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(Historical Overview)

by E. Ben Ezra (New York)

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Polesia is renown as one of the swamp areas of Europe, extending from the middle of the Bug River on one side to the Dneiper River on the other. The area used to belong to Russia; after the Riga Treaty of 1921, the entire Grodno gubernia [province] and smaller areas of Minsk gubernia, including large areas of Polesia, were transferred to Poland.

The swamps of Polesia covered almost half of the whole area. The Polesia swamps were responsible for halting the armies of the Swedish king, Karl the Twelfth; his armies got bogged down in the marshlands of Pinsk (1706). Napoleon Bonaparte was forced to avoid the swamps (1812), and in 1915, the Germans were forced to stop at the marshlands of Pinsk.

A large portion of Polesia is also made up of sand and clay. Between the swamp and the sandy areas, there are pine forests, as well as many lakes, rivers and streams in which a variety of fish can be found. These fish provided a good source of income for the inhabitants of Polesia.

Great numbers of wolves, foxes, bears, deer and other such animals once lived in the Polesia woods and very often they would attack the villages. The swamps also provided nests for a variety of wild fowl.

In the last few hundred years, during which time great areas of the forest were cut down, the number of wild animals and birds has decreased, and as a result the danger to the villages has also decreased.

The inhabitants of Polesia are mostly White Russians, who can be divided into two groups: the White Russians of the areas of Kobrin, Kosov, Luninets, and Pruzhan, and Polish culture had a great influence on these people. The other group is composed of White Russians from Minsk and Mogilev, and they were greatly influenced by Russian language and culture.
In addition to the White Russians in Polesia, there are also Poles, Jews, Russians, Germans, Hungarians and Gypsies. The Poles comprise almost ten percent of the total population, and a few Poles, who formed the nobility, owned large tracts of land. Many years ago, the nobles were the undisputed rulers of Polesia. Until the German hordes exterminated them, the Jewish communities in Polesia formed approximately nine percent of the entire population. The majority of them lived in cities or villages, and occupied themselves with business or trade. Only a small number of them were involved in farming. This is why their cultural level was higher than that of the other inhabitants.        

The soil of Polesia is very good for growing potatoes, peas, cucumbers, carrots, onions etc. Polesian peasants would plant rye, oats, barley and buckwheat.

The clay of Polesia was good material for making pots, and pot-making was widespread among the landless peasants, who used to individually sell their pots in the market. Sometimes Jewish merchants would buy them up and send them by boat to be sold in the surrounding cities or villages where they were very popular.

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One of the main sources of livelihood in Polesia was the lumber business; the wood was furnished by the Polesia forests. Jews controlled this business; they owned forests, hired gentiles to chop down the timber, take it to the river, form it into rafts, and send it up river to Germany.

This business provided a livelihood for a large number of both Jews and non-Jews.

[Photo caption:] Part of Pinsker Street (spared by the fire) during the German occupation in 1916.



The town of Drohitchin, which is the subject of this Yizkor Book, is located in this area of Polesia. It is important to emphasize that there is an older Drohitchin, which is located not far from Byalistock; so as not to confuse it with our own town, our Drohitchin, was called The Second Drohitchin, and was located 70 kilometers from Pinsk, the former capital city of Polesia.

The name Drogitchin (Drohitchin) indicates that the source of the name is the Slavic word doroga (road). Perhaps this is because the village lies on the road between Brisk and Pinsk. It is indeed in this way that Drohitchin is identified by Bobrofsky, the chronicler of the gubernia of Grodno.

In an old document of the local government of Pinsk (1561-1566), there is mention of a geographical location for the town: "Drohonitsa is near Nagoria." I believe that this is the old name of what would later be called Drohitchin. This particular document indicates that in those days Drohitchin was part of the Duchy of Pinsk, which belonged to the Polish king and Lithuanian Grand Duke, Sigmund August (1548-1572).

Poland and Lithuania were united in 1569, and the Pinsk region remained part of Lithuania; this included Drohitchin, which at that time was only a village. It did not become a small town until 1623.

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania opened its doors to Polish culture and institutions, and especially to Roman Catholic culture. The Roman Catholic Church used all available means to expand its influence in all areas of life, and was very successful in that effort. The whole territory of Polesia was gradually Polanized. This aroused the wrath of the Cossacks, which expressed itself in the infamous Chmielnicki Massacres (1648).

The Cossacks were aided by the oppressed peasant masses. The Cossacks went on the rampage for two years, and a great deal of Jewish blood was spilled in Polesia until the Polish government vanquished the Cossacks.

In the spring of 1706, under the leadership of Karl the Twelfth, the Swedes launched a war against the Polish government, but thanks, however, to the swamps of Polesia, he had to leave Poland that same year, and Poland remained intact until 1772, when the territory of Poland started to be partitioned. It was at that time that White Russia reverted to Russia, and after the war – between 1793 to 1795 - the gubernias of Minsk, Vilna and Grodno were also taken over by Russia.

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