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Virtual Jewish World:
Minsk, Belarus


Virtual Jewish World: Table of Contents | Europe | Belarus


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Minsk is the capital of Belarus. From the beginning of the 14th century until 1793, Minsk was part of Poland-Lithuania; it later fell under czarist rule and became the most important commercial center of Belorussia from the 15th century. Jews first leased the customs duties of Minsk in 1489, and after the expulsion of Jews from Lithuania in 1495 they started to settle in Minsk. In 1579 King Stephen Báthory granted the Jews of Minsk a charter, but in 1606 King Sigismund III prohibited Jews from opening shops there or engaging in commerce. In 1623 the community of Minsk was under the jurisdiction of Brest-Litovsk, but in 1631 the Lithuanian Land Council granted it a special regional status, which included the Russian hinterland. In 1633 King Ladislaus IV confirmed these rights and permitted the Jews of Minsk to acquire real estate on the market square or anywhere else, and to buy land for a new cemetery. During the Chmielnicki revolt and the Russian-Polish War which followed it, the Jews of Minsk were among those who suffered. In 1679 King John III Sobieski confirmed their right to the ownership of houses and shops, their synagogue and cemetery, and restated their freedom to engage in commerce and crafts and their exemption from all jurisdiction excepting that of the king. These rights were confirmed in their entirety by King Augustus II in 1722. Hence the community of Minsk prospered during the 17th and 18th centuries in spite of the opposition of the townspeople. In 1766, 1,322 Jewish poll tax payers were registered in Minsk. Jews were prominent in the town's commercial life and at the fairs of nearby Mir and Kapulia (see Market Days and Fairs ). The spiritual life of the community was also enriched. In 1685 a yeshivah was established by the local rabbi, Moses Mordecai. Among the rabbis and rashei yeshivah of Minsk during the 18th century were Jehiel b. Solomon Heilprin , Aryeh Leib b. Asher Gunzberg , and Raphael Cohen .

During the 19th century, Minsk was one of the largest and most important communities in Russia. In 1847 the Jewish population numbered 12,976, rising to 47,562 (52.3% of the total population) in 1897, which made Minsk the fourth largest community in the Pale of Settlement . Jewish life in the first half of the 19th century is reflected in the community records, which were published with a Russian translation by Jacob Brafman . Mitnaggedim were influential in Minsk, and Hasidism was relatively weak. There were several yeshivot in the town, the largest of which was known as "Blumke's Kloyz." At the end of the 19th century Jeroham Judah Leib Perelmann , who was known as "the gadol [the great scholar] of Minsk," officiated there as rabbi. A circle of maskilim also existed in the town, and in the 1840s several Jewish schools which included secular subjects in their curricula were opened there. Minsk was one of the places where the Jewish labor movement originated and developed. In the mid-1870s circles of Jewish Socialists were organized, which were very active during the 1880s and 1890s. The years 1893–94 also saw the birth of the "national opposition" to them, led by A. Liessin . In 1895 a convention of Jewish Socialists was held in Minsk, which discussed the projected establishment of a Jewish Socialist Federation. The Jewish Socialists of Minsk sent delegates to the founding convention of the Bund in 1897, and Minsk became one of the centers of the Bund's activities, being the first seat of the movement's central committee until 1898, when it was dispersed by the police. From 1901 to 1903, Minsk likewise became the center of the activities of the Independent Jewish Workers' Party . Jews were predominant in the demonstrations and revolutionary meetings held in the town in 1905 and were also the principal victims of the riots directed against liberal elements in general which took place in October 1905. Groups of Ḥovevei Zion (see Ḥibbat Zion ) were first organized in Minsk in the early 1880s. In 1882 the Kibbutz Niddeḥei Israel association was founded there, and in 1890 the Agudat ha-Elef. Later, Zionism became very influential. In 1902, with the authorization of the government, the Second Convention of Russian Zionists was held in Minsk. In the communal elections of 1918, the Zionists and Po'alei Zion won 33 seats, the Orthodox 25 seats, the Bund 17 seats, the nonaffiliated six seats, and the Folkspartei and the United Jewish Socialists Workers' Party two seats each.

