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Established in 1991, Belarus (Yid., Raysn, Vaysrusland) is the successor state of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, with the same borders. The Jews of Belarus belong historically to the branch of Jewry known as Litvaks, a group distinguished by language (the northeast dialect of Yiddish) and by certain cultural attributes. The first mention of Jews in Belarus came in the fourteenth century, when Grand Prince Vytautas of Lithuania granted charters to Jews in Brest (1388) and Grodno (1389). In the sixteenth century Belarus became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Between 1624 and 1764 the majority of Jewish communities in Belarus belonged to the Va‘ad (Jewish Council) of Lithuania. In the mid seventeenth century, 80,000–90,000 Jews lived in the territory that is now Belarus. As a result of the partitions of Poland, Belarus became part of the Russian Empire.

Jewish student members of the Sejmist Party who gave lectures at courses for workers, Polotsk (now in Belarus), 1906. Photograph by Berenshteyn. (YIVO)

The region was an important center of Jewish learning. In the late sixteenth century the first yeshivas were established in Brest and Grodno, and in the late seventeenth century in Minsk. At the end of the following century, due to the efforts of Menaḥem Mendel of Vitebsk (Bel., Vitsyebsk) and Shneur Zalman of Liady, Hasidism gained adherents. The Lubavitch Hasidic movement, founded in eastern Belarus, spread rapidly and widely. Followers of the Karlin-Stolin and Indura-Koidanov Hasidic rebbes lived in southern Belarus.

Throughout these developments, the position of the Misnagdim, opponents to Hasidism, remained strong and in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Belarus was the scene of a struggle between the two groups. The leaders of the Misnagdim were Ḥayim ben Yitsḥak of Volozhin and Pinḥas ben Yehudah of Polotsk. The famous “Lithuanian” yeshivas of Belarus, including those of Volozhin and Mir, had their origins in the nineteenth century. The first maskilim, proponents of Jewish enlightenment, appeared in the 1840s.

Approximately 200,000 Jews (5% of the total population) lived in Belarus by the early nineteenth century. By mid-century the number had increased to 500,000 (12% of the population), and by 1897 Jews numbered 910,900 (14.2%). A significant proportion worked in the lumber, grain, and flax trades. In the second half of the nineteenth century the economic situation of large segments of the Jewish population worsened. This led to considerable emigration, beginning in the 1870s. At the end of the nineteenth century, Belarus was the center of the Jewish socialist movement (the Bund began to operate there in 1897) as well as a center of Zionism. In 1897, Yehudah Pen’s private art academy opened in Vitebsk.

Table: Jewish Population of Belarus

An early instance of Jewish self-defense in the Russian Empire was organized during the 1903 pogrom in Gomel (Homel’); it developed further during the revolution of 1905. As a result of cooperation between socialist and Zionist organizations, large-scale pogroms of the Ukrainian type were avoided in Belarus, although some did take place in Rechitsa, Orsha, Polotsk, Minsk, and Gomel. During World War I the western part of Belarus was in a combat zone, and the Russian military administration expelled Jews from the area.

After the fall of tsarism in February 1917, the Bund, Fareynikte, Po‘ale Tsiyon, Zionist organizations, and other political groups became active. Orthodox groups were also involved in public life.

While most Jews reacted cautiously to the Bolshevik coup, sympathy to the Bolsheviks grew in the wake of pogroms in Ukraine and pogroms carried out by Polish troops and irregular bands; Jews feared that if the Bolshevik regime fell, it would be replaced by a reactionary one. In 1918 the first branches of EVKOM and the Evsektsiia were established in Belarus. Support for the Bolsheviks came from the Bund’s Central Committee, located in Minsk and led by Ester (Khaye Malke Lifshits) and Rakhmiel (Aron Vainshtein).

According to the Treaty of Riga (March 1921), western Belarus became part of Poland. The 1926 census of Soviet Belorussia (the BSSR) recorded 407,000 Jews (8.2% of the total population); that of 1939, 375,000 (6.7%). During the New Economic Policy (NEP), many Jews continued to work in trade or artisanry, but a stratum of Jewish factory workers and white-collar workers developed in cities. The number of Jewish farmers in the BSSR was limited by the lack of suitable land for farming. In 1928 and 1929 the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Belorussia was Ian Gamarnik (1894–1937), the brother-in-law of Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik. In 1924, Yiddish became one of the BSSR’s official languages, together with Polish, Russian, and Belorussian. In the early 1930s there were 24 Jewish soviets, and 10 localities had courts in which proceedings were conducted in Yiddish. In the 1920s, because they tended to have occupations unacceptable to the regime, the Jews of the BSSR suffered from Soviet social and taxation policies. Even in late 1929 approximately 47,500 Jews—21.2 percent of all Jews of voting age (18 and above)—were lishentsy (disenfranchised persons). In the towns Jews comprised 88.4 percent of lishentsy. A response of many Jews to the modernization processes in the USSR and to Soviet social policy was emigration to the main Soviet industrial and cultural centers, which reached a peak, especially among young people, in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Two actors in a scene from a production by the Belorussian State Jewish Theater, Minsk, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

