Monument in memory of Pinsk's Nazi victims, erected by the Soviets (1965) with plaque according to their wording: In memory of 30 thousand Soviet citizens tortured and shot by the Fascist German Occupiers in 1942 1943 in this area.
The method of giving an account of the history of the Pinsk community in the period 1506 - 1880 was largely determined by the kind of documentary material available. The non-Hebrew material used as a basis was that published in various collections: the Russko-Yevreiski Archiv, Regesty i Nadpisi and Acta, especially those issued by the Vilna Archives Council. Owing to the lack of a general monograph on Pinsk, a greater use than the author would have wished had to be made of general collections of documents for the investigation of special problems concerning the town and, district. The Hebrew sources up to the period of the Khmelnitsky massacres (1648-9) are much poorer, and apart from one document dating to the sixties of the sixteenth century, and some other scattered information, it is only in the minutes of the Lithuanian Council, begun in 1623, that specific documentary material touching directly on the history of the Pinsk community can be found, as well as much material concerning the general history of the Jews of Lithuania that frequently is of significance in the history of the Jews of Pinsk. For the period after 1648 use was made of the Hebrew chronicles recording the Khmelnitsky massacres, of approbation to books, and also of some literary sources, notably the writings of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Pukhovitser and Rabbi Naftaly Hirsch, son of Yonothan Seal, both of Pinsk.
All these sources taken together give documentary coverage to only certain sections of the period. For instance, in comparison with the relative quantity and variety of the material on the fifties and sixties of the sixteenth century, and the thirties and forties of the seventeenth century, there is almost no information available on the last two decades of the sixteenth century and the first decades of the seventeenth. The fragmentary nature of the documentation imposed a method of procedure designed to extract as much of the information contained in the material as possible. Repeated examination of the documents from different points of view, and the correlation of one document with another enabled the adoption of a critical attitude to their contents. A card index of names, according all information on all the Jews of Pinsk in the documents available, not only gave fuller information about certain personalities, but also facilitated the examination of the history of families, and presented material for investigation equivalent in itself to a piece of documentary evidence. It appeared in fact that the establishing of the correct connection and relationship between one document and another was sometimes not less significant than was the evidence presented in documentary units. In this way links could be created between poorly-covered periods that in themselves did not bequeath enough material to provide adequate answers to certain questions.
Nevertheless it was not always possible to shed light on certain aspects of the life of the community. For instance we know almost nothing about the internal community life of the Jews of Pinsk during the period before and after 1569. All our information about the structure of the community is drawn from the minutes of the Lithuanian Council, and chiefly from the normative rules and regulations given there, this being the only documentary material available. Sometimes it was necessary to investigate problems from the point of view of their relevance to Lithuania as a whole before it was possible to apply the findings to the history of Pinsk. These questions have not yet been comprehensively treated, and a certain amount of elucidation had to be undertaken here.
The chapter divisions of the work here presented correspond to important dates in the history of Poland-Lithuania and Russia; 1569, year of the unification of Lithuania and Poland, an event that altered the political status of Lithuania and launched her on a new course of social and economic development; 1648, date of the outbreak of the Cossack rebellion, signal for incidents that shook the foundations of the Polish state and struck a severe blow at the Jews of the Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania; 1667, year of the signing of the Peace of Andruszov, which formed a dividing line between the Cossack and Muscovite wars and the period of quiet that followed (although for the Jews of Pinsk there was little difference between the years 1665 and 1670); the process of historical development that turned Pinsk into what was to all intents and purposes a Jewish town was virtually complete by the end of the seventeenth century, and therefore 1706, the year of the Swedish invasion, was taken as a date, the more so because of its being a date prominent in the general history of the town; 1793 is the year of Pinsk's inclusion in the Russian empire after the second division of Poland. Our study concludes with the year 1880, when the modern history of the Pinsk community under the influence of political movements begins to take shape.
The history of the Jews of Pinsk is part of the history of the Jews of Lithuania at a period when they revealed the forces that had been hidden in them. The attempt made here to display the forces and causes that directed and influenced the history of the Jews of Pinsk, inevitably threw light also on the forces that directed the development of the Jews of Lithuania, Poland and Russia.
The Jewish settlement in Pinsk was not limited by law to a certain street or district by Prince Feodor or by his successors, but the community did at first concentrate in one street, the Street of the Jews, that was close to the prince's castle and to the market. It thus promised favorable conditions, as regards both safety and commercial activities. In 1514, eight years after its establishment, the community had reached a certain standing among the more important communities of Lithuania. Its growth continued without interruption, and it spread from the Street of the Jews to neighboring streets. The tendency was still to concentrate in a limited area, so that the Jews of Pinsk continued living in a closely integrated group.
