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Belarus Virtual Jewish History Tour

Belarus, a landlocked republic in northeastern Europe lying on the border with Russia, has a Jewish history that can be dated back to the 14th century. Today, approximately 12,000 Jews live in Belarus.

Early Settlement
Religious & Political Culture
Belorussia Under the Soviet Union
Belorussian Jews During the Holocaust
Post-World War II Period
Contemporary Jewish Life
Relations with Israel

Early Settlement

The first record of Jews in Belarus is in the 14th century,C.E. At that time, Belarus was a region of Poland-Lithuania, and was referred to as Belorussia. It was also on the path between Poland and Russia, and it was first visited by Jewish merchants. The first record of a Jewish population was in Brest-Litovsk in 1388.

By the end of the 15th century, any Jews that had settled in Belorussia were expelled. Jews were allowed back into the region in 1503.

Synagogue in Nowogrodek

While Jews were technically allowed to settle in Belorussia, Christian citizens tried to dissuade them from taking up permanent residence there. They prevented Jews from many employment opportunities and prohibited them from building synagogues. As a form of more violent opposition, Russian Christians repeatedly attacked Jewish communities in the region. They coerced Jews into conversion and murdered many of them as well. Even with the rampant anti-Semitism in the area, by 1766, approximately 62,800 Jews lived in Belorussia.

In the late 1700s, Belorussia was annexed by Russia and Jews in the region began to take part in Russian culture. While some Jews found better jobs under Russian control, most Jews were living in poverty. As in many European countries at the time, most Jews in Belorussia participated in mercantilism and trade.

In 1791, Belorussian, Russian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian Jews were forced to live in the Pale of Settlement. The confinement of Jews was Tsar Catherine II’s solution to the influence of Jewish mercantilism. Non-Jewish tradesmen were unhappy with the amount of competition from Jewish merchants. By confining Jews in one area, non-Jews gained a monopoly over Russian trade.

Jews were forced to live in an area that covered Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belorussia. Poverty overtook the area, and many Jews were living in destitution. Even with wide-spread poverty, however, the Jewish population continued to increase.

Jewish communities multiplied in the area and, by 1897, 725,548 Jews were accounted for in Belorussia. The communities were so large, in fact, that many of Belorussia’s larger cities were occupied by a majority of Jews. Cities such as Minsk, Pinsk, Mogilev, Bobruisk, Vitebsk, and Gomel contained more than 50% Jews. Much of these populations immigrated to southern Russia, Ukraine, and the United States because of the poor economic conditions in Belorussia.

Religious & Political Culture

Even with emigration from the area, Belorussia became a major cultural center in Europe. Hasidism reigned over the region as the leading Jewish influence. The 19th century saw the spread of Chabad Hasidism with the help of two of its founders, Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk and Shneur Zalman of Lyady. Belorussia also housed many famous Lithuanian yeshivot.

Tec family in Baranovichi

Hasidism spread widely in cities such as Vitebsk. However, many Jewish communities, particularly those in northwestern Belarus, were opposed to Hasidism. A rationalist group of Orthodox Jews called the Mitnaggedim vehemently opposed the Hasidic ideals.

The mid-1800s brought the Haskalah to the Jewish communities in the region. The Haskalah was an enlightenment for Jews in Europe. The Haskalah moved away from traditional religious learning to a more modern revelation. Secular literature overshadowed original Jewish texts and groups such as the Mitnaggedim rejected the intense religiosity of Hasidism.

By the late 1800s, the Jews in Belorussia were swept over simultaneously by the Bund and Zionist movements. The Bund movement strived for social equality for Jews in particular, and for a political revolution in general. Many Jews in the Bund movement joined radical Russian socialist organizations. Artists and academics were the most common joiners of the socialist movement in Belorussia.

The Zionist movement also spread as part of the social revolution in Europe. Labor Zionism was founded in Belorussia and, in 1902, Minsk held the second convention of Russian Zionists.

Together, the Bundists and Zionists created small defense armies to combat the multiple pogroms that came through the area. Also, the two groups helped lead Belorussia in the 1905 Russian Revolution.

