bet Medresh", in the street where they lived.


On festive days, even lay families that only observed Jewish tradition, went to pray. Although I wasn't a "Chasidic" family daughter, I was attracted by the "Chasidic shtibl" and I keep it engraved in my memory. This was the reason: my birthday, and my brother's BERELE, was just on "Simchat Torah" (festivity for the conclusion of the annual reading of Torah). Friends came along to my house and we all received presents, like a small flag with an apple and a little candle on its end. With flags in our hands, we rushed to the "shtibl"; there the party was specially crowded, and everyone danced and sang. Reb OSHER, the famous painter and poet MOISHELE BERNSHTEIN's father, always stood out because of his singing and dancing. BERNSHTEIN's paintings reflect Jewish life in town, and it's tragic loss. Their pieces are like a prayer not only to our town Bereze but to all the Jewish communities destroyed by the nazi killers.


That's the way MOISHELE BERNSHTEIN sang to our home town in his poem "My little town Bereze":


Here I am, I come to you, Bereze town of mine,

When the dawn slowly clears up.

I come to hear the tune of my father's "Gemará"

Along with the birdsong in the dawn.

I come to smell scent of flowers...

All this brings me memories:

The smoke rising from chimneys,

The turmoil of cart drivers saddling their horses up,

Busy mothers very early on their kitchens,

And pigeons murmuring on the roofs.

Jews rushing very early to Beit Ha'midrash,

God-fearing, reverent and religious.

To you, Bereze, I come in late hours of night,

When couples take for a walk on the route,

Young men whispering between them,

Walking by wooded paths.

Streets and alleys, submerged in mud.

Down to the river stream around the town...

To you, Bereze, consumed by fire, I come.

Nostalgic and trembling.

I weep in the nights, and for my days, your weeping, Bereze...

My dear unforgettable home town!


Poor but pretty town, pure and ethical. The rooted Jewish life beat in it, 'til September 1939, when nazi German attacked Poland and lit the terrible bonfire of WWII. In this flame 6.000.000 Jews were consumed and Jewish life in Eastern Europe came to its end.


It was my home town, it was the Jewish Kartuz Bereza, it was and it no longer exists.


(From "The first half of my life", by Fanny Brener. Ed.Y.L.Peretz, Tel Aviv, 1989).