Pinsk [Rus, Yid], Pi?sk [Pol]
(District capital in the Polesie Region)
Translated by Ellen Stepak
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Pinsk was the capital of a semi-autonomous Russian princedom. At that time its population numbered about 4000. Prince Fyodor Jaroslawicz, who desired to develop the central city of his princedom, gave permission in 1506 for a group of twelve to fifteen Jewish families which had been exiled from Lithuania (apparently from Brisk/Brest), a bill of rights similar to that which the Great Prince Alexander had issued for families from Brisk d'Lita upon their return from exile. These articles of rights were in turn based upon the basic bill of rights issued by Prince Vitold in 1388. This bill of rights was given to three leaders of the settlers' group: Yosko Meierowicz, Najum Pesachowicz, and Avraham Rizkiewicz. The Jews of Pinsk were promised rights as free people, similar to those of estate owners and peasants: full protection for their person and property; freedom to engage in moneylending, trade and crafts; the right to organize their community life according to the dictates of their religion in an autonomous community, maintaining their own synagogue and cemetery. They were also granted the right to establish their own judicial courts.
In 1521 the separate princedom was annulled, and was annexed to Lithuania. For a few decades the city belonged to Queen Buna. In 1533 the Queen affirmed the Bill of Rights from 1506.
The Jews settled in Pinsk along one street, which was called the Jews' Street. It was near the Prince's castle and the market, which ensured them protection for their persons and also proximity to the center of commercial activity, as well as the possibility to organize their communal lives as they wished. Over the years the Jews began residing in neighboring streets, but the tendency to live in a centralized quarter did not change. The censuses which were taken in the years 1552-5 and 1566-61 give a strong basis for estimating the size and the growth of the community during the first 50 years of its existence. By the middle of the 16th century, the community had grown in number from the original fifteen families (75 souls) to thirty-five (175 souls). During the following decade the community grew dramatically by an additional twenty families. Gradually Pinsk grew to the status of an important community in Lithuania, along with Brisk [Brest], Horodna, Ostroh and Ludmir [Volodymyr Volyns'kiyy], and participated in resolving problems of all the Jews of Lithuania. During the period of the independent development of the Lithuanian community, in the 1560s, leaders of the leading communities in the country, among them the leader and Rabbi of Pinsk, participated in the enactment of the articles for all the Jews of Lithuania.
At that time a head tax on Lithuanian Jewry was imposed for the first time, and the Pinsk community stands out for the amount of taxes imposed upon it. The large amounts emphasize either the strength of the community economically, or the size of the Jewish population in Pinsk and the vicinity. The need to divide the taxes among the communities apparently predated the establishment of the common council of the communities of Lithuania. At the same time there was apparently an awakening of Torah study in Pinsk, and Torah law controlled all aspects of life. Pinsk's Rabbi in the 1560s, Rabbi Shimshon, who was one of the greatest rabbis of Lithuania, participated in the rabbinical courts which convened at the Lublin fairs.
Economic activity of the Pinsk Jewish community was concentrated in three areas: landholding in a manner similar to that of the nobility, moneylending, and commerce. The wealthier among them, and especially the founding families and their sons, invested most of their capital in estates, and in extending credit, and simultaneously engaged in commerce. In the 1550s and 1560s the Jews of Pinsk began hiring tax collectors, but in comparison to the Jews of Brisk, this activity was rather modest. At that time, the businesses of salt sales and alcoholic beverage distilling and sales were government monopolies, and were entrusted by lease to the highest bidder. Jews from Pinsk took advantage of this new opportunity and began to deal in leasing, especially in leasing of alcoholic beverages to be sold in Pinsk and the vicinity.
In the 1560s Jewish land ownership disappeared and was replaced by leasing (cynsz). The Jews had gardens and fields outside of town, but it is clear that the Jews did not work the land on their own, as almost all of the landholders are known to have been wealthy or middle class, who also dealt in commerce or moneylending and certainly employed indentured peasants or hired help.
Central figures in the economic sphere of Pinsk in the first and second generations were the brothers Nahum and Israel Pesachowicz, the sons of Pesach Yosopowicz (son of Yosko Meirowicz), one of the three Jews named in the 1506 Bill of Rights.
In the mid-16th century, changes occurred in the economic structure of Poland, which encouraged the production of grains and of wooden products and their export. Exploitation of the forests was especially profitable, and the Jews of Pinsk played a considerable role in this. At the same time there began export of logs and of processed materials, such as potassium, coal and lumber. These products were shipped overland to the Mukhavets [Muchawiec] River (a tributary of the Bug), and from there by water to Danzig. The relatively sound economic conditions contributed to the demographic growth of the community.
In the 1640s the Pinsk Jewish community numbered about 200 families, that is to say about 1000 people, or approximately four times the number in 1566. During this time the community expanded to the autonomous areas of the noblemen and of the Church, as in the Magdeburg letter of rights given by King Stephan Bathory to the townspeople in 1581, it was forbidden for the Jews to purchase new houses in the city. At the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th, Jews settled in towns and villages around Pinsk. From the first half of the 17th century, we have evidence of Jewish communities under the jurisdiction of Pinsk in the towns of Homsk [Khomsk, 52°20'/25°14'], Yanov [Ivanava, 52°08'/25°33'], Turov [52°04'/27°44'], Vysotsk [Ukraine, 51°44'/26°39'], Dombrovitsa [Dubrovitsa, Ukraine, 51°34'/26°34'], Kozhanhorodok [Kozhan-Gorodek, 52°13'/27°01'], Lubishov (Libeshei) [51°46'/25°31'] near Pinsk, Olevsk [Ukraine, 51°13'/27°39'], Ovruch [Ukraine, 51°19'/28°48'], Barach [Barashi, Ukraine, 50°43'/28°01'] and Ushomir [Ukraine, 50°51'/28°28'] in northern Volhyn. Most of these towns were established on private land as a by-product of the leasing business of Jews from Pinsk.
The union of Lithuania and Poland in 1569 did not bring about great changes in the legal status of the Lithuanian Jews. The rulers reaffirmed the rights and privileges bestowed by their predecessors. The Magdeburg rights given to the townspeople by Stephan Bathory in 1581, which were affirmed and broadened by Wladislaw IV in 1633, included articles limiting economic activity and the geographic dispersion of the Jews of Pinsk. The Jews on their part endeavored to receive and achieved additional privileges. In 1632 they attained from Zygmund III [Sigismund III Wasa] a decree which defined their rights and in 1633 they received an additional decree from King Wladislaw IV. The Jews of Pinsk were once again promised freedom to engage in commerce and to work as skilled craftsmen, and the freedom to live according to their religion; they were permitted to build homes and shops on land belonging to them, and they were allowed to lease one quarter of the beverage business in the city. Thus they succeeded in circumventing some of the limitations which the other townspeople attempted to impose upon them. The privileges of the Jews in the years 1632-3 supported their speedy economic development, their growth in number and their geographic dispersion. There remained in effect limitations on their purchasing new homes from the burghers and also partial limitations on their leasing municipal property, but these were bypassed by their settling in municipal areas belonging to the nobility or to the church (juridikas), which were not subject to the municipal authorities and to the Magdeburg jurisdiction.
The contradictions between the Jews and the surrounding population, which was primarily Orthodox Christian, were modified because of the religious differences between the populace and the authorities, who were Catholic. During the reign of Zygmund III (1589-1632), the Orthodox Church was repressed by the Catholic rulers. As a result the power of the local population to conspire against economic activity and numerical growth of the Jews was weakened. Moreover, in that period the Jews enjoyed protection of their welfare and their security both from the authorities and the clergy of the Uniate [Eastern Rite Catholic] Church, in the service of which they carried out economic and managerial functions.
Pinsk, which is located along major transportation routes, successfully participated in the processes of economic development which took place during the 16th-17th centuries. The process of colonization and development of the estates in the region were accelerated in the first half of the 17th century. During this period the Jews penetrated the field of estate leasing, and over time, the involvement of the Jews of Pinsk in this business grew remarkably. Large and very large leases were in Olevsk (in northeast Volhyn), Lubishov (Libeshei), and Pnyevno [Pnevno, 51°40'/25°16'], Pohost [Pogost-Zagorodskiy, 52°19'/26°21'] and Lulin, Oharinich [Ugrinichi, Ukraine, 51°41'/25°24'] and Berezich [Berezichi, 51°42'/25°27'], Rechitsa [52°34'/25°08'], Koshevich [Koshevichi, 52°10'/25°59'], Krotovo [52°14'/25°46'], Polkotich [northeast of Ivanova/Yanov], and Kozliakovich [today part of Pinsk]. The estates were usually leased for a period of three years in exchange for large sums of money (11,000 and even 16,000 gold pieces, an enormous sum for those days). The leases included the estates and also their natural resources, the serfs and their obligations to work, and the right to try them in court and to punish them in accordance with the law. Agricultural products were the main source of income, and profitability was dependant upon the output of the work of the serfs. The lessee also had the right to manufacture and market alcoholic beverages; the right to collect a tax for right of passage; and the monopoly of flour milling, in exchange for a portion of the flour. Incidentally to running the estates, the lessees developed diverse commercial activity; buying excess produce from the serfs; growing beef cattle for export, exploiting the forests for logs and partially processed logs for export. Efficient management of the large estates required that the lessees hire sublessees and others and they were also assisted by militia which acted in the service of the estate owner. The large lessees lived in a manner resembling that of the noblemen. Of one of them, Yaakov Shimshitz, lessee of Pohost, it is said that he even went on a hunting trip.
Alongside the leasing of the large and medium-sized estates, at that time there were also Jews who leased inns on the estates, in the villages and in Pinsk itself. Indeed the Magdeburg letter of rights from 1581 forbade this, but the Jews engaged in this on municipal lands which were under the control of the church. In 1632 this prohibition was cancelled and the Jews had the right to hold one third of the licenses for beverages in the city in exchange for an annual payment to the municipality.
Commerce in Pinsk continued to develop and Christian and Jewish merchants together established business connections with the large commercial centers of Poland, Lithuania and Volhyn. In Pinsk at that time there were some twenty businessmen, of whom ten were important merchants. Among these major merchants were a few sons of the wealthy founding families; others were self-made men. Jewish merchants exported leather and furs, wax and grease overland, and took part in the trade of forest products along the rivers. From the fairs which were held in Poland (Lublin, Gnizen, and Turon), they imported metal items and textiles, wine, fruit, spices and oriental delicacies.
From the 1730s we have evidence of trade between Pinsk and the commercial centers of Lithuania, Vilna, Slutsk, and apparently also Minsk. In Lithuania the Jewish merchants succeeded in penetrating the level of the large wholesale merchants, who played a central role in the distribution of commodities imported from Poland in Lithuania, and together with the merchants of Horodna, succeeded in somewhat reducing the monopoly held by the merchants of Brisk in the wholesale trade with Lithuania.
In Pinsk itself there was a sizeable level of middle-sized and smaller businessmen who managed their businesses in Pinsk and in the near vicinity. Jews owned stores in the market, but also in their homes and other venues outside the market.
We have seen evidence to the fact, that in the years 1605 and 1646 there was a drinks tax, which was in the hands of the Jews of Pinsk. From what is recorded in the legal records of the State of Lithuania, we learn that this tax was in the leasehold of the Jews for a lengthy period of time. Barukh Nahmanovich, among the most wealthy, and among the leaders, of the community, in the 1730s and 1740s leased collection of various taxes and because of this, enormous sums of money passed through his hands. In the region of Pinsk and the vicinity, and along the roads leading to Pinsk, were customs houses leased by Jews. Leasing of estates usually included the right to collect road tolls. On the other hand, the customs houses did not play a central role in economy of the Pinsk Jewish community, because only a few people were engaged in this field of endeavor.
An additional source of income which held a high place in the economic life of the Pinsk Jews was moneylending. There was much capital in the hands of a few of the lenders and they were able to loan out large sums of money. These wealthy people were also accustomed to dealing with leasing. Their customers were primarily noblemen with large estates, and royal representatives, but also city dwellers. In the case of failure to repay a loan, the houses of the Christians would be transferred to Jewish ownership. When the regular collateral was not enough to cover the debt, Jewish lenders did not eschew taking the law into their own hands, and at times required the use of force to collect what was owed to them.
During this period the part of skilled labor increased in the economic life of the Jews of Pinsk. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Jews of Lithuania, among them the Jews of Pinsk (in 1623), were allowed to work as skilled laborers without having to join a guild (cechy). Among the skilled laborers mentioned in the sources were tailors, barbers, metalsmiths and butchers. Some of the Jews of Pinsk were hired workers.
Our main source of information about the Jewish community of Pinsk is the records of the Lithuanian National Committee. Pinsk was a major city, and its community and Chief Justice “controlled” the communities of the vicinity. The heads of State and the Chief Justice [Av Beit-Din] chosen in Pinsk represented the city in the Council of Lithuania. Judges from the major cities also participated in the central fairs which took place in Lithuania and in Lublin, but their status was secondary to that of Brisk [Brest].
The Pinsk Jewry, as part of the Lithuanian Jewry, paid royal and municipal taxes, as well as taxes for the Jewish community's needs. The principal royal tax was the head tax, which was paid by the community, through the auspices of the country council. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Pinsk Jewish community paid about 10% of the total imposed upon the Lithuanian Jewish community.
We learn about the relations between the Pinsk community and the other towns of the vicinity from the records of the country of Lithuania from 5383 (1623) onward. There were bylaws arranging the character of the relations between the head communities and those under their jurisdiction. The bylaws of 1623 reflect a current and stabilized reality. The degree of control of a head community such as Pinsk over the towns in the vicinity is expressed in the manner of distribution of tax levies and in the efficiency of collecting them. In order to prevent collapse, in 1627 the Council decided to take a kind of poll of all the communities and towns, to closely assess the material condition of these communities, with the object of reaching a fair proportion of taxes between the wealthy and the poor. In the bylaws from the 1640s one no longer finds complaints from the outlying communities of discrimination, and it appears that over time the council succeeded in overcoming previous difficulties. The head community had the authority to cooperate with the towns of the vicinity in collecting levies in special cases, such as cases of blood libels, special expenses for lobbying, large charity needs, etc. The residents of the head communities enjoyed special rights in the towns of the vicinity in matters of trade, customs and estate leasing. Also the Rabbi and Av Beit-Din had special rights in the towns of the region. Among other matters it was forbidden to a community which did not have a rabbi to receive a rabbi and teacher without permission of the Rabbi of the head community. The possibilities which were open to towns of the vicinity to defend themselves from discrimination from the head communities were at first limited. The consultations and the struggle which the towns carried out against the acts of discrimination and injustice brought improvement in the situation.
