Over the years, articles in AVOTAYNU have described various sets of records-both Jewish and non-Jewish. The chevra kadisha, literally "holy society," is the term used to describe the Jewish burial society, an organization that has existed in Jewish communities for centuries and still exists today throughout the world. The pinkas of the chevra kadisha is the record book of that society, a Jewish record, kept by Jews for Jews. This article will focus on the pinkas of the chevra kadisha of Slutsk, a small town in Belarus, and on efforts to translate this register into English.
In the first century of the Common Era, interment of the dead was a duty undertaken by the entire Jewish community. Outside of ancient Israel, Jews did even more. "Every Babylonian Jew ceased from his work the moment that he was informed of a death, and participated in the preparations for burial."1 Beginning in the fourth century-and perhaps earlier-the chevra kadisha took over the responsibility of burial for the entire community. We do not know when data concerning each death was first recorded or registered in a pinkas. Apparently, no Jewish law requires such a record, but records were kept in 19th-century Jewish communities throughout the Russian Pale of Settlement, the area of western Russia to which Jews were confined.
Jews lived in 1,846 towns in the Pale of Settlement.2 If each kahal (Jewish community) in the Pale had one burial society (and larger towns may have had more than one), there would have been 1,846 pinkassim of the chevra kadisha kept in the Pale of Settlement before the jurisdiction was dissolved in 1917. Of these, only 23 pinkassim could be identified in 1981.3 They are kept today at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City and at the Hebrew National and University Library in Jerusalem. Since 1981, approximately ten additional such registers have been located in the Harkavy collection at the manuscript department of the Vernadsky Library of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kiev.4
The pinkas of the chevra kadisha of Slutsk (53°01'N/27°33'E) is one of the largest-if not the largest-to survive the Holocaust, both in number of pages and in years covered. Entries were made in this registry for 244 years from 1680 to 1924. We had known of its existence as early as 1978, when several genealogists had information abstracted from the book. Today the pinkas is housed in the Manuscript Department of the Jewish National and University Library. Although the story is somewhat murky, it seems that the book had been taken to Germany by the Nazis; at the end of World War II, it was found by an American officer and eventually sent to Jerusalem.
Jews were mentioned as having been in Slutsk as early as 1583, but this early reference may have been merely to traders passing through the town.5 In 1623, Jews are noted as living in the town, but the references fail to indicate if an established community existed at that time. During the riots of Bogdan Khmielnitski, known as the Deluge (1648-54), a period when law and order failed in many Lithuanian and Byelorussian towns, Jews fled from Slutsk, but they returned after the Treaty of Andusovo in 1667.6
Between the years 1667 and 1680, the Jewish community of the town grew and needed a burial ground. By 1681, the town had 173 Jewish homes and 922 Christian homes, and by 1689, Jews were integrated into the local militia.7 In 1691, the leaders of the Lithuanian Vaad (the Jewish self-governing council) included the Slutsk community in the structure of the chief communities of Lithuania, taking into consideration the large population and wealth of the community and its many expert scribes and Talmudists. In 1766, the Slutsk kahal region had 1,577 Jews. The all-Empire Russian census of 1897 counted 14,349 inhabitants of Slutsk, of whom 10,264 were Jews.8
The pinkas is a record of Jews who were buried in the cemetery in Slutsk. Although we do not know how many Jewish cemeteries existed in Slutsk before the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917, the pinkas appears to refer only to one that was located toward the southern end of the town within a loop made by the Sluch River and to the east of it. This was west of what the Jewish inhabitants called Zaretser Gass (Zaretser Street).9 Entries in the pinkas end in 1924, the year that corresponds approximately to the point at which Bolshevik control was consolidated on a local level, but burials continued to take place in the cemetery for a number of years after that time.10
During their occupation of Slutsk, the Nazis missed no opportunity to desecrate the cemetery and to humiliate the Jews. Selected Jews from the ghetto, under the whip and gun, were made to carry a number of the tombstones on their backs at running speed from the cemetery to a location about half a kilometer away, where they were used as foundation stones and entrance stairs for four new buildings built by Jewish slave labor to house the Nazi administration of Slutsk.11
Historical Society of Slutsk
After a number of false starts, a group of ten Jewish genealogists with roots in Slutsk met in New York City in 1992 at the Eleventh Summer Seminar on Jewish Genealogy and formed the Historical Society of Slutsk, an unincorporated, informal society. Membership has increased to 109 members.