The consensi taken in the years 1552 - 1555 and 1561 - 1566 give a sound factual basis on which to estimate the growth of the Jewish population of Pinsk in the fifties and sixties. They also afford a possible means of arriving at an evaluation of the growth of the community from its beginnings, in the first decade of its existence, by the application of a retrospective calculation. It appears that the founding nucleus numbered about 15 families (about 75 persons). By the middle of the fifties the community had more than doubled and numbered about 35 families (175 persons). Gradually the community attained a respected position among the important Jewish communities of Lithuania, and contributed actively to the solution of problems common to the Jews of Lithuania as a whole. Its strength was firmly established by the end of the forties and fifties through increase in numbers and remarkable economic expansion. The organization of the Jewish community of Lithuania is encountered for the first time in records of the sixties, and it is clear that the Pinsk community played an important part in this, while its Rosh Medinah and indeed most of the members of the community participated actively in the direction of the organizational affairs of the communities of Lithuania as a whole. In the sixties, when a poll tax was imposed on the Jews of Lithuania to be divided among the communities, Pinsk was prominent by virtue of the large sums that were levied on it, a fact indicating its prosperity, or the size of its population. The task of apportioning the taxes gave an impulse to the organization of Lithuanian communities, and strengthened their institutions. At the same time the study of Torah was stimulated, the authority of the Din Torah was strengthened, and the power of the independent Beth-Din was consolidated.
The Pinsk community apparently had gardens beside their houses from the very beginning of their settlement in the town. Some of the leading and wealthy families owned estates, holding them on the same conditions that applied to the nobility, with peasant serfs as laborers. The census of 1561 1566 no longer refers to Jewish-owned estates, but the rich or well-to-do among the community received ploughed land, measured by the voloka, and garden land, measured by the morg, at the time of the land distribution by volokas. They did not cultivate their land with their own hands, but directed its exploitation for gain. Although the Jews of Pinsk were not entirely divorced from contact with agriculture, one cannot really speak of their actual engagement in it. To a certain extent they were affected by the agrarian reform of Queen Bona and King Sigmunt August, but by that time they were not permitted to own land, and were only allowed to hold it in return for payment (czynsz). This was one of the symptoms of the Jews' loss of the legal status that had placed them on an equal footing with the nobility, a factor that increased their social isolation and contributed to the formation of a closed community after the Union of Lublin.
Pinsk was always a commercial town because of its position at a junction of both land and water travel, a circumstance that assisted in the expansion of Jewish trade. By the sixteenth century trade contact had been established with Kiev in the south and with Lublin and Poznan in Poland. At the Polish fairs the merchants of Pinsk dealt in the products of the abundant forests surrounding the town. The Jewish merchants achieved a certain measure of wealth through commerce, but most trading was at this period in the hands of the Christian burghers. There is no evidence of commercial competition between Jewish and Christian merchants. The part played by Pinsk in the trade of Lithuania as a whole was as yet modest, and the business affairs of the Brest Litovsk Jews, for instance, were much greater. But Pinsk participated in the gradual expansion of commercial activity in Lithuania-Poland in the period under discussion, and the part of the Jews in the town's trade grew accordingly.
In the middle of the sixteenth century changes came about in the economic and social structure of Polish agricultural production as a result of an increasing demand for agricultural produce, both in the internal market and in the markets of western and northern European countries which were becoming customers for wheat and timber products. The change led to the expansion and intensified development of farming estates (folwarki). In Polesia these new conditions made themselves felt in the middle of the sixteenth century through the colonizing and agricultural policies of Queen Bona, which were designed to encourage the production of wheat and timber. Exploitation of the forests was a particularly profitable enterprise, in which the Jews of Pinsk took part. Raw timber was exported, as were semi-industrial products, such as charcoal, tar and resin. These were transported by land to the Mukhawiec river, and then by water to Danzig. Exploitation of the forests and trade in their by-products began to play an important part in the economic life of the Jews of Pinsk, and contributed to the swift growth of the community and its economic independence.
The Magdeburg charter granted the burghers of Pinsk by Stefan Batory in 1581 presented them with some legal rights intended to restrict the activity of the Jews in the fields of commerce, lease-holding, and crafts, and the charter issued by Vladistav IV contained several clauses designed to limit their economic and geographic expansion. The Jews of Pinsk, on the other hand, took steps to obtain special charters containing an authoritative definition of their rights, which were occasionally incorrectly implemented, owing to changes in external circumstances, and to conflicts arising between the rights of Jews and the rights of other burghers. They received charters in 1632 and 1633 from Slgmunt Ill and Vladislav IV respectively, realistically reflecting contemporary conditions, and providing solutions to the problems that concerned their every-day life. And in fact the Jews succeeded in retaining all their legal rights, freedom to engage in commerce and crafts, and freedom of religion, and obtained permission to repel attempts made by the Christian burghers to place restrictions on their acquisition of houses, their legal affairs, their local liquor leases, and on free participation in commerce and crafts. These charters greatly encouraged the swift economic development of the Jews of Pinsk, their increase in numbers, and their geographical expansion. Some legal restrictions remained -- the acquisition of new houses was prohibited, and there was a partial limitation on buying local leases, but these were largely evaded by settlement on land under private jurisdiction, that is, autonomous regions that belonged to the church or to the nobility, which were independent of the town authority and the Magdeburg jurisdiction.
