History of Jews in Belarus
The modern country of Belarus was formed in 1991 but it can trace its origins to Slavic peoples who entered the area in the 6th– 8th centuries. While a distinctive Slavic ethnicity emerged early on, the territory of what is today Belarus was historically not independent. It was ruled at first by various local principalities and later on at different times by Lithuania, Poland and Russia.
Jews are the oldest ethno-confessional population group of Belarus and its indigenous people. Although the first written evidence of Jewish community and its schools goes back to the years 1388-1396, it is considered that Jews appeared in Belarus during 10th to 11th centuries. The historian Theodore (Fedor) Narbut (1784-1864) believed this was the case and believed that the Jews came to these lands after being expelled from Kiev due to their “secret relations with the Greeks”. At approximately the same time, in the middle of the 19th century, historian and ethnographer, Iosif Yaroshevich (1793-1860) reported that he had found a number of gravestones dating 10th – 12th centuries in Jewish cemeteries in Belarus.
However it was only in the 12th Century after the medieval Crusades and increasingly difficult conditions in Germany, that a large influx of Ashkenazi Jews arrived in the area. They brought with them the Germanic based Yiddish language, the traditions of Torah study, as well as urban skills from the German cities.
The arrival of the Jewish merchants was a significant factor in the emergence of towns and cities in what had, until then, been a far more rural region. Wishing to develop their towns further, the local nobility invited additional Jews along with other German merchants to strengthen local trade. As the towns grew, the Jewish community thrived. These Jews would not develop a distinctive Belarusian Jewish identity, but rather be part of the emerging Lithuanian (Litvak) culture.
A new influx of Jews from Western Europe occurred between the 14th and 15th centuries during the reign of Witold Kiejstutowicz (Vytautas the Great) (1392-1430). The lands were at that time part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The expulsion of Jews from England and France and violent riots and persecutions in Germany taking place at that time, led to increasing numbers of Jews that migrated to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Poland.
According to the laws issued by Witold, in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Jews were a class of free citizens under the patronage of the Grand Duke and local authorities. They lived in independent communities and had their own governance in their internal community life.
Jewish communities had always paid significant attention to religious education, but required improvements during that time. One of the main points considered during the meeting of European Jewish communities in Spanish city Valladolid (1432) was about Jewish education and enlightenment. It was decided that every community, consisting of a minimum of 15 families, must support a teacher, and parents were to send him their children. The recommendations of the Congress emphasised that one teacher shouldn’t have more than 25 students. In case there were more children, then the teacher was obliged to hire assistants. Other specific recommendations were also given during this Congress.
However, in spite of these measures taken by the Congress to support Jewish education in communities, the level of education decreased in the 15th century, due to persecutions. The measures did help to save the education system, which endured, even after a number of expulsions, murders and pogroms. Community leaders in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Polish Commonwealth used various methods and sources in order to preserve the systems of Jewish education and upbringing.
Several communities of Sephardic Jews that were expelled from Spain in 1493-1494 by the bloody royal family under Ferdinand and Isabella, moved to the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Gradually these Jews assimilated and became part of the Ashkenazi Jewish community as Litvaks. Thus, the second generation of Sephardic children switched to Yiddish.
Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was formed with the crowning of Mindaugas as a Catholic ruler of Lithuania in 1253. The next decades would see rapid territorial expansion of Lithuanian rule into today’s Belarus as well as parts of Ukraine, Poland and Russia. Jews in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania prospered and many Jews moved into the region as seen in increasing records of the presence of Jewish life in many towns and cities.
Over this period the Jewish community in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania sought and gradually received privileges from the Lithuanian rulers. Most significant of these is the Charter of 1388, issued by Witold, which guaranteed the rights of the Jews. It was modeled on charters issued earlier in Poland by Boleslaw and affirmed by Kasmir the Great.
At the same time Poland and Lithuania were moving towards union. Initially an informal union born of marriage between the Polish Queen and Lithuanian Grand Duke, but later formalised by the Union of Lublin in 1569.
Jewish life in the territory of Belarus at this time was generally good, and the community continued to grow. However in 1495 in an unexpected turn of events, Great Lithuanian Duke Alexander Jagellon expelled the Jews. The causes of the unexpected expulsion were complex, and included religious reasons, and the need to fill a depleted treasury by confiscating the Jews’ money. In 1503 they were allowed to return but by then some had established themselves in Poland and Ukraine. The returnees would spend years attempting to regain lost property which led to growing tension with the lesser nobility, who had greatly benefitted from the Jewish expulsion.
The initial economic tensions between the lesser nobility and the Jews was exacerbated by the clergy, who grew in strength and railed against the Jews. The tension was further stirred by the decisions of the Lords and Kings to frequently employ Jews as middlemen to collect tax, and as such they became the target of resentment. In 1566 the nobility managed to further limit the Jews by imposing special tax, and determining a distinctive dress code for Jews.