After the establishment of the Soviet regime, Jewish communal and religious life was silenced at Minsk as elsewhere in the Soviet Union. The suppressed religious and national institutions were replaced by institutions of Jewish culture based on the Yiddish language and Communist ideology, and Minsk became an important center of Jewish-Communist cultural activity in the Soviet Union. Yiddish schools were established, and at the Institute of Belorussian Culture, founded in 1924, a Jewish section was organized. It published several scientific works, including Tsaytshrift (5 vols., 1926–31) devoted to Jewish history, literature, and folklore. A Jewish department was also established (1921) within the faculty of education of the University of Minsk. These institutions, however, were closed down in the mid-1930s. Various newspapers, periodicals, and other publications in Yiddish were issued in the town. These included the daily newspaper Der Shtern (1918–21), Der Veker (1917–25; until 1921 the organ of the Bund), Oktyabr (1925–41), and the literary monthly Shtern (1925–41). In 1926 the Belorussian Jewish State Theater was opened, presenting performances until June 1941. In 1926 there were 53,686 Jews in Minsk (40.8% of the population), increasing to 70,998 by 1939 (29.7% of the total population).

Hebrew Printing

In 1808 Simḥah Zimel set up in Minsk a Hebrew printing press which he had brought from Grodno . Up to 1823, he had printed at least 12 books, mostly liturgical. Another press was established in 1820 by Gerson Blaustein, who by 1837 had also printed 12 books, again mostly liturgical, though including one volume of Hebrew poetry by M. Letteris (1832). In the 20th century a Hebrew press once more operated in Minsk, printing books and newspapers mainly for local use. After the Russian Revolution, the studies in the history of Russian Jewry and Yiddish literature which were published in Yiddish by the Jewish section of the Institute of Belorussian Culture were printed in Minsk.

The Minsk Province

In czarist Russia, the province of Minsk was one of the "western" provinces of the Pale of Settlement. In 1797 its gubernator presented Czar Paul I with the resolutions of the meetings of the province noblemen, who alleged that the Jews were responsible for the sorry plight of the peasants of the province and for the famine which then raged. This statement was the forerunner of the program to expel the Jews from the villages, which later took the form of the "Jewish Statute" of 1804 (see Russia ). In 1847 there were 37 Jewish kahal administrations, in which 87,633 Jews were registered. In 1897 the Jews of the province numbered 345,015 (16% of its population); 37.5% of them lived in the towns, the same number in the townlets, and 25% in the villages. The largest communities of the province (with the exception of Minsk itself) were then Pinsk (21,065 Jews), Bobruisk (20,759), Slutsk (10,264), Borisov (7,722), Mozyr (5,631), Rechitsa (5,334), Novogrudok (5,015), Nesvizh (4,687), and Shchedrin (4,002); 41.5% of the province's Jews earned their livelihood in crafts and as hired labor, and 28.9% from commerce. About 21,000 Jews (6.1% of all those in the province) depended on agriculture, and over 6,000 of them lived in the mostly small Jewish agricultural settlements. In Minsk oblast there were 70,713 Jews (13.1% of the total population) in 1926; in the Minsk oblast as it had been organized in 1938 (with the exception of the town of Minsk itself), there were 9,054 Jews (0.61% of the population) in 1959.

Holocaust Period

Some 100,000 inhabitants were left in the city when the German forces entered on June 28. The population rose to 150,000 as the front line moved farther east, and tens of thousands who had fled and had been overtaken by the speed of the German advance, turned back. About one-third of these were local Jews. Their number was increased by refugees from as far west as Bialystok , as well as by survivors of mass executions carried out by the Einsatzkommandos (mobile killing squads) in the vicinity, so that another 30,000 Jews were added. Later, about 23,500 German, Austrian, and Czech Jews were deported to Minsk, and settled in a separate ghetto, so that despite the fact that a large number of Minsk Jews had been murdered before the establishment of the ghetto, at least 85,000 Jews were confined in it. Their choice of Minsk as a site for a large Jewish slave labor camp was dictated by military needs and the geographical position of the city in the rear of two German army groups advancing on Leningrad and Moscow.

