The Paikins

In the Pale

Of course, the Paikins might also have come much earlier to Poland - or by other routes.

How they ended up in the Pale is unknown to us, but that is where we find the first mention of the Paikins after their long and hazardous wanderings.

The first mention of the name Paikin in the sources are from Polotsk [Polack] and/or Dvinsk [Dagauvpils] in the beginning of the 19th Century; In the following decades we also find them in Dagda, Osveya [Asveya] and Rezekne, and in Drissa [Driijsa], Dzisna and Szarckowsczyna [Sarkauscyna].

Map of part of the Pale, where Paikins lived in the 19th Century

Let us "visit" some of the shtetls:

Jewish school - cheder (1880)

Rezekne (Rezhitsa)

"Rezekne is situated on the seven hills in the center of Latgale (region of Latvia). The highest place in the town is 160 meters high, while the lowest is 130 meters below the level of the Baltic Sea. Lake Kovsha is in the southern part of Rezekne. The 100 km long Rezekne River flows through the town from East to West, joining the lakes Razna and Lubans, the biggest lakes in Latvia. The Riga-Moscow and St. Petersburg - Warsaw rail lines cross Rezekne. The town is located 245 kilometers from Riga.

The Castle of Rezekne is the town`s oldest historical monument. From the 9th to the 13th centuries, it existed as a fortress and dwelling place of the ancient Latgalians, and was a political and economical center. After the Livonian War, the Rezekne Castle changed many times. During endless wars, the rooms were gradually ruined and abandoned. At the end of the 19th century the stones from the castle were used in the building of private houses. The place of the ancient castle on the hill, its defense towers and some parts of the castle wall, can still be seen." (Excerpts from Rezekne).

Demidovich, a Russian geographer, describes is in this way: "Rezekne was situated near the St. Petersburg - Warsaw railroad. It was a quiet and clean town, with no industry except a brewery, which bought hops from abroad."

In Rezekne in 1802 there were 533 Jews and 187 Christians.

In 1808 a traveler described Rezekne as a pitiful city: There was only one street, no skilled craftsmen. At that time Jews participated in the city council.

In 1897 out of 10,795 inhabitants, 6,478 were Jews. At that time there were 2 orthodox churches, 2 praying houses of Old believers, 10 synagogues and Jewish praying houses. There were a Talmud-Torah, 2 private Jewish schools. The commerce of the city was not well developed, there were 408 merchants, of which 303 traded with "small goods". A part of Rezekne was named "America" by the many poor Jews, who lived there.


Dagda is a small town in the Daugavpils (formerly Dvinsk) district, Latgale region, South East Latvia. It is located on the shore of a great lake (480 ha) with many islands.

Dagda was founded at the end of the 17th Century in the area of an estate belonging to a Pole, during the Polish reign. It has suffered several fires.

The Jewish community, which was organized at the beginning of the 19th Century, was in the main traditionally observant one. Three synagogues were built: One of the Mitnagdim Stream, and two serving the Chasidim (in Skolas Street 6, Rigas Street 17 and Upes Street 3). There were These (sick visiting) and a society to help needy brides, "Hachnasat Kalah".

In 1847 there were 77 Jewish residents, by 1897 the number had risen to 1,026 (68% of the total population).

At the end of the 19th Century, Yitzhak Panrov, a public official was the leader of the community. Rabbi Yitzhak Shmargun was the spiritual head of the community from 1910 until he perished in the Holocaust in 1941.

In the 1910s Jews began to emigrate from the town to the USA and to South Africa. During the course of WWI (1915-1916), many Jews moved to the interior of Russia.

After the war, the town was under the control of the Bolsheviks and the Jews were oppressed on the orders of the local Latvian commandant.

From 1922-1924 the community assisted many Jews, who crossed the border with Russia, on their way to lands across the sea. Several of them remained in Dagda.

Jewish children were not accepted in the State elementary school; they learned either in the Heder or a privat school. In 1920 a Jewish elementary school was opened, with six classes. At the beginning Russian was the language of instruction, but later it was Yiddish. From 1934 Hebrew became the teaching language.

There was an active drama circle, and there were subscribers to the Hebrew newspaper "Hamelitz".

In 1930 the community numbered 668.

At the beginning the majority of the Jews made a living in commerce, as peddlers and tradesmen. They opened a tannery and wool processing workshop.

With the establishment of Latvia as an independent state in 1920, the movement of agricultural produce from the USSR stopped, as a result of which Jewish merchantes were adversely affected. They were helped by the "Joint" (a relief agency of American Jewry). In the conflagration of 1033, the businesses and homes of Jews were burnt down, and many of them were left impoverished. The were helped by several communities. A producers-consumers co-operative was set up by Latvian farmers from the vicinity, which caused additional hardship to the Jewish merchants.

A survey of 1935 revealed that 95% of businesses in the town were Jewish owned.

Among the members of the free professions there were two pharmacists, a doctor and a dentist.

