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The Jewish Community in Minsk from 1917-1941

by Aharon Rozin

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The author, a prisoner of Zion and one of the activists of the underground Zionist movement in Minsk, was born in 1910. He served in the Red Army during the Second World War and received five marks of excellence. He made aliya in 1967 and resides in Jerusalem.

His book in Yiddish, “Mein Veg Aheim” (“My Way Home”), memoirs of a prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union, was published in 1981 and in Hebrew translation by David Niv in 1983. This overview of the Jewish settlement in Minsk from 1917-1941 was written specially for our book. It was translated from Yiddish by Sh. Even-Shoshan.

A General Survey of the Era

In March, 1917, the Russian Revolution broke out, putting and end to the Czarist regime and replacing it with a republic with a provisional government.

The Jewish population in Russia greeted the revolution with enthusiasm. First and foremost, the Jews regarded the revolution as an end to the pogroms and anti-Semitic discrimination. The provisional government already issued a special decree on March 22, 1917, granting the Jews all civil rights and annulling all the restrictions that were imposed by the Czarist regime.

However, it was not only the legal change of rights that typified the new status of the Jews in Russia following the revolution. The new atmosphere and refreshing freedom that pervaded the country had its effect on the large Jewish community. This was the first time in Russian Jewish history where the Jews were given the possibility to organize their lives as they wished and develop their activities in accordance to their spirit. All of the hidden social and spiritual forces came forward and gushed forth as an overflowing wellspring.

The various Jewish parties who restricted their activities or suspended them completely during the years of reaction in Russia (1906-1907) now commenced broad scale activity and had great influence within the Jewish community. Dozens of books, pamphlets, manuscripts and daily newspapers began to appear in Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian. Within a few months, hundreds of educational institutions arose, ranging from kindergartens to teachers' seminaries.

The first aim that the Jewish parties in Russia set for themselves during that active year of 1917 was to forge a new independent leadership in the image of the democratic communities that were to serve as the basis of Jewish national autonomy in the state, and to prepare Jewish representation from all of Russia for the founding meeting of the state. All of the Jewish parties began serious activity to organize democratic elections for the communal councils as well as for the all-Russian Jewish council that would transmit the nationalistic demands of Russian Jewry to the all-Russian founding meeting. The date of the Jewish convention was changed a few times, and was finally set for February 17, 1918 in Petrograd.

However, the Bolshevik Revolution that took place on November 7, 1917, put an end to all the plans. The all-Russian Jewish convention never took place. The all-Russian founding meeting was disbanded.

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Even though Minsk was far from the fermenting revolutionary centers of Petrograd and Moscow, it also played an active, vigorous role in those stormy battles. During the first days of March, 1917, the Minsk committee of workers' representatives was organized, headed by Pozeran, a leftist internationalist who quickly switched allegiance to the Bolsheviks. It is appropriate to note that during the first period following the February revolution, Minsk did not have a large and strong Bolshevik organization. Until May 1917, the Minsk council did not have a separate Bolshevik faction. Rather, it had a common social-democratic faction. On May 11, during the first meeting of the Social Democrats of Minsk, when they were voting on the question of war and peace, the leftists received only 13 votes, and the rightists 178 votes[1]. It is characteristic that the Soviet historians themselves stress that “it was only because the Bund was not organized that it was possible for Pozeran to become the head of the Minsk council[2]”.

The large Jewish community in Minsk was stormy and in ferment. The Zionist parties began large-scale activities and exerted their influence upon the Jewish communal life of the city. Already at the end of April, 1917, a Zionist weekly called “Dos Yiddishe Vort” (“The Yiddish Word”) appeared in Minsk. At the end of 1917, “Der Jud” appeared. In January, 1918, a publication of the military Zionist organization of the western front called “Der Yiddisher Soldat” (The Jewish Soldier) began publication in Minsk. A Russian biweekly called “Hechaver” was published by the Zionist studying youth. Various other publications, periodical and non-periodical, also appeared.

The Bund had a strong presence in Minsk. The prominent leaders of the Bund, such as M. Frumkin (Esther), Yankel Levin, Vaynstein (Yerachmiel) and others gathered in the city. In June 1917, a large-scale Jewish daily called “Der Veker”, the publication of the central committee of the Bund, began publication.

It is no coincidence that the 20th anniversary of the Bund was celebrated in Minsk in the autumn of 1917. “Large demonstrations on the streets, mass gatherings in the civic theater, jubilee presentations, special pages in the newspapers, greetings from all the government institutions, from all parties... Everything in the city was festive, and a true lofty spirit pervaded.”[3]

We can understand the power relationships of the various Jewish parties and their degree of influence on the Jewish population of the city at that time from the results of the elections to the communal council of Minsk in 1918. The representation on the council was as follows[4]: Agudas Yisroel --23; Zionists -- 21; Poale Zion -- 10; the rest of the Zionist groups -- 14; Bund -- 17.

The result was that all of the Zionist parties were represented by 45 members on the council, or 53%. The Bund had 17 members on the council, or 20% of the representatives.

Even though we have no data on the election results of the all-Russian Jewish Council in the electoral district of Minsk, we can surmise that these elections yielded approximately the same result as the elections to the communal council.

Incidentally, we learn from information published in “Der Veker” that in a large area of the district of Minsk (Kapyl, Tymkovich Parichi, Osipowvich, Cholopenich, Turov, Drissa, and other places), the residents voted 29%

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for the Bund in the elections to the committee. That source clarifies for us that in Petrograd and other areas throughout the breadth of Russia only 13% voted for the Bund. The Bund had an even smaller influence amongst the Jewish military men. Thus we see that in Byelorussiaa in general, and in Minsk in particular, the Bund had a relatively larger status than in the rest of the areas of Russia.

