Records of the Briesen Jewish Community Council
Scope and Content Note
The collection comprises a portion of the records of the Jewish Community of Briesen, known in German as the Synagogen-Gemeinde zu Briesen, in what today is the Polish town of Wąbrzeźno, located in the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship. Wąbrzeźno was under Polish rule from the mid 15th century until 1772, when, as a result of the First Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, it was annexed by Prussia, and became part of the province of West Prussia. Following the First World War, the town fell within German territories that were ceded to the Second Polish Republic, in January 1920, under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The Jewish Community of Briesen was established in the first decades of the 19th century, during the Prussian period. The present records, dated 1871 to 1921, are concentrated in the era when Prussia was part of the German Empire, after German unification in 1871; only a handful of items date from the years 1920-1921, when the town was located in Poland. The collection comprises administrative and financial records kept by the Briesen Jewish Community Council, except for one volume of records kept by the Jüdischer Lese-Verein (Jewish Reading Society) of Briesen, in the years 1901 to 1908 (Folder 103).
Approximately 40% of the collection by extent comprises financial records (Series II), 1882-1921, including official budgets and tax lists; tax collection ledgers; audit reports and account books; supporting documents for financial statements; and invoices and receipts.
Another 20% of the collection concerns the community's religious institutions, Series IV, with four subseries:
IV.1. Synagogue – includes material related to the community's synagogue rules, and synagogue seat rentals, as well as the renovation of the synagogue, in 1905, and the construction of an emergency staircase in 1910.
IV.2. Cemetery – includes records of burials, and the ownership and care of graves, as well as materials concerning the property, especially the expansion of the cemetery in 1900.
IV.3. Mikveh – documents the construction of the mikveh, or ritual bath house, in 1882-1883, and the subsequent upkeep, renovation, and administration of the facilities, through 1911 (including architectural plans and technical drawings).
IV.4 contains a few files related to kosher meat tax administration and the assistant cantor/shochet position, 1880-1891; the slaughterhouse facilities, 1885; and the hiring of a Jewish butcher, in 1905.
Nearly 20% of the collection comprises records related to community employees (Series V), especially rabbis and cantors (with assistant cantors also serving as shochets, or ritual slaughterers), including contracts and correspondence, as well as application letters and supporting documents, such as recommendation letters, related to many candidates who applied to the community as rabbis or cantors but were not hired. The fullest documentation in this series pertains to Rabbi Simon Eppenstein, over the course of his long tenure with the community, from 1889 to 1911. Among the other religious personnel represented are Rabbi Rubin Halpersohn, and cantors Salomon Blaustein, Markus May, and Georg Jospe.
The remainder of the collection includes correspondence, communal meeting minutes and decisions, circulars announcing meetings, and a variety of other administrative records. Series I, General administrative records of the Jewish Community of Briesen, contains documentation of communal elections and general files of communal council minutes and decisions, along with related correspondence, and other general and miscellaneous materials. The records in Series III mainly encompass charitable activities, especially relief for Jewish migrant poor and contributions to various charitable Jewish causes outside the community. Some of the materials in this series reflect the community's cooperation with Jewish organizations on a regional and national level, pertaining to general issues as well as charitable matters. Included are files of correspondence with the Deutsch-Israelitischer Gemeindebund (German-Jewish Community Alliance; Folder 92), the Verband der deutschen Juden (Union of German Jews; Folder 94), and, following the First World War, the Zentralwohlfahrtsstelle der deutschen Juden (Central welfare board of German Jews; Folder 98). In addition, Series III includes a small amount of material pertaining to education (Folders 99-103), including the community's Hebrew religious school, in 1897, and Jewish elementary school, mainly in 1906-1907, as well as the records of the local Jewish Reading Society (mentioned above), which was chaired by the community rabbi, Rabbi Simon Eppenstein (Folder 103).