Jews were a specific class of society with their internal governance by elected representatives: social and spiritual. Jewish community affairs were managed by the kagals – community councils. Such councils would be found in all cities of Jewish settlement, excepting some small towns and villages, where Jewish citizens were under the patronage of the nearest kagal. The number of kagals’ duties were very wide, including issues of teaching the youth and children.
In order to resolve controversial issues, the community held an annual congress of rabbis and community leaders of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Such congresses played a role of the highest judicial institutions. These congresses elected their own special executive body – so-called “Jewish government” Va’ad Arbah Artzot, (Council of Four Lands) – the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities, which solved all Jewish issues in the country with the help of kagals. The Va’ad members were elected among rabbis and kagal deputies from five leading cities – Brest, Grodno, Pinsk, Vilna and Slutsk. Later, the list of cities and towns was extended. The Va’ad provided both internal government for the Jews as well as official representation to the external rulers.
In the 16th century, Poland, Lithuania and Belarus became one of the most important centers of Jewish Talmud education. Kagals and Va’ad paid a great deal of attention to and cared about the education process. Community leaders cared about strengthening the unity of the Jewish nation and developing their national identity.
Bogdan Chmelnitsky was a Cossack leader who led a Cossack revolt against the Polish crown, the Polish magnates and their Jewish representatives. In 1648, Jews in the region were affected by a wave of violence that began further afield in the Ukrainan Polish borderlands, but spread across the region. Exact numbers are difficult to confirm but it is accepted that the Cossack forces massacred tens of thousands of Jews. The events traumatized Ashkenazi Jewry for centuries.
Since the focus of the rebellion was further to the South, most of the Jews of Belarus were not directly impacted by the 1648-1657 Chmelnitsky uprising, with violence only reaching some towns like Gomel and Polotsk. However there was a dramatic influx of refugees fleeing the persecution, which placed a strain on the economic resources of the Jewish community, and brought it into conflict with the general population who were opposed to the influx.
Although in the period after the Chmelnitsky attacks, the Jewish communities continued to grow, and were able to partially recover economically, on the whole there was a decline in the general socio-economic condition of the Jews. In this period, mutual support, as well as internal governance was maintained by the Va‘ad .
Late 18th Century and the end of Poland
In the last quarter of the 18th century, Polish lands were annexed by her neighbours, dramatically changing the political landscape of present-day Belarus. The second partition of Poland in 1793 saw all of what is today Belarus, become part of Imperial Russia. The newly acquired Jewish subjects along the Western border of Russia were confined by Catherine the Great into a distinct area that became known as the Pale of Settlement. In addition to being obliged to live within the region, Jews were also prevented from living in many towns within the Pale, and prohibited from doing agricultural work. As a result, their economic opportunities were severely limited and coupled with a growth in population, this led to economic deterioration.
Religious Innovations: Hasidim, Misnagdim and the world of Yeshivas
At the same time as the economic conditions were declining, Jewish learning began to thrive. In the late 16th Century Yeshivas had been established in Brest and Grodno, and later in the 17th century in Minsk. These Yeshivas were still less important than those in Poland, but Lithuania (including Belarus) would continue to grow in importance as a place of Jewish study.
The 18th century saw the emergence of Hasidism. This new movement began in Ukraine in the latter part of the century, but spread across the region quickly. With its emphasis on the ability of all Jews to grow closer to God in all actions, zeal in prayer and emotion were seen to be as important as Torah study.
Due to the efforts of Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, the Lubavitch Hasidism gained many followers in Belarus. Later the Karlin-Stolin, Indura-Koidanov and Slonim Hasidic groups grew in Southern Belarus.
However, the area of Lithuania, including Belarus, was the stronghold of the opponents to Hasidism. Known as Mitnagdim (literally opponents) they saw danger in the charismatic leadership, mysticism, miracles and emphasis of prayer over study. The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the establishment of major Mitnaged centres in Volozhin and Mir. These Yeshivas emphasized a particular style of intense intellectual study, which became known as the Lithuanian style.
Haskalah / Enlightenment
In the mid 18th Century, some central European Jews sought to break out of the insular Jewish community, by embracing the broader culture and learning. This Haskalah/Enlightenment movement was expressed through the learning of the local vernacular, and the embrace of studying subjects broader than just the traditional Yeshivah subjects.
The Haskalah brought a change in Jewish identity leading on the one extreme to assimilation, but also to a myriad of different modern religious and cultural Jewish expressions, most notably the revival of the Hebrew language. Both the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim rejected the Haskalah and fought against it.