The rights of the Jews were implemented in every-day life both in theory and in practice. Government and burghers generally respected these rights and assured the Jews an adequate degree of defense for their lives and property. Litigation between Jews and Christians was generally heard in the castle before the starosta and his deputy, according to the charters, but there were also cases involving Jews and Christians that were brought before the court of the nobility, usually without objection from the Jewish side. If on occasion it was felt that the court of the nobility was prejudiced, the charter subordinating such cases to the jurisdiction of the king was invoked. Cases involving Jews only were brought before their own Beth-Din, and there was seldom need for recourse to other authorities. Jews sentenced by the Beth-Din performed their punishment in the community's prison, which was guarded by servants of the castle.
Relations between the Jews and the surrounding population were relegated to a position of lesser importance by the bitter antagonism between the Russian population, chiefly Pravoslav (Russian Orthodox), and the Catholic Polish government, which arose when the Polish rulers attempted to carry out a policy of unification of the Pravoslav and Catholic churches, having recourse to force and acts of oppression. In the same way the suppression of the Pravoslav church in Pinsk and the gradual abolition of its institutions -- churches and monasteries -- that continued almost throughout the reign of Sigmunt III (1589 - 1632) turned the attention of the burghers away from their attempts to restrict the freedom of the Jews, and to some extent neutralized anti-Jewish tendencies. At this period the Jews of Pinsk enjoyed both the protection of the upper clergy of the Uniate Church (in whose service they held economic and administrative functions), and the defense of their peace and security by the government of Poland. Attempts made by the burghers of the town to retard the growth of the Jewish community were made from a position of weakness and did not achieve any significant results. The lower clergy, most of whom remained loyal to the Pravoslav Church, tried to provide an articulate voice to latent feelings of enmity against the Jews, but without great success. Lease-holding brought many of the Jews of Pinsk into close contact both with the nobility and with the village population. The peasant serfs did not display any special antagonism towards the Jewish lease-holders. The district was in the earlier stages of colonization, and the peasants still retained, to some extent, freedom of choice. In actual fact they were indifferent to the identity of their exploiters, whether these were nobles and Christian lease-holders, or Jewish lease-holders. The relations of the nobility with the Jews who came into contact with them were ambiguous. On the one hand, during the period extending from the twenties to the forties of the seventeenth century the nobles handed over large leases to the Jews, making handsome profits out of this, and on the other hand, they not infrequently attempted to increase their income by ejecting the Jewish lease-holders on various pretexts, sometimes using force, sometimes having resort to litigation, or employing both methods simultaneously.
To sum up, it may be said that the Jews of Pinsk lived and worked in an environment that was not indeed lacking in feelings of religious or social enmity, but in which the complex of religious, political and economic circumstances was such that this enmity did not reach practical expression. In general the Jews of Pinsk were not disturbed in their daily lives and the peaceful conduct of their business.
Estate leases: Information available on Jewish holders of estates on lease in the Pinsk area covers the period from the twenties to the forties. At this time large leases on estates were in existence in Olewsk, Kozangrodek, Lubieszow and Pniewno, Uhrynicz, Kozlakowicze. Leases were granted in return for large, or even very large sums, and included in addition to the actual land of the estate, its natural resources, the serfs and their labor obligations, taxes, transport facilities and road tolls, taverns, mills and smithies. The lease also gave the holder authority over the serfs on the estate, and the right to judge and to punish them according to the law. The complicated economic structure of the lease covered several areas. The most important was still agriculture, and the sale of produce on the market, and the chief source of income was the labor of the serfs bonded to the lease-holder, who worked his land, and paid him various taxes. Other activities included the monopoly on making and selling liquor; the right of fixing a road toll; the monopoly on grinding corn for the farmers, who paid in kind. In addition, the lease-holders developed various commercial enterprises: dealing in the serfs' agricultural produce, fattening oxen for export, exploiting the forests and exporting half-prepared timber and semi-industrial products such as charcoal. The broad compass and intricate administration of a big lease holding demanded a heterogeneous staff of assistants, inspectors and estate servants. The lease-holders had complete authority over their estates, and they applied strict methods of administration. They were armed, and were escorted by police and retainers during inspection of their property. The labor obligations of the serfs were strictly enforced, and discipline was severe. Big lease-holders lived on a grand scale, sometimes in imitation of the nobles from whom they acquired their leases. Besides large- and medium-sized leases there were also small leases on taverns only, although the documentary evidence for this is poor.
