On April 5, 1919, in the embattled city of Pinsk, 35 Jews who had been participating in a community meeting to discuss distribution of relief packages from the United States, were arrested on suspicion of being Bolshevik plotters, and summarily executed by the Polish army.
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The massacre took place against the background of the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921, which pitted forces of independent Poland and Ukraine against Soviet attempts to make both lands part of the greater Soviet Union. Jews, who were often identified with, and involved in, Bolshevik causes, were caught in the middle, not only in Pinsk, but in a number of Polish cities, often with fatal results.
It was on this same day, March 5, 1919, that the Polish army occupied Pinsk, which had been under German control throughout most of World War I, following which control of the city was then contested between Soviet, Ukrainian and Polish armies. Thus, despite the Polish conquest, the city was not quiet, and Polish soldiers found themselves frequently shot upon by locals identifying with the Soviets.
In the generally tense atmosphere that prevailed, public meetings were, at least by some accounts, prohibited, although it was also reported that the approximately 75 Jews who met that April 5 had received prior approval from the military authorities to convene, for the purpose of discussing the distribution of relief packages received from the American Joint Distribution Committee in the period before the upcoming Passover holiday.
Polish army major Aleksander Narbut-Luczynski received word of the meeting of Jews while it was still under way, and ordered the arrest of its organizers, who numbered about 75. He said that his informants told him that it was a gathering of Bolsheviks, and within an hour, he ordered that they be executed, with neither investigation nor trial.
Immediately, the 35 Jews were taken to city’s cathedral, lined up against one of its exterior walls, and shot to death by Polish soldiers.
'Friends of the poor'
Word of the killings quickly reached the outside world, although initial reports reflected the Polish version, which was that the Jews in the meeting were communist plotters, not community aid workers.
At the time, however, the international peace conference was taking place in Versailles, where one of the most vexing issues being dealt with was the future of the lands that had previously been part of the Austrian-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who was present in France, and his humanitarian relief czar, Herbert Hoover, were extremely sensitive to the treatment of minorities in the newly emerging republics, and required signatories to the peace treaty to commit to freedom of religion and civil equality for all citizens.
Hoover had received word from representatives of the American Jewish Committee who were supposedly present in Pinsk when the massacre took place, that those killed had been anything but Bolshevik conspirators. He conveyed that information to Polish authorities and to President Wilson. Eventually, the president empowered Henry Morgenthau, Sr., at the time a senior advisor, and formerly the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, to undertake a mission to investigate what had happened, in Pinsk and at other locations where Jews had been killed in similar incidents.
Morgenthau’s report, which he filed on October 3, 1919, looked at the killings of some 300 Jews in areas under Polish control in the first half of that year. It was very critical of Major Luczynski, who had ordered the executions, who was referred to as “incredibly stupid.”
Morgenthau asked rhetorically, “Who were these thirty-five victims? They were the leaders of the local Jewish community, the spiritual and moral leaders of the 5,000 Jews in a city, eighty-five percent of the population of which was Jewish, the organizers of the charities, the directors of the hospitals, the friends of the poor. And yet, to that incredibly brutal, and even more incredibly stupid, officer who ordered their execution, they were only so many Jews.”
Kibbutz Gvat, in the Jezreel Valley, was founded by Zionists from Pinsk who had come to pre-state Palestine in 1922, and who dedicated their endeavor to the memory of the 35 Jews from their city killed in 1919.