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Jews of Belarus

The first Jewish communities appeared in Belorussia at the end of the fourteenth century and continued to increase until the genocide of World War II. The great contributions of Belarus’ Jews to the music, art, and culture of this country are well known. Mainly urban residents, the country's nearly 1.3 million Jews in 1914 accounted for 50 to 60 percent of the population in cities and towns. The Soviet census of 1989 counted some 142,000 Jews, or 1.1 percent of the population, many of whom have since emigrated.

Jews have lived In Russia from very ancient times. In northern Caucasia and on the lower banks of the Volga, in the tenth century was consolidated the Khosar Empire, the rulers and the upper classes of which professed the Jewish religion and among the inhabitants of which were many Jews. But in later times of Russian history, when the Moscow Empire sprang up, the Jews played no part in it, the Muscovite princes and tsars forbidding the Jews to cross their boundaries. This continued until the end of the eighteenth century. At the time of the first and second divisions of Poland. Russia became possessed of the provinces of White Russia, Volhynia, and Podolia.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Jews were brought to Belarus in large numbers by Polish landowners to serve as stewards of estates, artisans, merchants, petty traders, innkeepers, and rent collectors. Jews were seen by Belorussians as agents of the Polish Catholic nobles, as aliens and infidels, and their occupations as rent collectors and estate managers for absentee landlords made them particularly resented by the local peasants. The Poles, it was said, brought Jews and Jesuits to Belarus.

The first partition of Poland gave to Russia the section known as White Russia and a part of Lithuania, with a large Jewish population; the second partition, in 1793, and the final partition, in 1795, added the ten provinces which constituted the so-called region of the Vistula. At the final fall of the Polish Kingdom, in 1795, Russia further gained Lithuania and Kurland. Together with these Provinces, the Russian Empire acquired a population of 900,000 Jews. It was then that there arose for the Russian Government the so-called Jewish question.

Anti-Semitism intensified after the partitions of Poland when Jews lost the protection provided by the Polish nobles. Moreover, Jews were forbidden to live in Central Russia without special permission and were forced to reside in the Pale of Settlement, Russia's newly acquired western territories that included parts of Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. Prohibited from owning land, they lived mostly in small towns and villages, the shtetls, where they were the indispensable but maligned middlemen in an agricultural society composed of a small number of landowners at the top and large numbers of peasants at the bottom.

Since those events the Russian Empire has remained the home of at least one-half of the entire Jewish people. While the total number of Jews in the world was not definitely known, by around 1900 the estimate of 11,000,000 was usually accepted as nearly correct. According to the Russian census of January 28 to February 9, 1897, the total number of Jews in the Empire was 5,215,805" or about 50 per cent of all the Jews in the world.

The Jews living in Lithuania, as well as those who lived in White Russia, were known as Lithuanian Jews; the Jews of the ten Polish Provinces as Polish Jews, and those who had settled in the southwestern region and in New Russia as southern Jews. From the American point of view the distinctions were not without some practical significance, because the Lithuanian Jews had until around 1900 constituted the vast majority of the Russian-Jewish immigrants to the United States.

In the manifesto published at the annexation of White Russia in 1772, General Governor Count Chernysheff declared, in the name of the Empress Catherine II, that each and every individual should be guaranteed freedom of religion and inviolability of property. "It is self-understood," adds the manifesto, "that the Jews inhabiting the lands and towns annexed by the Russian Empire will continue to enjoy the same freedom with regard to their religion and property now enjoyed by them. Her Imperial Majesty, in her great love for humanity, will not suffer them alone to be excluded from the mercy and future blessings of her reign, so long as they, professing themselves her loyal subjects, will continue to occupy themselves as hitherto with trade and commerce, each according to his condition."

In 1784 the Jews of White Russia presented a petition to the Empress, in which they complained of oppression on the part of the administration and begged that the Jews should be allowed equal rights with the rest of the population in the choice of town counselors and judges; also that during the settling of disputes between Jews and Christians in the public courts a certain number of the members of the tribunal should be chosen from the Jewish community. In answer to this petition appeared the senatorial ukase (1786) which partly fulfilled the requests of the Jews.

In this ukase is expressed the following notable decision of the Empress Catherine: "Whereas the above-mentioned inhabitants of Jewish faith (the Jews of White Russia) have, by strength of former ukases, been raised to an equality with others, it is imperative upon every occasion to observe the principle that each, according to his estate and calling, should enjoy the privileges and rights which are his, without distinction of religion and nationality."