Commerce: The Jews of Pinsk in practice, enjoyed freedom of trade. The commerce of the town continued developing after the Union of Lublin, in the last part of the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth. Its merchants, both Christians and Jews, established live contacts with the large commercial centers of Poland and Lithuania, and also with Volhynia. In the Lukov and Brest-Litovsk customs house records of the eighties of the sixteenth century we learn of the extent of Jewish business in Pinsk, and of the decided significance of the commercial undertakings of the Jews of Lithuania generally. Jewish merchants in Pinsk at this period numbered about twenty or more, of whom over half were of considerable importance. This fact displays the steep rise of Jewish commerce in Pinsk in the sixties and seventies of the sixteenth century. Some of the big merchants were sons of well-to-do fathers, and others were merchants who raised themselves by their own efforts. But even with all this there is no doubt about the greatly superior extent of Christian business affairs as compared to Jewish, during the period discussed. Competition between the two was comparatively mild. Jewish merchants sent leather and furs of various kinds, wax and tallow, to the markets of Poland and Lithuania, and participated in the export of trees and timber products and wheat along the rivers. From the Polish fairs they imported metal, cloth, haberdashery, wine, fruit, and oriental delicacies. Pinsk trade with the big commercial centers of Poland and perhaps also of Lithuania was of a steady character. The development of Jewish commercial activity in the town was also connected with a number of factors arising from the internal interrelations of the Lithuanian Jewish community. The leading communities (Brest-Litovsk, Horodno and Pinsk) were entitled to trade freely in the settlements subordinated to them, but outsiders had only a limited right of trade in the central communities. Contributing to the consolidation of Jewish commerce in Lithuania was the fact that customs leases were chiefly in the hands of Jews, and Jewish merchants received a customs rebate on their goods. This was a result of the Lithuanian Council's deliberate policy directed towards the strengthening of the position of Jewish trade. The important Jewish merchants of Pinsk managed their affairs with great energy and on a big scale. Their hold on wholesale business was firm, and this aspect of trade ceased to be a monopoly of the Brest Litovsk Jewish merchants. In Pinsk itself there was a class of medium and small merchants who traded in the town itself and in the near neighborhood. Jewish businesses were concentrated in shops in the market, in shops that were part of dwelling houses, or in the houses themselves in various parts of the town besides the market.
Customs and tax leases: The wealthy members of the Jewish community of Pinsk also turned their attention to leases on customs and taxes. There is evidence that the liquor tax (czopowe) was in the hands of Jews from Pinsk in 1605 and 1646. On the basis of evidence in the records of the Lithuanian Council one can conclude that the lease on the czopowe tax was in the hands of Jews during a lengthy period, and perhaps this aided their liquor trade as well. For instance, in the forties, an extensive and varied lease on many taxes and imposts was held by one of the wealthy men of the community, Baruch Nahmanowich. In the thirties and forties customs collection was also a source of Jewish income. In the customs houses of Pinsk, in its neighborhood, and on the trade roads that led to it there were customs houses held by Jewish lease-holders. Estate leases too included the right of collecting customs. Nevertheless this activity was not conducted on a large scale, regarding either extent, or the number of people engaged in it. It is presumed that these were later deliberately incorporated into the planned policy of the Lithuanian Council, which in 1627 took the decision that Jews should control customs collecting, and handed over the monopoly on the lease to Rabbi Moshe ben Eliezer.
Liquor leases: The holding of liquor leases was included in the medium and small range of business activities. The Jews of Pinsk succeeded in evading the Pinsk municipality's monopoly on liquor leases, accorded it under the Magdeburg Rights, wherever they settled under church jurisdiction. In 1632 they were granted the right to a third of the liquor leases. In the forties some tens of families gained their living from taverns that they possessed in the town. Leases on taverns on estates and in villages also served as a source of livelihood during this period.
Loans: Money-lending was also a source of valuable and steady income to the Jews of Pinsk. From the evidence available on the period of the forties it can be seen that this was an activity of wide extent. Some of the money-lenders had considerable capital at their disposal; lending was not their only concern, and sometimes they also engaged in lease-holding. There was a fair-sized group of well-to-do people who were able to lend considerable sums against good security. The borrowers were, firstly, land-owners, or government servants (usually sons of the nobility), and, secondly, burghers. Houses mortgaged by Christians could pass into Jewish hands in the event of non-settlement of debts. If the usual protection was insufficient the Jewish money-lenders sometimes did not hesitate to take the law into their own hands and obtain by force what was due to them.
