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The General History of David-Horodok

Yosef Lipshitz

(with additions from Brian Kaye and Kathy Winston)



                1569 was a turning point in the affairs between Poland and Lithuania. In that year, Sigismund II August forced Lithuania formally to renounce her independence in the Union of Lublin, as the price for Polish help in Lithuania’s war against “Muscovite expansion under the terrible Czar Ivan IV.” The Poles dismembered Lithuania by incorporating the Ukraine and parts of Western Russia into Poland. In addition a common diet was formed, so there was no longer an independent Lithuanian assembly. A uniform currency was also introduced. David-Horodok remained part of the Grand Duchy within the palatinate of Brest, which included Pinsk, Turov and Mozyr.

                Lithuania considered the terms of the Union of Lublin humiliating. This ostensible union of two equal partners was usually denoted as the Republic of Poland, which probably says it all. Although the Lithuanians continued to resist Poland politically, the upper classes became increasingly Polonized, creating a closeness that Poland could not achieve by law or arms. Russian culture was cut off from its source by war and the Polish language became the symbol of civilization; the way to the treasures of Western culture led through Poland. Laws, though enacted in the Russian language, had an unmistakable Polish stamp, and Catholicism made great progress among the gentry. By the end of the sixteenth century, little distinguished Lithuanian Russian gentry from their Polish counterparts. Unfortunately this Polonization also cut the same gentry off from the peasants surrounding them.

                The beginning of the end for Polish-Lithuania came, strangely, when the Catholic Church started attacking Protestantism in the 1500s. The Lithuanian gentry were initially quite taken with Protestantism. Confronted by a diminishing flock, the Catholic clergy turned into proselytizing zealots. The Jesuits were brought in to help and in 1569-70 the Society of Jesus was established in Vilna, the capital of Lithuania. Catholic success in regaining their adherents among the gentry was phenomenal and the impressed higher Orthodox clergy decided that union with the Catholics might improve their own position.

                With the support of the Polish King Sigismund III Vasa [1587-1632], the Synod of Brest in 1596 created the Uniate Church, which brought the Orthodox Church within Poland into the Catholic fold. The Uniates were allowed to keep the Greek Orthodox rites, worship in Slavic and discard celibacy [priests could marry]; in exchange they recognized the Pope as their supreme authority and acknowledged all the dogmas of Rome.

                The period of religious persecution that followed was at least as horrible as the Inquisition. A new Uniate monastic order, the Basilians, was founded in 1617 and undertook to unite the country under one spiritual shepherd with fire and sword. Interestingly the target this time was not the Jews or the peasants, who it was assumed would follow their lords in due course. Instead the target was the urban middle class, which remained immune to Polish Catholic propaganda and whose resistance the Uniate Church wanted to brake at all cost. This included the Orthodox Horodtchukas living in David-Horodok.

                Nothing kept the Catholic clergy from their work. They destroyed Greek Orthodox churches and monasteries. Monks who objected to the union were arrested, beaten and thrown into jail and even water was refused them. In Vilna, the Orthodox were forbidden to carry their dead out of the city through the commonly-used gates, but instead had to use the gates through which only refuse passed. The zealots let all the people know that as Catholics they could do anything, but as Greek Orthodox they would have no rest or safety.

                Persecution was particularly bad in Polesye since the Archbishop of the area, Archbishop Kuncevic, had originally founded the Uniate monastic order spearheading the persecution. He actually ordered that dead Orthodox be dug out of the Christian cemeteries and their bones thrown to the dogs.[1] This accounts for the fight between the Orthodox and Catholics involving the marketplace and shops in David-Horodok. In the place where the marketplace and its shops stood, there was once a Greek Orthodox cemetery. So how did there come to be a marketplace with shops? Who permitted it? It is only understandable within the context of the fight between the two churches, it being permitted by the Catholic authority in order to wipe out all traces of  Greek Orthodox property. Later on, an energetic priest named Yonkniavitch came to David-Horodok. He immediately began to repair the injustice which had been done to the Greek Orthodox community, and in the middle of the marketplace he built a church which stands to this day.
Click for fullsize image Click for fullsize image
The Pravoslav Russian Orthodox Church in the center of David-Horodok Church in 1997; taken by Joan Krotenberg

                The persecution brought open rebellion in different parts of the country and the Basilians turned to state authorities for protection. Although the Chancellor of the Grand Duchy advised moderation to the Basilians, they continued the coercion and violence. “Orthodox priests were no longer allowed to appear in the streets lest they be jailed; children died unchristened, people lived unwed, and the old died without extreme unction; their bodies were not buried but thrown to dogs in the field.”[2] The Orthodox Church ceased to exist as an organized body. After the Russians took over Belarus, they returned the favor and by 1839 the Uniate church was abolished.

