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BELORUSSIA, territory located between the rivers Neman (west) and Dnieper (east) and the rivers Pripet (south) and Dvina (north). Between the 14th and 18th centuries part of *Poland-Lithuania, from the partitions of Poland (1772–95) until the 1917 revolution it was part of the "northwestern region" of Russia, and much of it was included in the three "guberniyas" (provinces) of Minsk, Mogilev, and Vitebsk. Under Soviet rule Belorussia became a political entity as the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the area was called Belarus and was a C.I.S. republic.

Up to Soviet Rule

In Jewish history Belorussia is part of "Lita" (Lithuania), its Jews being considered "Litvaks." Jewish merchants apparently first visited Belorussia in transit between Poland and Russia as early as the 15th century. Jews were acting as toll collectors in Nowogrodek (1445), *Minsk (1489), and *Smolensk (1489). In 1495 the Jews in Belorussia were included in the expulsion of Lithuanian Jewry, returning with it in 1503. As large-scale farmers of customs dues and wealthy merchants, Jews from *Brest-Litovsk played an important role in the development of Belorussia. Their agents were often the pioneers of the communities of Belorussia. A community was established in *Pinsk in 1506. By 1539 Jews had settled in *Kletsk and Nowogrodek, and subsequently in Minsk, *Polotsk, *Vitebsk, *Mogilev, and *Orsha. The Christian citizenry consistently opposed the permanent settlement of Jews within the areas of the cities and towns under municipal jurisdiction. In Vitebsk, for instance, Jews were not granted permission to build a synagogue until 1630. Within the framework of the Council of Lithuania (see *Councils of the Lands), Pinsk was one of the three original principal communities; most of the communities in Belorussia came under the jurisdiction of the Brest-Litovsk community, while several were subject to that of the Pinsk community. In 1692 the *Slutsk community achieved the status of a principal community. Smaller communities also grew up under the protection of landowners who rented their towns, villages, taverns, or inns to Jewish contractors (see *Arenda). These made constant attempts to break away from the jurisdiction of older communities and manage their communal affairs independently.

Until the partitions of Poland the communities in Belorussia were constantly exposed to the danger of Russian incursions, which were accompanied by wholesale massacres and forced conversions. Such events occurred in 1563 in Polotsk, and in many other communities between 1648 and 1655.

The relative strength of the Belorussian communities in the middle of the 18th century is shown by the amounts levied on them as listed in the tax register of the Council of Lithuania for 1761: for the communities in the eastern part of Belorussia, 16,500 zlotys; Polotsk and environs, 3,000 zlotys; the area around Minsk (including 40 small communities), 4,260 zlotys; Slutsk and its environs, 2,420 zlotys; Druya and its environs, 750 zlotys; Nowogrodek, 300 zlotys. According to the government census of 1766, there were 62,800 taxpaying Jews living in Belorussia, forming 40% of Lithuanian Jewry. The largest communities were in Minsk (1,396 Jewish inhabitants) and Pinsk (1,350).

After Belorussia passed to Russia in the late 18th century, *Shklov became an important commercial center on the route between Russia and Western Europe. Although a small group of Jews acquired wealth as building contractors, army suppliers, and large-scale merchants, the vast majority of Jews in the region of Belorussia were relatively destitute. Nevertheless, their numbers grew. There were 225,725 Jews living in the three "guberniyas" of Belorussia in 1847, and 724,548 in 1897 (13.6% of the total population), forming the majority in the principal cities of the region. There were 47,561 Jews in Minsk (52.3% of the total population); 34,420 in Vitebsk (52.4%); 32,369 in *Daugavpils (46.6%); 21,539 in Mogilev (50%); 21,065 in Pinsk (74.2%); 20,759 in *Bobruisk (60.5%); and 20,385 in *Gomel (54.8%). The Jews in the cities and townships of Belorussia had associations with the village and rural economy in a variety of ways. Both the wealthy and poorer Jews engaged in the development and trade of forest industries, and established small- or medium-sized timber enterprises. They also developed leather and allied industries on a similar scale. Another Belorussian Jewish occupation was peddling combined with the buying up of village produce, such as flax, hemp, and bristles, which the Jewish peddler sold to Jewish merchants who exported these commodities to the West. Because of the prevailing conditions of poverty, large numbers of Jews emigrated from Belorussia to the Ukraine or southern Russia, and, from the 1880s, to the United States.

