Brody Between the Lines

A literary journey to the `Jerusalem of Austria' - a hothouse in Galicia for Hebrew and Yiddish literature.

On the winding road map of Galician Jewry, the town of Brody stood out as a major crossroads in several senses. Situated on the main route between Kiev and Lvov, it was an important transit and border town, and hence a bustling commercial center. But what made it truly unique was a vibrant atmosphere of learning, which laid the ground for new developments in the sphere of Hebrew culture.

In Brody, as in nearby Lvov (Lemberg) and Tarnopol, also centers of scholarship, the Jewish creative spirit blossomed. Contributing to this was the open-mindedness of prominent figures of the community, including men of wealth who maintained business ties with the outside world and supported the pursuit of general studies as new winds began to blow in Galicia from the 18th century onwards.

Brody became a hothouse for Hebrew and Yiddish literature, essays and philosophical treatises. The Jews of Brody were the first Jews in eastern Galicia to display a thirst for secular knowledge, even before Moses Mendelssohn and the Haskalahh movement (Enlightenment). Brody thus assumed a prominent place on the map of Hebrew culture, contributing to an awareness of the world beyond the bounds of the Jewish township and weaving a tapestry that included both great Jewish scholars and the Broder Singers, wandering minstrels who set the stage for the birth of the Yiddish theater and played an important role in the spiritual life of the Jewish masses in the second half of the 19th century.

Jews began to settle in Brody at the end of the 16th century. From 1701 to 1820, the town was controlled by the Potocki family, but later came under the wing of Emperor Josef II of Austria, who was supportive of the Jews. Brody was declared a free city, its inhabitants were exempted from various taxes, and business thrived. Decline set in at the end of the 19th century when these special privileges were revoked. From World War I onwards, Brody changed hands, from Poland to Germany to Russia. In 1941, it was reoccupied by Germany, and in 1945, it was annexed to the Ukraine. "Jerusalem of Austria," home to Jews for 400 years, was now Jew-less.

These regime changes left a clear imprint on the history of the Jewish community. In Brody's heyday, 90 percent of the population was Jewish. Today only two vestiges of the community remain: a vast Jewish cemetery along the southern perimeter of the town, with a simple black stone monument set on a little hill, commemorating the Jews of Brody murdered during World War II; and a building that housed the Great Synagogue and the old study house, its former beauty and grandeur still perceptible although certain parts lie in ruins.

One of the most illustrious chapters in the life of the community revolves around this study house, which was known throughout Galicia for the great Torah scholars who congregated there - the "kloiz" of Brody. In the 18th century, eminent rabbis from all over Galicia would come there to study Torah all week long, into the wee hours of the night. "At the time," writes Rabbi Yehezkel Landau (1714-1793), author of "Noda Beyehuda," who was sent to Brody to study at the age of 13, "it was a town of ethereal beauty, full of scholars and authors."

Among the kloiz scholars were a handful who devoted themselves to the study of Jewish mysticism. Stories and legends grew up around this city where the hum of learning never stopped, and its reputation for piety and sanctity persevered over the generations. At the same time, it served as a source of inspiration for the Haskalah movement, and the literary works of several important authors, among them Shalom Aleichem and S.Y. Agnon, were set here.

Literary critic and researcher Dov Sadan (1892-1989), born in Brody, heaps praises on the town in his memoir "Mimehoz Hayaldut." Apart from his personal memories, he is proud of the intellectual giants, fathers of the Enlightenment, who walked its streets: Joshua Heschel Schorr, Jacob Samuel Bick, Nahman Krochmal (the Ranak), to name a few.

In a letter to Shlomo Salman Schocken, Agnon tells a story he heard as a child about the Ranak: On the eve of Yom Kippur, when the synagogue was packed with worshipers, the Ranak raised his arms heavenward and said to God: "The whole of your people now stands before you in this synagogue. This is your chance. Such an opportunity will not present itself again until next year. Let the ceiling fall on them and be done with it."

Last summer, we set off on a tour of Galicia, retracing the footsteps of important Hebrew authors. Along with cities like Warsaw, Zamosc, Zitomir and Buchach, the itinerary included Brody, although we had little information about the town today. We knew there was supposed to be some remnant of the old synagogue, which had been standing until World War II. To our astonishment, we discovered the building completely intact, apart from a collapsed ceiling. We also knew there was a cemetery where the community had buried its dead since 1830, but we had no idea what was left of it.

Dov Sadan describes this synagogue in his memoirs. Next to it, very close to his grandfather's house, was another synagogue. He has vivid memories of the yellowish brown wall that surrounded it. "In my mind, many of the images I remember have come to symbolize the town as a whole," he writes. "Pure silk - that is how I see the elders of our town. Vibrant and undiminished."