                The fight between the Orthodox church on the one hand and the Roman Catholics/Uniate Church on the other was a bitter one, and has remained strongly ingrained in the memories of both sides. We Jews felt the remnants of this even in most recent times. Between World Wars I and II when David-Horodok was incorporated into Poland, once again the Uniate Church was brought up, which hadn’t been heard of during the Czar’s time. The Russian Orthodox priests began to feel less secure both in their rule over the masses and with their possessions. Quietly the war between the churches resumed. This war would have taken sharper forms had the Poles not been afraid it would be oil for the wheels of the communist propagandists in the vicinity. At this time David-Horodok was only 19 miles from the Polish-Soviet border.

                It is interesting to note that in the religious controversy between the Orthodox and Catholic churches, the Jews quietly supported the latter.

Peasant Uprisings

                The era of the Lublin Union brought great changes to Polesye in political, religious, and economic life, but the most serious was the increasing alienation of the gentry from the people. To the common people, the persecution of Orthodoxy appeared Polish rather than Catholic or Uniate and hurt their national pride as well as their religious feelings. The faithful began to form their own defense, which led to armed uprisings in the countryside. On the eve of the Brest Synod that formed the Uniate Church, Nalivajko, the son of a furrier, organized armed bands against “the oppressors of True Religion and the Russian People.” In 1595 he captured Slutsk, Mogilev, Recica and Pinsk. In 1602 he was captured and tortured to death in Warsaw, but he was succeeded by Savula in 1600, Summa in 1618, and a number of others. In 1623 a mob attacked the infamous Archbishop Kuncevic who had started the persecutions, killed him and threw his body in the river. The king released a wave of terror across the countryside that kept things quiet until news of the defeat of the Polish army by Bogdan Chmielnitzki in 1647.

                The Polish Kingdom never had full control over its eastern provinces, now known as the Ukraine. The reasons for this are many and varied, but foremost was the history of personal freedom in these southeastern regions. The Ukraine long remained unsettled due to the constant Tatar menace. Serious attempts at colonization were made only after the 1567 Union of Lublin, when grants of land were given to Polish boyars and magnates. Peasants were offered more comfortable living conditions here then elsewhere if they were willing to move, and though much better off than in other provinces, were especially sensitive to the smallest encroachments on their freedom. As the land was developed and agriculture intensified, the duties of the peasants to the great landlords, always Polish, became heavier and were bitterly resented. The Polish noblemen seeking to impose serfdom were regarded as the enemy, made more abominable by their perceived role in religious persecution.

                Adding fuel to the fire was the questionable character of many gentry who came from Poland. While some left their homes to find political, social or religious refuge, most were seeking an easy living or were simply criminals. Chmielnitzki, an official in the Registered Cossack army in the Ukraine [i.e. loyal to Poland], wealthy and prosperous, ran up against one of these ne’er-do-wells. During Chmielnitzki’s absence from home a Polish nobleman, also an official of the Polish government, attacked Chmielnitzki’s house, burned down his mill, carried away his harvest and beehives, flogged his young son to death and took away his mistress. Violence of this sort was not unusual since at the time not only secular but clerical persons headed armed bands that attacked their neighbors. What was unusual is that Chmielnitzki sought and failed to receive justice from the Polish Diet or even the King. He then organized a rebellion. The armed rebels were joined by the oppressed peasant masses who wanted to throw off the yoke of the hated nobility, and eventually the rebellion was taken up in Polesye.

                The years of the Cossack rebellion are inscribed with bloody letters in Jewish history. Considered representatives of the hated Poles, the Jews fared badly. The years 1648 and 1649 were ones of destruction and devastation for Eastern European Jewry. In Belarus, an army of 100,000 peasants rose and in a sweeping drive overcame Gomel, Loev, Pinsk, Mogilev and Mstislavl. The government moved an army against them, but defeated in one place the rebels emerged in another. Soon the cities of Slutsk, Bychov, Chernobyl, Recica, Bobrojsk and Mozyr fell into their hands. Wherever they passed, they murdered Catholics, Uniates and Jews. They burned churches and synagogues, plundered and destroyed private homes. When Prince Radziwell finally suppressed the revolt, he retaliated by the wholesale extermination of the Orthodox population in the cities of Mozyr and Turov.[3]

                There is some accurate information regarding the part played by the David-Horodok Christians in the Cossack uprising. In the history of Pinsk it is said that the greatest destruction occurred with the attack of the Cossacks, Tatars and the peasants from David-Horodok and Turov. Three times Pinsk suffered from the Cossack uprising, but the greatest destruction occurred when the David-Horodok Christians participated. The Jewish community in Pinsk was almost completely extinguished.

                There is no clear information about how the Jewish community of David-Horodok survived the destruction, but they were obviously in the midst of the troubles. What is known is that the David-Horodok kehilla took a loan out in order to rebuild the devastated town institutions.