In the cultural sphere, the Jews of Belorussia were influenced by the centers in Vilna, Volhynia, and Podolia. In general the *Mitnaggedim trend predominated in the north and west of the region. Most of the celebrated Lithuanian yeshivot were in Belorussia, those of *Volozhin and *Mir, among others. Ḥasidism penetrated Belorussia from the south. Two of the fathers of Ḥasidism, *Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and *Shneur Zalman of Lyady, were active there. Belorussia was the cradle of *Ḥabad Ḥasidism. In southern Belorussia the influence of the ḥasidic rabbis of the *Karlin and *Stolin dynasties was strong. By the mid-19th century Haskalah penetrated the larger towns from Vilna. The pogroms in Russia from 1881 to 1883 did not spread to Belorussia. The Ḥovevei Zion found adherents mainly in the larger and average-size communities. Toward the end of the 19th century Zionism and the Bund movement began to spread among Belorussian Jewry. Zionism found its main adherents among middle-class professionals and white-collar workers or working men from the ranks of traditional Judaism. It was in Belorussia that Labor Zionism originated, its centers being Minsk, Bobruisk, Gomel, and Vitebsk. The second convention of Russian Zionists was held in Minsk in 1902. The Bund won converts mainly among Jewish artisans and workers, but also among radicals of the intelligentsia. During the revolution of 1905 the Bund headed the revolutionary movement in Belorussia. Self-defense organizations to protect the Jews during the wave of pogroms in this period were established by the Bund and Labor Zionists in every town in the region. The first move toward organized Jewish self-defense was made to combat a gang of rioters in Gomel in the fall of 1903. As a result, only a few communities in Belorussia experienced harm.

The revolution precipitated far-reaching changes in the internal life of the Jews of Belorussia which contributed to the breakup of traditional Jewish social and spiritual patterns and loyalties. Zionism resulted in the development of modernized ḥadarim and Hebrew schools. After the outbreak of World War I a stream of refugees and émigrés from Poland and Lithuania passed through Belorussia, and were warmly received by the Jews there. The 1917 February Revolution aroused great expectations among the Jewish public, and Jewish political parties emerged from underground. A number of Jewish journals were issued in Minsk, including the Zionist Der Yid and the Bundist Der Veker. In the Minsk district the Zionists received 65,400 votes in the elections to the All-Russian Constituent Assembly, with 16,270 votes cast for the Bund and the Mensheviks. After the October Revolution and the Peace of Brest-Litovsk, Belorussia became a battlefield between the Red Army and the Polish army. The Jewish communities suffered severely both from general wartime conditions and from attacks by the Polish Army when Jews were killed indiscriminately on the charge of spying and helping the Red forces. The victims of these atrocities included 35 Jews in Pinsk in April 1919. Russian volunteers under the command of General Bulak-Balakhovich terrorized the Jews in the small towns and villages. After the Treaty of Riga in March 1921, Belorussia was divided between the Soviet Union and Poland.

Under Soviet Rule (until 1941)

During the first years of Soviet rule, the Jews of Belorussia found themselves in an exceptional situation. Among the Belorussian people, mainly poor and uneducated peasants, nationalist feelings were just beginning to crystallize. The anti-Jewish tradition, which poisoned relations between the Jews and non-Jews in Poland and the Ukraine, was little felt among the peasant masses of Belorussia. On the other hand, there were no cultural ties between the Belorussians and the Jews. The Jewish poet Samuel Plavnik (1886–1941), writing under the pseudonym Zmitrok *Byadulya, who was one of the creators of Belorussian literature even before the October Revolution was a rare phenomenon. The Jewish population in Belorussia existed in conditions conducive to a flourishing cultural and social life of its own. Relatively, the largest concentration of Jews in the Soviet Union was that of the Belorussian Republic, with a solidly based social structure and culture, Yiddish being its main language. According to the census of 1926, the 407,000 Jews in Belorussia formed 8.2% of the republic's total population. A considerable proportion of the urban population was Jewish. There were 53,686 Jews (40.8%) in Minsk; 37,745 (43.7%) in Gomel; 37,013 (37.5%) in Vitebsk; and 21,558 (42%) in Bobruisk. The Belorussian government, in its policy of reducing the predominance of the Russian language in towns, which was to no small extent a language used by the Jews, encouraged the use of Yiddish among the Jewish population. For some time the slogan "Workers of the World Unite!" was also inscribed in Yiddish, in addition to Belorussian, Russian, and Polish, on the emblem of the Belorussian Republic.

With the consolidation of the Soviet regime in Belorussia, the old economic structure of the Jewish population was overturned. The abolition of private trade and restrictions on small artisans created a large class of citizens "deprived of rights" ("Lishentsi"). Attempts to integrate these elements into the agricultural and industrial sectors failed to solve the problem. A partial solution was however achieved by the continuous Jewish emigration from Belorussia to the interior of Russia, especially to Moscow and Leningrad. According to the census of 1939, there were only 375,000 Jews living in Belorussia, and their proportion in the general population had decreased to 6.7%.

