Members of the Bund on a picnic, Minsk, 1910. (YIVO)

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Capital of the Republic of Belarus since 1991. From the beginning of the fourteenth century, Minsk was part of Lithuania; from the mid-sixteenth century it belonged to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1793, the city was annexed to the Russian Empire and became the capital of Minsk province. From 1920 to 1991, Minsk served as the capital of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR).

In 1489, a Jew named Mikhl Danilevich of Troki leased the rights to the custom duties of Minsk, and Jews began to settle in the city during the sixteenth century. In 1579, King Stefan Batory granted Minsk’s Jews a privilege or charter allowing them to engage in commerce in the city; in 1606, at the request of the Christian population, King Sigismund III invalidated this charter but by 1629 reinstated the Jews’ commercial rights, allowing them to open shops. In 1633, King Władysław IV granted the Jewish community permission to buy land for a new cemetery and acquire real estate on the market square. In 1623, the leaders of the Jewish community attended the first meeting of the Lithuanian Va‘ad (Council) as representatives of an independent community; this despite the fact that until 1631 the Minsk community was subordinated to the Brest community. During the Russian–Polish war (1654–1667), Minsk was occupied by Russian troops and the majority of Jews left in 1655; but as soon as Minsk was returned to the commonwealth (in 1658), the Jewish community was reestablished.

A sign at the entrance to the railroad station in Minsk, ca. 1930s, with the name of the city printed in four languages: (left to right) Belorussian, Russian, Polish, and Yiddish. (YIVO)

Since their right to settle within the borders of Minsk was restricted to specific areas (mostly controlled by the king), many Jews lived beyond the city’s limits on land rented from Uniates. Jews often suffered the consequences of the antagonism between Uniates and the Russian Orthodox merchants of Minsk; in 1671, for example, Christian Orthodox townspeople organized a pogrom against Uniates and Jews. In 1679, King Jan III Sobieski restored the right of Jews to engage in trade and allowed Jews to own plots of land and homes in the city.

From the late seventeenth to the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Jewish community grew steadily, reaching 1,322 in 1766. Jews were prominent in the fields of commerce, handicrafts, tax collection, and leaseholding. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Minsk became a center for Jewish religious scholarship; its first yeshiva was founded in 1685. The distinguished Talmudist, kabbalist, and author of historical chronicles Yeḥi’el Heilprin (ca. 1660–ca. 1746) taught there. In 1733, the Talmudist Aryeh Leib ben Asher Gintsburg (1695–1785), author of the treatise Sha’agat Aryeh published in 1805), established a second yeshiva; both attracted students from all over Poland and Lithuania. During the nineteenth century, Minsk was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the Russian Empire: in 1847 the city counted some 13,000 Jews. By 1897, Jewish settlement had increased more than threefold, becoming the fourth largest community in the Pale of Settlement.

In the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century, Jews were in command of most of the wood trade and the developing industrial economy in Minsk province; in 1876, of the 280 members of merchant guilds in the province, 90 percent were Jews; by 1886 there were 543 Jews out of 641, representing 88 percent of the members. In 1904 Jewish craftsmen (primarily shoemakers, tailors, hatters, and turners) numbered 2,360 foremen and 4,076 apprentices.

State Jewish Theater of Belorussia, formerly the Minsk Choral Synagogue, Minsk, 1930s. (YIVO)

Minsk intellectual thought developed in the litvish (Lithuanian) tradition, favoring rationalist interpretations of Jewish lore over mystical ones endorsed by Hasidic rebbes. At the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries, Minsk was a cultural and spiritual center of Misnagdic religious scholarship, bringing together rabbinically oriented traditionalists and opponents of Hasidism. By the end of the nineteenth century, the city contained 99 synagogues and smaller prayer houses; of these, only 3 were Hasidic. One of the largest yeshivas in Minsk was known as the Blumkes Kloyz; Yeruḥam Yehudah Leib Perelman (1835–1896), known as the Minsker Godl (great scholar of Minsk), served as a rabbi there. In 1904, the Minsk Choral Synagogue was established.

There were many Jewish institutions, societies, and philanthropic organizations in Minsk. By the beginning of the twentieth century these included numerous heders, a Talmud Torah (school for poor and orphaned boys), a modern private school, an elementary school, two dental schools, trade schools for boys and girls, a library, a model agricultural farm, a hospital, a branch of the Jewish Colonization Society (ICA), a local section of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE) and one of the Society for the Protection of Jewish Health (Obshchestvo Zdravookhraneniia Evreev or OZE [later OSE]; in interwar Poland renamed Towarzystwo Ochrony Zdrowia Ludności Żydowskiej, TOZ).