Swedish Invasions

                As part of the seemingly unending battles and intrigues for succession and territory fought from 1700-1921 among Sweden, Saxony, Hanover, Denmark, Livonia, Russian and Polish-Lithuania, known as The Great Northern War, the Swedes appeared in Polesye in 1707. However, because of difficulties with lines of communication, which resulted in meager supplies and reinforcements, they did not stay very long. They even began building bridges over the rivers, but they quickly stopped and left the area. The elders of David-Horodok tell the following story:

Once three Swedish soldiers came to David-Horodok on patrol. They went into a whiskey distillery and began drinking from the huge casks standing there. One of them became so drunk that he fell into a cask of whiskey and drowned. The local populace was afraid of the vengeance of the Swedish army, and they hid for three months in the surrounding forest. The Swedes, however, did not come because they soon left Polesye altogether.

This war had two unfortunate consequences for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (by now reduced in area to Belarus and ethnic Lithuania). First of all the area was ravaged by Saxon, Swedish and Russian armies and by independent companies of outlaw bandits. The plague of 1708--linked to the cold weather of 1709 and other diseases related to advancing and retreating armies--is estimated to have caused the death of one-third of the inhabitants of the Grand Duchy, chiefly between the years 1708 and 1711. David-Horodokers likely suffered in the same proportions. Secondly, the war left Muscovite troops permanently resident on Polish-Lithuanian territory against its wishes. This effective occupation by a foreign power led directly to the dismemberment of the country at the end of the 18th century.

Partition of Poland and Russian Rule

                Frederick II of Prussia played the pivotal role in the political maneuvers that immediately preceded the first partition of Polish-Lithuania in 1772. Based on his suggestions, Austria, Prussia and Russia each agreed to annex part of Poland rather than engage in a serious war among themselves. In 1793, Poland was divided a second time, and David-Horodok was added to Russia. In 1795 the third and final partition took place and Polish-Lithuania ceased to exist.

                David-Horodok became part of the Pale of Settlement, which had been defined by Russia in 1791. This area of traditional Jewish settlement was the only area of Russia the Jews were allowed to live in until 1917. It became a cage, restraining the Jews ever more tightly because of their expanding population. Competition among them for a livelihood increased, and the subsequent drop in wages was followed by poverty and misery.

                The years under the czars were not happy ones for the Jews. Anti-Semitism was always the state policy of Russia, sometimes being less oppressive and sometimes more so. Alexander II (1855-1881) will forever be remembered by the Jews as the kindest of the czars; his predecessor Nicholas I, the “Iron Czar,” (1825-1855) will be remembered as the harshest. According to one historian, “To Nicholas, the Jews were an anarchic, cowardly, parasitic people, damned perpetually because of their deicide and heresy; they were best dealt with by repression, persecution, and if possible, conversion.”[4] Nicholas I issued over 600 anti-Jewish decrees, ranging from the expulsion of Jews from villages to the conscription of Jewish males between twelve and twenty-five into the army for a period of twenty-five years. Those under the age of eighteen were to be “trained” for the army, with their years of service beginning only at the age of eighteen. Between 1827 and 1854, some 70,000 Jews were taken, perhaps 50,000 of them minors.[5]

                Bessie Davidson's mother, Razel Eisenberg, told stories of the agony among the David-Horodok families that the policy of taking these Nikolaevskii soldatn caused. Most of the boys taken from David-Horodok were between 8 and 9 years old. They were marched away and never heard from again. The Russian recruiters, like the Jewish elders, preferred the cantonists be very young, but not for the same reason. Since Jews married very young in those days, a boy thirteen to eighteen would probably already have a family to support, and drafting him for twenty-five years would cause great suffering for many people. Only boys eight through eleven were guaranteed not to be married. The Czar wanted the recruits to be young so that they could be indoctrinated into the Christian religion before they officially joined the army at eighteen. Younger recruits were easier to convert. These boys were supposed to spearhead a conversion effort in the Jewish communities after they had become “useful” under the discipline of the Russian army.

                Razel Eisenberg thought most of the boys from David-Horodok died; this was highly likely. The youngsters were marched to training camps hundreds of miles from their homes, often in Siberia. Or they were placed with diadkas [little uncles] living hundreds of miles from any Jewish settlement, who were prepared to force conversion by any means necessary, including bullying, starvation and beatings. The situation of the boys was described in the memoirs of Alexander Herzen, one of the first ideologists of the Russian revolutionary movement:[6]

“You see, they have collected a crowd of cursed little Jewish boys of eight or nine years old, [a Russian officer tells Herzen in a village in the province of Vyatka] ... they just die off like flies. [One-third had already died on the road.] A Jew boy, you know, is such a frail, weakly creature ... he is not used to tramping in the mud for ten hours a day and eating biscuits ... being among strangers, no father nor mother nor petting; well they cough and cough until they cough themselves into their graves.”

