« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

A look at the country's history

By M. Porat

Edited by Mike Kalt

Based on articles from “Volozhin Yizkor Book”(Hebrew),
“Pamiat'-Volozhin District History” (Belorussian) and “Jewish Lithuania” (French)

Volozhin is situated in a boundary zone, the ownership of which is claimed by the surrounding nations. It is populated by Slavic and Baltic inhabitants. Prior to WW I, 12% of the inhabitants were Jews.

The Lithuanian Rule: Lithuanian pagan tribes settled the Baltic Eastern shores in the early centuries of the first millennium. During the 13th -14th centuries, the tribes converted to Catholicism. They unified and formed a small kingdom, which was referred to as the Great Lithuanian Princedom.

Due to its well-organized governorship and efficient army, the Princedom succeeded to rule the 500 by 500 kilometer territory, which extended from the Baltic sea to the Dneiper river on its east, and the Pripiat' swamps on its south. This territory includes Lithuania, Leetonia, a part of northern Poland, and almost the entire Belarus.

The word “Belarus” means “White Russia”. It's told that during the 13th century when the Mongols invaded the major part of Russia, they did not reach these big forests, lakes, and swamps located on the northwest of Russia. The territory therefore remained “pure” white — “free of the yellow-dark aggressor”.

The great Prince Vytautas (Vitold), desired to develop commerce and economy, and therefore welcomed the Jews who had immigrated from Germany and other western countries. Many Jews settled there. They were allowed to form in this zone self-governed congregations- kehila - in which they lived in relative peace. Most of them dwelled in small towns (shtetls). They were able to preserve a traditional life style.

The Poland-Lithuania State: Yaguello, the Lithuanian Prince's son, married in 1386 the crown princess of Poland. The Zhetshpospolita - Commonwealth of the two States - was created. Yaguello was crowned as King of the joint state.

The Zhetshpospolita was active during four centuries. The Polish culture and language had dominated the Lithuanian. But the country retained the name of Lithuania (”Litwa” in Polish, “Lite” in Yiddish). Yiddish remained as the main language of the Jews.

The Jewish population was growing. Jews continued to arrive from Poland, which turned to repress them; and from Volynia where they were terrorized by the Khmelnitski Kozak gangs.

They continued to speak Yiddish with a unique Litvak dialect, which differed from the Volynia and Polish dialects. The Litwak dialect turned out to be the base of the classical Yiddish. The Jews living in this zone were named “Litwaks'”. The territory's virtual Jewish name became “Litwak Yiddish Land”.

The Russia Tsarist imperia, after a long conflict, invaded the Zhetshpospolita in 1797 and annexed the territory. The Russian Imperia ruled this country for 120 years. This territory was the main zone limit in Tsarist Russia permitting Jews to live in. The Jewish cultural life blossomed.

Volozhin was situated in the very heart of the Litvak Yiddish Land

Volozhin was situated in the very heart of the Litvak Yiddish Land

The Litvak Jewry resisted the Hassidism. Reb Eliyahu, the Vilna Prodigy, founded and led here the opposing “Misnagdim” movement. The Misnagdim emphasized learning of the Holy scripts. They put the stress on study and knowledge above prayers. The “Litvaks” founded and built the great Yeshivas in order to strengthen this movement by Torah study. It began in Volozhin, which turned into a famous Jewish academy, and was spread into many other towns where Yeshivas were built (Mir, Radun, Slobodka, Ponivezh etc.)

The WW I postwar time: The German-Russian front passed near Volozhin. In the postwar peace treaties, the zone was divided between USSR, Poland, Lithuania and Leetonia. Vilna, Volozhin, Baranovitsh, and Pinsk became part of Poland. The Soviets ruled the land eastward of this line. The western part including Poniviezh, Kovno and Alitus, belonged to Baltic States.

The Haskala (Enlightenment) and Zionist movements became dominant in this period. The Jewish population during the 20 years interval between the two World Wars had changed its ideas. The Hebrew language and lessons of general education were taught in the schools. Tarbut – Zionist oriented schools -- slowly replaced the Heyder and the Yeshiva. Young people became members of Zionist organizations. Many of them made Aliya into the Land of Israel.

World War II: Volozhin became part of the Soviet Union from September 1939 until June 1941 (the day on which the Germans occupied the town). The fascists exterminated the entire Jewish population of this country during their occupation. Here practically began the Holocaust. Jews were condemned to death. The Fascists started by assassinations and humiliation of Jews, by gathering them in ghettos, and finally they were mass slaughtered inside the settlements they lived, until all the Jews living there during 1941-1943 were assassinated.

Post WWII: Volozhin is now a part of the Belarus Republic, a newborn entity which was established after the Soviet Union disintegrated into several independent states.

The “Litwak Yiddish Land” is mainly Juden Rein: without Jews.

Eastward from Volozhin (Volozhin included) is Belarus, with Minsk as its capital. Westward from Volozhin is Lithuania, with Vilnius (Vilna) as its capital.

Who am I and where am I from DILEMMA: Adam Mitskevitsh, the renowned poet, was born on the Nieman shore (between Lida and Navarodok). His major poem Pan Tadeush, written in Polish, begins: “Litva, my Fatherland, you are like Health. How much to appreciate you, knows only one who lost you”. The Lithuanians claim that he was of Lithuanian origin (he wrote “Litva, my fatherland”), The Poles say he was Polish (the poet wrote in Polish only). The Belarussians believe that he was Belarussian (he was born in Belarus, and Belarussian was his family's everyday language). There is a different version that his mother… was Jewish.

As for my origins: I know definitively who I am: a Jew, an “Ost Jude”- But from where am I? From Poland, Russia, Lita, Belarus? Or maybe I come from the virtual Litvak-Yiddish-Land, a land whose people do not exist more.

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »


This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.


JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Volozhin, Belarus     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page


Yizkor Book Project Manager, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Lance Ackerfeld

Copyright ©1999-2014 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 23 Sep 2006 by LA