An Overview of Lyakhovichi before
the Nineteenth Century
by Deborah G. Glassman

Extracted from the book “Little Children” – The Malovitsky, Busel, and Malinki families of Lyakhovichi and their Descendants in the Pilnik and Hefter families by Deborah G. Glassman 2003 copyright

My grandmother’s cousin claimed that the shared heritage of the Pilnick and Hefter families was “Litvak,” the colloquial term for Lithuanian Jews. She maintained this though Lyakhovichi, from which the Pilniks and Hefters came, was Belarussian in the twentieth century, Russian in the nineteenth century and part of the Polish Kingdom in the eighteenth. It was more than two hundred years before my grandmother was born, that it was last claimed by the Lithuanians, but the entire community of Jewish Lyakhovichi shared the delusion – they all claimed to be Litvaks.

In an odd kind of way, they were right. From the end of the sixteenth century to the 1790s and tenuously thereon to the 1840s, Jewish local rule held that the Jews of Lyakhovichi were in the jurisdiction of the Jewish Community of Lithuania. The Jewish communal authority had belonged from the 1500s to the Council of Lithuania. That merged with the Council of Four Lands overseeing the Jewish communities in the Polish Kingdom and Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the seventeenth century. The combined organization resolved communal problems, oversaw the appointment of judges of the Bet Din, and sought communal aid for one community with another. They were the ones who tried to deal with the over-reaching community issues of what was the largest contiguous Jewish community in the world, from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. In the late eighteenth century, many of its powers were taken away by governments, which were leery of their subjects having out-of-country or trans-national allegiances. The Russians put nail after nail in the coffin – they first turned the community governing organizations into de facto tax collectors, and then, worst of all, they made them bounty hunters for the most repressive conscription act in history. Earlier it had been the policy of the pre-Russian authorities, to manage this desirable settlement of vendors and craftsmen by a laissez-faire policy that let the Jews build resources for themselves and the area. And the Jewish court system, charitable relief programs, and resource allocation systems were seen to be in the best interest of the Lithuanian nobility that had encouraged Jews to bring their merchant and craft skills and to settle the towns that the nobles had opened to them. Lyakhovichi had been sending its leaders to meetings of the Lithuanian Jewish council from the sixteenth century. Lyakhovichi had been part of the district of Brest-Litovsk when it first sent representatives to the council before the 1500s ended. The seventeenth century saw a number of new communities settled and the need to redistrict. In 1623, Lyakhovichi was part of a redistricting that put it and Kletsk and their neighboring towns in the Pinsk division, of which it remained a part until the end of the eighteenth century.

Page from the Pinkas Vaad Arba Aratzot

(Register of the Council of Four Lands), sister organization to The Lithuanian Council (Vaad Medina Lita). The Lithuanian Council joined together the Jewish leadership of three provinces, Brest-Litovsk, Pinsk, and Grodno. In the sixteenth century, the Lyakhovichi Jewish community participated in the election of the Brest-Litovsk representatives, in 1623 it was joined to the community of Pinsk and elected the representatives from that “province.”

The community had Jews of varying economic levels from an early day. A Jew from Lyakhovichi in 1559, named Moses Yakimovitch, was named in a lawsuit in Kovno along with a Kovno Jew, David the Apothecary, clearly indicating that Jews from this town were not just local merchants but engaged in business across the region. In 1564, the Personal Representative of the Grand Duke of Lithuania, was about to flee the area because of a devastating epidemic, but stopped to appoint two officials to serve in his stead in the capital city of Brest-Litovsk – one was a Jew named Shmuilo ben Israel of Lechowitz. The geographic position of Lyakhovichi aided that. In the seventeenth century, Lyakovichi’s geographic importance between Warsaw and Moscow, between Brest-Litovsk and Minsk, and along the overland route that skirted the Pripet Marshes, made it a natural site for market fairs in which the Jews participated. The privilege to hold fairs in Lyakhovichi in the 1490s, was probably just a confirmation by the Lithuanian Grand Duke (Lithuania’s highest-titled nobility) of a long-standing practice. That same geographical importance, in the late nineteenth century, would put it on, not one but two railroad lines creating an important railroad connection in Czarist Russia. (Not a junction, the two railroads passed near each other but never joined, so rail traffic could not move from one to the other.) Even in the eighteenth century it was a transportation hub - in 1775 a new canal was built near it that tied together Kiev, Podolia, and the Minsk areas, by connecting the Dnieper to the Bug to the Visla.

