ONLINE NEWSLETTER
(No. 20/2004 - June 2004)
Editor: Fran Bock

We thank Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky for permission to republish here his review of historian Emmanuil Ioffe's work on the history of Belarussian Jews.

We also thank Prof. Jeremy Cohen, Director of the Diaspora Research Center, Tel Aviv University, and the publishers, for permission to republish Dr. Smilovitsky's review, which originally appeared in SHVUT 1997, No. 6 (22), p. 218-222.

This article is copyrighted by the publishers of SHVUT and Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky.

Reprinting or copying of this article is not allowed
without prior permission from the copyrightholders
.

 

The History of the Jews in Belorussia: Review of a New Book

by Leonid Smilovitsky, Ph.D.,

Diaspora Research Center, Tel Aviv University

E. Ioffe, Stranitsy istorii evreev Belorussii. Kratkii nauchno populiarnyi ocherk (Pages from the history of Belorussian Jews. A short popular outline), Minsk, ARTI-FEKS, 1996, 294p.

The publication of Emmanuil Ioffe's book is a noteworthy event for Belorussian Jewry. The author, one of the leading Jewish historians of the republic, is chairman of the Historical Commission of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Culture in Belorussia and a professor at the Maksim Tank Pedagogical University in Minsk.

Ioffe had originally set out to produce a textbook for students of the Minsk Jewish University that would provide a general outline of the history of Belorussian Jewry during the 600 years of its existence. And, in keeping with his concept, Ioffe, modestly, called his research "a short outline." However, a perusal of the book shows that its author has gone far beyond this narrow definition. The massive amount of factual material, statistics, and historical illustrations, many of which appear here for the first time, make Pages more of an encyclopedia on Belorussian Jewry than a textbook.

After more than 50 years of enforced silence in regard to the history of the Jews of Belorussia, the denial of their contribution to the life of the republic, the development of science, culture, education and art, even information about this subject became a scarce commodity. While collecting the material for the book. Ioffe had to overcome a great many obstacles, from the difficulty of obtaining access to archives, to the social conventions which the Jews themselves had created as a means of defense during the long years of suppression. Much of the data quoted in the book is the outcome of the. author's own painstaking searches. He has used not only documents from central and regional archives in Belorussia, but also a vast amount of other sources, including documentation from Russia, Poland, Israel, the United States, and Germany, and studies conducted in those countries, as well as statistical reports and the periodical press.

The appendix to the book lists the most important dates (217 items with comments) in the history of the Jews in Belorussia, from 1388 (the date of the charter granted by Grand Duke Vitautas of Lithuania to the Jews in the city of Brest - the first written record of the existence of Jews in the area) to March 1996, when the first festival of Jewish culture was held in Grodno. This data is followed by 144 biographical entries outlining the lives of Jews born in Belorussia who became prominent public figures in various countries, and a list of 47 famous military commanders. The appendix also contains a list of 155 organizations and communities in 16 cities and towns of the republic affiliated with the Belorussian Association of Jewish organizations and communities (presided over by Leonid Levin), geographical and name indexes, and a bibliography.

The book consists of seven sections which encompass the main stages in the history of the Jews in Belorussia and discuss the most important events. On the whole, it is consistent, though not all of its sections are equal in volume and content. The first section is, in essence, an introduction ("Jews in Kievan Rus," the ninth to thirteenth centuries, pp. 6-9); the narrative of events begins in the second section ("By The Grand Duke's Mercy," 1388-1563, pp. 11-22). The third and fourth sections ("Under The King's Power," and "In the Shadow of the Double-Headed Eagle") are also rather short (44 pages) though they encompass a long period of history (1569-1917). The fifth section ("From .Revolution to War," 35 pp.) describes the state of Belorussian Jewry in the complex pre-war years (1917-1941).