With the growth in the importance of Pinsk's Jewish community, it also became an important center for torah study. In the 1580s a yeshiva established a short time previously gained renown; at its head was Rabbi Yissas'har son of Shimshon Shapira from Horodna, who was later appointed as Av Beit-Din and Yeshiva Head at Wormaiza (Worms). In the 1620s Rabbi Moshe (Moshe Jaffe or Moshe Bonmasz) served as Rabbi of Pinsk; he was a student of the Maharal of Lublin. Also Rabbi Yaakov Kopel son of Asher Katz served as Rabbi of Pinsk.
In the records of the Lithuanian Council of the gatherings from the year 5388 (1628) and later years, the following signed the bylaws: Rabbi Yosef son of Benjamin Hacohen (in the years 1628 and 1631); Rabbi Yitzhak Issac son of Avraham Katz (in the years 1632 and 1634); Rabbi Naftali son of Yitzhak Katz (in the years 1639 and 1644), who afterwards became the Rabbi of Lublin. In his time the yeshiva of Pinsk was a great yeshiva and Naftali taught torah there. In Pinsk Rabbi Yaakov son of Efraim Zalman Shor also served (5404-5408); he had previously been the Rabbi of Lutsk and after 5408  was the Rabbi of Brisk (Brest).
From the start of the Cossack uprising in 1648, and until the Andruszow peace agreement (1667), Pinsk also knew war, murder, robbery and chaos. On October 26, 1648, the city was conquered by the uprising Cossacks under Nibaba and with the cooperation of the local Orthodox (the Provoslavs); in 1655 and 1660 (the Moscow-Polish Wars), the city was conquered by a coalition of Russians and Cossacks. In each of these conquests, the city was dealt a heavy blow: large parts of it went up in flames, and goods, jewelry and money were stolen; torture, murder and imprisonment were the lot of many of the residents.
In the het v'tet [of 1648 and 1649] slaughter, the Pinsk community was harmed relatively lightly. Only a few tens among the thousand Jewish residents were murdered. Some of the Jews who remained in the city were converted by force and survived. But for the most part, the Jews escaped from the city. Other Jews who left the city at the last minute were murdered during their attempt to escape. Two weeks later, on November 9, 1648, the Polish Army returned and recaptured Pinsk from the Cossacks and the townspeople. In the process of conquering the city, the army slaughtered the defending townspeople and set the town afire. Seventy-eight Jewish homes remained standing. After a few weeks, the Jews of Pinsk began returning to their city and rebuilding their lives as individuals and as a community. In 1650 the forced converts were allowed to return to their previous faith.
In 1655, before the arrival of the occupiers, all of the Jews of Pinsk left their city and found shelter on the estates of the noblemen in the region of Drahichyn and Khomsk. The armies of Moscow and the Cossacks captured a city empty of its Jews and vented their wrath upon the Christian inhabitants. In these exiles many of the Jews, especially the wealthy among them, took with them a large part of their goods and their property.
In 1660 the community of Pinsk was harmed in one of the two invasions of that year. Some were murdered or taken prisoner, and a great deal of their property was stolen. Later on in the 1660s, the Jews suffered lawlessness, duress and robbery by the Polish Army and Tartar and Cossack Divisions fighting with the Polish Army.
Of what happened in 1648 and 1655 and in the 1660s one may learn, that the Pinsk Jewish community survived in spite of the upheavals. The orders of the organization of the Pinsk Jewish community and that of all Lithuania well withstood the test. The leadership level fulfilled its role with talent and responsibility, succeeded in accumulating intelligence about possible developments connected to war activities in the region and demonstrated resourcefulness in complicated situations. Also regular Jews from Pinsk demonstrated resourcefulness and flexibility, and were thereby spared great troubles; and they also preserved the large part of their property. They knew how to escape and how to handle their property, so that not all of it was lost. Upon the arrival of calm, they knew how to quickly reorganize their livelihood and their businesses, or to seek new sources of income in times of dire need. The community's leadership succeeded in speedily handling severe problems which arose, in quickly renewing the community life, and in vigorously acting on restoring the community. The council cooperated with the Council of Lithuania in solving urgent problems of the Jewish public of Lithuania, such as helping the great number of refugees, redemption of prisoners, and education of the sons.
However, despite the calm, the businesses of leasing of estates and wholesale trade were in crisis. Many people became penniless, and many were forced to seek a new way of making an income, to which they were not accustomed. A large percentage of the Jews of Pinsk and the vicinity found their income in serving and manufacturing alcoholic beverages in the city and villages of the region; most were petty tradesmen. Commerce adjusted to conditions of economic distress. Small businesses went broke, whereas businesses which once had been large strived to hold on as middle-sized businesses, with the help of loans from the nobility. Economically speaking, those businesses belonging to Jews who had succeeded in retaining part of their property, and had succeeded in rehabilitating their businesses, were better off than those of the Christian inhabitants.
At the end of the 1660s and in the 1670s the Jewish population grew by large numbers. In 1678 there were three synagogues in Pinsk, instead of the one which had existed in 1660. In the 1680s many Christian townspeople who had not succeeded in rebuilding their livelihood left Pinsk, and settled in the surrounding villages to work in agriculture. About 200 homes of these residents transferred to Jewish ownership. The Jewish population then numbered about 1500. By the end of the 17th century, Pinsk was already mostly Jewish.
Between the years 1650 and 1679, additional communities were established in the Pinsk region in the private towns of Drohichin [Drahiczyn], Motele [Motol], David Gorodok, Lakhva and Stolin. Also in Lubishov (Libeshei) and in Kozhanhorodok, which had been agricultural villages in the 1640s, and where there were small groups of Jewish settlers, communities were established. Beginning with the 1660s and until the end of the century, the number of Jews in the villages in the Pinsk region grew, where Jews made their living from middle- or small-level leasing, especially of alcoholic beverages and their sale. In the 1690s Jews first settled in Karlin, adjacent to Pinsk, which was originally established as a private city.
At the end of the 17th century, Pinsk continued to be a center for trade in wax and for wholesale and retail trade in skins, furs and grains. Merchants from faraway places were drawn to Pinsk, where they sold finished goods, and purchased goods which were abundant in the city. Members of the well-to-do families were involved in large business transactions, and they were the most successful merchants in Pinsk; they participated in the fairs of Mir, Nesvizh [Nyasvizh, 53°13'/26°40'], Stolovich [Stolovichi, 53°13'/26°02'], and Kapolia [Kapyl', 53°09'/27°05'], where the leaders of the main Jewish communities used to meet to settle matters of the entire Lithuanian State. But then the positive development of trade in Pinsk was weakened, and formerly wealthy merchants then managed medium- or small-sized businesses. Petty trade grew among Pinsk Jewry. The general economic conditions continued to be bad. The shortage of cash was severe and the economic activity met with difficulties which were typical of periods of economic recession. Individuals clung to any possibility of economic activity and worked hard in order to support their families. A few of them even did not refrain from dealing in stolen goods.
According to the law, leasing of customs rights was solely the privilege of the nobility, and Jews were prohibited from leasing customs collection. However many noblemen engaged Jews in their customs collection activities as partners, as sublessees, or as customs agents and clerks in the collection offices. In 1693 the Lithuanian Treasury leased the customs station of Pinsk and its branches to Jews, so that the collection would be managed in the best possible manner. In the 1680s and 1690s the customs stations of Pinsk and its branches were leased to noblemen, but they were actually managed by Jews. Gershon Beniaszewicz, one of the Pinsk community leaders, earned his living for rather a long time from customs management and succeeded in holding onto his position even when the lease itself changed hands, without doubt because he and his partner and assistants were experienced in customs collection arrangements. The competition over customs business was strong even among Jews, and only with support from the community could the leaseholder survive.
In this period, leasing of large estates was rare. On the one hand, there was a large number of small leaseholders and on the other hand, there was a group of people who remained in the service of noblemen and wealthy people and as faktors (administrators), who managed the business of their masters. Central businesses of the small lessees were alcoholic beverages and the milling of flour, which were then monopolized by the nobility.
Also in this period changes occurred in the money lending business. There is no evidence of loans from Jews to Christians after 1669. In contrast, there is evidence of the need of the Jewish community and of individual Jews of loans from Christians, mainly from church institutions and from the nobility, most likely because this was inexpensive credit at from eight to ten percent per annum.
In 1664 Pinsk was numbered among the communities to which the Council of Lithuania owed money. But in 1667 there was a weakening of its economic condition (probably because of the need for expensive lobbying in the matter of a baseless libel against the Jews of the region), and in the records for that year, Pinsk is not mentioned among those communities to which the Council owes money. Beginning in 1673 and through the 1690s Pinsk owed large sums of money to the national council, and its financial condition became much worse than that of other major cities. In order to finance its debts, the community was in need of loans. In 1678 the community twice borrowed from the Jesuits of Pinsk 1500 zlotys, at ten percent interest. In 1680 the community borrowed from them the sum of 7000 zlotys at eight percent. That same year the community also borrowed from one of the townspeople 5620 zlotys. From the accounts of the council of that and the following year, we learn that the financial condition of the community continued to be bleak, and that again it was unable to repay the “national sum”, and that the National Council took the difficult situation into consideration and gave the community discounts on payment of taxes.
In the 1690s the community owed the national council 6962 zlotys, while Brisk, Horodna and Vilna had balanced accounts. In 1695 Pinsk borrowed 8000 zlotys from one noblewoman—apparently in order to repay its debts to the Council. According to the conditions of the loan, all of the Jews of Pinsk and the surrounding communities were mutual guarantors through all of their property, including their persons and their synagogues, for repayment of the loan and its interest. In 1698 the community borrowed 32,000 gold currency from the same noblewoman (an enormous sum!) at ten percent interest. As collateral the community mortgaged interest and income from the korovka (tax on meat). Taking on this last loan was the result of the 1697 decision to repay all of the community's debts to the Council at once, because of the heavy pressures of the creditors to repay all debts immediately. To this purpose, the Council required the head communities to mortgage the income from the meat tax, and Pinsk abided by this decision. After the latest loans Pinsk refrained from late payment of its taxes and its standing in the National Council was restored.
Knowledge about the internal life of the Pinsk Jewry and their everyday life in the 17th century is meager. A bit of light may be found in the discourse [Drosh] books of Rabbi Yehuda Leib Pohovitzer, who served as divine messenger (maggid misharim) in Pinsk over a few decades. In the time of Yehuda Leib children of six to seven years of age studied Talmud, which means that children of four to five studied the alphabet and reading in the prayer book and the Pentateuch. The school fees of the poor children were almost certainly covered by the community, because it was the practice in the communities of Israel that school-aged children are not exempt from torah studies. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Pohovitzer criticized the accepted mode of education, which was based upon the meaning of the words. Instead he suggested a system of working from the easy to the difficult: first the Pentateuch with understanding of the content, later mishnayot and finally Talmud for the more talented, and for the others the Prophets and the Writings (Ctuvim) and matters of morality (mussar).
The Rabbi and Av Beit-Din of Pinsk maintained a yeshiva where boys from Pinsk and the vicinity studied. Reb Yehuda Leib complained about the decline in the standing of the yeshiva and the level of studies, which had taken place in the second half of the 17th century, in comparison to the situation before the het v'tet  slaughters, when the Rabbi and Av Beit-Din had ensured that the yeshiva was full of students, rich and poor as one, and his only goal was to teach torah. In the words of Rabbi Yehuda Leib, in the 1670s and 1680s mostly wealthy boys were accepted to the yeshiva, whereas most of the poor boys were discriminated against and were obliged to quit their studies. Reb Yehuda Leib also expressed strong criticism of the system of dialectics (pilpul) and differences (hilukim) which was practiced at the yeshiva.
In this same period Pinsk was a seat of torah study, and there was a group of excellent scholars (talmidim hakhamim) in Pinsk. Study of Kabbalah, which was already popular at this time, was commonly accepted among the yeshiva students of Pinsk. The influence of Reb Yehuda Leib on this group was great. He demanded establishment of permanent batei midrash in every place, to support long-term torah students and to require each Jew to fix regular times for study of the Law (likboa itim l'torah). And indeed, then torah study became widespread and also reached the lower classes.
The Seat of the Rabbinate of Pinsk was at that time one of the most respected in Poland-Lithuania, and the greatest of rabbis served in it: Rabbi Naftali Hertz son of Yitzhak Isaac Ginzburg (in the years 1664-1670); Rabbi Israel son of Shmuel from Ternopol [Ternopil] (1667); Rabbi Moshe son of Israel Yaakov Isserles (1673-1689); Rabbi Yoel son of Yitzhak Yaakov Heilprin (1691); Rabbi Yitzhak Meir son of Yona Teumim Frankel (1693-1703); Rabbi Shaul son of Naftali Hertz Ginzburg (1703-1712). As mentioned above, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Pohovitzer was in Pinsk; he was among the greatest sermonizers of his generation. He was born in Pinsk; he lived from approximately 1630-1700. He served as Rabbi in several communities, returning to Pinsk about 1670, where he served as teacher and sermonizer (darshan u'mokhiah) for almost thirty more years.
The grand synagogue of Pinsk
(Pinsk Yizkor book A/1)
In the first decade of the 18th century, Pinsk was markedly a Jewish city. In 1706, the year in which the Swedes invaded in the Northern War, and in its aftermath, the Christian population of Pinsk again declined, possibly having been hurt worse than the Jews. Many of the residents and estate owners escaped from the city and settled in nearby Karlin, which had been established in 1790 [sic (1690)] as a private municipal settlement.
