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July 28, 2013 7:56 pm

The Jews of Pinsk

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Email a copy of "The Jews of Pinsk" to a friend

Modern day Pinsk. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I have just read almost a thousand pages of the two-volume history of The Jews of Pinsk published by Stanford University Press. It is translated from Azriel Shohet’s Hebrew, and I got hold of a copy through one of the editors of the English version, Mark Jay Mirsky. I should mention that his beautifully written prefaces to the two volumes are reason enough to read them. The volumes are packed with facts and tables, and are not for the fainthearted or those used to getting their information predigested in abbreviated form. This magisterial work underlines both inspirational and disturbing features of Jewish life in the Eastern European diaspora.

Polish Jewry was the child of the expulsions and catastrophes inflicted on the Ashkenazi communities of England and the Rhineland during the crusades. Dislocated remnants of destroyed communities headed east. Poland was short of people. First, Boleslaw the Pious welcomed the refugees in 1264, even though his own clerics opposed him. Then Casimir the Great (who reigned from 1333 to 1370) granted the Jews extensive charters and laid the foundations for a self-governing quasi-autonomous community, which slowly over the years became the most dynamic Jewish community in the Christian world.

Pinsk, on its eastern borders, sat on the convergence of river systems that linked it with the Baltic to the north and the Black Sea to the south. It came to be the town with the largest proportion of Jews in all Europe, and it eventually merged with its satellite town Karlin. During the course of its history Pinsk came, in sequence, under Polish, Lithuanian, Swedish, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, German, Russian, and finally Communists Polish regimes. How’s that for instability?

The first volume, dealing with the years 1506 to 1880, describes life initially under the Poles and the self-regulating Jewish Communal Organization, the Vaad Arbaah Aratzot, which combined the regions of Greater Poland, Lesser Poland, Ruthenia, and Volhnya. Each community was in effect governed by its wealthy members and its rabbis, a kind of aristocracy both serving and benefitting from power, united by bonds of financial support, marriage,, and vested interests. The state of affairs in which the poor were effectively treated as second-class citizens has been well documented, including the Littman Library’s 2004 publication Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller: Portrait of a Seventeenth-Century Rabbi by Joseph Davis.

During the Cossack invasions and pogroms under Bogdan Chmielnicki and his allies, too often the rabbis and the rich abandoned their communities, leaving the poor unprotected to bear the brunt of the atrocities. It is reminiscent of how, before the Second World War, many great rabbis in Eastern Europe told their followers to stay and not emigrate but then they themselves got out through their contacts and influence, leaving the poor to suffer disproportionately from the Nazis and their allies.

One gets a picture of the instability of life even under the most benevolent of monarchs. The constant agitation of the church (of every denomination: Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformed ), the unpredictability of invading forces, shifting alliances, and constant danger from marauding bandits and mercenaries meant that life for most people at the time was indeed as Hobbes described it “nasty, brutish, and short.” For Jews, it was doubly so. Yet for all the ups and downs, one step forward and two back, the Pinsk Jewish population grew and thrived.

The eighteenth century brought not only pogroms and dislocation but also the great popular movement of Chasidism, which henceforth would divide every Jewish community in Eastern Europe. Pinsk was the epitome of the opposing Mitnaged tradition. Karlin became a great Chasidic center. As the nineteenth century brought change and challenges, the Mitnaged community tended towards intellectual advance and an appreciation of wider study. Chasidism set itself very much against alien culture.

The second volume starts with 1881 and goes to the twentieth century, and the effective destruction of Jewish Pinsk. Life in Pinsk was divided beyond religion. The term Haskalah is often wrongly translated as “Enlightenment.” Initially it meant no more in the east than introducing some secular education into the traditional curriculum, something that many leading rabbis favored. In Central and Western Europe, Haskalah did indeed lead to assimilation in many cases.

In Pinsk it was initially seen as helping many find employment and strengthening the community. However, when the Jews of Poland were annexed by Russia and the anti-Jewish culture of the Czarist regime began to weigh down on the Jews of the Pale of Settlement, education imposed by the state was indeed associated with a policy of conscious repudiation of Jewish identity and values.

Under the Czars, the struggle for Jewish survival became a daily test. Hundreds of thousands emigrated. Amongst those who stayed, resistance to the regime in various ways led to serious fissures within communities. Radicals, socialists, and Bundists saw the future only in terms of liberation from class oppression and religious narrowmindedness. Secular Zionists dreamed of salvation in establishing a new Jewish ethos based on labor in the Land of Israel. Different groups competed, fought, and provoked each other. This roiling competitive atmosphere produced great literature in Hebrew and Yiddish, a flourishing cultural life, schools, and youth movements.

