Back Next

Section II

The History of David-Horodok to WWI

The founding of David-Horodok dates back to 1100 AD. Its name can be found on maps dating back to 1612. Although not glorious, its history is long and varied. The following section tells this story.

Governments of David-Horodok to WWI[1]

Brian Kaye

12th Century Principality of Vladimir (Turov diocese)
13th Century Tatars
14th-15th Century Duchy of Lithuania
1400-1521 Duchy of Pinsk
1521-1568 Kingdom of Poland (Pinsk District)
1568-1793 Republic of Poland (Grand Duchy of Lithuania)
1707 Kingdom of Sweden
1793-1917 Russian Empire (Minsk gubernia)

Introduction to the General History of David-Horodok

Yosef Lipshitz

                I have been assigned the task of writing a narrative history and giving a picture of our town David-Horodok[2] in general and of its Jewish population in particular. I am not a writer and certainly not an historian; I have no pretensions to either. Therefore I do not know how successfully I can describe the correct historical facts and put them in their proper place.

                For this book I have used material from the YIVO Letters, the History of Lithuanian Jews by S.A. Bershadski, The Settling of Jews in Lithuania and Poland in the Past, until the End of the Eighteenth Century by I. Shipair, and the anthology One Thousand Years of Pinsk. Unfortunately we were separated from the materials and archives which would have given us a more accurate and clearer picture of David-Horodok. The history of the town in the last 70-80 years was derived from the recollections of our town elders, supported by my own memories, and also from all those who could add and contribute something.

                I have attempted as much as possible to report only facts and dates, avoiding judgments, and have also attempted to verify these facts. I am certain this work is not an exhaustive one. Possibly certain important events will not be reflected in this work. It could be that certain moments should have been described in greater detail and others abridged. For these flaws I beg the pardon of my dear readers and compatriots.

                I have written this work with reverence and a trembling heart. I consider it my holy duty to perpetuate on paper the history of our town--how our ancestors lived for hundreds of years, built their homes, raised their families, practiced their customs and habits, experienced times of joy and sorrow, and finally tragically perished along with the great majority of European Jewry at the blood-soaked hands of the murderous Nazis.

                I believe that I would not commit the sin of local patriotism if I venture to say that David-Horodok was an unusual town, that it was distinct from surrounding cities and towns. It was a town in which the Jews were pious but not fanatic, and were concerned with both Jewish and general education. The Jews were not ashamed to do any sort of work, but they considered it a disgrace to be ignorant.

It was a town that was Zionist throughout, with an organized and productive youth who studied and aspired to education and knowledge. It was the only town in the entire Diaspora where, in the pre-war years, the youth spoke Hebrew exclusively among themselves, with the adults, and even with the gentile servants. It was a town that possessed one of the best Tarbus [culture] schools in Poland, many cultural institutions and organizations, and libraries with avid readers. All public readings and lectures were presented to fully packed halls.

                It is painful to write of all this in the past tense, knowing that it has all disappeared and perished in such a tragic manner. Therefore, my dear compatriots, let me offer you this work as a small, modest memorial to our martyrs.

The General History of David-Horodok

Yosef Lipshitz

(with additions from Brian Kaye and Kathy Winston)

This section will deal with the geography of the region, the naming of the town as based on current evidence, and with what little historical data is available. Before we start, it is best to admit that we have no exact evidence as to when or how David-Horodok was established.


                David-Horodok lies in the heart of Polesye [the Pripyat marshes] by the Horin[3] River, 12-and-a-half miles southwest of where the Horin spills into the Pripyat River. The marshes were drained after Belarus became part of the Soviet Union [1946], but prior to that they were a formidable feature of the East European landscape, the only area on the eastern Polish border to afford at least partial protection from intruders.