In the act of 1804 two provinces were added to those allotted to the Jews— Astrakhan and Caucasia. These provinces collectively were given the name of the "Jewish Pale." Jews have no right to live freely in all parts of the Empire, but only in the small part of it which constitutes the Jewish Pale. The Pale embraces fifteen Provinces: White Russia, Lithuania, Ukraina, and Novorossia, i. e., the Provinces of Vilna, Kovno, Grodno, Minsk, Mohilev, Vitebsk, Volhynla, Podolia, Kiev, Tchemigov. Poltava, Bessarabia, Kherson, Ekaterinoslav, Crimea, and the ten Provinces of Poland.

But in the second half of the reign of Alexander I the governmental methods changed in character. The tendency of the Government to assimilate the Jews with the Christian population of the Empire was expressed, not through the medium of education, not by efforts to attract the Jews to the Russian public schools, but by attempts to spread the Christian religion among them.

The concentration of the Jews in cities and towns was due to the so-called "May laws," promulgated on May 3 (15), 1882, as a result of the series of anti-Jewish riots in 1881, which prohibited further settlement of Jews within rural districts, i.e., outside of cities and towns. In practice this meant not only prohibition of further emigration of Jews from cities into the country, but an actual elimination of many Jewish households from rural settlements, and their enforced migration into towns and the resultant congestion of the latter. The tendency of the time everywhere was toward emigration from the rural districts to the city. Jews, however, had lived under very exceptional conditions and for centuries had inhabited the cities almost exclusively. With the general decline of the prosperity of the Russian and Polish nobility, the making of a living became more difficult for the Jews, and this had led to a moderate though unmistakable tendency to remove to the rural districts. Thither went the petty merchant, the liquor dealer, the artisan, and finally the prospective Jewish agriculturist. The May laws not only stopped this movement but forced many of the Jewish families already in the country back into cities.

Before World War II, Jews were the second largest ethnic group in Belorussia and accounted for more than 50 percent of the population in cities and towns. The 1989 Soviet census showed that Jews accounted for only 1.1 percent of the population, the result of genocide during World War II and subsequent emigration. Belarus lost one-third of its population and much of its cultural property during WWII. Although Belorussia's boundaries changed from 1914 to 1922, a significant portion of the decrease was the result of the war. Nearly a half million Jews were killed by Nazi-controlled forces in Belarus. In 1941, the Germans occupied Belarus. All state property and left without an owner due to war actions, as well as the property of Jews was declared German property. Silver and gold items were delivered directly to the Berlin Pawn Shop. All Jews had to resettle in the ghetto and give over all their valuables. The Jews who perished at Nazi hands comprised two-thirds of all European Jewry, and in countries such as Poland, which before the Second World War included parts of the Ukraine and Belarus, the Jewish death toll surpassed 90 percent. Suffering devastating population losses under Soviet leader Josef Stalin and the German Nazi occupation, including mass executions of 800,000 Jews, Belarus was retaken by the Soviets in 1944.

With the new religious freedom, Jewish life in Belarus is experiencing a rebirth. In late 1992, there were nearly seventy Jewish organizations active in Belarus, half of which were republic-wide. The government did not return buildings (including religious buildings) seized during the Soviet and Nazi periods if the buildings currently were used for sports or cultural activities, or if the government had nowhere to move the current occupants. For example, most of the Jewish community’s requests for the return of synagogues, which were in use as theaters, museums, sports complexes, and (in one case) a beer hall, were refused.

Anti-Semitism and negative attitudes toward minority religious groups persisted in 2011, although incidents declined compared with previous years. Neo-Nazis were widely believed to be behind vandalism, particularly targeting Jewish sites, and engaged in activities promoting religious intolerance and ethnic discord. In November a recently renovated synagogue in Babruisk was vandalized two times within a week. Vandals broke windows; painted swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti, including “death to Jews,” on the walls; and damaged the fence of the synagogue. Community members called the incident “humiliating” and “barbaric.” Police failed to identify the vandals.

The official Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) website continued to honor Hauryil Belastoksky, a young child allegedly killed by Jews near Hrodna in 1690, as one of its saints and martyrs. A memorial prayer to be said on the anniversary of his death alleges that the “martyred and courageous Hauryil exposed Jewish dishonesty.”




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