On both sides of the Warsaw-Moscow road in the Brisk-Baranovich region exists the town of Kartuz-Bereza. To the north flows the Yasolda River whose waters pour into the Pina River and together with the Propto, Bug and Visla Rivers form the water system that leads to the Baltic sea.
The double name of the town of Kartuz-Bereza is derived from the following two identifiers:
1. In the area of the town there are many birch (bereza) trees.
The town was full of mud and from the month of Tishrei (September timeframe) until Shavuot (April/May time frame), one could not walk through its streets without boots. There were no sidewalks and the market square was a stinking swamp full of water. Only at the beginning of the 20th century did they begin to pave some streets and to install wooden sidewalks. The center of the town was on both sides of the main street and it extended for about two kilometers and was known as "the road". On the west side near the market square the Jews lived crowded together. On the east side lived the gentiles. Near their houses were spread gardens and fields which were worked by farmers. Close to 6,000 lived in the town, about half of them Jews. The Jews' sources of income were the "road" and the Yasolda River. Before the railroad tracks were laid, the traffic between Warsaw and Moscow passed through the street which connected West and East. It was here that caravans of merchandise and mail passed, and it was here that there were horse-changing stations. This was a source of income to horse traders, horse breeders, and wagon owners. Blacksmiths, carriage makers, carpenters and metalworkers made a living around the railroad stations. Jews operated warehouses filled with grain and hay. There were also taverns, restaurants and inns for travelers. The Yasolda River was the secondary means of transportation. The area was full of forests. In the winter the peasants would haul out the trees they had cut down in summer and bring them to the riverbanks. With the melting of the snows, they would tie the trees on rafts and float them downriver in the direction of Danzig. The wood trade was entirely in the hands of Jews.
All the houses in the town, except one, were built of wood. The roofs were made of straw. The houses were small and not covered with lime either inside or outside. There were houses that had no floors. In the center of the house stood the oven. Along the walls were long benches for sitting during the day and for itinerant peasants to sleep on at night. That's how things were in the distant past. Over time things changed and the town took on new dimensions with the installment of railroad tracks for the Warsaw-Moscow line; this caused the town to develop. By the way, there is a typical Jewish story about that. When they were about to build the railroad station in Bereza, there was a commotion in the town. The leaders of the community strongly opposed and wanted to cancel the project because the passing of the trains on Saturday afternoon would disturb the Sabbath rest. The government took the Jewish inhabitants' opposition into account, and built the railroad station in Bluden, 5 kilometers from Bereza. There was another reason as well for their opposition. The Jews were fearful that the proximity of the railroad station would disturb their source of income on "the road" and that the carriage owners and other craftspeople would lose their income. The truth is that the railroad "stole" all the movement of merchandise and passengers from the road. The first victims were the carriage owners, horse station owners, the blacksmiths and the hay merchants. However, the laying of the tracks brought additional sources of income. The menial jobs were done by the peasants. The planning, execution, supervision and supply of building materials and the organization of the entire work was done by Jews. There developed a new type of contractor ("padriatchikes").
In Bereza there were big and small contractors of all kinds. Some received big job orders from the government for the laying of the railroad tracks over vast territories throughout the country. An example of this was Mr. Yisrael Greenberg who was a learned man in religion (talmid chacham) and a Zionist. He competed with big contractors from St. Petersburg and wrested various contracts from them. In his house in Bereza he ran a big office and from there his network spread far and wide, all the way to the Caucasus and Siberia. There were smaller contractors ("ratchikes"). The big ones received vast territories of hundreds of kilometers and divided them among smaller contractors. They were great in number. The laying of the tracks occupied diverse craftspeople. The workers needed food and clothing, which were supplied to them by Jewish merchants and artisans: shoemakers, tailors, hatmakers and others. Thus, the curse of the railroad track turned into a blessing.