In this period, the authorities supported Soviet Yiddish culture. In 1927, 24,100 Jewish pupils were enrolled in 184 Yiddish-language schools; in 1933, some 36,500 were enrolled in 339 schools. In 1926 the Belorussian State Jewish Theater directed by Moyshe Rafal’skii (1889–1937) opened in Minsk, and from 1925 to 1941 there was a daily Yiddish newspaper, Oktyaber, and a Yiddish literary-publicistic journal, Shtern. Yiddish poets and prose writers like Zelik Akselrod (1904–1941), Moyshe Kulbak (1896–1937), and Izi Kharik (1898–1937) were prominent in the BSSR. In 1924, the Institute of Belorussian Culture (later called the BSSR Academy of Sciences) opened a Jewish division with departments of philology, literature, and history; it continued to exist, as part of the Institute of National Minorities, until 1936. 

The Evsektsiia was notable for its antireligious activity. In 1922 Rabbi Refa’el Mordekhai Barishanskii (1866–1950) was put on trial in Gomel for defending heders and Judaism. Despite ideological pressure, a significant part of Belorussian Jewry continued to follow traditional Judaism. In Polotsk from 1926 to 1929 and in Vitebsk from 1927 to 1930, Lubavitch operated underground yeshivas and many children in the towns attended heder throughout the 1920s. In 1929 the campaign against religion was stepped up with a mass closing of synagogues. In January 1930, of 704 synagogues that had functioned in 1917, 547 were still open. By December 1936, only 71 were open and the number continued to decline. The observance of Jewish religious tradition was transferred from the public realm to that of the family.

Antisemitism increased in the BSSR in the late 1920s. Local authorities, concerned about the rise in ethnic conflict, undertook strict measures against the antisemitism, staging a number of highly publicized show trials. By the second half of the 1930s antisemitism had reverted to covert forms.

In small towns, acculturation took place more slowly than in the cities. In 1939 in Minsk province, 56.7 percent of Jews indicated Yiddish as their native language; excluding Minsk, the proportion was 67.4 percent. In the late 1930s, however, official support for the cultural activity of ethnic minorities waned. In July 1938, Yiddish (like Polish) lost its status as an official language. At the same time, the Yiddish educational system was closed. Even earlier, Yiddish lost its popularity among Jewish parents. From the mid-1930s the enrollment in Yiddish schools began to decline rapidly: in 1937 there were 26,163 pupils in 182 schools. At that point, the proportion of Jewish pupils enrolled in Yiddish schools did not exceed 25–30 percent of the total.

The Jewish soviets were also liquidated in 1938–1939. The Terror of the late 1930s affected the Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia: Moyshe Kulbak and Izi Kharik were arrested and died in 1937, Zelik Akselrod in 1941. In the BSSR in 1939 there were 375,092 Jews (amounting to 6.7% of the total population).

Great Synagogue, Brest (then Brześć nad Bugiem, Pol.), ca. 1925. (YIVO)

In 1931 Polish western Belarus had a Jewish population of 283,300 (8.8% of the total). Jews lived compactly in cities and small towns, with modernization and acculturation proceeding more slowly than in the BSSR. Many Jews continued to work in trade and artisanry and Jewish cultural and religious life developed, albeit without state support. Throughout this time, the Bund, the various Zionist groups, and Agudas Yisroel remained active although quite a few Jews were drawn to the Communist Party. Jews in this region enjoyed relative autonomy in education, with school systems such as Tarbut, TSYSHO, and Yavneh.

With the outbreak of World War II and Red Army’s occupation of western Belarus, the Soviets banned all independent political activity and began to persecute noncommunist political and social activists, well-off segments of the population, and representatives of national intelligentsias. According to surviving data, from 1939 through February 1941, 10,333 Jews from Polish territory annexed to the BSSR in 1939 were sent to the Gulag. In early 1940, 65,796 Jewish refugees from Poland were in the BSSR, 12,798 (19.5%) of them within the 1939 borders. When the Germans invaded in the late summer of 1941, approximately 690,000 Jews were living in eastern and western Belarus.

It is estimated that between 137,000 and 142,000 Jews succeeded in being evacuated, mainly from large cities in the eastern part of the republic. The first mass executions of Jews took place in early July 1941. By February 1942, the greater part of the Jewish population of Belarus, including the ghettos of Bobruisk, Vitebsk, and Gomel, had been annihilated. In 1942 and 1943, Jewish communities in the remaining regions, including the large ghettos of Brest, Grodno, and Pinsk, were also annihilated. In the Minsk ghetto, the largest in pre-1939 Soviet territory, the last Jews were shot on 23 October 1943. Jews deported from Germany and European countries were also murdered in Belarus. The only Jews to survive were those who had been mobilized into the army, were fighting in partisan units, or were living with partisans in family groups. Others succeeded in obtaining non-Jewish documents or found shelter with non-Jews.

