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Historical Monograph

by Yehuda Slutsky

The first 222 pages of the Bobruisk Yiskor Book consist of Hebrew and Yiddish versions of an Historical Monograph by Yehuda Slutsky (deceased). Although similar, the two versions are not identical. The translators worked from the Yiddish version.

Untranslated words are indicated by [...], page numbers of the BYB are indicated in the left margin.


[Page 113]

First Chapter:

The Kehila Bobruisk

 

In The Time of the Lithuanian Duchy
In The Kingdom of Poland

 

1: The Beginning of Bobruisk

At the end of the Middles Ages to the beginning of the modern era there was the whole region through which flows the River Berezina (Beriozah--in Russian); it was an area of forests and swamps, over which were scattered small, isolated villages. Along 587 kilometers the river flowed through a lowland until it entered into the great Dnieper. As with most of the rivers of European Russia, the western bank, (the right), is higher than the eastern bank, (the left), and the majority of villages which lie on the river bank arose on the western bank--the higher. The entire region was difficult for people to traverse. From the beginning of December until the beginning of April a harsh winter ruled there, snow covered the earth and the rivers were covered with a thick layer of ice. In the fall, frequent rains turned the whole area into a swamp-field, which was impassable. In the beginning of spring, the melting of snow hampered the movement of people passing through.

The forests around the Berezina in those years were full of wild animals and birds, and the whole area was like a paradise for hunters. Especially, the locale was notable for its beavers, which built their nests in the slow-flowing waters of the streams. Their beautiful pelts, warm and shiny, were very highly prized. Hunters also sought the musk gland of the beaver, the male, of which a lot of folk believed in its healing power. After the seventeenth century, the farmers in the county of Bobruisk were obliged to sell the beaver pelts only to the representative of the governor of the city. After several generations of wild, altogether uncontrolled hunting, the beavers became exterminated; however, a memory of them remains in a few geographical names here and there in the area, like the Bobyr River--which is the left stream of the Berezina; the Bobruika River, one of the right streams of the river; and last but not least, the city of Bobruisk.

The Grand Duke Gedimin, who ruled Lithuania in the years 1316-1341, included the Berezina region in his large estate. From that time comes to us the first information about Bobruisk. We read in documents from the 15th to 16th centuries about Bobruisk village-district (Wolost), which is divided into two parts: half belonging to the Vilna region and half to Troki. As with the other areas adjacent to the Dnieper, Bobruisk was obliged to pay taxes into the treasury in cash, mead, and raccoon and beaver pelts.

In 1502, a Tatar gang fell upon Bobruisk and robbed its inhabitants; in 1508, when a revolt broke out in Lithuania against the royalty, with the Duke Mikhail Glinsky I, Bobruisk was ranked among the cities which stood together with the rebels, and the Russian Army, which rushed to the aid of the rebels, passed through the city. The greater part of the citizens of the city and the surrounding area were, according to their language and according to their religion, near to the Russians and their eyes looked toward their brothers in distant Moscow.

[Page 114]

In the year 1511, Bobruisk was given, along with 13 villages in the upper Dnieper region, the right to pay their taxes directly to the treasury and not through the mediation of tax collectors.

In the sixteenth century, Bobruisk was already an established town. Every year a fair came there, which lasted for one to two weeks. A customs station was erected there which was subsidiary to the main station in Minsk and it began to collect tolls from the merchants who wanted to pass through the town on their way from Russia to Poland and Germany. In the customs book of Brisk from the year 1583, Bobruisk is mentioned along with Orshe, Chechersk, and Mitshislev, as one of the customs stations on the Russian/Polish border. Most of the merchandise that passed through this way were the hides of goats and other wild animals.

 

2. Bobruisk in the Begininning of the Seventeenth Century

In the beginning of the seventeenth century, Bobruisk was already a substantial city in the Duchy of Lithuania, and its population numbered 2,000 souls. In the city was a castle and a “royal court," where was seated the Starosta on the part of the government, and he maintained order in the city and entire region. The whole area had approximately 60 villages. The governors were obedient to the Polish-Lithuanian aristocratic family Trizna, which was descended from Volkevisk country folk. They were concerned with the spreading and strengthening of the Catholic religion. They also supported the “ unia " the of the Fravoslavit faithful with the Roman church.

In the beginnning of the seventeenth century, a group of Jesuit “fathers" settled in the city, and the Starosta erected for them a stone church in the center of Bobruisk. From 1611-1613, riots broke out in the city and the surrounding area as a result of the heavy taxes, which the Starosta Peter Trizna imposed on the peasant farmers, and also because of a land feud between the regime and the farmers. Sigismund III, the King of Poland, sent a committee which was to make an accurate inventory of all the fixed assets in the Bobruisk region and their distribution. It is because of the inventory that we have a detailed description of Bobruisk and the nearby hamlets in the year 1639.

