Jewish Studies Minsk
by
Elissa Bemporad
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0123

Introduction

It is difficult to conceive of East European Jews—their history, culture, politics, and particularly the ways in which acculturation, assimilation, and anti-Semitism affected their lives in modern times—without studying their remarkable presence in urban centers. The city of Minsk was home to an important Jewish community since the 16th century. The investigation of Jewish life in this urban center sheds light on the multifaceted dynamics of Jewish history in three major geopolitical contexts: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the tsarist empire, and the Soviet Union. Located in the heart of Belarus, Minsk was characteristically diverse for an East European city in its ethnic and religious demographic composition. It retained a high percentage of Jewish inhabitants over the centuries. From the late 18th century to World War II its Jewish population ranged from 30 to more than 50 percent of the city’s inhabitants. The Jewishness of the city remained unaffected as Minsk moved across geopolitical borders. Part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania since the 14th century, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth since the 16th century, the city was incorporated into the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century. It rested surrounded by villages and rural settlements inhabited primarily by Orthodox peasants who spoke Belarusian, and Jewish merchants and artisans who spoke Yiddish. Under Polish-Lithuanian rule Polish became the official language used by the aristocracy and royal administrators in Minsk. When in 1793 the tsar stepped in, Russian replaced Polish as the language of the new government’s bureaucracy. The city became the capital of the Minsk province and grew into an administrative center of sizable political importance, home to tsarist deputies and officers. It also grew into an important bureaucratic center for the supervision of Russian Jewry and the debate over the “Jewish Question” in the northwestern region of the empire. While the bulk of the Minsk Jewish community was trilingual—Yiddish being the spoken language, Hebrew the written one, and Russian, instead of Polish, the language used to communicate with the surrounding non-Jewish population—a number of Jews began to use Russian only. By the end of the 19th century numerous Jewish institutions of the growing Jewish urban bourgeoisie operated primarily in Russian, while most of the members of the Jewish working force and lower middle class remained predominantly Yiddish-speaking. Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and the Polish-Soviet War (1919–1921), Minsk became the only historic Jewish center to develop into the capital city of a Soviet republic, with a high concentration of communist political, economic, and cultural institutions. This article will consider the principal features of the Minsk Jewish community over the centuries, thereby closely weighing in the question of its exceptionality and ordinariness compared to other East European Jewish cities.

General Overviews

Any survey on East European Jewish history and monograph on Russian Jewry will include references to Minsk as a center of Jewish life in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in the tsarist empire, and in the Soviet Union, as well as to some of its prominent Jewish leaders and institutions. Given its nature as an important demographic, cultural, religious, and political Jewish center, it would not be possible to write about East European Jewish history without providing some reference to Minsk. Baron 1976, Dubnov 2000, Levitats 1943 and Levitats 1981, Polonsky 2010–2012 and Weinryb 1973, all include some discussion of the Jews of Minsk in their general works on Polish, Russian, and Soviet Jewry. Kohen and Even-Shoshan 1975–1985 is the only extant study of the history of Jewish Minsk from the establishment of the Jewish community until the post–World War II years. It is a two-volume Yizkor book, a commemorative anthology, compiled to memorialize the Jewish city whose population was obliterated during the Holocaust. The idea of writing a comprehensive history of one city—a sort of biography of a place—emerged in the second half of the 20th century. This trend relates in particular to centers of East European Jewish life, which were destroyed during World War II. Furthermore, what remained of them came under the harrowing influence of communism and the existence of the Soviet Bloc.

  • Baron, Salo W. The Russian Jew under Tsars and Soviets. New York: Macmillan, 1976.

    E-mail Citation »

    General survey of Russian and Soviet Jewish history that provides some information about Minsk Jewry under the tsars and the Soviets.

  • Dubnov, Simon. History of the Jews in Russia and Poland: From the Earliest Times until the Present Day. Translated from the Russian by I. Friedlander. Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    General survey of Polish and Russian Jewish history that includes some information about the religious, cultural, social, and political life of the Jews of Minsk, with a focus on pre-Soviet times, from the 17th century to World War I.

  • Kohen, David, and Shelomo Even-Shoshan, eds. Minsk, ir va-em: korot, maasim, ishim, havai. 2 vols. Tel Aviv: Irgun yotse Minsk u-venoteha be-Yisrael, 1975–1985.

    E-mail Citation »

    The biography (in Hebrew) of a Jewish city, from its early history until the post–World War II period, through memoirs, interviews, eyewitness accounts, biographical sketches of communal leaders, and introductory essays. The first volume covers Jewish life until the October Revolution, and the second one until World War II. Because of the intensity of Soviet anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism at the time in which the anthology was put together, the discussion of Jewish life in the interwar period is somewhat skewed.

  • Kohen, David, Shelomo Even-Shoshan, and Nehemiya Maccabee. Albom Minsk: Mivhar tatslumim. Tel Aviv: Irgun yotse Minsk u-venoteha be-Yisrael, 1988.

    E-mail Citation »

    This short book (in Hebrew and English) is a supplement to the two-volume Yizkor book, and contains a selection of images of the city from the 19th century, as well as photos of Jewish leaders and institutions. It also includes some excerpts from the correspondence between the members of the Minsk Yizkor book committee.

  • Levitats, Isaac. The Jewish Community in Russia, 1772–1844. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.

    E-mail Citation »

    First volume of a general two-volume history of the Jewish community in the Russian Empire, which provides some information about the communal institutions, religious authorities, and social and economic life of the Jewish community of Minsk.

  • Levitats, Isaac. The Jewish Community in Russia, 1844–1917. Jerusalem: Posner, 1981.

    E-mail Citation »

    Second volume of a general two-volume history of the Jewish community in the Russian Empire, which provides some information about the communal institutions, religious authorities, and social and economic life of the Jewish community of Minsk.

  • Polonsky, Antony. The Jews in Poland and Russia. 3 vols. Oxford and Portland, OR: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2010–2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    General survey of Polish and Russian Jewish history that includes some information about the religious, cultural, social, and political life of the Jews of Minsk until the Bolshevik Revolution.

  • Weinryb, Bernard D. The Jews of Poland: A Social and Economic History of the Jewish Community in Poland from 1100 to 1800. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1973.

    E-mail Citation »

    General survey of Polish Jewish history that provides information about the religious, cultural, social, and political life of the Jews of Minsk until the 19th century.

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