                ... It was one of the most awful sights I have ever seen, those poor, poor children! Boys of twelve and thirteen might somehow have survived it, but little fellows of eight and ten ... Pale, exhausted, with frightened faces, they stood in thick, clumsy soldiers' overcoats, with stand-up collars, fixing helpless, pitiful eyes on the garrison soldiers who were roughly getting them into ranks ... And these sick children, without care or kindness, exposed to the icy wind that blows unobstructed from the Arctic Ocean, were going to their graves.

                This brutal conscription caused some problem in David-Horodok later on because the supply of marriageable men had been depleted, although in fact the problem of finding a husband did not result solely from conscription. Eastern European Jewish communities were nearly always affected by a shortage of males. First, comparatively fewer boys survived infancy than girls. Second, men were more often the target of gentile violence. And third, males were more mobile than females. They were the first to leave to start a new life elsewhere. Indeed, between 1881 and 1914, the years of mass migration from Eastern Europe, there was such a large-scale movement of young men to the West that something akin to a male famine developed in Russia and Poland. Fathers and mothers had to scratch together as much money as they could to draw in any available mate for their daughters.[7]

                Nicholas I’s son, Alexander II, reversed many of his father’s discriminatory policies which caused such hardship to the Jewish community. A cautiously progressive autocrat, he wanted to move the modernization of Russia forward. For Jews, this policy meant a loosening of restrictions, including an invitation to prominent Jewish merchants of the first guild (meaning those paying the highest taxes) to resettle their families from the Pale to Russia proper.[8] Alexander II hoped to enlist the skills of these men in his efforts to spur on Russia’s economy. He applied the same military draft laws to the Jews as to all other Russians, thus raising the age of conscription to 21 and lowering the years of service to four.

                Alexander II’s assassination in 1881 was a bitter blow to the Jews, followed as it was by the anti-Semitic policies of his successor Alexander III (1881-1894). Despite a lack of evidence, public opinion (whipped on by the Czar’s favorite newspapers) held the Jews responsible for the assassination of Alexander II, and a series of violent attacks or pogroms swept across Jewish communities in 1881. These attacks were organized and sponsored by Alexander III, who was using anti-Semitism among the Russian people to unite them against any unhealthy “revolutionary” thoughts. Alexander III's policy of encouraging pogroms was continued and broadened by his son, Nicholas II.

                Nicholas II, who ascended the throne in 1894 and abdicated during the February revolution of 1917, was an autocratic and repressive ruler of limited intelligence, who tended to block progress and enlightenment, and who was personally very hostile to the Jews. His failure to liberalize public policy in the early 1900s alienated much of Russia’s intelligentsia. The opposition circles that formed began to realize that anti-Semitism had been a tool used by successive czars to unite the more backward elements of Russian society, and began openly to denounce it. Indeed, Czar Nicholas II disbanded the first Duma convened in May 1906 because the largely liberal membership denounced the government’s role in the pogrom that took place in Bialystok in June 1906.[9]

                Meanwhile the Jews themselves were becoming politically conscious and active, interested in both Zionist and socialist ideas. And they were engaging in union activity through their Bund to organize Jewish factory workers to better their lot.[10]Nicholas II seized on these facts, trying to incite the population against social reform by claiming it was a Jewish plot.

Revolution of 1905

                Unfortunately we have no written material to enlighten us about the year 1905 in David-Horodok. We have no alternative but to draw on the memories of people and the general history of those turbulent times. The year 1905 was the culmination of many decades of social unrest in Russia. Liberals and radicals were seeking a more representative form of government, one that would curb the autocratic powers of the czar. These years had been punctuated by political demonstrations and terrorism on the part of the forces for change, and by pogroms against the Jews as the conservative reaction.

                During 1905 both demonstrations and pogroms increased dramatically. Things began with a bloody Sunday--January 9, 1905--when great numbers of striking workers marched to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to petition the czar for economic and political reform. They were greeted with bullets and large numbers were killed. The scandalous conduct of the Czar, who had replied with bullets to a peaceful appeal for reforms, led to a series of demonstrations, labor strikes and terrorist acts in the provinces. Then on February 4, the governor-general of Moscow, one of the most detestable and anti-Semitic members of the House of Romanov, was assassinated by a bomb (thrown by a non-Jew.) In fear, the Czar issued a manifesto that promised constitutional reforms and the establishment of a national assembly, the Duma, with “consultative rights.” However, the Czar was not giving up that easily.

                To counter the revolutionary tide growing in Russia, a terrorist organization of armed rowdies and hooligans, called the Black Hundred, was set up throughout Russia in 1905 by the highest officials of the Czar’s government. They used a 10-million ruble counter-revolutionary fund nicknamed the “black money,” which was under the exclusive control of the Czar.[11] With this group Nicholas II carried out his threat of acheronta movebo--“I shall set the underworld in motion.” The Black Hundred--officially known as the Union of the Russian People--instigated general rioting against the Jews in the summer and fall of 1905. With a sense of irony the Jews dubbed the manifesto issued by the Czar “a constitutional charter wrapped up in pogroms.”