Geographic considerations made the road that passed through Lyakhovichi the preferred route into Russia by Napoleon, and this small town was the site of repeated engagements. In December 1917 the Peace Treaty line of Brest-Litovsk between the Germans and Russians ran right through the town. It also put the town in the middle of the major military engagements of the seventeenth century – the Khmelnitsky Massacres, the wars with Sweden, the wars with Moscow. A different kind of battle was also fought on its streets, again in part because of its geography. When the new movement created by the Baal Shem Tov, Hasidism, was in its major growth period in the 1770s, it was decided that winning over Lithuanian Jews was critical. Lithuanian scholarship and Hasidic ecstasy had a difficult time coming together, and there were literal battles in the streets, synagogues, and court rooms of Lyakhovichi from the 1770s through the early 1800s. Excommunications were declared, religious services were interrupted, and the figures who worked hardest to bring this new form of observance to Lithuania (which included the Nowogrodek powiat and its community of Lyakhovichi) were arrested and thrown in jail in 1798. The founder of the Lubavitchers –Rabbi Shneur Zalman, and four other colleagues including the Lechowitzer Rebbe – Rabbi Mordechai of Lechowitz, were imprisoned and released finally during Chanukah that year. Mordechai had been preaching, teaching, and organizing Lithuanian Jews for over thirty years at that time. In the end, he became a crucial factor in creating a vibrant Northern Hasidic movement, including those separate dynasties of Karlin, Stolin, Lechowitz, Koidanov, and others. He also was an integral part of the Hasidic identification with Settlement in Eretz Israel in the nineteenth century, collecting large amounts of money in many small contributions, from Jews throughout Minsk gubernia. And Lechowitz Hasidic shuls would turn up in the nineteenth century all over what is today Belarus and Lithuania.

Lyakhovichi was a diverse community from the early days of Jewish settlement which was sometime before the early 1500s. There were churches – mostly Catholic until the nineteenth century Russian Orthodox churches were constructed. One of the early owners of the town encouraged Protestant settlers though no church is currently documented for this group. There were synagogues – including a Traditional (also called Mitnaggid); two or three Hasidic shuls – at various times Lechovitzer, Koidanover, and Karliner Shuls, and two other shuls whose minhag (form of service) is not clear, they were created for those with a shared craft background – tailors in one, shoemakers in the other. There was a mosque built by the Tatar population.

The oldest Jewish prayer house of Lyakhovichi in the twentieth century claimed to be five hundred years old before World War I, that same five hundred years was claimed in a document at the end of the nineteenth century. That would put it among the earlier of Lithuanian Jewish settlements, from the time of Witold the Great’s privilege granted to the Jews of Brest-Litovsk in the 1380s/1390s. But it’s not an unreasonable claim, there are supposed to have been almost a hundred Lithuanian-Jewish settlements in the time of Witold, with only the largest named in records. An archeological assessment of the old Kalte Shul’s remains would fix the date most precisely. Five different synagogues were maintained in the nineteenth century for a Jewish population that numbered between a thousand and three thousand. Considering the limits of buildings largely of timber construction, with second floor mezzanines for women and centrally placed bimas (podiums for the Reader, the Cantor, and for resting the Torah), asking five buildings to hold 200-500 people each, on every Sabbath, holiday, and market day (Mondays and Thursdays) is not reasonable.Many small prayer houses were probably also in existence, though Russian law actually prohibited that. The less formal prayer houses were also the preferred venue for the daily attendance at early morning and end of day services. After fires in the mid to late nineteenth century, synagogues came to be built of the brick that typified many of the still-standing Belarus Jewish community structures. But those brick structures were so simple and straightforward that they were able to survive to the twenty-first century by taking on tasks as diverse as fruit-packing factories, and meeting halls. The mikveh (ritual bath), the cemetery, and numerous classrooms dedicated to the study of Torah and Talmud, were part of the community architecture from earliest days, but while maps show that they were there, it is not clear that the structures themselves have survived.

