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Translation of Novogrudok chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin
Translation of Novogrudok chapter from
Published by Yad Vashem
Published in Jerusalem
Published in Jerusalem
Our sincere appreciation to Yad Vashem for permission
This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland,
Volume VIII Districts Vilna, Bialystok, Nowogrodek. Editor Shmuel Spector,
co-editor Bracha Freundlich, pages 430-437. Published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 2005
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Translated by Carol Hoffman
History of the City
Novogrudok, an old town east of Grodno, was founded in 1116. In 1241 it was destroyed by the Mongolians. It was rebuilt by the Lithuanian Prince Mindaugas as the capital of the Grand Lithuanian Duchy (and there afterwards the king of Poland).
In 1444 the Grand Duke of Lithuania Casimir Jagellon granted status of a gubernia city and Magdeburg rights, and from 1507 it was the regional capital and the government seat (Veyboda) of the Grand Duchy.
Grand Duke of Lithuania, King Stefan Batory, declared that the tribunal (high court) would be held every other year and would last for 22 weeks. An archive was established in Novogrudok for the multitude of tribunal documents, including documents presented by Jews regarding their business affairs. When Poland was divided into two in the 18th century, Novogrudok was annexed to Tzarist Russia, and from 1843 it was a satellite town in the Minsk gubernia. Sundays were market day, and 19 March was the annual fair of cattle and horses. Due to the railroad tracks, industry developed. Transport took merchandise to the nearby train.
More than half the population of Novogrudok was Jews. Next there was a sizeable minority of Tartars (at the end if the 19th century there were 1,116 people). After World War I Novogrudok was part of Poland and was a district capital. Novogrudok was annexed to the Soviet Belarus Republic in September 1939. During the Nazi occupation it was included in the Generalkommissariat of Belarus. Following liberation by the Soviets in 1944, it returned to the auspices of the Soviet Union. Today, after the dissolving of the Soviet Union, it is part of Belarus.
The Jews until the end of World War I
The first Jews who settled in Novogrudok are mentioned in documentation from the middle of the 15th century, including a tax list from 1848. In 1495 Lithuanian Prince Alexander expelled all of the Jews from the Dukedom. After a period of time they were permitted to return to their homes and even recover their properties. In 1507 King Zigmund I allowed the written rights Jews had received in 1388 from Prince Vitobet, and were allowed to hold in their accounts 1,000 prashim but they had to deposit 1,000 gold pieces above their regular taxes. In 1551 the Jews of Novogroduk received a pardon on Serbeshtzizna taxes (tax on silver tools) which had been imposed on all of the Lithuanian Jews in 1529. Pressure from the Christian citizens of the city limited the Jews to living only in their own quarter, a form of ghetto. In 1651 King Zigmund August enlarged the Jewish quarter by adding two streets. The conference of Lithuanian State Committee decided in 1623 that the community would be attached to Brest of Lithuania. According to the Lithuanian State Committee Jews paid head tax and Poborotny tax. The second half of the 17th century the divisions expanded and tax was imposed on them also for covering expenses and deficits of the Lithuanian State Committee. In 1647 the Novogrudok community paid 1,062 gold coins, 1655 -- 1,200 gold coins, 1664 -- 2,600 gold coins, 1670 -- 1,400 gold coins for an old debt. By 1691 the Lithuanian State Committee was in debt of 1,625 gold coins, so an additional 10 cents was imposed on the community; neighboring communities paid more heavily an additional 18 cents. Novogrudok's amount remained stable for 30 years until 1721 when taxes were raised to 25 cents. In 1634 a Jew was murdered by a Christian, and funds were needed in order to bring the Christian to trial (revenge for murder). The State Committee met with representatives of the communities Vilna, Nishvitz, Slonim and Novogrudok to have a committee headed by the Vilna representative to decide to receive a loan and the terms for returning it amongst the communities.
During the 18th and 19th centuries the number of Jews in Novogrudok increased consistently. In 1765 the city and area had 893 head tax payers (if we add to that number religious places and infants to the age of one that were exempt from tax, and also Jews who managed to avoid paying taxes) the number would be around 1,000. In the census of 1847, the first under Russian rule, Novogrudok and its nearby villages had a population of 2,576; the end of the 19th century there were about 5,000 Jews settled in Novogrudok. From the beginning of the 20th century the number of Jews decreased consistently due to emigration to the United States.