In 1717 there were approximately 250-275 Jewish homes, in which about 300 families resided, which adds up to close to 1500 souls. Over the 18th century, until 1793, the Jewish population of Pinsk grew as follows:
The Jewish settlement in Karlin grew steadily throughout the first half of the 18th century at the expense of the mother community of Pinsk. In the 1740s the Jews of Karlin had their own synagogue, rabbi, judges, sextons and teachers. In 1751 the Jews of Karlin received a permit to build a separate cemetery and were actually separated from the mother community. The background to the departure was collection of the royal taxes and participation in repayment of the debts of the Pinsk community.
The community of Pinsk reacted strenuously over the separate organization of the Karlin Jews and in revenge began to attack the businessmen of Karlin on the roads. In response the Karlin community began an open revolt, and stopped paying taxes to the community of Pinsk. This quarrel reached legal arbitration, first of all before the community of Horodna which reached a severe verdict against the Karlin community. Only after the intervention of the starosta [royal representative] of Pinsk and the owner of Karlin, the nobleman Michael Brzostowski, did the communities of Pinsk and Karlin reach a compromise, which fixed the character of the relations between them. The Karlin community succeeded in achieving a large measure of autonomy and in greatly reducing its dependence on Pinsk. Karlin did promise to take part in repaying the debts of Pinsk and to pay through the Pinsk community the head tax and other levies as was accepted. Nonetheless, in judicial matters Karlin was granted almost full independence, in spite of Karlin's formal recognition of the supremacy of Pinsk's Rabbi and Av Beit-Din. In all other aspects, Karlin won its independence. It was granted a new letter of rights which confirmed its legal status by agreement. Soon afterward, Pinsk regretted this agreement with Karlin and claimed that the agreement was signed without the presence of the starosta, and under the duress of the nobleman-owner of Karlin, but unsuccessfully.
After the Lithuanian Council was terminated in 1794, Karlin stopped paying the head tax to the community of Pinsk, according to the new law. Pinsk regarded this as breach of contract and began restricting the Jews of Karlin in Pinsk in the realm of business, sales of homes, etc. The battle between the communities escalated and in the end, reached arbitration before the committee for the liquidation of the debts of the Jews. This committee was bewildered, and decided to transfer the conflict to the financial committee. Apparently, the conflict was not resolved to the satisfaction of Pinsk, and mutual feuds between the two communities persisted until the end of the 18th century.
From the outset of the 18th century, the subject of repayment of debts was a pressing problem in the lives of the Jews of Lithuania and in particular of Pinsk. Many claims were made against the main towns (Brisk, Horodna, Pinsk, Vilna and Slutsk) regarding failure to repay debts and taxes, and severe verdicts were reached in the tribunal of Lithuania. Many communities were unable to bear the heavy burden of taxes and fines, and their connection to their main cities loosened. Pinsk had already been in need of loans in the 1680s, and continued to require them in the 18th century. In the 1760s the community of Pinsk suffered from a heavy burden of debts, which added up to 309,140 zlotys.
Communities in the cities and private towns began to require the sponsorship of their masters the noblemen against the claims of the main cities. Concurrently, the trend of settlement on the private estates grew. To the fourteen settlements in the Pinsk region known to us by name until 1679, between 1679 and 1764 at least twelve new ones were established: Vynova; Lahishyn [52°20'/25°59']; Horodno [Gorodna, 51°52'/26°30']; Petrikov [Pyetrykaw, 52°08'/28°30']; Narovel [Narowlya, 51°48'/29°30']; Turovetz [Turovichi, 52°16'/29°17']; Slovechno [51°38'/29°84']; Ozorich [Ozarichi, 52°28'/29°16']; Lalachitz [Lyel'chytsy, 51°47'/28°20']; Kopitkevich [Kopatkevichi, 52°19'/28°49']; Mozir [Mazyr, 52°03'/29°16'], Rechytsa [51°51'/26°48']. Concurrently, the numbers of Jews residing in the villages of the region grew.
In 1817 the communities of northern Volhynia, which were under the auspices of Pinsk, organized and tried to relieve themselves of their dependence on the Pinsk community; however, this attempt was blocked by the Polish authorities. In 1725 the community of Ovruch tried to break free from the burden of Pinsk, but did not succeed. As 1750 approached, a feud broke out between the community of Pinsk and the Committee for Northern Volhyn over control of a number of communities in northern Volhyn (Ovruch, Barach, Olevsk, Ushomir and others). The community of Pinsk which was unable and unwilling to bear on its own the burden of repayment of the debts and to relinquish collection of the head tax from all the inhabitants of the region, opened a legal campaign and apparently succeeded, in legal proceedings, in receiving a verdict affirming its continued dominance of the communities of northern Volhynia. During the years 1763-5 there was an uprising in the region of all the communities against the dominance of the community of Pinsk. But the authorities continued to recognize the regional and national Jewish autonomy of the region, which had actually been revoked, because of the need to collect the debts, whose repayment was demanded by creditors, both ecclesiastical entities and private members of the nobility.
Of the economic life of the Jews of Pinsk one may learn from complaints lodged by the townspeople. Already at the beginning of the 18th century the part of the Christian townspeople in business and the trades declined. At the end of the 18th century there were 115 Christian skilled laborers, but the number of Jewish skilled laborers was much larger. Among them were metalsmiths, metalworkers, millers, bakers, lacemakers, tailors, furriers, and others.
In 1764 Pinsk businessmen and tradesmen paid the royal representative leases for 88 shops. Among them 75 were in the hands of Jews and only 13 in Christian hands. In 1788 60 Jews paid the leasing fees, while only 15 Christians did so.
During the 18th century Pinsk continued to play an important role in export and import. The improved means of transportation during the reign of the last Polish king, Stanislaw August Poniatowsky, and the digging of the canals which connected the Dneiper with the Neman River (the Auginsky Canal), and the Dneiper with the Bug and the Visla (the Royal Canal), placed Pinsk at the crossroads of two modern transportation networks. Beginning in the 1780s commerce of Pinsk developed rapidly. Merchants attended the fairs of Danzig (Gdansk), Koenigsberg [Kaliningrad], and Breslau.
Pinsk Jews also traded in cattle, which had been forbidden by law of the Sejm [Polish Parliament] from 1746. They succeeded in bypassing this prohibition by managing the trade under the sponsorship or in the name of monasteries or noblemen. There is no doubt that they were obliged to pay some of their income to their sponsors. In the 1760s and 1770s leasing of beverages and of commercial leasing of scales and manufacture of wax were in Jewish hands.
A close look at the amount of taxes paid by the communities of Lithuania as laid out in the records of the state demonstrates that the amounts of head tax paid in the Pinsk region declined in the first half of the 18th century (1713-1740) from 6650 zlotys to 2860, whereas the amounts paid in the regions of Brisk and Horodna remained more or less stable, apparently because of a decline in the total population [in the Pinsk region], or because of the worsening of economic conditions or both. In 1761 once again the amount of head tax paid by the Pinsk region increased and reached 3031 zlotys. In 1731 the relative part of the head tax of Pinsk, of the total paid by the Jews of Lithuania, was 6.6 percent.
In 1767 the annual income of the Pinsk Jewish community reached 37,500 zlotys which came from the following items: customs on salt, tobacco, salts, asphalt, tar and other commodities; a fee for tradesmen; a percentage of dowries; one third of the income of municipal flour mills, which were leased by the community; a tax on public houses, on kosher meat and on other commodities. From the list of the income of the starosta from 1778 one finds that the income came primarily from indirect taxes: krupky (korovka—tax on meat) from merchants, krupky from purchase of meat, from the weekly “sum” (unit of customs), from etrogs, and other taxes.
Pinsk remained an important center of torah learning in the 18th century. The great rabbis of their generation continued to sit on the Rabbinate seat of the city. Until the appearance of Hassidism, the following served as Rabbi and Av Beit-Din [president of Rabbinical Court] in Pinsk: Rabbi Asher son of Shaul Ginzburg (in the years 1713-1737); Rabbi Yehuda Leib son of Asher Anzil from Pinczow (1737-1740), who previously sat in the rabbinates of Ostroh and Slutsk; Rabbi Israel Isserl son of Avraham, who came to serve as the Rabbi of Pinsk from the Rabbinate of Brisk before 1747 and who remained in Pinsk until 1762 or 1763. In 1753 Rabbi Israel Isserl joined in the boycott led by Rabbi Yaakov Emden against Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeschuetz. Rabbi Rafael son of Yekutiel Ziskind Hacohen (later known as Hamburger) served in the years 1763-1772. After he left Pinsk, Rabbi Rafael son of Yekutiel was accepted as Rabbi of Pozno [Poznan] and in 1776 he was called to become the Rabbi of three communities of “AHW” (Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek). In the period of his rabbinate, Hassidism began spreading in both Karlin and Pinsk.
Alongside the rabbis in Pinsk and Karlin was a large group of scholars of the Law, some of whom had compiled books on halakha [Jewish religious law] and discourses. The growth of the level of the scholars goes to show that torah studies were broadened and deepened according to the lines drawn at the end of the 17th century by Rabbi Yehuda Leib Pohovitzer and his circle. Apparently, in these circles Hassidism quickly and easily took root in Karlin and Pinsk, and some of its adherents became its propagandists and disseminators.
Hassidism became fortified in Karlin beginning with the 1760s and from there was dispersed all over Lithuania and Reisen. Rabbi Aharon from Karlin (1736-1772), the outstanding student of Rabbi Dov Ber the Maggid of Mezrich [Miedzyrzec], played a central role in the Hassidic revolution in Lithuania and in organizing the movement. Thanks to him Karlin was already important in the 1760s (during the Rabbinate of Rafael Hacohen), as one of the two leading centers of the Hassidic movement. When Rabbi Aharon died at the age of 36, his student and friend, Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin (1738-1791) inherited his position. He too was a disciple of the Maggid of Mezrich. When Rabbi Rafael Hacohen left Pinsk (in 1772), it is possible that the seat of the Rabbinate remained vacant for three years. In 1775 Rabbi Levi Yitzhak son of Meir was called to serve as Rabbi and Av Beit-Din of Pinsk. He was later known as Rabbi Levi Yitzhak from Berdichev [Berdychiv], student of the Maggid of Mezrich, and among the great leaders of Hassidism in the first generation. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak served as Rabbi of Pinsk until 1785.
A reexamination of the sources of knowledge about the part of Pinsk in the war declared by the Lithuanian communities against Hassidism led by Rabbi Eliahu son of Shlomo Zalman—the Gaon from Vilna—leads to the following conclusions: (a) Rabbi Rafael Hacohen, Pinsk's Rabbi in the years 1763-72, in the period of rapid expansion of Hassidism, kept a neutral position with regard to Hassidism, and refrained from ostracizing it; (b) rereading of the letter from the Maggid of Mezrich to Rabbi Haim and Rabbi Eliezer Halevi, and information about Rabbi Eliezer Halevi in the book Shema Shlomo, reveal that Rabbi Eliezer was not only not an active Mitnaged, but he himself was a Hassid or close to Hassidism, at least until the early 1780s. From the letter one may not conclude that there was actual persecution of the Hassidim in Pinsk, in 1772, or before then; (c) Pinsk did not join the ostracism that Vilna [Vilnius] and other Lithuanian communities decreed against Hassidism in 1772; (d) from the fact that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev was accepted as Av Beit-Din in Pinsk in 1775 or 1776, one may learn that there was a strong Hassidic influence among the leadership of the community and among the scholars. Indeed, at the Zelva fair in 1781, the leaders of the Pinsk community joined the ostracism of the Vilna community against Hassidism; however, the boycott of the Pinsk leadership is phrased in mild language and at that time, the standing of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak was not harmed. The attitude towards Rabbi Levi Yitzhak began to change only in 1784, as a result of heavy pressure from the Gaon of Vilna and the community of Vilna, who demanded that he be expelled from Pinsk, and that Rabbi Shlomo be expelled from Karlin. But even then Rabbi Levi Yitzhak was not immediately expelled, rather was allowed, in practice at least, to serve for another year and therefore to complete a term of ten years. Then Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin also left Karlin. The conclusion from this is that until the 1780s Pinsk like Karlin was a center of Hassidism in Lithuania. This explains why Pinsk did not join in the ostracism of 5532  against Hassidism, and also the acceptance of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak as Rabbi and Av Beit-Din of Pinsk.
The election of Avigdor son of Haim as Rabbi and Av Beit-Din in 1785, following the expulsion of Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev [Berdychiv], was enabled against the background of a temporary change in the balance of power between the Hassidim and the moderate Mitnagdim [the traditionalist Jews, who opposed the mysticism of the Hassidim], which removed the spiritual leadership from the Hassidim. The activity and pressure from the Committee to Liquidate the Debts of the Pinsk Community apparently determined the election of Rabbi Avigdor, who was willing to pay a large sum for the esteemed role of Rabbi of Pinsk (about 54,000 zlotys), a sum which was likely to bring relief to the financial condition of the community. The factors of personal greatness and learnedness were apparently of secondary importance in his selection. The years of his Rabbinate were years of great internal stress in the Pinsk community and in the villages of the region. His activity toward eradicating Hassidism in coordination with Vilna aroused the public against his leadership and brought about an awakening of the Hassidic camp, which was mostly in Pinsk and the towns of the region.
The annexation of Pinsk to Russia and the second partition of Poland in 1793 neutralized the support by the Polish authorities of Rabbi Avigdor and his Mitnaged [opponent of Hassidism] leadership, and enabled the Hassidim to take over the leadership of the community and to remove Rabbi Avigdor from his position. Rabbi Avigdor decided to fight back and in 1793, he appealed to the municipality to help him, and later, in the days of Catherine the Great [Catherine II of Russia], he began a campaign of lobbying the governor of Minsk, Nieplojew and also the General the Governor Tutolamin, in the years 1793-6; the height was in 1800. Then Rabbi Avigdor presented to Tsar Pavel 1st a letter of general slander against the community of Pinsk and against the entire camp of Hassidism. The head of the Hassidic community of Pinsk and the Hassids themselves also frequently appealed to the new Russian institutions.
