The town of Terespol, Poland, has been inextricably linked to Brest Litovsk (aka, Brisk, Brześć Litewski and many other variations) throughout it’s existence, which began in the 16th century when it was known as Błotków or Błotkowo. At that time it was located on the east or left bank of the Bug Rive. The Brest Fortress was built by the Russians in 1855 after the failed rebellion by Polish nobles and as a result, Terespol was moved a few kilometers west, putting it on the other side of the river. Read about the Terespol Gate in the Brest Fortress here.
A brief history of Terespol can be found here. Sol Goldstein told me that Terespol was primarily a Jewish town; indeed it was, after the Brest Fortress was built and Terespol was moved across the river. Sol referred to himself as a “Brisker” and I have found evidence of the presence of a number of his immediate family members in the Brest ghetto during World War II. He himself was living in Brest when he emigrated.
You may recall from history class that Brest Litovsk is where Vladimir Lenin met with the Germans in March, 1918 to negotiate the peace treaty that withdrew Russia and the new Bolshevik government from the war.
The information below is from the “Center for the Legacy of the Jews in Poland,” translated from Hebrew. I’ve edited it for brevity and clarity.
At the beginning of the 18th century, Jews, mostly from the surrounding settlements, were already living in Terespol. In 1705 they all paid together 200 zloty. The local Jews were not subject to economic and other restrictions, and…the development of trade and craftsmanship in Terespol was great. Most of them made their living from small trade and crafts. In the second half of the 19th century, Jews established two production plants in the food industry – one for vinegar and the other for pickled vegetables – whose produce gained a reputation. The…vegetable factory employed many of the local Jews, and many carters and porters found their livelihood in transporting the produce.
At the beginning of the 18th century, the Jews of Terespol were organized into a community. At first they were still subordinate to Brisk de Lita (Brest Litovsk), but soon established their own synagogue and sanctified a cemetery. Among the rabbis who served in Terespol (were) …R. David Horowitz “Harif” (d. 1782);..Rabbi Yitzhak Ya’akov son of Rabbi Aharon (in 1890-1907), Rabbi Avraham Katsenelbogen (in the middle of the 19th century, moved to Szydlowiec), his grandson, Zvi Scheinblum (rabbi of the city from 1907).
During the First World War and in the first few years after that, the local Jewish population greatly diminished, both due to…(emigration)…during the war and to the deterioration of stability and security immediately after the war and the economic crisis.
In the period between the two world wars, the Jews of Terespol preserved their traditional occupations – petty commerce, peddling and crafts. Among the Jewish craftsmen were tailors, shoemakers, furriers, chefs who made barrels for the… vegetable factory and several others. To help the local Jews who tried to rehabilitate their businesses at the end of the First World War…the local Gemach Fund…gave small merchants and craftsmen small, interest-free loans, and the traditional charitable and assistance companies that renewed their activities during this period were Linat Tzedek, (for those) without means and their families.
In the 1930s, the Jews of Terespol, as their brothers in most of the Polish settlements, were subject to economic boycott and anti-Semitic incitement, and Jewish peddlers in the villages with their wares feared for their lives.
Despite the economic crisis and growing distress, the local Jews developed a lively social and political activity during this period. Alongside the Orthodox and traditionalists, who in the past had been the majority of the community, there was a growing influx into the Zionist camp, especially among young people, and branches of Zionist parties and youth movements were established…
In the 20’s and 30’s, many of the children of the community continued to study in institutions, traditional education – the boys in the room and the Talmud Torah, and the preparations at Beit Yaakov, founded by Agudath Israel. Many others, boys and girls, were already studying at that time in the Polish elementary school, or in the Jewish school in Yiddish, which took place on Saturdays until 1924. From 1924 to 1937, (the rabbi was) Rabbi Avraham David Schwarzberg.
Terespol was captured by the Germans in the middle of September 1939. (Many of the)… young fled to the Soviet occupation zone in eastern Poland. Already during the first days of the occupation, the local Jews were subjected to harsh persecution, and many of them were recruited daily to forced labor in and around the area.
In August 1942, there were still 284 Jews left. On August 29 their homes were surrounded by German gendarmes and Polish policemen, and local Jews were sent via Biala Podlaska to Miedzyrzec Podlaski (where a ghetto had been established). Most of them were deported to Treblinka and perished.
More Resources on Brest
There is abundant information on Brest Litovsk on the Internet and in every library on Brest Litovsk (aka Brisk and many other names), since it’s been an important city for centuries. Here are some links that provide a more specifically Jewish perspective:
The Brest-Belarus Group Website For descendants and genealogical researchers. Some interesting historical information, especially about specific families and individuals, although it hasn’t been updated in a while and the list-serve seems more or less defunct, according to the coordinator.
YIVO article “Brest” Good history from the first days of Jewish settlement in the 14th century.
1918 Treaty of Brest Litovsk on Wikipedia
“Brest Litovsk” from the Jewish Virtual Library
The city of Brest, Belarus on Wikipedia
Ten Facts You May Not Know About Brisk & Briskers is a lively, idiosyncratic overview of both the ancient and modern history of Brisk, with some excellent photos and updated information on the current Jewish community.
The Jewish Community of Brisk from Beit HaTfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People in Israel.