City in southeastern Belarus on the right bank of the Sozh River. The origins of Jewish settlement in Homel’ (Rus., Gomel’; sometimes Homiyah in Jewish sources) are obscure but date after the annexation of the town to Lithuania in 1537. Contemporary chroniclers first described the town in relation to the Khmel’nyts’kyi uprising in 1648, when many wealthy Jews from Ukraine fled to Homel’ for safety. The head of the fortified town allowed peasant rioters to massacre a large number of Jews. Poles reasserted their authority in Homel’ in 1665, and in 1765 the community reported 685 Jewish families.
Homel’ came under tsarist rule with the first partition of Poland and was transformed into a district town in Mogilev (mod. Mahilyow) province in 1852. It developed into a major commercial center at a railroad junction; its large Jewish population increased from 2,373 in 1847 (with an additional 1,552 in Belitsa, a suburb added in 1854) to 20,385 in 1897 (56.4% of the total population). Homel’ had several Jewish schools (even a private girls’ school), an almshouse, prayer houses, and more than 20 synagogues, including a famous one built by Count Sergei Rumyantsev in the mid-nineteenth century. Ḥabad Hasidim established a strong presence there, and one of its leaders, Yitsḥak (Aizik) ha-Levi Epstein, served as a rabbi in Homel’ in the mid-nineteenth century.
Wealthy Jews in Homel’ functioned as government contractors and engaged in the lumber trade, commerce, and small crafts. By the late nineteenth century, Jews also worked in factories and mills that specialized in straw production, tobacco, and timber. Yosef Ḥayim Brenner, once a resident of the town, described the lives of the poor in Me-‘Emek ‘akhor (From the Murky Depths; 1900). Homel’ also became an important center for the Bund, which competed with Zionists who established several Hebrew schools in the community. A group of pioneers eventually moved to Palestine with the Second and Third Aliyahs and participated in the settlement of Ḥaderah.
When anti-Jewish riots broke out in 1903, Bundists and Zionists organized self-defense groups; subsequently, 36 Jewish defenders were prosecuted, along with the perpetrators of the pogroms, for avenging the deaths of victims in Kishinev. Only 13 of the Jews were acquitted, while the others received varying sentences. During World War I, thousands of refugees fled to Homel’, and several Polish and Lithuanian yeshivas relocated there.
After the Bolshevik revolution, the Evsektsiia closed down Jewish schools and expropriated synagogues, turning them into clubs, factories, dining halls, dormitories, and even an administrative center for the local city council. Rabbi Mordekhai Barishanskii, who defended the town’s heder against antireligious activists, was arrested for counterrevolutionary activities. At the same time, the state promoted its policy of korenizatsiia (indigenization) and allowed the creation of Yiddish schools, daycare centers, clubs, libraries, and courts.
When the Nazis occupied Homel’ in August 1941, they created four Jewish ghettos and killed more than 4,000 Jews (mainly the elderly, women, and children) in November of that year. The Soviet Army liberated the city in November 1943. In 1973, the state built a memorial at a mass gravesite. The Jewish population declined significantly from 37,745 in 1926 to 20,000 in 1970. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, approximately 8,000 Jews lived in Homel’. In 1992, the Jewish community purchased the synagogue on Krasnoarmeiskaia Street. The town continues to support a Jewish school and the old Jewish cemetery.
Mordechai Altshuler, “The Rabbi of Homel’s Trial in 1922,” Michael 6 (1980): 9–61; Marat Botvinnik, Pamiatniki genotsida evreev Belarusi, pp. 198–237 (Minsk, 2000); Naum Bukhbinder, Evreiskoe rabochee dvizhenie v Gomele (Homel’, 1925); Yehudah Leib Fishman (Maimon), ed., ‘Arim ve-imahot be-Yisra’el: Matsevat kodesh li-kehilot Yisra’el she-neḥrevu bi-yede ‘aritsim u-teme’im be-milḥemet ha-‘olam ha-aḥaronah, vol. 2, pp. 187–269 (Jerusalem, 1948); B. A. Krever, Gomel’skii protsess: Podrobnyi otchet (Saint Petersburg, 1907).
RG 87, Simon Dubnow, Papers, 1632-1938.