Immediately following the occupation of Minsk, the German city commandant ordered all males between the ages of 15 and 45 to report for registration under the penalty of death. About 40,000 reported and, in a field at Drozdy outside Minsk, were segregated in three sections: Jews, Red Army men, and non-Jewish civilians. On the fifth day the non-Jewish civilians were released. All Jewish members of the intelligentsia were ordered to step forward; the several thousand who did so were marched off to the nearby woods and machine-gunned. The remaining Jews were moved to Minsk prison and released on Aug. 20, 1941. On the same day the city commandant issued an ordinance for the establishment of a ghetto in a suburb consisting mostly of wooden cottages, and ordered every Jew to wear the yellow badge. All Jews had to be inside the ghetto by July 25, but the Judenrat managed to delay the date until the middle of August by means of bribes. As there were no Jewish communal organizations to provide the Germans with officials to carry out their orders, a group of Jews was arrested. One of them, Ilya Mushkin, who knew a little German, was appointed head of a Judenrat and ordered to select the other officials.

Once inside the ghetto, the Jews were terrorized by nightly murders and kidnappings carried out by the Germans and their local henchmen. On the nights of August 14, 25, and 31, thousands were taken away and only a few appeared in the dreaded "labor" camp on Shirokaya Street, where in addition to Jews the Germans held non-Jewish Red Army men. On Nov. 7, 1941, 12,000 Jews were seized and taken to Tuchinka, where they were machine-gunned at the side of the newly dug pits. Some of the emptied streets were used to house 1,500 German Jews, most of them from Hamburg . By means of barbed wire fences, the ghetto was henceforth divided into three sections: the main ghetto for "unskilled" Jews; a section for "skilled" workers and Judenrat employees, including the ghetto police; and a section housing the German, Austrian, and Czech Jews. On Nov. 20, 1941, 5,000 people were removed to Tuchinka, where they were murdered. Some of the emptied streets were used to house 6,500 Jews brought from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.

At the end of February 1942, the Gestapo asked the Judenrat to turn over 5,000 Jews not employed in Wehrmacht enterprises. The resistance leaders ordered Serebryanskiy, the chief of the ghetto police and a member of the resistance organization, to use his trustworthy policemen to warn the Jews of the impending massacre and tell them to hide. On March 1 the Germans ordered the Judenrat to dig a pit in Ratomskaya Street, an unpaved ravine in the center of the ghetto. On the following morning, after the columns of workers had left the ghetto, Nazi officials arrived and demanded the 5,000 victims. Informed that the Judenrat had been unable to collect them, the Germans began a hunt for their victims. Dr. Chernis, the woman in charge of the ghetto orphanage, and Fleysher, the supervisor, were ordered to bring their charges in front of the Judenrat building. Unaware of what awaited their children, they led them, dressed and washed, and carrying the youngest in their arms, toward the building, but when they arrived in Ratomskaya Street, they were all thrown into the pit and buried alive. When the columns of workers returned at night, several thousand were taken to Koidanovo and murdered there. Others were forced to join the people rounded up inside the ghetto and butchered in the Ratomskaya Street ravine.