The religious too were divided, not just between Chasidim and Mitnagdim, but between Zionist and anti-Zionist. The very tensions we find today in Jewish life, particularly in Israel, could already be found in Pinsk towards the end of the nineteenth century.

These tensions of wealth and ideology continued through the disastrous Polish regime after the First World War, where occasionally only American intervention stemmed rising anti-Semitism. This was made worse by the fact that Jews were prominent on both political sides and were blamed for everything, as always. It all deteriorated as the German Nazis and their Eastern European sympathizers brought catastrophe to Jewish life. That anything survived at all was a miracle.

The myth currently cultivated in certain religious circles about the idyllic Jewish life in the ghettos of the East is dishonest, manipulative, and a betrayal of the memory of those who lived through it. Unless you were rich, it was an insufferable and painful life. Your wealth could disappear overnight. The relatively few students of yeshivas, even the great Lithuanian ones, often went barefoot, coatless, and hungry in winter. Even the numbers studying Torah full time were a fraction of those supported by Israel today, let alone the United States. There were indeed great rabbis and leaders, and Pinsk attracted and nurtured some of the greatest. But for the masses, it was Hell on Earth.

The comparison with Israel today is compelling. Whether secular or religious, financial or political, regardless of all its troubles and tensions, Israel is a flourishing state of Jewish life in the widest sense that puts even Pinsk in the shade. Whether the researchers had an agenda or not, the facts speak for themselves. The pretense that it was better then, is, as Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, “not a very clever thing to say.”

It’s a sad story of the disappearance of yet another once-great Jewish center. But Professors Mirsky and Rosman deserve gratitude for bringing this important work to the English speaking world. We can rejoice in the fact that we have survived and thrived.

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    • Jeremy Rosen

      That is only partially true.
      The Polish Kinhgs like Cazimir wanted the Jews because they needed more people and wanted to expand commerce. Some Jews indeed became tax collectors but most were not. In the main it was the Church that stoked anti Semitism nd had always opposed Jewish immigration from the start regardless of their activities.

  • e_mark

    Jeremy Rosen / Algemeiner wrote: “During the course of its history Pinsk came, in sequence, under Polish, Lithuanian, Swedish, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, German, Russian, and finally Communists Polish regimes. How’s that for instability?”

    There are some careless historical and geographical errors here which need to be corrected, particularly in the last 4 regimes subsequent to “Polish”. During WWII it was the “Soviets” (not “Russians”) and then “Nazi Germany” which divided, invaded and occupied PiÅ„sk, Poland. After WWII, again, the “Soviet Union” (not “Russia”). Finally, today, Pinsk (now known as “Пінск”) is part of “Belarus”, and not “Poland”. Poland isn’t a “communist” country, not since 1989.

    Hence, it should read: “…Polish, Soviet, Nazi-German, Soviet, and finally Belarus.”

    Tarnów, Poland

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Of course you are right to point out the technical inaccuracies. It was not my intentiin to write an academically accurate analysis of Pinsk’s different rulers, just to show the range and the variety. But I am sure those readers doing research will be grateful for your more precise chronology.
      Thank you.

  • artcohn

    My mother’s parents and family left Minsk for America in 1905. What would have kept them there from 1881 to 1905, and what happened in about 1905 that would have caused them to leave then?

    • Jeremy Rosen

      The Kishinev pogrom of 1903 initiated a particularly vicious wave of Anti Semitism in Russian territories supported by the Czar and his cronies, which continued through and beyond the notorious Beilis Blood Libel trial in 1913. 1904-1905 was one of the biggest waves of Jewish emigration from the East.My paternal grandparents also left in 1905.

  • jose lopez

    donde puedo encontrar este libro y cual es su titulo y el autor gracias

  • Annie Muchnick

    Dont you feel like it is getting harder to survive and thrive? Or is it just me?

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Actually I think its much easier to be and to defend Judaism nowadays. We have our own State. More Jews have the means and the will to defend themselves. Religious life is flourishing and growing.Assimilation remains the largest threat to our numbers but compare this with our powerlessness 70 years ago

      Having said that, anti Semitism is rising again. The Muslim world is the source of vicious hatred towards Jews regardless of where they live or if they are Zionist or not. Left Wing ideology is now totally enslaved by the myth of Muslim perfection an Israeli/Jewish evil. Even Syria is regarded by the left as preferable to Israel. Israel’s enemies are increasing their footprint even in the colleges of the US and calls for boycotts are increasing. And too many Jews are more than willing to join thr chorus of villification.