                In the course of one week (Nov. 1-7, 1905), 660 Jewish communities were attacked. In all, 1000 Jews died, 7,000-8,000 were wounded (many permanently crippled), and property damage of 62,700,000 rubles occurred (ca. $31,000,000).[12] One of the worst pogroms during this week was in the city of Odessa, which housed one of the great Jewish intellectual centers in Russia, with 160,000 Jewish residents. The pogrom raged for four days; at least 300 Jews lost their lives, thousands were wounded, and 40,000 economically ruined.[13] Bessie Davidson remembers her mother's story of a gentile David-Horodok peasant who witnessed these riots. “They took about thirty or forty Jewish kids, little kids, and drove them right into the river and drowned them. He said he saw the kids crying,” a sight so horrible that he found he could not live with the memory. “He saw the kids dying in his mind.” Soon after he died, another victim of the pogroms.

                In David-Horodok the Black Hundred also established a strong and tightly organized group which existed until 1917. On a certain Sunday, the members even attempted a pogrom. Thanks to the self-defense organization of the Jewish youth in particular and the entire Jewish population in general, and also because of the opposition of the magistrate Avtchenikov who had business dealings with Jews, the Jews came out with only a few wounded.

                The self-defense organization was largely made up of the town’s butchers and teamsters. They were not what you would call “eastern wall sitters.” For that reason they were the only Jews who were respected by the town and village gentiles. If a gentile became drunk and unruly toward a Jew, whether in a tavern or in the marketplace, it was enough for Ezra the butcher to come over and lay his huge butcher hand on the nape of the gentile’s neck and all became quiet and peaceful. At the time of a pogrom, the teamsters prepared themselves with cleavers, revolvers and lead pipes. They had resolved that in case of a pogrom the gentiles would pay dearly, and they would no longer start up with the Jews.

                The self-defense youth were involved in three organizations. The first was the Bund. In 1905 a small group of the Bund was organized in David-Horodok under the leadership of the well-known A. Litvak,[14] a Bundist who was rumored to have been banished to David-Horodok.

From Motl Slotzki’s Memory:

                After a while there arrived in town the “lame elephant”-- Helphand. That was the real name of the man Isaac Alexander Helphand who later became famous under his literary pseudonym A. Litvak. With Helphand the Bund arrived in town. Thanks to the Bund David-Horodoker boys and girls became “brothers and sisters.” Students arrived in town to deliver speeches. The Bund organized an illegal library and held conspiratorial gatherings and there developed rifts between the various doctrines of socialist and nationalist thought. In one word, things became very lively in our sleepy Polesye town. Those were the years of the 1905 revolution.

                On a cold wintry Sabbath, Helphand was taken away from us by sleigh, accompanied by a strong police guard to a distant prison or Siberia.

                The second youth group was the Socialist Territorialists. Concerning this group, we even have an historical reference. In the American Forvairts [The Jewish Daily Forward], a picture was printed of 20 members of the David-Horodoker Socialist Territorialists (See picture). The third group, the Po’alei Zion party, also existed in David-Horodok at that time.

                According to the stories, all of these socialist movements were embraced by a great number of the youth. For a certain period they were the rulers of the town. They had developed a self-defense organization and had weapons. They demanded a twelve-hour work day. The laborers themselves did not want that “little” work, but the revolutionaries would come and force them away from their work. There were cases where revolutionary children would come to their employer parents and take away the last workers. Aside from this, the revolutionaries were occupied with education and self-instruction.

                With the downfall of the 1905 revolution all these organizations dissipated in David-Horodok. Some individuals were arrested and sent away. Many fled to America. The remainder left town during the period of danger.[15]

Motl Slotzki’s Memory of 1905:

                The turbulent months of the 1905 revolutionary upheaval pass through my mind like a kaleidoscope. The almost unlimited power of the wealthy disappeared. One then had to deal with the Eseravtzes, Iskravtzes and Bundavtzes. After a while when the youth realized that they would never attain the right of direct and secret ballot, they resolved to leave town. They began a great mass immigration to America after the Russo-Japanese war.          

                Except for Mordechai Loptshavon, who would on no account leave David-Horodok, all the other “brothers and sisters” began their trek. The town became impoverished and if not for the help of the sons and daughters in far-off America, the population would have starved to death.

                The songs and laughter of Jewish youth along the banks of the river were no longer heard on summer nights. The orphaned ships stood tied up at the river docks. As a girl or boy grew up, she/he would go off to America.

                An echo of the horrible pogroms which had raged through the length and breadth of the Jewish cities and towns in Russia also reached David-Horodok. A Horodoker miatchona [town citizen] named Zuchter murdered with an ax an entire Jewish family of seven souls in the nearby village of Orly. The murder was carried out at night when everyone was sleeping. Terror fell on the town and the surrounding villages. Everyone prepared for pogroms, and the horrible murder was regarded as a “downpayment.”