With the 1917 February Revolution, more Jews joined radical political parties. Two Jewish journals, Der Yid and Der Veker displayed Zionist and Bundist beliefs. The parties both became active in government leadership within Belorussia.

World War I led to an increased emigration of Jews from Lithuania and Poland. Being on the border between Poland and Russia, the Belorussian Jews were accused of spying both for the Russians and the Poles. The Polish army led attacks on the Jewish communities in the area. Likewise, Russian soldiers led massacres in Jewish Belorussian towns. Both armies used the war as an excuse to act out their anti-Semitic sentiments.

In 1921, the Treaty of Riga divided Belorussia between Poland and the Soviet Union.

Belorussia under the Soviet Union

At the beginning of Soviet rule in Belorussia, Jews lived in relative harmony within the Russian society. The Belorussian republic contained the largest concentration of Jews in the Soviet Union and, by 1926, approximately 407,000 Jews lived in Belorussia.

Zionist group in Oczmiana

The Jews of Belorussia maintained Yiddish as their main language. Interestingly, it was the Belorussian government itself that promoted the Yiddish language throughout the republic. The government wished to decrease the number of Russian-speakers in Belorussia.

Eastern Belorussia

With the advent of Communism, the economic status of Belorussian Jews greatly decreased. The Russian government prohibited private trade and even put limits on individual artists. Because Jews were prominent in trade, many of them were negatively affected by the new prohibition. Because of the economic situation, many Belorussian Jews immigrated to Moscow and Leningrad. By 1939, only 375,000 Jews were living in Belorussia.

The Jewish chapter of the Communist Party was called Yevsektsiya. The organization worked with the Communist Party to close synagogues, yeshivot, and other means of religious practice. Yevsektsiya was especially active in Belorussia as a secularizing force for the Jews.

Many Jews, however, still found ways to maintain their traditional practices. Siddurim were sold underground and yeshivot were used in secret.

Zionism was another movement that the Communist Party attempted to shut down. Like other private Jewish organizations, Zionist groups were kept alive mainly by Zionist youth movements. Eventually, even these secret organizations were closed by the Jewish Communists.

In place of religious organizations, the Yevsektsiya established means of secular Jewish culture. The group created Yiddish newspapers and non-religious Jewish schools. Centers for Yiddish literature, teaching schools, and Jewish culture were established. Non-religious Jewish culture was encouraged throughout Belorussia.

Western Belorussia

The area of Belorussia was divided in 1921, and the western part of the country was annexed by Poland. Unlike in Russia, Polish Jewry was not repressed by the Communist Party. Hasidism and Jewish religiosity remained affluent until 1939.

The economic status of Jews in Western Belorussia was significantly lower than under Soviet rule. Observant Jews from Eastern Belorussia risked poverty and fled to Western Belorussia in order to maintain traditional Jewish practices.

In 1939, Soviet Russia annexed Western Belorussia, and the Communist Party immediately shut down religious organizations in the area. Religious schools, originally taught in Hebrew, were transformed into secular Yiddish-speaking schools. The Communist Party attempted to assimilate the Jewish population of Western Belorussia.

This mass assimilation, however, was halted by the Nazi invasion of 1941. Jewish secularization was unimportant because the Nazis made no exceptions for assimilated Jews.

Belorussian Jews in the Holocaust Period

As the Nazi army moved into Soviet Russia, many of the Belorussian Jews attempted to flee. Some managed to escape, but most were stopped by approaching troops or Soviet guards who would not permit Jews to cross the border.

Belorussian Jews were slaughtered en masse by both SS troops who crusaded through the cities, and by local Belorussian police. Pogroms became common again, and any Jews who were not killed by Nazis or Nazi-supporters were put into ghettos.

Underground Revolutionary Force in Minsk Ghetto

Like most Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, Jews in the Soviet ghettos were forced to wear yellow stars. The Nazis quickly killed off children and the elderly, as well as the disabled Jews in the communities. Those who were not killed were forced to work in Nazi factories, building weaponry.

The Belorussian city of Minsk contained one of the largest ghettos in the region. The Minsk ghetto also remained in existence for much longer than most other ghettos in Russia.

