Kažhan Haradok, Belarus
Kozhanhorodok / קוז'נהורודוק (Yiddish)

About Our Origin

fromTHE PECHENIK FAMILY, written and compiled by Ralph Selitzer, ©1969. Used with permission of the author.
In Kozanhorodok, located in an area that is historically the crossroads between Poland, White Russia (now Byelorussia) and the Ukraine, begins the story of our patriarch, Dovid Hennoch Pechenik, and the Pechenik family. The terrain around Kozanhorodok, Luninetz and the surrounding villages in which our family lived, is poor and its sandy loam and light soil yielded little to support life. The landscape is also one of spectacular contrasts created by glaciers that had stopped their southern movement just north of Kozanhorodok, creating the rich Black Belt to the south in the Ukraine. The area is abundant with great forests which provided the lumber for our ancestors to practice carpentry. Much of the region is also bog or lake land in the drainage paths of the Dnieper and Pripet rivers. Many of our elders remember losing their boots in the thick mud of the Pripet Marshes. Between the swamps and in stretches within the forests are dry sandy areas and higher land on which the rural settlements clustered. One could walk barefoot on the sand of these glacial lakes that had dried out centuries before and where, as children, our elders watched archaeologists dig for bones and clues to the past. And the area is rich with the history of the many peoples that passed through this main crossroads between east and west. It is also rich in the traditions and folklore of the millions of Jews who in different centuries migrated to and settled in the region -- a heritage of which we are very much a product. Kozanhorodok and its environs is located in what was known as "The Pale of Settlement" -- an area in Western Russia that Catherine the Great in 1791 decreed the only territory in which Jews were allowed to live. Into the Pale, which encompassed the Ukraine, White Russia, Lithuania and part of Poland, were herded Jews from all over Russia and its conquered terri-tories -- Jews of different nationalities but united in one religion and the Yiddish language. The Pale shrank and grew in size according to the whims of the ruling czars who all shared one common objective: keep the Jews in poverty, starvation and despair. By 1900, more than three million Jews lived within the walls of the Pale, on less than 5% of Russian land and isolated from 95% of the Russian population.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Russian policy towards the Jews was a mixture of forced assimilation and economic oppression. Violence and pressure were employed to compel Jews to alter their garb and language and to break with their traditional way of life in the hope they would abandon Judaism. And there was the brutal military system in which Jewish boys were drafted in their early teens for 25 years or more. Some restrictions were temporarily lifted early in the reign of Czar Alexander II (1856-1881). However, after his assassination, the new czar, Alexander III, in the laws of May 7, 1882, enacted new and harsher restrictions against the Jews. In this history we tell of our family's struggle for survival within the Pale during this most infamous period. Jews were not allowed to hold public office or public jobs such as policemen, firemen, etc. They could not own land and they needed special passports to travel even within the Pale. Special taxes levied against Jews included a tax on yarmulkas, talithim, and other religious dress and articles; taxes on Kosher meat; and taxes on businesses, rents and Jewish schools. Jews were forbidden to trade on Sunday, even if their shops were closed on Saturday. A 5% to 10% quota limited the number of Jewish students in the universities. Pogroms, which became more numerous in the late 1800's, added to the miseries of Jewish life and helped to accelerate the mass migration of Jews to the United States and other lands. Most members of our family were among these immigrants and we will tell of their exciting, different and some-times amusing journeys to the new world. Others of our family stayed behind only to be slaughtered by the Germans during World War II. Some survived the holocaust of Siberian concentration camps and now live in Israel. Their story is also recorded here. Although we have captured in words and pictures our family's life from about 1850 when Dovid Hennoch Pechenik married Elka Gisha Krikun, we know little of our direct origin before that date. Dovid Hennoch left few clues to his past - when or where he was born, who his family and ancestors were, or how he came to settle in Kozan-horodok. Pechenik may not even be his real name, but an alias adopted by Dovid to escape military service (see next chapter).

For our origin, we must look to the history of East European Jewry in general. Most historians think we stem from German Jews who migrated to Russia and Poland after the onslaught of the Crusades in 1100 A.D. and again in the 18th century after their near annihilation in pogroms that hit their German ghettos. However, it is also known that Jewish Khazars settled the area around Kozanhorodok when they hid in the Pripet Marshes to escape the invading Mongols during the 13th century. Many historians credit these people with building the great Jewish centers in Eastern Europe. Our ancestry is probably a mixture of Jews from all over Eastern Europe. We cannot cite Kozanhorodok as our patriarch's birthplace since we could name any town in the Pale and be just as accurate. Nor can we overlook the possible relationship between Pechenik (a Russian word mean-ing "man on an oven" that may have been derived from the Turkish tribe, Pechenegs), and Kozanhorodok which means village of the Khazars. The Khazars were a nomadic Turkish tribe that came under the influence of Jews who were expelled from Constantinople and traveled with them to Southern Russia during the 5th century. On the banks of the Black Sea, they found more Jews who had established a highly civilized community after their exile from ancient Israel during the early days of the Diaspora. In 740 A.D., the Khazar's King Bulan, sandwiched between Christian and Moslem Empires, was under pressure to align himself with one of the great religious movements of that day. He selected Judaism as a political compromise and for 250 years the Jewish Khazars were the economic rulers of Russia, controlling all commerce to the Black Sea, Constantinople and Asia Minor.

The only threat to the Khazars' apparent utopia were the Pechenegs, a savage Turkish people who, in the 9th century, took control of the banks of the Black Sea, severing the trade channels. For more than a century, the Khazars not only fought with the pirating Pechenegs, they bartered, mingled with and socialized to gain unmolested passage for their goods. Mongol hordes invaded Russia in the 13th century and destroyed its political and social complex. The surviving Khazar and Pecheneg population was scattered into the Russian hinterland. Many historians believe that the Jewish Khazars retained their Jewishness, although they did lose contact with the Talmud and its teachings. Actually, no one really knows what happened to the Khazars. The total disappearance of Khazarian language and culture is one of the great mysteries of mankind. Modern Russia did not emerge from its Dark Ages until 1682 and Peter the Great. The influential Jewish population was to be slowly submerged as we have seen, in oppression and pogroms, and finally to leave, as it came, a persecuted people. To what extent Khazarian blood is mingled with that of the inhabitants of Kozanhorodok, Russian Jews and world Jewry in general, will always remain a puzzling and curious question. What is important is that the Jewish identity has remained intact since the days of ancient Israel and throughout the many centuries of the Diaspora. Although members of our family have traveled thousands of miles and have been separated by many lands; though time has altered their speech, dress, mannerisms and even their names, the Jewish tradition of the family has survived. It is this simple heritage that we have recorded here and handed over to a new generation of Pecheniks.