An intense aura of learning pervaded the study halls of Brody, where talmudic scholars and mystics pored over the sacred texts.

Although the community was wary of the Hasidic movement, Brody was remarkably tolerant. Unlike Lithuanian Jewry, which fought the movement with all its might, Brody was virtually the only town where followers of Hasidism were allowed to live and practice their separate way of life. In 1781, the Hasidic community of Brody suffered a serious crisis, but Hasidim continued to live there. Until World War II, there was a large group of Belz Hasidism in Brody, possibly because it was the birthplace of the founder of the dynasty, Rabbi Shalom Rokeah.

All this knowledge of the historical importance of Brody did not help us as we approached our destination. As we navigated the poor roads, passing dilapidated houses, the few people we encountered were farmers. We had no idea where the cemetery was, and the directions we had been given to the synagogue were confusing. We were sure that the new synagogue, housed in a modern building, had been totally destroyed. At the entrance to the town, just where Reb Yudel Hasid, the protagonist of Agnon's "The Bridal Canopy," set off on his travels, hitched to a wagon drawn by two horses, the train barrier went up and we were able to cross the tracks. The train station, described in the stories of Shalom Aleichem, had been repainted and topped with a red-tile roof.

In town, we asked people where the Jewish cemetery was. Someone pointed in a certain direction. As we drove through the quiet, half-slumbering streets, we suddenly found ourselves staring at the old synagogue. There was no doubt in our minds. It had been built in 1742, on the site of the previous synagogue, a wooden structure which had burned to the ground. The building was roofless, but intact. Next to it was another large building, but not quite as high. It was the old kloiz, flanking the southern wall of the synagogue.

We circled the synagogue, with its large windows and decorative moldings, trying to assess the height of the building, whose roof was once supported by massive central pillars, and admired the carvings, some beautifully preserved, including Hebrew lettering indicating the year the synagogue was built. From there, we set off in search of the cemetery. We had no idea where it was, and there was no one to ask. The neighborhood was deserted. There were no houses nearby and not a person in sight. The only sign of life was a goat nibbling a blade of grass.

Suddenly, an elderly looking man appeared out of nowhere with a bundle of twigs under his arm, on his way to the neighborhood bathhouse. He volunteered to take us to the cemetery.

In the 16th century, when the Jews first settled in Brody, they buried their dead in a graveyard next to the synagogue. After a few years, the community purchased another tract of land for this purpose. The oldest tombstones in this cemetery were from the late 16th century, and special sections were designated for rabbis, distinguished families and holy men.

In his book "Ir Ve'em Be'einei Baneha," Dov Sadan says the community took the upkeep of this cemetery very seriously and contributed large sums of money to preserve the inscriptions on the tombstones, from which much could be gleaned about the history of Brody. Every summer, Jewish high school students were sent out with buckets of blue and gold paint to check the headstones and repaint any faded lettering.

The old cemetery was actually destroyed by a Jew, who did it to rouse the Jews into moving to Eretz Yisrael and severing their ties with the Diaspora. The old tombstones were pulled up, and the grounds of the cemetery turned into a park. The "new" cemetery, about 200 years old, is still there - a sprawling burial ground on the outskirts of Brody, near the town's southern exit.

The iron gate of the cemetery, bearing the Star of David, was locked. We walked along, looking for some breach in the fence, but it seemed to go on and on without end. On the other side of the fence we saw large tombstones, some of them jutting out of the ground at an angle. Many were exquisitely carved. Finally, we found a place where the earth below the fence was sufficiently worn away for us to slip underneath without difficulty. On one tombstone dating back to the last century, the inscription read: "Here lies a virtuous man who lived a long and full life." Next to it was the tombstone of a "modest and pious woman" who raised her sons to be Torah-educated Jews.

A new fence was recently built by Jews from Brody now living in America. Near the last row of tombstones, part of the fence has been torn down and the land cultivated for agriculture. Villagers living near the cemetery have trespassed on its land, planting corn, sunflowers, turnips and cabbage. We saw furrows from which potatoes had just been harvested and packed into sacks for the winter. After spending more than two hours in this gigantic cemetery, we had covered only a very tiny fraction of it.

The spaces between the tombstones were thick with weeds, and the stones themselves were covered with winding, twisting foliage. But where the writing was unobstructed and legible, the language and style of the inscriptions, and the richness of the monuments, exceeded anything we had seen in other Jewish towns, with the exception, perhaps, of the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.