{Photo page 9: The Convention of Military Men on the Minsk front, 5678 (1918).}

From December 31, 1917 until January 4 1918, a convention of Jewish military men of the western front convened in Minsk, with the participation of 41 delegates. The factional breakdown of the delegates was: Zionists -- 21; Poale Zion -- 10; United -- 4; Bundists -- 5; Bolsheviks --1. The convention dealt with questions of the status of the Jewish military union, of the all-Russian Jewish council, self defense, and other matters. A committee of the front was elected consisting of 4 Zionists, 2 Poale Zion, 1 United, and 1 Bund[5].

From the aforementioned facts and numbers, we learn about the activities of the Jewish community in Minsk and the role and level of influence of the various Jewish parties in the city.

On November 7, 1917, when the federal convention opened in Petrograd and declared the takeover of the government, the city council of Minsk decided to join the revolution and declared that the city government had passed to the Soviets. In the afternoon of November 7, the decree of the federation regarding this was posted on all the streets of the city.

The Minsk Soviet placed its trust in the thousands of prisoners who were imprisoned in the jails of Minsk, and were freed on November 7. They armed them immediately with guns and machine guns. These soldiers formed the basis of the infantry unit and declared themselves as “the first revolutionary brigade of the Minsk Soviet.”

A revolutionary military committee was also organized, headed by Miasnikov. Its members included Kalmanovitch, Kanorin, Lander, Freiman, and others.

The committee of the front that had helped the Bolsheviks defected from them on the first day of the revolution and then organized “The Committee for the Preservation of the Revolution.” Representatives from all the other communal parties and organizations that were inimical to the Bolshevik Revolution gathered around it.

On November 8, a general meeting of the Minsk Bund took place. It disparaged the takeover of the government by the Soviets. That day, the Menshevik factions, the Bund, and the social revolutionaries on the council of Minsk issued a general declaration condemning the revolution and demanded that the entire government be turned over to a committee consisting of

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all the democratic organizations -- from the Soviet down to the civic Duma[6]. The other parties and organizations also condemned the Bolshevik Revolution.

On the morning of November 9, cavalry units, summoned by the committee of the front and commissioned to stand against the units of the Bolshevik Army arrived in the city. On November 9, the entire city was an armed camp. A great tension pervaded, and bloody conflict was anticipated.

Matters unfolded differently, however. Groups of members of the Committee for the Preservation of the Revolution, headed by the Social Democrat Stern, began to coax the two sides toward a peace deal. The Bolsheviks, headed by Miasnikov, understood that the Committee for the Preservation of the Revolution held the upper hand, and that the Bolsheviks would be completed trampled. Therefore they signed the compromise agreement, thereby preventing an armed conflict. The control of the city passed to units of the Second Kovkhoz Division, who supervised the Committee of the Front. Units of the Soviet Army moved to Kolomenskaya Road, not far from Petrograd Road, where the Soviet was located.

The city of Minsk remained under the control of the “Committee for the Preservation of the Revolution” for 4-5 days.

The Bolsheviks took advantage of that respite, made contact with their representatives on western front, and succeeded in getting a great deal of help. On November 12, an armored train set out from Pogorelachi Station, and arrived in Minsk during the evening of November 14. It was immediately placed at the disposal of the Bolshevik Revolutionary committee, and transferred to the Libava-Romani Railway Station, almost in the center of the city. This set the fate of the city within a few days. The government in Minsk was captured by the Bolsheviks.

On January 23, 1918, the civic Duma in Minsk was disbanded. In its meeting on January 22, the Minsk Soviet, consisting of representatives of the workers and soldiers decreed the disbanding of the civic Duma and government offices (Uprova) with a majority of 115 against 29[6].

At that time, the chairman of the civic Duma was the known Bundist activist A. Weinstein. The mayor was P. Kashchenko, and his deputy was A. Zelmanov. Both were members of the Revolutionary Socialists.

The Bolshevik government in the city did not last long at that time. In the middle of February 1918, almost simultaneously, the Germans opened a strong offensive against Minsk from the west, as did the First Polish Regiment of DovBer-Musnicki from the direction of Bobruisk. The latter routed the Soviet Army next to Joseyen Station and conquered Osipovich -- an important railway junction located 100 verst [an old Russian unit of measure] from Minsk.

The city of Minsk was surrounded. The tension and fear in the city grew. Grygory Aronson, who was in the city at that time, tells the following in his memoirs[7]:

“Worrying rumors about the approach of the Germans spread... People began rushing around the city due to these rumors... They spoke of the need to organize a Jewish self defense to protect against any danger that may come. To this end, secret consultations of the representatives of the parties of the disbanded civic Duma began. These consultations strengthened the power of several Socialist Revolutionaries and Bundists (Kashchenko, Zelmanov, Weinstein, and Kovolik) to open negotiations with the Bolsheviks. This delegation conducted a conversation with the representatives of the government and strongly demanded that the civic Duma be reconstituted quickly were the Bolsheviks to abandon the city, for it was most important that the local population not be left suddenly without protection and without any representation that could stand up against the Germans. The delegation also asked that the voluntary guard be armed, in order to

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prevent incidents of hooliganism in the city. The Bolsheviks demonstrated their hypocrisy and treachery. At that time, they were preparing to abandon Minsk, and were secretly planning the liquidation of the government institutions. They told the delegation that one should not think at all that they would be abandoning Minsk. That very day, the Bolsheviks fled...”