The despotic regime of Tsar Pavel 1st and the last attempt of the Mitnagdim in Lithuania to thwart the Hassidic movement with the help of the Russian regime, brought about close cooperation between the Mitnagdim and Rabbi Avigdor. After the slander of the Mitnagdim against Rabbi Schneor Zalman from Lyady, and other Hassidic leaders, was rejected, the only means open to them was presenting a personal complaint by a private person fighting for reparation of a personal injustice. Rabbi Avigdor took this task upon himself, and he began the final and most extreme stage of his war against the community of Pinsk and the entire Hassidic camp. In his slanderous letter against the leadership of the Pinsk community, and in particular against Rabbi Shneor Zalman and Hassidism in general, Rabbi Avigdor mixed financial matters with matters pertaining to religion and faith, while making claims and slanders against the Hassidim. These were intended to present the Hassidim as opposing the existing order and authority and as potential rebels. The investigation which was opened as a result of this letter did not fulfill the expectations of Rabbi Avigdor and the Mitnagdim, and ended without real results, although the Russian authorities used his claims against the Hassidim when they began planning new policy toward the Jews and after the assassination of Tsar Pavel [Tsar Pavel I Petrovich Romanov, assassinated March 24, 1801], which policy aimed to reduce their rights and to narrow their abilities to exist and to develop.
After Rabbi Avigdor was deposed from the Rabbinate and the Hassidim took over the leadership, Rabbi Shaul, who already in his youth was a central figure in Karlin and a confirmed Mitnaged, brought about the renewed separation of Karlin from Pinsk. In Karlin there began to be concentrated Mitnagdim from the among the well-to-do, and talmidim hakhamim [religious scholars]; and gradually Karlin acquired the character of a Mitnaged community. This development may explain why the return of the head of Hassidism in Karlin, Rabbi Asher son of Aharon the Great, was delayed. He returned from Stolin to Karlin only after 1810, following the pacification and the end of the struggle between the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim, following enactment of the law of 1804, which enforced a common communal leadership on both camps.
In the travel journal kept by Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz of his visit in the region of Pinsk, the demographical and economic situation is described as depressing and miserable. The Polish writer did not find signs of anything in the city to highlight, of industry or trades, of commerce or wealth. The city only maintained its hold on the trade of salt. According to his estimation, Pinsk then had about 3220 souls, of them about 3000 Jews.
Between the years 1819-1829 massive development took place in the economic life of Pinsk's Jews. One may learn this from the descriptions in the travel journal of Kazimierz Kontrym, who traveled through the region of Polesie in 1829 as an emissary of the Bank of Poland. From his description comes an encouraging picture of commercial activity, especially in transport of logs for export. However, in his words, most of the tradesmen were poor and without capital, and the number of well-to-do among them was small. The central figure in the economic life of the Jews of Pinsk-Karlin was Rabbi Shaul Levin, who managed estates, dealt in commerce and with salt and lumber, and was even involved in industry. He had amassed much property and was considered very wealthy. Also his daughter, Haia Lurie, in the first two decades of the 19th century, achieved economic stability and wealth.
His talents, his connections, his studiousness and his wealth raised Rabbi Shaul Levin to roles of leadership in Karlin and in Pinsk, and, after the tensions between the Hassidim and Mitnagdim abated following 1804—among the Jewish public in all of Russia. He built batei midrash and charitable institutions and contributed to charities in Karlin and in Pinsk. Rabbi Shaul served as advisor to Jewish communities and towns in the vicinity of Pinsk. His connections among the authorities, men of authority, and the nobility enabled him to represent the business of Pinsk and Karlin before the authorities and at internal consultations of the communities of Russia during the first and second decades of the 19th century. In the 1820s Rabbi Shaul Levin played a major role in helping the young perushi-mitnagdi settlement in the Land of Israel, and to his credit Pinsk was second only to Vilna in raising contributions and sending them to the Land of Israel. In his final years Rabbi Shaul took under his sponsorship Rabbi Yitzhak Ber Levinzon ([whose acronym is] Rival), among the first standard bearers of the Enlightenment in Russia.
During the 19th century the Jewish population of Pinsk grew considerably. Under Russian domination the general population of Pinsk grew five- or six-fold. The rate of growth was especially great in the second half of the 19th century, but Pinsk maintained its distinction as a Jewish city, and the percentage of Jews residing there remained between seventy-five and eighty-three percent.
The Russian government as a matter of fact equalized the status of the Jews with the status of the other city residents, and governmental and judicial authority over them was transferred to the municipalities. As a result of the new administrative division at the initiative of the Russian authorities, Minsk rose in importance and Pinsk lost its status as a main town, but as a regional capital it maintained its status as the authority over the communities in its region: Lubishov, Stolin, Lahyshin, Pohost [Pogost-Zagorodskiy], Livchin, Pohost Zazechni (beyond the river), and Horodna.
Following the law of 1844 the government cancelled the community leadership (kahal). The leadership of the community continued to exist while adjusting to the new legal reality. In the position of tax collector was concentrated much of the authority of the kahal, and the holder of this position, in addition to collecting taxes, collected the tax on kosher meat and candles, the korovka; recruited new soldiers; and dealt in public matters. Some of the traditional functions of the community leadership were transferred to charitable institutions. The wealthy of Pinsk-Karlin used to contribute to the common needs; therefore there was no lapse in payment of taxes by the poor. In the 1860s there was somewhat of an awakening of the activities of the kahal. The learned writer Tzvi Hacohen Sharshevski was then named the writer of the kahal, and acted in the name of the Pinsk Jewish community in matters of public interest.
In the 1820s and the early 1830s systematic repair of the means of transportation was carried out by the Russians, in order to promote development of industry and trade. Repair of the Dneiper-Pripyet canal turned Pinsk into a central transit port for export of surplus products of southwestern Russia to the ports of the Baltic Sea, and for import of goods in the opposite direction. In the hands of a few merchants of Pinsk-Karlin (especially the Levin and Lurie families) there was the necessary capital, the initiative and the talent to properly organize the purchase of the surplus goods in southwest Russia, their transport and their marketing. The monetary value of the export from Ukraine and the import from the West passing through Pinsk in the years 1855-1857 reached approximately fifteen million rubles. The merchants of Pinsk played a central role in this commerce. In addition to the major merchants, medium-sized and small businessmen were also involved in this trade. Growing rich was a common phenomenon, and the upper class grew. At that time the Levin and Lurie families became extremely wealthy. The merchants utilized agents (commissioners), most of them from Pinsk, who were attached to the markets all over Ukraine where the products were purchased. At the same time the internal trade in Pinsk also consolidated and the number of shop owners also grew steadily; in 1860 the number of shops owned by Jews was 244, whereas the number of shops owned by non-Jews was only six.
The Landlady Chaja Lurie
(Pinsk Yizkor book A/1)
The economic prosperity of Pinsk reached its highest point in the 1850s. In the 1860s there began to be signs of crisis as a result of the railway, which bypassed Pinsk. At that time many of the Jews of Pinsk began migrating to Ukraine, which had developed quickly. In the 1870s a crisis hit Pinsk, which declined from its greatness, as the train began to replace boats in transport of goods for export from Ukraine. Throughout the 19th century trade in lumber and occupations related to dealing with forests remained an important part of the income of Pinsk's Jews. Trade in lumber was hurt less from the economic crisis. A limited awakening of industry in Pinsk was felt only in the 1860s and 1870s. The pioneer of modern industry in Pinsk was Moshe Lurie, who in 1860 established an oil factory and a flour mill, both run by steam power. In 1872 the stearin candle factory built by the Botta family from Germany transferred to Jewish hands.
In this period most of the branches of skilled labor were also concentrated in the hands of Jews. The commerce and products of the craftsmen of Pinsk well withstood the competition in the markets of the region of Minsk. There was specialization in some trades (for instance, clock making). In Pinsk in the 1860s and 70s, under the leadership of Gad Asher Levin, there was activity to encourage learning of skills by teenage boys. In Pinsk were excellent master craftsmen who fostered good artisans. In 1855 fifteen families settled in the village of Ivaniki near Pinsk, with the active assistance of Zeev Wolf son of Shaul Levin. The settlers were exempt from taxes and from serving in the army. Supposedly they dealt with agriculture, but in fact they engaged primarily in urban occupations.
During the years of the economic crisis of the 1870s, there was a broad spectrum of unemployed and people without means. Many were in need of economic assistance, and the community leaders began promoting productivity through skilled labor and industry.
Between the end of the 1820s and the beginning of the 1830s, the Enlightenment (haskalah) began to rise as a public force. Already in the 1830s Pinsk-Karlin of the homeowners and the serious scholars was tolerant and open to new ideas of the moderate Enlightenment, as preached to them by Yitzhak Ber Levinzon (Rival) [his acronym]. In Pinsk there were brilliant students who studiously read Mendelsohn and the books of Rabbinical discourse (dikduk) and research of learned men from Berlin. In the 1830s Reuven Holdhor wrote his apologetic book Words of Peace and Truth in Hebrew and Russian. The ideas of the Enlightenment were discussed in the Rabbis' studies and in the batei midrash and the students of the batei midrash acquired knowledge either on their own or with the help of other learned men. The turning point of the status of the Enlightenment took place in the mid-nineteenth century. In the 1860s there was already a large group who openly identified with the ideas of the Enlightenment. This identification was expressed in the willingness to learn Hebrew, Russian and other languages in an orderly manner, and in attempts to reform the methods of education in the schools and reformed religious schools (talmudei torah metukanim). There were residents of the city who through their work were fluent in Russian: licensed lawyers, agents and lobbyists who had contacts with the authorities, clerks who worked for the local and district police, writers of requests to the authorities, and others. Their manners, their dress, their lifestyle and the education they gave their children all strengthened the enlightened educated people in Pinsk.
A larger group of self-taught enlightened men from among the ranks of the talmidim hakhamim preached a moderate Hebrew Enlightenment. Among this group belong some of the writers of the Enlightenment period (Shmuel Aharon Shatzkes, Avraham Dov Dubzevich, Zvi Hirsh Hacohen Sharshevski, Avraham Haim Rozenberg, Nahum Meir Shaikevich-Shamar and others). In this period many articles were sent from Pinsk to the Hebrew press. In these articles the trend towards moderate Hebrew Enlightenment dominated. Only a few adopted the trend towards Russification.
The wealthy people of Pinsk hired excellent private teachers and tutors who taught their sons secular studies alongside the religious ones. Among these sons came pioneers of modernization of economic life in Pinsk: in management styles, in introduction of steam ships and in establishment of the first industrial plants, where machinery was run by steam power.
A state school for Jewish children was established in 1853, in the framework of the Russian policy of “reforming” the status of the Jews of Russia. Although establishment of the school was received with hostility, there was no preventing its opening. Until end of the 1850s, there were between 28 and 33 pupils, mostly orphans and poor children. The principal was a Russian Christian. In the 1860s changes were made in the educational policy of the authorities, along with cessation of the coercion to maintain schools. The Russian Society for the Promotion of the Enlightenment, which had several members in Pinsk, began to support the institution with the help of educated people of the city. The school continued to exist at least until 1891. In 1873 the official Rabbi Avraham Haim Rozenberg founded a private school in which pupils studied secular studies in Russian, but its general tendency was religious-traditional and therefore it won the approval of the general public. Beginning at the end of the 1850s, Jews began studying at the Russian gymnasium. In the 1860s Jewish pupils began going there of their own volition. By the end of the 1870s approximately 70 Jewish pupils studied there (about 35% of the student body).
In 1862 in Pinsk and Karlin two talmudei torah schools were established, with the active assistance of the Rabbis of Pinsk and Karlin. Alongside the traditional system of education, they taught Russian and mathematics, composition and grammar. In the Pinsk talmud torah there were difficulties in implementing the curriculum because of the opposition of some of the ultra-orthodox, who controlled the management of the school and ran it until 1876. At that time its condition was poor. In the Karlin talmud torah, from the beginning there was proper order, and the planned educational program was achieved. Even the supporters of the Enlightenment saw in it a model for the education of the children of Israel. The budget was primarily funded by contributions, and the remainder by tuition. After 1876 action was taken to improve the conditions at the Pinsk talmud torah, in accordance with the model of Karlin. These institutions included traditional teachers among their staff. The traditional heder as a place of learning was on the wane from the 1860s, but the lower classes continued to entrust the education of their sons to traditional teachers [melamedim]. In the second half of the 19th century, Lithuanian melamedim and teachers were drawn to Pinsk. In the haderim the students also caught some of the spirit of the times, and changes were made in the framework of the haderim as well.
During the 19th century the number of traditional societies grew. The good, stable economic conditions and the generosity of many of the residents created a material basis for the activity of the societies and many of them built beautiful institutions and buildings. In Pinsk the following societies were active: the old Hevra Kadisha [burial society] and next to it a small society of charity for burial expenses; Bikur Holim [aid to the sick]; and Linat Tzedek [a roof for the homeless--at the end of the 19th century]. As to torah studies, in Pinsk was the Society for the Talmud Torah, which was founded a the beginning of the 19th century. At the end of the century the following could be found in Pinsk: a Shas society, a society for mishnayot [Mishna - collection of Oral Laws], Ein Yaakov, a psalms society and a society of morning watchmen. Likewise there were two charities [gamahim] which gave interest-free loans at the end of the century.
In Karlin there were the following: the burial society (Hevra Kadisha) which had been formed in the 1780s and next to it a small charity for burial expenses; and a Shas [Mishna or Talmud] society, which had existed between 1832-1842. In 1874 a new Shas society was established at the great synagogue; two loan charities [gamahim]; the somekh noflim to support people whose source of income was destroyed (founded in 1875); and bikur holim. A small hospital had existed in Pinsk before 1862. In 1868 a new and roomy hospital was built from the behest of Betzalel son of Tzemah Flores. This hospital excelled in its hygiene, order, and in the high level of its medical care. Nearby was established an old-age home and a visitors' (hakhnassat orhim – Welcoming Guests) building. In Karlin in 1857 a modern hospital was built with the generosity of wealthy contributors.