The *Yevsektsiya (Jewish section of the Communist Party) was particularly active in Belorussia in its violent campaign of propaganda and persecution against the Jewish religion and way of life and Jewish national solidarity. Ḥadarim and yeshivot were closed down, and synagogues turned to secular use. Yet, even in the late 1920s religious Jews still fought courageously for the right to publish siddurim, calendars, etc., and to maintain synagogues. Ḥadarim and yeshivot were maintained secretly. A relentless war was also waged on Zionism, which was deeply entrenched in Belorussia. Underground Zionist youth movements (*Kadimah, *Ha-Shomer ha-Ẓa'ir, *He-Ḥaluẓ) continued their activities in Belorussia until the late 1920s. It was only after repressive measures and systematic arrests that the movements were suppressed.

On the other hand, Jewish Communists attempted to create a framework for promoting a Soviet-inspired secular national-Jewish culture in Belorussia. A network of Jewish schools giving instruction in Yiddish was established, which, in 1932–33, was attended by 36,650 children, 55% of the Jewish children being of school age. A number of Yiddish newspapers were also established, the most important of which were the daily Oktyaber and the literary journal Shtern. In 1924 a Jewish department was established at the Institute of Belorussian Culture of Minsk, with philology, literature, and history sections. There was also an institute for Jewish teachers at the Belorussian University. In 1931 proceedings were conducted in Yiddish in ten Soviet law tribunals. A center for Yiddish literature was created in Minsk, of which the most outstanding members were the writers Izzie *Kharik, Moshe *Kulbak, and Selig *Axelrod. During the 1930s there was a sharp decline in this cultural activity with the abolition of the Yevsektsiya. The Jewish cultural and educational institutions gradually degenerated, and toward the end of this decade most were liquidated. The systematic "purge" of Jewish intellectuals in Belorussia also began in the late 1930s (Izzie Kharik and Moshe Kulbak in 1937, and Selig Axelrod in 1941).

Western Belorussia under Polish and Soviet Rule

In the western part of Belorussia, which was under Polish rule from 1920 to 1939, Jewish life developed along entirely different lines. The old economic order was maintained, and the Jews continued to engage in commerce and crafts, most living in great poverty. Jewish culture, however, was able to develop freely. Ḥadarim and yeshivot, including yeshivot whose members had fled from the Soviet sector, such as the yeshivah of Slutsk that transferred to Kletsk, continued to expand. A Hebrew school network (Tarbut, Yavneh) was established. The Zionist movement was well organized and many of the local youth joined Zionist bodies, from Ha-Shomer ha-Ẓa'ir to Betar. Many were also members of the illegal Communist movement which was rigorously repressed in this border region. Yiddish remained the spoken language of the Jewish masses and knowledge of Hebrew was widespread. In the cultural sphere the Jews of Western Belorussia looked to the important centers of Vilna, Brest-Litovsk, Bialystok, and Warsaw.

In September 1939, when western Belorussia was annexed by the Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands of Jews in whom religious and nationalist feelings were strong augmented the numbers of Belorussian Jewry already under Soviet rule. They also included groups of refugees from the Nazi-occupied zone. Even though the Soviet authorities immediately began to liquidate the practice of religion and the Zionist movement, signs of awakening were evident among the "older," "Soviet" Jews. In Bialystok a nucleus of Jewish writers and intellectuals was formed. The Hebrew schools were converted to Yiddish institutions. The higher authorities, however, were quick to liquidate this "reactionary evolution." Arrests of "bourgeois elements" and expulsions to the interior of Russia soon followed, and every effort was made to press forward with the liquidation and assimilation carried out over 20 years in eastern Belorussia. The German invasion of Belorussia in June 1941 interrupted this activity, then at its height. The Jews in Belorussia, most of whom had not succeeded in escaping eastward, were now caught in the trap of the Nazi occupation.

For their subsequent history, see *Russia, Holocaust Period, Contemporary Period; *Belarus.


Dubnow, Hist Russ; N.P. Vakar, Belorussiathe Making of a Nation (1956); idem, Bibliographical Guide to Belorussia (1956); W. Ostrowski, Anti-Semitism in Belorussia and its Origin (1960); H. Shmeruk, Ha-Kibbutz ha-Yehudi ve-ha-Hityashvut ha-Yehudit be-Belorussia ha-Sovietit19181932 (1961), Eng. summ.; Vitebsk Amol (Yid., 1956); Slutzk and Vicinity (Heb., Yid., Eng., 1962); Sefer Bobruisk (Heb., Yid., 1967); Sefer Pinsk (1969).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.