                Polesye sits on a remarkably flat alluvial plain covered by shallow river valleys that often change their shape as rivers meander here and there. It is essentially a floodplain where water and sand are deposited. The natural landscape mixes forests of coniferous and deciduous growth with marshes, mingles oak groves and lush meadows with swamps. When our grandparents and great-grandparents lived there, large treacherous areas that were concealed by grass, berries and flowers could suck an unwary traveler in up to his waist. One former resident reported that more than a few drunks ended their lives when they stumbled into the marshes around David-Horodok. The Soviet Union turned these areas into pasture, hay meadows and orchards, but sustaining this transformation will require constant regulation of the natural flooding and silting, problematic given the present instability in the area.

                Before being drained, Polesye was the largest swamp in Europe, covering 300 miles east to west along the Pripyat River and 140 miles north to south. The marshes created a wedge roughly bounded by Brest, Gomel and Kiev. Densely wooded and sparsely inhabited, Polesye was almost impassable on land except in the winter when everything froze. Because of the winter’s fierceness, however, most people stayed at home even then. During the summer communication and trade were carried on mainly through the area’s many rivers, which were frozen into uselessness during the winter. The 19th century remedied the area’s isolation somewhat when two railroads connected Pinsk, Turov and a few other towns with the outside world. Even then, communication between villages continued to be by wagon or small boat.

                Above the swamps, knolls of sand dunes covered with trees peeked out, and constituted the entire cultivable land for the peasants. Peasant farms were arranged in a natural patchwork of small fields scattered over the vast area of marsh. At the time of the 1861 emancipation of the peasants, a family would own as many as ten plots at a distance of between one to ten miles from its village. Villages were also scattered irregularly where high ground could be found. In the spring when the countryside flooded, the rare villages looked like desolate islands lost in a great expanse of water. All work and communications would then be interrupted for several weeks. As Zelda Keren, a one-time resident of David-Horodok lamented, “During spring months at the time of the melting of the snows, roads would turn into swamps and small rivers of water. And we would move from house to house in small boats.”

Click for fullsize image

Flooding during the spring snow melting, which caused the Horin River to rise.

                Given the poor nature of the soil, agriculture was and has remained a primitive, subsistence affair. While our ancestors lived there, lumber dominated the economy, supplemented by the raising of livestock (because pastureland and meadows could be reclaimed from the swamps and the manure used to fertilize the fields), fishing, hunting and bee-keeping. “In the early 20th century one could still encounter swidden fields [cleared by burning] as well as general use of one of the earliest plows, the socha, which probably originates from a forked hoe... As late as the 19th century, honey was gathered in the forests in the natural beehives of tree-trunks; only later were hives constructed and swarms of bees kept... Up to the end of the 19th century, most peasant homes had open fires [which blackened and sooted the interior]; later influenced by styles from the east and the south, smokeless houses [with chimneys] were built.”[4] In the interwar period this area was labeled a province “where time stood still, ... [where] social and economic development was as slow as the current of the Pripyat, which falls less than 200 feet in over 300 miles.”[5]

                Most of David-Horodok’s trade with the outside world was conducted over the Pripyat River. Because the Pripyat flows into the Dnieper River on the east, David-Horodok was linked with the Ukraine. Because canals joined the Pripyat to the Bug and Vistula Rivers in Galicia and Podlashe [eastern Poland] on the west, David-Horodok was linked to Warsaw. Hence David-Horodokers could maintain ties with both east and west.

David-Horodok’s Name

                We don’t know exactly where the name David-Horodok came from, but let us tell you what we do know. First, the word “Horodok” is the Yiddish translation of the Russian word “Gorodok,” which means “small town.” Therefore David-Horodok literally means “David’s Small Town.” But why “David?” For this there are a number of legends. The first alleges the town was named after a duke’s child. The second asserts that the Roman Ovidius was exiled to the region of the Black Sea, and the town where he died was named after him. This one is unlikely; during the 15th and 16th centuries, the Lithuanian aristocracy defended itself against encroaching Polish culture by inventing a theory that Lithuanians had originated from the Romans. They substantiated their claim by conjuring up many worthy Roman ancestors, of whom Ovidius was probably one.[6] A third more likely legend suggests that the name was widespread among the Tatars, and they named David-Horodok after one of their own. Proof may be found in the fact that to this day there is a remnant of the Tatar race among the inhabitants of David-Horodok, called Horodtchukas.