According to statistics, in Pinsk in 1854 there were officially two synagogues and twelve batei-midrash. Actually the numbers were higher. In 1857 in Karlin itself there were twelve synagogues for Mitnagdim and two for Hassidim. Towards the end of the 19th century the number of Mitnagdim houses of prayer in Pinsk grew (including the Great Synagogue) to fifteen; the Hassidim had two houses of prayer. In Karlin the Mitnagdim had thirteen houses of prayer and the Hassidim also had two. Altogether in Pinsk and Karlin there were thirty-two houses of prayer. The number of Hassidic synagogues bears witness to the decline in the relative strength of Hassidism.
In 1807 Rabbi Haim ben Peretz Hacohen became the Chief Rabbi of Pinsk. Rabbi Haim held this position until his aliya to Israel in 1826. Apparently he was accepted by both the Mitnagdim and the Hassidim. After his aliya, the sermonizer (maggid) Rabbi Yosef ben Benjamin took his place. In approximately 1840 the Rabbi and Av Beit-Din from Kretinga, Rabbi Aharon was chosen as Av Beit-Din and Chief Rabbi. He was the author of the book Tosefet Aharon. He died suddenly in 1841. Following his death the seat of the Chief Rabbi remained empty for three years. In 1844 Rabbi Mordekhai Zakheim of Rozhnoy [Ruzhany] was named Av Beit-Din and Rabbi of Pinsk, a position he held until his death in 1858. In 1860 Rabbi Elazar Moshe Horowitz was elected, the Rabbi from Monastyrshchina [in Russia], and he held the position of Av Beit-Din and Chief Rabbi until his death in 1890. In the manner of his leadership and in the way he dealt with problems of the time, he was beloved of his people and much honored. The first part of his book Ohel Moshe, which includes interpretations of the torah, was published at the end of his life. The second part, which includes questions and answers, was published by his descendants in Jerusalem in 1968.
From the 1820s the greatest torah scholars of Russia sat on the seat of the Karlin Rabbinate, which surpassed the Pinsk Rabbinate in importance. In the first and second decades of the 19th century Rabbi Shmuel ben Arieh Leib from Pinsk served as the Av Beit-Din of Karlin and Antopol. Between 1824 and 1844 Rabbi Yaakov ben Aharon Brukhin served as Rabbi and Av Beit-Din of Karlin. He was a native of Minsk who had previously served as Rabbi and Av Beit-Din of David Gorodok. Rabbi Yaakov Brukhin was the author of the books Mishkenot Yaakov and Kehilat Yaakov. After his death his brother Rabbi Yitzhak ben Aharon Minkovski was chosen as Rabbi of Karlin. He was the author of the book Keren Orah. Rabbi Yitzhak served in Pinsk until his death in 1851. Between the years 1855-1866 the Chief Rabbi of Karlin was Shmuel Avigdor Tosafist. His most important work was the interpretation of the tosefist Tanna Tosafist, which had already been published before his arrival in Karlin. After his death Rabbi David Friedman was chosen as the Chief Rabbi of Karlin, and he served in this capacity until 1915.
In the first quarter of the 19th century the Hassidim maintained their relative strength, but actually matters developed against the Hassidic camp, which apparently lost its attraction and remained stable in an era of great demographic growth. The many talmidim hakhamim [scholars of the Law] in Pinsk and Karlin no longer found interest in Hassidism. The economic prosperity of the city and the Enlightenment distanced the hearts of the people from Hassidism. Pinsk and Karlin became communities of Mitnagdim. However against the background of the ascent of the Enlightenment, the victory of the Mitnagdim had limited influence on the cultural and social character of Pinsk and Karlin.
Because of the congenial geographic situation of the city, in the period between the end of the 19th century and World War I, the city became not only a commercial center, but also an industrial center, and as a result also a city of laborers, many of whom were Jewish. Many of these blue-collar workers were employed in the industries owned by Jews.
In spite of the fact that in the 1897 census the Jews comprised 74.2% of the population, and that in 1914 their relative proportion was 72.5%, the local government was not in the hands of the Jews. The Jewish representation in the city council declined until there remained only two Jewish councilmen, and these both resigned in 1905. From 1905 until the First World War there were no Jewish representatives in the city council. A Jewish communal organization (kahal) did not exist, as this was prohibited by law. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th there were charitable institutions which received official recognition and which were allowed to own public property.
A special function in the community life was filled by the appointed official Rabbi, who intervened between the authorities and the public, and maintained the metrika lists (of births in the community). The indirect tax on kosher meat (the korovka) was conveyed on lease, and the income from this tax financed a large part of the charitable and educational institutions of the Jews of Pinsk. In 1887 a quota was introduced which limited the Jewish students at the State Reali Gymnasium [high school for math and sciences] to ten percent, in contrast to thirty-five percent previously. A temporary law of 1882, which forbade Jewish residence in villages, also brought hardship for the Jews; it was especially difficult during the years 1910-2, when all of the Jews were banished from the villages.
An economic crisis in Pinsk, which began in the 1870s, worsened in the 1880s and continued during the 1890s. The slow recovery from the crisis came about because of the initiative of Jews toward industrialization. In the 1880s Moshe Lurie and his sons established a plant for production of wooden nails and a large sawmill whose output was for export. In the mid-1890s they established the lumber factory, whose products also were intended for export. In 1897 Yosef Heilpern purchased a small factory for matches and enlarged it significantly. By the end of the 19th century, additional industrial plants were established, most of them small in size. The raw material for these industries was wood, which was abundant in Polesie. In 1898 there were twenty-seven industrial plants in Pinsk, employing 1375 workers. In 1902 there were twenty-seven industries, employing approximately 4000 workers, half of them Jewish. A Jewish proletariat was created in Pinsk.
An important part of the economy of Pinsk was based upon forests and lumber. Mostly wealthy merchants dealt in this business, hiring Jewish workers to oversee the cutting down of trees in the forests, to measure them and to expedite them to their destinations, primarily on rafts which traveled along the rivers. Pinsk was a center for this trade.
Gradually modern banks, which numbered six in 1914, replaced the private money lenders. In the city there were approximately 2000 skilled workers, who engaged in a wide spectrum of occupations. The carpenters of furniture and tailors of women's clothing were renowned for their excellent products.
There were also Jewish wagoners and porters. In this period there were added printers, typesetters, bookbinders and wallpaper hangers. There were also Jews who made their living from fruit and vegetable gardens.
The connection of Pinsk in 1887 to the railway lines eventually was beneficial to the local economy. Pinsk became a wholesale commercial center, serving the towns and villages of the district. At this time transport of goods by a combination of rail and water was introduced. Thus new opportunities arose which renewed the trade which had bypassed Pinsk. Marketing of the agricultural and industrial produce of Pinsk provided income to many residents of the city.
Beginning in the 1880s there began to be political organizations. Hovevei Zion [Lovers of Zion] was founded in Pinsk in 1882, with the establishment of Hibat Zion [Love of Zion] in Russia. Members of the intelligentsia, people who tended toward the Enlightenment and also religious people belonged to this organization. The Rabbi of Karlin, Rabbi David Friedman, also joined Hovevei Zion, and he participated in the convention which took place in Katowice in 1884, but soon afterwards he left the organization because of arguments over religious matters. A native of Pinsk, Yaakov Shertok, father of Moshe Sharet, joined the Biluim and immigrated with them to Israel. Among the immigrants from Pinsk was also Aharon Eisenberg, a founder of Rehovot [Israel]. With the founding of Bnei Moshe [Sons of Moshe] led by Ehad Ha'am, a branch of this organization was founded in Pinsk under the name Zrubavel. In 1890 with the establishment in Odessa of “The Society for Support to Farmers in Syria and in Eretz-Israel”, many members of Hovevei Zion in Pinsk joined the Society. Two representatives from Pinsk, Yehuda Leib Berger and Grigory Lurie, attended the First Zionist Congress which was held in Basel [Switzerland] in 1897. Among the lower classes, too, there was identification with the Zionist idea, and often they contributed for the purchase of land and the support of the renewed Jewish community in Eretz Israel, and for the Keren Kayemet [Jewish National Fund] after its establishment. The Zionists of Pinsk were very active purchasers of shares in the “Colonial Bank” (Otzar Hityashvut Hayehudim), which had been initiated by [Theodore] Herzl. The city was a center for the distribution of the bank's shares in Russia. In 1903 the following were founded: Bnei Zion, Bnot Zion and Shoresh Zion. Also there were new branches of Mizrahi and Poalei Zion. The strenuous stand of Chaim Weizmann against the Uganda plan, influenced the Jews of Pinsk and the region, most of whom joined in opposing the plan. The Socialist Zionists, who were territorialists, became a serious public force only after the Revolution of 1905.
To the credit of the Hovevei Zion in Pinsk is the establishment of the heder metukan [reformed religious school] in 1895, and soon thereafter, the system of teaching “Hebrew in Hebrew” in these haderim. These haderim served as an example for other cities, in which the system of haderim metukanim had also been introduced.
A small group of revolutionary young people had already existed in Pinsk in the early 1880s. The industrialization of the city, as we have already mentioned, brought about the creation of the proletariat. At first young Jews joined the Social Democrats (SD) or the Social Revolutionary (SR) Party. After the founding of the Bund Party in 1897, young people and blue-collar workers joined it, and by 1899 there was an active branch in the town which introduced propaganda activities and organizing among youth and workers. That same year the first strike of Jewish workers broke out – in the tobacco factory – and in 1901 there was a strike in the match factory. The justification for the strike was the demand to shorten the work day from twelve to eleven hours. The numbers of those joining the Bund in 1901 and 1902 were especially large. The Bund disseminated vigorous propaganda against the religious and the Zionists, and there was a rift among the radical Zionist youth, some of whom transferred to Poalei Zion. In 1903 there was a public debate (illegal) between the radical Chaim Weizmann and Rubenchik from Poalei Zion, on the one hand, and the talented propagandist Kolia Tepper, emissary from the Bund center to Pinsk. The police followed the activities of the Bund, and they planted the agent provocateur Arnatzki who was brought from outside Pinsk. This led to the imprisonment of many members. When his provocations were discovered, a death sentence was set on his head, and he was murdered in October 1903. As a result of this murder, many Bund members were arrested, and three of them were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Others were put under police supervision. In 1904 a person who had been suspected of betrayal, but without real evidence, Bund member Aharon David Pruhodnik, was also murdered. Because of the persecutions and the provocations the power of the organization was diminished, but at the end of 1904, with the growth of the revolutionary activity in all of Russia, there was renewed activity of the Bund, and the youth movement Yunger Bund was formed. In 1903 a Poalei Zion branch was founded, and it grew very much in the year of the decline of the Bund. When in Russia in 1905 the Zionist Socialist Party was founded, (which had a territorialist ideology), the Poalei Zion group joined it.
At the time of the 1905 revolution, the Bund and Poalei Zion agitated the city with economic and political demonstrations, and there were some clashes with the police. In order to make order in the town, Cossack units were brought in. Those suspected of revolutionary activity were arrested and brutally tortured. At the same time an anti-Semitic Russian monarchist group preached attacking the Jews. The Bund and Poalei Zion decided to organize self-defense groups. Apparently this became known, and the peasants of the vicinity of Pinsk were not enthusiastic about being drawn into the incitement; it is possible that they feared the reaction of the Jewish self-defense activities, and the city was spared pogroms. In contrast, the strikes which broke out that year were accompanied by violence—between Jewish revolutionaries and the police and the army—and on July 24th, in one of the clashes, Hershl Stern was killed and others were wounded. On August 2nd, Socialist Revolutionary Party member Melekh Dolinko died from a bomb he had planned to throw at the Chief of Police. In the second half of September, two policemen were killed; one in revenge for the cruelty to the prisoners, and the other, in revenge for Hershl Stern. The Chief of Police demanded that the leaders of the Jewish community rein in the young people—or else he “will put an end to the Jews”.
In spite of the tensions, the Zionist organizations in Pinsk continued their activity. Before the seventh Zionist Congress, there was lively propaganda in the city for and against the Uganda plan. Zionei Zion [Zionists of Zion] sold 600 shekels [sic] and Poalei Zion the territorialists sold 400 shekels. A new youth group named Hat'hia [the Renewal] was founded (and did not last long).
Following the failure of the 1905 revolution, police oppression grew. There began a manhunt for revolutionary activists, which was accompanied by raids and many arrests. A curfew was imposed at night, and all meetings, lectures, and shows were forbidden. The incitement to attack the Jews was renewed, and in response, once again, self-defense units were established. The economic conditions of the city worsened and the number of poor grew. The Zionist movement was outlawed, yet its activity, which was carried out in secret, could be felt. At the initiative of the Zionists a modern school for girls was established, in the spirit of national Zionism. In 1911 active Zionists were liable to be sent to lengthy exile in Arkhangel'sk; they were redeemed only thanks to the lobbying of Jewish leaders in Peterburg. In about 1910 a branch of the Borochov Poalei Zion party was founded. The Zionist Socialists also continued their activity. The Bund shrunk and lost almost all of its influence. Only just before the outbreak of World War One did the conditions of the workers improve. The work day was set at nine hours, and the workers were given medical insurance in medical funds for workers.
In the 1880s there were three schools for girls. Only one of them—the school managed by E. Valer—was a school for Jewish girls (it closed in 1912). In 1891 another school was founded by the Luvzovski sisters. This school developed and became a gymnasia for girls. These two girls' schools received annual support from the korovka tax. In 1912, at the initiative of the “Jewish Women's Charity”, a school was established for disadvantaged girls, who were unable to pay the high tuition required at the other schools. This school, which was known as “Leah Feigele's schula”, taught in the spirit of nationalist-Zionism, and many weekly hours were dedicated to Hebrew lessons. In 1911, 250 pupils studied there.
Jewish girls and boys both were educated at the State Gymnasia Realit. In 1882 there were 201 pupils, among them seventy-five Jews (34.8%). In 1887 a quota was initiated for Jewish students, and their number was reduced to 10%. In 1896 only twenty-five Jews studied at this school.
In the talmud torah school, founded in 1862, there were approximately 200 pupils in 1895. It had seven classes, and in addition to religious studies, there were also classes in Hebrew and Hebrew grammar, Russian, letter writing and mathematics. Later two more classes were added to the talmud torah, and the general studies were broadened. The institution received official recognition from the government, and enjoyed the trust of the Jewish public. The students were mostly poor children and orphans. Most of its expenses were funded by the korovka tax and by contributions from philanthropists. In the beginning Rabbi Elazar Moshe Horwitz (who died in 1890) and his son-in-law Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein supervised the studies. After World War I the supervisors were Rabbis David Rabinski and Shmuel Rosenzweig.