Crafts: At the time of the Union of Lublin the part played by manual trades in the economic life of the Jews of Pinsk increased to some extent. At this period the Jewish community of Lithuania, and, separately, the Jews of Pinsk, were promised the right to engage freely in manual trades, without having to belong to guilds (cekhy). In the documentary sources we find evidence of tailors, barbers, jewelers, bookbinders, also butchers. A part of the population were paid employees.
The leadership of the community consisted of three groups, responsible for different tasks, graded according to their importance: Rashim, Tovim (boni viri), and Ikk-Orim, and together they numbered 11 13. The actual work of governing the community was directed by the Rashim (Rashei Kahal and the Rashei Medinah). In the Main Communities it was not always possible to distinguish between their separate duties, because there were periods when the Rashei Kahal also acted as Rashei Medinah, and there were periods when the regulations of the Council forbade this. Rashei Medinah were the representatives of the "Main Communities", and of the settlements subordinate to their discipline, on the Lithuanian Council, the independent central governing body of the Jews of Lithuania. At first the status of the Rashei Medinah was not sufficiently defined, but in the thirties their position was strengthened, they were made responsible for carrying out the Council's policies, and they controlled the apportioning and collecting of taxes. Thus both the right to rule and practical authority were concentrated in their hands. The most important organizational affairs of the community were decided by the Rashim and the Rashei Medinah sitting together, in some cases with the collaboration of the Rabbi. The Rashim belonged to the wealthy section of the community (customs lease-holders, big estate lease-holders, merchants; and money-lenders, .etc.). A special position of power and influence was vested in the Rabbi of the "Main Community" who was not only its spiritual teacher and leader in the upholding of Torah and Mitsvoth, but also took an active part in its direction. In many cases the regulations passed and the activities entered into by the community became valid only after they had been sanctioned by him. The Rabbi was head of the Beth-Din that judged financial cases. He also maintained a Yeshivah, and controlled the teachers and the education of the children. With the strengthening of the position of the Lithuanian Council, and its consolidation as an independent ruling organization the position of the Rabbis of the "Main Communities" was also stabilized. The Rabbis were not tied to their communities for a lengthy period (they were usually elected for from three to five years) and they were thus enabled to be independent of the narrower interests of certain sections of the leadership of the community.
In cases involving only themselves the Jews of Pinsk had recourse to their own independent legal institutions. The judicial authority was in the hands of two bodies, the official leadership of the community, and the Beth-Din. The leaders, with the cooperation of the Rabbi, dealt with criminal cases and matters involving leases, and the Beth-Din dealt with financial matters. The Pinsk Beth-Din was considered as the major Beth-Din for the settlements in the environs of the town. Dayyanim of the "Main Communities" also took part in the Beth-Din held at the central fairs of Lithuania and at the fair of Lublin. At these fairs the standing of the Dayyanim of Brest-Litovsk was considered higher than that of those from Horodno (Grodno) and Pinsk.
Taxes: The Jews of Pinsk paid taxes to the government, to the municipality, and to their own independent authorities. The two chief governmental taxes, powrotne tax, (on gates of houses) and poll tax, were paid by each Lithuanian Jewish community; the municipality received a fixed amount (one quarter or one third) of the taxes paid by the town as a whole, the community paid taxes to the Lithuanian Council in order to cover its expenses, and also taxed itself to meet communal outlay.
The strength of the community can be studied according to its ability to pay taxes to the government, to the town, and to the self-governing institutions. After the Union of Lublin, the Jews of Pinsk, and all the Jews of Lithuania paid the fixed powrotne tax regularly. In 1577 - 1573 the Lithuanian classes (stany) and the Polish sejm decided to impose a fixed poll tax. It appears that the Jews of Lithuania declared that they could not endure the burden of the powrotne and the poll taxes at the same time, and the eighties and nineties were years of protracted discussion between the Jews and the monarchy on the question of taxes. These same years were a period of experiment for the government in establishing methods of collecting the tax, and only by the end of the sixteenth century was a system consolidated according to which the tax collection was handed over to the self-governing institution of the Jews of Lithuania in return for a sum fixed in advance. From 1604 onwards the powrotne tax imposed on the Jews of Lithuania was 400 florins a year. The Jews of Pinsk paid about 15% of this amount.
From the end of the sixteenth century onwards a nominal poll tax was imposed on the Jews of Lithuania. The actual amount was not fixed, and varied from three to fifteen thousand zloty, collection lagging behind estimate. Attempts at collection according to a count of heads failed completely, and the beginning of the seventeenth century saw the gradual consolidation of a method of collective agreements with the representatives of the Jewish communities whereby the responsibility of collecting the tax was transferred to these representatives. The minute book of the Lithuanian Council gives evidence to the effect that from 1623 onwards the assigning and collecting of the poll tax was one of the Council's regular tasks. After a compromise was arrived at with the monarchy the Jews did in fact pay the sum agreed (in 1623 and 1631 this was two thousand zloty, the Jews of Pinsk being responsible for about 10% of this amount).
