December 2013 Version 1
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An oasis in the marshlands of Polesia, Yurevichi was a small town surrounded by forests and the Pripyat Marshes and dominated by a rain-soaked autumn, a harsh, snow-covered winter and a flooded, swampy spring that rendered the region virtually impassable for most of the year. Located 168m above sea level near an important East-West trade route between Poland and the Black Sea, the town was pillaged and destroyed by Mongols and Tartars in the medieval period and invaded and occupied by Napoleonic, Russian, German, Bolshevik and Polish forces during modern times.
This is the story of the Jewish community in Yurevichi as it existed prior to World War II.
|Yurevichi Modern Map|
Yurevichi's written history begins around 1430, during the time of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The neighboring region was a land of forests and swamps with scattered small villages and subsistence farmers. Its inhabitants were ancestors of the eastern Slavs who settled the region during the time of the Kievan Rus'. The greater territory was known as Belaia Rus', or “White Russia”, which is in present-day Belarus.
During the 1300s, Lithuanian dukes expanded their territory eastward towards Moscow and southwards towards the Black Sea, enriching themselves through taxes, customs duties, leasing mills and taverns and exporting grains and timber from their new lands. At the height of their power in the 1500 and 1600s, court life at home was lavish while the eastern and southern territories were in a state of perpetual war against Tartars, Crimean Cossacks and Muscovy.
Financing their grand lifestyles at home and wars at the border, the dukes sold rights to collect future income from taxes, customs duties and leases in exchange for an advance payment. This factoring offer was available to all inhabitants, including Jews. However, farmers, landowners and rich burghers were strongly attached to their land, which was their source of wealth, food, shelter and clothing. These locals pursued trade and business when it occurred near their towns and properties; they were uninterested in the eastern territories where personal peril and financial risks were high.
Prohibited from owning land, Jews were unencumbered by the same caution and immobility. Entrepreneurial, agile and mobile, Lithuanian Jews were the ones willing to fund the dukes' present-day needs in exchange for rights to collect the treasure's income in the remote, undeveloped and hostile territories in the east. The success of such ventures required solidarity, joint investment and the pooling of capital. These are the business and financial models of a joint stock company, and the personal characteristics of wealth creators. These ventures were lucrative.
Joining these early Jewish collectors and leaseholders were merchants searching for raw materials, such as timber. Following the Pripyat river, they visited towns such as Mazyr and Pinsk in southern Belarus.
In 1510 Yurevichi became the manorial estate of Bogdan Serbinavu, an official to King Sigismund I the Elder. It was likely operated as a folwark, a serfdom-based farm producing grain for export. Exporting grain was important to the economy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and more profitable than collecting rents and taxes from small-scale farmers. Yurevichi's location on the Pripyat river would have offered efficient water transport to markets in Poland and Western Europe, making Serbinavu's agricultural enterprise financially viable.
Economic activity and Jewish life flourished in the first half of the 1600s in Belarus towns such as Rechitsa and likely extended to Yurevichi. Noble landowners leased parts of their estates to Jews, especially those associated with grain production. Jews worked in milling grain, distilling alcohol and selling vodka.
Life in Belarus became untenable in the second half of the 1600s with the start of religious wars of the Orthodox against the Jews and Catholics. During the war of 1654-1667, almost all of Belarus was captured by Muscovy, whose policy was to annihilate non-Orthodox faiths in lands they seized. Over half of the Belarus population perished. Yurevichi, along with other towns on the south eastern border, were wiped out.
The Jews of Yurevichi were Litvaks.
At great cost and effort, the territory was retaken by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the early 1660s. Jews and Christians began returning to the region after the war's end in 1667. A wooden monastery built in 1683 by Catholic Jesuits in Yurevichi attests to the region's safety from slaughter by Orthodox Crimean Cossacks and Muscovite czars.
The first permanent Jewish community in Yurevichi developed sometime in the 1700s.
By the late-1700s, the community included six tailors, two butchers and one shoemaker and can be considered a mestechko, a Jewish shtetle somewhere in size between a town and village.
Inhabitants of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were called Litvins. Lithuanian Jews became known as Litvaks. These were the Lithuanian-Belarus Jews that migrated eastwards as entrepreneurs in the 1500 and 1600s and became the merchants and craftsmen of the 1700 and 1800s.
Litvaks were “characterized by rationalism in behavior, a thirst for learning, a businesslike approach to work, purposefulness. …”11) They did not wear long-skirted garments. They cut their hair without side-locks. Men consulted their wives in important matters, including business. Their pursuit of learning included the study of secular sciences. Litvak rabbis and melameds12) were regarded as the best experts in Jewish scholarship.
As the Grand Duchy of Lithuania weakened, the power of Poland in the Commonwealth increased.
Feigin family, including Litman (motel) Feigin.