Over 90% of the collection by extent is comprised of files that were organized in the community, either as bound volumes, or as sets of documents secured in file covers using file fasteners. The majority of these original volumes have a title inscribed on the front cover. Brief titles are also found on flaps of paper, or flags, that are typically affixed to the bottom edge of the inside front or back cover of the bound volume, evidently designed to hang outside of the volume, so that one could easily identify the volume before removing it from the shelf or compartment where it was stored. Some of the volumes bear on the front the printed heading: "Acta der Synagogen-Gemeinde zu Briesen W.-Pr., betreffend" (Records of the Jewish Community of Briesen, West Prussia, concerning), with the subject, or file title proper, following, filled in by hand.
In the current container list, the original German-language titles of the volumes, if they have survived, have been preserved, with an English-language title following on the next line; when no original title is present, a title is supplied in English. In some instances, files that were organized in the community are labeled on the front cover with a number (e.g. "No. 131") that perhaps indicates something about how the files were sequenced and grouped (the numbers sometimes repeat); when present, that number has been included in the present container list, in parentheses following the folder title.
Bound volumes or other files assembled in the community are generally of a substantial size; a leaf count is provided only for smaller files, of under 50 leaves.
Less than 10% of the collection by extent arrived as loose documents, with no original folders; those items have been grouped in folders and integrated with records relating to similar categories. Such folders have a supplied English title and are described as "loose documents" in the folder description.
A note concerning the filing practice of the community: Documents in bound volumes are most often arranged in a roughly chronological order; however, the more modern files, dating from after 1900, which are typically contained in commercial file covers, and were secured using file fasteners, are almost always filed in reverse chronological order (or, in the case of numbered financial documents, reverse sequential order), i.e. the oldest items are found at the back of the folder, and the items of the latest dates are at the front. To the extent that chronology is relevant, folder descriptions, for the sake of coherence, generally proceed chronologically, regardless of whether the documents are filed in forward or reverse order.
- Creation: 1871-1921
- Briesen Jewish Community Council (Organization)
Language of Materials
The collection is predominantly in German, with some Hebrew, and very occasional occurrence of Yiddish.
The collection has been digitized and is available online without restrictions. The physical collection is closed.
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The town of Wąbrzeźno (German: Briesen), today in the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship, in north-central Poland, is situated among three lakes—Zamkowe (Castle lake), Sicieńskie (Sitno), and Frydek—in the historical region of Chełmno land (Kulmerland), approximately 40 kilometers northeast of Toruń (Thorn), 70 kilometers east of Bydgoszcz (Bromberg), and 120 kilometers south of Gdańsk (Danzig).
In the early Middle Ages, a small fortress and trade center was established there. The place is first documented in 1246, when it was included in a parcel of land that Heinrich von Hohenlohe, Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, assigned to Bishop Heidenreich, the first bishop of Chełmno (Kulm/Culm). In the early 14th century a castle was built there and the settlement obtained town rights. The castle served as a bishop's residence until the 17th century. In 1466, at the conclusion of the Thirteen Years' War between the Teutonic Order and the kingdom of Poland (allied with the Prussian Confederation, composed of towns and nobility of the region), the town became part of the kingdom of Poland. Left in a state of ruin by the war, it did not begin to recover its former significance until 1534, when its town privileges were confirmed and renewed by Bishop Johannes Dantiscus.
In the First Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in 1772, Wąbrzeźno was in territory annexed by Prussia and became part of the province of West Prussia. With the exception of the years 1807 to 1815, during the Napoleonic era, when it was part of territory incorporated into the Duchy of Warsaw, the town remained part of Prussia and, after 1871, the German Empire, through the end of the First World War. It was known in German as Briesen beginning in 1788. From the end of 1829 to the beginning of 1878 the province of West Prussia, where Briesen was located, was administratively combined with the province of East Prussia in the new province of Prussia; in 1878, East and West Prussia were reestablished as separate provinces. Briesen belonged to the West Prussian county (Landkreis) of Kulm (also spelled Culm), of which the town of Kulm (Chełmno) was the capital, and Thorn (Toruń) the largest city. County Kulm, in turn, was part of the administrative region (Regierungsbezirk) of Marienwerder, with its capital at the town of Marienwerder (Kwidzyn). In 1792 a fire destroyed most of the town, and it was rebuilt. In the early 19th century it remained a small metropolitan center, with its residents earning their living mainly from agriculture and brewing. Briesen experienced development of industry from the mid 19th century on, as it received better roads and a railroad connection. By 1900 it had factories for cement and machinery, as well as modernized breweries and creameries.