Another source of income appeared in the town - the commission agents. The railroad network brought together different settlements and enabled merchandise to pass between Germany and Russia. Young men from Bereza would setup offices in Warsaw, Lodz, Minsk and other large cities. They would get in touch with merchants and manufacturers and started trading to buy and sell throughout all of Russia. Some of them were expediters, and controlled a large share of the export trade with other countries. They lived outside Bereza but their families lived in the town. They themselves would come home for the holidays.
Suddenly, most of the population was affected by the mass movement. Immigration to Argentina and the United States started too. There were Jew who set up immigration offices in their home. They would send whole families or the head of the household across the ocean. Many families were supported from the money that their sons or husbands sent back home.
Also, the big military camps which the Russian government built at the end of the 19th century served as a source of income for Jews. The government considered that because of its closeness to the big fort in Brisk, Bereza represented an important strategic point, and they built many military camps close to the town. Many Jews worked in the building of these camps, supplying construction material and hiring workers and craftspeople. After the camps were built, Jewish contractors were supplying food and other necessities to the army, and making a comfortable living from it.
One day a week was “market day”. There was one day a month (always the same day) set aside as "fair day." The market and the fair brought merchants and craftspeople to the town from far and near. The wood industry grew. Sawmills, steam mills and brick ovens were built. Bereza distinguished itself especially in the fish trade. They would send fish and meat to Warsaw and to Lodz. All these events changed the face of the town. Bigger houses were built in the Jewish quarter of the town. The walls were covered with lime and plaster both inside and outside. The straw roofs disappeared and in their stead were tile or tin roofs. Porches and fences were built, and orchards and gardens were kept. Brick houses started to appear. The stores were cleaned and improved and contained a large assortment of merchandise and staples. The inside of the houses also changed. In every house flooring was put in. The walls were covered with wallpaper. The windows and doors were painted. Instead of the long benches, furniture appeared: tables, sofas ("Vienna chairs"), brass beds with mattresses. In many houses they used gas lamps. Curtains adorned the windows; tablecloths covered the tables. In many houses they put pictures on the walls. There was even a kind of competition— who would make his house more beautiful with nice utensils and dishes.
The town took on a new face during the holidays when all the contractors and commission agents would arrive home to their families. Each one would show off innovations brought with him from the big city. There were people who wore suits made from high quality English fabric. They wore shiny patent leather shoes and rings with diamonds on their fingers. After the holidays the townsmen would disperse and the town would return to the grayness and monotony of its weekday life.
Until the immigration years, Bereza maintained its ideal life in accordance with the generations-long customary Jewish traditions. The Learning Houses (Batei Midrash) were filled with people praying, and there were study groups of: Talmud, Mishnah, Ein Yaakov (commentaries on Talmud), Hefetz Chaim (great rabbinical work) where Judaism was being taught in the evenings. The young studied in cheders and yeshivas. For many years, Bereza was proud of its famous rabbis such as: Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, the famous rabbi of Kovno; Rabbi Eliyahu Klatzkin, who moved to Lublin and ended his life in Jerusalem. His son, the noted author and researcher, Dr. Yacov Klatzkin was born in Bereza. But with the immigration across the sea, the ideal situation ended and new winds and new songs reached the shtetl that had been frozen by it's guardians.
Friction began to gnaw at the small community. On the south side of " the road" lived the people of means: builders, forest merchants, owners of land and assets, and for that reason it was called the "street of the rich." On the north side and in the market square lived the poor folk: small merchants, wagoners, and artisans. And disputes and disagreements began between the two "classes." The dispute erupted, as is customary in Jewish communities, around the issue of the rabbinate. With the departure of Rabbi Eliahu Klatzkin from town, he offered the post to a relative of his. The rich did not agree and demanded to bring in Rabbi Oshervich, who served as rabbi in the neighboring town of Seltz.
