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Jews and Belarus: 7 Facts

August 20, 2020 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Jews have long played a pivotal role in Belarus.

Belarus has been in the news in recent weeks as widespread protests call for President Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s longest-serving ruler, to step down instead of serve a sixth term. Formerly known as Belarrusia, this eastern European country has a long and fascinating Jewish history. Yiddish is even an official language.

Here are seven little-known facts about Belarus and Jewish life there.

Converting to Christianity and Welcoming Jews

In the Middle Ages, the lands that today comprise Belarus were ruled by kings and princes from neighboring Lithuania and Poland. One of the very first rulers to welcome Jews into the region was Jogaila, a Grand Duke of Lithuania and later King of Poland as well. Born a Pagan – like many people in the region at the time – Jogaila fought off radical Christian soldiers from German lands who saw fighting non-Christians as a holy duty.

Presumed image of Jogaila, painted c. 1475–1480, Kraków, Poland

Seeking to ally himself with local Christian nobles, Jogaila converted to Christianity in 1386 in the town of Kreva, which is today in the Grodno region of Belarus. He arranged to marry an eleven-year-old Polish princess named Jadwiga and thus elicit Polish military support. Jadwiga was so alarmed at the prospect of marrying a former pagan, she sent a messenger to spy on Jogaila and make sure he wasn’t a demon. After their marriage, Jogaila was known as King Wladyslaw II Jagiello – he and Queen Jadwiga ruled jointly, and decided to adopt a radical Polish notion: welcoming Jews into their territories, just as Polish nobles had done years earlier.

Together with a Grand Prince named Vytautas, these forward-thinking rulers formally welcomed Jews into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which today comprises Belarus. Jews settled in the Belarrusian towns of Brest and Grodno in the 1300s, where they soon built flourishing communities.

King for a Day

In the 1500s, the Jewish community in the town of Brest was led by a widely admired leader named Shaul Wahl. Stories abound about Shaul’s piety – he served as a religious scholar and also as a political leader. He was a legendary figure even during his lifetime, and tales abound about his greatness, including the story that he served as King of Poland for a day.

It’s said that the Polish-Lithuanian nobleman Prince Nicholas Radziwill (1515-1565) was a notorious scoundrel as a young man. When he was older he decided to travel to Rome and consult the Pope about the best way to repent; the Pope told Prince Radziwill to dismiss all his servants and to spend some time wandering as a beggar alone.

Prince Radziwill wandered Italy as a beggar and wound up in the Italian city of Padua, which had a vibrant Jewish community. Nobody aided him there and Prince Radziwill, still living as a beggar, suffered terribly. Even when he told people he was actually a prince in disguise, they ridiculed him and refused to believe his tale.

In desperation, Prince Radziwill appealed to the leader of Padua’s Jewish community, Rabbi Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen. Far from spurning him, the rabbi treated him kindly, taking him in and making the prince his honored guest. Rabbi Katzenellenbogen supplied the prince with funds to return to the lands of Belarus, and made only one request: the rabbi’s son Shaul had travelled to Belarus years before to study in some of the famous yeshivas there. He gave Prince Radziwill a picture of Shaul and asked if the prince could find the boy and pass along his father’s good wishes.

Prince Radziwill was good to his word. Back in Belarus, he visited many of the Jewish schools in various towns looking for Shaul. He finally found Shaul in the town of Brest, and was entranced by the young man’s brilliance. Prince Radziwill invited Shaul to live with him in his castle, and there Shaul continued to study Jewish texts. Soon, Shaul’s fame spread throughout the region. Shaul became a major spiritual leader and even served in the Va’ad, the Jewish Council governing Jewish communities in the region.

When King Stephen Bathori, who ruled the area that is today Belarus, died in 1586, two main political factions fought over who to appoint as a successor. Unable to agree on a new king, they approached Prince Radziwill. He turned them down, saying that if they wanted a man who was truly wise to lead them they should ask the Jew, Shaul. It was an audacious move: Jews were reviled in Christian society and could never normally hold power over non-Jews. Blood libels were common in the area. Nonetheless, it’s said that the nobles did follow the prince’s suggestions, crowning Shaul king and giving him the surname Wahl (meaning “election”).