Shortly after the March 2 massacre, the Germans discovered the existence of the underground organization in the "Aryan" part of Minsk in which several Jews, such as R.M. Bromberg and M.P. Malkevich, had played a prominent role, and its connection with a similar organization inside the ghetto. On the night of March 31, 1942, the Gestapo raided the ghetto and arrested several resistance leaders, but failed to capture the head of the resistance, Hersh Smolar . The raid was followed by nightly massacres directed against relatives and neighbors of runaways, in an attempt to discourage Jews from fleeing to the forests to join the partisans. On July 28, 1942, after the labor columns left the ghetto, the Germans and their local collaborators invaded the ghetto and for three days murdered and tortured the inhabitants. Some 10,000 were murdered, including 3,500 German, Austrian, and Czech Jews, most of whom were old people, women, and children. Nine thousand Jews still survived. On Feb. 1, 1943, 1,500 Jews were rounded up and shot over open pits at Maly Trostenets. The number of survivors was systematically reduced by the shooting of smaller groups of men and the gassing of women and children in vans during the summer. To speed up the total annihilation, a transport of some 2,000 people, including a group of Jewish Red Army men held in the Shirokaya Street camp, was sent to Sobibor on Sept. 18, 1943. This transport included Lt. Alexander Pecherski and Shelomo Lejtman, the latter a Jewish Communist from Poland, who together led the revolt in the death camp on Oct. 14, 1943. On September 22, Generalkommissar Kube was killed by a bomb placed by his Belorussian maid, E.G. Mazanik. The assassination was organized by David Keymakh, the political commissar of the detachment commanded by G.M. Linkov, who as "Uncle Batya" became one of the most successful Soviet partisan leaders. This event speeded up the final liquidation of the ghetto, which took place on Oct. 21, 1943.

Resistance

The resistance record of the Jews imprisoned in Minsk ghetto is unique. One Sunday in 1941, within days of finding themselves inside the ghetto, a group of local Jews and Jewish Communists from Poland met and decided that it was the duty of the Minsk Jews to take an active part in the war against the German invaders. They rejected the possibility of armed resistance inside the ghetto and decided to devote all their efforts to effecting the escape of the largest possible number of Jews into the forests in order to become partisans. Four resistance groups arose in the "Aryan" part of the city in August and September 1941. However, it was only after the November 7 massacre that Hersh Smolar, the Polish-born leader of the Jewish resistance, met Isai Pavlovich Kozinets, known as Slavek, the leader of one of the four groups, who subsequently became the leader of the entire underground movement in Minsk. It was only in 1969 that it became known that Kozinets was a Jew born at Genichesk on the Azov Sea and that his first name was Joshua. A petroleum engineer by profession, Kozinets had been in charge of the installations in Bialystok at the outbreak of the war. The underground organization inside the ghetto then became an integral part of the city underground and was known as the "Ernst Thaelmann district," in recognition of the part played by the ghetto inhabitants in the struggle against the Nazis. The Judenrat itself, under Mushkin, took orders from the city-underground committee and played a unique part in diverting much of the production from the workshops and factories manned by Jews to the needs of the partisans. The Jewish organization provided the city underground with news of what was happening in the outside world by establishing a radio monitoring station. It also supplied a printing press and printers, while the ghetto hospital provided surgical and other treatment for wounded partisans. Moreover, Jews employed in the factories working for the Wehrmacht set an example to their Belorussian fellow workers in how to sabotage production. In 1942 the ghetto resistance was better organized and more efficient than the city organization, and the Jews, who ran incomparably greater risks than their Russian and Belorussian fellow citizens, contributed greatly in the common fight against the Germans. In return, the Jewish resistance leaders asked their "Aryan" comrades to help them save the maximum number of Jews from slaughter by making possible their escape into the forests to become partisans. As their assistance proved inadequate, the Jews also had to take the initiative in developing the partisan movement. They organized the nuclei of future partisan detachments inside the ghetto, while M. Gebelev and M. Pruslin, two of the Jewish resistance leaders, helped organize similar ten-man teams in the "Aryan" part of the city. Furthermore, when most of the "Aryan" resistance leaders fell into the hands of the Germans in the spring of 1942, Gebelev and other Jews played a decisive role in rebuilding the city organization. Gebelev was actually captured when preparing the escape of a group of Russian prisoners of war to the forests. The first organized group of Jewish partisans left the ghetto in December 1941 to join Captain Sergeyev-Bystrov's detachment, which in time grew into the Stalin Brigade. Many Jews escaped with the help of the railwaymen's resistance group headed by Kuznetsov; they formed a large proportion of the Narodny Mstitel ("People's Avenger") Brigade, which Kuznetsov later commanded. The Jews of Minsk created the 406, Kutuzov, Budyonny, Dzerzhinskiy, Sergei Lazo, and Parkhomenko Detachments, as well as the 106 Family Detachment commanded by Semion Zorin (who immigrated to Israel), which provided protection in the forests for over 600 Jewish women and children. Jews also formed a large percentage of the Frunze Detachment. The Kutuzov Detachment became the nucleus of the Second Minsk Brigade, while the Parkhomenko Detachment, formed mostly by Jews who had been helped to escape from the ghetto by boys and girls ranging in age from 11 to 15, served as the basis of the Chapayev Brigade. Hundreds of Minsk Jews were also active in other brigades. After the liberation about 5,000 Jews returned from the forests.