The final day of liquidation of the Soviet government institutions was February 18.

For a few days, the city was in the hands of two groups. The Byelorussians declared one area as their own region, and the Poles did so in a second region. After the disappearance of the Soviet Government, the active committee of the Byelorussian council (Rada) tried to take upon itself the task of central government. However, this government had no real authority. The Polish regiment conducted expropriations and imprisonment, without concerning itself with the protests of the “Rada”.

Aronson tells[8]; “Gangs of youths in national military fatigues appeared on the streets and instilled fear upon the residents. Jews bristled with fear, being afraid of anti-Semitic attacks. The tension increased by the hour. People did not leave their houses, and businesses were locked. They awaited a street battle between the Poles and Byelorussians for the control of government... These two days of lack of government and authority so irritated the nerves of he people, that it felt as if a stone was rolled off the hearts of the citizens when the German soldiers appeared in the city. The Germans entered the city as masters.”

The Germans conquered Minsk on February 22, 1918, and imposed order on the city within a few days. Aronson relates in his memoirs[9]: “To the disgrace of the Bolsheviks, we must state that after they left and the Germans appeared in the city, the population of Minsk breathed freely. Under the foreign rule, it was possible to renew the paths of life and primitive modes of work that the Bolshevik government had systematically destroyed... Within a few days, the external picture had changed completely. The city came back to life and was refreshed. The businesses were filled with merchandise... Many of the factory and workshop owners were helped greatly by the entry of the Germans...

During the first period, our local communal institutions also breathed freely. It is disgraceful to state, but we must admit the truth: foreigners had to come in order to restore our freedom. The civic Duma was already reconstituted during the first days... At this point, the civic Duma became the center of communal life, and its meetings attracted large crowds...”

The professional organizations conducted a great deal of work. All of the factions were represented on their council (Bund, Poale Zion, Socialist Zionist, Mensheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries). There was also one Communist on the council, named Chadash, who was the representative of the carpenter's union. Later, when the Bolsheviks once again entered Minsk, he was appointed as the first populist work commissar in Byelorussia.

However, democratic freedom became greatly restricted with time. The whole government was in the hands of General Falkenheim of the army. Incidentally, the commander of the city was a Jew, Captain Kuno Izraeli. The military government began to afflict the Jewish population. They began to take barbaric measures such as snatching people on the streets and sending them to work. “During those days, hundreds of people were snatched in Minsk, imprisoned, placed on transport trucks and sent to work, to who knows where. Relatives and acquaintances, including women and children, ran through the streets looking for their brothers and husbands, there whereabouts being unknown... The approach of

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Duma chairman Weinstein and Mayor Kashchenko to the government representatives regarding these despicable acts was for naught...”[10]

Whereas during the early period of the German conquest, all of the parties, aside from the Bolsheviks and the leftist Revolutionary Socialists, operated in a legal fashion and had headquarters and publications. Already by the middle of March, the Germans began to censor all the newspapers. The newspaper of the Revolutionary Socialists “Dielo Truda” was closed. Censorship began with “Der Veker”, the publication of the Bund. The Germans forbade gatherings without permits. A representative of the police had to be present at every gathering. Poale Zion was expelled from its headquarters. The democratic civic Duma was also quickly disbanded[11].

However people searched for and found ways of political action. One of these means, which had great value, was the cooperatives. In Minsk, there were two cooperative groups: “Einikeit” led by the Bund and “Molot” led by Poale Zion.

In March and April of 1918, strikes took place in the yeast factory, and among tannery workers, the bakers, and others.

Elections for he Minsk community took place in May. This was considered an important event in Jewish communal life. Aronson writes in his memoirs that “the Socialists got approximately a third of the vote. The various religious and Zionist groups received the absolute majority[12]”.

It is characteristic that despite the laying of the foundations of the Bundist proposal for cultural-national autonomy, through which educational matters were to be given over to the independent national leadership of the institutions; the Bund demanded that the Jewish public schools be placed under control of the civic government rather than the Jewish community. The reason for this was that the Zionist and religious parties, rather than the Bund, had the absolute majority in the community of Minsk.

News of the revolution in Germany of November 1918 aroused great ferment in the units of the Germany Army. A German council of representative of the soldiers was formed. It was clear that the Germans would retreat and abandon Minsk, as well as Byelorussia.

At the beginning of December, 1918 elections took place for the Minsk council of representatives of the workers and soldiers. The Bolsheviks earned a great victory. Of the 200 representatives, the Bolsheviks and their supporters earned 98; the Bund -- 40; and Poale Zion -- 25. The rest of the seats on the council went to the Mensheviks and the Revolutionary Socialists. Seven Communists, two Poale Zion members, two Bundists and one Menshevik formed the active committee of the council[13].

The Germans left Minsk on December 10, 1918. Their rule of the city lasted 9 ½ months.

On December 10, 1918, the Red Army entered Minsk and the government passed to the Regional Revolutionary Council of Minsk (Guberevkom). There members of the revolutionary council consisted mainly of Jews.

Several documents testify to the great influence of the Jewish community in Minsk during that era. In a protocol of the meeting of the Minsk Revolutionary Council from December 10, 1918 (that is,

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the first day of the conquest of the city), there is a section that proclaims that the party publication (that is, the Communist) will continue to be the “Bedniak” newspaper, and that the rest of the newspapers, with the exception of “Der Veker” will be shut down immediately. As is known, the daily Yiddish newspaper “Der Veker” was the publication of the Bund.