King Shaul Wahl served for at least a day; some historians posit that he reigned for several days. During his brief reign, he personally signed several laws improving the treatment of Jews in that lands of Poland and Lithuania that today encompass Belarus.

First “Modern” Yeshiva

Yeshivas – Jewish schools – have existed for millennia; famous yeshivas flourished in Israel, Babylonia, across the Middle East and in Europe. In Belarus, the towns of Brest (also known in Yiddish as Brisk), Grodno, Minsk and others contained many well-regarded yeshivas.

Volozhin Yeshiva

These tended to be smaller schools, with a limited number of scholars studying with a small number of teachers. In 1803, in the Belarusian town of Volozhin, a major new Jewish thinker, Rabbi Chaim, set out to found a radically different yeshiva: a major center of Jewish learning that would attract the best and brightest students from hundreds of miles around. Rabbi Chaim – who became known as Reb Chaim of Volozhin – succeeded, and his yeshiva became synonymous with the highest level of Jewish scholarship in the world.

Rabbi Chaim was one of the main disciples of Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, in nearby Lithuania, who was known simply as the “Vilna Gaon” (the Vilna Genius). Together they revolutionized the way Talmud is studied and emphasized moral character and development. In 1802 Rabbi Chaim issued a public letter calling on all Jews in the region to support his new yeshiva. He appointed a team of fundraisers to travel throughout the Jewish world raising money to support his school and invited students to audition for a place in his new yeshiva. Within the Volozhin Yeshiva, students studied in shifts – there were always students in the Beit Midrash, or study hall, 24 hours a day. The Jewish learning never ceased.

In 1892, the Volozhin Yeshiva was shut down by local authorities who feared that it might be harboring revolutionary viewpoints. The yeshiva did reopen later on but never regained its prominence. The legacy of the Volozhin Yeshiva lives on, however, in countless Jewish schools today which continue to operate and teach according to the high intellectual standards and principles of moral development that Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin once championed.

Chassidic Rebbes

Many of the greatest leaders of the Chassidic movement – a spiritual Jewish movement that began in the 1700s – lived in the area that today is Belarus. “Chassid” is a term in the Talmud used to denote a pious person who goes beyond the letter of the law, modelling what it means to be a good person and Jew. The Chassidic movement – its adherents call themselves Chassidim (the plural of Chassid) and strive to live a fully observant Jewish life infused with joy.

The Great Synagogue in Grodno, Belarus

One of the earliest Chassidic leaders, or Rebbes, was Rabbi Aharon bn Ya’akov (1736-1772), known to his Chassidic followers as Aharon ha-Gadol (“Aaron the Great”). He was a disciple of Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezeritch, one of the earliest founders of Chassidism. Aharon brought Chassidic thought to Belarus and neighboring Lithuania, and founded a synagogue in Karlin, a town outside of Pinsk, in Belarus.

Evading the Nazis

On the eve of the Holocaust, the western portion of Belarus was part of Poland (ceded to Poland in 1921 in the Treaty of Riga). When Nazi forces invaded Poland in 1939, they allowed the Soviet Union to annex the area, giving the tens of thousands of Jews living in the western region of Belarus a brief reprieve from the Nazi death machine. That changed in June of 1941, when Germany broke its non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and invaded Soviet lands. In western Belarus, that meant murdering nearly all of the Jews who lived there.

Belarus is a heavily forested country, and this enabled some Jews to hide out in the woods and fight Nazi forces as part of a loosely organized Belarusian resistance made up of several distinct partisan fighting groups. One was a loose collection of Jewish fighters who escaped Nazi soldiers and fled to the woods and were organized into a potent fighting force by Moshe Gildenman and his son Simcha.

In 1942, Moshe and Simcha – along with their relatives and thousands of other Jews – were confined to a ghetto in the Ukrainian town of Korets, near the Belarusian border. After watching two thousand Jewish residents of the ghetto be murdered, Moshe, Simcha and fourteen other Jews managed to escape, armed only with two guns and a knife. They made their way to the woods of Belarus, where they took in other Jews who’d fled the Nazi onslaught, and sabotaged Nazi outposts.