Every rabbi had adherents in the synagogue where he was recognized, and the inhabitants of the city were divided into two fanatical camps, fighting each other, being disrespectful to the Torah. In addition to the two rabbis, there was a rabbi on behalf of the government ("Kaziner Rabbin") who managed the Jewish birth, marriage and death records. This rabbi received a government salary while the other two rabbis supported themselves by selling yeast. Each one sought to improve his sales and did public relations not only with the Jews but also with the gentiles; thus, the gentiles also got involved in the Jews' dispute. Since the income from yeast was insufficient for the rabbis, they were also given the job of selling Yom Kippur candles. But the candles could not lighten the darkness of their poverty, and the rabbis' families literally starved for bread. Therefore, it was decided to add on a weekly salary ("wocher"). Righteous women would collect donations for the rabbi. Naturally, each side sought to help its own rabbi. These appeals for donations deepened the dispute which even reached the bathhouse and the mikvah. And when the old mikvah building collapsed, each side built it's own bathhouse and mikvah.
Until the First World War, there were six houses of study in Bereza: the old study house, the new study house (also known as the "Psalms society"), the study house of the artisans, and the shtebel of the Kobrin and the Slonim Chassidim. All of these were in the synagogue courtyard (Shulhoyf). It was here where the old synagogue had stood (Kalte shul) which had burned down. There were another two other study houses ; the Burial Society study house and the study house of the rich.
Chassidism was not widespread in Polesia. In Bereza there were some minyans (prayer groups) of the Slonim and Kobrin Chassidim. The Kobrin Chassidim were the very poorest, and they supported Rabbi Klatzkin. In contrast, the Slonim Chassidim followed Rabbi Osherovich. However, the Chassidim lived amongst themselves in peace. The melodies of the Polsia Chassidim were sad and monotonic, in contrast to the melodies of the Polish Chassidim. There was a Chassidic saying that went as follows: from the Biblical phrase, 'at the discovery, we were quaking', the Polish Chassidim kept the 'discovery', and left the 'shaking' to the Polsia Chassidim. It was difficult to distinguish between Ecclesiastes (sad) and Hayom Teamtzenu (a festive song).
The Kobrin Chassidim would pray with great excitement. Another difference between the Polesia and the Polish Chassidim was that in Poland the Chassidim would travel to the "Rebbi" , while in Polsia the "Rebbi" would come to his Chassidim. Most of the inhabitants were Mitnagdim (opposite of Chasidim) and would deride the Hassidim and would call them "Sachidim." The Slonim Chassidim were "Lovers of Zion" and maintained contacts with Kollels (religion study houses) in the four communities: Jerusalem, Tiberius, Sefad and Hebron. A Chassid from Bereza who made "aliya" (emigrated to the land of Israel) would return regularly to visit the shtetl of his birth as an emissary of the Kollels and would bring with him some of the spirit of Israel. The Chassidim looked unfavorably upon the "Zionists" who started their activities in the late 19th century.
A representative from Bereza by the name of Aritchik participated in the First Zionist Congress. The first activists were both secularly educated and former yeshiva students who had studied Torah in their youth. These people awakened in the youth a love for Tanach (scripture), the Hebrew language and its literature. The foremost among them was Baruch-Zishe Simonovich, an educated person who knew Hebrew and wrote a grammar book. He spent his later years in Eretz Israel where he served as the principal of the "Mizrachi "school . The other activist was Isaac Molodovsky, father of the well-known writer Kadia Molodovsky. He raised a whole generation of Hebrew speakers. A special citation was given to Mr. Shlomo Ganz, who founded the first Hebrew school in Bereza, where he taught Hebrew in Hebrew.
The first chairman of the Zionist council was Mr. Shlomo Gershenhorn, a Torah student versed in the Talmudic law and ordained as a rabbi. As a dedicated Zionist activist, he worked zealously and honestly not only in Bereza but in the entire area. The Zionist movement united within it the feuding camps of both rabbis and included various strata of society, and sent "olim" (immigrants) to Eretz Israel. The first "chaluzzim" (pioneers) were the families of Eliovich, Berkovich and others, who were among the founders of the settlement Yavniel in the lower Galilee. Others settled in Jerusalem.