In a meeting of the revolutionary council of Minsk from April 25, 1919, the question of the establishment of an inter-party body that would coordinate all the necessary work regarding the situation on the front was dealt with. It was decided to include a representative of Bund and a representative of Poale Zion in this group.

The permit to publish the Bundist newspaper and the inclusion of representatives of the Jewish parties in the makeup of the governing body was undoubtedly a result of the respect and influence held by the Jewish parties in Minsk at that time. This also demonstrated the definite weakness of the status of the Bolsheviks in the city during those months at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919.

It is characteristic that two members of the central committee of the Bund were appointed to responsible Soviet positions: A. Weinstein was appointed as director of the social security division and M. Frumkin (Esther) was the director of the division of public education for the Minsk Soviet.

Poale Zion and Bund participated in activities of the Red Army on the battlefronts.

In April 1919, when the Poles conquered Vilna and continued their attack on Byelorussia, leaving a storm of bloody pogroms in their weak, Poale Zion and Bund decreed a factional draft and called upon their members to fight the Polish hooligans.

{Photo page 13: “Borochov Regiments” in the Red Army.}

In Minsk, there were several regiments of the Red Army composed almost entirely of Jews. The Borochov military regiment, composed primarily of members of Poale Zion, was located near the front in Minsk. The Grosear Regiment was composed primarily of Bundists. In May 1919, a regiment called “The First Minsk Guard Regiment” was formed from these regiments. This regiment was formed not only from draftees of Minsk, but also from Bobruisk, Orsha, Vitebsk, Homel, and other cities. The regiment consisted of “70% Poale Zion, 2% Bundists, 10% Communist, 18% non-factional Jewish workers. Aside from the First Guard Regiment,

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the Jewish workers of Minsk were drafted into another Jewish regiment, which composed the Second Guard Regiment .”[14]

The first regiment suffered a tragic fate. At first the regiment was responsible for keeping civic order in Minsk. At the beginning of July, 1919, after the soldiers had already passed through some military training, the regiment was sent to the front. This was done only in accordance with the request of the soldiers who were impatient to go out to battle with the Poles. In return, the civic government of Minsk demanded that the regiment remain in the city to protect it from various gangs. Nevertheless, the regiment went out to battle. After a month, under tragic circumstances, many were killed in battle and many killed in captivity. (The Poles would liquidate the Jewish prisoners.) Only 19 people survived[15].

The situation on the fronts was very serious. The Polish army attacked. At the end of May 1919, the “Special Workers Regiment” was created to protect Minsk.

On July 10, 1919, the Byelorussian government sent a telegram to Lenin:[16] “The enemy attack was stopped. They are 30 verst from Minsk. The cleansing of Minsk has been completed. Soldiers and guns are arriving at a slow late. There is a great dearth of shoes. The spirits of the soldiers of the Red Army is average. The farmers are on our side. Michkevitch.”

On July 26, 1919, the Byelorussian government ceased its activities and gave over the entire task to the local Minsk revolutionary committee. On August 8, 1919, the regiments of the Red Army left Minsk, and Polish rule began.

The Poles governed Minsk for 11 months, until July 11, 1920.

As is known, the period of the civil war in Russia was accompanied by many pogroms against the Jewish population. In 1918, Ukraine was the primary locale of pogroms against the Jews. With the broadening of military operations, the wave of pogroms also affected Byelorussia. The pogroms against the Jews of Byelorussia began in August, 1919. The beginning of the Polish rule of Byelorussia also marked the beginning of the pogroms against the Jews there.

From official documents regarding the pogroms in Byelorussia that were perpetrated by the Poles during 1919-1920[17], we see that the conquest of the cities and towns by the Poles during their military attacks were generally accompanied by pogroms against the Jews and plunder of Jewish stores and homes. Later, when civilian rule came to the conquered city or town, the situation became relatively calm.

Nevertheless, the Jewish population remained in great tension and its situation was very bad during the entire period of Polish rule of Byelorussia. Jews were taken for the harshest forced labor, accompanied by degradation. They would torture the Jews, injure them, and torment them both physically and spiritually. The Polish hooligans utilized particularly degrading methods in disparaging the religious sensitivities of the Jews. They would break in to the synagogue suddenly, tear and desecrate the Torah scrolls, cut the beards of the elderly Jews, and take the Jews to work even on Sabbaths and festivals.

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On Yom Kippur, October 14, 1919, the Poles broke into one of the synagogues in Bobruisk, chased out all the worshipers, and hauled them behind the city for a full day of harsh labor. They tortured the people throughout[18].

The wave of pogroms engulfed all the cities and towns of Byelorussia, including Minsk, Bobruisk, Borisov, Slutsk, Koidanov (Dzerzhinsk), Stolbtsy, Nieswiez, Uzda, and many other Jewish settlements.

On August 8, 1919, already on the first day of the occupation of Minsk, the Poles first attacked all the Jewish stores. Not only the men, but also the women and children, engaged in pillage. Like a pack of hungry wolves, they stormed the Jewish stores, robbing and pillaging. The cruelty of the attacks of the Poles against the Jews was without bound: there were curses, degradation of men and women, plucking of beards along with the skin and flesh, backbreaking work... The wild Polish beasts hitched wealthy Jews to wagons, and made them run like horses through the city streets... A document states, “The Jews were in constant fear. It would be sufficient for a Pole to get angry with a Jew for the Jew to be accused of Bolshevism and therefore sentenced to death without a trial. Many Jews of Minsk perished in this manner.[19]

From the same document, we learn further that “The economic situation of the Jews in Minsk was especially grievous -- commerce ceased, there was no work (there was a lack of raw materials), and many Jews were naked without clothing, barefoot, hungry, and awaiting material assistance from their relatives in America [19].”