                I remember as if it were now the frightful funeral: the wagons with the massacred bodies and the blood-soaked bed clothes. That tragic night with the wagons and bodies is engraved in my memory to this day like a horrible nightmare.


                1914-1918 were the years of the First World War in David-Horodok. 1918-1921 were the years of the civil war and the Russo-Polish Border War.

                David-Horodok remained part of Russia until 1920, when Polish troops occupied the town. Polish ownership of the town was confirmed by the Treaty of Riga in 1921.

                From 1920 to 1939, David-Horodok belonged to Poland. On September 19, 1939 the Russian Red Army entered David-Horodok. In July 1941, David-Horodok was taken by Hitler’s armies, and in 1944, was re-united with Russia. In 1991, David-Horodok became part of an independent Belarus.

The Economic Structure of Jewish David-Horodok

Yosef Lipshitz

(with additions by Kathy Winston)

From the Beginning of Jewish Settlement to the 19th Century

We have no certain knowledge of the economic structure of David-Horodok Jews in the early years of Jewish settlement, which probably began in the mid to late 1500s. In order to clarify the question, we must use material describing the surrounding towns and the general economic structure of Lithuanian Jewry. The Lithuanian government opened its gates to Jewish refugees from Germany not out of humane feelings, but because they believed Jewish immigration would help vitalize and activate Lithuania’s backward economy. Although the Lithuanians were never philo-Semites, it should also be pointed out that they were late in converting to Christianity from paganism and therefore upheld religious tolerance far longer than the Poles. Because the position of Jews was more favorable in Lithuania than Poland, Jewish immigrants from Germany often by-passed the more economically advanced Poland and went straight to Lithuania to settle. Lithuania was as far east as they could settle because Russia/Muscovy was closed to them.

The Lithuanian Grand Dukes, beginning with Vytautas [1341-1430] granted the Jews many rights to encourage Jewish immigration. The Charter of Privileges of 1388 recognized the Jews as a class of freemen similar to the nobility instead of being a class of royal servants like the peasants. This meant they were subject in all criminal cases directly to the Grand Duke and in petty suits to the jurisdiction of local officials on an equal footing with the lesser nobles, boyars and other free citizens. They were allowed to live in independent communities and enjoyed autonomy in their internal affairs as far as religion and property were concerned. For killing or wounding a Jew, the penalty was death. One could not interfere with their prayers, nor call them to court or make them pay debts on Shabbes. The Jews were allowed to deal in whatever they wanted [free pursuit of commerce and trade] and could move throughout all of Lithuania [free transit].

In old Lithuania, i.e. before the Union of Lublin in 1569, Jews carried on business in the marketplace or in shops, plied all kinds of trades, and occasionally engaged in agriculture. They lent money on interest, leased customs duties from the Grand Duke, and became tax farmers collecting for the Grand Duke. They were even allowed to hold estates in their own right or in the form of land leases. The taxes which they paid into the exchequer were related to the character of their occupations and on the whole were not burdensome.

Power Passes from King to Nobles

After the Union of Lublin, the power of the nobles in relation to that of the Polish king/Grand Duke of Lithuania (usually the same person) began to grow. By the end of the Jagellion dynasty in 1632 the power of the nobility had become almost unassailable because they had gained the right to elect every new king. Dependent on the nobles for the very right to rule, the monarch was impotent. Along with the shift in power, the championship of Jewish interests passed from the royals to the wealthy nobles. The Jewish tax-collector in the towns and townlets which were privately owned by the nobles, the Jewish arendar in the village who procured an income for the pan [lord] through dairying, milling, distilling, liquor-selling and other enterprises, became indispensable to the easy-going magnates who were wont to let their estates take care of themselves while they squandered their time in amusements.

In almost every town and village Jews leased the following functions: tax collection, collection of customs duties and toll booth taxes, the whiskey and beer/mead monopolies--both wholesale and retail--the salt monopoly, maintenance and use of the official weights, and the keeping of inns. The toll booth tax, called a mita, was paid by each merchant as he transported his goods over Polish-Lithuanian roads. To continue his journey he had to pay at various toll booths erected by royal and later local landlords.

Because of the near-by forests, David-Horodoker Jews had also probably begun dealing in joinery [wooden articles used to finish the inside woodwork in new houses, such as moldings, doorframes, etc.], material for ship building, and potash and tar, which were derived from the abundant pine and fir trees in the region.[16] They may also at that time have farmed and raised cattle. Even up to the First World War, David-Horodoker Jews were accustomed to keeping one or more cows on their property for the family’s needs and often conducted a small-scale dairy business. They also engaged in gardening, mostly for the family’s use.

That was how the Jews of that era in David-Horodok probably made a living.