In the early twentieth century a doctor, his wife, a gynecologist and a midwife, came to Bereza. Before they arrived, the Jews of Bereza had managed without doctors and without midwives. Reb Yacov — Yosl, "the Doctor," was a specialist of all the diseases in the world and even maintained in his home a pharmacy and prepared the medications himself. The Jews and the peasants relied on him. Gandzs, the Old Man, would extract teeth by means of a key, and there were many women who served as midwives. However, the new young doctor, DR. Schwartz, his wife, the gynecologist and the midwife brought with them not only modern medicine but also the revolution, which shook up the tsarist regime throughout Russia.
The youth clung to the three medical people and would go after them to the forest and hold their secret meetings; the doctor and his wife attracted many young people and brought them into the secret revolt against the tsar. A short time later a student with a great shock of hair and a black shirt showed up in the town and would give lectures about Russian literature. The young men began to dress like him and eagerly drank up his words. Later rumors spread that the student was no other than Maxim Litvinov, whose origins were in Bialystok and whose real name was Volach. He later served as the Soviet Union's foreign minister. The town was in an uproar. Detectives of the Secret Police began to follow many people and hold surprise searches. The students would disappear from time to time and then reappear. Even Yeshiva students were pulled along by this current, and many Zionists exchanged Zion for Mother Russia. Young Jewish men would break into the homes of rich Jews and demand "a contribution" for the revolution while holding pistols in their hands.
During the First World War, battles were waged in Bereza, which was on the main Warsaw-Moscow road. The town became isolated from the surrounding area and the villages. Starvation began to reign in the town. The German, Austrian and Hungarian conquerors would loot all the property they found in the houses and stores. People’s efforts were focused on one thing: to find a loaf of bread or potatoes so as not to die of starvation. After the front moved eastward, the full extent of the destruction was revealed. Many houses were burned and damaged. Properties were robbed. Bridges were blown up. Regimes changed. Today, Germans and tomorrow, Austrians, and then it repeated itself. The Jews were forced to adapt to the new reality. The Yiddish language served the Jews as a means of getting closer to the Germans. They began to try to receive permits to go out to other villages and towns in order to obtain food. The conquering authorities granted the permits and the town began to return to more or less "normal" conditions. Houses were built and repaired. Commerce was revived. The Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) began sending aid, and relatives from overseas helped, and it was as if life had returned to its regular course.
But the days of peace did not last. The German surrender, the Brisk pact between the Soviet Union and Germany, the Communist revolution, the revival of the state of Poland. All these things destabilized the foundations of Jewish existence. The Polish-Russian war again cast the town into the horrors of war. The two combating sides, the Poles and the Russians, would rob anew and levy contributions on the inhabitants. The soldiers were hungry and wore rags, and pilfered anything they could get their hands on. They carried out meticulous searches. The Polish soldiers, who were particularly cruel, were known by the names "General Heller's soldiers ("the Hellerites") or "the Posnanians."
The war ended with the victory of the Poles. Bereza turned into a Polish town. The Jews again began to mediate between the city and the village and to rebuild from the ruins of the war years. The JDC continued it's aid and life began to return to normal. An "aid committee" was founded with the participation of the rabbis, but its life blood was provided by people from the Bund and the left. The rabbis and the ultra-Orthodox contented themselves with re-opening the Talmud Torah, the ritual bath (mikveh) and renewing the religious schools. But all other matters were decided by the leftists. They turned "the bathhouse of the rich" into a school in which Yiddish was the language of instruction, where not only studies were pursued, but also food and clothing for children were supplied.
In 1922 Zionist activists returned from Russia and began Zionist and Hebrew activities. They organized many young people within the framework of the Zionist movement, opened night classes for Hebrew and founded a Hebrew school based on the "Tarbut" organization. The Tarbut Center from Warsaw sent teachers and a Hebrew kindergarten was opened. Not only that, but the Zionist activists purchased a lot and erected on it a building for a Hebrew school. Young people and adults began to emigrate to Israel and take part in building the country, both materially and spiritually.