The brief period of the retreat of the Polish military units from Byelorussia was particularly difficulty and laden with tribulations.

A feverish liquidation of the civilian and military Polish institutions in Minsk began already during the first days of the month of July. During those days, the Poles perpetrated open pogroms against the Jewish population. On July 7, the Poles made a great fire around Troyatzki Square. As a result of this, 40-50 houses went up in flames. At that time, the Poles pillaged the property that the Jews rescued from the burning houses and those nearby.

An official document, a record of the legal committee of the Minsk Jewish committee for assistance of those injured by the war and the pogroms, describes the situation in Minsk during from July 9-11, 1919, when the Polish military units left Minsk[20]:

“On the evening of July 9, after the civilian government left the city, a systematic military pogrom began in the city itself, especially against the Jewish population. It continued until Sunday morning, July 11 -- that is until the first guards of the Red Army appeared in the city. The retreating Polish Army, along with the underworld of the city, spread out through the city, gang by gang, pillaging and plundering about 75%. A portion of the pillaged merchandise was loaded upon army wagons, another portion was sold locally at a low price to individuals who spread the stolen goods throughout the entire city, and a portion was destroyed. Gangs of armed soldiers broke into the residential homes, threatened murder, and demanded money and valuables. They pillaged everything with great cruelty... In some houses, the soldiers raped women and girls. Only those who could pay large amounts of ransom were saved from this... If they encountered any opposition, even verbal, the soldier-murderers would administer murderous beatings and would
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even shoot. Thus, in the house on 20 Kreshcnenskaya Street, they injured a student who wished to keep a ring from her late mother as a memento. The girl died from her wounds after a few days. The Polish soldiers murdered many people in a similar manner... (Family names and ages from the 14 Jewish victims who were murdered are listed. -- A. R.) The number of those harshly beaten and wounded was not determined... During those days of July 9-11, the city went up in flames, ignited from all sides... It was literally forbidden to extinguish the fires... The chief fireman of the city, Yermolovitch, forbade the Poles to attempt to extinguish the fires. The firemen who came to put out the fire were beaten, their boots were stolen, and they were threatened with death...”
Hundreds were murdered, thousands were injured, hundreds were raped, plundered and pillaged with harsh afflictions of the body and spirit --- This was the terrible page which the Polish murderers inscribed in the annals of the Jews of Byelorussia in general and the city of Minsk in particular in the years 1919-1920.

In 1920, a new wave of cruel pogroms affected the Jews of Byelorussia. These were perpetrated by gangs composed of embittered farmers and deserters of the Red Army. Large-scale acts of murder were perpetrated in 1921. In his monograph “The Community of Bobruisk”, Yehuda Slutzki writes, “The Jews were attacked in 70 places in Byelorussia. The number of murder victims reached 500, and those injured reached 200. Most of the victims were Jewish villagers[21].”

It is necessary to note that during the era of Polish government in Minsk, the Jewish community conducted intensive activity. In September 1919, a large Yiddish daily newspaper “Farn Folk” (For the People), a publication of the Zionist organization of Byelorussia, began to be published. The publication of the Bund, “Der Minsker Veker” was published daily.

Jewish communal elections took place at the end of January, 1920. The Zionists won a decisive victory. 71 members of the council were elected to the new communal structure, including[22]: Zionists -- 19, Radical Poale Zion -- 6; Young Zion -- 4; Agudas Yisroel -- 13, Mizrachi -- 3, tradesmen -- 13, others (merchants, non factional, teachers) -- 13.

{Photo page 16: The Council of leaders of the communities of Byelorussia, Minsk, December 1919: 12. Dr. T. T. Horowitz, 13. Ronov, 14. Yosef Goldberg, 15. Yisrael Kaplan, 16. The lawyer Genin, 17. Moshe Cohen, 18. Betzalel Perlman, 19. Heshel Frumkin, 20. Michal Rabinovich, 21. Dr. Chaim Chorgin, 22. Yitzchak Berger, 24. Izak Estrin, 25. Nachum Leib Lipschitz, 26. Hillel Aleksandrov, 33. Chaim Feigin, 35. Eliahu Goldberg, 43. Chaim Tnezer, 44. Avraham Kaplan, 73. Menacem Itzkovich, 81. Shmuel-Beni Katznelson, 82. Eliezer Levin, 83. Maskil-LeEian, 87. Shlomo Kopstik, 100. Rabbi Asher Kirshstein, 114. Michael Minkov, 115. Naftali Gerbovski, 117. Noach Tyumkin, 119. Tzvi Levin, 121. Mordechai Rosanski.

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Minsk became Soviet again on July 11, 1920.

After the Soviet government in the city was finally established, the Jewish community ceased to function as a representative body of the Jewish community in the city. All of the Zionist newspapers and publications were closed. The Zionist organizations quickly stopped their legal work and went underground. The vibrant activities of the Jewish community were strangled. The Bund continued its operation for a brief period, continuing to publish “Der Veker”. This too, however, did not last long. Already in March, 1921, at a convention in Minsk that was lacking a quorum, the Bund declared its own liquidation and merger with the Communist Party. “Der Veker” became the chief publication of the Jewish section of the Communist Party in Byelorussia. A few years later, on November 6, 1925, the name “Der Veker” was erased from the Communist daily newspaper, for it was considered an embarrassing legacy from the Bund. The newspaper was called “Octiober” from that time.