Even with the well-developed network of Jewish educational institutions, by the beginning of the twentieth century 63 percent of school-aged children did not attend modern schools. The first Jewish state school in the city was established in 1845 in the same building that for years had housed the Talmud Torah. At the initiative of some of the most prominent Jews of Minsk and the support of civil authorities, the Ministry of Education introduced the teaching of Russian and arithmetic in the school’s curriculum. When the school opened in May 1845, the Vilna-based maskil  Lev Levanda gave a speech in German welcoming the change. Minsk subsequently became one of the most prominent centers for Haskalah in the northwestern provinces of the empire.

The city also became a hub for modern Jewish political movements. Partly because of the high proportion of Jewish workers, during the 1880s and 1890s it developed into one of the main centers of the Jewish labor movement in the Russian Empire, becoming a stronghold for the activities of both the Bund and Po‘ale Tsiyon. At the initiative of the Bund, which in 1898 had 1,000 members in Minsk, the first congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDWP) convened there that year. Vladimir Medem (1879–1923) was a leader of the Bund in Minsk and wrote for its underground organ Der minsker arbeter. Large numbers supported the Zionist movement: in 1882 the group Kibuts Nidḥe Yisra’el, whose goal was to purchase land in Palestine, was organized, as were groups of Ḥoveve Tsiyon. In 1902, with the consent of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, 526 participants attended the Second Conference of Russian Zionists in Minsk. Jews played an important role in demonstrations against the tsar and in strikes that took place during the 1905 Revolution. Semen Rozenbaum (1860–1934), a Zionist, was elected to represent Minsk at the First Russian Duma in 1906.

Table: Jewish Population of Minsk

During World War I, thousands of Jewish refugees were concentrated in Minsk: the Jewish population grew from 45,000 in 1914 to 67,000 in 1917. After the February Revolution, several Jewish periodicals were published: in Yiddish, the Zionist Dos yidishe vort and Der yud, and the Bundist Der veker; in Russian, the Zionist He-Ḥaver. After the Bolsheviks took over in January 1918, Aron Vainshtein (1877–1938), a Bundist, was elected president of the Municipal Duma. In mid-February 1918, German troops occupied the city; still, in Jewish communal elections, held even with the German occupation, Jews who were associated with Po‘ale Tsiyon obtained the majority of the votes, winning 33 seats. The Soviets took power in December 1918, and all Jewish publications, with the exception of Der veker, were closed down. The Jewish youth movement He-Ḥaluts was founded in Minsk in 1918 and organized self-defense units. In August 1919, the Soviets were once again defeated, this time by the Polish army that occupied Minsk until 11 July 1920.

On 1 August 1920, the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was founded, with Minsk as its capital. The constitution (uniquely in the USSR) recognized Yiddish as an official state language. Moreover, Jews were granted political freedoms and full civil rights. Despite these advances, the Minsk kehilah (Jewish community) was disbanded, and in the early 1920s all Jewish parties were banned, except Po‘ale Tsiyon (which was outlawed in 1928). In line with official ideology, the Evsektsiia (Jewish section of the Communist Party) systematically persecuted Jewish religious and Zionist groups, closing down synagogues and organizing trials against local rabbis and teachers. They supported the establishment of Communist institutions with a Soviet orientation, functioning in Yiddish: by the early 1930s Minsk had 8 Yiddish kindergartens, 12 Yiddish schools, a pedagogical institute, and a Jewish department at the Institute for Belorussian Culture (which published the academic journal Tsaytshrift, devoted to Jewish history, folklore, and Yiddish language and literature).

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

Minsk thus established itself as one of the main centers of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union. The first chair of Yiddish language and literature in the world was created at the Belorussian State University. The Jewish People’s Court of Justice, the daily newspaper Oktyabr (1925–1941), the literary journal Shtern (1925–1941), and the Belorussian State Yiddish Theater (housed in the former Minsk Choral synagogue) all emerged during this period. Yiddish writers Zelik Akselrod (1904–1941), Moyshe Kulbak (1896–1938), and Izi Kharik (1898–1938), as well as the Jewish historian Yisroel Sosis (1878–1967) lived there; however, with a few exceptions (the periodicals Oktyabr and Shtern and the State Theater), all Yiddish institutions were dismantled by 1938 as part of the campaign against national minorities.

The economic revolution that emerged after 1917 had a strong impact on the Jewish population. While the new system radically altered the socioeconomic structure of Minsk Jewry, it at the same time offered unprecedented upward mobility. If in 1897 the proportion of merchants among the Jewish population had been 24 percent, in 1926 these numbers had fallen to 7 percent; and by the mid-1930s the category of private merchants no longer existed. The proportion of Jews in the crafts remained high, amounting to 60.5 percent from 71.2 percent. In 1897, the number of Jews employed in professional and public positions, management, and police had been almost null (only 19 Jews were employed in public agencies). However, by 1926 they numbered 2,918. Jews made up 56 percent of the clerks employed in commercial enterprises, 54.6 percent of those in industry and manufacture, and 71.2 percent of those in light industry. In 1926 fewer Jews were employed in other branches such as transportation and communication. The railroad sector in particular remained, as it had been under the tsar, a non-Jewish monopoly.

