(No. 3/2008 – October 2008)
History of the Kobrin Synagogue
by Maxim Mill
The first mention of the town of Kobrin begins in the year 1287. According to archival sources, Jews established their residences in Kobrin in the 15th century. Faybush Ben Yosef was one of the first Jews mentioned in the archival information. The documents state that Faybush rented a brewery in the city of Kobrin on August 7th, 1560. Based on the Kobrin residential real estate inventory of 1563, there were 22 houses that belonged to Jews, about 12% of the total number of Kobrin homeowners. The majority of homes owned by Jews were located on Pinskaya Street. This is the same street where the "Great" Kobrin synagogue was located.
The main source of income for Jews was trade, brewing, and growing fruit in orchards. In 1589, Jewish tradesmen were granted the same rights as non-Jews. As some of the archival sources confirm, most of the members of the Kobrin Jewish community were struggling to make ends meet. In 1705, the Kobrin Jewish community had only contributed 315 zlotych (Polish money) to the treasury. It was the smallest amount of taxes paid of the 26 Jewish communities in the Brest district. In search of ways out of poverty, the Kobrin Kagal (community board) made an agreement with a local Jew, Mikhel Itzkovitch, to loan them 1,000 zlotych for 8 years. In exchange, Itzkovitch asked for a tax break for himself and his descendants. He also got the exclusive rights to sell alcohol in Kobrin.
In 1766, the Kobrin Jewish community had 924 taxpayers, and the main source of income was trade. More established traders sold salt, timber, and grains.
The first Rabbi of Kobrin, according to the existing archival records, was Rabbi Betzalel, son of Solomon Darshan. Rabbi Betzalel founded a yeshiva, which became an alma mater for more than 400 students before he died in 1678. The records also indicate that Rabbi Yakov Shapiro was head of the Rabbinical Court of Kobrin.
In 1847, the Kobrin Jewish population was 4,184 residents, a little less than half the total Kobrin population of 8,840 people.
In 1863, there was a huge fire in Kobrin that destroyed most of the town's wooden buildings, including the wooden synagogue on Pinskaya Street which was built in the middle of the 15th century. The first mention of this synagogue was found in archival records from 1473. After the fire, the Kobrin Jewish community began to raise money to construct a new brick synagogue to replace the old one, which had completely burned down. The construction of the new synagogue took almost 5 years. The largest donation from the Kobrin community came from the richest resident, merchant Gersh, son of Nathan Soloveichik, who was in the grains trade. Some of the bricks were donated by brick manufacturing owners: merchants Leizer Volavelskiy and brothers Mordukh and Aron Mintz. The other source of money came from a newly imposed tax for salt, yeast, candles, and kosher meat, which was mandatory for local Jews only. It was to be a temporary action until the fundraising goal was reached.
On the west side of the building there were 3 doors, which led to the main hall. The main hall and sanctuary were connected through a wide double door of dark brown color. Above the doors, the following saying was written: "This is G-d's gateway. Righteous men step through it". Here is the description of the synagogue from the Kobrin Yizkor book:
On the south side of the building an addition was built where the synagogue's cantor used to live. He was paid a monthly salary by the local community. During different times, the most respected cantors were Rabbis Aron-Leib Vladovskiy and Meir Tebenbaum.
There was a dynasty of Kobrin Chassidic tzadiks, who were very influential in the Kobrin Jewish Community for a long time: Moshe son of Israel (died in 1858), Noach son of Naftoli (died 1889), David son of Shlomo (died in 1918), Moshe son of Aharon (died in 1942), Barukh son of Iosif (died in 1949). Special memories were recorded after the death of Chief Rabbis of the Kobrin synagogue - Meir Shafit (died in 1873) and Eliya Lider. At that time, the Chief Rabbi of Kobrin was the most respected Rabbi of Eastern Europe - Rabbi Chaim Berlin.
In 1897, the total population of Kobrin was 10,408; among them were 6,738 Jews. In 1915, many Jewish refugees began to arrive in Kobrin, escaping from German troops. At that time, there were more than 300 people living on the grounds of the synagogue. On August 2, 1915, German airplanes dropped a few bombs in the area of the synagogue, and the southwest corner of the building received serious damage. It was restored 3 years later in 1918.
Between 1895 and 1921, more than 900 Jews emigrated from Kobrin abroad. According to the 1923 census, the Jewish population of Kobrin was 5,431 people, 66% of total Kobrin residents. At that time, the following Jewish educational institutions existed there: Talmud-Torah - a yeshiva, a Jewish school for boys in Hebrew (4-year education), and an artisan school teaching in Yiddish.
The Russian Army entered Kobrin on September 20, 1939. Shortly after that, in the middle of 1940, the Army was ordered to close all synagogues, yeshivas, and Talmud-Torah. Germans occupied Kobrin on July 24, 1941, and on that day, they and their allies gathered 170 male Jews and executed them on the grounds of the synagogue. There were more than 8,000 Jews in the Kobrin Ghetto. Almost all of them were killed by the spring of 1943.
Kobrin Synagogue 1949
In 1954, local authorities added water and sewer to the building, as well as a new addition. In 1955 the synagogue building housed a Kobrin brewery. In 1996, the building was given to the local historical museum. Due to lack of funds, the administration of the museum wasn't able to make the much-needed renovations of the building. In 2004, it was decided to return the building to its rightful owner - the Kobrin Jewish Community, which consisted of 60 members.
The planning for the synagogue's upcoming restoration includes a building that can be used simultaneously for two purposes:
Given the lack of any active synagogues in the area, it is envisioned that the synagogue will draw from an area that includes the towns of: Antopol, Brest, Bereza, Chomsk, Chernyany, Chernyavchitzy, Divin, Domachevo, Drogichin, Gorodetz, Ivanovo (Yanovo), Kamenetz, Kobrin, Logishin, Malech, Motol, Pinsk, Pruzhany, Seletz, Shereshevo, Telehany, Tomashevka, Volchin, Vysokoe and Zhabinka.
Kobrin Synagogue 2008
References used for the article:
1. The book of Kobrin: The Scroll of Life and Destruction, ed. Betzalel Shwartz, Israel Chaim Biletzki, Published in Tel-Aviv, 1951, photocopy in English, translated by Avidan and Perry, 1992
2. Encyclopedia Judaica: Thompson Gale/Macmillan, 2nd Edition, 1992
3. Documents in the Grodno Historical Archive
4. Documents in the Byelorussian Archive/Museum of Literature and Art.
For more information, please, refer to the website - Kobrin Synagogue
For questions regarding the article, please contact Maxim Mill
Copyright © 2008 Belarus SIG and Maxim Mill
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