The Yevsektsia -- the Jewish Section of the Communist Party, ruled the “Jewish Street” without restriction.

Indeed, the official framework for the legal existence of the “Poale Zion” Jewish Communist Workers Party and left-leaning Hechalutz continued to exist for some time. A ban on Hechalutz took effect at the beginning of 1928, and on Poale Zion in July, 1928.

As is known, the Yevsektsia was set up in order to carry out the politics of the Communist Party among the masses of Jews in their own language of Yiddish. In effect, the Yevsektsia was a technical arm of the general Communist Party active on the “Jewish Street.”

The primary task of the Jewish Section during the first phase of its activities was to conduct a determined battle against all of the Jewish parties and with any form of the Jewish national movement.

In Minsk, there was a large and prominent group of Yevsektsia leaders, such as Beilin, Levin, Asherovitch Wolobrinsky, Doniatz, Rozenhoiz and others. Perhaps because all of them had a “notorious” political past (Bundist, Zionist), all of them acted with diligence and strength in the battle against Zionism, Bundism, and anything that smacked of Jewish nationalism in all areas of life.

During the all-country consultations of the Yevsektsias at the end of 1926, Beilin, the chairman of the Yevsektsias of Byelorussia, pointed out the special task of the battle against Zionism. He said[23]: “With us in Byelorussia, Zionism was very strong, especially in the towns. The Zionists were well organized. They had activists of great stature. In the city of Minsk, they had seven activists... We still have Poale Zion. The entire petite-bourgeois foundations centered on them. They became the concentration point of all the anti-revolutionary Zionist foundations...”

Different forms of battle took place. In addition to what was referred to as the ideological battle that expressed itself with the publication of countless articles and booklets that denigrated the essence of Jewish nationalism, disparaged it and pegged it as chauvinistic, imperialistic, etc.; and in addition to the imprisonment of members of the Jewish movements, which took place in a systematic manner at all times, and reached large-scale proportions during the years 1935-1938; all sorts of persecutions such as firing from work, resulting in the removal of the sole source of livelihood of the person, took place.

[Page 18]

Deliberations took place in all the enterprises and institutions in which Zionists or Bundists had formerly worked in order to assess the damage that they caused to the enterprise or institution. At the minimum, such deliberations would result in the person being fired from his job.

There were many such cases in Minsk. We will only bring one characteristic case. In February 1930, a large public trial against Titensky, who had been the modest director of the cooperative grocery store, took place in the civic hall of the Soviet business officials. Titensky was the secretary of the Minsk chapter of Poale Zion from 1925-1927. The official reason for placing Titensky on public trial was the poem “Hirhurei Stav” (Thoughts of Autumn) and an article that Titensky wrote and sent to the editor of the wall newspaper of his place of service for publication. The editor did not publish the material, but rather gave it over the “appropriate authorities.” Then it was decided to conduct a public trial.

The trial decided that in the poem, “Titensky laments the bitter fate of the small-scale Jewish shopkeeper, who has now come down from his pedestal and whose place has been taken by the cooperative[24]; and that Titensky “casts aspersions upon the conduct of the professional union that spares no means to ensure that the officials receive their quota of bread.” The responsible Yevsektsia activists clarified before the large audience that was present at the trial “the chauvinistic, counter-revolutionary essence of Titensky's article and poem,” and decreed that Titensky be dismissed from the professional union. The interpretation of this was that Titensky was to be fired from his job, leaving his family and him without a source of livelihood.

Six years later, Titensky was imprisoned and his tracks were lost.

The 1920s were noted in Minsk for a fierce attack upon the Jewish religion. Already during the first years of Soviet rule, they began to persecute and close the cheders and yeshivas in the city. Minsk was the first city in the Soviet Union in which the Choral Synagogue (Chor Shul, 1924) was taken from the Jews. The first large, open, provocative trials were carried out in Minsk against the rabbis (1925, 1930), against the shochtim (ritual slaughterers) (1930), and others.

During the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s, great activity took place in Minsk in the realm of haskala, literature and Yiddish theater. It can be said without doubt that in this era, Minsk was an important and most prominent center of Soviet Jewish culture in the Soviet Union. There were Jewish primary and secondary schools, a technion, pedagogic schools, a Jewish division affiliated with the university, a Jewish section affiliated with the academy of sciences, a Jewish daily newspaper and literary monthly, Jewish libraries and halls, large scale Jewish publications, a Jewish dramatic theater, and a Jewish choir. A large group of talented Jewish writers concentrated in Minsk.

From an economic perspective, the following processes were typical:

The new economic policy (N.E.P.) that followed the difficult period of military Communism, opened for a short time large possibilities for personal effort in economic activity. Private business rose to life, and small-scale private trade developed. “Ezor-Nemiga” (the Jewish business center in the city) returned to its vibrancy. Even the “black market” that existed between Nemiga and Bogadilanya Streets came to life once again. Jewish Minsk awakened, and it seemed as if an era of economic flourishing had begun.

[Page 19]

However, the N.E.P was only a fleeting episode. The establishment of nationalized manufacturing was sufficient to destroy the private enterprises that did not have firm, steady sources of raw materials, and that struggled hard for their existence under the harsh pressure of high taxes.

The N.E.P was liquidated, but the “Nepmans” remained. “Lycentzes” (people without rights of citizenship) remained without sources of livelihood, and with no chance to find new sources of livelihood.

Other very important problems arose. The children of the “Lycentzes” were not accepted to high schools due to their “social origins.” The suffering of the “Lycentzes” was especially great during the years of the collectivization of agriculture, when the urban population received its food provisions according to set quotas and the “Lycentzes” lacked the right to receive ration cards.

