By Mordekhai Nadav
Translated by Martin Jacobs
The possibility of a serious historical investigation of the Jewish community of Janow near Pinsk is very limited. and if I presume to offer this survey to the reader I must begin my historical survey of the outlines of the Jewish community in Janow from the beginning of its founding with an apology. It has already been said that the fate of the historical sources of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, especially in eastern Europe, is like the fate of the Jewish settlements themselves, which were in these regions for hundreds of years. As the great Jewish settlements changed and passed away in these places and only a remnant was left of them, so too there changed and passed away, as a result of the decrees, the persecutions, the conflagrations, and especially the Holocaust, the vast majority of the historical sources, with which and with the help of which the historian can attempt to uncover the story of their lives and the development of the human community whose past it is his task to describe.
When a historian of a gentile nation wishes to describe the history of a certain city, he can, in the majority of cases, turn to the municipal, regional, or national archives, examine the records and documents, learn about the city's past from them, and describe the history of the settlement there. But what is the investigator of Jewish history to do when he comes to write the history of a small Jewish community in a town like Janow? Not only is there no archive at his disposal , but there is not even one original record or document left from the leadership or the many societies of this community.
If I were to detail those items of the history of the Jews of Janow on which we have no information at all there would not be enough room on the page. We do not know who the first settlers in the area were. We know nothing of the leadership of the community for hundreds of years. We do not know its rabbis. Nothing is known of the private lives, disputes, and disagreements (which there certainly had to be). We know nothing of the relations between the Jews of Janow and its Christian population. Above all we know nothing of the relations of the Jews of the town to the noblemen who owned it, for Janow was a private town belonging at various times to different noblemen.
Only bits of information, gathered here and there, are available. The information is not at all sufficient to uncover the story of the development of the Jewish settlement in our town up to the end of the 19th century (about 1880). It is quite possible that it is presumptuous on the part of the author of these lines to attempt to write this historical survey under these conditions. However, there is another side to the coin. Certain information has been found in the foreign collections of documents. The reader of the memorial book should know what is narrated in these documents. Perhaps also justifying the attempt is the thought hidden in the well known saying from Pirke Abot: You are not required to complete the task but you are not free to avoid it. I will do what I can and perhaps some day new sources will be revealed and the items will complete each other. Consider also that I have elsewhere done much work in investigating the Jews of Pinsk and the surrounding Jewish settlements. Orienting myself to the material in a general way, I express by way of conjecture or analogy information about many things related to many Jewish settlements in the vicinity of Pinsk and in Lithuania in general. I present this information in detail in my comprehensive study of the history of the Pinsk community (soon to be published in vol.1 of the Pinsk memorial book and for the present found as a mimeographed dissertation in the National and University Library).
When was the Janow community founded?
The first question which arises when looking into the few sources at our disposal is, when was the Jewish settlement in Janow founded? We will first try to examine this question.
To answer this we have to know, to begin with, something of the history of Janow in general and something of the history of the Pinsk community and of the connection between the founding of the Jewish settlements around Pinsk and the activities of the Jews of Pinsk in the era of colonialization of the region in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The community of Pinsk itself was founded about the year 1506 and for about 50-60 years it succeeded in developing, growing, and taking its place as a leader among the communities of Lithuania (along with Brisk and Hrodna). In the second half of the 16th century (after the Union of Lublin of 1569 which united Poland and Lithuania into one state) and the first half of the17th century, Polesia was extensively colonized. In this period Pinsk Jews filled responsible positions as lessees of great estates in various places, many in the extensive region of Polesia, and their leases even extended into northern Volhynia. Several of the greatest of the lessees lived In Pinsk. They were very wealthy men who could even lease an estate to which as many as 8-10 villages belonged simultaneously. During the period of lease the lessees had all the rights of the nobles who owned the estate, including the right of judging the indentured tenants. Central to their task was developing the agricultural economy, for there was then an excellent export market for agricultural products and so they naturally traded in such products, buying and selling cattle and supplying the farmers of the villages on the estates with all the goods they required. A large lessee would at times hold more than one estate and would have to conduct his affairs with associates, or give some of his businesses to sub-lessees, or employ other Jews as a sort of clerk or paid agent. For the most part they lived on the estates where they did their jobs. Naturally in the course of time many of them grew attached to those places on the estates where the lived, thus creating the nuclei for new Jewish settlements.