Although the early focus of the Haskalah was in regions to the south of modern Belarus, the first maskilim, (proponents of Jewish enlightenment), appeared in the 1840s and also spread through the region.
1881: The turning point towards the birth of modern Jewish politics
In 1881, following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in St. Petersburg, a wave of pogroms swept the Russian Empire.
1881 – 1884
By the end of the 19th century, many Belarusian Jews were part of the general flight of Jews from Eastern Europe to the New World due to conflicts and pogroms engulfing the Russian Empire and the antisemitism of the Russian czars.
Millions of Jews, including tens of thousands of Jews from Belarus, emigrated to the United States of America and South Africa. A small number also emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine.
The term “pogrom” became commonly used in English after a large-scale wave of anti-Jewish riots swept through south-western Imperial (present-day Ukraine and Poland) from 1881 to 1884; when more than 200 anti-Jewish events occurred, notably pogroms in Kiev, Warsaw and Odessa. In 1881 Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, and there were some who blamed “foreign influence agents”, implying the Jews. Although, one of the conspirators was of Jewish origin, the importance of her role in the assassination was greatly exaggerated during the pogroms that followed.
1903 – 1906
A much bloodier wave of pogroms ensued during the years 1903 – 1906. These devastatingly violent anti-Jewish riots began in Kishinev (Moldova) in 1903 with the bloodiest in Odessa in 1905. Jews were simply slaughtered in their homes and in the streets with impunity. The violence towards Jews spread across the Russian Empire and found their way to Belarus by 1906.
Russian secret police and military personnel organised the massacres.
Further bloody pogroms ensued between 1919 -21 in Ukraine and Belarus.
The pogroms and violence led Jews across the region to reconsider the possibility that they would never become accepted as long as the status quo prevailed. And this coupled with the new ideas which the Haskalah had exposed, led to the birth of what could be described as ‘modern Jewish politics’, new organizations willing to radically change the conditions under which Jews lived. These included:
- Zionists – a movement whose goal was the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and the establishment of an independent state there. There were a variety of different and political organisations which shared this general aim, but disagreed over the nature of the society to be created.
- Jewish Socialists – the development of socialism amongst Jews, who saw in it the promise of equality and other rights of which they were deprived. Some became members of the broader socialist movement, in their countries, while most sought distinct Jewish expression, in order to address particular Jewish interests while functioning in a Jewish cultural and Yiddish speaking context. The most significant group was the Bund.
- Cultural nationalists / autonomists – These people felt strongly bound to their countries of residence, but at the same time sought particular Jewish cultural rights and educational autonomy. Positions varied between those who simply sought distinctive Jewish rights with their countries of residence, to those who actually sought cultural autonomy. Bundists were often also part of this group, but other groups without a socialist view were also active.
As a result of this, by the end of the century, several Zionist groups based on differing political or religious understandings, as well as socialist groups especially the Jewish socialist Bund, had become very active in the region alongside different religious organizations and a small number of assimilationists. Jewish towns typically had a variety of schools and institutions reflecting the different Jewish outlooks.
The Jewish population within the area of Belarus reached around 12% of the population and numbered around 500,000 people by the mid 1800s. By the end of the century the numbers had almost doubled and were about 14.2% of the population. This growth in numbers occurred despite the fact that significant Jewish emigration to the West also grew during this period. This came in response to the changes after 1881. Some Jews sought to escape the economic hardships and antisemitic outbursts, by leaving the region for greener pastures; in Western Europe, over the ocean or in the Land of Israel. Others, especially the more traditionally oriented, were fearful of the price to be paid in identity by leaving the familiar community.
1917: Year of Revolution
The October Revolution with its promise of better rights, was initially greeted favourably by the Jews of the region (the Belarus People’s Republic existed from 1918-1919. After 1919 some of the country became part of the Soviet Union and other parts fell under Poland), with the Bund playing an active role in the revolution. Although initially, Jews rose to positions of importance and Yiddish was recognized as one of the official languages, the Soviets shut down Jewish religious life. As a result many Jews especially the more religious, moved to Lithuania or Poland, which were not under Soviet control. Later, as Stalin developed an antisemitic policy, conditions for Jews deteriorated further. Despite this, Jewish life succeeded in maintaining much of its cultural richness throughout this period, and Minsk was recognised as the most Jewish city in the USSR.
Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of Belarus, brought with it the Einsatzgruppen who collaborated with local antisemites and went from town to town murdering the Jews. The large forests in the region offered some shelter, and some Jews managed to hide in the forests or use them as a base for resistance groups. These, however, were exceptional cases, and some 66% of Belarusian Jews, over 800,000 in number, were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators.
