Pinsk Home Page
Pinsk Stories Menu
Pinsk Stories
The Legend of Pinsk

The Legend of Pinsk

Article from:
Jerusalem Post
May 30, 2003
Schelly Talalay Dardashti


Friday, May 30, 2003 -- ARE your roots in Pinsk? If so, you might want to join this summer's visit by the Pinsker Association (the Asso- ciation of Pinsk, Yanov and Vicinity) in Israel, July 8-14. Trips began in 1989 and take place every two years.

In 1945, former Pinsk residents in Israel formed an organization to help Pinsk survivors, refugees in Europe and new immigrants in Israel; and to memorialize their community, almost destroyed during World War II. This year, the trip commemorates the 60th anniversary of the massacre of 18,000 Jews on October 29, 1941 in Dobrovalia.

Jewish history there has been recorded to 1506, and Jews were the majority in town for hundreds of years. The pre-war population of Pinsk was 40,000, 30,000 of them were Jews. Jews from surrounding towns, such as Yanov, Ivaniki and Sernik belong to the association and participate in trips.

TEL Aviv resident and genealogist Ellen Stepak is a former Hoosier - from Huntington, Indiana - and has been here for 32 years. I wish I could detail her Lodz, Poland Feldman and German Godhelp/ Gotthelf ancestors who were at the Indian Wars in the US 7th Calvary, the Battle of Wounded Knee and in the 19th Tennessee Infantry for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

The other side of her family are Pinskers, most arriving in the US from 1903-1907. Her maternal grandfather Yankel (Jake) Brenn left Pinsk for the US in 1907 at age 12. Family who stayed lived in Ivaniki, 7km outside the city, an all-Jewish agricultural village, a story in itself.

Ellen has translated and edited some of the Pinsk Memorial Book (1966, Tel Aviv), the section on the Holocaust and the Revolt written by Nahum Boneh, as well as the article on Jewish Farmers [of Ivaniki] by Yerakhmiel Morstein. Both are online at Jewishgen, <www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/>, with much additional material.


THE History of the Jews of Pinsk 1506-1880, by Dr. Mordekhai Nadav is online. Extremely detailed, only the barest can be given here. Those interested should read all the articles.

The community was established in 1503 by a group of about 75 Jews (15 families), apparently from Brest Litovsk, who were expelled from Lithuania in 1495. In 1506, they received a charter giving them the same rights that they had received before expulsion. The permit included permission for a synagogue and cemetery.

In the mid-16th century, Jewish funds were spent on acquiring leases. In 1550, Queen Bona granted leases on road and bridge tolls and taverns to a partnership of several Jews of Pinsk, headed by Yisrael and Nahum Pesahowits, whose group held the lease for at least eight years.

The Pinsk community, it is said, had large gardens beside their houses from the beginning of the settlement. Some leading and wealthy families owned estates, with peasant serfs as laborers.

After 150 years, in 1648, about 1,000 Jews (about 200 families) lived there, perhaps 20% of the general population. They enjoyed legal civil rights and the freedom to pursue trade, craftsmanship, loans, agriculture, act as taxes and tariff collectors, and export produce and timber.

In the early 17th century, there is evidence of Jewish settlements around the Pinsk district in the villages Homsk, Janov, Turov, Visosk, and Dombrovica; Kozanhorodek, Lubieszow (Libeshei), in Pinsk district, and in Olevsk, Ovrucz, Baracze, and Iczomyrz in north Volhynia.

At the end of October 1648, the city was invaded by Khmielnitski. Many Jews had escaped, and those who stayed were murdered, some baptized but returning to Judaism after the events. By the end of the 17th century, the community had recovered.

LOCATED on the Pina River in the Polesia marshlands, the community achieved cultural, religious and legal status. An industrial town, its economy included a timber and shipping industry. Raw materials were imported, finished goods exported. Its Jewish population was special, including secularists, conservatives, progressives, socialists, Zionists and religious, while schools taught Hebrew, Polish and Russian, and Yiddish was spoken.

Its location at the crossroads of Poland and Russia, White Russia and Lithuania, its river-roads to Volhynia, Dniepr and Russia enabled trade and industry to grow; while its residents developed a broader world view.

From the Danzig timber market to the Leipzig fur market, its merchants travelled via the river and the Auginsky Canal to Kiev, Kremenchug, Yekaterinoslav, visited Odessa, Warsaw, Lodz and went even farther. Scholars came to Pinsk from Kletsk, Stoibts (Stolbtsy), Lakhovich and Nesvizh. And, as immigration pioneers, they "reached all the corners of the world," as Dr. Yehoshua Gottlieb's impressions of Pinsk include.

THE city also holds a very special place in the hearts of Israelis. When Israel became a state, according to Ellen, 25% of the government's ministers were Pinskers - the "Pinsk Mafia." At one time, the government asked a non- Pinsker to become a minister and he refused, saying "I can't. I'm not from Pinsk."

Famous Pinskers include President Chaim Weizmann (born in Motole) and his nephew President Ezer Weizman; Golda Meir, Moshe Sharett (Shertok) and Moshe Kol (Kolodny). Yossi Beilin (Breglin family), Michael Dekel (Dayksel); Prof. David Ehrlich, Gad Ya'acobi (Maisel), Haim Gvati (Switach).

Thousands of Pinskers made aliya to Israel, integrating into all areas of life, including writers, poets, journalists, artists and university professors. They are members of many kibbutzim and moshavim. Pinsker Associations, in addition to Israel, are in New York, Argentina and Brazil.

