View of the Great Synagogue, or Uzgor’e Synagogue, a stronghold of the Misnagdim (opponents of Hasidism) and a meeting place for Zionists, on Suvorer Street in the business district, Vitsyebsk, 1910. A Yiddish inscription on the back of the photograph notes, “This is where the memorial for Herzl’s death took place.” (YIVO)

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City in Belarus. The first reference to Jews in Vitsyebsk (more commonly known to Jews as Vitebsk) dates from the mid-sixteenth century. In 1627 a synagogue was built and in 1634, Jews received permission to engage in commerce, have their own cemetery and synagogue, and buy houses and land in the town. In the organizational structure of the council (Va‘ad) of Jews in Lithuania, the Vitebsk community was under the jurisdiction of the community of Brest. Starting in 1706 Vitebsk Jews began recording community activities in their own pinkas. In 1765 sources record 667 Jews and, in 1772, when Vitebsk was incorporated into the Russian Empire, 1,227. In the eighteenth century Rabbi Menaḥem Mendel (of Vitebsk) and Shneur Zalman of Liady lived in the city. Late in the century Vitebsk became a main center of Lubavitch Hasidism, although Misnagdim continued to live there alongside the Hasidism. Among its well-known religious leaders were Rabbis Yitsḥak Aizik Bogorad and Yekuti’el Zalman Landa. In the nineteenth century the Jewish population increased from 2,973 (40% of the total population) in 1808 to 33,455 (51%) in 1897.

Table: Jewish Population of Vitebsk

The appearance of maskilim in the mid-nineteenth century was reflected in the opening of state-sponsored Jewish schools in 1849 and 1855 and the establishment of a private Jewish school for girls in 1864. In 1881 there were 88 Jewish pupils (18% of the total) at the local boys’ high school. Russian populism became influential among Jewish high school pupils and graduates; among them Khayim Zhitlovski and Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport, later to become famous as S. An-ski. The Ḥibat Tsiyon movement gained adherents following the expulsion of Jews from Moscow in 1891. Soon afterward came the start of the Jewish workers’ movement, with a branch of the Bund established in 1897. In the early twentieth century, the first reformed (metukan) heder was opened. Marc Chagall, El Lissitzky, Ossip Zadkine, Solomon Iudovin (Shelomoh Yudovin), and others studied at Yehudah Pen’s art school, opened in 1897. In 1910 the city had 43,616 Jews.

During the years of revolution and civil war, the Bund, Fareynikte, the Zionists, and Po‘ale Tsiyon were all active. Branches of both EVKOM (the Commissariat for Jewish National Affairs) and the Evsektsiia (the Jewish section of the Communist Party) were established in 1918. In January 1921 the local Evsektsiia organized the country’s first antireligious spectacle, “Heder on Trial.” In April of the same year, also at the initiative of Evsektsiia members, the Uzgor’e Synagogue was confiscated, leading to an unsuccessful two-year struggle by Vitebsk Jews to have it returned. In 1922 Vitebsk held the first trial in Soviet Russia in which proceedings were conducted in Yiddish.

Okraina Vitebska (Outskirts of Vitebsk; 1927), from Graviury na dereve (Woodcuts), by I. Ioffe and E. Gollervakh (Leningrad, 1928). (YIVO)

From 1918 to 1920 the Peretz Society was the city’s center for Jewish culture. In 1920 it published the art book Yidisher folks ornament by Iudovin and Mark Malkin. Many Jews were involved as instructors and students at the art institute founded by Chagall in 1918. In the following year a Jewish department was opened at the local museum. Between 1918 and 1923 newspapers appeared in Yiddish and a Yiddish theater operated from 1921 to 1923. Between 1925 and 1929 the regional studies society had a Jewish section; during ethnographic expeditions in 1925 and 1926, students of the Vitebsk art school made sketches of synagogues. A Jewish Teachers’ Seminary opened in 1921 and continued operating until July 1937. Yiddish schools established in the city after the revolution were closed in the summer of 1938, as was the Jewish division of the Vitebsk Pedagogical Institute, which had opened in 1932. An underground Lubavitch yeshiva operated in Vitebsk from 1926 to 1930. Four of the 48 active synagogues in the city were closed in 1929; by the end of 1936 only nine remained open. During the interwar period the Jewish population of Vitebsk remained fairly constant: 39,714 (44% of the total) in 1923 and 37,095 (22%) in 1939. A large part of the city’s Jewish population either managed to be evacuated or was mobilized into the army before Vitebsk was occupied by German troops on 9–11 July 1941. A ghetto was set up during the following two weeks and the murder of Jews began. During the liquidation of the ghetto on 8–10 October, 4,090 Jews were shot; in all about 8,000 perished.

In 1970 the Jewish population of Vitebsk was 17,343 (7% of the total); in 1989, 8,139 (2%); and in 1999, 2,883 (0.8%). In 1989 the Obshchestvo Liubitelei Evreiskoi Kul’tury (Society of Friends of Jewish Culture) was founded. The Marc Chagall Museum opened in 1992. The literary and publicistic annual Mishpokha began appearing in 1995. In 2001 there were four registered local Jewish organizations.

Suggested Reading

Gregor Aronson, Jacob Lestschinsky, and Avraham Kihn, eds., Vitebsk amol (New York, 1956); Baruch Karu et al., eds., Vitebsk (Tel Aviv, 1956/57); Daniil Romanovskii, “Skol’ko evreev pogiblo v promyshlennykh gorodakh vostochnoi Belorussii v nachale nemetskoi okkupatsii (iul’–dekabr’ 1941)?” Vestnik evreiskogo universiteta 4.22 (2000): 151–172.



Translated from Russian by Yisrael Cohen