In the Karlin talmud torah, which was founded in 1862 and was open for many years, there were about 200 pupils in 1887. There were eight classes, and from the time of its foundation, secular as well as religious studies were taught there. This institution also gained official recognition, beginning in 1881. The Rabbi of Karlin, Rabbi David Friedman, supervised the curriculum and took part in testing the students. The financial condition of this school was good, thanks to a regular portion of the korovka and philanthropists' support. Next to the talmud torah of Karlin, in 1885 a school for technical studies was established, supported by the korovka and ORT.
In the more traditional haderim in 1903, there were 1001 pupils (approximately 40% of the boys), studying with some sixty melamdim. A few of these melamdim were excellent pedagogues The most famous of these was Hirsh Zilberman from Slutsk, who accepted only eight pupils in his heder, among them the very best, in order to teach them talmud.
At the initiative of the Zrubavel office, Bnei Moshe and Chaim Weizman, in 1895 the first heder metukan was founded. This heder of Pinsk had a favorable reputation in other Jewish centers in Russia. In 1897 there were already three classes. Each year a new class was added, at the next grade. Studies took place in the homes of the teachers. In this school there was a staff of teachers who worked in close cooperation. In 1900 the system of learning Hebrew in Hebrew was initiated in the heder metukan, and this system spread to other haderim metukanim, and thus Hebrew became the language of study. The heder metukan provoked resistance by the melamdim; however, its methods and its curriculum influenced other, more traditional haderim.
At the turning point of the 1880s and 1890s, as a result of the revival of Hebrew as the language spoken in Israel, the establishment of societies for spoken Hebrew, and lectures given in Hebrew in other cities, in Pinsk too there was an awakening among the nationalist groups to renew Hebrew as a spoken language. In 1890 a society named Safa Brura [Clear Language] was founded, with sixty-five members. The members of the group met regularly every Saturday, listened to lectures in Hebrew, and spoke Hebrew among themselves. From the notebook of this society, which survived, we learn that this society existed in an organized manner for three years.
Also in this time period there was varied activity in the field of charitable contributions, gmilut hassadim [interest-free loans], and also mutual help through traditional societies and modern charities. In the years 1882 and 1887 two charitable funds (gamahim) were founded to give interest-free loans to the poor. In the same period three societies were formed which dealt in anonymous giving: Tomekh Ani'im [support for poor people], Agudat Ahim [Society of Brothers], and Maskil el Dal [free education for the poor]. In 1885 near the hospital was established Hakhnasat Orhim [Welcoming Guests]. In 1891 a soup kitchen was founded, which provided inexpensive meals for the poor. In 1900 The Jewish Charitable Society was established, which sought to unite all of the local charities, and the Jewish Women's Charitable Society, which helped women giving birth and poor sick women. The society founded the girls' technical school.
Also at this time the following were established: the Firefighters' Association; the skilled workers' society; the shoemakers' society, “Shoe Seamers”, which assisted old and weak shoemakers and other leather workers; and other professional associations. The principal task of these associations was to offer help to their members. These associations received budgets from the korovka. From these associations, after the 1905 revolution, came professional associations.
During the First World War
On the eve of Yom Kippur 1915 the German army conquered Pinsk from the Russian army. The front between the two armies stabilized near Pinsk. The city was surrounded on three sides by the Russian army, which frequently bombarded it. Because of the city's location on the battle front, the German military government was severe. The city was fenced in with barbed wire, and a curfew was enforced from eight p.m. The Germans did not trust the Russians and Belarusians, desecrated their churches, and within a few weeks, exiled most of them from the city. The Germans trusted the Jews more, did not desecrate their synagogues and batei midrash, allowed the Jewish schools to continue as usual, and permitted public, cultural and educational activities.
Because of the city's being cut off from the outside world, economic activity came almost totally to a halt. The Germans commandeered most of the stocks of food, and also most of the agricultural produce. A black market for food developed, which soon depleted the residents' savings. Many were reduced to relying on the meager rations distributed by ration cards. Each person received 100 grams of bread, a bit of potato and a few other things. Already in the first winter many could not withstand the hunger, and the death rate from starvation and disease grew considerably. In the months of February through May 1916 the Germans transferred about 9000 Jews to inner Poland, and only approximately 9000 remained in Pinsk. The following year the Germans allowed those wishing to do so to leave the city for the small towns and villages, where living conditions were more bearable. In order to supply their army with wood and food, the Germans employed forced labor, and every man and woman from age seventeen to forty-three was forced to work. In exchange for their work, they received some payment. The Germans set up a “Residents' Committee”, whose task it was to organize food allocation, to supply workers for the forced labor, and to organize removal of people from the city. A civil militia was formed, which was in charge of fulfilling the orders of the occupying authorities. The Residents' Committee was funded by direct taxes it was allowed to collect from the residents. Each month the committee collected 30,000 Deutsche Marks. Half of this sum the committee spent for support of educational institutions, hospitals, an old-age home, soup kitchens, and for needy individuals.
In the autumn of 1917, in the days of the Kranski government in Russia, the German army advanced toward Kiev. The conditions of the residents of Pinsk were eased somewhat, although the forced labor did not end. Then the trains resumed running, enabling commercial activity with Ukraine.
The revolutions of February and November 1917 planted hope and enthusiasm among the members of the Bund and youth with socialist leanings outside the Bund. The Balfour Declaration planted hope and enthusiasm among the Zionists and Zionist youth, and political activity in the city grew. The food supply improved, as the city was no longer cut off as before. In 1918 thousands of residents who had been exiled to Poland began returning to Pinsk by order of the Germans. The returnees arrived penniless, and the suffering and food shortages grew again.
Between the Two World Wars
During the years 1918-1920 the city went from hand to hand, and the Jews of Pinsk sometimes found themselves between the hammer and the anvil. From December 5th, 1918 until February 1st, 1919, after the Brisk-Litovsk Peace Treaty, and following the short-lived agreement between Germany and Ukraine, Pinsk passed to a joint German-Ukrainian government. On January 25th the Red Army took over Pinsk. The leftist parties received the soldiers with great enthusiasm. Among those welcoming them were the members of Tze'irei Zion, who held in their hands the red flag, and a blue and white one. A revolutionary committee was set up in the city (Revcom), and a city council to run the affairs of the city. The economic conditions worsened then, there was no organized distribution of food, and the situation of the lower classes was terrible. On March 5th, 1919 the city was captured by the Poles under General Listowski. The new occupiers were anti-Semitic, and from their very entry into the city, the Jewish population suffered horribly at their hand: there were many cases of robbery and murder. To the misfortune of the Jews of Pinsk, the front between the Polish Army and the Red Army was once again near the city, and the Polish Army remained in Pinsk and the vicinity. For many weeks the Polish soldiers did not stop harassing and robbing the Jews. Flour shipments from the Joint Distribution Committee [known as Joint for short] helped alleviate the situation somewhat. On April 1st, a representative of the Joint, Barukh Zuckerman, came to Pinsk, bringing with him some monetary assistance for the Jews of Pinsk. For its distribution, a committee of members of all the political organizations was supposed to take charge. On April 5th (5 Nisan 5679), tens of people met at Beit Ha'am [the community center] to decide how to distribute among the residents the articles which had arrived from America before the holiday of Pesach, which was approaching.
That same day a new, heavy blow hit the Pinsk Jewish community, from the Polish Army, who executed thirty-five of the most promising men of the younger generation of Pinsk. The Poles told the story that the Jews had opened fire on them during a secret communist meeting whose purpose was to oppose the Polish Army and to bring about its expulsion from the city. Soldiers had surrounded the building where the meeting was held, and killed one of the participants there, and led the others to the Polish City Commander. En route they beat the men mercilessly. On the spot the Polish Commander Luczinski set a death sentence by firing squad. The soldiers brought the Jews to the market, stood thirty-four of them up at the wall, and shot them to death. The rest, twenty-six in number, women, children and old people, they imprisoned in the school, beating them cruelly. They had planned to shoot them also the following day, but at the last minute the Poles relented and they were saved. The murder of the thirty-five innocent men shocked the Jews of the city.
News of the murder in Pinsk quickly spread in Poland and outside it and provoked a tremendous public uproar. A committee of the Sejm [the Polish parliament] (whose membership included six Christians and two Jews), was sent to investigate the event. Public opinion in the USA and in England and the leadership of the International Socialist denounced the massacre with strong words, and demanded that the new Polish nation, which had just received its independence, stop persecuting the Jews. An American committee headed by Henry Morgenthau, a British committee headed by Stewart Samuel, and another committee from the Socialist International, were all sent to investigate the event. Under diplomatic pressure from the western countries, upon whose political and economic support the young country of Poland relied, the Polish authorities changed their policy by the end of the summer of 1919 to a pacifying policy towards the Jewish population. In Pinsk the order was given to choose the City Council in Democratic elections. The Jews won a majority on the city council and two positions in the city management.
With the front's move away from Pinsk, following the Polish Army's attack on the Ukrainian Army, the situation was eased somewhat. The Joint resumed aid to the Jews of Pinsk, many of whom were starving. Also aid from Pinskers in America to their relatives began to arrive, and the local economy began to improve.
However at the end of July 1920 the recovery again came to a halt, with the recapture of the city by the Bolsheviks. Many leftist young people joined the revolutionary camp. Ordinary Jews were absorbed into the militia and into the local bureaucracy. The Bolshevik authorities in the city ran a rabid campaign against the bourgeoisie, the religion and Zionism, and treated the Bund with distrust. In commercial life there was total chaos, with frequent requisition of products and nationalization of businesses, and with the introduction of the new ruble.
On September 26, 1920 the soldiers of General Balachovich who had fought on the side of the Polish Army came into Pinsk, and during three days of rampage wrought terror upon its residents. In three days, eleven Jews were murdered, women were raped, and Jewish property was stolen. A similar fate was met by the Jewish residents of the towns and villages of the region. In Pinsk and the vicinity approximately 1000 Jews died, and many women were raped by the Balachovches.
On September 29, 1920 the Polish Army returned to Pinsk, ended the rampage and gradually brought order. At that time some 2000 refugees arrived in the city, of the survivors of the Balachovches' pogrom in the vicinity of Pinsk, and it was imperative to help them. Also many Pinsker families were in need of help. For those who were orphaned by the pogrom, two orphanages were founded. The Joint extended help to the survivors of the pogroms. Thanks to this assistance the refugees were soon able to return to their homes. An emissary from the Pinskers in the United States brought with him a large sum of money ($150,000) for relatives of the Pinskers, and an additional $12,000 for public causes. In July 1921 the Joint reduced its aid and continued to support only the orphanages and public health. ORT and IKA organizations took upon themselves maintenance of two technical schools, one for boys and the other for girls. In all the other fields the leadership of the community were forced to provide by their own means. The assistance received by the Jews of Pinsk up to that time and the aid to the above institutions, totaling $750,000, enabled them to manage their public life and to cope with problems successfully.
In comparison to the period before World War I, there was demographic and economic decline of the Jews. The principal reason for the decline, aside from the events of war, was the policy of the Polish government, of attempting to increase the Polish population. Another factor is the immigration of many Jews to America and to Eretz-Israel.
With the stabilization of the Polish government, the political status of the Jews of Pinsk also improved. According to law and the international commitments of Poland, the Jews had, as individuals and as a group, equal rights to the rest of the population. But in fact, they were discriminated against in many areas. Even though Jews constituted more than half of the population of Pinsk, the mayor was a Pole; only with difficulty did a Jew (Dr. Elazar Bregman) succeed in being elected as vice-mayor.
Among the members of the city council which were appointed by the government, (until 1927), there were only two Jews. Even though in the city council they were a clear majority, the Polish authorities forced them out, and allowed only five Jewish members out of twenty-five.
The economic conditions of Pinsk at the beginning of the 1920s were difficult. The new border between Poland the USSR cut off the Pinsk region from other areas, and ended the trade by water with Ukraine. Trade in lumber was greatly reduced. Many factories closed. Only the match factory and the lumber factory continued to operate, and actually an additional lumber factory was opened. The number of Jewish employed, workers and clerks in the factories, declined by one half and totaled only 1000 people.
On the other hand, the number of Jews employed as skilled labors declined only slightly. At the end of the 1930s there were 854 workshops of skilled workers employing 883 hired workers and apprentices. In 1937 there were 676 shops owned by Jews, most of them small grocery shops. The skilled laborers and the shopkeepers were hurt: by the years of the financial crisis; and in the period of Ministry of the Treasury Gravski, who increased the tax burden; and by the years of the worldwide Great Depression of 1930-35. Many families' economic situation deteriorated to that of poverty, but in Pinsk they did not starve to death. Mutual aid societies were established; Pinskers in America helped their relatives. In 1922, with the help of the Joint, a loans bank was established, which provided loans to the shopkeepers and skilled workers. In the crisis years of 1924-6, businessmen established a Trade and Industry Bank with outside help. In addition, an old charity fund (gamah) which was revived, and a new one, both provided interest-free loans.
Also in this period the activity of the Linat Tzedek Society [Roof for the Homeless] was renewed. A branch of the TAZ Society was founded, to take care of the health of poor children, and to provide many of them with a nourishing meal. In Pinsk there was also a mother and baby clinic and an orphanage which were assisted by money from abroad. Technical schools for boys and for girls, helped by ORT and IKA, continued to operate, and two hospitals reopened. These two institutions merged in 1928 as one large hospital. There were also two old-age homes in Pinsk.
In the 1930s, with the growth of anti-Semitism, and the process of repression of Jewish commerce in Poland, Polish shops were opened, and at the same time, there was propaganda against Jewish businesses, but the new Polish businesses did not succeed in competition with the Jewish businesses. There were also attempts by Polish thugs to attack Jews, but young Jews responded, and these attacks ceased.