Because of the Communist Party’s prohibition of Jewish organizations, Eastern Belorussian Jews were very quickly wiped out. The Jewish population there lacked solidarity and strength. Western Belorussia, on the other hand, had been annexed only two years before, and the Jewish community had not been entirely assimilated. As a result, the Nazis were unable to quickly destroy the Western Belorussian communities.

The western ghettos were livelier with culture than their eastern counterparts. Western ghettos contained underground choirs, Talmudic study, Zionist movements, and theatre. Young Jews were, for the most part, responsible for the creation of Jewish culture within the ghettos.

Nesviz was a small town with perhaps 6,000 Jews prior to the war that the Nazis turned into a ghetto. On October 30, 1941, 4,000 Jews were murdered. When the final Aktion began on July 22, 1942, the remaining Jews attacked the Germans with knives, hatchets, sticks, and homemade incendiary devices. They then set the ghetto in fire. More than 40 Germans were either killed or wounded in the fighting during which 25 Jews escaped to the forest and joined the partisans.

Jewish partisans

Ghetto revolts also occurred beginning in 1942. The Nazis began to destroy the established ghettos, and many underground groups organized the burning of buildings and mass attempts at escaping the Nazis. Some Jews who were able to flee joined the partisans in Russia. The partisans were a non-Jewish organization that vehemently opposed Nazi rule. Approximately 10,000-20,000 Jews joined the movement.

Some of the escapees who did not join the partisans managed to enlist in the Soviet army. It has been recorded that approximately 50,000 Jews fought with the Soviet army during World War II. Many of them hid their identities to avoid automatic execution by the Nazis and acts of hate by the Soviets. One hundred and forty-five of the enlisted Jews received the Hero of the Soviet Union award.

In 1941, Nazi occupied Russia contained 4 million Jews. By the end of World War II, 3 million Jews had been murdered. The 1 million Jews who avoided execution were the lucky ones who were able to escape into the forests or enlist in the Soviet army. Of these 3 million victims, 800,000 of them were Belorussian. Ninety percent of the Jews in Belorussia had been murdered.

In May 2019, more than 1,000 victims of the Holocaust were buried in a cemetery outside the city of Brest where the Nazis had established a ghetto. Their bones were found by construction workers as they began a project to build luxury apartments. The remains were placed in 120 coffins decorated with the Star of David.

Post-World War II

The end of World War II led to a gradual emigration of Jews from Belorussia. By 1979, 135,400 Jews lived in the region but, a decade later, only 112,000 Jews remained. Belorussian Jews immigrated to both Israel and the United States.

During this period, Belorussia remained under Communist rule. Anti-Semitism and religious persecution were widespread in the region, and Jews were again prevented from traditional practice.

On April 25, 1991, Belarus reluctantly declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Even after breaking away from the USSR, Belarus maintained diplomatic relations with Russia. The new Democratic Republic of Belarus created its own constitution and was quickly overcome by an almost dictatorial rule.

In 1999, Belarus restructured and formed a parliamentary government. The legislature is made up of a 110-member House of Representatives, and a 65-member Council of the Republic.

Contemporary Jewish Life

Although Belarus is technically a democracy, the government has been accused of impeding upon its citizens’ essential rights. Freedom of speech and religious freedom have been consistently limited. The Belarusian government maintains almost complete control of the national newspapers, and any opponents of the President have been quickly jailed or exiled.

Celebrating Sukkot in Grodno

Various non-traditional religions in Belarus have been prohibited from religious practice. Judaism is one of these “non-traditional” religions, and the government has written itself a law that allows it to censor Jews’ activities. Synagogues and cemeteries have been vandalized or destroyed. Holocaust memorials have also been graffitied.

While many individuals have committed anti-Semitic acts, the Belarusian government is also responsible for much of the persecution of the country’s Jews. Protests and speeches, condoned by the government, have voiced hatred towards Jews and other minority groups. President Lukashenko’s followers are openly anti-Semitic in their policies.

National newspapers, such as the Slovyanskaya Gazetta, have repeatedly published anti-Semitic articles and editorials. In April 1999, the newspaper had its license revoked.