The records of death included in the pinkas are the only surviving memorials to ten generations of Jews from Slutsk. No tombstones survived the Holocaust. Words in the pinkas are tender. Respect is shown for the most ordinary person. Love and understanding sing from its pages. The scribes rail at murderers, laud beloved rabbis and cry at the death of a mother giving birth. All of the emotions of the shtetl still live in the words on its pages. It was kept, or so we like to think, to honor the dead. The pinkas was not kept for tax purposes or for the military draft. It does not seem ever to have been misused (i.e., used for a purpose other than why it was kept); we have found no record of misuse. Even those with no ties to Slutsk can learn much of the daily life of the shtetl Jew from this Jewish record.
What was the geographic jurisdiction of the chevra kadisha of Slutsk? This is a very important question for Jewish genealogists. Even if an ancestor never lived in the town of Slutsk, that person may, nevertheless, have lived nearby and been buried in the cemetery in Slutsk. The physical jurisdiction of the burial society may have been 24 square miles, but we have little evidence to support the conclusion. (Boonin remembers seeing this jurisdictional acreage limitation years ago, but cannot locate the source. He would like to hear from anyone with more information on this question.) We do not know how far into the countryside the chevra would accept burials, but we do know that many people buried in Slutsk were not "from" Slutsk.
The word "from" (in Hebrew, the single letter m, mem, used as a prefix) has puzzled us as much as any other single question that has arisen from our preliminary examination of the pinkas. We know that persons buried in the cemetery are identified as coming from approximately 250 townlets, villages and farms near Slutsk.12 Many entries in the pinkas identify the deceased as being "from" another town, but what exactly this means is not always clear. The mem could stand for "from," or it might merely be the first letter of the word that follows it. Moreover, the word "from" has other problems associated with it. More than 200 towns are named, but when the mem does mean "from," another issue arises. In this context, the letter might mean that individuals settled in Slutsk at an earlier time, and when they died years later, it was recorded that they were "from" another town. On the other hand, "from" might mean that the deceased expired in a nearby small town or village, and when buried, the deceased was identified as "from" that town or village. If the latter case is true, the person may never have lived in Slutsk. Some of the scribes who made these entries seem to have recognized the problem and addressed it directly. For example, entry No. 5268 reads in part, "the woman Mrs. Bayle passed away, the daughter of mh'r'r Eliezer, and she was brought here from Pohost, and she rests...etc."
In addition to the death entries, the pinkas includes a variety of miscellaneous information. From the latter category, we learn that some men specified in their wills certain wishes with respect to their burials, and the chevra kadisha appears to have tried to comply with these wishes. In the early years, the rabbis requested that they and their wives be buried next to each other. In another example, a woman gave those going to pray at the site of the martyrs permission to step upon her grave.
In addition to the world of last wills and testaments, we learn much about how Jews were killed. In 1761, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, four martyrs were beheaded by sword in public. (Other deaths by sword also are recorded.) The violence of the times is quite evident from the number who were murdered. Strangers from other locales who were murdered nearby were buried in Slutsk.
Moshe, the son of Yitzhak Asaver, drowned in 1822, but the chevra kadisha would not let him be buried the same day until the doctor arrived. Sometimes a question would arise that called for more than the normal deliberation by the chevra kadisha.
Although other pinkassim of a chevra kadisha may include rules for governing the chevra, (for example, elections, memberships or honors) the pinkas from Slutsk does not have such information. Levitats noted that 27 officers were elected at different times to run a chevra kadisha. Five were consistently repeated in the pinkassim: three wardens, one treasurer and one auditor. Membership fees ranged from three to five rubles. The cost of a grave ranged between 5 and 150 rubles, depending on the means of the deceased. Exorbitant prices were charged in exceptional cases. The chevra kadisha raised money for the poor in this fashion.
In the early years, some men and women were buried next to one another, although almost all of the examples involve rabbis. Information in the pinkas suggests that family plots existed, but the data is sketchy, and if family plots were owned, the practice does not seem to have been widespread. Before 1741, no rows were identified in the pinkas. After that date, men and women were buried in specified rows. Because rows are identified after 1741, some of our members believe that it may be possible to re-create the entire layout of the cemetery for the post-1741 period. The rows indicated in the register include rows on the south side, rows on the city side, rows of martyrs, rows of maidens and other rows.
