GOMEL (Homel; in Jewish sources, Homiyyah), district capital in Belarus. The beginning of Jewish settlement is apparently connected with the annexation of the town to Lithuania in 1537. The community of Belitsa (which became a suburb of Gomel in 1854) is mentioned in 1639 as one of the Lithuanian communities. During the
massacres in 1648 many refugees from the Ukraine fled to Gomel, but the Cossack armies reached the city and massacred about 2,000 Jews there. Many saved their lives by converting to Christianity, but returned to Judaism when the Poles returned in 1665 and the Jewish community was renewed. By 1765 there were 658 Jews living in the city. *Ḥabad Ḥasidism won many converts there, and in the mid-19th century one of its leaders,
Isaac b. Mordecai *Epstein
, served as rabbi.
The city was given the status of district capital in 1852, its geographical situation and position as a railroad junction making it an important commercial center. The annual fair attracted many Jewish merchants. The community increased from 2,373 in 1847, with an additional 1,552 in Belitsa, to 20,385 in 1897 (56.4% of the total population). It had 30 synagogues, including the great synagogue built by Count Rumyantsev in the middle of the 19th century; only two remained by 1941. While a few wealthy Jews in Gomel traded in forest products or were government contractors, many thousands of poor families lived in the "Rov," the valley described by
in his Me-Emek Akhor (1900). Toward the end of the 19th century a Jewish revolutionary movement, centered on the Bund, developed in Gomel. Zionism also gained many adherents there and several Hebrew schools were established. Zionists from Gomel settled in Ereẓ Israel and participated in the building of Ḥaderah; many were pioneers of the Second and Third Aliyah. In the summer of 1903 there was a pogrom in Gomel in which eight Jews were killed, many wounded, and much Jewish property looted. A
group was organized under the command of Yeḥezkel Henkin in which the Jewish political parties participated. Subsequently, 36 of its members were prosecuted by the authorities, in company with the perpetrators of the pogroms, and charged with committing pogroms against the Russian population. During World War I, thousands of refugees from the war zone took refuge in Gomel and several yeshivot moved there from Poland and Lithuania. In the 1917–1926 period many Zionist groups were active. They ran two Hebrew kindergartens and a Hebrew high school.
After the consolidation of the Soviet regime, Jewish religious and nationalist elements struggled against the Communist campaign to win over the masses. Nevertheless, the ḥadarim were closed down, beautiful synagogues were converted to secular purposes, and Jewish communal life came to an end. The rabbi of Gomel, R. Borishanski, was arrested for opposing the Communist suppression of the Jewish religion. The community decreased from 47,505 in 1910 (55%) to 37,745 in 1926 (43.7%). Most of the city's artisans were Jews. Among the Jewish working population in 1926, 3,482 were factory hands, 4,057 white-collar workers, 3,235 artisans, and 5,046 worked the land. In 1930 there were eight Jewish kolkhozes near the city, where 1,889 Jews (400 families) farmed 21,000
acres of land. In the 1920s 6 Yiddish schools, and two kindergartens were in operation. There was also a Yiddish teachers college, but it was moved to Smolensk in 1929. In 1939 the Jewish population in Gomel was 40,880 (29% of the total). In the beginning of the German-Soviet war, many Jews succeeded in escaping into the Soviet interior. The Germans entered the city on August 19, 1941. The Jews were concentrated to four ghettos, under conditions of overcrowding, starvation, and disease. Three labor camps housing 1,500 Jews were set up in the city. In October 1941, 2,365 Jews were murdered. By December 1941, 4,000 had been killed. Women and children were gassed in vans. In the following months the Germans proceeded to murder the remaining Jews.
The Jewish population of the entire district numbered 45,000 in 1959; the number of Jews in Gomel was estimated at about 20,000 in 1970, of which only a few thousand remained in the early 21st century after the mass emigration of the 1990s. There is no synagogue in the city. (In 1963 a minyan was interrupted by the police, who dispersed those at prayer and took away two Torah scrolls and all religious articles.) There is a separate Jewish cemetery. A monument was erected in the vicinity of the city to the memory of local Jews massacred by the Nazis.