In 1887 Briesen became a county seat when the county of Briesen was formed from parts of the counties of Thorn, Culm, Graudenz, and Strasburg. The town and the county of Briesen remained within the administrative region of Marienwerder, in the province of West Prussia.
The Jewish community
According to Alicke, there was already a community of several hundred Jews in Wąbrzeźno (German: Briesen) at the beginning of the 18th century, when it was still part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Heym notes, however, that following the Prussian annexation of the region in 1772, poor Jews below a certain minimum income level were expelled; and official population figures of 1775 show no Jews at all in the town at that time. By 1808 there were 28 Jews in Briesen, and in 1815 there were 11 Jewish families. In 1831, there were 126 Jews in the town, comprising 11% of the total population.
A Jewish cemetery was established by the Briesen community in the early 1820s. During the 1830s a cantor (hazan) taught religion in his home. Through the 1840s religious services were held in a private home. The cornerstone of the synagogue was laid on May 12, 1847, and the building was dedicated in 1850. In 1856 a Jewish elementary school was established. A mikveh, or ritual bath house (Tauchbad, Badehaus) was built in 1882.
Prior to the Prussian constitution of 1848/1850 the great majority of the Jews living in Briesen were not naturalized citizens but, rather, fell into the category of 'tolerated' Jews who lacked full civil rights, and were restricted, for instance, in their freedom of movement and occupation. In 1846 there were 328 Jews in Briesen, of which only 14 held Prussian citizenship.
The size of the Jewish community increased steadily in the mid 19th century, reaching 465 in 1861 and 540 in 1871 (14.7% and 14.9%, respectively, of the total population).
The community's first set of bylaws (Gemeindestatut) was dated July 17, 1857. The Briesen community encompassed some 76 smaller localities in the surrounding region. There were two other independent Jewish communities in the vicinity: Gollub (Golub) and Schönsee (Kowalewo Pomorskie).
During the 19th century most Jews of Briesen worked in trade and crafts. In 1861 the heads of households included 26 merchants, one doctor, one clerk, 23 craftsmen, two innkeepers, nine traders, eight peddlers, five widows, and eight laborers.
In the late 19th century the Jews of Briesen were well integrated in the civic life of the town; in 1885, seven of the 18 city council members were Jews.
The community peaked in size around 1885, when it numbered 589 members, comprising 12.7% of the total population.
As in West Prussia generally, the Jewish population declined steadily around the turn of the 20th century, mainly due to members moving away to larger German cities, or emigrating. The number of Jews in Briesen was 459 in 1895, and 293 in 1910, making up 8.7% and 3.6%, respectively, of the total population.
In 1905 the synagogue was renovated and redesigned under the direction of architect (master bricklayer) Franz Manna.
Interwar period and Holocaust
Following the First World War, under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which took effect in January 1920, most of West Prussia, including Briesen, became part of the Second Polish Republic. The town became known again by its Polish name, Wąbrzeźno. Many Jews, as well as non-Jewish Germans, migrated at that time to areas that were remaining part of Germany. The last rabbi to serve the community, Rabbi Siegbert Neufeld, left the town in 1920. There were 92 Jews in the town in 1921, and 26 in 1925, making up 1.3% and 0.3%, respectively, of the total population.
In the interwar period the firm Polski Przemysl Gumowy (Polish Rubber Industry), PPG, which was headed by the Jewish entrepreneur Solomon Halperin, of Baranowichy (Baranowicze), established a branch factory for rubber-making in the town.
From the late 1920s to the 1930s the Jewish community grew again to as many as 100. In 1932 the Jewish community of Wąbrzeźno was combined with that of nearby Golub.
