The discovery of some fifteen hundred Jewish gravestones across Brest-Litovsk in the last few years has created headlines not just locally but across the world.
A large quantity of headstones have been discovered in the foundations of houses that have been demolished to make way for a store being built in the centre of the city, but also in people’s gardens, in the foundations of houses and in fact even as slabs in private gardens. Brest Litovsk, a city renowned for its pre-eminence in the Jewish world, has become a “time capsule” into the horrors of the Holocaust.
Moving these headstones is a mammoth task; some are incredibly heavy, requiring as many as five men to move even an individual one.
Who do these headstones belong to? And why are they significant? Of course, every headstone tells a story, often just a few brief words representing a human life and a bygone period. No Jewish cemetery exists in the city and yet Brest-Litovsk was a pulsating and vibrant centre of Jewish life in the centuries before the Second World War. Collectively, these headstones could paint volumes of a vital past, and thus the job of accumulating them, working with them and preserving them, offers a fundamental glimpse into the long-suffering history of the Jewish people.
The Brisk Jewish Community
Brisk has a long Jewish history dating from the second half of the 14th century, where it reigned as the largest and most important of the first five Jewish settlements in Lithuania, the other four being Grodno, Trakai, Lutsk and Minsk.
Despite centuries of persecution and expulsion, the Jews of Brisk flourished there for 600 years. The list of Rabbi’s and Heads of institutions who made this city a citadel of Jewish prominence include Rabbi Shlomo Luria (1510-1573) and Rabbi Joel Sirkes (1561-1640), and generations of Rabbi’s from the distinguished Katzenellenbogen family who led the community in the 18th century.
In the pre-World War I period continuing until the Holocaust, three generations of the Soloveitchik family headed the renowned Brisk Establishments in addition to presiding as the Rabbis of the town.
The town of Brest in Belarus is a city today with a population of approximately 370,000 in Belarus, located at the border with Poland opposite the Polish city of Terespol, where the Bug and Mukhavets rivers meet. It is the capital city of the Brest Region.
In the world of Yeshivot (Jewish educational institution), the word “Brisk” is uttered with reverence. It conjures up images of study halls pulsating with activity, erudite scholars steeped in solemnity, scintillating and rigorous analyses, and uncompromising dedication to the truth of the Torah.
If Brisk is a kingdom, then it has several royal palaces—the buildings now dotting the heart of Jerusalem—and a royal family that presides over those bastions of Jewish History. The members of the Soloveitchik family hail from a long line of Jewish leaders who pioneered and perennially honed its famed approach to Biblical analysis.
The Soloveitchik Family
Rabbi Josef Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1892), the Rabbi of Brisk, and his son Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (1853-1918). When he passed away, just before the end of the First World War, he was succeeded as the Rabbi of Brisk by his son Rabbi Yitzhak Zev, otherwise known as the Brisker Rav.
According to tradition, all members of the Soloveitchik family are descended from the Tribe of Levi and thus sometimes go by the descriptor ‘HaLevi’. The surname “Soloveitchik” comes from the word for nightingale in Slavic languages; it was chosen by the family because the primary duty of the Levites in the Temple in Jerusalem was singing.
With its own lexicon, its own unspoken rules, and its uncompromising value system, what was the secret of Brisk in general and the Soloveitchik family in particular — and how did it manage to capture the hearts and minds of the Jewish world to the degree that even the mention of the town conjures up a particular austere mindset?
The Brisker Way (literally, “the way of Brisk”)
In the traditional world of Torah scholarship, Talmud study is often seen as the principal way of connecting to God. Through that study, the individual strives to understand God’s will. When it comes to advanced Talmud study, several questions arise: What method should one apply to the text, and with what goals? Should one focus on detailed textual analysis or abstract conceptual analysis? Does one aim to arrive at a practical ruling or a theoretical insight?
In the second half of the 18th century, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, commonly known as the Vilna Gaon, refocused Jewish text study on the study of Talmud and its early medieval commentators. In so doing, he shifted the focus away from later Talmudic commentators and other areas of study, such as Jewish thought, the Bible, and practical law. His disciple, Rabbi Hayim of Vilna, constructed an ideology to support the Vilna Gaon’s work. He put this philosophy into practice by founding the first modern yeshiva, Volozhin, in 1802. Before Volozhin, the sages were dispersed in different communities, with a small circle of disciples surrounding each sage. In Volozhin, the elite scholars of Torah gathered together in one place, not to lead the Jewish people but to deepen Torah learning.
The renewed focus on Talmud study and the development of an ideology underlying it– together with the founding of the Volozhin yeshiva–provided the background that enabled Rabbi Chaim of Brisk to develop and spread his method. Rabbi Chaim taught in Volozhin until the yeshiva closed in 1892, and he became the rabbi of the Jewish community of Brisk.
His method of Talmud study is difficult to define, but it departs from earlier methodologies in several ways. First, and perhaps most importantly, Rabbi Chaim shifted the focus of the Talmud study from textual to conceptual analysis. Rather than analyse the flow of discussion in a particular gemara (the part of the Talmud that records the discussions of the sages in the years 200-600 B.C.E), he analyzed the conclusion of that gemara, the different positions that arise from that discussion. What are the practical ramifications of the different positions? What principles underlie them? Rabbi Chaim took the vast case-based literature of the Talmud and created legalized, formalized principles to describe what is happening in innumerable particular cases. This became known as the Brisker Method.