In the 17th and 18th centuries some of the Jews earned their livelihood from giving various financial services to city elders (Radzville princes). The majority of the Jews earned their livelihood from trade as small tradesmen, running inns and small workshops. In the 19th century some new professions were added. Twice weekly was the market day in Novogrudok. Manufacturing matzot became an important industry and was supplied not only to the regional markets but also places far away. Transportation to the train station at Novoyelnia was by carts owned by Jews. In Novogrudok as in all of the area all of the buildings were of wood; fires occurred frequently. In 1911 half of the houses of the Jews and others lost their homes and property, but with helpful contributions they were restored quickly.
Novogrudok had many synagogues, large and small. Most were close to the large Yeshiva and the Heker Synagogue where prayers were held only on Shabbat. Some of the synagogues were named after the craft or trade of their members (shoemakers, tailors, butchers) or by their public role Hevra Kadisha (Burial Society), or by other characteristics (the Shtibl of Kivdnov followers, the Kloyz of Todroz, where pupils studied and were named after their mentors or benefactors).
Of the first rabbis of Novogrudok were Rabbi Aba Meir and Rabbi Shmuel of Vilna (both during the years 1690-1720); Rabbi Arie Leib; Rabbi Naftali Hertz, grandson of Rabbi Aba Meir; Rabbi Mordechai Markel (1793); and from 1798 Rabbi David ben Harav Moshe from Kleck (1778-1838), who was famous throughout Lithuania for his book Gallia Masechta (in two parts, of which one is Questions and Answers and the second is Exegesis and Eulogies. At the beginning of the 19th century (from approximately 1805) Rabbi Zvi Hirsch headed the community. The city's Rabbi during the years 1835-1850 was Rabbi Alexander Ziskind Harkaby who been a trader and a member of a wealthy family. The years 1851-1864 was Rabbi Yitzhak Elhanan Spektor (died 1898), a famous learned rabbi of Kovno and rulings of Eastern Europe. He also was a civic leader and led the struggle against the Tzar's heavy taxes on the Jewish community; he did this by collecting information from all of the communities and then was smuggled to Eastern Prussia to western countries to solicit their support. Rabbi Baruch Lipschitz, author of Brit Yaakov, was during the period 1864-1874; he was an outstanding rabbinical scholar. Thereafter (1874-1908) was the important Rabbi Yehiel Mical Epstein, author of Aruch Hashulhan (9 parts) and other books. The day of his funeral all of the Jewish shops in the city closed, and all pupils joined the funeral procession. The choice of a rabbi after Rabbi Epstein was difficult. Several candidates were rejected. Finally Rabbi Menachem Krakovsky was chosen (1908-end of World War I).
A famous personality at the end of the 18th century was Rabbi Israel ben Yehuda Leib. He disliked the Hasidim (pious) and attacked their fanaticism in his book Ozer Israel (published anonymously) Takenot Hamoadim, Midot Hasidut and Tavot Zadikim, Sefer Havikuah, Kavrot Hatava (the book did not survive because the Hasidim burned it) and the book of denunciation of the pious in German
In 1896 Rabbi Yosef Yuzel Horovitz founded the Yeshiva Beit Yosef Danavaradak where he led his pupils and community in the unique Novagrudok Method a development of the Musar method of Rabbi Israel Slanter. At first the students were young but as its reputation spread pupils from far and near flocked to it. Rabbi Yosef Yuzel Horovitz's method, commonly known as The Grandfather from Novogrudok met strong opposition, but nevertheless spread because of his pupils who established similar yeshivot throughout Poland. Rabbi Yosef Yuzel Horovitz died in 1920 in Kiev, and 40 years later his remains were brought to lay in Israel.
