by Leonid Smilovitsky, Ph.D.
Diaspora Research Institute,
Lester and Sally Entin Faculty of the Humanties, Tel Aviv University
Before the Soviet-German War, the population of Belorussia was 10,528,000, or 9,200,000 within the modern borders of the country. The Jews numbered about a million, and may be tentatively classified into several categories.
One of them was comprised of the Jews who lived in Eastern Belorussia. It was part of the former Pale of Settlement and consisted of the Gomel, Minsk and Mohilev oblasts (regions), which were traditional places of compact Jewish settlement. According to the January 1939 Soviet census, 375,000 Jews resided there. On the basis of the annual population growth, it may be concluded that Eastern Belorussia had about 405,000 Jews in the first half of 1941. In the Soviet Union, Judaism was persecuted, synagogues were being closed, and Zionism was considered the worst manifestation of Jewish nationalism. The Yiddish schools were closed down, the circulation of Yiddish publications was considerably reduced, the activity of writers' and artists' organizations restricted, the Jewish kolkhozes disbanded and national administrative districts abolished. Despite all this, the compactly residing Jewish population preserved remnants of the traditional Jewish style of life. There the Minsk, Gomel and Mohilev dialects of Yiddish still were being spoken. During the 1939 census, 55 percent of Belorussian Jews named Yiddish their native language (37.4 percent named Russian and 7.6 precent, Belorussian). There still existed the Jewish folklore, customs, cuisine, and the feeling of belonging to a group was not yet extinguished among Jews. Young people were being more actively involved into the Soviet reality and distanced from Jewry. Many saw in the community a remnant of the past, which ought to be dealt with in order to build a free society in the workers' and peasants' state. Many were trying to adjust to the new reality as fast as possible and moved to big cities in the republic, or in Russia and the Ukraine. Life in urban centers deepened their removal from the Jewish traditions. Many deliberately renounced Yiddish in favor of Russian, many received vocational training and higher education and began to occupy responsible positions in state administrative bodies, in cultural, scientific and medical institutions and served in the army. The percentage of mixed marriages increased significantly, and the Jewish shtetl, where they left their relatives, and parents remained, was becoming more and more a symbol of a vanishing world.
The second category was comprised of the Jews of former Eastern Poland, which became Western Belorussia (the Bialystok, Vilna, Novogrudek and Polessie voievodstvo (administrative unit), where the Jewish population comprised 350,000-450,000, or 9.7 percent of the total population. After September 17, 1939, these territories were divided into the Soviet Belostok, Brest, Baranovichi, Grodno, Vileiki, Molodechno and Pinsk oblasts. The Jews were mostly concentrated in small towns and shtetls and worked as artisans and craftsmen, small-scale merchants or middlemen, and were engaged in agriculture and forestry. The stratum of educated people among them was narrow and the number of mixed marriages low. Most of them spoke Yiddish, and there were many synagogues, yeshivas, Hebrew and Yiddish schools and cultural establishments. In 1939-1941, the Soviet authorities did not yet manage to seriously shatter the social and cultural foundations of Jewish life, although they destroyed the Jewish economic structures.
The third category consisted of tens of thousands Jewish refugees from Central, Western and Northern Poland who fled from the Nazis and sought asylum in the territory of Western Belorussia annexed by the Soviet Union. It is difficult to establish their precise number, but according to a memorandum by Lavrentii Tsanava, Chief of the Belorussian NKVD (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, or State security) submitted to Panteleimon Ponomarenko, First Secretary of the Belorussian Communist Party, as of February 5, 1940, there were 72,996 Polish refugees, among them 65,796 Jews. Not all the refugees applied for registration, and their actual number was close to 100,000.
Among them were those who crossed the border clandestinely or those who refused to accept Soviet citizenship or evaded mandatory employment. The social composition of the refugees was heterogeneous. Among them were blue- and white-collar workers, teachers, doctors, students, schoolchildren, entrepreneurs, landlords, industrialists, former Polish soldiers, etc. A considerable number of political leaders of Polish Jewry were also among the refugees. The Jewish political organizations were banned, and their activists persecuted.