An example to demonstrate the above:
A lease from the year 1644 for the estate of Pniewno has come down to us. Pniewno is south of Janow in the vicinity of Levašy. We learn from the lease that its practical significance was that the lessee at the time of the rental received possession of the main residence of the estate, the village of Pniewno, with all its lands both tilled and untilled, including ponds and steams for fishing and groves and forests for the collection of honey and hunting of game; obligations of the indentured farmers in labor and in money; the village tavern and the right to manufacture beverages of all sorts and sell them; the mill and the collection of bridge tolls. The nobleman used to cede to the lessee authority over the indentured farmers, including the right to judge them and punish them in accordance with the law. Pniewno lessees also secured for themselves the right to pasture lands on the estate to graze the cattle they were going to acquire.
From the point of view of the Jewish lessee, areas of activity were very often connected with the economic activity of the estate. The most important of these areas were the estate farm the produce of which was sold in the markets and in large part destined for export; the indentured farmers subject to the lessee as an essential source of income whether due to labor or from taxes and various fees; the exclusive right to export and sale of beverages and the milling of the produce of the farmers in exchange for a share of the produce. Besides these areas of activity the lessees also developed various commercial operations. They traded in agricultural products produced by the indentured farmers and supplied them with the merchandise they needed, fattened their cattle for export, or exploited the forests so as to export semi-processed wood or wood products in the form of potassium.
Not everywhere did the development of estate rentals lead to the founding of a Jewish town, but where it happened, the settlement grew and expanded in the course of time and the means of livelihood and the occupations of the Jewish settlers diversified. Trade took on a greater and greater role in their livelihood. Khomsk (Chomsk), by way of example, was a town with a Jewish population as early as 1604. Janow too developed into a town in the first half of the 17th century (before the pogroms of 1648).
By Israel Tsvi Pisar
Translated by Martin Jacobs
(7) My friend who is like a brother to me, this is the week after Passover, and there is frost and snow outside. This has upset the residents of our town, especially those who do not have hay prepared for their cows, for from time immemorial our townspeople have been accustomed to seeing their cows already grazing in the meadow at this time, and so they did not prepare food for them. Now the cows are dying in the sheds and their owners do not have the power to save them.
(24) My friend, the Passover holiday is almost here. This holiday, every time it comes, brings with it both joy and merriment, and trouble and care. The pupils in the school will sense vacation time and freedom from afar; they will be happy and shout for joy. Thus has it always been that those who do not lack money rejoice on this holy day, as they have sufficient means so that they can forget a little their labor and their anxiety during the cold winter days. But as for the poor, especially those who are broken in heart by the shame of begging for alms, the holiday brings them deep sorrow and distress because they cannot afford to prepare all the many necessities required for the holidays. But our brethren the children of Israel are truly merciful, and for about two weeks now two of the notables of our town have been going around collecting money for the town's poor. This Is called maot hitim and is the custom in all towns in which Jews live, and our townspeople do not hold back from giving alms, each one according to what he could afford. Still, a handful will not satisfy a lion!
Your friend .
(39) My father who adores me, I rejoice with many thanks to you for sending me the book I asked for and prayed for, without regard for your straightened circumstances and your many needs, for everything you do is only for the benefit of your children and for their happiness and all your thoughts are to give them food and drink, to clothe them and provide them with shoes, and to hire good teachers for them to teach them the law of the Lord and a knowledge of holy things. All your desire is to see them possessed of the highest glory of men, pleasing in the eyes of God and men. Therefore I assure you that I will study diligently and walk in good ways as my dear teacher has taught me. My father, may you cast your eyes and heart on me also in the coming days, until I mature and become a man in accordance with your wishes and the wishes of your son who will never forget your kindness.
Emigration to America
Therefore I ask you, dear father, in my name and in the name of my dear mother, that you do not stop even a little informing us frequently how you are and what is happening to you, so that our souls may be revived. Your son.