At the end of the 19th century the city had many chartable organizations Lehem Anayim (bread for the poor), Malbish Arumim (clothe the naked), Honen Dlayim (interest free loans for needy), Tomche Yedidim (friends' support), etc. Shokde Malacha (trade school -- founded in 1872) referred young people to learn trades and crafts with qualified mentors and teachers and supervised them by having them sign contracts. The company maintained a carpentry shop for furniture and established a pattern of young married couples ordering their furniture from the shop. The community maintained hospitals and old age homes which were subsidized by wealthy families, especially those who lived in Petersburg. Some of the funds for chartable activities came from contributions of the city's Jews. Proceeds from the amateur theater were donated to charitable purposes and the Novogrudok choir performed Kroytzer Sonnet, Hayetuma, Nar Hakfar and other plays.
With the founding of the World Zionist Histradrut (Federation [of labor]) in the late 19th century, a branch was opened in Novogrudok. One of the active members was Rabbi Nachman Gatzov, author of Al Naharot Babel (on the rivers of Babel) on the Bavli Talmud (printed by courtesy of Nachum Sokolov and distributed as a gift to Hatzfira subscribers. In the beginning of the 20th century a branch of the Bund was opened in Novogrudok (1902) and the Socialist Zionist Party. Bund founders were students H. Kalpanitzksy and Abraham Kaplan. In 1903 Bund members organized the first strike of 200 seamstresses that lasted two months. Next was a strike of the matzot bakers in the city, and in October 1905 they organized a large demonstration together with the Socialist Zionist Party and the Polish Socialist Party that also had many Jews. During the days of reaction after the failure of the 1905 revolution when the threat of pogroms hung over Novogrudok, members of the Bund and the Socialist Zionist Party with support of the Jewish public leaders founded an independent Jewish defense group. Jewish emigration which had started at the end of the 19th century increased during the Reaction Period.
The dictionary author Alexander Harkaby, was born in Novogrudok (born in 1863 and died in the mid 1930s). He published several Yiddish-English, English-Yiddish, dictionaries in the United States and was known for his important contribution to the spread of the Yiddish language. Of the same family was the famous Middle East Historian Abraham Eliahu Harkaby (1839-1919).
The outbreak of World War I saw an increase of Jewish emigration from Novogrudok. During the German siege (fall 1915- end 1918) the local economy was paralyzed, and the Germans confiscated agricultural supplies and harvests. People of Novogrudok suffered starvation, and many were taken to forced labor. The Germans eased the limitations which had been enforced during the former rule; Jews resumed their trades, returned to political activities and cultural life. From 1917 the Zionist Sport Association Macabbi was active, and that same year an orphanage was opened for 22 Jewish children.
At the end of the war Novogrudok experienced frequent changes of government between the Bolsheviks and Poles. With the establishment of the State of Poland Novogrudok became a district capital.
Jews between the two World Wars
Novogrudok's economy did not vary after the war. There were some Jewish industrialists, wholesale merchants, and a group of free masons; but most were small tradesmen, craftsmen and various services. Some were in need; Novogrudok, like in other Polish cities and towns which were left in bad economic conditions following the war; the number of Jews in need of support increased consistently. The situation worsened towards the end of the 1930s with the increase of anti-Semitism.
Economic activity of Jews was backed by two local banks --- Commerce Bank and Bank Ammi shel bali malacha v'soherim zahirim (The Peoples' Bank of Craftsmen and small Tradesmen). In 1925 the Peoples' Bank had 452 shareholders (229 craftsmen and 158 small tradesmen). The Peoples' Bank founded Igud bali hamalacha a yehudim (the Association of Jewish Craftsmen) in Novogrudok (founded prior to World War I and lasted until 1938). The association participated in local municipal elections and won representation on the City Council's directorship. Next to the General Organization in the 1920s there were Association s of Jewish Craftsmen, a branch of the National Needle Workers in Warsaw, that was under the Bund's influence; Leather Workers Organization that was under the Communist's influence; Tobacco Workers Organization that was under the Polish Socialist Party (PPS); Metal Workers Organization (founded in the early 1930s by Zionist interests) that did not obtain local authority's recognition and dissolved soon thereafter. Other organizations also dissolved, and the only one remaining was the National Needle Workers. The organizations maintained a communal library which was controlled by the National Needle Workers Organization and Bundists.
