Pinkas Pruzany and It's Vicinity

                         p. 9 - 16

Joseph Friedlaender


If Pruzana had been a town with a larger number of inhabitants and a bigger Jewish population, then it may have deserved to be known by the respected appelation of "a mother town in Israel" like many other centres. This is in view of its Jewish vitality, which continued for about 500 years. There are two proofs for this assumption: one in the past and the other in the present.

In the distant past, when the "Lithuanian State Committee"    (1623-1761) held its first meeting in Pruzana in Av 5388 (1628), its key figures and leaders decided to go on holding their meetings at Pruzana biennially, as Regulation 192 put it.

It should not be forgotten that the main speakers at the "Lithuanian State Committee" were the leaders of the main kehilot Brisk and Pinsk (the Vilna kehilla joined later), Pruzana belonging to the area of Brisk (Regulation 88). We do not know what made our town so attractive to the leaders of the "Lithuanian State Committee" and why it was chosen as the site for the meetings of the committee. The reasons were not specified, but the decision itself made it clear that the committee leaders regarded Pruzana as the most appropiate place for its sessions on the grounds of safety and other reasons. Incidentally, the conference of the Lithuanian State committee was one of the most important from the viewpoint of the number and content of the resolutions passed. There were 93 regulations dealing with political, legal, economic, religious and cultural problems of Lithuanian Jews.

We do not know why the decision was not put into practice, but no more conferences were held in our city. In fact, it was the small townlet of Seltz in the Pruzana district which hosted more conferences of the Lithuanian State Committee than any other Jewish kehila in Lithuania.

The other proof lies in the period of destruction and the Holocaust, during the most terrible days of trial of East European Jewry in the ghettos, in particular for the members of the Judenrat. There are still diametrically opposed evaluations of the conduct of Judenrat members from the Jewish, not the German, viewpoint. Some members were totally innocent and some were guilty; there were those who were partially innocent and guilty; at the same time this is not the place to discuss it. (The excellent book of Isaiah Trunk "Judenrat, the Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe during the Nazi conquest", Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 5739, properly analyses this complicated and tragic problem). However, as regards the Judenrat in Pruzana, there are no differences of opinion at all about the devotion its members showed to all Ghetto inhabitants and their considerable concern to supply bread and shelter to all the Jewish inhabitants there and the Jews of Bialystock and other towns who arrived in Pruzana.

The members of the Judenrat in Pruzana also courageously resisted German demands, and in light of the terrible conditions and circumstances of that time, did their duty by their brethren out of a sense of Jewish solidarity and a consciousness of the joint Jewish fate in the "Planet of Auschwitz". Apart from one exceptional incident in which 18 Jews were killed at the beginning of the German occupation, Jews were not killed by the Germans as in other near and far-off kehillot. It is indeed possible that the strange fact that Pruzana was attached to East Prussia instead of becoming part of the general government in Poland contributed to the relatively lighter treatment of Jews by the Germans as compared with other Jewish settlements. But whatever the motives, it is a fact that in the terrible days of the German conquest a loyal team of officials acted in the best Jewish tradition to deal with public needs. Evidence of this can be found in the testimony of Holocaust survivors from Pruzana, Bialystock and other towns for whom the Pruzana ghetto served as a temporary refuge from certain death, until the issue of the edict of destruction and the expulsion to Auschwitz in January 1943, which covered all the Jews in the ghetto in the framework of the "Final Solution" the Germans determined for East European Jewry.

The two proofs are enough to show that Jewish life in Pruzana was in the best tradition of the old Jewish centres in Russia, Poland and Lithuania, which developed deep roots in the soil of Furope and maintained Jewish life for hundreds of years, struggling against the hostile forces of the regime and overcoming them.

Further evidence is found in the personality of the Rabbis who sat on the Pruzana rabbinate. At the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries, Rabbi Yoel, the son of Rabbi Shmuel Sirkiss, served in our city. He was famous in the Jewish world for his book "Biet Chadash - a.k.a Ba"ch  - " and for his son-in-law Rabbi David, the son of Rabbi Shmuel Segal, the author of the "Turay Zahav"  Unfortunately, we have not been able to trace other rabbis who served in Pruzana in the 17th and 18th centuries. The details in the register about rabbis mainly refer to the end of the 18th, the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. However, this list, which includes the names of outstanding leaders, is enough to indicate that the Pruzana rabbinical seat was a worthy one for scholars of the Law, Gaonim and other learned rabbis.

Among those who served on the Pruzana Rabbinate were: The great one from Minsk, Rabbi of Minsk; Rabbi Yeruham Yehuda-Leib Perelman and Rabbi Eliyahu Haim Meisels, who became famous as the rabbi of the Lodz-Kehilla. Rabbi Eliyahu Feinstein (Rabbi Elinka) was among the luminaries of his age and served for 45 years on the Pruzana rabbinate. The fact that he was twice asked to serve as the Rabbi of Jerusalem speaks for itself.