Contemporary Jewry

A memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust was erected in Minsk immediately after World War II – the only one in the U.S.S.R. – bearing a Yiddish inscription which explicitly mentions Jewish victims. On Jan. 13, 1948, Solomon Mikhoels , the chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and the director of the Jewish State Theater in Moscow, was murdered on Lodochnaya Street in Minsk while visiting the city on an official mission. Later the murder was acknowledged to have been the work of the secret police (on Stalin's orders). In the 1959 census 38,842 Jews were registered in Minsk, 5,716 of whom declared Yiddish to be their mother tongue. However, the population figure was estimated to be in fact between 50,000 and 60,000. The Great Synagogue of Minsk was closed down by the authorities in 1959, and in the same year private religious services were dispersed by the militia. A small synagogue was left, but in 1964 it was destroyed, as the site was earmarked for new apartment buildings. Eventually the Jewish congregation was allowed to open a small synagogue in a wooden house on the outskirts of the city. There is no Jewish cemetery in Minsk, but Jews are buried in a separate section in the general cemetery. Matzah baking was banned for several years, and on March 23, 1964, an article in the local newspaper, Sovetskaya Belorussiya, condemned the sending of packages of matzah to Minsk from Jewish communities abroad. Kosher poultry, however, was available. In 1968 several young Jews were arrested for Zionist activity. In the 1990s most Jews left for Israel and the West.


Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

S.A. Bershadski, Russko-yevreyskiy Arkhiv, 1 (1882), nos. 20, 53, 63, 109; 3 (1903), nos. 14, 41, 52, 60; A. Subbotin, V cherte yevreyskoy osedlosti, 1 (1888), 4–47; B. Eisenstadt, Rabbanei Minsk va-Ḥakhameha (1898); Regesty i nadpisi, 3 vols. (1889–1913), indexes; Khorosh, in: Voskhod, 12 (1901), 100–10; A.H. Shabad, Toledot ha-Yamim she-Averu al haḤevra Kaddisha "Shivah Keru'im" u-Veit ha-Midrash ha-Gadol ba-Ir Minsk, 2 vols. (1904–12); Die Judenpogrome in Russland, 2 (1909), 458–65; S. Dubnow (ed.), Pinkas ha-Medinah (1925), index; Alexandrov, in: Institute of Belorussian Culture, Tsaytshrift, 1 (1926), 239–49; 2–3 (1928), 763–78; 4 (1930), 199–224; S. Agurski, Revolyutsionnoye dvizheniye v Belorussii (1928), 139–43 and passim ( = Di Revolutsionere Bavegung in Vaysrusland (1931), 168–71); Levitats, in: Zion, 3 (1938), 170–8; A. Liessin, Zikhronot ve-Ḥavayot (1943), 1–78, 116–31; A. Yaari, in: KS, 20 (1943/44), 163–70; Yahadut Lita, 1 (1959), index; A. Greenbaum, Jewish Scholarship in Soviet Russia (1959), 22–27, 66–73, passim; J.S. Hertz (ed.), Geshikhte fun Bund, 3 vols. (1960–66), indexes; Goldstein, in: He-Avar, 14 (1967), 3–27. HOLOCAUST AND AFTER: H. Smolar, Fun Minsker Geto (1946); idem, Resistance in Minsk (1966); S. Schwarz, Jews in the Soviet Union (1951), index; J. Greenstein, in: Sefer Pabianice (1956), 349–73 (Yid.); Sefer ha-Partizanim ha-Yehudim, 1 (1958), 501–37; K. Loewenstein, Minsk: im Lager der deutschen Juden (1961).

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