A process and its opposite unfolded in Minsk. From one side, a large stream of many “Lycentzes” left Minsk for other large cities of Russia (Moscow, Leningrad, etc.), where there were better conditions for improving their social position and assimilating into the general stream of life, to obtain some sort of work, and to build a new life. On the other hand, a large stream entered Minsk from the small cities and towns of the region, where many Jews had been pushed out of their economic status.

During the 1930s, the social composition of the livelihood earners of the Jewish population in the city changed radically. Whereas the merchants formed 24% of the livelihood earners of the Jewish population of the city in 1897, and in 1926 they were 7%, by the 1930s, there were absolutely no private merchants.

The general process of industrialization in the country left its mark in Minsk as well. New branches of industry developed in the city. Large factories and enterprises blossomed. Minsk, as the capital of Byelorussia, became an important administrative and economic center, in which sufficiently comfortable conditions were created for the economic foundations of the Jewish population of the city.

On December 1, 1934, a “terrorist” killed Sergei Mironovitch Kirov a member of the national branch of the Communist Party and the first secretary of the Leningrad chapter. Some 20 years later, when Khrushchev took over the government, it became known that the attack on Kirov was organized by his best friends, headed by Stalin.

The shot of December 1 served as a portent for the development of large-scale mass terror actions throughout the Soviet Union. Official statements began to be issued that thousands of shots in the hearts of counter revolutionaries would be the response to this one shot in the heart of the revolution. A policy of “vigilance” was announced - it is better to imprison 100 innocent people than to ignore one guilty person. They repeated and nurtured the “law”: when you cut down trees, chips fly. That means, when you arrest criminals, you do not desist from arresting innocents.

Mass arrests began among members of the various strata of the population in all cities, towns and village of the broad country.

Obviously, those on the “black lists” of the N.K.V.D. were first in line to be arrested. Those included Social Democrats, Revolutionary Socialists, Trotskyites, Zionists, Bundists, etc.

The three largest prisons in Minsk - the “American” (a new jail “set up” in the yard of the N.K.V.D. at the corner of Sovietskaya and Volodarskaya Streets), the entire cellar of the large N.K.V.D. building, and the central city prison were filled within a few months with no room to spare.

In January-April 1935, a group of former members of Hashomer Hatzair, Hechalutz and Poale Zion was arrested in the city. Those arrested included the writer of these lines and his wife.

[Page 20]

Accusations of counter-revolutionary activity and Zionism were generally accompanied by accusations of spying, terror, sabotage, economic counter-revolutionary activities, or other such things of that nature.

Hundreds of people were shot in the city, and thousands were sentenced in absentia, generally through “special consultations”. The terms were for 3, 5, 8 or 10 years. The accused were sent to forced labor camps Siberia, the Urals, Kalima, or the far north.

A great fear overtook the population, which was indeed the goal of the actions.

The year 1937 began with a new wave of terror in the state. From January 23-30, 1937, the trial of the “anti-Soviet Trotsky center” -- Piotokov, Sokolnikov, Rodek Lipschitz, Muralov, Drubnis, Serebriakov, and others. They were all shot. Thousands of others were similarly shot. Millions were imprisoned, tortured with interrogations, and sent to the countless labor camps.

One would very often read the following types of notices in the Minsk “Octiober” :[25] “Gangs of right leaning Trotskyite spies and saboteurs who poisoned the Red Army soldiers in their units were investigated by the offices of the N.K.V.D. ... The military court determined that the poisoning of the soldiers of the Red Army was carried out through the directives of fascist security services. All of the accused admitted their guilt. The military court issued a verdict of death by shooting for the saboteur spies. The verdict was executed.”

In March 1938, the trial of the “Right Trotskyite Bloc” was carried out in Moscow. This group included Bukharin, Rykov, Yagoda, Rosengoltz, Krestinsky, Rakovsky, and others. All of these leaders of the Soviet Union were shot. Thousands of others were similarly shot, and millions were once again imprisoned, tortured, and sent to forced labor camps.

A wave of arrests also began anew in Minsk. The Minsk newspapers of that time, including the Yiddish newspaper “Octiober”, were filled on a daily basis with articles and lists that removed the veil from the face of the saboteurs in various walks of life.

It must be mentioned that the tension and sensation of danger was greater in Minsk than in other cities of the Soviet Union. This was due to the fact that Minsk was on the border of Poland, and therefore the N.K.V.D. was more psychotic about the fear of espionage, sabotage, terror, and other terrible dangers. The Polish population of the city suffered greatly at that time. During those days, it was dangerous to write letters to relatives in Poland.

It is characteristic that the Polish section of the union of Byelorussian writers was liquidated in August 1937. The reason was:[26] “The Polish section was nothing other than a nest of Polish spies and saboteurs who set up the section in order to carry out their plan of Polonization.”

As is known, the serious process of destroying Jewish culture in the Soviet Union began in 1937. That year, the direct physical persecution of prominent Jewish cultural activists began.

Minsk excelled as a pioneer in this realm. In 1937, the talented writers Izzi Charik and Moshe Kulbak “disappeared.” Professor Yasha Bronshteyn, Chatzkel Doniatz, Yankel Levin, Layma Rosenhoyz and many others were imprisoned and murdered. The founder and art director of the Minsk Jewish theater, Moshe Rafaelsky, was imprisoned. Tens of other Jewish cultural activists were imprisoned.