The persecution began practically at the outset of Soviet power and affected various ethnic groups: Poles, Belorussians, Ukrainians and Jews. Those arrested were deported by virtue of the decree of the USSR Central Executive Committee and the Council of People's Commissars of July 17, 1939 that concerned unreliable individuals residing in the border zone, and of the NKVD order to forcibly resettle members of the families of individual labelled as Trotskyites and saboteurs who allegedly were deeply involved in anti-Soviet activities. As early as October 22, 1939, the total number of the arrested reached 4,315. The accused were dealt with by extra-judicial bodies, that is, by the so-called NKVD's troikas (three-men commissions) or by a special conference of the Military Board of the BSSR Supreme Court. Mass deportations of Polish, Ukrainian and Jewish residents of Western Belorussia were carried out on February 10, 1940 (50,372 deportees), April 13, 1940 (26,777), June 29, 1940 (22,879), and June 19-20, 1941 (24,419).Having been disappointed in the Soviet reality, and scared by the repression, some of the refugees expressed their wish to return to the part of Poland occupied by Germany. But the Germans refused to admit them. Only a few managed to clandestinely emigrate to America, Britain, France, Palestine and other countries. The total Jewish population in the territories incorporated by the Soviet Union in 1939-1940 was 2,000,000. The number of Jews deported into the Soviet heartland, mainly refugees from Poland , was 250,000 and of those who voluntarily left the annexed territories, 85,000. Thus, during the war years about half a million Jews who were non-Soviet citizens remained in the non-occupied part of the Soviet territory.
The evacuation of civil population began in the early war days. By September 1941, when the entire territory of Belorussia fell under the German occupation, about 1,500,000 people had managed to leave for the East; and the Jews comprised no more than 10 percent of them. In July 1944, the republic's population was 6,293,600. According to the official data, the population losses due to military operations, the extermination of the civil population by the Nazis, wounds, hunger and disease was 2,200,000. According to other data, the number of victims in Belorussia was about 3,000,000. The genocide by the Germans was directed first and foremost against the Jews. In Eastern Belorussia the individual's chances to escape depended on the social group to which he/she belonged, the place of residence, one's degree of being informed and the resoluteness to leave one's belongings behind. In the former Pale of Settlement, the younger people, Soviet officials and professionals had more chances to escape in comparison with the older people and common workers. It was easier to escape from large cities than from small towns; however, one's chances strongly depended on the time available for escaping.
The total number of Holocaust victims in Belorussia is still unclear and debates on the issue are still going on. M. Gilbert is of the opinion that 245,000 Jews perished in the genocide while R. Chernoglazova puts the number at 376,851. Other estimates are: V. Adamushko, 455,100, A. Bagrovich, 500,000, D. Meltser and V. Levin, 700,390, E. Ioffe, 811,000, A.Leizerov, 800,000 and R. Hillberg, 1,000,000. To the loss of the Jewish civil population one should add the losses among the Jewish soldiers. One hundred ten thousand Belorussian Jews were drafted or volunteered into the Red Army. Of the total half-million of the Jewish soldiers in the Red Army who fought against the Nazis, 216,000 fell in action. According to Prof. E. Ioffe, 48,000 of them were from Belorussia.
By the beginning of hostilities in June 1941, of the five million Jews in the USSR, four remained in the occupied territories. During the war years, 2,711,000 Jews perished; of them, about a million lived within the 1939 Soviet borders, and 1,651,000 in the territories incorporated in 1939-1940. In 1946, the number of Jews in the USSR was 2,310,000, including 2,045,000 old Soviet citizens, and 265,000 Jews from the incorporated regions. In 1945-1947, thousands of Jews left Belorussia, posing as Polish citizens. By 1947, 85,000 Jews, 120,000 Poles and 469,000 Belorussians had reached the West. A considerable part of Jews soon left for Palestine.