The most noteworthy part of the book is the sixth section ("The Holocaust of Belorussian Jewry, 1941-1944," pp. 107-162). It shows how mistaken are those who think that the Second World War has been exhaustively studied and that nothing new can be revealed from further research. The opposite is the case, for only now has a real scientific study of the problem begun. Based on his own research, Professor Ioffe comes to the conclusion that not 450,000 Jews were murdered on Belorussian territory during the war, but 810,000 Belorussian Jews and 55,000 Jews deported from European countries by the Nazis. The book also contains the first publication of a list of 163 ghettos that existed in 153 cities, towns and villages in the republic (pp. 116-118). The author not only gives a general picture of Nazi genocide, but shows that in several instances certain ghettos became the nuclei of desperate resistance. He introduces new material on uprisings in the ghettos of Nesvizh, Kletsk, Mir, and Lakhva, as well as narrations about armed resistance in Glubokoe, Kobrin, Novogrudek, Slonim, etc. The book also discusses many examples of Belorussian Jews who fought in the battles of the Second World War, in the partisan movement, and in the anti-Nazi underground movement.

The final, seventh, section ("Belorussian Jews in 1945-1995," pp. 163-208) deals with the problems of postwar development. The author discusses the Jews' active participation in the reconstruction of Belorussia's economy and in scientific and cultural endeavors, quoting statistical data and illustrative examples of individual lives. Moreover, he does not fail to mention the tragic events which occurred in Belorussia, as in the rest of the Soviet Union, in 1948-1953. He also describes the main aspects of the development of Jewish life in 1960-1980. On the basis of his research, Ioffe shows that, in the post-war period, the number of Jews in the Party and state apparatus has consistently been declining.

The conclusion of the book is devoted to the revival of Jewish life from 1989 up to the mid-1990s. Ioffe tells us about the establishment of Jewish Sunday schools; the conducting of seminars on national history, language and culture; the opening of synagogues; the appearance of a Jewish press; the organizing of charities; the resumption of activities by the Joint Distribution Committee; and, finally, the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Republic of Belarus (1992). The author's main conclusion is that the Jews in Belorussia remain a talented, brave and proud people, and that despite the present difficult times, they look to the future with optimism (p. 208).

Despite the wealth of information provided by Professor Ioffe's book, it devotes too little attention to the problems of Jewish education and to the Jewish participation in industry and especially in agriculture (Jewish kolkhozy). And, notwithstanding the important role of religious tradition in the lives of Belorussia's Jews, the author only touches upon it briefly. Likewise, he could also have given a more detailed description of the anti-Zionist campaign in the 1970s and the early 1980s, a manifestation of state anti-Semitism, and provided a survey of opinion on the neo-Nazi threat and contemporary anti-Semitism. In addition, lack of political freedom has prevented Ioffe from giving an objective evaluation of the present day (1989-1995) policy on Jewish society promulgated by the Belorussian authorities.

One cannot help noting that, to a degree, the author tries to idealize the Jews, though this is understandable, since Jewish society has been ignored for many long years, remaining in the shadow of the "great Russian people" and their younger brother, the Belorussians. But, the simplifying of the Jewish problem in Soviet society should have been avoided. For example, the book does not contain any mention of the obvious fact that, after decades of pressure, many Jews themselves became leading assimilationists; the majority of Belorussian Jews gave up the effort to preserve Jewish tradition and language, avoided the synagogue, did not demand the revival of Jewish education, etc. Furthermore, when dealing with the present state of Jewish organizations and movements, the book should have noted the contradictions and difficulties that are serious obstacles to their unity. Finally, a comprehensive review of sources, literature and archival collections is obviously lacking.

In conclusion, it must be said that, as a first attempt at writing a brief outline of the history of the Jews in Belorussia, this book is a success. Professor Ioffe's monograph is an important and original study that helps to fill a significant gap. This work should serve as an example for other historians who may undertake the task of writing the missing pages of the history of Belorussia, or the history of the Poles, Ukrainians, Tatars, Germans, Gypsies and other ethnic groups who lived in that country for centuries. The knowledge of history and a respect for the lessons of the past will not only raise the authority and the level of academic research, but will also increase understanding between Jews and Gentiles in Belorussia.

Copyright 2004 Belarus SIG, SHVUT and Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky

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