Jews probably started to settle in Brzesko in 1385, when the settlement was chartered under the Magdeburg Law by Queen Jadwiga. However, the local Jewish community did not develop to any significant extent until 23 November 1605, when Jews were banished from Bochnia under the decree of Sigismund III Vasa (which remained in force until 1862)[1.1]. These are only rough estimates; no detailed data has been preserved on the number of Jewish residents of Brzesko or their social standing. It can only be assumed that the community was developing dynamically and steadily growing in numbers, which is inferred by the fact that a Jewish cemetery was founded in Dolne Miasto towards the end of the 17th century.
In the mid-18th century, the Jewish community of Brzesko had 181 members. It was subordinate to the kehilla in Olkusz. The 19th century marked further growth of number of Jews living in the town. They mostly earned their living from trade, running inns, and operating distilleries[1.2]. In 1869, the community was headed by Tobias Lipschitz and Bazalel Florenz[1.3].
At the turn of the 20th century, Jews constituted two thirds of the town’s population. They lived at the Market Square, Wapienna Street, Rynek Dolny (Lower Market), and Zielona Street. They owned a ritual bath, several houses of prayer, and a synagogue. The Jewish community also ran a hospital for impoverished Jews, mentioned in the resolution of the Community Council of 20 June 1884. Brzesko was the seat of the Israelite Religious Community with the Vital Records Office, having jurisdiction over numerous localities in the district: 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, Żerków[1.1.3]. In 1910, the size of the Brzesko community reached its peak with 2,430 members[1.4].
From the very beginning of their presence in Brzesko, the local Jews dealt primarily with trade. They also sold alcoholic beverages, purchased livestock and agricultural produce, and worked as craftsmen. In 1939, a total of 211 Jewish-owned enterprises was registered in the town. There was also Jewish intelligentsia in the town: the families of judges, lawyers, physicians, and clerks. However, not all local Jews were affluent; many were impoverished. They lived in dilapidated, crammed, and murky apartments, and were only able to make ends meet with the assistance of the Jewish community. Even as late as the end of the 19th century, several poor Jewish families lived in wooden sheds at the Main Market Square; they were removed under a resolution adopted by the Municipal Council, which considered them a fire hazard[1.5]. Unfortunately, the danger was not fully averted, and the fire which broke out in 1904 inflicted great damages on the Jewish population of Brzesko. As many as 300 Jewish houses and the local synagogue were lost to the blaze[1.1.4].
The Jews of Brzesko had a great influence on the life of the town, not only due to their good economic standing. Many educated Jews were engaged in social, cultural, and political activities. They participated in the work of the Municipal Council and enjoyed widespread esteem. This is evidenced by a note made in the Book of Resolutions concerning the suspension of the session of the Council due to the upcoming beginning of Shabbat. An analysis of the minutes from the sessions of the Municipal Council and the Municipal Board shows good cooperation between the Jewish and Christian councillors. The only major conflict emerged after the election of 1897. The councillors boycotted the sessions of the Council, several electoral complaints were filed. The stalemate was broken in June 1899, when all councillors resigned from their posts on the request of Mayor Henoch Klopholz and new election was organised. The mayor’s motion was approved by 12 out of all 14 councillors present at the session. Klopholz’s term as the town mayor is a clear testament to the strong position of the local Jewish community[1.6]. His daughter, Julia Klopholz, was the co-founded of the local lower secondary school, opened in the years 1910–1911[1.7].
After the end of World War I, the Jews of Brzesko and the region were engaged in rebuilding the structures of the newly independent country and provided protection to its citizens by forming paramilitary units. Under the permission of the Polish Liquidation Committee for Galicia and Cieszyn Silesia and the Polish Military Commander for Lesser Poland, General Bolesław Roja, the local Jews formed units of the Jewish Security Guard, tasked with protecting the property and lives of Jews and, if necessary, also of Christians[1.8]. The Jewish Security Guard was a law enforcement unit based on voluntary membership, composed primarily of Jews with military training who had served in the Austro-Hungarian army or the newly formed Polish troops. They showed their loyalty to the Polish state by recognising the authority of the Kraków Command and obliging all members to wear pins with the Polish eagle as symbols of their affiliation[1.9]. On 12 November 1918, the unit of the Jewish Security Guard stationed in Brzesko was attacked by a group of residents of Jadownik. The Jewish guards were disarmed, Jewish property was plundered, and workshops, stores, and private apartments were devastated. Four Jews (according to other sources – eight[1.1.4]) died in the assault, and four Jewish houses were set on fire. The local commandant, Władysław Cyga, tried to intervene, but to no avail. The violence was eventually thwarted with an armoured train brought from Kraków and a unit of legionaries from Rzeszów. This event and similar incidents prompted General Roja to send a letter to the Polish Liquidation Committee, claiming that the activity of the Jewish Security Guard in Oświęcim, Podgórze, and Brzesko was irritating the Christian population and thus led to anti-Jewish riots. For that reason, he asked for the formation to be dissolved and allow its former members to join general law enforcement units or the Polish Army[1.10].
