Photograph taken after administration of the oath to Jewish soldiers in the Old Synagogue, Pinsk, 1937: (left to right) Rabbi Yoakhim; Rabbi Aron Walkin, head of the kehilah; Yoysef Shmid, cantor; and Shmuel Gorynowski, gabai (trustee). Photograph by M. Freidkes. (YIVO)

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City in southern Belarus. Pinsk’s Jewish community was founded in 1506 (and from ca. 1690 Pinsk was twinned with the town of Karlin) and was one of the five chief communities of “Lite” (Jewish Lithuania), extending its authority over at least 26 smaller Jewish settlements from the mid-sixteenth century until the abolition of Polish–Lithuanian Jewish autonomy in 1764.

Girls airing bedding at a home for girls maintained by CENTOS (Organization for Child and Orphan Care), Pinsk, 1930s. (YIVO)

Growing from less than 100 (out of 4,000 people total), Pinsk’s Jewish population reached 1,000 by 1648, rose to more than 2,000 by 1766, and peaked at 28,000 on the eve of World War I (38,700 total). In the late seventeenth century, Jews came to dominate Pinsk demographically and geographically; from the mid-eighteenth century they variably constituted 60–90 percent of the population, giving the city a distinctly Jewish cultural and social atmosphere and making it a microcosm of the social, religious, political, cultural, educational, and economic developments conventionally associated with Jewish towns of Eastern Europe.

The charter of the Pinsk Jewish community was granted in 1506 by Prince Feodor Jaroslawicz to Josko Meirowicz, Pesaḥ Ezofowicz, and Abraham Ryzykiewicz, who headed a returning group of about 15 Jewish families expelled in 1495 along with the rest of the Jews of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The charter promised Jews personal and religious freedom; legal protection; permission to practice moneylending, crafts, or commerce; communal and juridical autonomy; and the right to a synagogue and cemetery. With the support of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth’s Catholic rulers and the Uniate church, Jews for the most part succeeded in maintaining their rights, despite occasional attempts by the mainly Orthodox Christian townspeople to limit Jewish economic activity and residential space.

Pinsk was captured and occupied several times and generally affected by the dislocations of the Cossack–peasant revolt against Polish rule in 1648, the periodic fighting between the Polish army and Muscovite and Cossack troops in the 1650s and 1660s, and the Swedish invasion of 1706. However, except for the Muscovite occupation of July 1660—when many Jews were tortured and killed, and the synagogue and numerous Jewish homes were destroyed and plundered—in each emergency the majority of Jews managed to escape the city ahead of the main fighting and preserve a fair portion of their property. In 1648, for example, Jewish deaths probably numbered no more than a few score. Also, after each crisis the Jewish community, in contrast to that of the Christians, was able to reconstitute itself quickly with most of its leaders returning to their positions and communal institutions resuming activities. The resulting demographic gap between Christians and Jews set Pinsk on the path to rival Berdichev as the most thoroughly Jewish city in Eastern Europe.

The second partition of Poland, in 1793, brought Pinsk under the rule of tsarist Russia. Jews were now directly subject to the municipal council and in 1844 the kahal was officially abolished, although public affairs such as tax collection and army conscription were still in the hands of Jewish functionaries. Welfare and educational tasks became the responsibility of voluntary associations and a state-appointed “crown” rabbi (e.g., Avraham Ḥayim Rosenberg) kept vital records and was the official liaison between the Jewish community and the government.

Members of Ha-No‘ar ha-Tsiyoni, a youth movement affiliated with the General Zionist movement, harvesting a crop at a hakhsharah (Zionist training farm), Pinsk, ca. 1930s. (The Institute for Labour Research in Memory of Pinchas Lavon, Tel Aviv)

During the Russian revolution of 1905, radical Jewish socialist groups such as the Bund and Po‘ale Tsiyon initiated strikes and confrontations with the police. Jewish self-defense units prevented antisemitic groups from perpetrating pogroms. After the failure of the revolution, the authorities arrested Jewish revolutionaries and outlawed much Jewish organizational activity.