                The name Belarus is derived from medieval times when the chronicles referred to the people living in the general area of present-day Belarus as Belaya Rusians or White Russians. White may have referred to the snow, the complexion of the people or to being “free and independent.” At the time white was opposed to black, which meant subject to paying tribute to the Mongols. And indeed at that time the Belarusians were subject to Lithuania, and therefore did not pay tribute to the Mongols.


Kievan Rus

                Returning to the question of when David-Horodok was founded, we must get help from the general history of Polesye to enlighten us a little. The area was settled by a Slavic tribe called the Dregovichians, who were originally centered around the city of Turov, not too far to the east of David-Horodok.[7] When the historic period opened in the ninth century, the Slavs had no central organization. Rather a tribe was composed of many extended families, each of which lived in a separate village, worked the surrounding land and supported the non-Slavic “aristocracy” living in the towns. We can assume the Dregovichians functioned similarly.

                The aristocracy descended from the Norsemen who began their relationship with the indigenous people by plundering them and trading the spoils to Constantinople. This relationship changed little even though the poachers eventually settled in towns and were Slavicized. The towns were not administrative but military centers protected by wooden or earth fortifications. From the towns bands of marauders collected tribute from adjacent areas and raided remoter regions, using the furs, honey, wax and slaves collected for trade with the nomads of the steppes. Tradition holds that the founder of David-Horodok was Prince David Igorevich of Vladimir,[8] who claimed the land around the Horin River after a conference of princes at Vitachev in 1100.[9] There is no reason to assume that David-Horodokers at this time behaved differently than other town-dwellers, and most likely lived from pillage as well.

                Kiev became the greatest of these towns, so the whole area acquired the name “Kievan Rus” while the ruler of Kiev appropriated the title “Grand Prince.” At no time, however, was the Kievan prince able to exercise any regular authority over the other towns; the most he could hope to do was install his sons or loyal followers in them when he was strong enough.

                The first historical reference to Polesye was in the year 988 after the area had been “incorporated” into Kievan Rus. The Chronicles of Sidzdaler Farayaslov describe Vladimir the Great’s division of the Rusan territory among his seven sons (of four or five different mothers.) One of his sons, Sviatopolk, acquired Pinsk, Turov and their surrounding villages. Sviatopolk subsequently seized Kiev, promptly murdered three of his brothers, and was then defeated in a four-year struggle with another brother, Yaroslav “the Wise.” David-Horodok, part of the Turov Principality, continued to pass from hand to hand by murder, war and/or diplomacy as long as Kievan Princes ruled.[10]

                Vladimir the Great has been largely remembered for his forced conversion of the area to Christianity. Legend has it that when he announced his intention to abandon paganism, a delegation from his arch enemy, the Khazans, appeared to induce him to accept Judaism instead of Christianity.[11] The Russian Chronicles portray Vladimir’s righteously indignant response: “How dare you teach others when you yourselves are rejected by God and scattered [from Jerusalem]? If God loved you, you would not have been dispersed in strange lands. Do you intend to inflict the same misfortune on me?”[12]

                While the response certainly upholds the prejudice of the winner, it fails to take into account three facts: first was the fact that the Khazans were Vladimir’s enemy. Second was the growing commonality of political and economic interests between Kiev and Byzantium. Note that Vladimir converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, not Catholicism. Third, Christian communities to the west of Russia had the habit of raiding Slavic communities for slaves, justified on the grounds that they were not Christian. The practice was so widespread that the Slavs gave their name to the world in the form of the word “slave.” Converting to Judaism might not have solved the problem.

The result of Christianization for Pinsk and the future David-Horodok was that the land they were on became part of a church bishopric centered around Turov in 1005.