Synagogue, Skidl, Poland (now Skidel, Belarus), 1934. (Amateur film shot by American Jewish tourists Gerold and Lillian Frank.) (YIVO)

Immediately after the war, a Soviet–Polish agreement enabled some Jews who had been Polish citizens to return to Poland. The sole remaining Jewish cultural institution, the Belorussian State Jewish Theater, was shut down during the antisemitic campaign of 1949. In 1949 and 1950 the Yiddish writers Hersh Kamenetski (1895–1957) and Ayzik Platner (1895–1961) were arrested. The only remaining synagogues were in Minsk, Kalinkovichi, and, for a short time, Bobruisk, although unregistered minyanim (prayer groups) operated in private homes. Perhaps the main form of Jewish public activity involved the erection of monuments at sites of mass executions during the Holocaust, for which it was generally necessary to overcome the opposition of the authorities.

In the postwar period the number of Jews declined constantly. In 1959 there were 150,084 (1.9% of the population), in 1970, 148,011 (1.6%). Between 1968 and 1988, 15,000 Jews emigrated (the number includes non-Jewish family members). In Minsk in the late 1970s and early 1980s, unofficial groups studied Hebrew and organized a Jewish cultural and historical seminar. In 1989 there were 135,430 Jews (1.1% of the population), a number that dwindled to 27,810 (0.3% of Belarus) in 1999. Between 1989 and 2002 more than 71,300 Jews and non-Jewish family members immigrated to Israel from Belarus. Between 1989 and 1998 more than 30,000 left for the United States. At the same time the proportion of Jews in Minsk increased, accounting for about one-third of the Jews in Belarus by 1970. The processes of acculturation and assimilation accelerated after the war. In 1970, 21.9 percent of Jews declared Yiddish their native language; in 1979, 11.2 percent, and in 1999, only 5.4 percent. In 1993, 70.8 percent of children born to Jewish mothers had non-Jewish fathers.

In the 1970s and early 1980s Belarus was a center of Soviet antisemitism in the form of anti-Israel and anti-Judaic propaganda. Studies in the 1990s indicated considerable antipathy toward Jews and incidents of cemetery vandalism were reported.

A revival of Jewish public life took place during perestroika. In 1988 and 1989 Jewish cultural associations were established in Minsk, Bobruisk, Vitebsk, Rechitsa, and elsewhere. In March 1991, the Union of Belorussian Jewish Public Organizations and Communities was established as the umbrella group for the majority of Jewish organizations. Revived religious communities formed the Jewish Religious Union of the Belarus Republic (1993). The Religious Union of Progressive [Reform] Judaism was established in 1993 and a Lubavitch organization, the Union of Judaic Religious Communities, in 2000. In 2002 a Jewish museum was founded in Minsk. From 1999 to 2004 it was possible to specialize in Jewish studies at the International Humanities Institute of the University of Belarus. Jewish periodicals began appearing in Belarus in 1989, notably Aviv and Berega in Minsk and the annual Mishpokha in Vitebsk.

Suggested Reading

Mordechai Altshuler, Soviet Jewry since the Second World War: Population and Social Structure (New York, 1987), pp. 199–200; Mordechai Altshuler, Soviet Jewry on the Eve of the Holocaust: A Social and Demographic Profile (Jerusalem, 1998); Vadim Dubson, “On the Problem of the Evacuation of Soviet Jews in 1941 (New Archival Sources),” Jews in Eastern Europe 3 [40] (1999): 37–56; Piotr Eberhardt, Ethnic Groups and Population Changes in Twentieth-Century Central-Eastern Europe: History, Data, and Analysis, trans. Jan Owsinski (Armonk, N.Y., 2003); Mark S. Kupovetskii, “Evrei v Belorussii: Kratkii istoricheskii ocherk,” in Dokumenty po istorii i kul’ture evreev v arkhivakh Belarusi: Putevoditel’, pp. 27–38 (Moscow, 2003); Evgenii Rozenblat and Irina Elenskaia, “Dinamika chislennosti i rasseleniia belorusskikh evreev v XX veke,” Diaspory 4 (2002): 27–52; Vladimir Rubinchik, “Kriticheskie zametki o ‘evreiskoi zhizni’ v postsovetskoi Belorussii,” Diaspory 4 (2002): 53–86; Leonid Smilovitskii, Evrei Belarusi (Minsk, 1999); Mark Tolts, “Jewish Demography of the Former Soviet Union,” in Papers in Jewish Demography 1997 (2001): 109–139; Mark Tolts, “Rossiiskaia emigratsiia v Izrail’,” Naselenie i obshchestvo 71 (May 2003): 1; Vital Zajka, “The Self-Perception of Lithuanian-Belarussian Jewry in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” Polin 14 (2001): 19–30.



Translated from Russian by Yisrael Cohen