During the Nazi occupation, which began in September 1939, the town was located in Reichsgau Danzig-West Prussia, Marienwerder county. The Jewish residents were placed in a transition camp set up in the PPG factory in October to December 1939. At that point, like other Jews of Western Poland, they were expelled from the area and driven toward Warsaw, into the district of occupied Poland known as the General Gouvernement. The Central Database of Shoa Victims' Names maintained by Yad Vashem contains data on at least 30 Jews who last resided in Wąbrzeźno, and also some who lived in Golub (the community with which Wąbrzeźno merged), prior to the Second World War, as well as a great many more who were born in Briesen (Wąbrzeźno) but had subsequently moved to Berlin or other German cities, from where they were deported during the Nazi period.
Rabbis and secular leaders of the community
Following are rabbis who served in Briesen, with their approximate years of service:
Israel Goldschmidt, 1878-1880[?]
Leopold Treitel, 1881-1884
Simon Eppenstein, July 1889–November 1911
Rubin Halpersohn, April 1912–March 1914
Siegbert Neufeld, 1915-1920
The Jewish community council consisted of a body of representatives, known collectively as the representatives' assembly (Repräsentanten-Versammlung), who were elected by all the voting members of the community; the representatives in turn elected an executive body (Vorstand), typically consisting of three members. Following, with very approximate years of service (gleaned, as best as possible, from the files in the present collection), are community members who served as chair (Vorsitzender) or co-chair of the community executive, from the late 19th century through the First World War:
Albert Cohn, 1880-1882
Leopold A. Littmann, 1882-1888
Herrmann Wessolowski, 1889-1891
Julius Löwenberg, 1893-1894
Max Bauer, 1894-1897
Simon Ascher, 1895-1907
Sally Bernstein, 1898-1902
Julius Callmann, 1898-1919
David Pottlitzer, 1904-1910
Louis Lewin, 1907-1910, 1913-1919
Following are those who served as chair of the representatives' assembly:
Max Meyer, 1871-1873, 1886-1887, 1892-1893
L. Hochstein, 1873-1883
Moritz Lewin, 1884-1886
Sally Moses, circa 1888, 1899
Simon Ascher, 1888-1891, 1893-1895
Jacob Meyer, 1896-1897
Max Michalowitz, 1901-1902, 1907-1908, 1912-1914
Gustav Goetz, circa 1906
No Jewish community was ever re-established in Wąbrzeźno in the postwar period. The Jewish cemetery in Wąbrzeźno, the entrance to which was once located on Maciej Rataj Street, was destroyed in 1939 during the Nazi occupation, and no trace of it remains on the site. As late as the 1950s remnants of Jewish gravestones that had been used for various purposes, were found in the area. In fact, in 2016, a town resident reported that some 150 fragments of gravestones from the Jewish cemetery had been used as paving stones in the yard of the property owned by his family since shortly after the war; he contacted the Virtual Shtetl, of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw, which notified the Rabbinical Commission for Jewish Cemeteries in Poland, and the From the Depths Foundation, regarding the removal and further care of the stones.
Alicke, Klaus-Dieter (2008). Lexikon der jüdischen Gemeinden im deutschen Sprachraum. 3 vols. Güterloh: Güterloher Verlagshaus. Vol. 1. "Briesen (Westpreussen)." Available online at: www.jüdische-gemeinden.de.
Aschkewitz, Max (1967). Zur Geschichte der Juden in Westpreussen. Marburg/Lahn: 1967. Available online at the research portal www.osmikon.de.
Heym, Benno. Geschichte des Kreises Briesen und seiner Ortschaften. Briesen: Verlag von Otto Weiser, 1902. "Jüdische Gemeinden," p. 125-128. Available online in the Kujawasko-Pomorska Digital Library, at kpbc.umk.pl.
International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS)."Wabrezezno: Kujawsko-Pomorskie." International Jewish Cemetery Project.
