Jews in Western Belarus: remembering 1939

Jews in Western Belarus: remembering 1939

After the end of the civil war in the territory of the former Russian Empire and the signing of the Riga Peace Treaty in March 1921, Belarus was artificially divided between the Russian SFSR and Poland. Different approaches were proposed to restore the country. However, nothing mattered more than not to lose the power gained at the cost of terrible losses. In its fight against ideological dissent, the Soviet power did not have mercy on its enemies and friends. It was a challenge to all previous historical experiences of mankind in economy, culture and spiritual development. The Bolshevik authorities exploited the thesis that there were enemies around who wanted to destroy the Soviet Union as the first state of the working-class people in the world. While using this approach, the authorities conferred themselves with special rights.

Drastic changes have affected nationality policies. Jews were as the most discredited part of the population in the former Pale of Settlement. Therefore, the Bolsheviks from the very beginning skilfully used the desire of the Jews for social justice. In the inter-war period, i.e. from 1921 to 1939, the Jews in Eastern Belarus were forcibly deprived of traditional life, the synagogues were closed down, and rabbis were arrested. The Soviet Yiddish school was designed to replace the traditional heders and yeshivas. Jews in the BSSR, who left shtetls for the big cities preferred education and a professional career. However, the cost of this transformation happened to be excessively high, as it incurred the rejection of spiritual life, national history, and tradition combined with unconditional loyalty to the regime.

On the contrary, the Jews of Western Belarus under the Polish rule lived a full-fledged traditional life despite the state anti-Semitism of the Polish authorities. They had their own rabbis, yeshivas, synagogues, and mikvahs. They freely traveled abroad, communicated with foreign Jews, and maintained connections with Palestine. The Catholic Church turned Poles against the Jews; the Polish state keep out of this process but at the same time protected the property rights of Jews in accordance with the law.

After 17 September 1939, the Soviet state treated Jews of Eastern (regions of Minsk, Viciebsk, Mahilioŭ, Babrujsk, Polack, Paliessie, and HomieÍ [1]) and Western Belarus (regions of Baranavičy, Bielastok, Brest, Viliejka and Pinsk [2]) as well as representatives of all other ethnic groups within the concept of class-divided society. The all-Union government from Moscow started the Sovietization of the western regions of Belarus. Employees, specialists, party functionaries of Jewish origin came there as Soviet workers and communists, while the local population of Western Belarus treated them primarily as Jews. While in Western Belarus, the Jews from Eastern Belarus tried to confirm their reputation as Soviet citizens and prove that they were no worse than Russian or Belarusian Soviet workers. Hence, they stressed that they had nothing Jewish left. Jews from Eastern Belarus treated wealthy Jews of Western Belarus as enemies of the Soviet state and not as Jews. When a Soviet investigator of Jewish ethnicity interrogated a Jew who was arrested, it was a misfortune for the latter. The cynical and hypocritical use of the ethnic factor by the Soviet state to promote its goals was disastrous for the Jews of Belarus as a whole. The task was to deprive the Jews of economic activities, traditional way of life and community institutions. The Soviet authorities failed to accomplish this task because the war with Nazi Germany broke out.

The tragedy of the Jews in Western Belarus was that the German troops marched in these territories during the first hours and days after their invasion to the USSR. In contrast, the Nazi German troops advanced to Eastern Belarus in a few weeks or even months (region of HomieÍ). Under the pretext of fighting saboteurs, Soviet border guards did not allow the residents of Western Belarus to cross the old Soviet-Polish border that existed before 1939. While the Germans stood clear of Belarusians, Russians, and other ethnic groups, Jews were doomed to die. As a result, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish population of Western Belarus did not have time to be evacuated. However, all the pre-war efforts to deprive the Jews of Western Belarus of their economic influence, religious and cultural life accompanied by mass deportations (based on property status and social characteristics) to remote areas of the USSR did not manage to destroy the community Jewish spirit. Therefore, their resistance against the Nazis during the Holocaust was more active and successful there. All the uprisings in the ghettos took place not in Eastern, but in Western Belarus. The same is true about the majority of the Jewish guerrilla groups and units. Having started the war against the USSR, Nazis not without any reason believed that the Jews of Eastern Belarus were the most sovietized and therefore they should be exterminated in the first turn.

After the war, Jews from both the Belarusian SSR and other regions of the Soviet Union came to the western regions of Belarus to restore the national economy of the republic. Towns and cities of Western Belarus survived because there were no active hostilities there, unlike in Eastern Belarus where everything was burned down. However, there were no Jewish residents who had lived there before the war. Today in Western Belarus one can see Jewish buildings, architecture, even some stone synagogues that have preserved their pre-war image. Much work has to be done to restore the historical memory of the Belarusian Jews who did so much for Belarus. This issue can be effectively tackled only by combined efforts of scientists, local historians, and the state.


[1] The geographical names are transliterated according to the rules of the Belarusian language. The same geographical names in other official languages of the Belarusian SSR are the following: Russian – Minsk, Vitebsk, Mogilev, Bobruysk, Polotsk, Polesye, Gomel; Polish – Mińsk, Witebsk, Mohylew, Bobrujsk, Połock, Polesie, Homel; Yiddish – מינסק, וויטעבסק, מאָלעוו ,באברויסק ,פּאָלאָצק ,פּאָלעסיע , האָמליע.
[2] The geographical names are transliterated according to the rules of the Belarusian language. The same geographical names in other official languages of the Belarusian SSR are the following: Polish: Baranowicze, Białystok, Brześć, Wilejka, Pińsk; Russian: Baranovichi, Belostok, Brest, Vileyka, Pinsk; Yiddish – באראנאוויטש, ביאַליסטאָק, בּריסק, ווילייקע, פינסק.

Image: Restored Jewish cemetery in the village of Kamai (district of Pastavy, Viciebsk region) © Leonid Smilovitsky

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