(54) My father. The cold which prevailed in our land at the beginning of summer and the abundant rain which fell ceaselessly is now bringing fear to many, fear that the harvest this year will not be a good one. The fear is causing prices to rise for all types of groceries. This brings with it in addition increased spending and great urgency with regard to money. For when merchandise is cheap shopkeepers are prepared to sell on credit as much merchandise as their customers ask for and whenever they ask for it. This is not the case when goods are expensive. Then they almost stop selling goods on hand, as they sense that in a day or two prices will rise even more and they will make a fortune. If they do consent to sell it will only be for cash. This is what leads us to ask you, father, to please send us quickly the money needed to sustain us and to give to our teachers, to whom our mother is in debt for our tuition, and for which they are insistent. As you will wish to fulfill our request soon, I am repeating it, for, my father, is it not all the same to you whether you send us the money we need earlier rather than later, since according to what we hear you do not lack money (Heaven forbid!) and you would help us out of our distress? You son who writes at the order of his mother, your dear wife.
(55) My father, several weeks ago I quickly sent off a letter in which I told you about money pressures on us, for the little money you send us at infrequent times is not sufficient for half our expenses, which grow from year to year. We turn only to you, father, to fill our needs. But you, father, do not hear us. And so I am forced at this time to plead with you a second time, that you will be kind enough to turn your attention to us and send us money enough to pay the debts which we owe to various people, amounting to 30 kesef, and so that we may from now on be able to buy our household necessities for cash. This is the only way we will we get our necessities inexpensively, and my mother (long may she live) won't need to beg each shopkeeper and implore him until he agrees to sell her merchandise on credit. It is not just one time that her heart is heavy, and she blushes with shame on hearing the harsh words of the shopkeepers, and especially of their wives, and seeing their angry looks. Please, father, listen to the words of your son who entreats you in the name of his mother (long may she live), for to whom will she turn for help except to you? And who will feel her distress and perceive her relief except you? Your son.
(56) I cannot hold myself back from telling you how joyful I am at hearing the good news that you intend to come home after living in America for five years straight. Mother will be especially happy at the news, as she did not want to travel to America, as you first requested, and leading a life alone was also impossible, for what is a woman's life without her husband? Just grief and sorrow, for she has to bear the trouble and burden of bringing up children alone, along with their quarrels, and not infrequently she lacks sufficient money to pay her household expenses, for you, father, being occupied with your difficult work, sometimes forget to send us money on time. After all these things, was it a small thing for you to guess how great was her joy in reading your letter? She did not have enough words to thank you for your kind thoughts. May you be able to bring this about before the coming holidays, for then our joy would be doubled. Your son who loves you like his own self and longs to greet you.
(72) My friend, you have made us happy with your kind letter in which you were so kind as to tell us that you have reconsidered your decision to travel to America. From what we hear famine is rampant, and people in the hundreds go around there gloomy and downcast, depressed at not being able to find paying jobs. I was very much surprised, dear friend, that such a strange desire found its way into your heart. You read the newspaper HaMelits and undoubtedly you have read in its pages about the hardships of travelers on their journeys, for at present it is very difficult to cross the border, and many who pass are punished. They are captured and returned, accompanied by soldiers, to their home city. After three months of labor, trouble, and grief, they return home barely alive. And dear friend, since, as you yourself have said, you lack travel documents from the regional government, is it not almost certain that you will be caught? And then the same troubles which happened to travelers before you will also happen to you. Is it now not easy to understand how happy I was to learn from your letter that you had given up this unpleasant idea, and that you still have hopes of finding a shift at a job in this country that pays a decent wage? May your hope not be cut off. This is the prayer of your friend, who wishes for your success.
Commerce and fairs
(59) How often have we heard the shopkeepers of our town complaining that the market days do not bring them the hoped-for profits, for many say that when the markets come they are followed in the winter by snow and in the summer by rain. Because of this the farmers hurry home to their villages before purchasing their necessities, and the merchandise which the shopkeepers prepared was left like a stone not turned over. Without sales there is no profit, and without profit there is no bread to eat or clothing to wear. So the shopkeepers complained these many days, until the Lord saw their suffering and sent them a good fair, the fair which took place on Thursday of last week. The day was bright and clear. The sun was shining in all its splendor. In the morning crowds streamed into our city, some with their pitchers and some with their kegs; some with their horses and some with their cows. There were wagons loaded with flax seed, oats, rye, potatoes, truffles, and mushrooms. Many merchants were gathered here, like locusts in their great number. A pedestrian would have had great difficulty in getting through the crowds standing or milling about, who blocked the whole width of the street. The shopkeepers had plenty of work all day long, responding to the needs of the people, and their sales showed a profit. There were those who pushed themselves into the shops, not to buy but to steal. Only this time they did not get away with it, since the shopkeepers knew to be careful and they watched any suspicious-looking person like a hawk. We heard that almost nothing was taken from any of the shops. May the market day which will take place in our town in two weeks time not be less profitable than this fair. Then we will be happy. Your friend.