After the war several important Jewish social and charitable institutions in the city were ruined, amongst them the hospital, old age home, society of the Shokdi Malacha and the orphanage (as recalled founded at the end of 1917) that had moved to its own building in 1924. Until World War II 119 children lived there. When the children reached the age of 13, they moved to the boarding school of the Shokdi Malacha and learned a profession --- boys studied carpentry and girls sewing. A Jewish owner of a furniture factory took the boys aged 14-18, and for three years they were taught the furniture carpentry crafts. Many of the boys were outstanding in their studies; the factory received orders from Polish government institutions. A branch of the Health Organization of Polish Jews taught the youth preventative medicine with guidance and lectures; the organization had a clinic for expectant mothers and babies, treated children in schools and the orphanage, and had a nutrition plant for school children, summer camps and needy children. Those activities continued until World War II.
The Jewish education system developed. The most important Jewish educational institution in the city was The Hayim Nachman Bialik Hebrew School, founded in 1919 and affiliated with the network Tarbut (culture). The Hebrew school had seven classrooms, graduated 239 pupils in 12 cycles. From fifth grade they also studied Yiddish, French, agriculture in the school's yard, carpentry (boys), and sewing (girls). They maintained a Hebrew nursery school, pupils' club, choir, band, drama group, and a library with more than 2,000 books. Soon thereafter the Yiddish school was established which closed a few years later. There was also the Shlomo Wolfovitz private religious school in Novogrudok which later became part of the Mizrachi educational network, Toshia.
Jewish cultural life was active and broad in scope. The city had an amateur Yiddish theater which initially was in a private home and later moved to the fire department building. Most of the proceeds went to charity. The director was the cantor, Leizer Rabinovitz, who also performed with the choir and other Zionist occasions, Hanukah parties, etc. There were other cantors in the city, klezmering, the fire department wind instrument band whose musicians were Jewish, and the Yeshiva Beit Yosef band. Occasionally visiting theater and troupes performed in Novogrudok. Yonis Torkov and D. Blumenthal, artists of the Jewish theater, performed in 1936. The apolitical weekly newspaper Novogrudker Leben (Novogrudok life) appeared during the 30's (1933-1939) and the Novogrudker Voch (Novogrudok week) (1935-1939) which was under the Revisionist influence.
Political and Zionist activities in Novogrudok were lively. Zionist Youth Parties in the city were the Hahalutz (pioneer) (founded 1920), Hahalutz hazayir (the young pioneer - in 1935 it joined the Frieheit), Poali Zion (Zion Workers from 1923), Hahitachdut (Union) and the Haliga shel Eretz-Israel Haovedet (The League of Working Israel), movements of Hashomer Hazayir (the young guards from 1927), Gordonia, Frieheit (Dror from 1933), Hazionim Haclallim (the General Zionists) in two divisions and the youth movement, Hanoar Hazioni (Zionist Youth), organization of the Zionist craftsmen Haoved (the worker), Hahalutz bali malacha (the pioneer craftsman under the auspices of the General Zionists), Hamizrachi and Hapoal hamizrachi, the Revisionists and the youth groups Bitar. In the 30s there were two training camps of Hahalutz (pioneer). In one of them the campers felled trees in the nearby forest, and in the other they worked with cement. One of the kibbutz trainings was Betelem. In 1936 the regional Zionist conference was in Novogrudok. From time to time Zionists and community members would meet in the Macabbi sport club to see Zionist movies. Eve of the Zionist Congress (1931) there were approximately 300 registered voters.
The non-Zionist Yiddish camp in Novogrudok was represented by the Bund. The Farainika (united), Folks Party and Jewish communists, who operated undercover, few of the unique parties participated in the City Council elections and leadership of the community.
The period between the two world wars saw two rabbis in the community working side by side because of differences of opinion of their supporters Rabbi Meyer Meyerovitz from Shvinetziani was recognized by the authorities, and Rabbi Meyer Abovitz of the Mizrachi leadership. Both died before World War II.
An economic embargo in Novogrudok was introduced in the second half of the 30s with increasing anti-Semitism in Poland. In June 1936 the Jews held a general strike to protest the situation.
