Before World War II, Brisk (a/k/a Brest or Brest-Litovsk), a city of 300,000 in what is now Belarus, had been for centuries one of the most vibrant centers of Jewish life in the world, known especially for its rabbis and scholars, and, by the early 20th century, also for being an important hub of Zionist politics and activism. All this activity ended swiftly with the war, when the city was one of the first to fall to the Third Reich during its 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. The Nazis not only put an end to Jewish activity in Brisk, they sought to erase the Jews themselves. Over the course of a few days in October 1942, most of the remaining Jews of Brisk—nearly 20,000 in number—were murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices.
Thirty years later, in 1972, an association of former residents of Brisk by then living in Israel held a commemorative event for the martyred Jews of their home. The keynote address was given by the then-leader of Israel’s political opposition, Menachem Begin, who would five years later become the country’s prime minister.
Born in Brisk in 1913, Begin had lost both of his parents and a brother in the Holocaust. His speech pays tribute to and commemorates not only family and friends, but the community as a whole. Through extensive personal recollection and poetic imagery, Begin evokes a lost world not only of Brisk but of prewar East European Jewry more generally.
– Neil Rogachevsky
“S.Y. Agnon said [of his own East European hometown]: “Buchach. From there I came. But I was born in Jerusalem.”
Brisk. From there we came. But we were born in Jerusalem.
“And the priests and the people, standing in the courtyard of the Temple,” as if it were the day before yesterday. It’s in our spirit.
Gratitude to our fathers, gratitude for their love of the Land of Israel, gratitude for their prayers, gratitude for their faith in the coming of the messiah. [As the traditional statement of faith has it:] “And even though he may tarry, I nevertheless await him.” Our parents did not have the opportunity, but their children after them conquered the “beginning of redemption.” And so with love of Israel, with love for the Land of Israel and for Jerusalem, we will sanctify their scattered ashes, elevate their souls in holiness and purity, and carry in our hearts the memory of their love from generation to generation.”
Dr. Neil Rogachevsky
Neil Rogachevsky is Associate Director and Research Fellow at the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, where he researches and teaches Israel studies and political philosophy. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Mosaic, Jewish Review of Books, American Interest, Ha’aretz, American Affairs, and other publications. He is currently completing a book on the founding of Israel. He received his BA from McGill University, his MA from the University of Toronto, and his PhD from the University of Cambridge.