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The story of the community

From stories of Jews of Minsk.
Jews settled in Minsk in the XIV century at the invitation of the Lithuanian princes, who saw in them force capable of restoring life of the city considerably destroyed and ravaged by Tatars. Jews did not require special privileges for themselves, except for wardship in the protection of life and property.
Lithuanian Prince Alexander in 1495 expelled the Jews from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which consisted of the Belarusian lands, but the same prince, having become the king of Poland, allowed the Jews to return in six years. They paid a substantial amount of money to the royal treasury, returned to Minsk and engaged in the collection of taxes here, had the right to lease land and to trade. Every year, the community had to pay a fixed tax to the royal treasury.
In 1579 king Stefan Batory granted the Jews the right to trade in the city, and later, since 1629 the permission was granted to them to own shops. Since 1631 the Jewish community was part of VAAD (Central Authority of the Jewish self-government in Poland). King Wladyslaw IV in 1633 expanded former privileges for Jews greatly. They were allowed to engage in any trade, they were given territory for the new Jewish cemetery near the city, because the first one was far beyond its borders and Jewish funeral processions were repeatedly targeted. Minsk Jews were allowed to buy land in the city center for homes and shops. The magistrate and the district headman had to guard the Jews and their property, preventing attempts and strictly punishing violators. In fights between citizens and the Jews, local elite took the side of the latter because Jews renting their land, brought huge income.
King Jan Sobieski muniment (1674 - 1696) played a big role in the life of Jews in Minsk; according to this document Jews were allowed to organize workshops and build new houses. Synagogue, mikvah, cemetery exempt from taxes. This decision was dictated by the necessity to restore the ruined and destroyed city after Bohdan Khmelnytsky uprising.
The Jewish population of the city grew rapidly and in 1766 there were 1322 taxpayers - Jews. In 1897 the community of Minsk was the fourth-largest community of Russian Pale - 47562 persons.
Minsk in late XIX - early XX centuries was growing rapidly. The Pale of Settlement Act, which forbade rich Jews to settle and buy land for the construction of commercial apartment buildings and commercial and industrial enterprises outside towns contributed to this and city officials under the requirements of Jewish businessmen were forced to include in the city boundaries more and more land on which enterprises belonging Jews were built. As a result, in 1904, Minsk area occupied ninth place among the cities of the empire, with the exception of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Jewish merchants of Minsk concentrated in their hands almost all timber trade in Belarus and factory industry that appeared in the late XIX century. In 1886, 168 out of 191 merchants of Minsk and Minsk district (88%) were Jews, and in 1904 all 6 banking offices in the city belonged to Jews. There were 6636 Jewish craftsmen in 1904 in the city and county (92.2%). Their traditional and main occupation was the manufacture of clothing and footwear, as well as there were many bakers, butchers, confectioners, carpenters, mechanics, blacksmiths, etc. Reputation of Minsk as a major shopping center attracted nonresident and foreign entrepreneurs. Minsk was a credit center of the North - Western Region, as banks in the city provided all forest trade of Belarus with Ukraine, Germany and England.
Vivid picture of Minsk Jewish life can be found in the memoirs of the well-known Russian-Jewish historian Saul Ginzburg, who was born in Minsk in 1866. His memories "From the distant past," were written in 1944 in the USA, where he lived at that time.
“In my childhood and young years, the city hardly had more than 40-50 thousand inhabitants. Stone houses made a significant portion of the total number of buildings and rarely exceed two floors. They were concentrated in the central part of the city, located on the mountain. In the lower part stone buildings could be found only as a rare exception amongst the wooden houses and small houses. Minsk could not boast being picturesque, only here and there beautiful views could be seen in the descent of the mountain, in the part of the city adjacent to the river. River Svisloch near which the city is situated – is rather paltry in the sultry summer season it somewhere shoaled so that even a chicken could ford it.
Population of my hometown was quite colorful. A significant majority of the inhabitants were Jews, then the next largest group - Poles Catholics, Orthodox population (represented almost exclusively by officials, clergy and the officers) was not great. There was as well a non-crowded German Colony, which had its neat little church with its adjacent shady garden. On the city outskirts there was also the Tatar settlement, where a mosque – wooden and quite miserable – was situated. All these groups lived separately, very little coming into contact with one another. Communication between Jews and Christians took place only in those cases when it was necessary to deal with the “authorities”, only individual persons (and not houses) were familiar with non-“Jews”, they knew all of them without exception and their help was resorted when patronage to one or other of those in power was needed.
