Jews began settling down in Brzesko probably from the moment the town of Brzeg was granted the municipal rights under the Magdeburg law by Queen Jadwiga in 1385. However, the development of Jewish settlement might be associated with the decree of King Zygmunt III Waza, dated 23 November, 1605 and binding until 1862, which banished the Jews from Bochnia[1.1]. We are not in the possession of any detailed information as to the number of settlers or their social position, still, it can be presumed that their community was thriving and their population constantly increased, as towards the end of the 17th century a cemetery was established in Dolne Miasto (Lower Town) for the needs of the local kehilla. In the mid-18th century the Jewish community in Brzesko consisted of 181 people and it belonged to the kehilla of Olkusz. The 19th century was associated with further dramatic increase of the number of Jews in Brzesko, their main occupation being at that time commerce, inn-keeping and distillery business[1.2]. At the turn of the 20th century, Jews constituted 2/3 of Brzesko inhabitants. They lived at the Market Square, Wapienna, Rynek Dolny and Zielona Streets. They had their own ritual abattoir, several houses of prayer, and a synagogue, which was destroyed by fire in 1904. The Jewish community also ran a hospital for the poor, which was mentioned in a resolution passed by the community authorities dated June 20, 1884. The Israeli Kehilla with a Registry of Vital Records covering a range of towns and villages within the county had its seat in Brzesko. It included: Biesiadki, Brzesko, Brzozowiec, Jastew, Porąbka Uszewska, Gnojnik, Gosprzydowa, Jadowniki, Jasień, Czchów, Szczepanów, Lewiniowa, Maszkienice, Mokrzyska, Okocim, Poręba Spytkowska, Przyborów, Sterkowiec, Uszew, Usznica, Wola Dębińska, Zawada Uszewska, and Żerków. In 1869 it was headed by Tobias Lipschitz and Bazalel Florenz[1.3].
From the beginning of its history there, commerce was the main occupation of the Jewish people. Apart from this, they also sold alcohol at inns, purchased animals and farming products and dealt with certain crafts. In 1939, 211 Jewish businesses were registered in Brzesko. In addition to manual workers, there were also members of Jewish intelligentsia, i.e.: judges, lawyers, doctors, and clerks. Brzesko was inhabited by wealthy Jews and poor Jews, the latter living in deplorable conditions, in crowded and dark flats, who existed only owing to the financial help of the kahilla. Towards the end of the 19th century, a few impoverished Jewish families still dwelled in wooden sheds at the Market Square, which were removed only by a resolution passed by the community authorities as constituting a fire hazard[1.4].
The Jewish quarter had a dense urban development. A large number of wooden buildings were extremely fire-prone. One of the fires was described in a Parish Chronicle in the following way: “on the day of April 28, 1885 a fire broke out at night at half past one at the market square of the town, opposite the parish church, at a Jewish baker's house – 17 Israeli houses were burned, no Christians experienced any losses.”
Brzesko Jews had a great influence upon the town’s life not only due to the important part they played in commerce. Many enlightened Jews participated in the social, cultural and political life of the town. They took part in the works of the town council and were widely esteemed, which is testified by an annotation in the Book of Resolutions saying a sitting was suspended due to the Sabbath. Glancing through the minutes of the town council and the town board we can see the evidence of a smooth cooperation between Jewish and Christian councilors. Only after the election in 1897 a crisis occurred. The councilors resigned their posts in the council and electoral protests followed. A breakthrough happened in 1899, when all the councilors resigned after the motion was submitted by Mayor Henoch Klopholz so that a new election could be held. His motion was accepted by 12 votes with 14 councilors present at the meeting. However, the status of Jews in Brzesko is best proven by the fact that in 1894–1906 the function of Brzesko Municipality Mayor was held by the aforementioned Henoch Klopholz[1.5].
When a middle school was created in Brzesko in 1910–1911, Julia Klopholz was among those who participated in its foundation. Her father, the Vice Mayor, was a long time member of the parents’ board and provided assistance to the school[1.6].