For most of World War I, Pinsk was under German occupation and near the front. While the Germans did not destroy Jewish institutions, about 9,000 Jews were deported to Poland proper, many Jews were pressed into labor gangs, food was scarce, and disease was rampant. In the postwar 1918–1920 combat, Pinsk changed hands several times among Ukrainians, Soviets, and Poles, and was finally conquered by Poland in September 1920. The fighting and politics were often accompanied by violence and discrimination against Jews. Most notable was 5 April 1919, when the Polish army summarily executed, as suspected Communists, 35 young Pinsk Jews attending a public meeting to consider how to allocate Passover aid.

On 17 September 1939, shortly after the onset of World War II, the Red Army conquered Pinsk. Large businesses and factories were nationalized; political activists, “unproductive,” and “bourgeois” people were expelled from the city. Most synagogues, study halls, and other Jewish institutions were closed or Sovietized.

On 4 July 1941, the Nazis occupied Pinsk. Within a few weeks they established a Judenrat and in the first week of August conducted aktions, murdering about 11,000 Jews by gunshot and burying them in mass pits. The Pinsk ghetto was established on 1 May 1942, and more than 3,600 of its some 10,000 inhabitants worked outside of the ghetto. On 29 October–1 November 1942 the ghetto was liquidated, with approximately 10,000 Jews shot to death. Less than 200 essential workers and others were herded into a “mini-ghetto” in Karlin and murdered on 23 December 1942. When the Soviets liberated Pinsk on 14 July 1944, they found 17 Jews surviving in hiding.

After the war, Jews from other Belorussian towns renewed the Jewish presence in the city, although the community was but loosely organized and its religious services and other activities lacked official sanction. In 1991, a group of Karliner Hasidim from the United States arrived to organize the community under their leadership. In 1995, the government of Belarus restored the remaining synagogue to the community, which numbered approximately 500 people (out of 130,000).

Pinsk, located at the confluence of the Pina and Pripet Rivers, and next to extensive forestlands, is well situated to serve as a commercial center, with easy access to Russia, Ukraine, and Poland. From the sixteenth century to the twentieth, the leading Jewish citizens of Pinsk were large-scale merchants who imported finished goods, tools, colonial goods, spices, and fruit from the west and exported skins, furs, wax, tallow, salt, grain, and, especially, lumber and forest products to the west. Jewish storekeepers and stand owners were a large majority in the marketplace, and Jewish peddlers made the rounds of surrounding villages. Jewish day laborers were vital to transport and the river trade. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, wealthy Jews lent large sums to nobles, officials, and townspeople. However, by the last third of the seventeenth century the Jews, and the Pinsk kahal with its mounting expenses, became increasingly indebted to nobles and church institutions.

A married woman of the Eger or Lurie family, Pinsk (now in Belarus), 18th century. She wears a bejeweled shterntikhl, a traditional head covering worn by married Jewish women until the end of the 19th century. (YIVO)

During the period of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, a major occupation of Pinsk Jews was leaseholding (arenda), ranging from leasing and managing entire nobility-owned latifundia by families such as the Szymszyces, to leasing monopolies on liquor production and revenue collection (e.g., Barukh Nahmanowicz), to the leasing of a single tavern. From the mid-seventeenth century, the scope of leases tended to contract and Jews became ever more involved in artisanry, eventually predominating in this sector. In the nineteenth century, Jewish industrialists such as the Levin-Luria family established mechanized factories and their workers formed a Jewish proletariat that by the early twentieth century numbered in the thousands.

From around 1580, Pinsk maintained a yeshiva and later several study halls, and was host to many prominent rabbis and scholars, including Naftali Katz, Yehudah Leib Pohovitzer, Yitsḥak Me’ir Te’omim, Asher Ginzburg, Refa’el ha-Kohen, Levi Yitsḥak ben Me’ir (later of Berdichev), El‘azar Mosheh Horowitz, and David Friedmann.