Virtual Shtetl. "Wąbrzeźno." Originally a project of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, since 2012 the Virtual Shtetl website, www.sztetl.org.pl, is sponsored by the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
4.6 Linear Feet (12 boxes, including 10 five-inch manuscript boxes, one half-size box, and one flat box)
The collection comprises a portion of the records of the Jewish community of Wąbrzeźno, known in German as Briesen. The records date from 1871 to 1921, concentrated in the era when the town of Briesen was part of the province of West Prussia, in the German Empire; only a handful of items date from the years 1920-1921, when the town was part of Poland. The collection comprises administrative and financial records kept by the Briesen Jewish Community Council, except for one volume of records kept by the Jüdischer Lese-Verein (Jewish Reading Society) of Briesen, in the years 1901 to 1908. Approximately 40% of the collection comprises financial records, 1882-1921, including official budgets and tax lists; 20% concerns the community's religious institutions; and another 20% comprises records related to community employees, especially rabbis and cantors. The remainder of the collection includes correspondence, communal meeting minutes and decisions, circulars announcing meetings, and a variety of administrative records. Included are records pertaining to communal council elections; synagogue seat rentals; burials and the care of graves; the construction and maintenance of the mikveh (ritual bath house); the expansion of the cemetery; synagogue rules and the renovation of the synagogue; charitable activities, often in cooperation with regional and national Jewish organizations; and the religious school and Jewish elementary school.
The great majority of the collection consists of files that were organized in the community, while it still existed, many of them with original German-language titles. During an earlier processing at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York in the 1970s, Dr. Steven M. Lowenstein produced a finding aid, including an inventory list, without specifying any arrangement. During the present processing, the materials have been newly arranged, and grouped into series representing broad categories of types of records, in order to facilitate an overview.
The collection is arranged in the following series:
- General administrative records of the Jewish Community of Briesen, 1871-1920
- Financial records, 1882-1921
- Correspondence and other documents relating to general, charitable, and educational institutions, 1876, 1885-1921
- Religious institutions, 1880-1921
- Employment of rabbis and other community personnel, circa 1873-1919
Other Finding Aid
The earlier finding aid, produced by Dr. Steven M. Lowenstein at YIVO in New York in the 1970s, is on file; attached is a concordance of the old and new folder numbers.
The collection was received by the YIVO Institute in Vilna in the prewar period. During the German occupation of Vilna in 1942, these records were among the materials looted by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (a special task force of the National Socialist regime devoted to the plunder of art and cultural artifacts) and sent to the Institut zur Erforschung der Judenfrage (Institute for Study of the Jewish Question), an institution of the National Socialist Party (NSDAP), in Frankfurt am Main. In 1945 these records were among materials recovered by the U.S. Army and returned to the YIVO Institute in New York, via the U.S. Army archival depot in Offenbach. The records arrived at YIVO in New York in 1947.
During the current processing the materials were transferred into new acid-free archival folders, and the folders were newly arranged and numbered sequentially (see the Arrangement note). The materials also underwent conservation treatment.
- Ascher, Simon (Person)
- Callmann, Julius (Person)
- Eppenstein, Simon, 1864-1920 (Person)
- Halpersohn, Rubin, 1885-1941 (Person)
- Littmann, Leopold A. (Person)
- Briesen Jewish Community Council (Organization)
- Deutsch-Israelitischer Gemeindebund (Germany) (Organization)
- Verband der Deutschen Juden (Germany) (Organization)
- Verband der Westpreußischen Synagogen-Gemeinden (Organization)
- Zentralwohlfahrtsstelle der Juden in Deutschland (Organization)
Genre / Form
- clippings (information artifacts)
- Death certificates
- Financial records
- Membership lists
- Minutes (administrative records)
- Plans (orthographic projections)
- Printed ephemera
- Receipts (financial records)
- Guide to the Records of the Briesen Jewish Community Council, 1871-1921 RG 15
- Originally processed by Steven M. Lowenstein in the 1970's. Edited by Rivka Schiller in 2006. Finding aid encoded by Yakov Il'ich Sklar in 2006. Materials further processed, described, and prepared for digitization by Violet Lutz in 2017.
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
- Description is in English, with inclusion of original folder titles in German, accompanied by an English translation.
- Processed, conserved and digitized as part of the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections project (2015-2022). Additional work funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Earlier work funded by the Gruss Lipper Family Foundation (2006).
- June 29, 2018: dao links added by Miriam Clayton.