President Lukashenko, who has been in office since 1994, has been responsible for much of the violence toward Belarusian Jews. He gave amnesty to individuals convicted of hate crimes, and he attempted to shut down the Institute of Jewish Studies at Belarus State University. Because of international pressure, Lukashenko was forced to keep the department open.

In 2002, the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations was passed. The law defined the specific religions that the government would recognize. While the government officially recognized Judaism, many Jewish Belarusians fear that the law will lead to more discrimination.

Even with the government’s policy of anti-Semitism, Jews in Belarus have managed to create national organizations and local cultural groups. The JDC financially supports the Union of Jewish Associations and Communities which has branches in 24 cities and is headed by Leonid Levin. The organization releases a monthly newspaper entitled Aviv. Other Jewish publications in Belarus include Berega (a monthly published by the Orthodox Union), Gesher (published by the Bobruisk Jewish community), Karlin (published by the Pinsk Jewish community), and Mishpokha (a yearly journal published in Vitebsk). The Orthodox Union, Lubavich and Reform movement represent the Jewish religion in Belarus and organizations such as Chabad, Aish HaTorah, and the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) have created cultural and study groups to help maintain Jewish traditions within the communities.

Reading the Megillah during Purim

There are also a few organizations for war veterans and Holocaust survivors. The Union of Former Ghetto and Concentration Camps Inmates, the Union of World War II Veterans, the Holocaust Foundation in Minsk, Maccabi and a children’s choir are all active organizations in Belarus. The World Association of Belarusian Jewry helps to financially support war veterans in Belarus, though the organization itself is based in the United States. Yama, a Holocaust memorial in Minsk, was first built in 1946, but was renovated and rededicated in 2000. In November 2005 a Public Academy for Jewish Culture and Arts was established, however it could not be registered by the Ministry of Justice because only state institutions can contain the word “academy” in their names.

The Union of Jewish Associations and Communities and the Jewish Agency run 13 Jewish Sunday schools that cater to about 500 students. There are two other Sunday schools run by the Reform movement as well as a Sunday School for Jewish deaf children. In addition, Jewish classes are taught at Minsk School No. 132 and there is a Jewish national school in Gomel. The Orthodox Union supports Bnei Akiva schools in Minsk, Chabad supports two high schools, and the Karlin-Stolin congregation funds a high school in Pinsk.

Other historic Jewish sites have also been renovated. Synagogues and Jewish cemeteries have been returned to Jewish communities, as well as yeshivot and other buildings confiscated by the Communist Party. In 2002, the Museum of History and Culture of Belarusian Jews opened and has since served as an educational center, teaching and researching the Holocaust as well as the history and culture of the Jewish people.

Jewish charitable organizations provide food, homecare, and medical care to needy Jews. Belarus victims of the Holocaust receive compensation from the Swiss Fund for Needy Victims of the Holocaust. While Judaism is classified as a ‘traditional confession’ according to the 2002 law on religion, the restitution of community property has been proceeding very slowly. Only a few synagogue buildings have been returned to the Jews of Belarus over the past few years.

According to to 2018 data, only about 9,500 Jews remain in the country. About half of the Jews live in Minsk, the nation’s capital.

Relations with Israel

Jewish immigration to Israel, when allowed by the Belarusian government, has been constant since World War II. In 2002, 974 Belarusians made aliyah. In 2003, immigration to Israel decreased, and between the years 2003 and 2005, 4,854 Belarusian immigrated there.

In April 2000, Belarus and Israel signed an agreement on trade, science, culture, and education. The two countries also formed a joint committee to improve relations between Israel and Belarus.

In July 2004, Israel reopened its embassy in Minsk, the country’s capitol.

Original article by Stephanie Persin

Sources: CIA World Factbook;
Encylopaedia Judaica;
Ministry of Immigration Apsorption;
The Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism, Annual Report 2005, Belarus;
The Cultural Guide to Jewish Europe;
Beyond Time and Place.

Photographs from Yad Vashem and the United States National Holocaust Memorial Museum
Map from CIA World Factbook