Noble Protection becomes Abuse

As the power of the gentry increased, their inability to find common cause fragmented the country, which sank into disarray. The gentry became willful, the masses unruly, the clergy fanatical and the magistrates lawless. Restrictions on the Jews grew constantly; in places the Jews were practically outlawed. They were forbidden to engage in retail trade, handicrafts and other remunerative callings. The town guilds, inspired by their economic interests as well as their strict religious character, prevented Jews from becoming artisans. Only after the Cossack rebellion destroyed a large part of the land and created a great shortage of craftsmen did King John Casimir [1648-1668] permit the Jews to organize their own guilds. Then for the first time the Jews, also ruined by the Cossack rebellion, became artisans. The Jews made a success of the opportunity. By 1788 half of all Lithuanian artisans were Jews. Shoemakers, tailors, furriers, goldsmiths, carpenters, stone-cutters and barbers were particularly numerous.[17]

As the political life of Polish-Lithuania came to an end, Jewish involvement in liquor, especially the keeping of taverns in towns and villages, deepened. This was probably true for David-Horodok as well. By the mid-1700s, it has been estimated that 85 percent of rural Jewry was involved in some aspect of manufacturing, wholesaling or retailing beer, mead, wine, whiskey and/or vodka.[18] This concentration in liquor resulted from the increasing number of occupations closed to the Jews, and dispensing it often resulted in a clash between Jews and peasants, who came to the tavern to drown their sorrows and often became difficult to manage. Of course the Jews were held responsible.[19] The taverns supplied not only liquor, but also news of the outside world and the opportunity to strengthen and confirm communal ties with fellow peasants.

Because it was a Jew who took the peasant’s money at the tavern, the upper classes and clergy accused them of being despoilers and preventing peasants from accumulating capital and bettering their lives. Ironically this accusation was brought even by the magnates, who were the real cause of the misery of the serfs and moreover pocketed the proceeds of the distilling and selling of alcohol, which they had leased out to the Jews.[20]

Plight of the Towns

It should be mentioned that the standard of living was very low in the final days of Lithuania at the end of the 18th century. The Jews were poorly clothed and wore boots only on the Sabbath and in the winter. In summer they went barefoot to make the boots last longer. They would go through mud in sacks. Clothing was made of canvas. Meat was eaten only on the Sabbath and sometimes not then either.

Click for fullsize picture
A Jewish home at the Edge of the Town

One of the reasons for the poverty of the towns was the restrictions imposed on them by the nobles. While theoretically the rights of towns like David-Horodok and Pinsk were protected under the Magdeburg or “German” Laws, these were unenforceable. Most towns, built on nobles’ estates, were privately owned by the gentry. To maximize revenue from the estate the gentry instituted a policy of price ceilings on locally-produced goods to keep their expenditures low, high tariffs on imported goods to keep local manufactures competitive (although the nobility itself was exempt from paying such tariffs), and similar restrictions that ruined business. Besides being oppressed by onerous regulations, town residents also paid taxes and were obliged to perform services like guard duty, hauling products by wagon and shoveling snow. Squeezed between the manor and village, the urban middle class disintegrated.

The boasted freedoms won by the nobility of Polish-Lithuania, its “golden liberties,” actually rested on the entire deprivation of rights and practical enslavement of all other classes of the population. The townspeople were deprived of all participation in political life, hampered in their economic development and shut within the walls of the town. Because royal power was rigidly limited, the towns had no ally against the nobles. The problem was made worse by the degenerating character of a class corrupted by power and wealth. Unfortunately, even after the partitioning of Poland, Russia left the privileges of the upper classes more or less intact until the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. When the emancipation brought about a rebellion against Russia by the gentry, no other class joined in.

By the 1800s there were hardly 400,000 inhabitants in all the seventy-nine towns and cities of the Northwestern Provinces [Russian name for Belarus and ethnic Lithuania], with one-eighth of that number in the city of Vilna alone. In the small mestecko or shtetl --the half-town, half-village that David-Horodok was--those whose occupations had nothing to do with agriculture made up barely 7 to 10 per cent of the total population. The proportion had reached only 13.4 percent by 1913, while only seven out of the seventy-six towns and cities registered in 1913 could count more than two thousand families. The towns consisted almost entirely of Russian officials, Polish gentry, Jewish businessmen and a rather small number of Belarusan-speaking workers and domestic servants. David-Horodok was unusual in that it also contained a high percentage of Tatars. Jews made up 43.5 per cent of the total population in Vilna, 63.7 per cent of Grodno and up to 90 per cent of the lesser cities and towns.[21]