The Tatars

                In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the Tatars attacked the area around David-Horodok repeatedly. In 1185, one such Tatar attack so completely destroyed Turov that it never regained its former eminence. In the winter of 1239-1240 when the frozen rivers supplied ready roads for the Asiatics, the Mongol Tatars devastated the entire region to the east of the Horin and the Pripyat, sacking even Kiev. There is good reason to assume David-Horodok was also destroyed. All of the inhabitants fled to the other side of the Horin and gathered mainly at Pinsk where Mikhail, Prince of Chernigov, concentrated the remnants of his army together with the Prince of Volhynia for a final fight. None of the Russian principalities long escaped submission, however; “they numbered themselves for tribute.” The last to submit to the “Tatar yoke” was Novgorod in 1259.[13]

                The Tatars stayed in Polesye until the early 1300s. While they had devastated the ruling towns, in the agricultural countryside they merely substituted their own tribute demands for the old levies imposed by the princes. And Tatar rule had its compensations. It ended the inter-princely feuds and nomadic raids from the steppes that had been the scourge of the population. And it replaced random raids with a stable system of taxation that wiped out the duality of countryside and town.

                The Tatars re-established David-Horodok, where they constructed a hill by the riverside to serve as a fortress. Followers of the Eastern Orthodox faith later built a church on this hill. Excavations of the hill by R. Lakimovich in 1937-38 and P.F. Lysenko in 1967 uncovered remains of a wooden church, frame dwellings, wooden roads and several burials of wealthy individuals. The archeologists also found many articles made of wood, bone, iron, bronze and glass, as well as fragments of earthenware vessels.[14]


                In the early 1300s, the Pripyat basin was wrested from the Tatars and incorporated into the empire of Lithuania, Rus and Samogitia, most often referred to as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The rise of Lithuania began in the 1100s when the Lithuanian people in the Baltic area were caught between warring German Teutonic knights to their east and Slavic tribes to their west. Their response to possible annihilation from either side was to become welded into a single strong, military principality, which then moved south and east. At their height the Lithuanians ruled the entire area from the Baltic to the Black Sea, including Belarus and the Ukraine. David-Horodok was incorporated into the Duchy by Duke Vytenis [1295-1316] through marriage, along with the towns of Brest, Turov and Pinsk.[15]

                Grand Duke Vytautas[1392-1430], perhaps the greatest of the Lithuanian rulers, was the first person to refer to the town of David-Horodok specifically. His reference resulted from a decisive defeat in a battle on the Vorskla River in eastern Ukraine at the hands of Tamerlane in 1399. The destruction of his men was terrible, and twenty-two of his dukes lost their lives. It is not surprising that after such a loss, lands were reapportioned. This explains the first historical mention of David-Horodok in a treaty from the year 1400, in which the Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas gave David-Horodok, along with Pinsk and Lodomeria [Vladimir-Volynski], to Duke Sigismund Kastutovich of Starodub [a city to the east of David-Horodok]. David-Horodok had previously belonged to Duke Daniel Danielovich,[16] who presumably died at Vorskla. What is significant is that this is the first time David-Horodok was important enough to be mentioned separately.

Poland and Lithuania

                David-Horodok became a part of Polish history when Lithuania and Poland were linked dynastically in 1385. The then Grand Duke of Lithuania, Jogaila, was offered marriage to twelve-year old Queen Jadwiga of Poland. The Poles needed a king to stave off succession complications as well as an ally to resist a German threat. Jogaila took the Latin Christian religion and married his queen but retained the title of Grand Duke of Lithuania. However, after Jogaila left for Poland, his cousin Vytautas the Great began taking over Lithuania. Since servants of Jogaila had poisoned his father, Vytautas had little reason to like the man.

                Vytautas refused to pay any attention to his cousin or Poland until being defeated at the infamous Battle of Vorskla mentioned above. Then he needed help. In January 1401, Vytautas signed the Vilna-Radom Pact, which officially confirmed him in the title of Grand Duke but forced him to accept the sovereignty of Poland over Lithuania. This forced acceptance did Poland little good; from the time of the wedding of Jogaila and Queen Jadwiga in 1385 until the Treaty of Lublin in 1569, Poland could not exercise real authority over Lithuania and even after 1569 it wasn’t easy. The Lithuanians never cared for Polish rule and did everything they could to resist it. For example, the very first common executive organ for Poland and Lithuania--the Commission for Popular Education--was not established until 1773, one year after the first dismemberment of Poland by Russia, Germany and Austria.[17]

                From 1385 to 1569, the Lithuanians tended to make new treaties with Poland when forced to do so by threats from their Slavic enemies in Moscow and then pull back again when the threats subsided. The Poles tended to force new treaties on the Lithuanians when they had the arms to do so, and then pull back when they couldn’t make their demands stick. Constant bickering and minor military campaigns marred relations among the gentry of Poland and Lithuania. However for 500 years the histories of Poland and Lithuania, which between them always included Belarus and hence David-Horodok, were linked.