It seems that the powrotne tax imposed a greater burden on the Jews of Lithuania than did the poll tax, and the government had difficulty in collecting it. In the last three decades of the sixteenth century and also in the seventeenth century most of the community's complaints were directed against this tax, not the poll tax. Apart from these official taxes the Jews of Pinsk, together with the rest of the Jews of Lithuania, had other requisitions to meet: sums to the military stationed in their town (zeIner geIt); expenses incurred in billeting soldiers in private houses; shtadlan expenses; presents in money and kind to people in authority; and expenses incurred in libel cases against the community, or in bringing to trial a non-Jew guilty of the murder of a Jew. According to an ancient custom the Jews of Pinsk also paid a quarter (or a third) of all municipal taxes. In addition to these extra-community taxes they also contributed towards the expenses of the Lithuanian Council, by means of a self-imposed internal tax called the Skhum ha-Medinah ("the Council's amount"). This was usually collected according to property evaluation, and the "Main Communities" were obliged to collect it in consultation with their members and with the inhabitants of settlements in their district. This tax was for a considerable amount, similar to the government powrotne and poll taxes. There was also the Skhum ha-Kehillah ("community's amount"), for the financing of the current budget, which the evaluators fixed according to the sworn declaration of the taxpayers. The communities also collected other taxes: kwertner gelt for the benefit of the Rabbi of the "Main Community", and for payments incurred in employing a Hazan and Shamash. Cases of tax-evasion were frequent. The community received some income from fines, devoted to special, usually charitable, outlays, and from bequests, and in the years 1628 - 1632 the "Main Communities" drew considerable benefits from Moshe ben Eliezer, who held the general Lithuanian lease on customs collecting.
Relations between Pinsk and its surroundings: Information on this subject dates only as far back as 1623, and is found in minutes of the Lithuanian Council recording regulations drawn up to define relations between the larger communities and the settlements in their districts. These 1623 regulations reflect a fairly consolidated situation with already well-determined relationships. The extent of the chief community's authority was revealed largely by its influence in the arbitration preceding division of regular taxes among the communities in the area, and by its efficiency in collecting them. At first the collection of taxes from neighboring settlements did not proceed smoothly, and there were settlements and groups of inhabitants who succeeded in evading payment, and in handing the burden over to other settlements and groups. The central communities themselves lacked complete information on the growth and financial standing of distant settlements. At a meeting of the Lithuanian Council, in 1627, it was decided that each chief community should undertake a type of enquiry into the settlements in its vicinity and carefully investigate the financial position of the inhabitants for the purpose of an equitable division of taxes. Complaints against alleged injustice and attempts at evasion of payments continued on even into the thirties, but in the forties these difficulties are not recorded, and perhaps it can be inferred from this that the Lithuanian Council finally succeeded in overcoming the problem. The chief community had the right to demand a contribution from the settlements in its vicinity towards impositions for special purposes (such as expenses incurred in libel cases, presents to authority, and exceptional demands on charity). The inhabitants of the chief communities had more privileges than those of the vicinity in commerce, customs and estate leasing. The Rabbi of the chief community also had more rights. The inhabitants of the subordinated settlements did not infrequently suffer injustice, and their ability to defend themselves was limited.
The status of Pinsk among the "Main Communities": Pinsk was one of the leading Jewish communities of Lithuania from the sixties of the sixteenth century onwards. Brest Litovsk, Horodno and Pinsk were the "Main Communities" of Lithuania after the Union of Lublin, and from the minute book of the Lithuanian Council it is clear that from 1623 onwards their representatives -- Rashei Medinah and Rabbis -- were in fact the Council. The community of Brest Litovsk was the oldest, the richest and the largest of the communities of Lithuania and held a place of seniority from the earliest days. The second in degree of importance was Horodno, and then came Pinsk, the youngest of the three. The Rashei Medinah, the Rabbis and the Dayyanim of Brest Litovsk were traditionally accorded superior status. This advantage diminished gradual\y with the growth and strengthening of Pinsk and Horodno. As to the apparent superiority of Horodno over Pinsk, this was in reality superficial, and from the point of view of power and influence they seem to have been equal. The work of the Lithuanian Council was usually carried on by means of cooperation and mutual understanding between the Rashei Medinah and the three leading communities. The Pinsk and Horodno communities did not approve of Brest Litovsk which tended to commit acts in its own interest that did not comply with the regulations of the Lithuanian Council. The representatives of Pinsk and Horodno were genuine partners in the planning and carrying-out of the policies of the Lithuanian Council.