The Holocaust not only reduced the Jewish population in Belorussia by 80 percent, but also changed its social and cultural composition. The greatest number of victims were the Yiddish speakers, those who lived in small towns and common people, clinging to the old Jewish traditions of the Pale. In 1946-1948, only 568 Jews remained in the Molodechno oblast, whose small groups resided in 16 districts. In the Polotsk oblast, only 2,500 remained; in Mohilev, only12,000. In a small town of Kalinkovichi, there were 1,460, compared to 3,386 in 1939); in Mozyr, 4,500 of the pre-war 6,307 remained. In Minsk in 1950-1953 lived more than 15,000 Jews compared to 70,998 in 1939. In a number of towns and cities, the number of Jews was supplied by the migrants from the rural areas. By 1953, the total population of Belorussia reached 7,693,400 due to the increased birth rate, to those who returned from the inland (Central Asia, Kazakhstan, the North Caucasus, and Russia), discharged soldiers and officers, those recruited for work in Belorussia from other Soviet republics, and repatriants from Germany and other European countries. It is difficult to estimate the number of Jews in Belorussia, since no special statistical data were being collected in these years. However, judging by the results of the 1959 All-Union census , according to which there were in Belorussia 150,100 Jews out of the total population of 8,046,700, one may assume that in 1953 there lived no less than 130,000 Jews. Tables 1 and 2 give a territorial breakdown of the Jewish population in Belorussia according to the 1939 and 1959 censuses:
|Territory||Total||Jews||Belorussians||% of Jews|
|incl. Minsk (city)||238,948||70,998||124,061||29.71|
|Territory||Total||Jews||Belorussians||% of Jews|
|Territory||Total 1/1/1939||% of total pop.||Total 1/1/1959||% of total pop.|
(Tables 1,2 and 3 have been compiled using the following sources: Vsesoiuznaia perepis' naseleniia 1939 goda. Osnovnye itogi (The All-Union Population Census of 1939), (Nauka: Moscow, 1992), pp.70-71; Itogi Vsevoiuznoi perepisi naseleniia 1959 goda. Belorusskaia SSR (The Results of the All-Union Population Census of 1959. Belorussian SSR) (Gosstatizdat: Moscow, 1963), pp. 124-132; Mordechai Altshuler (ed.), Distribution of the Jewish Population of the USSR, 1939 (Jerusalem, 1993), pp. 38-40.)
The above data show that by the end of the 1930s the Jewish population in the eastern regions of the republic comprised 6. 7 percent of the total population, while in the capital, Minsk, almost a third, 29.71 percent. The majority, 98.2 percent lived in the urban areas, while in the rural areas only 1.8 percent. The Holocaust led to almost total extermination of the Jewish population in the shtetls, tens of district centers, towns and cities. While by the summer of 1941 the Jews comprised 12.8 percent of the total population in the BSSR (including the refugees from Poland), in 1959, it was only 1.86 percent. In the Vitebsk oblast the number of Jews decreased from 77,173 in 1939 to 18,986 in 1959 and comprised only 1.48 percent of the total oblast population, instead of 5.38 in 1939; In the Minsk oblast, 104,704 and 9,054 (8.01 percent and 0.61 percent) respectively; In the Gomel oblast, 62,164 and 45,007 (6.84 and 3.3 percent); and in the Mohilev oblast, 69,454 and 28,438 (4.95 and 2.34 percent). It is difficult to make a similar comparison with respect to the Brest, Grodno and Polessie oblasts, since the former two were part of Poland as of January 1, 1939 (the corresponding demographic data refer to the 1931 Polish census), and the latter, Pinsk oblast, was abolished in 1954, and no data was collected on it in 1959. The number of Jews in the rural areas, which was insignificant before the war (1.08 percent) became absolutely negligible (0.098 percent). The number would have been even less, had the Soviet authority not been sending specialists from the city into the rural areas -- teachers, jurists, engineers, book accountants, doctors, technicians, administrative workers, etc.-- some of whom happened to be Jews.
The destruction of Jewry was accompanied by its dispersal. The refugees and evacuees were sent to distant parts of the USSR: Western Siberia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where the percentage of Jews was before negligible. Only in Tashkent alone, more than 100,000 Jews survived the war. However, this did not result in the establishment of new centres of Jewish concentration. Many faced the manifestations of anti-Semitism, which became more widespread during the war. The refugees cherished the desire to return to their homes. According to the 1959 census, 147,500 Jews lived in the Central Asian republics, or more by 67,400 than lived there in 1939. Assuming that no less than a quarter of this number may be attributed to the natural growth of the pre-war Jewish population in these republics, only 50,000 Jews may be considered as the arrivals from the Ukraine, Belorussia and Russia, with the accounting for their natural growth. Therefore, it is possible to assume that also from these places the great majority of Jewish refugees and evacuees returned home.
|Republic||Total 1/1/1939||% of pop.||Total 1/1/1959||% of pop.|
(Table 4 has been compiled using the following sources: Vsesoiuznaia perepis' naseleniia 1939 goda. Osnovnye itogi; Itogi Vsevoiuznoi perepisi naseleniia 1959 goda. Sovetskii Soiuz (The Results of the All-Union Population Census of 1959. The Soviet Union) (Moscow, 1962), pp. 202-208; Eesti Statistika, no. 173/4 (Tallinn, 1936); S. Gurin, Jundi vohemusrahuse Statistika Eestis (Tallinn, 1936); Official Census of Latvia (Riga, 1939); Lietuvos gyventojai tautyhemis: The Population of Lithuania According to Nationalities, Statistikos Biuras (Kaunas, n.d.).