      But there is no doubt that there are two areas where Jewish life is strong and secure nevertheless and the dominant political narrative is more supportive than antagonistic and they are the USA and Israel.

      Throughout the 3,000 years of Jewish existence we have almost always been hated, envied, attacked and even defeated. Often we have been our own worst enemies. But we have survived. We as a people are programmed to survive! As my late father used to say “The individual Jew might disappear but the Jewish people never will.”


      • After reading your synopsis of this important history, I am left breathless. At age 67, and having a very full life as a Teamster, physician, law student, and now college professor, I was close to my Zeidi Ruby, a pharmacist and intellectual who came to the U.S. from Pinsk in the 1890s. I learned to play chess on his lap and listened to his wonderful ideas about politics until his death when I was seven. He, and his side of my mother’s family surely fit the wealthier, Mitnaged side of Pinsk life.

        I became enamored with Chasidic life after my conversation with the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1990. It was exciting and magical and a welcome change from my more secular “conservative” Jewish upbringing by an attorney father and master teacher mother, both successful second-generation Jews in America. On the advice of the Rebbe, I emigrated to Israel in 1992 and during my five years until yorad and disillusionment with Chasidic Judaism, I became aware of the divisions within Israeli, and generally the Jewish people.

        I saw bitter hatred between the Seculars and the Sh’kors, the religious of Chasidic and the “American Modern Orthodox”. I saw divisions and nonacceptance among Lubavitcher and other Chasidic traditions, even between American “new” Lubavitchers and long-time Israeli Lubavitchers. I saw divisions between Ashkenazi and Sephardim, and especially discrimination against Ethiopian black Jews and each of the aforementioned. In short, I expected love in post-Nazi Am Yisrael Chai. I found that love in many one-on-one relationships in Israel, but overall a disdain for one another as noisy as a Knesset session.

        So I am living out my life in a seaside town in northeast central Florida, going back to my childhood Secular conservative Judaism and Obama liberalism. The history of my ancestors in Pinsk, so closely fit my experience in modern Eretz Yisrael that it shocks me. And with worldwide hatred for all things Jewish and Israeli, I live in a very quiet despair for my people.

        My brother, who became a very wealthy industrialist, retiring to full time Jewish philanthropy in his fifties, is now 78. And while he was always far more secular than I was throughout life, he has funded a major project in the past year in Israel to develop the Ethiopian Jewish Community and raise them up from their current underclass status through education and help with entrepreneurship. [He had been instrumental in the Jewish Federation’s assistance with the Operation Moses flights in the early 1990s.]

        At least he uses his wealth to try to do something to improve our plight as a people. I myself have merely slipped into a hopeless view of history repeating itself over and over again. Hatred against the Jews and hatred within the Jews–it is an old sad song.

        • Jeremy Rosen

          I share a lot of your experiences and the general disdain for petty internal divisions and rivalries wherever there are Jews. We are indeed and have lways bern a stiff necked and uncuddly people. And yet somehow people like you and me hang in there despite our disillusion.
          We share an admiration for the late (indeed ) Rebbe if not all followers and also share an affection for Tom Lehrer. That both dates us and places us on the fringes.
          I am so glad your brother’s involved in helping to combat prejudice and aliention in Israel. Its vital work.
          If you ever leave your Florida retreat for New York please get in touch.

      • As a college professor, I see a lot of attempts at plagiarism. To keep my initial instruction on the subject light, before I get more serious at repeated attempts, I usually cite the lyrics written by the wonderful satirist, Tom Lehrer:

        “I have a friend in Minsk, who has a friend in Pinsk
        Whose friend in Omsk has friend in Tomsk
        With friend in Akmolinsk
        His friend in Alexandrovsk has friend in Petropavlovsk
        Whose friend somehow is solving now
        The problem in Dnepropetrovsk

        And when his work is done – ha ha! – begins the fun
        From Dnepropetrovsk to Petropavlovsk
        By way of Iliysk and Novorossiysk
        To Alexandrovsk to Akmolinsk
        To Tomsk to Omsk to Pinsk to Minsk
        To me the news will run
        Yes, to me the news will run

        And then I write, by morning, night
        And afternoon, and pretty soon
        My name in Dnepropetrovsk is cursed
        When he finds out I publish first

        And who made me a big success
        And brought me wealth and fame
        Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky is his name, hi!
        Nicolai Ivanovich Lobache-”

        Extract of song, “Lobachvsky” from http://www.guntheranderson.com/v/data/lobachev.htm