This unsympathetic but true description of the Belarusan shtetl has been given: “The Jewish populations were not permitted agricultural occupation. Consequently, small trade and artisanship were almost entirely in their hands. They lived in closed communities, cultivated Yiddish and did not mix freely with the gentiles unless educated in Russian schools which was not often the case ... The traveler was depressed by the view of dilapidated houses and slums on both sides of the muddy street, dominated by a few official buildings and a church. In larger cities a few paved avenues and an anemic public garden enlivened the landscape. Most townsmen kept a cow, a few pigs [if not Jewish] and some poultry in their back yards and lived off their own vegetable gardens all year round. In the business section one would see a long row of untidy shops, basement stores, public stalls and booths, and peddler stands ‘selling anything they had been able to get hold of on a commission basis and owning nothing.’ Even in Vilna and in Minsk ‘one could not find a single store which might deal in anything else than the left-overs from Poland and Russia.’”[22]

Except for one obscure agricultural college, there were no institutions of higher learning in Belarus before the Russian Revolution of 1917. Secondary schools followed the Russian pattern and existed in the larger cities only. Again David-Horodok was unique in having a secondary Russian school of its own. Very few in number, the secondary schools were accessible only to the children of better-off families, while the Jews were subject to restriction irrespective of their economic status. Among the gentiles, the literacy rate in Belarus was the lowest in all of European Russia.[23]


[1] Vakar, Nicholas P., Belorussia, p. 58-9

[2] Vakar, Nicholas P., Belorussia, p. 59

[3] Vakar, Nicholas P., Belorussia, p. 61

[4] Stanislawski, Michael, Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews p. 10

[5] Gittelman, Zvi, A Century of Ambivalence; The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present , pp. 7-8

[6] Howe, World of Our Fathers, pp. 6-7

[7] Bermant, Chaim, The Walled Garden: The Saga of Jewish Family Life and Tradition,

p. 72

[8] Ettinger, Shmuel, “The Modern Period”, in Ben-Sasson, H.H, editor, A History of the Jewish People, p. 820

[9] Sanders, Ronald, Shores of Refuge, p. 268

[10] The Jewish socialist movement emerged in the second half of the 1870s and within the next ten years organized an impressive number of strikes in the Pale of Settlement. According to Shmuel Ettinger, “The Modern Period,” in Ben-Sasson, H.H, editor, A History of the Jewish People, p. 910, “The idea that Jews in general and Jewish workers in particular had their own special interests, and were therefore in need of a separate organization to achieve their aims, spread rapidly among the active members of the Jewish workers’ movement. After various deliberations, representatives of Jewish socialist circles met in Vilna in October 1897 and founded the General Union of Jewish Workers in Lithuania, Poland and Russia, known in Yiddish as Der Bund.”

The Bund regarded itself as part of the Russian social democratic movement, but did not consider itself to be solely a political party. It drew its main strength from the trade unions established in its various branches. Its political program regarded war on Tsarist autocracy as the main objective.

[11] See Dubnow, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, Vol. III, pp. 125-126, 135-139, and 149-152

[12] Baron, Salo W., The Russian Jew under Tsars and Soviets, p. 57

[13] Ettinger, Shmuel, “The Modern Period”, in Ben-Sasson, H.H, editor, A History of the Jewish People, p. 887; Baron, Salo W., The Russian Jew under Tsars and Soviets, p. 57

[14] Issac Alexander Helphand’s life is written about in The Merchant of Revolution by Z.A.B. Zeman and W.B. Scharlau; Chapter 4 refers to his stay in David-Horodok, p. 94 to the police station where he was brought after his arrest.

[15] This information is repeated form elsewhere in the book because it belongs in more than one place.

[16] Abramovitch, “Rural Occupations in Lithuania,” on p. 209 shares this explanation of pitch and tar production:

Lithuania had many forests of pine and fir trees. After cutting down a forest of pines, there remained in the ground the stumps and roots. These were dug out and assembled in one place, where the Jewish pitch dealer could buy them. Sometimes these pitch dealers themselves would dig out the roots and stumps. Then they would dig a place to burn the pitch, slowly burn the roots in a smudge flame, and pipe the liquid tar into vats. This provided the most widely used lubricant for the peasants’ carts. Later, a grease made of animal fat came into use, but even this was mixed with tar because it was cheaper. After extracting the tar the dealer would pour it into a large vat, load it on his cart or wagon, and set out to neighboring villages to sell it by the gallon. There were also Jewish pitch dealers that would buy the grease from the manufacturer and then peddle it themselves.

      Some of the larger pitch dealers used to boil the tar until it hardened. The hardened tar would be used on fishing smacks and in the making of asphalt. The pitch dealers also has turpentine stills--little factories making the valuable product which was exported to the larger cities and even beyond the borders. These “manufacturers” had to hire help.

[17] Dubnow, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, Vol. I, p. 264

[18] Levine, Hillel, Economic Origins of Anti-Semitism, p.9

[19] It should be noted that when the Czar forbid Jews the right to sell alcohol in 1897, putting 200,000 out of work, the taverns did not disappear.

[20] Dubnow, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, Vol. I, p. 265

[21] Vakar, Nicholas P., Belorussia, p. 34

[22] Vakar, Nicholas P., Belorussia, p. 34

[23] Vakar, Nicholas P., Belorussia, p. 36

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