The Jewish population of Brzesko had a large number of followers of Hasidism (particularly the Halberstam tzaddikim), as well as numerous supporters of Progressive Judaism and Zionism. A school of the Baron Maurice de Hirsch Foundation was opened in the town in 1894. It had a total of 103 students. In the interwar period, the Zionists held a dominant position in the local community, followed by the Agudath and a small branch of the Bund[1.1.4]. The Zionists achieved a huge victory in the parliamentary election of 1928. Despite strong opposition from the Jewish conservatists and Polish authorities, they gained 70% of votes in Brzesko[1.1.4].
The vibrant, well-educated Jewish community of Brzesko was brutally destroyed by the German occupiers, who seized the town on 5 September 1939. Soon afterwards, the occupation authorities issued a decree ousting Jewish councillors from the sessions of the Municipal Council. As a result, the council lost the quorum necessary to adopt binding resolutions. The persecutions of the Jewish population soon followed. On 22 September 1939, Germans ordered for all Jewish shops to be labelled. All Jews fit for work were forced to perform cleaning works in the town. Despite facing increasing discrimination, the Jewish people of Brzesko still considered themselves fully-fledged local citizens; they were engaged in the construction works on the Józefa Piłsudskiego Square (the Main Market Square), transforming it from a trading site to a park. In 1940, the Jewish Council allotted 30 zlotys for this purpose, and Rachela Perlberg donated 50 zlotys, Cheim Kauter – 25 zlotys, Izaak Panzer – 50 zlotys[1.11].
A ghetto was established in Brzesko in the spring of 1941. It comprised three areas in the town: the first one consisted of the entire run of Berka Joselewicza Street, the second – buildings located to the north of the Market Square up to the Rynek Sienny, between today’s Sobieskiego Street and Chopina Street, and the third – buildings at Głowackiego Street up to Trzcianka and the Kazimierza Wielkiego Square. The population of the ghetto amounted to 6,000 people crammed in this rather small area[1.1.7]. The streets leading to the ghetto were closed, the gates were guarded by policemen, and a high fence was erected along Trzcianecka Street. Among the prisoners of the ghetto there were both local Jews and people deported from Germany[1.1.4].
In June 1942, Germans killed 180 Jews directly in the streets. At the same time, a group of 560 people was sent to the camp in Bełżec. New prisoners were brought to the town in the summer. The ghetto population amounted to 5,000. The overpopulation soon led to mass hunger and outbreaks of typhoid epidemics. The ghetto was liquidated on 17–18 September 1942. All Jews were rushed to the Market Square, where they were ordered to kneel with their hands up in the air from the early morning until noon. They were robbed of all valuables and loaded into train cars. The ill and disabled were shot on the spot. According to some sources, the ghetto was liquidated on 12 September 1942; over 4,000 people were sent to the Bełżec camp and several hundred were murdered in Brzesko[1.1.4].
- “Brzesko,” [in] The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, vol. 1, eds. Sh. Spector, G. Wigoder, New York 2001, pp. 205–206.
- Brzesko: Dzieje miasta i regionu, eds. F. Kiryk, J. Lach, Brzesko 2006.
- Bulikowski J., Kronika miasta Brzeska, Brzesko 2005.
- Żydzi w Małopolsce, ed. F. Kiryk, Przemyśl 1991.
- [1.1] Brzesko: Dzieje miasta i regionu, eds. F. Kiryk, J. Lach, Brzesko 2006, p. 162.
- [1.2] Bulikowski J., Kronika miasta Brzeska, Brzesko 2005, vol. 4, pp. 11–15.
- [1.3] Brzesko: Dzieje miasta i regionu, eds. F. Kiryk, J. Lach, Brzesko 2006, pp. 282–283.
- [1.1.3] Brzesko: Dzieje miasta i regionu, eds. F. Kiryk, J. Lach, Brzesko 2006, pp. 282–283.
- [1.4] “Brzesko,” [in] The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, vol. 1, eds. Sh. Spector, G. Wigoder, New York 2001, pp. 205–206.
- [1.5] Bulikowski J., Kronika miasta Brzeska, Brzesko 2005, vol. 4, p. 12.
- [1.1.4] [a] [b] [c] [d] [e] [f] “Brzesko,” [in] The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, vol. 1, eds. Sh. Spector, G. Wigoder, New York 2001, pp. 205–206.
- [1.6] Kasznica S., Skład wyznaniowy i zawodowy rad gmin, Lviv 1909, p. 31.
- [1.7] Bulikowski J., Kronika miasta Brzeska, Brzesko 2005, vol. 4, p. 14.
- [1.8] Library of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Kraków, Files of Z. Lasocki, ref. no. 4175. Letters of the Unified Jewish Committee to the Polish Liquidation Committee of 10 November 1918.
- [1.9] Zielecki A., “Żydzi w polskim ruchu niepodległościowym w Galicji przed I Wojną Światową i w czasie jej trwania,” [in] Żydzi w Małopolsce, ed. F. Kiryk, Przemyśl 1991, pp. 298–299.
- [1.10] Zielecki A., “Żydzi w polskim ruchu niepodległościowym w Galicji przed I Wojną Światową i w czasie jej trwania,” [in] Żydzi w Małopolsce, ed. F. Kiryk, Przemyśl 1991, pp. 299–300.
- [1.11] Bulikowski J., Kronika miasta Brzeska, Brzesko 2005, vol. 4, p. 10.
- [1.1.7] Bulikowski J., Kronika miasta Brzeska, Brzesko 2005, vol. 4, p. 14.