(60) My friend. I ended my previous letter with a prayer, that the coming fair not be less profitable than the previous one. And now God has heard, he has listened to my prayer and favored us with a good fair which has almost surpassed what we could imagine. Indeed several days before the day of the fair the sky was covered with clouds and it rained for three straight days, which upset the town's residents, who feared it would destroy their work. But fortunately a full day before market day the rain stopped and a freeze gripped the area, quickly turning pools of mud into dry land. At night the moon spread its precious light, lighting the way for travelers coming in the hundreds to trade their wares. When the sun rose the next day the market grounds were already filled with people and various kinds of merchandise were set out for sale. The merchants ran from cart to cart and each one found what he was looking for and thanked God for his mercy for the profit which he provided them, and most of all this fair made the tavern owners happy. When the farmers had sold the goods they had on hand, each one went to the tavern of his choice and ate and drank to his heart's content. After eating and drinking they started singing loudly, running around, and shouting, until sunset, when they returned home on their wagons, happy and merry and stinking from liquor. Your friend.
(62) My friend, after eight weeks of study come eight days of vacation, the eight days of Hanuka. Formerly when these days came all the youths, both young and old, were clothed in joy; the younger ones were happy because of the gifts which their parents and relatives gave them, the older were happy to read books telling of the miracles done for their ancestors in olden times. It is not so today. These days joy is at an end and there is no merriment, for this year unfortunately a curse has descended upon our harvest. Thousands of men who got their living from the harvest, among whom was my father, sit idle, eating the flesh of their own arms, and who so cruel as to rejoice in such an evil time, when most of the residents of the land are living in distress? Yet despite this we do not despair; we must wait for better days. The Lord our God who was our help up to now will continue to help us in the coming days; these days will disappear and there will be no memory of them when the good days for which your friend waits have come.
(66) My friend, yesterday's market day in our home town, for which all the town's residents waited impatiently, did not bring us a profit, because from morning on the sky was overcast and there was heavy rain. It kept many farmers from coming to town. Even those who came early, before sunrise, quickly went back home soaked by the rain, which fell non-stop. At about two in the afternoon the market area was already empty and you wouldn't have known there had been a fair there, to the deep disappointment of the shopkeepers, the peddlers, and the traders who had gathered there from surrounding towns, full of the hope of earning something to feed themselves and their families. Worst hit of all were the soda-water vendors, who set up their stands everywhere, hoping that hordes of customers would jump at the chance to buy their soda to quench their thirst in the heat of the day. Then the rains came and in a moment destroyed the castles in Spain they had constructed in their imaginations. They had to return their vats, as full as when they took them out, to their cold cellars, to await better days. So, my friend, I have described to you a little of the many things that happened on the market day in our home town. Now I would like you too to tell me in detail what has been happening in your home town. Your friend.
(61) My friend. Call-up day for military service is approaching. Many of the young men of our town whose time came to go into the army have already gone to be examined before being summoned into the military. Several mothers of the young men went, or are going, to the cemeteries to pray at the graves to ask our fathers, the dead, to intercede on behalf of our sons, the living, that they return home free men. They do not consider that it is impossible for any state to exist without soldiers who are very much needed to keep order within the country and to protect its residents from every outside enemy. The officers of the government, of course, do what is required of them: they send young men who please them to military service, and they leave alone only young men who have some defect and allow them to go home. We people have the custom that when one of the young men returns home a free man his parents set a sumptuous table for all their friends and relatives, those who participated in their anxiety. In my opinion the time has come to abolish this ugly custom, because when we do this are we not giving an opportunity to our accusers to say of us that we do not take military service seriously and we are like strangers in the land? In truth, as fathers do not have to mourn their sons being taken into military service, a service which is not all that hard especially now, if only they do it wholeheartedly, so too they should not rejoice too much when they get their freedom. Such is as I have examined the issue. Sincerely, your friend.
