Life in exile

Nadav's research presents us with a portrait of a predominantly Jewish East European town in 1506-1880.

Pinsk book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Pinsk book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Jews of Pinsk, 1506 to 1880 By Mordechai Nadav. Edited by Mark Jay Mirsky and Moshe Rosman Translated from Hebrew by Moshe Rosman and Faigie Tropper Stanford University Press 606 pages; $75 On August 9, 1507, Prince Feodor Ivanovych Yaroslavych, one of the grand dukes of Moscow, and his wife Olena, granted Josko Meirovich, Pesah Ezofowicz and Abraham Ryzkiewic, representing the Jews of Pinsk, a rare privilege, worded thus: "And we, because of their bowing before us, decided we hereby confirm, by way of request, to grant them a place to establish a synagogue for them and another place for a cemetery." This is just one of the many brilliant gems found in The Jews of Pinsk, 1506 to 1880 and the author, editors and publishers of this research are to be commended for having brought the living history of one of Eastern Europe's most important centers of Jewish settlement to the English-speaking world. The book's all-embracing historical, sociological and demographical scope allows us to learn how Jews lived, prayed, fought, built and persevered among strangers, often under difficult and dangerous conditions. Originally published in 1973 under the title Toldot Kehilla Pinsk-Karlin, 1506-1880, the book written by Mordechai Nadav (a leading Israeli scholar of East European Jewish history), presents a detailed history of the entire district. The editors were Mark Mirsky, professor of English at the City College of New York, and Moshe Rosman, professor of Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University. The Pinsk Jewish community was established in 1503, when Lithuanian Grand Duke Alexander permitted Jews expelled in 1495 to return, and they decided to live in a new place. They were assisted by Jews from Brest, and arrivals from Germany and Bohemia. Jews were desirable as an urban and enterprising element. They received privileges similar to those in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, such as rights of free men or boyars. They were promised protection of body and property, freedom to deal in money lending, commerce and crafts. They were free to organize their own internal, religious and judicial affairs, to own land, forests and gardens. They paid taxes. Pinsk was on an important trade route from Ukraine to Poland and Lithuania. Jews dealt in grain, dyes, iron, furs, honey, timber and forest products such as potash, tar and resin. The price in the port of Gdansk was several times the cost of their production. Jews started leasing, liquor sales and the precious salt monopoly. The local prince had unlimited powers, but the town itself, populated by Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians and Belorussians, was a "state within the state" in which Jews existed as an autonomous local authority. However, the rapid development of the region carried the seeds of disaster. Jews were caught within the vicious circle of the feudal economy. They depended on the wealthy lords and magnates, who were always hungry for more money and pressing their Jewish administrators hard. The administrators in turn pressed on farm workers, serfs and foresters, who felt exploited and blamed the Jewish middlemen for their woes. The church frequently added oil to these fires of discontent. In 1561, for instance, a number of serfs wrecked a potash plant and wounded a number of workers. The plant belonged to the lord of Vilna, Nikolai Radziwill, in partnership with a Jew, Michael Hamycz, who ran the enterprise. This was a typical partnership between a Pinsk Jew and a Lithuanian magnate. The attackers were punished. Eventually, however, both Poles and Jews became the target of the peasants' wrath. Many Jews fled or hid, before Pinsk was captured by Niebaba Cossacks on October 26, 1648, after the Orthodox townsmen had joined the rebels. The total destruction, torture and mass murder of Jews during the Chmielnicki revolt was described in great detail by eyewitnesses. Those who returned to Pinsk under Polish rule suffered again as the result of the Tatar invasion and the Polish-Muscovite wars of 1655-1659. In 1690, a Pole settled in the underdeveloped land east of Pinsk and named the new site Karolin. The census of 1766 shows the presence of 1,227 Jews in Pinsk and 611 in the brother-town of Karolin, which became Karlin. In 1700 the Swedes occupied Pinsk. They didn't harm Jews, but before their retreat they burned part of the town. In 1717, the Jews' neighbors charged that the Jews had saved themselves at their expense. Relations between various nationalities living in Pinsk-Karlin were always tense. There were a lot of unjust accusations and suspicion. Two canals dug in 1784 connecting the Niemen with the Pripet and Dnieper rivers and the Pripet with the Muchaviec, Bug and Vistula rivers made the Pina River a vital artery connecting Chernobyl and Kiev with Gdansk and Koenigsberg. Pinsk became a port, assuring the town's prosperity. Between April and June 1773, at the time of the second partition of Poland among Russia, Prussia and Austria, Pinsk was transferred from Polish to Russian rule. It took some time for the new administration to introduce drastic legal changes in the Jews' status,and in any case the Jews were then embroiled in an internal quarrel between mitnagdim and hassidim. In 1818 Russians started conscripting Jews for 25-year army service. Twelve-year-old Jewish boys were picked for a special academy, and at 18 forced to enlist. They had to take an oath and were pressed to convert. In 1844 the Russian law abolished autonomous Jewish rule; the Jewish authorities were replaced by a municipal magistrate. Henceforth all city affairs were in the hands of the municipality and police. The Russian administration was in the hands of all-powerful officials; the common man was powerless against their tyranny, Jews even more so. This and the tsar's refusal to connect Pinsk to the fast-developing railways had rendered Pina River transport obsolete. Jews started leaving the town. The author's painstaking research presents us with a living portrait of a predominantly Jewish East European town in 1506-1880. Life was never easy, and was frequently terrifying; neither economic nor spiritual progress assured security. The Russian occupation put an end to the Jews' comparative freedom, but fostered emancipation and the emergence of Zionism. Chaim Leib Gordon and Chaim Weizmann came from Pinsk... perhaps the next volume will tell us about it.