As regards the Jews of Pinsk in these fateful months there is information in several documents of the town, dating from 1648 to 1650, and in the Hebrew chronicles recounting the Khmelnitsky Massacres. It appears that most of the Jews fled from Pinsk before the arrival of the Cossacks. Before going they negotiated with the citizens and handed over their possessions for safekeeping. Several of them seem to have received promises from the citizens that no harm would befall them if they remained in the town. Some also buried their possessions under ground. Relations between Jews and citizens were quiet and trusting until the last days before the entry of the Cossacks. Jews (both as individuals and as a community) handed over the synagogue and their houses in the Street of the Jews for safekeeping, and it is not entirely beyond belief that the burghers indeed attempted to protect the houses of the Jews, for 78 houses including the synagogue remained standing. Some of the Jews who remained in the town were killed, and others saved their lives by being converted to the Pravoslav faith, either willingly, or by force. These were afterwards given the right to readopt their own belief, as the result of strong representations made by the community.
In the summer of 1654 the united forces of Muscovites and Cossacks took the Turow and Dawidgródek region to the east of Pinsk, and the danger threatening the town became very real. But about ten or eleven months elapsed before an attacking force began to advance on Pinsk. It is hard to say that Pinsk was adequately equipped to defend itself, since the citizens' army was engaged in containing the undisciplined armed gangs roaming the countryside instead of preparing itself to face the major enemy. It is not impossible that in the town itself Jews and Christians made common cause against the acts of looting, pillage and confiscation of property committed by the Polish army units. When the Russian and Cossack forces drew nearer in the second half of 1655 and the danger to the town became more pronounced, the Jews decided to flee while there was time, but the burghers remained. There were far-reaching consequences to this double decision -- of the Jews to flee, and of the burghers, to remain and see how things would develop.
In the years 1656 - 1657 Pinsk stood at the center of concentrated political activity. The Ukraine government coveted Polesia and its capital Pinsk, and Moscow also wished to take Polesia under its protection. Both sides tried to attract the nobility to their cause, and Khmelnitsky even succeeded in signing an agreement with the leader of the nobles of the Pinsk district, bestowing Ukrainian protection, but the nobility were opposed to this, and with the death of Khemelnitsky on the 6th of August 1657 the matter was dropped. For some time Cossack gangs continued to roam in the district and harass the lives of the population. At the end of 1657 life began to return to normal. The years 1658 - 1659 were years of relative quiet, and both the Christian citizens and the Jews made efforts towards the rehabilitation of their economic existence.
The economic weakness of the impoverished burghers gave rise to conditions favoring the expansion of Jewish holdings in the liquor trade. In 1658 a bitter struggle suddenly broke out between the burghers and the Jews over their competition in the field of liquor leases and their sale. The fiscal policy of the Poles favored the progress of the Jews, for apparently the Jews had the money needed for acquiring liquor leases, the income from which was important to the monarchy.
There were also Jews making their livelihood from money-lending in these years. In comparison with the pre-1648 period loans were generally medium-sized or small, and the borrowers were chiefly burghers or nobles in need. There was a marked decline in business, and this was a difficult period for the town as a whole. It was impoverished, and the imposition of taxes by the monarchy, and the billeting of soldiers by the military authorities placed a heavy burden on all inhabitants. The burghers therefore tried to force the Jews to cover half of the special expenses incurred by the town, instead of a third, but did not succeed in their attempt.
With the relaxation in 1659 of the ceasefire agreement between Poland and Moscow, Moscow's control was weakened, and a gang of Cossacks began to operate in the Pinsk district, under the command of Mikhail Kurhan. They advanced from the district of Turow and Davidgródek, captured Pinsk on the 19th of December 1659 and held the town for five days. The Cossacks plundered the burghers, Jews and nobles without distinction and finally accepted a ransom of 2,000 zloty paid them by the burghers and the Jews together, and evacuated the town. The extortion was directed against the whole population, and its payment in partnership was an example of a certain measure of cooperation between Jews and burghers when their mutual interests demanded it. Unrest in the district increased, lack of discipline reached extraordinary lengths, and the local nobility continued evading conscription. Under the pretext of fighting against Moscow they too organized themselves into gangs, and perpetrated acts of pillage and robbery.
In the summer of 1660 a large Muscovite army attacked Poland. In the Pinsk district forces serving Moscow's interests were set in motion, and an army composed of Cossacks, Muscovites and local gangs captured the town by surprise attack on the 4th of July 1660, but held it for not longer than a fortnight. Great suffering was caused to the Jews when the town was taken and plundered. Not a small number of Jews were tortured, slain, or taken prisoner, a large part of their possessions were looted, including the ritual objects of the synagogue, charters, documents, and bills of property, and their houses, including the synagogue, were set on fire. The community was more profoundly affected by this seizure of the town than by the captures of 1648 and 1655, and became impoverished to a serious degree.