During World War II
The Red army crossed the Soviet Union-Polish border on 17 September 1939 and annexed western Belarus' according to the Molotov-Ribentrop Agreement of August 1939. Novogrudok was a district capital of Grodno. More than one-thousand Jewish refugees from east and west Poland fled to Novogrudok. During Soviet rule the economy changed as did the Jewish aide institutions hospital, old age home, orphanage became general institutions, and Jewish schools were combined together to one Jewish school with 10 class rooms (with some high school classes) which operated in Yiddish according to the Soviet curriculum. The Soviets appointed the former Hebrew School principal to the as school principal in spite of his being a Zionist.
Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, and the following day they started bombing Novogrudok. The Soviets retreated east; all of the Soviet offices in the city were cleared by 25 June. Bombing continued for two weeks; many buildings were destroyed or damaged amongst them the old synagogue and many other synagogues. Thousands were left homeless, dead or injured, including Jews. Most of the Jews tried to escape east but did not have permits to cross the border so were turned back; the border did open during the second week of bombardments.
The Germany army entered Novogrudok on 3 July 1941, declared military rule and established police aides of Poles and Belarusians. Immediately in the beginning of the seize Jews received limitations: forbidden to walk on sidewalks, buy food supplies, men aged 16-65 and women aged 16-55 must do hard labor, and following 15 July they must wear the Yellow star of David, markers on buildings where Jews lived and preparation of lists of residents of Jews and non-Jews. Judenrat was established with 8 members, headed by the attorney Tzaichnovsky, who had to draft workers for hard labor and other jobs required by the Germans.
A few days following the invasion the German rounded up about 70 of the Jewish intellectuals doctors, lawyers, teachers, public figures abused them and took them to an unknown destination where they murdered them. Some days later another group of professionals and tradesmen were commanded to appear at the Judenrat building, were taken out of town to Kesrektin to be murdered. Novogrudok Jews were left with no educated leadership. Abuse continued; sometimes the Germans would confiscate clothing, bedding, household goods, radios, furniture and other property. On 26 August 1941 about 100 Jews were called to appear in the market square to leave for work; about 60 came, the Germans shot 52 of them, and they were buried in the local Jewish cemetery. Later a group of Jews was sent to lead cattle and horses to Baranovitzia; they never returned to Novogrudok. Murder continued, SS entered the city in canvas covered trucks, collected Jews, put them on the trucks and took them out of the city where they killed them. In November 1941 Novogrudok Jews were fined a heavy ransom of gold, jewelry and stock certificates. The Judenrat had to list all men and women over 18 to work and issued them work papers.
On 6 December 1941 tradesmen with working papers were required to register and move to the ghetto in the suburb Peresieka at the entrance to the city, a slum area with small miserable houses with no proper sanitation. The Jews were apprehensive. At dawn on 8 December 1941 the Jews reported at the Novogrudok courthouse. The Judenrat and 1,850 holders of working papers were sent to their homes with their wives and families. Others hid in the courthouse, were caught and taken to the monastery at the edge of the city. Another 46 Jews were returned from the courthouse to their homes. The remaining, mainly Jews, were gathered in the local monastery with Jews of neighboring villages were taken to prepared ditches in the forest near Skridlewa a village of Jewish farmers there they were murdered. One source indicates that some 3,000 of the Novogrudok Jews (probably including some from the neighboring villages). Those December 1941 acts were committed by the Einzcomadno 8, aided by local police and others. That was the first mass murder.
Jewish tradesmen and Judenrat families lived in the ghetto in the suburb of Peresike in squalor and extremely close conditions. The ghetto was divided to 12 sections with one member of the Judenrat responsible for each section; they had to count the people every evening. The Germans threatened collective punishment to all for any attempt to escape; therefore if the Jew responsible thought that someone was planning to escape, he turned them in to the Germans who in turn imprisoned them and took their shoes. Mornings the ghetto residents went to work with the Jewish police supervising their leaving for work. Dr. Beckerman who had contact with the partisans established a small hospital in the ghetto. Spring 1942 the first murders of friends of the Judenrat headed by Tzaichnovsky occurred. The eve of the last day of Pesach in 1942 the Germans began to move to Novogrudok Jews who had remained after the mass murders in the forests Ivianec, Davozetz, Derevno, Zedzyentzyol, Tutitz, Lubch, Mir, Nalibok, and Karelicz; were sent to workshops of Jewish laborers.