At the end of the war, the area again came under Soviet control. With most of the Shtetls destroyed and their inhabitants murdered, what remained of Jewish life was now generally confined to larger urban areas. Post-war Jewish life suffered under the Soviet policy although there was some Soviet leniency towards Jews. Despite the Shoah and the Soviets, in the post-war period pockets of Jewish life continued in the region. While the general situation for Jews in the USSR (including of course Belarus) was grim, Jews and Jewish life were not totally obliterated by the Holocaust. Some Jews came back or re-emerged after the war. This happened primarily in urban areas, as very few Jews returned to the shtetls.
Not only did Jews return but they also sought to recreate Jewish life. This was especially noticeable in those areas that had been under Polish control in the interwar years and had not undergone a process of Sovietization. However, this return occurred across Belarus in general where vestiges of the rich pre-war (and to a lesser extent pre-Soviet) Jewish life remained.
Additionally, Soviet policy was inconsistent. Official synagogue activity was to a large extent curtailed, although there were legal ways in which to register a synagogue and attempts were made to gain official recognition, although they were generally unsuccessful. More significantly many Shtiebels (small prayer groups in private homes or other non-synagogue buildings), came into being and functioned.
In the early years, the Soviet policy was not consistent and the administrators were not always competent. As a result, its attempts at shutting down the synagogues, especially the “unofficial” ones, were not always successful. This led to regional variations. As time went on the Soviets were more rigorous in their oppression of Jewish life.
Post-1967 and the Soviet Jewry Movement
Following the Six-Day War (which started on the 5th June 1967), the USSR broke off relations with Israel and the USSR’s internal attitude towards Soviet Jews became increasingly antisemitic. Amongst Jews, on the other hand, the Six-Day War inspired enthusiasm for Zionism amongst Soviet Jews, and underground Zionist activity proliferated. Jews active in Zionist or other Jewish circles were prosecuted by the Soviet authorities as a result. After the change in Soviet emigration policy in the 1970s, many Belarusian Jews immigrated to Israel. Others moved to the USA and the community shrank in size. With the retightening of the USSR emigration policy, numbers leaving reduced to a trickle.
The collapse of the USSR and Belarusian independence saw major emigration to Israel in the 1990s and subsequently. At the same time, Jewish NGOs from outside of Belarus came to support the revival of Jewish life, by attempting to help the Jewish activists to establish Jewish communities.
With the fall of Communism, Belarus declared itself sovereign on 27 July 1990 by issuing the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. With the support of the Communist Party, the country’s name was changed to the Republic of Belarus on 25 August 1991. A national constitution was adopted in March 1994 in which the functions of the prime minister were given to the President of Belarus. Since 1994, Alexander Lukashenko has been the President of the country.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a revival of Jewish life with the appearance of many religious, cultural, welfare and educational organisations, as well as community centres.
Since 1990, many Jews have emigrated to Israel or relocated to other parts of the world. As much as there was a revival at the beginning of 1990 and the 2000s much of the Jewish community’s efforts came through welfare support via the Claims Conference and reparation money from Germany and Austria. In recent years, this support has been reducing as the number of survivors has dwindled. As a result, there has been a transition from welfare activity to religious and cultural activity with the appearance of new religious leaders around the country which has led to an increase in a revival of Synagogue life. At the same time, Jewish cultural and community initiatives have taken root giving rise to a revival.
Today in Belarus, there are three denominations to be found operating under the Chabad, Orthodox and Reform, but there are many secular Jews who remain disconnected from any form of Jewish provision.
There are synagogues now operating with Rabbis across Belarus under the Orthodox and Chabad, with the Reform having a centre in Minsk and small community groups around the country.
Several youth programmes are operating across the country under Hillel and Lech Lecha, the Israeli Cultural Centre, Moishe House and religious and secular communities offering a variety of programmes including Hebrew.
There are a number of non-religious communities operating around the country with cultural programs and several Jewish Community Centres operating under the umbrella of the American Joint Distribution committee offering cultural and educational programmes.
There is also new work in development in Belarus to build community programmes around Jewish heritage as a way to draw people with Jewish roots back to their identity and to the community. There are small local provincial museums dedicated to the Jewish story dotted around the country, which have been created by Jews and non-Jews and the Belarus heritage trail will enable the traveller to find these sites to ensure they can be easily accessed.
The aim of the Belarus Jewish Heritage Trail is to provide a tool for travellers to discover the rich history of Belarus. To ensure that the rich Jewish history is preserved and to give voice to the Jewish people living in Belarus today. The trail will enable visitors to find Jewish communities, museums, synagogues (active and abandoned), yeshivas, cemeteries, museums, memorials and sites of interest. Most importantly it will connect those in the Diaspora to the homes they left behind and give voice to the Jews of Belarus so that they can tell their story and put Jewish Belarus on the world map.