In this period there were still traditional haderim of the old kind and also two talmudei torah in Pinsk and Karlin. There were also haderim metukanim. Although the studies took place in dispersed locations, at the homes of the teachers, their name was changed to Yavneh School. Religious schools were opened: Horev, founded by Agudat Israel; and Tushia, which was a mixed boys and girls school.
Every ideological movement attempted to maintain an educational institution for elementary schoolchildren, and so there could be found in Pinsk: Tel-Hai founded by Poalei Zion (Young Socialists), with lessons in Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish and it promoted aliya to Eretz-Israel and also pioneering; the Bund school named for Moshe Gleiberman, whose language of instruction was Yiddish and was of branch of CIS”O [pronounced Tzisho - Centrale Yiddish Schule Organization—a chain of Yiddish schools in Poland between the two World Wars]; two Tarbut schools—one in Pinsk (from 1925) and the other in Karlin (from 1936)—and the preparatory classes for the Tarbut Gymnasium [academic high school], which were parallel to the elementary school.
The crown of the educational institutions in Pinsk was the Hebrew Gymnasium Tarbut, founded in 1922 at the initiative of Zionist activists. The school excelled in its high level and in the level of Hebrew of its students, and was considered one of the best of the seven Tarbut gymnasiums in Poland. The language of instruction was primarily Hebrew and only secondarily Polish. Many of its graduates immigrated to Israel.
In addition there was a private Jewish gymnasium in Pinsk whose language of instruction was Polish. This was the Chechik Gymnasium, which began as a gymnasium for girls and in 1928 became coeducational. This school received governmental recognition.
Besides the above institutions, at this time there was a technical school for boys where they learned to become tailors, shoemakers and carpenters (it was founded in 1921 by Tze'irei Tzion [Young Zionists] and Tzionim Claliim [General Zionists]). And there was a technical school for girls (founded in 1919 at the initiative of the Bund). The most important technical school was the technical school founded in 1906, which continued to exist until the end of this period. In Pinsk there was also a Mussar Yeshiva, Beit Yosef, founded by the Novogrudek Yeshiva.
There were also evening schools, where various courses were offered. Sports clubs were established. Clubs and reading rooms were opened with lending libraries. Theater productions drew a large audience. Amateur troupes also presented plays. In 1927 the Yiddish newspaper Yiddishe Shtimme began to appear. Later competing weeklies were published: Pinsker Zeitung [Pinsk Times], Pinsker Wart [Pinsk Word], and Pinsker Leben [Pinsk Life].
The labor unions and political parties enjoyed a large measure of freedom, with the exception of the Communist Party which was illegal. In Pinsk there were almost all of the Jewish parties: General Zionists; Revisionists (after 1929); Tze'irei Zion—following the merger of the Rightist Poalei Zion with the old Poalei Zion; leftist Poalei Zion; the Bund; Communists acting in secret. There were the religious parties Mizrahi and Agudat Israel. In Pinsk there were very active youth movements: Hashomer Hatzair (later known as Hanoar Hatzioni) [Zionist Youth]; YISAI (Yiddisher Socialiste Arbeiter Jungt) [Young Jewish Socialist Workers]; Beitar; Hehalutz Haclali [the General Pioneer] (managed by Poalei Tzion); Hehalutz Hamerkazi [The Central Pioneer], following the general Zionist ideology; Hehalutz Hadati [the Religious Pioneer]. For a while there were two hakhshara kibbutzim of Hehalutz. The Bundist youth movement, Dei Tzukunit, and the leftist Poalei Zion movement, Borokhov Yungt, were small and weak. The Zionist youth groups had members who worked their way up to positions in the movement centers in Warsaw and Eretz-Israel, such as Hershl Pinski of Mapai, who died tragically in 1935; Haim Givati, and Moshe Kol [Kolodni], who later became ministers in the Government of Israel; and Yeruham Meshel, who later became General Secretary of the Histadrut of the Workers in Eretz-Israel. Pioneers from Pinsk who immigrated to Israel in 1926 founded Kvutzat [Kibbutz] Gvat in memory of the thirty-five martyrs who were murdered on 5 Nisan 5679 (April 5, 1919).
During the Second World War
Following the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement in 1939, on September 16, 1939 the Red Army penetrated eastern Poland. The following day Pinsk was occupied, and soon afterwards the Soviet Government, through the NKVD and the Communist party, seized control and put in place a Soviet regime. Industries and large businesses were nationalized, and small businesses were liquidated as a result of the new circumstances. The workers of the industries continued their work at the nationalized factories and many people found employment in government institutions. The Jewish charitable institutions, such as the old-age homes, orphanages and the hospital were closed or confiscated from their owners. Teaching Hebrew or Hebrew literature were forbidden in the Hebrew schools and in the Tarbut Gymnasium. These great institutions became Yiddish schools, and teachers were brought from Russia. Very quickly, all of the textbooks were replaced with textbooks brought from Russia.
On October 29, 1939, the Soviet Army transferred the city of Vilna and its vicinity to Lithuania, which was still independent. Members of the Zionist youth groups, who feared the fate awaiting them in the new order, and also the Head of the Beit Yosef Yeshiva and his students, fled to Vilna. But they were a minority. Most of the Jews remained in Pinsk.
After Soviet citizenship was bestowed upon the residents of the annexed territories, Zionist activists were arrested and expelled, as were the Bundists and even local Communists. Wealthy people and “unproductive elements” were forced to leave Pinsk and to move to towns of the vicinity. Owners of small businesses and owners of workshops were required to pay heavy taxes, which quickly brought about their closure. Synagogues and batei-midrash were closed; only in Karlin did one synagogue remain in which prayer was still possible. The city council coerced the Jews to sign a request to close the Great Synagogue, which had been built in the 16th century. According to this so-called request of the Jewish community, the synagogue became a theater, while on the other hand, the authorities did not touch the three churches which then existed in the city.
Rabbi Elimelech Perlow,
the Admu”r from Karlin
The Admo”r [our leader, teacher, and Rabbi] of the Karlin Hassidim, Rabbi Elimelekh Perlow was registered as a guard in the warehouses of the government consumers' union, so that he would not be compelled to leave town as an “unproductive element”. The last Rabbi and Av Beit-Din of Pinsk, Rabbi Aharon Valkin, replaced his top hat with a proletarian hat and awaited his exile from the city. But in fact he was not harmed. The vigorous anti-religious indoctrination work which was going on in the city and in the schools was directed primarily against the Jewish religion.
A few days before June 22, 1941, the day on which Germany attacked the USSR, the NKVD arrested many people whom the authorities viewed as unreliable, such as former Zionists and former wealthy people. They were put on trains and sent to Siberia. Following the attack of the German Army in Pinsk, there was recruitment to the Red Army, and among those drafted were Jews, who were among those evacuated to inner Russia, together with their Red Army units. As a result, many of them were saved. Ordinary Jews also tried to escape toward inner Russia with the retreating Red Army, but they were not allowed to cross the former border between Poland and Russia, and were obliged to return to the city.
On July 4, 1941 (9 Tammuz 5701), the German Army marched into Pinsk. A few days later the German Army arrested sixteen young Jewish men in the street, and brought them to the Army Headquarters on the pretence that they were needed for work; the following day they were executed in the Lishche forest. The Germans allowed the parents of the sixteen to bring their sons to Jewish burial after they agreed to sign a document stating that their sons had been murdered by the Russians. Photos of the parents standing next to the bodies of their sons later served the horrible propaganda of the Germans against the Russians.
Extreme measures and persecution of the Jews followed one after another. The Jews were forbidden to leave the city, to be outside after six p.m., to own radios, and to be in contact with the Christian population. The Jews were required to wear a white ribbon with a yellow Star of David on their left sleeve. In addition they were required to supply the Germans with soap, boots, fabrics and knits; the cases of kidnapping of men in the streets for work increased. German soldiers would enter Jewish homes and loot as they saw fit. Gestapo men began coming to Jewish homes to confiscate furs, jewelry and other valuables, and later, for kettles, pots and copper utensils, axes and hammers, metal beds and more.
The Christian inhabitants of the city cooperated willingly with the German authorities. Members of the Polish Auxiliary Police established by the Germans after their conquest of the city, assisted the Germans in persecuting the Jews and in stealing their property. With their help, Jews who had fulfilled official roles in the Soviet period were turned over to the Germans and these people were mostly executed, in most cases after being tortured. Jews began avoiding going out into the streets. Stores and workshops were closed. Only the Jews working in the factories received work permits. The synagogues and schools were closed.
In the second half of July 1941 the Commander of Pinsk gave an order forcing the Jews to choose a Judenrat [Jewish Council]. David Alper was chosen as the first Chairman of the Judenrat; he had been the last principal of the Tarbut Gymnasium. Together with him, up to twenty members were chosen. Two days after his election, David Alper resigned, after realizing that his job was limited to completely fulfilling the demands of the Germans. Ten days after his resignation, he and twenty other members of the Judenrat were among the first to be executed in the first aktsia, which was carried out on August 4th and 5th.
In place of the murdered members of the Judenrat, others were elected (or appointed). Benjamin Buksztanski was the Chairman and his deputy was Motl Minski. In the Judenrat there were various departments: Finance, Judiciary, Supply, Labor and Social Services. The largest department was the Labor Department. It was responsible for 4000 to 5000 workers who worked in various places of employment, the largest part of whom had fixed places of work. Each day the Judenrat had to supply workers in accordance with a number demanded by the Germans. Men from ages sixteen to sixty-five and women from sixteen to fifty-five were required to go to work three times per week, according to a list which was prepared in advance.
In the first month of its existence, the Judenrat established a clinic and a hospital. Hundreds of people were in need of the welfare department, which did their best to help. In order to finance its activities and institutions, the Judenrat used funds which it collected. The main source of income was a tax on bread, which was distributed in rations. In the beginning the rationed bread portions were sold at the price of two rubles per kilogram; later the price rose to three rubles per kilogram; seventy-five percent of this price was tax. Later still the Judenrat received income from sales of surplus gold, which had been collected by dictate of the Germans and which had remained with the Judenrat unbeknownst to the Gestapo. With these funds the Judenrat paid the salaries of its staff, relief needs and unexpected demands from the Germans.
The first aktsia of the Germans took place on a Monday evening, the 12th of Av 5701 (August 4th, 1941). Together with the Polish Police, the Germans raided Jewish homes in different parts of the city and captured 300 men. These men were brought to the cellars of the Gendarmerie and held there. Rumors broke out that the Germans were demanding a ransom for their release. Members of the Judenrat requested the help of the Polish Mayor Szlivinski, and he agreed to join the Judenrat delegation which went to the Pinsk Commander. The Commander threw them out and ordered the Mayor to notify the Jews that all men between the ages of eighteen and sixty must report at the train station for work. If they would not show up, the 300 detainees would be put to death. This threat had its effect, and many reported at the station. Still there were more than a few who hid instead. Since the rate of reporting at the station did not satisfy the Germans, they ordered most of the members of the Judenrat to join those who had come to the station. When the number of men reached 8000, the Germans lined them up in two tiers of five abreast, and ordered them to remove their watches and to empty their pockets of money, documents and other items. The Germans removed the workers who had been working on repairing the bridge, 150 in number, and a few hundreds of skilled workers, and in their stead, the 300 were brought from the cellars of the Gendarmerie. Those gathered at the station were ordered to march in the direction of the village of Ivaniki, surrounded by SS men, on foot, on horseback and on motorcycles. En route, the Germans ordered them to undress, and finally they made them run in the direction of pits which had been prepared in advance. Many tried to run in the direction of the fields, but the Germans shot and wounded most of them. By nine p.m. the Germans managed to exterminate them all. Only three succeeded in escaping death and in returning to the city. These survivors recounted what had happened to the thousands of men who'd been taken to work. In addition to these three, another few tens succeeded in escaping.
The following night, August 5th, 1941, the Germans accompanied by Polish Police once again raided Jewish homes and took 300 Jews, among them youngsters. The captives were ordered to bring hoes with them and were brought to the site of the mass murders. There they were ordered to collect the bodies of those who'd been shot attempting to escape and to bring them to the mass graves; then they were shot, except for two who were ordered to cover the pits.
Three days later, early on Thursday morning (August 7th, 1941), squads of German soldiers and Polish Police went from house to house and removed from their beds or from hiding places, men, including teenagers, and old men. They led them through the city streets with their hands on their heads and they were put in the sheep enclosures on Brisker Street, in the direction of the village of Kozliakovich. The Germans refused to honor work permits. In groups of fifty to sixty men, the victims were brought to the death pits which had been prepared in advance adjacent to a woods near Kozliakovich. The victims were ordered to lie down in them and were shot in the head. Only a small few succeeded in hiding. In this second aktsia between 2500 and 3000 men lost their lives, among them children and old people. Most of those killed in the two aktsias were male.
These two aktsias were carried out by SS soldiers from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment of the mounted SS brigade. The officer in Command was Sturmbannfuehrer Magill.
After the two aktsias of August 1941, there remained over 10,000 Jews in Pinsk, most of them women and children, with a small number of skilled workers who had been spared by order of the German orders, and others who had succeeded in hiding and staying alive.
A short time after the August massacres, a special German Army company which dealt in looting Jewish property came to Pinsk. With the guidance of Christian women of Pinsk, the members of this platoon entered homes and confiscated clothing and other objects and loaded them onto trucks. The Christian women did not refrain from taking things for themselves.
Upon the Jews remaining in the city various new severe measures were imposed. They were ordered to wear two yellow Jewish stars, one on their backs and one on their chests, instead of the white ribbon with the Star of David on their sleeves as before. They were forbidden to walk on the sidewalks and ordered to walk in the middle of the streets instead (this order was soon repealed). The Germans ordered the Judenrat to collect twenty kilograms of gold within three days and hand them over to them. If they would not fulfill this order, all Jews would be exiled from the city. The act of collection began; the Jews brought to the Judenrat gold jewelry and gold watches. A special committee, headed by Rabbi Moishele from Stolin, received the gold, weighed it, and handed a receipt to the owners. Worthy of mention is a Provoslavian [Orthodox] clergyman, who felt an affinity for the Jews, and donated a golden cross of his own, weighing half a kilogram. After receiving the gold, the Nazis demanded cloth for the preparation of a hundred suits, ready-made suits, leather for shoes, boots, sheets and blankets, horses and cows, and more. Especially severe was the order to hand in all furs or fur-decorated clothing and gloves, as this left the Jews without warm clothing for the winter, which was especially harsh that year. Some Jews caught with furs in their possession were hanged in the market square. Afterwards the Germans demanded golden Russian coins of five and ten rubles, and in order to assure compliance, they took tens of hostages. Apparently this demand was also fulfilled.