When the German army occupied the city in June 1941, the Jewish population had reached 100,000 with the arrival of refugees from Białystok and other areas of western Belorussia. In the early days of the occupation, thousands of men of different nationalities were rounded up and the majority of Jews were executed. The rest were imprisoned in the ghetto, which had been established in July at the outskirts of the city, close to the Jewish cemetery. Subsequently, about 8,000 German, Austrian, and Czech Jews were deported to Minsk and held in the ghetto. A large percentage of the ghetto inhabitants (85,000) were killed during aktions from November 1941 to July 1942.

In 1941, a group of Jews (among them the Polish Jew Hersh Smolar; 1905–1993) organized a resistance movement in the ghetto in close connection with the Minsk Communist underground, led by Isay Kazinets (1910–1942) and Masha Bruskina (1924–1941). Members of the resistance organized acts of sabotage and, working together with the Judenrat (led by Il’ia Mushkin), diverted the production of the ghetto’s workshops and factories to the partisans. An underground printing press issued the leaflet Vestnik rodiny (Homeland’s Messenger). The resistance enabled thousands of Jews to escape to the forests, where they founded seven partisan brigades, one of which, in September 1943, organized the assassination of the governor-general of Belorussia, Wilhelm Kube. Approximately 10,000 Minsk Jews succeeded in escaping from the ghetto, a proportion without parallel in Holocaust history. At liberation, 13 Jews had survived the ghetto and about 5,000 Jewish partisans and their families returned from the forests. In 1945, the first memorial to Jewish victims in Minsk—and the only one in the USSR with a Yiddish inscription explicitly mentioning the Jewishness of the victims—was erected.

On Stalin’s orders, Solomon Mikhoels (1890–1948), leader of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, was murdered in Minsk on 13 January 1948; the Belorussian State Yiddish Theater was closed in 1949. Many Minsk Jews were dismissed from their jobs and arrested in the course of the state-sponsored antisemitic and anticosmopolitan campaign of the 1940s and early 1950s. In 1959, the only registered synagogue in Minsk was closed down (though the community was allowed to use another building), and in the late 1960s the Jewish cemetery was destroyed. Several Yiddish writers were active in Minsk in the post-Stalin years, most notably Khayim Maltinskii (1910–1984) and Hirsh Reles (1913–2005).

In 1959, according to the census, of almost 39,000 Jews living in Minsk, about 17,000 declared Yiddish to be their mother tongue; by 1970, of 47,000 Jews in the city, only 5,286 indicated this as the language of their early years. In the 1970s, thousands of Jews gathered annually on 9 May in front of the memorial commemorating Jewish victims of the Holocaust. A central figure in the Jewish movement for national revival and the right to repatriation to Israel was the World War II Soviet Army colonel Efim Davidovich (1924–1976).

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, several seminars for the study of Hebrew and Jewish history and culture were unofficially organized. Since 1970, thousands of Jews have emigrated from Minsk to Israel, America, and Germany. The 1999 census recorded just 10,141 Jews remaining. Several Russian-language Jewish periodicals have been published in post-Soviet Minsk, including Aviv, Berega, and Mishpokha. The Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Organizations and Communities was founded in 1991. In March 2001, a Jewish communal center was opened. By 2003, there were three synagogues in Minsk, one under the auspices of Lubavitch Hasidism, one a non-Hasidic Orthodox synagogue with a yeshiva, and one affiliated with the Progressive Movement.

Suggested Reading

Sergei A. Bershadskii, Russko-evreiskii arkhiv: Dokumenty i materialy dlia istorii evreev v Rossii, vol. 1, nos. 20, 53, 63, 109; vol. 3, nos. 14, 41, 52, 60 (St. Petersburg, 1882–1903); Robert J. Brym, The Jews of Moscow, Kiev and Minsk: Identity, Antisemitism, Emigration (New York, 1994); Simon Dubnow, ed., Pinkas ha-medi-nah, o, Pinkas va‘ad ha-kehilot ha-rashiyot bi-medinat Lita (Berlin, 1925); Shelomoh Even-Shoshan, ed., Minsk, ‘ir va-em, 2 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1975–1985); Avraham Greenbaum, Jewish Scholarship in Soviet Russia, 1918–1941 (Boston, 1959), pp. 22–27, 66–73; Emanuil G. Ioffe, Po dostovernym istochnikam: Evrei v istorii gorodov Belarusi (Minsk, 2001), pp. 150–210; Hersh Smolar, The Minsk Ghetto: Soviet-Jewish Partisans against the Nazis, trans. Max Rosenfeld (New York, 1989).