After the early years, men and women were buried separately-even husbands and wives. Not only were husbands and wives buried separately, but fathers and sons and mothers and daughters normally were not buried next to each other. One notable exception to this rule held fast. If men and women were killed at the same time in a catastrophe, they were buried in one common grave in the row of martyrs. A number of such graves resulted from the bombing of Slutsk during the Polish-Russo War of 1919-20.
As one would expect, few burials occurred in the early years of Jewish settlement in Slutsk. Only 13 burials took place from September 1680 to September 1681. In the later years, there were many burials on a single day; beginning in 1846, sometimes as many as five burials daily took place. The month of August 1855 saw 285 burials. Although one may speculate that there may have been an epidemic that year, it is difficult to prove.13 Many of those who died in 1855 were women, but little else is known at this time other than what appears in the entries themselves; we have not yet abstracted these entries. Generally, a cause of death was given only when it was unusual; for example, drownings, accidents involving wagons, suicides, homicides.
The pinkas of the chevra kadisha of Slutsk has 715 pages and, as noted above, covers the years 1680 to 1924. There are two columns of entries on each page. The columns are identified as Aleph and Bet. Entries are made in Hebrew, and those for a period of years are made in the same handwriting, indicating that one scribe at a time made the entries. As one might imagine, some handwriting is clearer and easier to read than others. Abbreviations are used liberally, some of which are well known. Other abbreviations have proven more difficult to decipher; some have proven to be impossible.
Females are identified by their Yiddish names. The best book for Yiddish names is Harkavy's famous Yiddish dictionary.14
We estimate that there may be more than 10,000 entries in the pinkas, with an entry defined as the information concerning the death of a single individual. Most entries have fewer than 75 words, although some contain more than 1,000 words. In the main, the longer narratives pertain to rabbis. We have now translated 5,559 entries and hope to complete the translation phase of the project by the end of 1997; we hope then to have the results published.
How the Project Works
The Historical Society of Slutsk is doing three things with each entry:
1. We are transcribing each handwritten Hebrew entry into typed Hebrew, but we have not created a computerized Hebrew database.
2. We are translating each entry into English.
3. We are entering the English translations into a computerized database searchable by key word.
Each entry has been assigned a number by our translator; the number 1 was assigned to the final entry in the pinkas, dated April 24, 1924. From there we have worked backwards to 1887. We began with the most recent entries, on the theory that they would be easier to read and would be of more interest to the group. We also correctly assumed that the more recent entries would include surnames.
Information given in the entries for men is significantly different from that for women. For a man, we find his given name and the full name of his father. For a woman, we find her given name as well as, generally, the full name of her father. In addition, if she were married, the full name of her husband appeared. By "full name," we often mean more than one name; in many cases the name includes three or four names. The last or second to last of these words might be an occupation, place of origin, physical description, nickname or-if we are in luck-family name.
Does each entry include a surname? Generally yes, so far-but with a number of caveats. The deceased was usually identified by a given name only. If the deceased were a man, he usually was identified simply by a given name, plus the full name of his father. The surname of the deceased, therefore, could be extrapolated by noting the surname of the father. If the deceased were a woman, the pinkas followed the same format as for a male, but also recorded the given name and surname of her husband.
As is so often true in Jewish genealogy, the usual case has a number of exceptions. Sometimes fathers of the deceased were identified by a name comprised of three words; in other cases the name had only two words or perhaps the name consisted of only a single word. Understandably, the amount of information that may be gleaned about the deceased or his/her forebears is a function of the amount of information given. Furthermore, ascertaining which names or parts of names are truly fixed, hereditary family names (as opposed to occupations or other descriptions) is typically not easy to do, as will be shown below.
From approximately 1890 to 1924, many entries listed surnames or occupations that might be surnames, but as we have moved back in time, we have noticed-between 1887 and 1889-that increasing numbers of individuals were listed merely by their patronymics, e.g., Yudel ben Yaakov. Obviously, tracing genealogies from this resource is difficult in the best of circumstances; when family names are lacking, the challenge is magnified many times. Below are several entries that illustrate some of the problems facing a genealogist trying to use these registers for research. Entry 3583 (from 1902) reads:
On Tuesday, the seventh day of Markheshvan, the scholar mhr"r Joseph, the son of mhr"r Noakh Kletsker Maggid passed away in a poor house and he rests by mhr"r Simcha, who passed away on the nineteenth day of Sivan in the year 5660, row twenty-one by k'doshim (martyrs) to the south side.