The city had at that time a few 409 houses, scattered on 15 streets and 2 alleys. The majority of the citizens were Fravoslavic, who had in their possession three churches. The Catholics had, as mentioned above, a stone church next to a hospital, which had also consistently become of the Jesuits. From the names of the citizens, it is clear that there were no Jews living in the area. However, it is entirely possible that one would have encountered there from time to time Jewish merchants passing through. On the bank of the Berezina stood the castle and royal courtyard of the ruler--the representative of the king in the region. The castle was surrounded by a moat and a high wall, built of oak logs. For the defense of the castle stood ready: two cannons, three grenade-throwers, and 54 guns. The castle occupied an area of 6-7 dunams . Close by to the castle stood the city. In the city were found about 18 craftsmen shops, between them: 3 locksmiths, 3 carpenters, 2 tanners, a blacksmith, a barber-surgeon, a “prizerer," a goldsmith, a shoemaker, a baker, and a whiskey distiller. Some of the citizens were occupied in trade, but most of them were farmers, hunters, and fishermen. The city people and the village dwellers paid heavy taxes to the “royal court" in money, grains, honey, pelts, eggs, and wood, and they were also obligated to give 2 workdays per week on 30 morgs (about 20 hectares), which was in their jurisdiction, and also to provide wagons for the needs of the castle. The mills and inns were also monopolies of the castle, which had become devoted to leasing to various tenants.

[Page 115]

This heavy burden, to which was added the oppression of the Fravoslavic Church, caused great bitterness among the local population, and the mood of rebellion, which ruled the whole area, did not pass Bobruisk.

 

3. Destruction of Bobruisk in the Years of the Cossak Revolution and the War Between Poland and Russia

The Cossak rebellion of the Ukraine (1648) found a strong echo in Belarus. The kinship of language and religion and the hostility to the political domination and exploitation of the Polish lords and the Polish church were among the factors which assisted them. The Cossaks, who invaded from the Ukraine to Belarus, were received with sympathy by a visible part of the local population, which in many cities assisted in the killing of the Poles and Jews. The Poles inflicted severe punishment on the rebels and their collaborators.

Among the first cities which joined the rebels was Bobruisk. In the city a division of Cossaks fortified itself under the command of Ataman Podrubsky. Polish divisions which approached the city were destroyed. In the beginning of 1649, the Polish commander Velevich came with 1,500 soldiers, he beseiged the city for about a month, but was unable to conquer it. In February of 1649, there came to his aid the Prince Janush Radzivil, commander of the Polish Army in Lithuania. He approached the citizens of the city with a call to lay down their arms, promising, he would allow the Cossaks, who were stationed in the city, to escape and return to their country, but the beseiged people received his message with mockery. As soon as a reinforcement to Radzivil arrived from Turov, he surrounded the city from every side.

Among the citizens of Bobruisk there was panic, and secret negotiations with the Poles began. On Feb 21, 1649 the citizens opened the city gates for the Polish Army, which invaded the city and captured it. Duke Radzivill ordered his soldiers not to touch the peaceful population, he even ordered the hanging of one of his servants, who had taken for himself a handkerchief from the owner of a house where he had stayed. But he behaved with great savagery with the resisters who had not surrendered. Podrubsky, who soon fell into the hands of the Poles, was the first to be garrotted on a wooden pole, after him, other prisoners were shot to death. A group of Cossaks fortified themselves in a wooden house behind Bobruisk, they were surrounded by Polish soldiers. When the besieged saw that they could not escape, they set fire to the house and were gone in the flames.

The war in the Bobruisk region did not cease. Russia actively intervened, and its armies invaded Polish territory. Bobruisk became one of the important bases of the Polish army, and soon after the Poles were forced to retreat in 1654 from the Smolensk region and from the Dnieper, Bobruisk's standing was all the more lofty. In the spring of 1655, the Russians advanced westward, and the Cossack army, under the command of Hetman Zolotarenko, took Bobruisk and utterly destroyed it, “so that in the future there should not be a location for enemy forces to strengthen themselves there."

[Page 116]

The war continued many years--until peace was concluded in Andrusovo in 1667. In truth, already in 1661 the Russians were forced to retreat eastward from the Berezina, but Bobruisk was destroyed, the whole area around it had become depopulated, and only half of its former population remained.