                From 1400 to 1556, all of Polesye became the Pinsk Duchy; David-Horodok was of course included. From 1427 to 1495, the duchess Marya ruled with her son Vasily. After Vasily’s death, his sister the Princess Yelena ruled with her husband Prince Feodor Ivanovich Yaroslavich until 1521 when Feodor died. It was Yelena and Feodor who granted the first land to the Jewish community of Pinsk to establish a synagogue and cemetery in 1506, and confirmed for the Pinsk Jews all rights and privileges generally given to the Jews of Lithuania by King Alexander Jagellon of Poland [1492-1506].

                During the 1400s the Duchy of Pinsk continued to be part of Lithuania, although the Grand Duke probably had as little to say about Pinsk and David-Horodok as he did about any of the other nobles’ estates. The story of how Casimir Jagellon succeeded to Grand Duke [1440-1492] gives a glimpse into the intrigues between the Grand Duke and the nobles that infested the Polish-Lithuanian relationship all its days, and limited the Grand Duke’s authority. After Vytautas the Great’s death, a ten-year skirmish about who was to be the next Grand Duke ended with one aspirant exiled and the other assassinated. At this point [1440] the Polish nobles appointed Casimir Jagellon, the thirteen-year-old son of their king, to be Grand Duke and sent a Polish regency with him to Vilna, the capital of Lithuania, to guide him. The Lithuanians accepted Casimir but sent the regents packing. Then they appointed their own regents.

                Four years later when the King of Poland died in a battle with the Turks, the Poles offered the crown to Casimir. The Lithuanian gentry, not wanting their Grand Duke to be the same man as the one who ruled Poland, since that would make Lithuania subordinate to Poland, refused to allow Casimir to accept. They not only stated their objections at conventions in 1445 and 1446, they refused to allow the Grand Duke to leave Vilna. The Polish ambassadors threatened to assassinate Casimir if he dared reject the Polish throne. Finally the young man was released in 1447, but only after he agreed to sign the Act of Vilna which considerably lessened his powers in Lithuania.[18] This act concentrated most of Lithuania’s wealth and resources into the hands of the nobles and made them absolute masters of the lower classes.[19]In exchange Casimir got to “rule” both Poland and Lithuania until he died in 1492, the year Columbus set sail for America and the year the Jews were expelled from Spain.

David-Horodok falls under Royal Polish rule

                With Prince Feodor’s death in 1521, the Pinsk Duchy reverted directly to King Sigismund I of Poland who on October 8, 1523 gave the Pinsk region, including Klatzk, David-Horodok and Rahatchan, to his Italian wife Bona Sforza. This was actually good news for the Jews since both Sigismund I and his wife were tolerant people. Sigismund I, “the Elder,” ruled Poland during the height of its glory [1506-1548]. He received his nickname at the end of his life, having begun his rule at the age of forty. In spite of being a devoted Catholic, he was a man of international tastes and liberal disposition; he is reputed to have answered the Catholic zealots of his age seeking to repress the Jews with the comment, “Permit me to be king of both the sheep and the goats.” Numerous of his actions show that he looked on his Jewish subjects as contributing to the welfare of the country and entitled to the protection of equitable laws.

                During his dotage and even during part of the reign of his son Sigismund II August, Sigismund I’s rather machiavellian Italian wife Bona Sforza shared the government, sometimes assuming absolute authority. The woman was politely reported to be “an energetic queen who was eager to make and save money.” Open to bribery, she sold offices to the highest bidder, but this included the Jews. She is reputed to have poisoned both her daughters-in-law and in 1556 absconded to her native duchies of Bari and Rossano in Southern Italy with 430,000 ducats in cash and jewels from the royal treasury.