Many men are identified in this pinkas as ynbrh, which we have translated as "the scholar." The abbreviation mhr"r (r"rhm) means "our teacher and master, rabbi,"16 a title of respect used for every male entry. The name "Noakh Kletsker Maggid" is composed of components that can be categorized, but the fact there are three names creates a problem. The first name, Noakh, creates no problem. Either of the next two words, however, could be a family name-or one might be a family name and the other an occupation. Conventional wisdom teaches us to conclude that Noakh was from Kletsk, a town slightly to the west of Slutsk, and that he was a maggid or preacher. On the other hand, might it be that Noakh's family name was Maggid?
Entry 3319 presents a similar problem. It has the name "Mendil HaCohen Tsiptsin Stoler," In Yiddish, a stoler is a carpenter. Was Mendil HaCohen Tsiptsin a carpenter? Or was Stoler his surname? It is tempting to conclude that Mendil was a carpenter and that Tsiptsin was his family name. Or take Entry 3318, in which the name Bentzion Polack is followed by the word iqowrixm. We have translated this word as "from Tseruskeh." Was there a town called Tseruskeh? Remember, we have already identified in the entries approximately 250 to 300 small towns, many of which do not appear in the gazetteer Where Once We Walked. In Entry 3590, the name "Yosef Pozik Kletsker" appears. This entry seems to be clear; it seems to mean that Yosef Pozik was from Kletsk.
Many names, such as in the entry for Tsiptsin, are followed by a word that names a profession. For example, in Entry 2056, the father of the deceased is listed as Chaim Y'Leib Sofer Shusterman. A shusterman is a shoemaker. Was Chaim Y'Leib a shoemaker? But what about the name Sofer? Is that a surname or another profession, a sofer or scribe? Or had his father been the scribe? Or was he both a scribe and a shoemaker, or neither?
Many surnames end in "ik," the Russian ending denoting a trade. In Entry 4827 we come across Moshe Baker "Yablenik." The surname (if it is a surname) Yablenik is not found in Beider's A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire, but Yablochnik is. Such a person was an apple merchant. Yablik also is listed in Beider as one who deals in apples. (The Russian word for apple is yablako.) Standard Russian dictionaries do not list a word Yablenik. Is it a profession? This presents the following problem. Entry 4634 lists "Ben Zion Yablenik." Does this mean that Yablenik is a surname? Certainly, the entry suggests that it might be. Or does it mean that both Moshe Baker and Ben Zion had the same occupation?
Wolf Sofer "Bakshitskeh" appears in Entry 4607. Bakshitskeh is not a surname included in Beider's dictionary of Russian surnames, and it is not a town listed in Where Once We Walked. In such a case, it is necessary to look beyond the basic works in Jewish genealogy. Thus, we found in the Memoirs of Hyman Cantor, a Jew who came from Wasilinki, a little village just two miles north of Slutsk (and who donated his memoirs to YIVO), that Cantor often spent time in Bakshits, or Bakshitsi, a small village about three miles north of Slutsk. Cantor called it a farm, and it appears to have been something between a farm and a tiny settlement. It is not included in Where Once We Walked, but Jews lived there at one time.17 (Perhaps it had no Jewish settlement during the time period covered by that book.) The Cantors sold farm products in Slutsk. When someone from Bakshitsi died, the scribe probably asked his closest surviving kin for the name of the deceased. We can imagine the reply, "Why, he was Wolf Sofer Bakshitskeh." Whether this means that Bakshitskeh is a surname or rather the identification of a location is not clear. What is clear is that, when trying to understand the entries in the Slutsk pinkas (or any similar pinkas), it is imperative to be familiar with basic reference works and also to be able and willing to move beyond them when necessary.
These are our initial thoughts on a work-in-progress. Much more work and refinement must still be done. Our advice to other Jewish genealogists is to band together and work together. Much can be accomplished in concert. If one source does not exist for a town or for a family or a surname, another source may have survived.
The authors of this article met in New York in the summer of 1992 and are four of the original ten members of the Historical Society of Slutsk. Boonin and Pascal have contributed previous articles to AVOTAYNU; Brooks has singlehandedly entered each of the 5,559 entries in a keyword retrievable database; and Ross, a practicing attorney in New York, has overseen the project from the beginning.
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