Activities of separate classes of religious groups in Minsk were as well different. Orthodox predominantly served in different agencies. Philistines – partly Russians, partly Poles – who lived on the city outskirts were engaged in gardening, and even agriculture. There were almost no industrial establishments in the years of my childhood; there were only a few tanneries and factories and several tobacco factories. Trade and crafts were concentrated almost exclusively in the hands of Jews. Craftsmen were almost all Jews, and Christians, members of the profession, could be counted on fingers; Jews also engaged in all other branches of physical labor. Among the numerous porters-Jews there were people who showed live refutation of the usual Jewish lassitude perception through their powerful shape and the ability to weigh and carry enormous heavy things. Timber business, which had quite large representatives in Minsk, also belonged to Jewish professions. There were also significant warehouses of different products. The quantity of small Jewish shops, stalls was great and as the distance from the central part of the city grew little shops became poorer and more miserable. In many of these there were only few products for several rubles; but at the same time the landlords fed their families, settled their daughters, helped their sons on in life, who after marriage acquired similar shops or joined any crafts”.
During the First World War, the number of Jews in the city increased significantly due to refugees from the frontline. In these years, numerous Jewish newspapers were issued in Yiddish, such as the Bund “Der Wecker” (Alarm), the Zionist “Der Id” (Jew). In 1917, a conference of Zionist parties of Belarus was held uniting about 75 thousand people. In 1918 youth organization “Ge Holuts” office was established in Minsk and the famous Zionist I. Trumpeldor who helped to organize the Jewish self-defense units, came here. During the first years of Soviet power various Jewish organizations and parties continued to operate. But already in 1921-1922, they began to close and only the activity of the Jewish section of the Bolshevik Party regulated the entire job at the “Jewish street”. A new type of Jew - the Soviet one is being created and for these reasons schools were designed, Jewish offices in technical colleges, institutes; all cultural institutions, which worked in the Yiddish language.
Wehrmacht army troops entered Minsk on June 28, 1941 and the occupation of the city lasted until July 3, 1944. Nearly hundred thousand Jews of the city and surrounding towns were destroyed in the Minsk ghetto which existed from July 19, 1941 to October 23, 1943. Among them there were about twenty thousand Jews from Western Europe countries.
After the war, returning Jews began to revive the community life. Urban community was officially registered in 1945. Its leaders managed to return the part of the building of Cold synagogue, built in the XVII century. In 1946, the monument was opened at the Yama, where nearly five thousand Jews were annihilated on March 2, 1942. In 1949 - 1950 community activists were arrested and they were released only in 1953, some have died in custody. Jewish life in Minsk almost ceased. Only in the late 60s - early 70s “conscientious objector” appeared in the city – those who fight for obtaining permission to leave for permanent residence to Israel. During these years, first clandestine groups to study Hebrew appear (Ulpan), as well as musical Jewish bands. In 1988 Minsk Society for Jewish Culture named after Izi Harik was created and since then Jewish life gradually starts to revive in the city.
Today in Minsk doors of synagogues are opened, there is mikvah and kosher charitable kitchen. Jewish schools and kindergartens operate.
In Minsk Jewish Campus various organizations welcome visitors - children and youth sections, there is a charitable society Hesed Rachamim for the elderly. There is the Museum of History and Culture of Jews in Belarus.
Sign of the main university of BSSR in the 20ies years
3rd female Jewish academy
Synagogue at Novo-Moskovskaya street, beginning of the XX century
Hotel “Europe” was built by the well-known Jewish manufacturer Yakov Poliakov in the beginning of the XIX century. It was afterwards rebuilt, reconstructed in 1906-1908 and represented the biggest building in Minsk before the revolution. Before the 20ies years in belonged to Poliak family and it shows contribution of Jews to the housing of the city and their influence in the city. Poliak was not only the richest person, but he put a lot of funds to both city development and to charity (both Jewish and non-Jewish). He was a very respected person in Minsk governorship and brought benefit to his community by that.
Inna Gerasimova


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