South Africa native Rubin Roy Cobb remembers when the “Bransk Book of Memories” was published in Yiddish in Johannesburg in 1947 when he was 11 years old.
The yizkor book, which Atlanta resident Cobb finished translating into English last year, describes many aspects of Jewish life in the Polish village of Bransk, along with events, customs and family histories. It includes photos and documents and was compiled by volunteers from many sources, including family records, synagogue documents, municipal records, oral histories and cemetery visits.
The book has about 50 chapters, each running two to eight pages and describing a specific event, family, person or custom. Much of it covers the first half of the 20th century, through the destruction of the village’s Jewish population of about 3,000 (out of a total of about 5,000 people) during World War II.
Bransk is in the northeastern corner of Poland, close to Lithuania. The first evidence of a Jewish presence in the poor farming enclave dates to the start of the 19th century.
The town was quickly occupied during World War II, first by the Germans, then by the Russians. Within 15 months of the Nazi occupation, most of the Jewish residents were sent to Treblinka, and the Jewish community never recovered.
The book was published by Jewish Gen Inc., a nonprofit organization that serves as a clearinghouse for people researching Jewish families worldwide.
Cobb had a passion for stamp collecting when he was growing up in South Africa, and the international stamps sparked his interest in Poland, from which his parents emigrated in 1929.
Just as his parents made the decision that it was better to go too soon than too late and left Bransk a decade before the Nazis got there, Cobb and his wife, Renee, decided in 1977 that the United States was more promising for a young family than apartheid South Africa.
He retained an interest in Bransk and its Jewish community, and after years of research and several visits to Bransk, he was able to obtain and translate the yizkor book he had seen as a boy.
A lawyer, he first visited their old village Bransk, in 1974 during a trip to Warsaw to settle an estate. He spent several hours in the village, visited sites and met an elderly couple who told him about the Jewish community.
He returned to Bransk in 1991 with an older cousin from Baltimore who remembered the village before the war. Cobb also met a Polish historian from the village who had conducted research on the Jewish community.
He made contact with Bransk societies in Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Tel Aviv and Johannesburg.
Mindle Gross began the translation of the yizkor book, then Cobb spent several years completing the work, including making corrections and filling in missing information. He dedicated the finished book to his wife and other family members, including 17 relatives who were killed at Treblinka.
The transport of the bulk of most of the Bransk Jewish community to the Nazi camp Nov. 2, 1942, is one of the chilling chapters of the “Book of Memories.” People were awakened at 4 a.m. to make the journey to Treblinka; 1,800 of them didn’t survive the war.
Several chapters describe other events during World War II, including the actions of partisans and service with the advancing Soviet army.
The rich, granular detail of the book is what makes it so valuable in understanding a lost way of Jewish life in a small Eastern European town.
Among the interesting tidbits:
- The birth of the Jewish community. The first record of Jews in Bransk comes from 1808; by 1820, the community bought land for a cemetery.
- The synagogues. The first Jewish house of worship opened in 1821.
- The rabbinate. The book briefly describes nine rabbis, including Rabbi Shimon Yehudah Shkop, who became the Bransk rabbi in 1907, founded a yeshiva there, moved to the United States between the wars and served as the head of the seminary at Yeshiva University, then returned to Europe, where he died during World War II.
- The meat tax. The community’s only source of revenue was a tax on meat and fowl.
- Aid to the poor. The community provided hospitality to poor visitors, made no-interest loans and gave aid to poor brides. Bransk’s Jews wanted to be sure every bride had a memorable wedding.
- A view of the beginning of the end of Czar Nicholas II during the 1905 uprising in Russia.
- A letter Albert Einstein wrote to a Bransk resident in 1923.