POLOTSK, city in Vitebsk district, 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 land-holdings outside municipal jurisdiction. The Jewish community was destroyed in 1654 by Cossack rebels, but was rebuilt shortly after. When local residents complained in 1681 that 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 Ḥasidism in Belorussia and *Israel ben Pereẓ of *Polotsk (a disciple of Dov Baer the Maggid of Mezhirich) was a leader of ḥasidic immigration to Ereẓ 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). 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 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 community maintained 23 synagogues, a talmud torah, and a Jewish high school. The kehillah (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) and dropped further by 1939 to 6,464 (22% of the total population). The two Yiddish schools had 340 pupils, and a Jewish orphanage and kindergarten existed there. The Germans occupied the town on July 16, 1941. A ghetto was organized in August, but in September all Jews were moved to a closed camp near the village of Lozovka, where many died from hunger and disease. In December 1941 7,000 Jews of Polotsk and its environs were murdered. In 1970 the Jewish population of Polotsk was estimated at about 500. There was no synagogue.
A. Arnin, in: B. Karu (ed.), Sefer Vitebsk (1957), 209–12; S. Ogurski (ed.), 1905 in Vaysrusland (1925), 164–71; Prestupleniya nemetsko-fashistskikh okkupantov v Belorussii (1963), 285–6.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.