History of the Belarus Jewish Community
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History of the Belarus Jewish Community

The first Jews appeared on the territory of modern Belarus in the 14th century, in the times of the Great Duchy of Lithuania. The descendants of the Jews who lived in that medieval state are still referred to as Litvaks.

In the 17th-18th centuries the communities of Belarus were united in the so-called Lithuanian Va’ad, which cooperated with the Polish Va’ad of Four Lands. In the 17th century the Belarusian Jews suffered from the pogroms of Bogdan Khmelnitsky and the Russian army which invaded in 1655. As a result of the Partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795, the territory of Belarus together with its Jewish population became part of the Russian Empire. At approximately the same time Hassidism spread in certain parts of the country. According to the census of 1897, over 900 thousand Jews lived in Belarus – 21.1 percent of the Jewish population of the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire. They were also the second most significant ethnic group (after the titular one) in the Belarusian lands, leaving even the traditionally large Polish diaspora behind in terms of quantity and relative density. World War I and the Civil War led to hastened urbanization of the Belarusian Jewry and its mass outflow from the republic. By the end of the 1930s there were about 400,000 Jews living in Belarus. After Soviet rule was established in 1920, the Jewish community was disbanded, the Jewish parties liquidated, the Hebrew language prohibited as well as learning in kheders and yeshivas, Jewish teachers-melameds persecuted, and synagogues closed. The Soviet government created for the Jews a Soviet system of education, enlightenment, and culture in Yiddish, without the ethnic traditions and culture.

Jewish sectors were opened in Minsk at the Institute of Belarusian Culture, the V. I. Lenin Library, and the Pedagogy Department of the Belarusian State University. After the annexation of Western Belarus in 1939, the Jewish population grew to 800,000 – 1,000,000 according to different estimates. During World War II most of the Jews of Belarus were annihilated by the Nazis, but no less than 8,500 Jews fought in partisan units. During the postwar anti-Jewish campaign of the “fight against cosmopolites” all Jewish schools and cultural organizations in the state were closed. In the 1940s – 1950s the activities of religious communities were brought to a virtual end. In the 1960s – 1970s Belarus became one of the centers of “anti-Zionist propaganda”. The Jewish population of the state decreased over the postwar period from 150,000 in 1959 to 112,000 in 1989. The main factors of the decrease in population in the 1970s – 1990s were migration processes and assimilation. Up to 1989, Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union was not massive in character. 9,955 Jews left the BSSR between 1979 and 1988.

Since the 1970s the Jews of Minsk have been holding May 9th meetings at the “Yama”, a 1947 memorial to those who died in the ghetto. This memorial is the first one in the USSR to sport the Yiddish inscription “To Jews – Victims of Nazism”. In the 1970s a movement for national dignity and the right to repatriate began in the city: there appeared underground ulpans for learning Hebrew, history, and traditions. This activity developed especially actively in the mid-1980s. The permission to cross borders freely, given in 1989, led to mass aliyah to Israel. The peak of repatriation from Belarus to Israel was in 1989-1991. Over the three years, 62,389 people left.