After the end of World War I, the Jews in Brzesko and vicinities attempted to participate in the reconstruction of the country and protect its inhabitants by means of organizing paramilitary units. With the approval of the Polish Liquidation Committee (PKL) and a Polish military commander, Bolesław Roja, Jewish Security Guard units were created in Małopolska (Little Poland) Region in order to protect Jewish lives and property as well as those of Christian population, if necessary[1.7]. The Jewish Security Guard had a nature of a voluntary police service, first of all composed of military trained Jews, derived from Austro-Hungarian Army or newly created Polish military troops. The recognition of the sovereignty of Kraków Headquarters and an obligation to wear badges – eagles – as a sign of membership, were manifestations of loyalty to the Polish state[1.8]. A unit of the Jewish Security Guard stationed in Brzesko was attacked by the inhabitants of Jadowniki on 12 November 1918. Jewish soldiers were disarmed, property was plundered, Jewish workshops, shops and houses were demolished. As a result of these events, four Jews died and four Jewish houses were burned. The attempts of the local commander, Captain Władysław Cyga, to bring the situation under control were futile. It was only achieved when an armored train arrived from Kraków and a division of legionaries arrived from Rzeszow. Because of this and other similar incidents, General Roja wrote a letter to the PKL on 13 November 1918, announcing that the interventions of the Jewish Security Guard in Auschwitz, Podgórze and Brzesko brought about the dissatisfaction of the Christian population and resulted in anti-Jewish riots. Therefore, he commanded dissolution of the Guard, enabling its members to join general guards or the army[1.9].
This thriving and enlightened Jewish community in Brzesko was, however, destroyed by the German occupants. Already in September 1939, the authorities in occupation excluded Israeli councilors from the sittings of the town council. Consequently, the council did not meet a quorum necessary to pass binding regulations. Discrimination of Jews began. On September 22 a regulation was issued, according to which all Jewish shops had to be marked. All the Jews who were able to work were obliged to perform various cleaning jobs in town. In spite of the discrimination by the occupants, Brzesko Jews still regarded themselves as the citizens of this town and they took part in turning Józef Piłsudski Square (Market Square) from a commercial market into a recreational square. Already in 1940 the Jewish Council contributed 30 Polish zlotys, Rachela Perlberger 50 zlotys, Cheim Kauter 25 zlotys, and Izaak Panzer 50 zlotys for that purpose[1.10].
In the spring of 1941 a ghetto was established in Brzesko. It consisted of three parts. The first one included the whole Berka Joselewicza Street. The second one comprised the buildings in the north of the market square up to Sienny Rynek, within the scope of today's Sobieskiego and Chopina Streets. The last part included the buildings in Głowackiego Street up till Trzcianki and Kazimierza Wielkiego Square. 6000 people were crammed in that small area[1.11].
Streets leading to the ghetto were closed, policemen were placed at the gates and a high fence was built in Trzcianecka Street.
The ghetto dissolution took place on September 17 – 18, 1942. All Jews were gathered at the market square in Brzesko and told to stay on their knees from the morning until midday with their hands raised, they were robbed of valuables and put on a train, while the sick and unfit for transport were shot on the spot.
- [1.1] Brzesko: Dzieje miasta i regionu, ed. Feliks Kiryk, Lach Jan, Brzesko 2006, p. 162.
- [1.2] Bulikowski Jan, Kronika miasta Brzeska, T. 4, 2005, pp. 11-15.
- [1.3] Brzesko: Dzieje miasta i regionu, ed. Kiryk Feliks, Lach Jan, Brzesko 2006, pp. 282-283.
- [1.4] Bulikowski Jan, Kronika miasta Brzeska, vol. 4, 2005, p. 12.
- [1.5] Kasznica Stanisław, Skład wyznaniowy i zawodowy rad gmin, WSSK, XXII, Lwów 1909 p. 31.
- [1.6] Burikowski Jan, Kronika miasta Brzeska, vol. 4, 2005, p. 14.
- [1.7] Biblioteka PAN w Krakowie, Teki Z. Lasockiego, 4175. Pisma zjednoczonego komitetu żydowskiego do PKL z dn. 10.11.1918 r.
- [1.8] Zielecki Alojzy, Żydzi w polskim ruchu niepodległościowym w Galicji przed I Wojną Światową i w czasie jej trwania [w:] Żydzi w Małopolsce, ed. Kiryk Feliks, Przemyśl, 1991 p. 298-299.
- [1.9] Zielecki Alojzy, Żydzi w polskim ruchu niepodległościowym w Galicji przed I Wojną Światową i w czasie jej trwania [w:] Żydzi w Małopolsce, ed. Kiryk Feliks, Przemyśl 1991, pp. 299-300 .
- [1.10] Burlikowski Jan, Kronika miasta Brzeska, vol. 5, 2005, p. 10.
- [1.11] Burlikowski Jan, Kronika miasta Brzeska, vol. 4, 2005, p. 14.