(47) My friend, many things have happened in our town during the vacation given to us students due to the holidays which came one right after the other this past Tishri. And if I promised to tell you about all of them, well, the page would be too short to hold them. And so I will only tell you about one this time and save the rest for another time.
Last Hag HaAtsereth at the time of the Amida prayer we saw a lot of smoke rising from one of the villages bordering on our town. Several Jews lived there who were at that moment in the town. They had come here, as was their custom, to pray with the congregation. When they saw the smoke rising above their village they called out, weeping, to the residents of our town to hurry to their aid. Many men were quickly found who took pity and asked what they wanted them to do, and they ran to the village. When they arrived there they found that there was no threat to Jewish property. They moved away and stood at a distance. Then suddenly the wind wrapped flames of fire in its wings and carried them to the iron factory belonging to the Jewish blacksmith, and from there it carried them to the home of the Jew who leased cows, to the dairyman far from the village, and instantly these two houses became fuel for fire, before anyone had time to deal with it, for no one thought that the fire would attack them. And so two Jewish families were left without clothing and in want of everything, and they came out of it cleaned out of all their possessions. But Jews are merciful! Upon hearing what happened to the unfortunate families several kind people went into action, and on the very same day, and also the next, which was Simhat Torah, about ten men, prepared for the task, went around to the houses of philanthropic people, said a blessing for them, sang holiday songs to them, and all of them gave considerable donations which went into the collection for use as soon as the holiday was over. The amount of money collected reached 100 kesef. May those who did this, and those who encouraged them, be blessed! Your friend.
(58) My friend, I said that I would tell you about the rest of the things that happened in our town this past Tishri; this I promised you in my previous letter. And here time has brought a new matter to my attention which in my opinion takes first place, since it affects me more than events preceding it. This is what happened: Last night at one o'clock you could see the fear and trembling on our faces. A fire had broken out in one of the houses of the townspeople and it quickly became a conflagration. All the town's residents were awakened by the alarm bells. They quickly brought the fire engine and the long wooden poles and the iron-tipped hooks to the place of the fire. Everyone girded on the last of his strength, working as one man to extinguish the fire. Thanks to their vigorous efforts the flames died down without causing any damage to neighbors. The cause of the fire is not yet known. Your friend.
(75) My friend, last year's fire in our town, which brought destruction to more than fifty families and reduced their houses to ashes, brought some rewards to the home owners who remained, who, aside from the fact that there was no one so sick that he could not provide some help to the wretches who were burnt out, sought in a small way to eliminate the stumbling blocks to receiving permits to rebuild their houses. They also were able to prepay for the whole year. They refused to consider that history repeats itself with fires (a cause of great sorrow), for who knows what is hidden in the bosom of the future?
But if there seemed to be a great indifference to those who were burnt out, and ill treatment on the part of the townspeople, in contrast to that we are seeing a strong effort to build a new prayer house, since that too was burnt in the day of wrath, and was sorely missed in our town. Thanks to the town notables the foundation was laid for the rebuilding of the prayer house. We hope that the dignitaries who are working so hard will also strive to complete its construction and that their hands will not falter before success comes. Your friend.
(76) My friend, a report of a terrible catastrophe has reached us from the city N. A conflagration has broken out, fanned by high winds, and three sections of the city went up in flames. Also, according to what I heard, several people, including children, were killed in the fire on that day of wrath, not being able to escape. Our ears are still tingling at having heard this terrible report. And now the broken sound of weeping penetrates to our ears from N. The flames fell upon one of the shops, and about two hundred homes became fuel for the fire. Their residents were left without food or livelihood. From then until now hardly a day passes that does not bring some distressing report of some conflagration (may the Merciful One save us!), now from one city, now from another, until every heart is melted and every spirit grows faint. Hearing of these frequent disasters, generous people from all corners of our country were stirred to extend help to the wretched people who lost their possessions in the fire and to rescue them in their difficulty. May such tragic events not happen again throughout our land and may distress be at an end. Your friend.