 

4. In the Age of Polish Decline 1667-1793

The end of the 17th and the entire 18th centuries were a time of decline for Bobruisk, which never returned to its strength after its destruction in the years of revolution and war (1648-1667). Bobruisk was ranked among cities that was released by the Polish regime from paying taxes to the royal treasury. There had hardly passed enough time to heal the wounds, and a new war came to the land of Belarus. In the region in the years 1702-1708, battles had begun between the Swedes and the Russians. Again Belarus underwent days of blood and fire. Cities passed from hand to hand, and both battling sides extorted food and supplies from the local population . They plundered and they destroyed, mobilizing people for forced labor, to build fortifications, pave roads, erect fences and so forth. The armies brought with them epidemics, which caused death in the cities. After this the Swedish army broke to the Ukraine, it left behind a destroyed and destitute land. In 1741, Bobriusk counted no more than 150 houses.

In this era, the area of cultivated land in the whole of Belarus declined, crafts and commerce declined severely. In contrast, the standing of the Polish landlords and patrons advanced very highly. The government gave them substantial tracts of land, as a payment for remaining debts that they owed. They bought fertile soils from the impoverished farmers. Whole cities and villages passed to them. Especially strengthened was the influence of the Radzivill family, which had come into possession of the cities: Slutzk, Niesvizsh, Capulieh, etc.

Bobruisk was one of the few cities in the area which retained its position as a city directly subject to the state. In 1768, again a small fortress was established there. But also in Bobruisk, the influence of the patrons who purchased land in the city and the surrounding area strengthened. In 1776, Bobruisk was among the cities in which the right of self-government was taken away from its citizens. It belonged then to the county of Reshista. In 1789 there were 889 citizens counted in the city. Such was the position of Bobruisk, when it was annexed, during the Second Partition of Poland (in 1793), to the Russian Empire.

 

5. The Jewish Community During the Period of Polish Rule

We know very little about the lives of the Jews of Bobruisk during the Polish rule. Bobruisk was not one of the famous communities of Lithuania. It seems that a Jewish community did not exist in the city until the end of the seventeenth century. One needs to assume that the Christian citizens of Bobruisk were opposed to the settlement of Jews in the city, and it was only with the strengthened influence of the patrons that there began to crystallize in Bobruisk, as in the other small towns of Lithuania and Belarus, a Jewish community (kehila ). The community of Bobruisk belonged to the “upper income district" of the Lithuanian state, which included more than 40 communities in the vicinity of Minsk (besides Minsk proper). Along with Bobruisk, there belonged to this "upper income district:” Smilovich, the seat of the Chief Rabbi of the entire district during the 18th century, Ihumin, Borisov, Dolhinov, Gomel, Cholmetch, Paritch, Pukhovitch, Kaidanov, Radoshkevich, Rechitza, et. al.

[Page 117]

In 1766, there were found in Bobruisk 395 Jews, payers of head tax (besides infants under a year). For the sake of comparison, it would be worthwhile to mention the number of Jews, of that time, in the ten communities around Bobruisk:

Slutzk 1575
Minsk 1382
Niesvizsh 1097
Mozir 896
Rakov 785
Gomel 658
Mohilev 642
Kaidanov 560
Smilovichi 462
Borisov 249

It is clear that Bobruisk was ranked in those times among the small communities from the number of its citizens.

From the meager records that come to us from the register of the Burial Society of Bobruisk, we find out about a conflict between the Bobruisk community and the Paritsh community, which was subject to her as a sub-community. The conflict was brought up in front of a council of the “upper income district" in Tamuz 1778, and Paritsh received certain rights of self-management. We also learn that in Tamuz 1782, it was agreed that the community of Paritsh would open a cemetery in its territory, but half of the payments received from relatives of the deceased who were being brought for burial from the nearby villages and hamlets, had to be reimbursed to the community of Bobruisk.

In a census of 1789 there were found in Bobruisk 281 Jews, which made up 31.6% of the general population. The difference between the numbers of the census of 1789 to the census of 26 years previous can perhaps be explained in that the first census, there were also included the Jews of the villages in which the community paid taxes, while the second census contained only the Jews who lived in Bobruisk.

One can assume, that the Jews of Bobruisk were employed during that period, as were their brothers in Lithuania, in peddling, small business in leasing landlords' property, innkeeping, and milling. But it is very possible, that even then, they has begun to participate in the lumber business. A document of that time shows that in the area of Bobruisk county, “there are here many tree varieties deemed appropriate for the making of ship's masts, and the business in them made up a substantial part of the earnings of the local citizens who navigated the waters (of the River Berezina) for transport to the port of Riga.” We can also assume that in those days, Jewish merchants and brokers also took part in the trade.

As we see, Bobruisk was in the last period of the Polish rule a small community in a small city, in an impoverished corner of Lithuania. The growth in the importance of the Bobruisk community happened in the era when the Russian Tsars ruled in this region.

 

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