An even larger group of Jewish partisan fighters was led by a remarkable family named Bielski. Rounded up with other Jews and imprisoned in the Jewish ghetto of the Belarusian town of Nowogrodek, four brothers from the large family – Tuvia (1906-1987), Asael (1908-1945), Zus (1910-1995) and Aharon (1927-) managed to escape the ghetto and set up camp in the Zabiedovo and Perelaz woods. Their camp offered a safe haven, and soon about thirty Jews – mainly their friends and relatives – joined them hiding in Belarussia’s dense woods. Tuvia, who’d served in the Polish Army and was an ardent Zionist, took control of the makeshift camp.

As news of Nazi massacres of Jews continued to pour in, the Bielski brothers knew they had to do more to help their fellow Jews. They encouraged Jews to escape from the ghettos the Nazis forced them to live in, sent spies to Jewish ghettos to help Jews to escape, and posted guides in the forest to identify any Jews who managed to escape and guide them back to Bielski’s camp. In 1942, when they learned that Nazi forces were about to liquidate the Jewish ghetto in the town of Iwie, they sent partisans into the ghetto and managed to smuggle over a hundred Jews out to safety. By the end of 1942, over 300 Jews were living in the Bielski’s secret forest camp.

The Bielski Brothers

The Nazis heard of the mysterious Jewish camp hiding in the forest and in August 1943 they decided to flush out the Bielskis and the Jews they were hiding. Over 20,000 Nazi soldiers were dedicated to the task; a bounty of 100,000 Reichmarks was offered to anyone who could help capture Tuvia Bielski. By then, the camp contained over 700 Jews. Fearing that local peasants would turn them over to the Nazis, the Bielskis moved the encampment to the forbidding Naliboki Forest, a swampy, dangerous area where few people ventured.

There, the Bielskis set up a shtetl, or Jewish town, complete with a Jewish school, a synagogue, an infirmary, bakery, mill, laundry, tailor shops, shoemakers, carpenters, leather workers, and blacksmiths. They managed to clear part of the forest and grow wheat and barley. Fighting age men continued to fight Nazis, blowing up train tracks and bridges and helping Jews escape from Nazi prisons.

Jewish partisans in Belarus at the end of WWII

By the time they were liberated by the Soviet Army in 1944, the Bielskis encampment contained 1,230 Jews – most were women, the old and children. Each would have faced certain death were it not for the secret camp they helped establish that miraculously managed to evade detection and survive for over two long years.

Repeating a Blood Libel

The Jews of Belarus have long been accused of the “blood libel”, the baseless charge that they kill Christian children. Many of Belarus’ nearly 10 million citizens are Orthodox Christians, and their youngest saint is one of the most revered: St. Gavril of Bialystok. He was found dead – supposedly murdered by Jews, the Orthodox Church said at the time – near his home in 1690. Ever since, his memory has been used as a pretext to carry out pogroms against Jews in Belarus and elsewhere. 

This blood libel got renewed attention in the 1990s, when official Belarusian state television showed a documentary about the saint which baselessly accused Jews of killing the child long ago, and added that Jews were “members of a secret fanatical sect.”

Jewish Renewal and Fears of Anti-Semitism

Unlike many eastern European nations, a significant Jewish community survived both the Holocaust and Communism in Belarus. From a high in 1897 of nearly a million Jews – over 14% of the population – today Belarus is home to between 10,400 and 25,000 Jews – out of a population of a little under 9.5 million people.

A memorial in Mogilev, Belarus for victims of the Nazis. The monument has been vandalized.

The country boasts Jewish schools and kosher restaurants and a robust Jewish life. “Despite being able to practice Jewish religious and cultural life freely,” the World Jewish Congress has observed, “manifestations of anti-Semitism have been a cause of concern for the Jews in Belarus” in recent years.

Despite the fact that relatively few Jews remain in Belarus, anti-Semitic vandalism and graffiti are common. President Alexander Lukashenko has at times contributed to the anti-Jewish atmosphere in his country. In an interview with Russian television, Pres. Lukashenko was quoted saying that not everything that Adolf Hitler did was bad. He also accused Jews of turning the Belarusian city of Babruysk into a “pigpen”.

People visit a destroyed Jewish cemetery in March near a memorial to Jews killed in Minsk's Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation.

With their country rocked by political protests and also beset with the Coronavirus crisis, some Belarusian Jews are voting with their feet. Since the pandemic, Belarusian Jews have made up the largest group making aliyah and moving to Israel – several dozen have landed in the Jewish state in recent weeks.

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