Despite the fact that re-evacuation met with serious difficulties and often led to disappointment, it became a large-scale process in 1944-1946. Most of Jews preferred not to settle in their former places where they were born, grew-up and were forced to escape, but in neighbouring district towns and oblast centres, and even in other republics. Jews from Kobyl'niki, Pleshchenitsy and Svir' moved to Molodechno and Vileika; from Rudensk, Mar'ina Gorka, Smilovichi and Zaslavka, to Minsk; from Loev, Vasilevichi, and Khoiniki, to Rechitsa; from Vetka, Dobrush, Kostiukovichi and Chechersk, to Gomel; from Kobrin, Zhabinka, Kamenets, and Vysokoe, to Brest, etc. The main reasons for the moving were the impossibility to settle on the ashes of one's home, death of relatives, lack of housing and jobs.
Another characteristic feature was that in the western regions of Belorussia there were practically no Jews who lived there before the war. In their place, Jews from the eastern regions settled there. In 1944-1946, thousands of families from the Gomel oblast moved to the Pinsk oblast driven by hunger caused by bad harvest. It was a common occurrence in these days. In its report to Moscow, the CC of BCP(b) (Communist Party of Belorussia) informed that in the first two years after the republic's liberation part of the population from the badly suffered regions moved to the most intact regions of Belorussia, the Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Russia. And yet another obstacle to the restoring of the republic's population was the involvement of Belorussia's inhabitants into the settlement of population in the former territories of East Prussia emptied of Germans, which were merged in 1946 into the Kaliningrad oblast of the RSFSR. This issue has not yet been considered in literature. Its territory was 15,100 sq. km. Thousands of new settlers from Russia, the Ukraine and Belorussia were being urgently sent there. In 1947-1949, 2494 people were sent there from Belorussia; in 1950, 2324. Among them, there were many Jewish families in search of housing and work. Some were attracted (recruited) by material stimuli, some were mobilized in order to fulfill goals set by the Soviet authorities.
In addition, thousands of people were sent from Belorussia to the Karelo-Finnish SSR, the Arkhangel, Tomsk, Tiumen, Irkutsk, Molotov (Perm), Sakhalin and other oblasts, to the regions (krai) of Krasnoiarsk, Altai, and Primorie of the Russian Federation. Altogether 89,936 people settled in these territories in 1947-1953. The following table illustrates the dynamics of that process:
In the postwar years, the Jews preferred to settle in large urban centers. According to the 1959 census, the percentage of such settlers increased to 95.3 percent of the total Jewish population of the USSR (as compared to 87 percent in 1939 and 82 percent in 1926). In contrast to other Union republics, this process was less pronounced in Belorussia, which, in addition to Minsk (where 95 percent Jews of the republic lived) had a few other industrial and cultural centers where one could find a job to one's heart: Brest, Gomel, Grodno, Mohilev, Molodechno, Pinsk, etc. The average age of the Jews in Belorussia decreased in the postwar years.
|0 - 4||5,647||3.8||5,356||3.6|
|5 - 9||6,109||4.1||5,755||3.8|
|10 - 14||6,107||4.1||5,811||3.9|
|15 - 19||3,514||2.3||3,603||2.4|
|20 - 24||5,666||3.8||6,005||4.0|
|25 - 29||5,411||3.6||5,834||3.9|
|30 - 34||5,959||3.9||7,883||5.2|
|35 - 39||4,774||3.2||6,505||4.3|
|40 - 44||3,705||2.5||5,622||3.7|
|45 - 49||4,486||3.0||6,923||4.6|
|50 - 54||4,074||2.7||6,923||4.6|
|55 - 59||3,545||2.3||6,166||4.1|
|60 - 64||3,755||2.5||4,270||2.8|
|65 - 69||2,460||1.6||2,470||1.6|
|70 - 74||1,645||1.1||1,608||1.0|
|75 - 79||650||0.4||826||0.5|
|80 - 84||265||0.2||396||0.3|
A considerable part of Belorussia's Jewish population now consisted of people who grew up during the Soviet era (53,403, or 48.1 percent). In 1959 children under school age and of early school age (under 9) comprised 7.4 percent, and of mid-school age (10-14), 3.9 percent. The percentage of teenagers (age 15-19) was very low, only 2.4 percent. The main reason for that was a very low birth rate during the war years, which later resulted in a demographic gap. The percentage of those who began to earn their living, or became college or university students (age 20-24), was higher, 4 percent. They were born before the war (in 1935-1939), later evacuated and continued to study. Few children and teenagers survived the war in the occupied territory. After the war there were 4 percent of young people who had served in the army, had a profession and created families (age 25-29). People of the productive middle age (30-49) comprised 17.8 percent. They were actively engaged in the economy and carried the main tax burden. The older generation (age 50-64) comprised 11.5 percent. During the war, they were 32-46 years old. They fought at the battlefield, worked in the Soviet hinterland, and raised children. In adversity, they stood and did much for the post-war reconstruction of the national economy.