The Brisker method, in some ways, paralleled modern science, which emerged at approximately the same time. Modern science does not ask why the world works the way it does or what is the ultimate cause. Instead, modern science seeks to understand what is happening in a given phenomenon. Modern science asks, what patterns and processes do we observe in the natural world? So too, Rabbi Chaim sought to discover the patterns and processes in Jewish law and to find the larger principles that underlie the legal details. He did not, however, ask why those principles, patterns, and processes underlie the teaching; he did not attempt to justify them. Rabbi Chaim’s focus on the “what” questions enabled him to develop a disciplined method that is subject to criticism and verification.
This method of study is now the predominant system operated in Study Halls across the Jewish World. The Brisker derekh (literally, “the way of Brisk”).
Acts Of Compassion
Stories about Brisk and the Soloveitchik family fill volumes of books. Not just about their brilliant analytical minds, their individual ability to see through the clutter of any predicament and emerge with a singular route or direction, but also about their level of compassion, consideration and selfless sacrifice to the needs and wants of their communities.
In Brisk, the Rabbi’s home was public property. People would eat and sleep all over, using the home as their own. Some would famously post signs on its walls, as in a public space, announcing services or seeking lost objects.
Once someone described the scene in that home in front of the grandchildren. “The whole house was a communal thoroughfare, people considered it public property,” the person commented.
“No,” the grandchild replied, “that isn’t accurate, because even a public street has laws governing behaviour there. A person may not simply put down a mattress anywhere to sleep, for example, because pedestrians have the right of passage; my grandfather house was more like a ‘private home’ for the entire community where every single individual had rights”.
Among the features of life in the Rabbi’s home was the occasional appearance of a new baby. These were children of parents who couldn’t or wouldn’t care for them, so they became the Rabbi’s charges. Rabbi Chaim and his wife assumed responsibility for these children, and they hired wet nurses to feed the helpless infants.
One week, a nurse was late in being paid and she burst angrily into Rav Chaim’s room, shouting that she would not feed the frantic baby until she got paid. The Rabbi rose and immediately apologised for the misunderstanding, calmly assuring her that he would get her money right away. He returned a few moments later with the money, and the woman thanked him.
As she headed to the door, he stopped her. “Can I ask you a favour? You were justified in your anger, but I would nevertheless ask that you wait a few minutes before feeding the baby. You see, as long as you feel anger, that hysteria will be transferred to the baby. Why should the baby suffer because of my mistake?” A perfect illustration of what defined Brisk: intelligence that went beyond the study hall, the brilliant rationale used to calm a crying baby.
Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik was buried in Warsaw, in the Jewish Cemetery, having died on July 30, 1918, after seeking medical treatment in that area, In fact, it is widely known that he was once asked what should be written for his epitaph of his gravestone. He answered that the only thing he wanted to be mentioned was that he performed acts of chesed – of kindness. This was consistent with what he once told a newspaper interviewer – that the main work of a rabbi is to do kindness.
The Cemetery in Brisk
It is widely known that at least one member of the illustrious Soloveitchik family is buried in Brest-Litovsk. In recent years a series of books that ventured into the world of Brisk lore was authored by Rabbi Mellor, a noted historian living in Jerusalem.
I quote an excerpt from Volume 2… in the Spring of 2019 I received a phone call from Rabbi Rabinowitz, a local Rabbi to Brest, Belarus. The municipality had erected a sports stadium over the old Jewish cemetery many years ago, but now there was a friendly mayor and a chance to save what was left. The hope was that the remainder of the Jewish cemetery, including the gravesite of Rabbi Josef Dov Soloveitchik, could be salvaged. Would I be prepared to join the effort?
A few months later I booked a flight to Belarus, but first, I went to speak with Rabbi David Soloveitchik*, if he remembered where the grave of his great grandfather was located.
Seventy-six years after leaving Brisk for the last time, he looked up and offered precise instructions, as if he had been at the tombstone of his great-grandfather a week earlier.
“There are two entrances to the cemetery in Brisk,” he said, “one from the train station and one from the other side. Go in from the other side. You will see huge stone tiles, and walk 15 steps into the cemetery. This is where he was buried.”
Once in Brest, Rabbi Mellor followed the precise instructions, and as he approached the site, he saw the remains of what had clearly been a small structure – the resting place of the first of the Soloveitchik dynasty.
Just metres from the massive stadium, giants rest many other dignitaries of Brisk as well, including Rabbi Chaim’s wife, Lifsha, and even two of Rabbi David’s siblings — a sister, who’d passed away at 14, and another sister who’d lost her life as an infant.
Tragically, there is little left of the cemetery. Over the last 18 months, The Together Plan has been negotiating with the Brest authorities to incorporate a memorial site, which will be located on a piece of land that used to be part of the cemetery. There are still a number of hurdles to be overcome until they will be ready to complete this mammoth task.
Certainly, once it is complete it will be a fitting tribute to a vital community and an extraordinary family.
*Rabbi David Soloveitchik passed away in January 2021 at the age of 99