Because of the lack of food, the Germans allowed the Judenrat to buy foodstuffs at the market twice a week. Later they were allowed to shop there only once a week, and finally permission was totally denied.
At this time the Judenrat established a Jewish Police force of thirteen members. The Jewish Police were given the task of guarding the market and other places and enforcing the law of no contact between Jews and the peasants of the region, and also of keeping order at the Judenrat offices. It appears that in Pinsk the Jewish policemen did not weigh especially heavily on their fellow Jews.
At Pesach time Jews from some of the towns of the vicinity who had been deported from their homes, bereft of all property, were brought to Pinsk. The Germans gave the order to build a ghetto in Pinsk, similar to the ghettos which had been built in other cities. With the help of bribery the Judenrat succeeded in postponing this severe measure, but only briefly. On April 30, 1942 the order was given to establish the ghetto, and those Jews who lived outside the confines of the planned ghetto were ordered to move there within one day, by May 1st, at 4 p.m.
The Pinsk ghetto had three gates and it was mostly built in the neighborhood of Linishches, a poor neighborhood which had been crowded and inhabited by the lower classes. The area devoted to the ghetto was too small to encompass all of the newcomers. The Jews were allowed to bring only kitchen utensils, bedding and a small amount of clothing, but no furniture. At the gates stood German gendarmes and police who checked the baggage. They confiscated forbidden goods and beat the owners. Yet many Jews succeeded in bringing in more than what was allowed. The homes vacated by the Jews were immediately taken over by Christian residents of Pinsk. In the ghetto the Judenrat allotted 1.20 square meters per person, and apportioned the living quarters for each family. In each room there were three-four families (at least ten persons). One oven served many families, and they took turns cooking. The great crowding and the inhuman living conditions led to endless arguments and feuds between the residents.
There were only two wells in the ghetto, and there were long lines for water. The Jewish Police kept order, and its ranks were increased to fifty. The crowding and lack of hygienic conditions brought about epidemics. In the ghetto symptoms of hunger were common and about thirty to forty people died each day. The Judenrat opened a few stores where the residents of the ghetto could receive their daily bread rations: 150 grams per child, and 300 grams per adult, at two to three rubles per kilogram. The Judenrat bought flour for the baking from the Germans (at an exorbitant price) according to the number of Jews in the ghetto. In order to slightly enlarge the amount of food, the Judenrat employed workers who raised potatoes and other vegetables in the “Kaplan gardens” beyond the railroad tracks. In order to pay its workers, the Judenrat issued special bills for internal use in the ghetto. At the initiative of the Judenrat, a hospital, pharmacy, orphanage and soup kitchen were established.
In the ghetto was a court of law which dealt with feuds between individuals; also people who refused to fulfill requests of the Judenrat were tried there, especially in matters of money. Those refusing to pay were occasionally sentenced to days in jail.
There were only a few synagogues in the ghetto. Most of the congregants were elderly people. Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Perlow of Karlin tried by all means possible to relieve the suffering of the ghetto residents.
Cultural life did not exist at all. Most of the intelligentsia and public servants had been executed in the aktsias of August 1941 and there was no one to organize studies or cultural activity.
The Pinsk ghetto was considered a working ghetto. Before going out to work, the workers would organize themselves in groups according to their professions or places of work. The leaving for work was always accompanied by a guard of Polish Police auxiliary. In the Judenrat archives some original lists remain of workers and their places of work. The principal places of work were:
Those going to work regarded themselves as lucky. The ghetto residents believed that working meant that they would have a good chance of surviving. Most of the workers would eat something outside and even were able to get something for their family members. In the ghetto there were large workshops in which tailors and shoemakers worked. The Germans and Christians needed the services of these skilled workers and paid them with money and food. Women and girls hired themselves out as cleaning help in the homes of the Christians outside the ghetto in exchange for food.
Bringing food into the ghetto was strictly forbidden. At the gates the policemen checked all bags of those returning from work. Foods which were detected were confiscated, and their owners were beaten mercilessly. There were even cases in which people paid for this with their lives. Children too would risk their lives in leaving the ghetto, and more than a few were killed by the shots of the police while trying to sneak out of the ghetto.
In one of the days of July 1942 Deputy Commissar Ebner showed up at the Judenrat with the district doctor and demanded a list of the mentally ill and people very ill with incurable diseases. The attempts of the Judenrat people to evade preparing this list were of no use. Two days later the Germans took forty sick people, and drove them in the direction of Kozliakovich, where they shot them to death.
Each professional worker in the ghetto was ordered to put on his yellow patches the name of his place of work and his number at his place of work. After receiving the news of the destruction of the Jewish community of Brest and other towns of the region (Sarny, Pogost Zagorodoskiy, Yanov/Ivanava, Drahichin) and about the destruction and revolt of the Jews of Lakhva, the Jews of Pinsk began to believe that their end was near. Many then began to build hiding places in their homes and yards. When members of the Judenrat asked Ebner if these rumors were true, he allayed their fears by saying that the Jews of Pinsk are hard-working and work in professions or industrial plants and skilled labor, and are very useful. But these words of placation did not abate the anxiety and the fears.
There were some who discussed the idea of leaving the ghetto for the forests and joining the partisans. A group of fifty people led by Hershl Lewin organized. They succeeded in purchasing some rifles, some pistols and two hand grenades, which they hid in the Kaplan gardens. However the Judenrat warned members of the group that if their plan were to be carried out, this might bring extermination upon their own families and upon the entire ghetto. This warning had its effect and the plan to leave the ghetto was postponed from day to day and in the end was never carried out.
There was also a secret attempt at organizing to forcibly oppose the Germans and their helpers on the day of the destruction of the ghetto, and to enable the escape of many, as had happened in Lakhva. Two members of the Judenrat and the Chief of the Jewish Police were in on the secret plan. It was decided that the city would be set on fire, and toward this goal, heating oil, rags and matches were distributed to places of work. At each place of work, there was someone responsible for setting the fire, upon receipt of the sign to do so. The intent was to act at the decisive moment before the final aktsia. But here too members of the Judenrat intervened, and warned the members of the conspiracy that they would endanger all of the members of the ghetto.
On October 22, 1942 rumors broke out in the ghetto that Christians were digging deep pits near the village of Dobrovolia. Panic broke out, and in order to calm the public Ebner gave his word to the members of the Judenrat, that these pits were intended for storage of fuel for the airport. The following day news spread that, according to prepared lists, 3000-4000 nonworking people would be taken out of the ghetto; the rest would remain in the ghetto. Most of the members of the secret organization reached the conclusion that they must not endanger the lives of the residents of the ghetto, and they abandoned their plans. This deception on the part of the Germans succeeded and at the time of the extermination they did not meet with any resistance.
The liquidation of ghetto Pinsk
(Yad Vashem Archives)
On the day before the liquidation workers returning from work to the ghetto related with concern that the Germans had posted a stern warning to the non-Jewish residents of the city not to touch Jewish property, and anyone disobeying this order would be punished by death. Some of the workers who had been scheduled to work on the night shift were sent home. The workers at the lumber factory did begin their night shift, but in the middle of the night they were gathered together and imprisoned in one of the warehouses.
Early in the morning of Thursday, 18 Heshvan 5703 (October 29, 1942), before sunrise, German forces surrounded the ghetto on all sides. Gestapo men took up posts at the ghetto gates and did not let anyone leave the ghetto. Hundreds of young people tried to climb the gates and to break out, but S.S. men shot at them with machine guns which had been hidden by the ghetto walls. There were a few more such attempts to scale the ghetto walls. Most were killed in their attempt. A few people tried to resist: one Jew attacked a soldier on horseback with his bare hands. He succeeded in grabbing the soldier's rifle, but was shot by other soldiers before he could shoot. But there was no active, organized resistance. The report of a police officer and of the Commander of Police battalion 310, Helmut Saur, notes that the actions of combing the ghetto and of gathering the people at the concentration place on the first day proceeded without incident. In this same report it is recorded that on this the first day approximately 1200 people were killed inside the ghetto.
At 6:30 in the morning a company of S.S. men, armed and with dogs, entered the ghetto. The Germans began forcing Jews to run to the gathering place next to the cemetery. Professional people, doctors, engineers, and workers in skilled labor and at factories were separated from the rest, and brought to the empty lot across from the Judenrat. Those workers whose names appeared on the lists supplied by Ebner and who were present, were brought to the hospital, where they remained for three days, and witnessed the progress of the aktsia in which the ghetto was liquidated. Some 200 people without the yellow patch on which it said “needed Jew” also squeezed into the hospital. Ebner gave the order to execute them all; in this manner about 200 were murdered there.
After separating the skilled workers from the rest, S.S. men began to gather the Jews in groups of 200-300, and to lead them to the pits at Dobrovolia to be executed. A few tens of Jews tried to escape through the gate, but the Germans opened fire and killed them. One Jew succeeded in hiding in a lumber warehouse, and in telling others what his eyes had seen at the gathering place near the cemetery. S.S. men tortured the Jews, beat them and killed some of them on the spot. They pulled small children from their parents' arms, held them upside down and shot them. The members of the Judenrat were also brought to the gathering place. Some were set aside together with the skilled workers, others were shot to death there, and still others committed suicide by swallowing poison.
Those who were led to the pits at Dobrovolia, were ordered to undress quickly, and to sort their clothing into piles according to type. After they had undressed, the Germans pushed them into the pits, ordered them to lie down on top of the dead and wounded and to lower their heads; then they were shot in the back of their heads. In the military report of Hauptman Helmut Saur, Company Commander of Ghetto Police battalion 610 [sic], who took part in the destruction of the ghetto and its inhabitants, it is written that approximately 10,000 Jews were killed. This report also states that about 150 Jews escaped from the pits, and ran to the fields, but that all of them were shot to death by the mounted men who chased them.
On the second and third days of the aktsia, which is to say Friday and Saturday, the 19th and 20th of Heshvan, (October 30-31), S.S. men combed the ghetto with dogs, looking for Jews in hiding, Those who were found were collected in groups of 200-300 and brought to the death pits at Dobrovolia, where they were murdered. Approximately twenty young people and a few hundred other Jews joined the skilled workers at the hospital, in the hope of surviving in this manner. All of the people at the hospital stayed in conditions of extreme crowding and almost without food.
On Sunday, November 1, 1942, Ebner went to the hospital and took out 134 people—doctors, shoemakers, tailors and print workers. The remainder were murdered on the spot.
For those still alive, the Germans built the small ghetto at Karlin, in the former yeshiva building, and buildings nearby, altogether eleven buildings. The small ghetto was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, and was guarded by Polish police day and night. Jews in hiding who tried to join those in the small ghetto, were for the most part caught in the frequent checks, gathered in groups, and taken to Dobrovolia to be executed.
Not long afterward, the members of the small ghetto began to realize that their days were numbered. A few of them prepared a small amount of supplies in a house outside the ghetto, in the event they would escape, and a few groups did indeed escape in an attempt to reach the forests and join the partisans, but only a few individuals succeeded in this.
On Wednesday, 15 Tevet 5703 (December 23, 1942) the Germans surrounded the ghetto, and the few remaining Jews were taken to the Karlin cemetery, where they were shot to death. A few others among the ghetto residents managed to escape during the aktsia and to hide.
When Pinsk was liberated on July 14, 1944 by the Red Army, only seventeen Jews who had been hidden by Christian families came out of hiding. The names are known of twenty others who had escaped to the forests and joined the partisans.
Yad Vashem Archives, M-1/E 1790; 03/3009; 03/3305; 03/3931; 03/2909; 03/857; TR-10/516.
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Pinsker Shtadt Luah, Agudat Zion in Pinsk, Vilna, 1903-4.
Czemerinski, H., Ayarati Motole [My Shtetl of Motole], Tel Aviv, 1951.
Weizmann-Lichtenstein, H., B'tzel Koratanu [Finding Shelter Under Our Roof], Tel Aviv, 1948.
Kol, M., Morim V'Haverim [Teachers and Friends], Jerusalem-Tel Aviv, 1968.
Kol, M., Netivot: Prakim Autobiographiim [Netivot: Autobiographical Chapters], Tel Aviv, 1981.
Kerman, M., Meine Zichronot (Hundert Yahr Pinsk) [My Memoirs (A Hundred Years of Pinsk)], Haifa, 1950 (mimeograph).
Rabinowitsch, W., “Rabbi Gad Asher Levin from Pinsk”, He'avar, Vol. 14 (1967).
Rabinowitsch, W., “Tzu der Geshichte fun Karliner Hassidut” [“To the History of Karlin Hassidism”], Historische Schriften fun YIVO, Vol. 2, Vilna, 1937, pp. 152-179.
Rabinowitsch, S.M., “Al Pinsk Karlin V'yoshveihen” [“Of Pinsk, Karlin and their Residents”], Talpiot, Berdichev, 1895, pp. 8-17.
Akty Vilenskoy Archeograficheskoy Kommissii, Vol. 28-29; material on Pinsk also in volumes 1-3, 8, 13, 17, 18, 34.
Bershadskii, S.A., Russko-evreiski archiv, Vol. 1-2, Peterburg, 1882.
Lourie, A., Die Familie Louria [Luria], Vienna, 1923
Rabinowitsch, W., Lithuanian Hassidism, London, 1970.
Rabinowitsch, W., Lithuanian Hassidism, New York, 1972.
Zunser (Shomer), M., Yesterday, New York, 1939 (Memoirs).
Yanson, Y., Pinsk i yevo Rayon [Pinsk and its Region], Peterburg, 1869.
Lists of periodicals and newspapers: see Pinsk Memorial Book, vol. A1 & A2, the list of monographs by M. Nadav and A. Shochat about the community of Pinsk.