For a number of centuries, Belarusians and Jews have been living next to each other. Today there are approximately 30,000 Jews in Belarus.
The Inquisition persecution of Jews chased from Europe in the 14th cent. made them to find refuge in Belarus (the Grand Duchy of Lithuania).
At the beginning of the 20th cent., the entire territory of Belarus was within Jewish pale area. Belarus is the birthplace of Khaim Weizman, the first President of the State of Israel, of Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres, Prime-ministers of Israel and Nobel Prize Winners, of Naum Goldman (1949–1978 – President of the World Jewish Congress), a famous early 20th cent. painter Marc Chagall, and others.
There used to be a great number of synagogues in the cities and towns of Belarus. A number of them still exist – like one of the oldest synagogues housed in a 17th cent. Baroque style building in Slonim. However, during the Soviet rule all the synagogues in Belarus were closed.
In the 19th cent., the town of Volozhin was a world-known center of Talmud study.The Yeshiva founded in Volozhin in 1803 was attended by students of many countries of Europe, Asia, America, and Africa. The genuine building of the Yeshiva is still there.
The Yeshiva in Mir existed till the years of World War II as a High Jewish Education Academy. A number of buildings related to the subject are still there.
Presently there are 10 orthodox and 6 progressive Jewish communities in Belarus. The Jewish Religious Union has been founded and there are Jewish classes at secondary schools.
During WW II 82% of the pre-war Jewish population of Belarus were exterminated (about 800,000). The Ghetto in Minsk was one of the largest in the Nazi occupied Europe. There, in addition to the 100,000 Ghetto prisoners who were local residents, a number of Jews from other European countries were brought there. Today there are 5 memorials within the former Ghetto territory.
The Extract From The Short History Of The Jews In Belarus…
The first written evidence about Jews in Belarus refers to 1388. The 15th century became the turning point in the history of settling of the Jewish people. The centre of its cultural, economic and public life moved from Germany to the East – to Poland and to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Belarus was the core of GDL). There lived more than 20,000 Jews on the territory of Poland and The Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 15th century. The total number of Jews lived on the territory of Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1628 was nearly 40,000. In 1766 in GDL there lived 157,250 Jews.
During military conflicts from 1648 till 1658 100,000 Jews were killed. “The pale of settlement“ appeared in December 23, 1791 by the Law of Ekaterina II, the Russian Empress. (It included the territory of Belarus, Ekaterinoslav (nowadays Dnepropetrovsk) and Tavria regions – the Ukraine). In 1863 the percentage correlation of Jewish population as compared with the whole was as follows: in Vitebsk district – 9,1%, in Grodno district – 11,1%, in Minsk district – 9,8%, in Mogilev district – 13,3%.
In 1864 the number of Jews in the cities and towns of Belarus and Lithuania was between 45% – 70%.
On January 28, 1897 the general census of the population took place in the Russian Empire (and Belarus was the integral part of it). At that time there were 5 189 401 Jews what made 4.13% of the whole population.
The Jews occupied the 4th position after Orthodox Christians, Moslems and Catholics. From 1881 to 1906 1,236,161 Jews emigrated from the tsarist Russia.
In 1917 there were 83 Synagogues in Minsk, 50 – in Mogilev, 42 – in Bobruisk, 30 – in Vitebsk, 26 – in Gomel.
In 1924 there lived 447,667 Jews in Belarus. In 1939 there lived 375,000 Jews in Belarus (according to the general census of the population). The total number of Jews living on the territory of Belarus before World War II was 990,000.
During World War II about 400,000 Jews were mobilized to the Russian Army and about 100,000 of them were killed.
There were 163 ghettos on the territory of 153 populated areas of Belarus. The largest ghettos were: more than 100,000 in Minsk, the second place after Lvov ghetto (136,000); more than 34,000 – in Brest (2 ghettos), more than 25,000 in Grodno (2 ghettos), more than 30,000 – in Slonim, more than 25,000 – in Novogrudok (2 ghettos), more than 20,000 in Bobruysk (2 ghettos), more than 20,000 in Vitebsk, more than 10,000 in Volkovysk, more than 15,000 in Baranovichi. More than 15,000 Jews participated in guerrilla and antifascist movements during World War II and 721 guerrillas of Jewish nationality were killed. The first after-war census of the population took place in Belarus in 1959 and the numbers of Jews was 150,000. The Jewish emigration from the USSR in 1973 reached 33,500 and in 1979 – 50,000.
In April 1991 the Belarusian Union of Jewish Organizations and Communities comprising 140 members was registered. In 1992 the diplomatic relations between the State of Israel and the Republic of Belarus were established. In September 1993 there were 98.5 thousands of Jews living in Belarus. Today the Jews in Belarus are not many – about 30,000.
Jewish Heritage Tours In Belarus
Back in the 14th – 13th centuries, persecuted by the Inquisition in Europe, the Jews found an asylum in the Great Principality of Lithuania. The Laws of Prince Witowt granted them the rights of free residents protected directly by the Great Prince. The 15th century was peculiar for a mass emigration of the Jews from German cities to Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus – these countries opened their borders for the Jews who suffered from oppression and violence in Western Europe.