ELLEN shared Gottlieb's impressions of Pinsk, written in 1930 for the newspaper Pinsker Shtime:

"And Chaim Weizmann? To him Pinsk was a love of his youth, which he never forgot. Prof. Weizmann mentioned Pinsk in most of his public speeches and there was no gathering of intimates, where he did not recall memories of his youth in Pinsk. He drew on this source, as one draws on an old, rich wine."

Gottlieb wrote that when Sir Herbert Samuel visited Tel Aviv for the first time as High Commissioner, he said of the city, "It is a new Pinsk." Secular learning developed, he says, but the tradition of education remained.

Gottlieb writes about an old, angry Pinsk grocer, who could recite German poetry by heart, about lumber merchants who wrote "juicy and poetic" Hebrew, laborers who could quote from the midrash in disputes.

The city was home to a full spectrum of people, from the "shaven" who travelled to the Rebbe of Stolin, "freethinkers" who lead religious services, "learned men" who knew Gordon's writings and sang popular Yiddish songs.

This, he says, is the secret of those from Pinsk: The city merged these differences into harmony, its Jews were proud, and the legend of Pinsk was created.


ONLINE, Jewishgen houses two useful Pinsk databases.

The Index to Soviet Extraordinary Commission Pinsk Records is a compilation of testimonials about nearly 11,800 Holocaust victims, recorded in the "Extraordinary State Commission to Investigate German-Fascist Crimes Committed on Soviet Territory" (Soviet Extraordinary Commission) between 1944 and 1945.

Microfilm copies are in the Archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM); the Registry of Holocaust Survivors created the name index. A useful glossary of Russian terms is available.

THE 1942 Pinsk Ghetto list includes more than 18,000 names.

According to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, there were about 30,000 Jews in Pinsk in early 1941. A ghetto was established after the German occupation, in 1942. Virtually all ghetto residents were murdered Oct. 28 - Nov. 1, 1942. The Germans prepared the list in 1942.

Prior to WWI, Pinsk was in Minsk gubernia (Minsk province) of the Russian Empire. Between the wars, it was in Poleskie wojewdztwa (Polesie province) of Poland. After WWII, Pinsk was in the USSR. Today, it is in Belarus.

Microfilmed at the Brest Oblast Archives in Belarus, copies are at USHMM and Yad Vashem.

Belarus SIG volunteers computerized the material, and USHMM volunteers proofed the material which is alphabetical by family name, offering surname, given name, birth year, Pinsk street address, occupation, place of work, page and line number on original list.

Another source is the English-Hebrew website, http://www.pinskjew.com. Additionally, the Pinsk Association Archive is in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, Jerusalem.

Jewishgen's Family Finder lists many researchers of Pinsk families.


THE tentative itinerary for the July 8-15 trip includes arrival in Minsk on Tuesday, July 8. On Wednesday, tour Minsk, leave for Pinsk.

On Thursday, memorial services in Pinsk, at the main memorial in Dobrovalia, memorials in Posenitz and Kozlakovich villages and at Pushkin Street, Pinsk. Later, tour the ghetto, main market and the match factory, owned by Halperin before the war.

On Friday, visit Yanov and Motele, and spend a festive Kabbalat Shabbat with the Pinsk Jewish community.

Saturday and Sunday, visit other towns, details to be announced.

On Monday, July 14, attend the 59th annual ceremony commemorating the liberation of the city from the Nazis by the Russians. Weather permitting, the group will walk through the ghetto streets to the mass graves at Dobrovalia. Other towns will be visited later.

Departure is set for July 15, after a ceremony commemorating the 35 killed in the 1919 pogrom by the Polish Army, with travel to Minsk for flights.

Those who observe kashrut should be aware that there are no such facilities available, says Ellen.

Those who wish to visit other towns on their own, should inform Ellen so that the group's guide can arrange this in advance.

For details about hotels and flights from Israel, contact Ellen, 03-575-4933, or <estepak@zahav.net il>.

It's All Relative invites readers' inquiries and comments. Contact: It's All Relative, City Lights, PO Box 28398, Tel Aviv 61283; fax, 03-639-0277; or email, <dardasht@jpost.co.il>.

JFRA Tel Aviv

Tues., June 3, 8 pm, "Sharing family." Bring a family photo or document and tel us about it. Beit Shalom 2 Shir st. TA

IGS Negev

Wed., June 4, 8 pm (Hebrew)

Yitzhak Kerem, "Researching the Genealogy of Greek Jewry"

Kehilat Magen Avraham, Omer

Info: Martha, 08-646-0494; Shirley, 08-642-2589

IGS Tel Aviv

Mon., June 9, 7 pm (Hebrew)

Mathilde Tagger, "Tombstones as a Source for Genealogical Research"

Bet HaTanakh, 16 Rothschild Blvd.

Info: Rose, <rosef@post.tau.ac.il>

JFRA Petah Tikva

Thurs, June 12, 8 pm

"Our favorite genealogical websites"

Private home, reservations essential

Info: Gilda, <gildak@zahav.net.il>, 03-933-8085; Susan, <susan@deldent.com>

IGS Netanya

Mon., June 16, 8 pm

Dennis Weiner, "German archives and his family tree."

AACI, 28 Shmuel Hanatziv, Netanya.

Info: Joe, 09-882-8402, <isaacsj@netvision.net.il>