The struggle of Pruzana Jews to get privileges from the kings of Poland should also be mentioned. As the pinkas shows, these privileges were first confirmed by Queen Anna Jagellonka (1586), and the kings: Jan Kazimierz (1649), Michael (1669), Jan the Third (1683), August the Third (1748) and Stanislaw August (1776). The Jews strove to extend their rights and sometimes they succeeded.

The editors of the first Pinkas, which appeared in Pruzana in 1930, examined important certificates and documents that were preserved in Pruzana and other places, which provided evidence of the kehila's important past. This fact highlights the awareness of the community leaders who took care to record the history of the kehila for posterity. Not all the kehilot had this sense of history. In Pruzana were preserved the pinkas of Hevra Kadisha   the "Book of Life"  , the Community pinkas   and a small pinkas of the 1831 cholera plague.

The cover of the Hevra Kadisha pinkas records 1785 as the start of entries, but the same pinkas recalls a former one going back to 1450. The cover of the "Book of Life" notes 1808 as its beginning, but has records from 1721. The community pinkas covers the years 1801-1850. The first historic document mentioning Pruzana refers to 1433, when it is to be supposed Jews were already living there. In 1473, there is mention of the Pruzana synagogue ("Boznica Zydowska").

All this evidence proves a long Jewish history in Pruzana from the middle of the 15th century to the middle of the 20th century: a period of about 500 years.

The memoires of the Pruzana survivors-not merely those who lived through the Holocaust, but all the townspeople who immigrated to Israel or went to Western Europe, North or South America prior to the Second World War and are thus looked on as Holocaust survivors-cover the periods of the two world wars. Everyone of them bears the imprint of Pruzana's heritage, which was impregnated with a full and effervescent Jewish life. Activities included not only the various economic occupations, but the ideological, national and social struggle as well, just like Russian and Polish Jewry at that time. The socialist movements: the Bund, the S.S., Poalei Zion and the Communists on the one hand and the various Zionist parties on the other: the General Zionists, the left-wing parties: Hitachdut and the youth movements - Hashomer Hazair, Gordonia, Hechalutz Hazair, Freiheit; and the right­wing blocks-the Revisionists and Betar, fought for hegemony among the Jewish public. The work for the Zionist Funds: the Jewish National Fund and Keren Hayesod became an educational instrument of the first order, in addition to the cultural and educational work of militant Yiddishism. Both camps saw their main task in the educational field: the Zionists-in the Hebrew education system: the Yavneh school, the Hebrew gymnasium and the Tarbut library; Yiddishism-in the Y.L. Peretz school and in extensive cultural work that included a library, a drama group and other cultural and social institutions.

The vitality of these groups received expression in two weekly papers: "Pruzener Lebn" and "Pruzaner Sztyme", each of which served its camp and struggled for its ideals. There were few such communities blessed with such ideological battles.


One should also not forget the part played by the Heder, the Yeshiva and the government schools: the elementary school, the gymnasium and the teachers' seminary. Reference must be made to the religious, social, and professional institutions which also embraced the public work of many officials, who were concerned to improve the lot of their brethren and help them in the increasingly difficult, material struggle for existence which became harder during the years.


A wonderful structure of organised Jewish community life was constructed out of all these "bricks" and in addition to the struggles of "this world", it was also concerned about the "future world" in view of the trends towards the Zionist solution in Eretz Yisrael and the Socialist solution of struggle for "Doism" and the national and civil rights of the Jewish national minority in the state of Poland.


Most of the survivors belonged to one of the rival camps and the zeal which they invested in fighting each other is well remembered. Today, after the tragedy that engulfed all the Jews of Pruzana, things are regarded in a different light in retrospect. Everyone knows how to value and respect the views of opponents, because all worked for the public good.

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Our Pruzana pinkas, a book of testimony and reminiscence to a kehila that existed for 500 years, was written in Hebrew, in addition to the two Yiddish pinkasim that appeared: in 1930 while Pruzana still existed and in 1958 in Buenos Aires. What purpose did the third Pruzana register serve? As already mentioned, there were two old community registers of the kehila and Hevra Kadisha. Both were written in Hebrew, even though they contained many Yiddish words. It was the custom of many Jewish kehilot to write their pinkas in Hebrew from the start of the Exile to the present day. It is therefore the duty of the survivors to endow their town with a pinkas in the Holy Tongue for future generations and not merely be satisfied with the pinkasim in Yiddish, without in any way wishing to denigrate, G-d forbid, from their value or their linguistic importance.

Another reason is that the editors of the two pinkasim belonged to the Yiddish camp and did not always take pains-perhaps they were unable-to throw light on the Jewish life of the other camps. They were naturally close to their own. The same thing might have happened had the Zionist and Hebrew camp published the two pinkasim. However, this should not in any way be regarded as an attempt to detract from the value of the work of the editors of the two Yiddish pinkasim, which has existed for generations. They supplied most of the material for the Hebrew pinkas and constitute not only its foundation but much of its body and mould as well.


