A Jewish family from Pinsk, about 1920. (Photo: USHMM)
Over the course of its history, the town of Pinsk formed part of three different states. Jews had settled there since the 15th century, with first written evidence of their presence dating from 1506. Until the start of the Second World War, they formed the majority of its population (70%). Significant Hasidic dynasties came from Pinsk, and in its time the town was also a Haskalah centre.
After the First World War, the town was part of Poland, while from September 1939 on, it became part of Soviet territory. On the 4th of June 1941, the town was occupied by Nazi troops, and became part of the eastern territory of the Nazis' Third Reich. The Nazis ordered the formation of a Jewish Council with 28 members. It was headed by David Alper.
On the 5th of August 1941, under the pretext that the railway line was going to be renovated, 8 000 men aged between 16 and 60 were gathered together, including most of the members of the Jewish Council. They were taken to a wood four kilometres away near the village of Ivaniki, executed and thrown into prepared graves. Two days later the approximately 3 000 remaining men, including old men and boys, met the same fate.
On the 1st of May 1942, a ghetto was established for the remaining Jewish inhabitants. The 20 000 Jews who were left, mostly the widows and children of the executed men, were forced into the small space of one of the town districts. The prisoners lived in small rooms in large numbers, with inadequate sanitation. Because the ghetto was established for labour purposes, most of the prisoners were employed in agriculture or factories.
At the end of October 1942, after the ghetto had been in operation for just under six months, Heinrich Himmler decided to close it, regardless of its economic potential. Over the following days, from the 29th of October to the 1st of November, the Nazis took most of the ghetto's inhabitants to the woods close to the nearby village of Dobrovolie, where they executed them. Only 143 prisoners remained alive, working in local workshops until December 1942. Then, they too were murdered.
The town was liberated on the 14th of June 1944 by the Red Army.
In 1994, unique lists were discovered, containing the names, dates of birth, ghetto addresses and employment of 17 344 people imprisoned in Pinsk.
Rabinowitsch, Wolf Z. The Story of the Jews of Pinsk 1506-1942, 1. vol. (Die Geschichte der Pinsker Juden 1506-1942). Tel Aviv: Association of the Jews of Pinsk in Israel, 1977, s. 606.