Jewish life in Belarus

Centropa interviewed 1,200 elderly Jews in 15 European countries. They shared with us their life stories—from their grandparents to their great-grandchildren. Drawing from Centropa interviews with elderly Jews who were born in Belarus and archival materials that were collected by Centropa’s partner, the Leonid Levin History Workshop, we take a look at ten selected biographies and their connections to Jewish life in Belarus.

The history of Jewish life in Belarus dates back to the time of Grand Duke Vitaut.

Since the end of the 14th century, Jews benefited from the tolerant legislation in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which included the territories of present-day Belarus. In the middle of the 17th century, about 80,000 to 90,000 Jews lived on the territory of present-day Belarus. In those days their situation deteriorated significantly. The Cossack uprising under Bohdan Khmelnytsky, in the course of which the first large-scale persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe took place, is considered to have been a turning point.

After the annexation of the Belarusian and Ukrainian territories by the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century, a “pale of settlement” was defined as an area where Jews were allowed to settle (the noun pale describes an area under special control or jurisdiction). Jews were now forbidden to buy land and settle in rural areas. They engaged in crafts and trade in towns and shtetls. According to an 1897 census, over half of the population in Minsk were Jews. In 1917 there were 83 synagogues in the city – more than churches and monasteries. For centuries, the Jewish population in Belarusian cities and shtetls had lived in close economic, social, and cultural exchange with their neighbors. But when between 1903 and 1907 a wave of pogroms rolled over the settlement area, the Belarusian territories were also affected.

Minsk became a center of Jewish life in Belarus. In the 19th- and 20th-century Russian Empire, traditional educational institutions – cheder schools – were widespread. Children from wealthy families received their education in co-educational high and secondary schools. Only 3 to 5 percent of Jewish students were allowed to enroll in the universities. In the Soviet period, on the other hand, the traditional Jewish educational system was severely restricted. Until the 1930s, illegal yeshivas and cheder schools existed, attended by over 500 children. A Yiddish-language education system after Soviet models was introduced. Jewish kindergartens, schools and pedagogical vocational schools opened in Minsk. Their curriculum did however not include national traditions and culture – and they were soon banned.

From mid-July 1941 to the end of October 1943, a ghetto existed in occupied Minsk. It was used for the mass extermination of Jews forcibly resettled from Belarus, as well as of Jews deported from Austria, Germany, and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (present-day Czech Republic. In Maly Trascianiec not far from Minsk, a memorial commemorates the murder and expulsion of Jews during the Holocaust. At least 60,000 people were murdered there between 1942 and 1944.

After World War II, the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments of the Soviet government  made life difficult for Soviet Jews. Passports of Soviet citizens recorded ethnicity of the holders, and for Jews this was “jewish”. Jews were thus subjected to semi-official discrimination: Professional advancement or enrollment in universities was denied to Jews, and they were principally under suspicion. It was very difficult to leave the country; many of them came to Israel only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Today, the Jewish community in Minsk is the largest in Belarus. There are three functioning synagogues in the city. The Chorale Synagogue however, opened in 1906, now houses the National Dramatic M. Gorky Theater. While in the first half of the 20th century there were about 80,000 Jews living in the Belarusian capital, forming a large percentage of the population, today only about 5,000 Jews live in the metropolis of nearly two million inhabitants.

Further reading:

Two-story brick building at a street corner with a few cars in front
Minsk – shop in a former Jewish neighbourhood in 2019 (photo: Christian Herrmann)

About this exhibition

This exhibition was curated by Centropa and Büro für Erinnerungskultur in cooperation with the Leonid Levin History Workshop at IBB Minsk. Illustrations by Jutta Nelißen, web design and implementation by Alexander von Freeden.