'You Must Publish These Books in English'

The odyssey of 'The Jews of Pinsk 1506-1880' was long and tortuous, and wouldn't have occurred without the tireless devotion of one individual.

The odyssey of Mordechai Nadav's "The Jews of Pinsk 1506-1880," from its original publication in Hebrew in 1973 to its release in an English edition last year, was long and tortuous, and wouldn't have occurred without the tireless devotion of one individual. Mark Mirsky, a professor of English and creative writing at City College of New York, is the scion of a distinguished family of Pinsk Jews, and he grew up on tales of the city, which was known for the diversity of views among its Jewish residents and the sense of tolerance that prevailed among them.

Today a city of some 130,000 in the former Soviet republic of Belarus, Pinsk - and the Polesie region that it was the capital of - was passed among Poland, Lithuania and Russia throughout its history. (Not surprisingly, the frequent shifts in power often had fatal consequences for the city's Jews.) The first record of a Jewish presence in the city is dated to 1506, when a local prince granted several families the right to hold property and practice their faith there. By 1939, Jews made up some 27,000 of the city?s population of 30,000. Nearly all of them were killed in late October of 1942, after their deportation by the Nazis from the Pinsk ghetto.

Survivors of the community who reached Palestine began assembling documentation of Pinsk's history immediately after World War II. A massive "memory book" was published in 1966, followed by Mordechai Nadav and Azriel Shohet's two-volume history in 1973. As Moshe Rosman explains in a foreword to "The Jews of Pinsk," both Nadav and Shohet were "sons of 'Greater Pinsk.'" When their study - which divided the history of Pinsk Jewry into two periods, 1506 to 1880 and 1881 to 1941 - made their way into Mirsky's hands two decades ago, Mirsky, not being a Hebrew reader, brought them to his friend and mentor Ben-Zion Gold, then the rabbi at Harvard University's Hillel House.

"When I returned to his door a week later," Mirsky writes in his introduction to the Nadav volume, "he met me and said with uncharacteristic sternness, 'You have a duty to perform. You must bring these books into English.'"

Gold, a Holocaust survivor, told Mirsky: "They show what was lost in the Holocaust. Not one generation of Jews, but a whole world, four and a half centuries of Jewish culture, torn out of the heart of Europe."

The task ended up being a "nightmare" that took up the better part of two decades, said Mirsky, speaking to Haaretz by phone from New York - but clearly it was a labor of love as well.

"I'm a novelist, not a historian," he said. "Originally, Harvard [University Press] was supposed to publish them, but then they said they had to be cut in half. I said that was impossible, that the historians and I wouldn't agree to it." Abridgement was unthinkable, Mirsky explained, because "the power of these books lies in their detail."

Shohet's volume, for example, describes Pinsk Jews' perspective on the visit of U.S. ambassador Henry Morgenthau to Poland in the summer of 1919, shortly after the cold-blooded murder of 35 Pinsk Jews (one of them Mirsky's great-uncle) by Polish soldiers - a horror that, Mirsky writes, "almost stopped the Versailles conference" that followed World War I and "briefly brought Pinsk into the consciousness of an international community."

Work on the project allowed Mirsky to learn more about the world from which his father, who emigrated from Pinsk to the United States at age 13, after the April 1919 massacre, had emerged. Nadav and Shohet's books filled in the numerous holes in his knowledge of the family history. What Mirsky heard about Pinsk reminded him of his own native Boston: "It was small enough so that everyone knew everyone else. Atheists and agnostics knew the most deeply religious, and there was a type of tolerance that didn''t exist in other places."

Mirsky likes telling the tale of "the Hasidic rabbi who came back from Pinsk and told a friend that he had met there the most religious man and the worst atheist. And the friend asked, 'What's so strange about that?' To which the rabbi responded, 'Both the same person?'"

Mirsky sought funders for the translation project and attended conferences of Pinsk natives in the United States and Israel to learn more. The second volume, Shohet's history of Pinsk Jewry from 1881 until its final destruction in the Holocaust in 1941, will also be brought out by Stanford.

Mirsky also visited Pinsk in 1993 - shortly after Belarus became independent, but when it was still very much the Wild West of the former Soviet empire. A long essay, rich in funny, ironic and sometimes hair-raising detail, that he wrote about his sojourn there describes a town still characterized by a pre-capitalist naivete and post-Chernobyl malaise that is endearing, but also startling in its primitivity.

Most physical traces of Jewish Pinsk had long since been destroyed, but because of its state of neglect, Mirsky writes in the book, "it was closer than I could have hoped to the place my father recalled." He adds, generously, "I sensed the possibilities that must have drawn Jewish entrepreneurs in past centuries."