August 9, 1506, is the date that history marks as the official beginning of the Jewish community of Pinsk, Lithuania, in what is today the southern part of Belarus. By the eve of World War II, Pinsk’s 28,000 Jews constituted some 70 percent of the city’s population, making it a cultural and social microcosm of the full range of Eastern Europe Jewish life. When Soviet troops liberated the city, in 1944, they found 17 Jews there in hiding.
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There had been Jews in the region prior to the 16th century, but they were expelled together with the other Jews of Lithuania in 1495. In 1506, however, the noble who owned the area, Prince Feodor Ivanovich Yaroslavitch, together with his wife, Princess Yelena, granted a charter to three Jews to return and establish a community. The record of that charter names three men, Yesko Meycrovich, Pesakh Yesofovich and Abram Ryzhkevich, as the beneficiaries of the charter, giving them and their group of some 15 families the use of two parcels of land to build a synagogue and a cemetery. The charter also confirmed the rights granted earlier to the Jews of Lithuania by King Alexander Jagellon, which included freedom of religion, legal protection, and the privilege to practice a number of non-agricultural professions.
Jews were involved in trade, day labor, money-lending and lease-holding, by which they managed and collected fees on nobility-owned estates and various monopolies, including tax collection.
Legal records quoted in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia testify to the prominent stature of the founding fathers of the community and their successors. The family of Pesakh Yesofovich, for example, held the leases for collecting taxes and customs from the inns of Pinsk and two other towns. In 1553, they sued the Archbishop of Pinsk for non-payment of taxes on the brewing of mead and beer. Apparently, a local custom permitted the church official to brew those beverages six times a year without having to pay taxes on the product. The Yesofovich family, not willing to recognize the custom, appealed to the queen to order the payment of the tax. The queen ruled that the exemption indeed had no legal standing and ordered the payment, while at the same time, said that the tax should then be channeled back to the church, as “a mark of our kindly intention toward God’s churches.”
During the 17th century, Pinsk was subjected to the same conflicts between Russian and Polish regimes, with Cossacks joining the Russians. This included the Cossack rebellion led by Bogdan Khmelnytsky, during which Pinsk was captured in 1648, and a pogrom carried out against its Jews. But overall, the town’s Jews were better organized than the general population, and so tended to recover more quickly from such shocks. Historical records from the mid-17th century testify to the presence of Jews and to various business transactions between them and the Christian population.
In 1793, the time of the second partition of Poland, Pinsk was brought under the rule of the Russian czar.In 1844, the kahal - the Jewish commission of self-rule - was abolished, although the community still oversaw its own tax collection and conscription to the army.
Pinsk was an early stronghold of Hasidic life but it was also a bastion of modernism during the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) period , with a number of modern secular schools, and Jewish schools for girls as well as boys.
In the early 20th century, the city's Jews were active in socialist and Zionist organizations, and after the failure of the 1905 revolution against the czar, many Jewish activists found themselves rounded up by the regime. The city was occupied by German forces during most of World War I, and some 9,000 Jews were deported to Poland and impressed into labor gangs. After the war, Pinsk changed hands a number of times, until finally coming under Polish rule in 1920.
The beginning of World War II saw Pinsk occupied by Soviet troops, who nationalized private businesses and, in the case of the Jews, shut down most of their community institutions. The Germans occupied Pinsk on July 4, 1941, and within a month had murdered some 11,000 Jews. Only the following year, on May 1, 1942, did they establish a ghetto, and that was liquidated the following autumn. The 200 or so Jews who survived that action were then moved into a ghetto in nearby Karlin, where they were murdered on December 23, 1942. Liberation came on July 14, 1944.
Pinsk is one of several cities in Belarus that have undergone a mini-rebirth of their Jewish communities during the past two decades. In 1991, a delegation of Karliner Hasidim from the United States arrived in Pinsk to help organize the small community that was developing there. Four years later, the government gave them authority over the town’s remaining synagogue.