Senior citizens (age 65-74) comprised 2.6 percent. These people had ruined health by the end of the war. Most of them lost their children and close relatives, had no shelter, and were in an acute need of help. The percentage of old people over 75 was even lower (0.9 percent), due not only to bad health and natural deaths. During the war they were already 60 or more years of age. They were physically unable to survive the escaping or evacuation; they mostly stayed home in the hope of the enemy's mercy. For the most part, they perished in ghettos, or died in the evacuation.
There was also certain regularity in the breakdown of Belorussian Jewry by gender. The percentages of males and females were almost equal in the following age groups: age 0-14 (12 percent male, 11.3 female), 15-24 (6.1 and 6.4 percent), and 25-29 (3.6 and 3.9). The difference began with the age group of 30 to 34 years. Women in this group comprised 5.2 percent compared to3.9 percent for men. This was mostly due to the fact that all but a few young men, born in 1925-1926 who were drafted into the Red Army in 1942-1943, fell in action. The same trend is characteristic for the 35-39 age group. Here women again are more numerous than men (4.3 and 3.2 percent). But the greatest gap in favor of women was in the 50-59 age group (8.7 against 5 percent). In this group, by 1941, men reached 36-40 years of age and comprised the bulk of soldiers in active service, those who were drafted during the first war weeks, those who were encircled after the defensive battles in summer and fall of 1941, and prisoners of war. For the older groups (60-85), the ratio of men and women is approximately equal.
A marked place between the Jews of the republic was occupied by the social strata that prior to the war did not pay much attention to their ethnic origin: educated individuals, officials and party members. Beginning with October 1943, the results of the Holocaust were being gradually revealed. There was not a single Jewish family that did not lose at least one close relative. The participation of local collaborators in the genocide became evident. The authorities ignored the anti-Jewish direction of the Holocaust, prevented erecting monuments to the Jewish victims, and suppressed publication in the press of information about the extermination of Jews (mostly in Russian as more accessible to a wide audience). Having conducted the trials of the most known collaborators, they ignored the appeals of the Jews who demanded trials of those who robbed them and stole their property. The regime not only refrained from taking measures against anti-Semites but, to the contrary, blocked the advancement of Jews.
At the same time the authorities put artificial obstacles to the development of Yiddish culture under the pretext that most of the Soviet Jews had already mastered Russian. Its total liquidation was painful even for those who had no need of Yiddish culture, but saw in it a symbol of equality with other nationalities of the Soviet Union. This policy became more pronounced with the escalation of the cold war. The Jews were considered unreliable, because many of them had relatives abroad. The attempt at self-identification of a part of Soviet Jewry made after the proclamation of the State of Israel in 1948 was also viewed by the authorities in a negative light. The results of the Soviet assimilationist policy influenced the stand of the Jewish population of Belorussia towards their mother tongue:
|1939||55 %||7.7 %||37.4 %||0 %|
|1959||21.9 %||1.9 %||76.1 %||0.09 %|
These trends are observed also at the all-USSR level. While in 1926 Yiddish was declared to be their mother tongue by 72.6 percent of Soviet Jews, by 1939 their number declined to 41 percent. In 1959, only 21.5 percent of Soviet Jews (487,786) named Yiddish as their mother tongue, while 76.4 percent (1,733,183) named Russian and 2.1 percent (46,845) other national languages. Many Jews whose assimilation was in an advanced stage before the war, now felt not only a commonness of fate, but doubts about the possibility to enter as equals into postwar society. Belorussian Jewry was in a minority compared with Ukrainian and Russian Jewry. The war also influenced the average age of the Jews in BSSR, which was 33.7 years against 39.3 in the Ukraine and 41.2 in Russia. The ratio between the genders was approximately the same in the three Slav republics of the USSR .
At the same time, by 1959 Belorussia was first in comparison to the Ukraine and Russia concerning the number of children born by Jewish mothers, as is seen in the following table:
|Republic||Total||Jewish Fathers||%||Non-Jewish Fathers||%|
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