The second mass murder in Novogrudok was on 7 August 1942: about 2,000 Jews were collected and murdered outside the city. The Judenrat leader, some doctors and other respected people a total of 17 people were returned to the ghetto and told of the mass murders. Germans murdered in the ghetto another 500 of 1,000 Jews that worked in Kesrekatini.
Following the slaughter of August 1942 1,240 people were left in the Novogrudok ghetto. The ghetto was then divided into two about 700 craftsmen were moved with their families to the former court houses; the remaining, about 500 in number, were cramped in 12 small houses as the area of the ghetto was reduced. The third mass murder occurred in 4 February 1943 when 500 of the ghetto Peresike were killed. The ghetto in the court houses became a work camp for Jews.
First attempts at escape from the ghetto were after the second mass murder. They increased towards the end of 1942, especially via messengers from the Jewish partisans of the Belsky brothers that sheltered most of the runaways. Young people from Novogrudok also reached units of Russian partisans whose commanders were sometimes anti-Semitic. Some of the Jews that reached them were robbed and murdered.
In the winter of 1942/43 an underground group of dissenters formed in Novogrudok with plans of revolt in the ghetto and escape to the forest. Youth were divided to 4 groups and started to hoard weapons, particularly knives, metal rods, strong scissors for cutting barbed wire. The Germans tried to infiltrate the underground through a Jewish informer, but he was disclosed, tried by his friends and executed. On the day of the planned revolt 15 April 1943 the underground members met together, but a woman who discovered their plan started shouting and needed to be quieted. Therefore, the members had to scatter, returning their weapons to hiding places; the revolt failed.
The fourth mass murder happened on 7 May 1943 when 375 Jews in the workcamp at the former court houses were killed; most of them were women and children. They resisted passively. Some 300 did remain in the work camp.
After that fourth mass murder the underground prepared a plan for mass escape. Designers of the plan were Berl Yoselevitz and Nathan Socharosky. The head of the organization was Dr. Yaakov Kagan, commander of the underground organization in the ghetto, and members of the command were Berl Yoselevitz, Kozchovsky, and Tzernochovsky. Berl Yoselevitz's command dug a tunnel of 250 meters, work that continued for 3 months; when it was complete, the underground notified the work camp residents details of the escape plan. On a dark and rainy night, 26 September 1943, 323 people gathered at the entrance to the tunnel; all succeeded to escape but for 70 who got confused within the tunnel and wound up back in the city, were caught and executed. Those who hid in the work camp were found and also murdered. More than 200 Jews succeeded in escaping to the forest. Most of them joined the Belsky Brothers' units and very few to other partisan units. Dr. Kagan's group reached the anti-Semitic Soviet command; they were told to surrender their weapons and were murdered when they refused. Berl Yoselevitz was killed on 29 September 1943 in combat with the Germans.
The Soviet army entered Novogrudok on 9 July 1944, and the few remaining Jews came out of their hiding places. Most of them had been with the Belsky Brothers' units. Many of the young survivors were drafted into the Soviet army, and some of them died in battles. After a short period Novogrudok survivors became part of Polish survivors as part of the reparation plan. Thereafter they went to Israel or to other countries across the ocean.
Aleph Yud Vav Shin [Archive Yad Vashem] Jerusalem 3929, 03/2774; 2513, 807, M1/E/794; M41/116.
Aleph Zadi Mem [Central Zionist Archives] Jerusalem 24/2023-I-087.
Dubonov, Pinkas State of Lithuania pp 17, 3-62, 88, 96, 107, 116, 139-140, 123, 163, 164-169, 181-182, 193, 202-205, 217.
Yafa, Y. B'ghetto Novogrudok v'btnuah hapartizanit [In the Novogrudok ghetto and the partisan movement]. Tel-Aviv: 1988.
Pinkas Novogrudok. Tel Aviv: 1963.
Novogrudok Leben [Novogrudok Life weekly] 1933-1939.
Novogrudok Voch [Novogrudok Week weekly] 1935-1939.
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