(77) My friend. Now little by little, day by day, all memory is disappearing of the cloak of mourning and desolation which covered a great part of our town as a result of the fire which broke out here two years ago and brought ruin to fifty houses and their inhabitants. Soon the memory will be all gone, for after extensive efforts those who were burnt out have been able to obtain permits to rebuild the ruins in accordance with the plans approved by the regional administration. From now on they have permission to build houses of wood and stone everyone according to the size of his land without interference and without being subject to taunts. Yet even now there are many who have not yet started the work of rebuilding, some because they could not afford to, and some because of disputes between them and their neighbors. and the disputes, even though in themselves trivial, could bring to their owners strife and altercations, and even worse, deliver them into the hands of slanderers and informers. May the town notables intervene in time in the matter and mediate between the disputants. Then we may hope to see all the burnt-out houses in our town rebuilt in the near future; the townspeople will not be forced to live five or six families crowded into one house, which can result in various illnesses. Your friend who seeks you welfare in friendship.
(78) At a time like this, when from all sides we hear only cries which break a man's entire body on account of the terrible fires which devastated several Jewish towns, I find it pleasant to tell you about something in our town. The fire had its effect here too three years ago, and a great part of the town's residents were left naked and lacking in all things, but now, thank God, everyone is rebuilding his house in accordance with the project which had been approved by the regional administration. At first many of those who were burnt out were indeed very angry at the project and at its findings, because it called for taking up part of the street space. But the reports of the terrible fires which reached our ears this summer settled our minds a bit by demonstrating that the highest levels of government sought only their good when it ordered the exact fulfillment of the rules of the project. We were also able to build three community houses: a prayer house for the hasidic community; a large, spacious bath house; and a complete ritual bath for purification. For the last we owe thanks to several of the city elders who strove for this with enthusiasm and purity of heart, and their wish came true. Your friend
The Study House
(73) My friend, whoever saw our town's great study house a year ago and saw it now would be astonished at its appearance, which has changed for the better. In the past the prayer house was a place of refuge for every irresponsible young man in which to do whatever he liked. The sound of fighting and wild laughter was heard there all day long, and at night it was open wide to the local guards, who did whatever they wanted with the books of the study house, and nobody protested. Frequently the sacred house was turned into a merchants' bargaining hall, especially between the afternoon and evening prayers. They discussed the fairs which had been and were going to be. They spoke about animal hides, calves, truffles, and mushrooms in unpleasant loud voices which made us deaf.
It is not that way today. Today many stay peacefully awake. The guardians organization was founded to teach by turns in the study house throughout the night. The pay of the shamaswas increased so that he would live there permanently and keep the wild youths from entering and desecrating the house. One distinguished young scholar conducts the Talmud lessons between afternoon and evening prayers for the younger men, and a second young man began preaching before craftsmen and salesmen from the market. This is as is fitting and as is done in the majority of towns of Lite both big and small. Your friend.
(79) My friend. This summer has been a summer of rains and preachers. Both are fine in small quantities and hard to take in large. Rain which falls in its proper time, when it is needed, brings a blessing to the land and those who dwell on it. But this summer it is falling without stop and it is causing great losses to the owners of the fields; harvest time has already come and the grain has not yet ripened, and the rains are preventing the harvesting of what has managed to ripen. In the morning the sun may shine; the sky is clear; the air is fresh; the farmers go out into the fields hurriedly and with a sense of urgency to till them and to plow them, and suddenly the sky is overcast and the rain falls in torrents; the work stops. We see such sights almost daily. Who knows when it will end?
Just as the rains come so too the preachers. A proper preacher speaks uprightly, in ornate yet clear language. He visits each town at the appropriate time. This is as it should be, because with his captivating words he stirs to good deeds those who hear his instruction. But this is not what we are seeing today. A flood of preachers descended on our town this summer. They spoke on and on, but their preaching about sinning is greater than their means of reform, for most preachers use meaningless, senseless language; their words are vain and they stupefy their listeners. And what is even worse, because of these fools preaching completely loses its importance, and the preacher is despised even by the lowliest.
Your friend who honors what is worthy of honor.
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