Demographic changes: In contrast to the decrease of the Christian population, the Jewish community grew in size, succeeded in maintaining its hold on many of its sources of livelihood, penetrated into the new fields that presented themselves and occupied the gaps in certain fields of economic activity that were caused as a result of the abandonment of various economic positions by the burghers. There are no statistics on the growth of the Jewish settlement in Pinsk during the period under discussion, but the topographical information available on its development and expansion is clear. Jews acquired houses and land, and it was apparently in these years that Pinsk more and more began to present the appearance of a Jewish town.
Changes in economic life: The Jews of Pinsk were also affected by the severe economic crisis, and many of them were forced to seek new means of livelihood. A number of them continued to resort to setting up small tavern businesses. The armies then stationed in the area were good customers for liquor, and the Jews hastened to answer the demands of this extensive clientele, and brought liquor to the army camps and to the villages and hamlets in their vicinity.
Well-to-do Jews were still found in Pinsk even in the sixties, capable of entering into more important affairs, and of investing reasonable sums in leasing the monopoly on tobacco, leasing customs, leasing the akcyza (indirect tax on consumer goods). Some of the big estate lease-holders and of the well-off members of the pre-1648 community had retained a portion of their wealth. But their undertakings were now usually of medium size and compass. Those accustomed to managing important businesses now directed their money into any channel that offered itself, and especially to the leasing of taverns. Jews engaged in every possible type of commerce and even entered new branches, in spite of the general decrease in trade as a result of the impoverishment of the district, the flight of the population, and the lack of security on the roads. Even in the sixties there was still a market in Pinsk for imported goods, even for luxury articles, and merchants brought their goods there even from afar. There is no doubt that normal Jewish commerce was heavily affected, and, it had to struggle for its existence and to get adjusted to the generally straitened economic circumstances. Jews made efforts to find a livelihood everywhere, on the street and open roads, worked with energy and ingenuity, bought whatever the peasants had to sell, set up stalls in the marketplace, and the women began to sell homemade confectionery. The development of Jewish petty commerce was the characteristic phenomenon of the sixties. There is no information available on the part played by crafts among the Jews of Pinsk, but there is reason to presume that this method of earning a livelihood was on the increase. One can safely deduce from these circumstances that at this period there arose a broad lower class of Jews who toiled hard for their daily bread. These people included the petty buyers and sellers, the owners of small taverns, and the craftsmen.
The Sevivoth (vicinity): Jewish settlements in the vicinity of Pinsk were also uprooted in 1648 and 1655, and generally managed to rehabilitate themselves after the danger had receded. But not all the small settlements rehabilitated themselves immediately, and, on the other hand, some temporary settlements in certain places turned into permanent habitations and became new settlements. This occurred chiefly in the western part of the Pinsk district. The problem of the subordination of these settlements to the chief community later caused conflict between the communities of Pinsk and of Brest Litovsk. The events of the fifties also contributed to the fixing of the lessees on the land they held on lease, especially in those places which became permanent settlements as a result of lease-holding.
Jews in Christian Society: In comparison with the Jews' retention of their position, and the progress that they achieved, the economic decline of the burghers caused fundamental change in their mutual relations, and indications of hatred became more and more noticeable in complaints registered against the Jews. There is no doubt that the Polish authorities did not trust the burghers too far, after their display of treachery in 1648, while the Jews enjoyed the protection of the government in as far as it was capable of providing it. For the first few years after 1643 the burghers did not dare to come out in the open against the Jews, but in 1658 anti-Semitic feeling emerged publicly for the first time, and they accused the Jews of intending to liquidate the municipal lease and reduce the burghers to a state of complete economic collapse. The signs of religions hatred stand out clearly in complaints made in the sixties, and accusations alleging desecration of the cemetery and the nearby crucifix were thrown at the Jews. In 1666 an organized attack was launched against the Jews by individuals whose operational base was the monastery next to the Pravoslav church (cerkiew bratska), undoubtedly after incitement by the monks and the abbot. Leaders of the Jewish community made strong representations against these hostile acts. A direct appeal to the heads of the monastery brought no results, so the Jews turned to the government authorities. It is not altogether clear how the matter ended, and it seems that the Pinsk community was involved in some difficulty and considerable outlay as a result of these incidents, even to the point where the Lithuanian Council had to contribute to the expenses incurred. Complaints made by the burghers against the Jews in 1669 display an even stronger tone of hatred, both on religious and national grounds. But there is no doubt that the Jews succeeded in repelling the inimical acts aimed at them. Lawless acts directed at the Jews were not surprising in the generally anarchical situation that prevailed, but those outbreaks did not succeed in dislodging the Jews from their position.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Pinsk, Belarus Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2019 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 18 Dec 2002 by LA