First and foremost, it is hard to exaggerate the historical value of the work of Gershon Urinsky, Meir Wolanski and Noah Zuckerman, the editors of the first pinkas. Without them, there would have been no Pruzana pinkas. They created something out of nothing and turned a small experiment by the seventh grade pupils of the Y.L. Peretz school under the guidance of Noah Zuckerman to gather material about the town's past into a mighty enterprise of the publication of the Pruzana Town Pinkas, 1930. The three editors invested a lot of toil in finding historic material, determining facts and dates and investigating the old people of the town. In their introduction to the pinkas, the editors said they were sure that many historic documents that had once existed had been lost.


Perhaps Pruzana's good fortune lay in the fact that the editors felt time was running out and that tragedy was impending, as the flood of bloodshed could already be seen on the horizon, a flood that would encompass not only living Jews, but all the documents of inestimable value in studying Jewish history. Therefore, every person browsing through the register in the near and distant future owes them gratitude, admiration and esteem for their historic enterprise. Otherwise the whole past of the town would have drowned in the depths of the sea of grief and bereavement that engulfed the Pruzana Jews. The three editors looked at the sources at their disposal, checked them and saved their contents from oblivion. Thanks to them, the history of the town and the Jewish community was preserved. In addition, the editors carried out full demographic and statistical researches, processed the findings and drew the necessary conclusions. The articles on the first years of the 20th century, the First World War and Jewish life in the 1920s are a storehouse of documentation and valuable information. The minor blemishes in their work, which cannot be avoided, do not detract from its character and quality. We drink from their wells and remember them with feelings of gratitude and esteem.

Two of the editors of the Pruzana pinkas, G. Urinsky and M. Wolanski have died, the former in Pruzana in 1940 before the Germans came and the latter in Argentina after the Second World War. Noah Zuckerman, who stayed in the Soviet Union during the war, is now in Israel, living with his wife and daughter in Netanya. We thank him for his agreement to the Hebrew translation of the Pruzana Pinkas and his cooperation with us, as well as his account of how the register was compiled.

The second pinkas: "A Chronicle of the destroyed Jewish Communities of the towns Pruzana, Bereza, Malch, Scherschev and Seltz, their origin, develop­ment and annihilation". Editor: Mordecai W. Bernstein. Co-Editor: David Forer, Buenos-Aires, Argentina, 1958, includes the whole of the first and important material about the later periods. The pinkas was a lavish publication of 950 pages on fine paper and pleasant print. The editors did excellent work expanding the picture to include the history of five towns closely linked with Pruzana both before and during the Holocaust, as well as Pruzana's history.

We thank Mr. David Forer for giving his agreement to use the copious material in the pinkas and translate it into Hebrew (Mordecai Bernstein is dead).

Our pinkas includes material of the two Yiddish pinkasim and extra things added by us, but it proved impossible to add historic material prior to the 19th century. Among the material we added are:

A.     Biographical details of the rabbis serving in Pruzana in the 19th century.

B.     A detailed biography of the last rabbi David Faigenbaum, by his daughter Dr. Hannah Krakowsky.

C.     Excerpts from "Hamaylitz" and "Hazefirah" at the end of the 19th and beginning of the   20th century, which include reports about Pruzana life.

D.     Memoirs on Zionist and Hebrew activity in the twenties and thirties.

E.   A detailed biography of Dr. Olia Goldfein, by her son-in -law Alexander Rabey. She was the most impressive personality of Pruzana in the last 50 years of its existence.

   F.   In the public and cultural personalities section, we have striven to bring details about prominent public officials, but unfortunately we were unable to find information on Eliyahu Birnbaum, who was deputy mayor for many years, Dr. Moshe Finegold, who was very active in public affairs and also deputy mayor for a short while, and other personalities.

  G.   Our general aim was to bring documentary material solely and avoid personal memoirs that are full of nostalgia and personal experiences. The Holocaust section is an exception, of course. Apart from the brief German documentation on the number of Jews in the Pruzana ghetto who were taken to the Auschwitz labour camp, there is no documentation and all of the sources are naturally accounts

of survivors.

In view of budgetary limitations, we had to cut down in this section, like other sections as well and we apologise to those writers whose work was not published.


As a result of the lack of documents, some personal stories about public work were included and it was impossible to avoid using them.

I am grateful to the writer Moshe Chinovitch of Tel-Aviv for his participation in the work of the pinkas and his great help and important advice in getting hold of historic material about our town. I did the whole work of Hebrew translation of the material in the two Yiddish pinkasim.

At the end of each article from the first pinkas which appeared in Pruzana, the digit 1 appears in brackets (1). At the end of each article in the second pinkas, which appeared in Argentina, the digit 2 appears in brackets (2).


Haifa, Elul 5741-September 1981.

Editor's address:

POB 7245, Haifa 31072.
Tel: 04-242212.



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