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Jewish Life in Belarus Before the Holocaust

There has been a Jewish population in Belarus since the fourteenth century. Between that time and the beginning of World War I, the region was part of the Polish-Lithuanian union, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and, later, the Russian Empire. Until the first decades of the twentieth century, Jews in Belarus lived in small towns called shtetls, and most made a living as petty merchants and shopkeepers, artisans, craftsmen, and farmers. Most were poor, but the communities in the region developed incredibly productive scholarship, literature, and cultural life and became the center of the Jewish Hasidic movement. Rapid economic development, as well as new social and economic opportunities at the end of the nineteenth century, led to the migration of a majority of Jews to urban centers such as Minsk, Bobruisk, Vitebsk, Pinsk, and Gomel. Despite widespread poverty and economic restrictions, by the 1920s, Jewish cultural life in Belarus flourished as religious, Zionist, Bundist, socialist, and communist movements competed for its youth’s hearts. According to the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe:

Approximately 200,000 Jews (5% of the total population) lived in Belarus by the early nineteenth century. By mid-century the number had increased to 500,000 (12% of the population), and by 1897 Jews numbered 910,900 (14.2%). A significant proportion worked in the lumber, grain, and flax trades. In the second half of the nineteenth century the economic situation of large segments of the Jewish population worsened. This led to considerable emigration, beginning in the 1870s. At the end of the nineteenth century, Belarus was the center of the Jewish socialist movement (the Bund began to operate there in 1897) as well as a center of Zionism. In 1897, Yehudah Pen’s private art academy opened in Vitebsk.

An early instance of Jewish self-defense in the Russian Empire was organized during the 1903 pogrom in Gomel (Homel’) . . . During World War I the western part of Belarus was in a combat zone, and the Russian military administration expelled Jews from the area.

In 1919, just after the end of World War I, the area now known as Belarus was incorporated into the Soviet Union under the name of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. However, two years later, the Treaty of Riga split Belarus in two: western Belarus was annexed to Poland, while eastern Belarus remained part of the Soviet Union. Seventeen years later, Belarus was reunited when western Belarus came under Soviet control in the context of the 1939 nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union (known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact).  

During the entire Soviet occupation of the region, and particularly during the Great Purge of 1936–1937, tens of thousands of people from Belarus were labeled “anti-communist” by government officials and deported to remote locations and labor camps inside the Soviet Union. Others were arrested and tortured, while many others were killed for what were perceived as political crimes. This violence set the stage for future violence against the Jews accused of complicity with the Soviets.

For the one million Jews living in Belarus, including refugees from the German invasion of Poland, Soviet rule created a paradox: while they were subject to the same brutality as their countrymen, many recognized the communist government as preferable to the Nazi regime to their west. That ambivalence was later used to justify violence against Jews by the local population, who accused Jews of collaborating with the Soviets.

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