In 1766 there were 729 Jewish adults on whom a poll tax was owed, according to the information shared on the Lachowicze shtetl site by Gary Palgon and Neville Lamdan published in 2001. Poll taxes were not designed to be paid by individuals; rather someone counted heads and billed the Jewish community for the payment owed by 729 people. So currently we have no list we can point to as the 1766 Jewish community of Lyakhovichi, though it is thought possible that original records on which the tax was based might still show up in some archives. There were two censuses of the part of the region that was still in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The first, in 1765 and again in 1784. It has not been thought that records from Lyakhovichi were included because it should have been on the Polish side of the line. However a few local communities that were originally in the Brest-Litovsk jurisdiction of Lithuania (as was Lyakhovichi) did appear in the earlier Lithuanian census, so we are still searching. That is how the paragraph appeared in an original publication but in Autumn 2004, we found that Lyakhovichi appears in the Lithuanian voivodeship of Nowogródek, and is in the inventory for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania censuses. Further investigation indicates that despite the union of Poland and Lithuania, Lyakhovichi from its earliest days to Russian conquest was an integral part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and that we can expect to find physical census returns for both 1764 and 1784.

These were not the first appearances of Lyakhovichi in national tax registers. In the 1560s Lyakhovichi was among the towns that had to apportion the tax burden of Lithuania’s Jews. Minsk had to pay the largest amount of 600 grushim. Cities whose names would later be synonymous with Jewish Lithuania, like Vilna and Kaunas, were still excluding Jewish settlement. Communities, whose names today mean little, paid the difference. Stroja and Lotzk divided the next thousand billed, almost evenly. Ludmir and Troki paid three quarters of a thousand together with the large and wealthy population of Brest-Litovsk being responsible only for that last quarter. Grodno, Kremenitz, Tiktin, Dvoretz, Novogrodek, Lyakhovichi, and Kletsk, paid the remainder together – starting at Grodno’s 200 and moving down to Lyakhovichi’s 30 and Kletzk’s 15.

Despite appearing near the end of the list of Lithuania’s Jewish communities in the sixteenth century, and seeming only of middle size in the 1760s, major events of the world continued to march through Lyakhovichi as if it was a main theater of operations. The end of the eighteenth century saw the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in a fight for its life and that fight took place right on Lyakhovichi’s doorstep. Three wars used the Lyakhovichi fortress as a front-line. Each ended with a new Partition of Poland by its enemies. A century old international agreement forbidding the elimination of any modern European state, was voided when Poland, the largest power in Central and Eastern Europe in the seventeenth century, was totally eliminated in 1793 in a third and final partition between Austro-Hungary, Prussia, and Russia. The nineteenth century Russian records show that many of the Jewish residents claimed to be away at the time of the fighting, but we know that in most of the fortress towns of Lithuania and Poland, the Jews more than fulfilled their militia obligations. Jewish men were in militias in most of the Commonwealth towns, they had an obligation to keep weapons ready and Jewish women were to join the other women of the town in suppressing the fires, that were a common result of battle. After the Third Partition, the Jews of Lyakhovichi became subjects of Czarist Russia and their skills were sufficiently valued that none was asked in the nineteenth century records, “what did you do in the war?” The skills that had made them valuable to Lithuanian and Polish nobles were quickly back in use in Lyakhovichi. The nineteenth century would see world-wide major changes, many attributed to inventions of the century like the railroad, telegraph, typewriter, and repeating rifle, and those effects would be felt in Lyakhovichi too. But smaller nineteenth century innovations would begin affecting them first – implementation of hereditary surnames, universal military conscription, and eventually a limited-term conscription that was the start of civil rights. All with a Russian flair that turned things that benefitted Jews in other countries, into ways to persecute Jews in Russia. But first let’s figure out when in the three hundred and fifty years from the time Jews arrived until the Russian takeover, our families came to Lyakhovichi.