The Republic of Belarus is a state formed of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It has retained, however, close ties to Moscow. Historically, Belarus belonged to Lithuania in the fourteenth century, Poland in the fifteenth, and later the Russian Empire in the late eighteenth century. From 1920 to 1939, its western regions (including Grodno and Brest-Litovsk) were integrated within Poland, while the rest of the country fell within the Soviet Union. The history of the Jewish community in Belarus is thus related to that of neighboring countries Lithuania, Poland, and Russia. Jewish communities were first mentioned in Brest-Litovsk in 1388, in Novogrudok in 1445, in Minsk and Smolensk in 1489, in Pinsk in 1506, and later still in Vitebsk, Mogilev and Orsha. After Poland’s division, Belarus was surrounded by the “Pale of Settlement” of the Russian Empire and thus subject to the restrictive policies of those areas. In 1847, 225000 Jews lived in Belarus; in 1897, the number had reached 725000 (or 13,6% of the total population).
From an intellectual and spiritual point of view, Belarusian Judaism resembled Lithuanian Judaism, marked by the haskalah (Enlightenment movement). The majority of Jewish communities here, in particular those of the north and west, were composed of Mitnaggedim, Orthodox rationalists opposed to Hasidism. Imported from Ukraine, Hasidism nevertheless took root in Vitesbk, thanks to Menachem Mendel. In the nineteenth century, the socialist movement became popular in Belarus, which had become the homeland of the Bund, the Jewish Socialist Party that would later be repressed by the Bolsheviks. In the 1920s and under German occupation in World War II, the Communist movement had a strong following among Belarusian Jews, who in large part joined the ranks of the partisans or became soldiers in the Red Army. The occupation was extremely violent in Belarus, where the Jews were exterminated inside their ghettos, and where one in four inhabitants were killed. In 1970, there remained 148000 Jews here, but emigration had significantly reduced this number, today estimated at approximately 30000.
In spite of this reduced number, the Jewish community of Belarus remains the third of former USSR – after Russia and Ukraine. Its capital, Minsk, hosts some 20,000 members. There are now 19 Jewish schools in the country and 1,400 students in 13 different cities. You can visit in Minsk a Jewish cultural center and the Center of the History of the Jews of Belarus in Vitebsk. If you read Belarusian, you can consult the community newspaper www.sb.by.
The Union of Belarussian Jewish Communities is the largest community organization in the country.
For any research related to ancient shetlts and its inhabitants, for which it would be impossible to make an exhaustive list here, visit the Belarus Holocaust Memorials Projects website.