There is a number of itineraries where foreign visitors can see the native places of the outstanding representatives of the Jewish people who were born in Belarus, to see the architectural monuments and national and cultural traditions of the Jews in Belarus. All over Belarus there are places commemorating the tragic events in the life of the Jews during World War II Holocaust. Visiting small towns one can still see traditional Jewish residential areas and the building of Synagogues.
Vitebsk, Pinsk, Grodno, Slonim, Minsk, Brest, Polotsk, Volozhin, Bobruysk as well as many other places could be most attractive for Jewish heritage tours.
Thus, in Vitebsk (280 km of Minsk) there are numerous places of interest related to the life and creative activity of Marc Chagall. His Art Museum presents exhibits of the early 20th century telling about the family of the artist, illustrating the events of 1918–1920 that brought Vitebsk the fame of the “Capital of Arts”.
The exhibition of M. Chagall Memorial house has a reproduced atmosphere and furniture where his family lived. Many of the exhibits are those which used to belong to his family members.
The cultural heritage of Vitebsk is also related to the life and work of another famous painter, Kasimir Malevich, the founder (1913) of Supremacies art movement, whose White on White embodies the movement’s principals.
In Minsk, capital city of Belarus, one can see the areas of the former Ghetto – one of the largest ones on the territory of the former USSR where the Jewish prisoners not only from Belarus but from West European countries were kept; to visit the site of the “Yama” or gully in the former Ghetto where in the summer of 1941 special Nazi units murdered more than 5,000 Jews and where in 1972 a Jewish Memorial to the Ghetto victims was built by private subscription. Meeting representatives of Jewish organizations and educational establishments will give a good idea of contemporary life of the Jewish population of Minsk.
In Grodno (300 km of Minsk) one can get acquainted with the history of an earliest Jewish community in Belarus (late 14th century). The former Ghetto gates through which the Jews were sent to Treblinka and Auschwitz concentration camps are still there.
In Pinsk (300 km of Minsk) that celebrated its 900th anniversary in 1997, there are old Jewish residential areas. Visiting the city you will know that Chaim Weizman, scientist and Zionist leader, the first President (1948–1952) of Israel, was born in the neighbouring town of Motol and got his education in Pinsk, and Golda Meir, Israeli Prime Minister (1969–1974) used to live in this city.
In Polotsk (250 km of Minsk), the oldest city in Belarus, there is a mound which – as a legend tells – is a burial place of the Jews who in 1563 refused to accept Christianity and were drowned in the Western Dvina on the order of Ivan the Terrible, Tsar of Moscow. In Polotsk visitors can meet representatives of the Jewish community and visit the places where a Jewish ghetto was situated during WW II. A unique museum of book-printing in Polotsk has an ancient Torah among its rarities.
In Slonim (190 km of Minsk), a typical old Belarusian town where Jewish population prevailed before WW II (75%), there is a 17th century Synagogue – the only Synagogue in Belarus where the entire interior is preserved, a 19th century Synagogue, 18th – 19th centuries Jewish housing areas; a Jewish cemetery has been restored in the town.
In Nesvizh (130 km of Minsk), one of the oldest centres of Medieval culture in Europe, one of the earliest Jewish communities was formed. While visiting the Jewish quarter of Nesvizh one can see the House in the Market – the oldest residential house which survived on the territory of Belarus. The 17th century trade center has former Jewish shops.
In Mir (130 km of Minsk) visitors can see the 16th century castle. From 1617 to 1939, a famous Yeshiva was situated in Mir. The sightseeing itinerary includes a complex of cold and heated Synagogues, a Jewish bank, Jewish shops and dwelling houses. During WW II, a Jewish Ghetto was situated within the territory of Mir castle.
Volozhin (90 km of Minsk) is one of the world centres of Talmud learning of the 19th century. The Yeshiva founded here in 1803 made the city world-famous as representatives of many countries of Europe, Asia, America and Africa got their education there. The building of the Yeshiva still has the last-century school image. The visitors can see an old Jewish cemetery, and to travel to Vishnevo near Volozhin which is the birthplace of Naum Goldman (b. 1895), one of the founders of the World Jewish Congress, and of Shimon Peres (b. 1923), a former Prime Minister of Israel and a Nobel Prize winner. In the village of Golshany one can see Jewish residential quarters of late 19th – early 20th cents. which are completely genuine.
Among numerous small towns worth visiting while in Belarus there is Krevo (155 km of Minsk) known for the first castle built in Belarus (1338) and 1385 Union Treaty signed there between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Poland (as a result Catholics were granted numerous privileges over the Orthodox); an old Synagogue is still preserved there; or a small town of Luzhki (Vitebsk region), the birth place of Eliezer Ben Yehudah (b. 1858), a leader in the revival of Hebrew as the national language who compiled the Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew (16 vol.).