(Information from Beth Hatefutsoth, Israel - URL-address:

Interior of Shul in Minsk (c 25 Kb
Interior of Shul in Minsk (c 25 Kb Jewish cemeteray in Dagda, Latvia

Dagda cemetary (1998)

Tombstone in Dagda: Tovia ben Abraham Moshe d. 1896
- this is the only tombstone found in Dagda, that might be the headstone of a Paikin (because of the name and the year)

Street in Dagda


Polotsk 1880 (after the fire)
Polotsk in 1880, after the fire

Polotsk is a town in the Polotsk oblast, before WWII it was in Vitebsk oblast, Belarus.

One of the oldest Jewish communities in Lithuania. There is evidence that Jews settled in Polotsk toward the end of the 15th Century.

In 1551 the Jews of the city were exempted from paying a special tax, known as the "Srebrzczyzna". When Ivan the Terrible captured Polotsk in 1563, he ordered that all the Jews, who refused to be baptized (around 300), should be drowned in the Dvina River. (Memorial prayers for these martyrs were recited in Polotsk each year on the 25th of Kislev). The Jewish community was revived soon after, but in 1580, when the town adopted the "Magdeburg Law", it forbade Jewish commerce and purchase of real estate within the city. Jews lived on six landholdings outside municipal jurisdiction.

The Jewish community was destroyed in 1654 by Cossack rebels, but was rebuilt shortly after.

When local residents complained in 1681that the Jews were purchasing land within the city without paying municipal taxes, King John III Sobieski ordered them to pay.

In 1765 there were 1,003 poll-tax paying Jews in Polotsk. The city was one of the earliest centers of Chasidism in Belarus, and Israel of Polotsk was a leader of Chasidic immigration to Eretz Israel in 1777.

Polotsk had 2,600 Jews in 1815 (56.3% of the total population). The figure rose to 7,275 by 1847 and to 12,481 in 1897 (61% of the total population).

In the late 19th Century the city became a center of anti-Jewish agitation, largely because several Russian orthodox monasteries and an officers’ training school were located there. When the pogroms broke out in October 1905, the authorities prohibited Jewish self-defense activities in the city. There were 19,252 Jews living in Polotsk in 1910.

The Kehilla (Jewish community organization) was abolished under Soviet rule in 1918, along with many other Jewish public institutions.

In 1926 the number of Jews had fallen to 8,186 (32% of the total population).

With the German conquest in WWII, the 8,000 Jews remaining in Polotsk were herded into a bricks factory near the city, and in December 1941 all were murdered.

In 1870 the Jewish population of Polotsk was estimated at about 500. There was no synagogue.

(Information from Beth Hatefutsoth, Israel - URL-address:

Mary Antin: The Promised Land (1912)

Mary Antin was born in Polotsk in 1881 and in her book "The Promised Land" (first published in 1912, latest edition 1997 by Penguin Books Inc. ) (ISBN 0-14-018985-8), she vividly describes her life in Polotsk until she and her family emigrated.

After reading it, you almost feel as if you have been there. So much so, that the black-and-white photographs from Polotsk seem to be redundant. You seem to know the people, and lingering in your consciousness is the fragrance of the deep-red Dahlias in her grandfather's garden, of:

"...the wild flowers that grew on the grassy slopes of the Vall..." and "the small daisy, popularly called "blind flowers" because it was supposed to cause blindness in rash children who picked it..."(p. 68)

The last part of the book is dedicated to the tale of emigration and the struggle to find a new life in the promised land, America. That too is an interesting story - Mary Antin shares with us the hopes and dreams that make the immigrant's life endurable.

Only a few examples can be quoted here, but the book has - fortunately - been reprinted and is therefore still available.

"Among the medieval customs which were preserved in the Pale when the rest of the world had long fogotten them, was the use of popular sobriquets in place of surnames proper." (p. 36) With these words Mary Antin takes us for a journey through the Pale, through the years, and she introduces us to her family and invites us to her parents’ wedding and lets us witness their struggle of daily life: "Let me spread out my family tree, raise aloft my coat-of-arms, and see what heroes have left a mark by which I may be distinguished. Let me hunt for my name in the chronicles of the Pale". (p. 36)

"Ours was a quiet neighbourhood. Across the narrow street was the orderly front of th Korpus, or military academy, with straight rows of unshuttered windoes. It was an imposing edifice in the eyes of us all, because it was built of brick, and was several stories high." (p. 66)... "In the summer-time I lived outdoors considerably. I found many occasions to visit my mother in the store, which gave me a long walk. If my errand was not pressing - or perhaps even if it was - I made a long stop on the Platz, .... . The Platz was a rectangular space in the centre of a roomy square, with a shady promenade around its level lawn. The Korpus faced on the Platz, which was its drill ground. Around the square were grouped the fine residences of the officers of the Korpus, with a great white church occupying one side. ...." (p. 68)

It was not far from the limits of Polotzk to the fields and woods. My father was fond of taking us children for a long walk on a Sabbath afternoon.... The first landmark on the sunny, dusty road is the house of a peasant acquaintance where we stopped for rest and a drink. I remember a cool gray interior, ..." (p. 69-70)

After this short appetizer I wish you some pleasant hours in company with Mary Antin.

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Back to Elsebeth Paikins website Last edited 13.01.2002 by Elsebeth Paikin