Karlin, home to Aharon the Great (1736–1772) and his successor Shelomoh, was one of the first centers of Hasidism. At first, relations between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic camps were cordial: Refa’el ha-Kohen refused to join the Gaon of Vilna’s anti-Hasidic campaign in 1772, and a Hasidic rabbi, Levi Yitsḥak, was rabbi of Pinsk from 1775 to 1785. However, the 1785 appointment of Avigdor ben Ḥayim as rabbi set off a bitter struggle between Hasidim and Misnagdim that finally ended only in 1804 by Russian government fiat. Pinsk then came under Hasidic control, while, thanks to Sha’ul Levin, Karlin became a Misnagdic stronghold. 

From the 1830s, Pinsk was a center of moderate Haskalah that adopted modern cultural codes without rejecting tradition. Many autodidacts and even some rabbis responded positively to the Haskalah educational program, and by the 1860s a budding class of modernizing merchants, doctors, lawyers, clerks, teachers, and other professionals provided a critical mass of consumers and supporters of Haskalah culture. From the mid-nineteenth century until World War I, a series of modern schools opened in Pinsk, including a state-run elementary school, a Russian gymnasium (the 1886 numerus clausus limited Jewish students to 10%), two general and three Jewish girls’ schools, two modern Talmud Torahs that in addition to Torah taught secular subjects, a Zionist ḥeder metukan (progressive Hebrew elementary school), and a vocational school. After the war, various Jewish religious and political movements opened schools, such as Tarbut (Zionist), Ḥorev (Aguda), and CYSHO-Gleiberman (Bund).

From the late nineteenth century, and especially between the wars, Pinsk was a center of new Jewish political and cultural activity. The city had branches of Ḥoveve Tsiyon, Po‘ale Tsiyon, the Bund, General Zionists, Revisionist Zionists, Mizraḥi, and other organizations, while some Jews participated in general political parties. Prominent Zionist and Israeli figures such as Chaim Weizmann and Golda Meir hailed from the Pinsk region. Many youth groups and labor organizations were affiliated with the various movements. There was also an extensive network of social welfare institutions supported by the community and private philanthropy.

Suggested Reading

Tikva Fatal-Knaani, “The Jews of Pinsk, 1939–1943,” Yad Vashem Studies 29 (2001): 148–182; Benzion Hoffman, ed., Toyznt yor Pinsk: Geshikhte fun der shtot (New York, 1941); Jozef Lewandowski, “History and Myth: Pinsk, April 1919,” Polin 2 (1987): 50–72; Mordekhai Nadav, “Enlightenment and Modernization in Pinsk,” Gal-Ed 13 (1993):13–26; Pinsk: Sefer ‘edut ve-zikaron le-kehilat Pinsk-Karlin, vol. 1 in 2 pts., ed. Wolf Zeev Rabinowitsch (Tel Aviv, 1973–1977), pt. 1 includes the monograph by Mordekhai Nadav, “Toldot kehilat Pinsk-Karlin, 1506–1880”; pt. 2 includes the monograph by ‘Azri’el Shoḥet, “Toldot kehilat Pinsk-Karlin, 1881–1941” [pt. 1 also in English: Mark Mirsky, Moshe Rosman, and Feigie Tropper, trans. and eds., Pinsk (Stanford, Calif., 2006)]; vol. 2, ed. Naḥman Tamir (Mirski) (Tel Aviv, 1966); Wolf Zeev Rabinowitsch, Lithuanian Hasidism (New York, 1971); Shmuel Spector and Geoffrey Wigoder, eds., The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life before and during the Holocaust, vol. 2, pp. 991–994 (New York, 2001); Miriam Shomer Zunser, Yesterday (New York, 1939).