                While the queen ruled Polesye, she developed the area. She brought in Polish colonists and gave them free land to settle; she cleaned out the rivers and dug canals. She levied a special tax on the inhabitants of Pinsk for the purpose of creating a permanent communication link between Pinsk, Noval and David-Horodok. When Bona Sforza left Poland in 1556, her rule over the Pinsk duchy ended and her son Sigismund II August, by now both Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, took over the region and annexed it to the Lithuanian Duchy.

                As part of a revolutionary change in managing the ducal estates, Sigismund II August ordered his lands to be surveyed in 1557. The magnates and boyars [large and small land holders] were required to prove their titles by documentary evidence and forced to consolidate their piecemeal holdings into large tracts of land with clearly defined boundaries. After re-gathering his land, the king carved out rational estates, building manor houses where necessary and assigning land to peasant families. In addition he measured, surveyed and assigned wardens to take care of his forests, exporting timber, tar, caulking and the like to England by way of Riga, Koenigsberg and Danzig. These actions raised the productivity of his land appreciably.

                In regards to the area around David-Horodok, the king abolished the Pinsk Duchy, uniting it with Komsk, Zjob, and Boroditch. David-Horodok’s now being part of Grand Ducal land undoubtedly encouraged the settlement of Jews. Until the Union of Lublin in 1569, the Jews, with few exceptions, lived on Grand Ducal lands, relying on the king’s protection.

[1] Kaye, Brian, A History of David-Horodok, p. 30

[2] David-Horodok is Yiddish. The town is known as David-Gorodok in Russian and Dawidgr¢dek in Polish.

[3] The Horin River is the Yiddish name. The river will be found on present-day maps as the Goryn River, which is the Russian name.

[4] Grabowicz, Oksana Irena, “About Polesie” in The Changing Peasantry of Eastern Europe, ed. by Barbara and Joe Halpern, pp. 1-3

[5] Davies, Norman, God’s Playground; A History of Poland, pp. 29-30

[6] Chase, Thomas G., The Story of Lithuania, p. 93

[7] Vernadsky, George, Kievan Rus, p. 175

[8] Basically the area of Volhynia

[9] Kaye, Brian, A History of David-Horodok, p. 3, citing The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, s.v. “David-Gorodok”

[10] A list of those who ruled Turov and the other Principalities can be found in the Dynastic Tables at the back of Martin Dimick’s The Dynasty of Chernigov 1054-1146

[11] This group of Finno-Turkish tribes ruled the Russian steppes and collected tribute from the Kievan princes any time they brought goods to Constantinople to trade. The Khazan aristocracy had converted to Judaism some time before.

[12] Dubnow, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, Vol. 1, p. 30

[13] Clarkson, Jesse D., A History of Russia, pp. 49-50

[14] Kaye, Brian, A History of David-Horodok , p. 3, citing The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, s.v. “David-Gorodok”

[15] Chase, Thomas, The Story of Lithuania, p. 23

[16] Kaye, Brian, A History of David-Horodok, p. 4

[17] Vakar, Nicholas P., Belorussia, p. 50

[18] In it he guaranteed he would bestow no official posts or benefices in Lithuania upon Poles or other foreigners, assured the clergy and nobility that no punishments would be meted out to them without trial, and most importantly reduced the lower classes to serf status. The peasants on the lands of the aristocracy could no longer be tried by the Grand Duke and they could not leave the employ of their lords to seek work under the less onerous conditions on Grand Ducal lands.

[19] Although the nobles of Lithuania continued to agitate for Casimir to appoint another Grand Duke, he refused, fearing that such a move would quickly and entirely withdraw Lithuania from his jurisdiction. Instead he appointed governors who ruled in his name. The first was Duke Uri Samionovitch Alshanski and after his death, Ivan Sviatoslovitch.

Previous Page Acknowledgments
and the Small Print
Updated 20 Oct 2000
Table of
Next Page