Brest-Litovsk (Belarussian - Brest; 7.Polish - Brzec nad Bugiem; Hebrew - Brisk), fortified town,  situated at the Bug river.
From the beginning of the 14th century to the latter half of the 17th century it was the center for Lithuanian Jewry. There are no records of the earliest settlements of Jews in Brest Litovsk, but they must have taken place before the 14th century. As early as 1388 the Jews recieved certain privileges from the town through a charter granted by Grand Duke Vitovt of Lithuania. Brest Litovsk soon became the center of Jewish trade and rabbinic learning, and the seat of administration of the Jewish communities of Lithuania nad Volhynia. The Jews of the town took part in almost all the larger trade and financial operations of the Lithuanian state; they were lessees of tolls, taxes and other state revunes, conducted an extensive business and some even possessed splendid estates and villages.
In 1495 they were expelled, in common with the other Jews of Lithuania, but returned in 1503. In 1511 they were permitted to restore their synagogue, and in 1529 their privileges were renewed and further extended. In 1531 Mendel Frank, rabbi of Brest Listovsk, complained to King Sigizmund I that the Jews did not always respect his decrees, but instead  brought their cases before the royal starostas ( a type of official), whereupon the king issued a special decree ordering the Jews "to submit to their "doctors (rabbis)". In 1545 there is a report of the confiscation and burning of goods exported to Moscow by Jewish householders in the town, and the Jewish community was comparatively prosperous, since it paid half the total sum of taxes raised by the Jews of Lithuania. In 1580 the Jews recieved a ratification of their privilege to conduct free commerce. Saul Wahl, a prominent contractor of customs and of great influence at court, played a leading part in securing these privileges and in opposing the attempts of the municipal courts to obtain jurisdictions over the Jews.
With the exception of occasional incidents, the Jews of Brest-Litovsk were on fairly good terms with the rest of the citizens; the clergy, on the other hand, frequently caused them trouble. In 1629 they were accused of having poisoned a nobleman, but were later exonerated.
During the Chmielnicki disturbances (1648) the community suffered severely. Their charters were destroyed in 1660, during the Russian invasion, but were renewed in 1669.
With the fall of Rech Pospolitaya ( a union of Polish kingdom and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) and the partion of the country (1772 to 1795), the importance of Brest Litovsk declined. Wars, plunderings and fires, particulary in 1802 and 1828, devastated the Jewish quarter. Many historic buildings, and the ancient synagogue were torn down in 1832, in order to make room for fortifications. Another pogrom took place in May, 1905.
In 1856 the Jews of Brest Litovsk, numbered 8.136. Because the town was a fortress and the presence of a large number of soldiers, stimulated business, the Jewish population steadly increased in number, so that at the outbreak of the World War in 1914 it was 30.608  or 65.8% of the total population. Jewish purveyors to the army as well as Jewish artisans earned a good livehood.  In 1897, according to the official census statistics, the Jews of Brest Litovsk were engaged in the following occupations or professions: in commerce and trade, 35%; in industry and handicrafts, 40% ; in communications, 5%; as employees and in domestic service, 6%; in the liberal professions, 7%; without definite occupations, 7%.
After the end of the World War, Brest Litovsk became a part of Poland. By 1921 its jewish population had decreased to 15.630 (53% of the general population), chiefly because during the World War all the Jews had been evacuated by the Czarist goverment. Later the town was almost totally destroyed by fire. After 1918 a small part of its former Jewish inhabitants returned, and with the aid of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee,several jewish quarters were rebuilt and a large number of new houses was erected to be occupied by Jews. In 1931 the Jewish population of Brest Litovsk had again risen , to 21.440, or 44.3 % of the total. However the policy adopted by the Polish goverment, restricted this increase very greatly. A large number of Polish officials, storekeepers, and artisans settled in the town, and many Jews who had formerly been engaged in these occupations were forced out of their trades or positions.
After the pogrom of May 17, 1937, the economic situation of the Jews of Brest Litovsk declined seriously. This pogrom occurred after a Jewish youth, the son of a local butcher, stabbed a Polish policeman who had entered the shop to see whether the Jewish proprietor had slaughtered an animal in accordance with the Jewish ritual law. Early the next morning there began an attack on the Jews of the town which lasted and robbing of many Jews by a mob, smashing of windows of many Jewish-owned shops, and the casting of their merchandise into the streets. Nothing was done by the police to check the rioting or restore order; indeed , in many istances the police prevented Jews from defending themselves. Two Jews died as a result of their injures, and twenty others were seriously and hundreds of others slightly injured. The property damage amounted to more than a million zlotys (about $ 200.000).
The actual purpose in this attack was clearly described in an article published in the anti-Semitic organ Dzennik Narodowy of May 17th: "The occurrences at Brest Litovsk will indeed give impetus to the process of Polonizing the city, which is so strongly Judaized. For it is clear that if before these events there were thirty-eight Jewish bakers in Brest Litovsk and only two Christian ones,  and if all the Jewish bakeries are now in ruins, the situation will have to change. It is probable that the majority of the Jewish enterprises will not be able to be reestablished, and their places will be taken by Polish businesses".
Two days after the pogrom, a number of Poles from Posen, Silesia and Pommerania entered Brest Litovsk and started to buy up Jewish-owned stores and businesses. The Jewish merchants of the town quickly formed an organization which prevented more than a small number of Jewish-owned business-houses from falling into the hands of the Poles.  However, a boycott against Jewihs merchants started soon aftewards which was so severe that many Jewish stores and business-houses were forced to close; Polish-owned shops were set up in their place. In addition, a large number of Jewish artisans were greatly affected be the boycott, for circulars were spread broadcast among the soldiers demanding that the soldiers and officers refrain from buying from Jews and from giving any work to Jewish artisans.
In October, 1939, on consequence of the German Nazi invasion of Poland at the beginning of the preceding month, Brest Litovsk was seized by Soviet Russia.
Brest Litovsk was always a center of Jewish scholarship in past centuries. Famous Jews who lived there include great rabbi Solomon Luria; Meir Wahl, son of Saul, one of the founders of the Lithuanian Council (Vaad) in 1623; as such leaders as Michael Jesofovich and Mendel Frank. The Yeshiva of the town enjoyed a high reputation.

Jacob Lestschinsky

Source: Universal Jewish Encyclopedia inc., NewYork, 1946.

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