These two material-spiritual assets in Brody - the synagogue and the cemetery - are the visible part of Brody's Jewish legacy. But Brody was also the birthplace of a Jewish cabaret tradition. In the early 19th century, Berl Margolis (1815-1868) formed a folk choir known as the Broder Singers. In effect, these singers were successors of the "badhanim," professional merrymakers who entertained at weddings and holiday celebrations. Famous throughout Galicia, they started out as local tavern singers. The family of Dov Sadan, who owned the Red Inn in a village near Brody, first invited them to perform. Over time, the vocalists added rhymes, mimicry, costumes and dance to their repertoire.

These singers were able to develop not only thanks to their patrons at the Red Inn, as Sadan points out, but because of the unspoken backing of the leadership of the Brody community, who believed in the importance of the Enlightenment but did not object to allowing these itinerant artists, who were in great demand, to have their say. Mainly, they entertained at weddings and holiday gatherings, especially on Purim. They sang about everyday life and the hardships of the working man, using stock characters from the Jewish towns of Galicia.

In their skits, they were critical of the heads of the community and poked fun at the goings-on around town. They twisted verses from the prayerbook, changed the wording of folk songs, parodied tombstone inscriptions and made mocking use of ceremonial objects. From Brody, they traveled around Galicia, putting on their act. After the death of Berl Margolis, members of the group moved to the Rumanian town of Jassy and Abraham Goldfaden became their first director as their work grew closer to that of a professional acting troupe.

Reference to these singers is made in Agnon's "The Bridal Canopy," where the adventures of Reb Yudel Hasid are recounted in a kind of half-jesting, half-ironical singsong.

Brody also appears in the stories of Shalom Aleichem and the memoirs of Y.D. Berkowitz. Shalom Aleichem left Russia in 1905 after a wave of pogroms swept his land of birth. On his way to America, he spent a brief period in Brody, which was on the Austrian border and attracted many Russian Jewish refugees, especially from Kiev and Odessa. Y.D. Berkowitz, his son-in-law, describes their train journey from Kiev to Brody, the welcome they received at the train station from the local Jews, for whom the refugees were a source of income, and how an enterprising innkeeper kidnapped them in the dead of the night. America appeared closer to them than ever.

Shalom Aleichem was amazed by all the new things he saw in Brody: the modern cafes, the streets, the elegant architecture, the display windows. Even the Jews with their curled sidelocks and long black coats, frayed at the edges, did not miss his eye. He was delighted by it all, convinced that Brody was a "true Garden of Eden."

In his book "Motl the Son of Cantor Peyse," Shalom Aleichem describes the short visit to Brody that so impressed him. "A beautiful city that Brody! Not at all like our city and our streets and our people," he writes. In Brody, Shalom Aleichem saw that Jews could be different - more Jewish than the Jews in Kiev. "We met a Jew with sidelocks like you've never seen before. He was wearing a long raggedy kapote and leading a goat."

Berkowitz offers a vivid account of how thrilled Shalom Aleichem was with shops, and how he set out with the whole family in tow to look at the wondrous sights, after he had wandered around by himself earlier that morning. Mainly, he wanted to show them the display windows laden with goods - especially the stores that sold writing implements. In an echo of his visit to Brody, Shalom Aleichem writes in "Motl the Son of Cantor Peyse:" "Either we stayed at the inn or roamed the streets of Brody ... buying clothes. Little by little, we began to be better dressed."

Until World War I, Brody had a trade school, a religious school, a private girls' school and a hospital built by Reb Yudel Nathanson, who died in 1832 leaving behind a huge fortune - probably S.Y. Agnon's inspiration for the rich Jew in "The Bridal Canopy." His Reb Yudel travels the length and breadth of Galicia, painting a portrait of the Jewish shtetl on the eve of its destruction. Reb Yudel, who has absolute faith in God's miracles, becomes wealthy, marries off his daughters and leaves behind Brody and all its bounty to settle in Eretz Yisrael, is contrasted with his descendent, who immigrates to Palestine out of Zionist motives. In this way, Agnon lays the ideological infrastructure for his great novel of the Second Aliyah, "Tmol Shilshom."

Reb Yudel, who lives a life of penury in Brody, journeys through Galicia and finds hospitality wherever there are Jews. In contrast, his misguided descendent, the "absolute pioneer," is a lonely outsider in the country he so yearned for. Yitzhak Kumer, who represents a whole generation of pioneer-dreamers and leaves his home in a great rush, knows that "there are two cities in Galicia everyone talks about: Brody and Lemberg. Brody had already lost the gleam it had in the days of Reb Yudel Hasid, Yitzhak's grandfather." All this strengthens Yitzhak's resolve to shake off the dust of the Diaspora. Ironically, however, the outcome is that both of them are buried in the Holy Land, each under different circumstances.

To write "The Bridal Canopy," Agnon needed a precise map of the region, as the plot of the story takes place "in Brody and environs," an area with which he was not personally familiar. Agnon asked [his sponsor and publisher] Zalman Schocken to send him a map of eastern Galicia, explaining that the "atmosphere" of his stories was true to life, so he wanted to use the real names of the towns, rather than invented ones like "Kesalon" or "Sirakhon" (Sillyville or Smellytown). When he visited Brody in 1930, after completing the novel, Agnon wrote to Schocken: "I felt completely at home. The town elders thought I was born in Brody. There is not a mistake in the book, thank heavens."

In his descriptions of the town, Agnon emphasizes its modernity, as opposed to the backward, ramshackle villages that his protagonist visits, without putting on the airs of a city dweller, of course. Brody's wealth is not a factor in the ascetic life of Yudel Hasid, as befitting a man so pious and unworldly. He lives in a "different world," the cramped cellar in which he studies Torah, which helps him assimilate in the closed Jewish world of the shtetl. Unlike Yudel, who "ties a handkerchief over his eyes" to avoid enjoying the pleasures of the Diaspora, the narrator expresses amazement at the abundance and mass of humanity - those same features that impressed Shalom Aleichem during his stay in Brody.

Agnon's descriptions guided us on our trip, too. After passing through tiny villages consisting of wooden houses, a well in the front yard, a solitary cow, a pair of farmers sitting on a bench selling apples, and a little roadside inn, Brody looked like a real city - a very neglected one, but a city nonetheless, with broad, paved streets and buildings that were not on the verge of collapse. There were apartment houses, and mansions, and above all, shops that caught our eye and dovetailed with Agnon's descriptions in "The Bridal Canopy."

Agnon writes: "The shop windows were filled with wooden objects ... giving the villagers cause to rant and rave about the people of Brody who wasted their money on bits of wood. He who hasn't been to Brody, has never seen a pleasant Jewish town."

Agnon offers a little anecdote to explain why Brody was called the "Jerusalem of Austria." The emperor once came to Brody and saw all the Jews there. "This is my Jerusalem," he exclaimed, "so I can rightly call myself `King of Jerusalem,' the title claimed by the kings of Austria."

Reb Yudel, rejoicing on his return to Brody, recites the prayer that religious Jews say as they enter a city. Little by little, the town unfolds before us, through the eyes of Yudel, who does not marvel at its beauty and splendor. A moment before he slips back into his dark cellar, what impresses him are the streets of the Jews and the study houses.

Dov Sadan, who left Brody in 1925, dwells on the provinces of his youth, remembering the atmosphere of serious learning as well as the playful spirit that pervaded the town. But in his writing, one also senses the horror and death that hovered over the Jews. He describes some of the nightmarish experiences that were an inseparable part of their world. A few days after the outbreak of World War I, on a Sabbath in the month of Av, the Russian army invaded Brody and set out to destroy the Jewish quarter. The wealthy Jews had already gone into hiding, but the rest were forced to flee to the surrounding villages.

Sadan recalls the Jews in flight, looking back at the town going up in flames, their groans and cries of despair calling to mind the Jewish lament over the destruction of the Temple. "It was the grief of those who are watching their city of birth vanish before their eyes," writes Sadan. Suddenly, a man leaped out of line and ran back to rescue those who were caught in the flames. "What do dreams matter?" he cried. "A whole town, a whole Jewish community is back there, and all we care about is saving our own skins." And with that sentence, Dov Sadan ends his book, published in 1938.

Brody got back on its feet, but only for a few years. The Nazis invaded in February 1942, and set up a ghetto into which they herded 15,000 Jews - half of them residents of Brody and the rest from nearby villages. This ghetto was liquidated a few months later, after a bloody massacre. The Jews of the ghetto were taken to a forest near the Jewish cemetery and executed. All the remainder were brought to an assembly point on Yablonska Street in Lvov, and from there, deported to Belzec, a concentration camp where 600,000 Galician Jews perished.

On a little hill on the eastern side of the cemetery, bordering a thick woods, is a memorial to the 8,000 Jews of Brody. From the top of the hill, one looks out on a vast forest of tombstones, commemorating 400 years of vibrant Jewish life. Visible in the distance is one wall of the old synagogue, stark and desolate. Glancing from one to the other, these two remnants are a poignant reminder of what was and is no more, but also of what remains - thanks to the written word.