[Page 21]

The Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, a non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, was signed in August 1939. Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, and began by conquering the western half. On September 17, 1939, the Soviet Army crossed the Soviet-Polish border and began the conquest of eastern Poland. Poland ceased to exist as an independent state on September 26, and it was partitioned between Germany and the Soviet Union.

As is known, the Soviet government proclaimed that one of the primary reasons for the conquest of Poland was that the Soviet government was unable to relate to the Ukrainians and Byelorussians of Poland with indifference, for they were of the same flesh and blood, and had been left on their own and defenseless... Minsk, as a border city with Poland, was in the center of the action. Even before September 17, the residents of the city felt that important events were about to take place. They saw the concentration of large army units. Great tension and pressure pervaded in the city.

On September 17, mass gatherings took place at all the enterprises, institutions, universities and schools, who of course welcomed the policies of the Soviet government.

After the quick conclusion of the conquest of eastern Poland, the populations of both sides -- the “liberators” and the “liberated” -- did not have permission to cross the former border. People could only travel to the “liberated” areas for special assignments, and the only those people who passed the stringent investigations of the N.K.V.D could cross. Soviet passports containing special clauses immediately began to be issued in the “liberated” areas.

The closeness and friendship between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany led to the continuation of the process, which had already begun, of displacement of Jews from prominent positions. It was forbidden to openly mention the Nazi anti-Semitism and terrible persecution of the Jews in Germany. No article or hint to the Nazi anti-Semitism could be found in the Minsk Jews newspaper “Octiober.” No anti-fascist book would be lent out in a library. The film “The Oppenheim Family” by Foichtwenger, with the participation of Shlomo Michels, which protested Nazi anti-Semitism, was banned from the theaters.

The writer of these lines met people who had been accused of the crime of denigrating Germany as a fascist state in the Belomor-Balti Forced Labor Camp at the end of 1939 and during 1940.

Jewish schools were closed in Minsk. The publication of Yiddish books virtually stopped. They began to uproot Jewish culture from the root.

The war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany broke out on June 22, 1941. The German air force already bombarded Minsk on the first day of the war. The city was literally destroyed within a few days, as a result of the frequent heavy bombardments. Even greater was the destruction of the large Jewish population of the city, which was literally left out in the open. Nobody concerned themselves with internal organization. The first activists who were responsible for the party and government apparatus fled from their city with their families and with the police. The regular folk remained without anyone to help.

Those Jews who had the energy and initiative quickly set out eastward, to wherever their legs would take them. Many perished along the way, but most of them survived and found refuge in Uzbekistan, Ural, and other places in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, many Jews remained in the city.

[Page 22]

{Photo page 22: The artist Meir Akselrad (brother of Zelik), self portrait, 1926.}

On June 26, 1941, the well-known Jewish poet Zelik Akselrad, who had been arrested on May 31, was shot in the courtyard of the Minsk civic prison in a wanton, satanic manner, without any trial. This was the final Soviet bullet in the heart of Jewish culture in Minsk.

It is typical and symbolic that at the end of 6 ½ years, when the war was over already, during the days of victory and peace, the Jewish artistic genius Shlomo Michaels was shot in Minsk on a snowy January evening in 1948. This was the first Soviet bullet of the post-war period, symbolizing the total liquidation of the great Jewish culture in the Soviet Union.

The German murderers conquered Minsk on June 28.

A new, terrifying, bloody page was written in the annals of Minsk Jewry -- the scroll of their might and destruction.


Text Footnotes

  1. V. Kanorin, preparations for “October”, in the “October Revolution in Byelorussia”, page 40, Minsk, 1927 (Yiddish). Return
  2. Ibid. Page 39. Return
  3. R. Abramovitch. In Two Revolutions, volume II, pages 140-141 (Yiddish). Return
  4. “Der Veker”, the publication of the Bund, 257. Minsk, 1918. Return
  5. “Der Veker” from January 8, 1918 (Yiddish). Return
  6. “Der Veker” from January 24, 1918 (Yiddish). Return
  7. G. Aronson. Minsk During the Era of German Occupation. In the “Zukunft” manuscript, 1, page 29, New York, 1938 (Yiddish). Return
  8. Aronson, ibid. Page 30. Return
  9. Aronson, page 31-32. Return
  10. Aronson, page 34. Return
  11. A. Krinicki (Bampi). The Year 1918 in Byelorussia. In the “October Revolution in Byelorussia” anthology, page 164, Minsk, 1927 (Yiddish). Return
  12. Aronson, page 37. Return
  13. Krinicki, page 179. Return
  14. Sh. Ogorski. The Jewish Worker in the Communist Movement, page 107, Minsk, 1927 (Yiddish). Return
  15. Ibid, pages 107-108. Return
  16. The Revolutionary Committees of the S. S. R. Published by the Academy of Sciences of the S. S. R. Page 52, Minsk 1961 (Russian). Return
  17. Material on the pogroms against the Jews, the pogroms in Byelorussia (official data, investigations, and testimonies). The Jewish Communal Council, Moscow, 1922 (Russian). Return
  18. Ibid, page 53. Return
  19. Pogroms of Byelorussia, page 18. Return
  20. Ibid., page 13-14. Return
  21. Bobruisk. Memorial Book of the Community of Bobruisk and its Suburbs, volume I, page 204. Tel Aviv, 5727 (1967). Return
  22. “Farn Falk”, daily newspaper, publication of the Zionist organization of Byelorussia, January 28, 1920, Minsk (Yiddish). Return
  23. “Octiober”, January 4, 1927, Minsk (Yiddish). Return
  24. “Octiober”, February 24, 1930 (Yiddish). Return
  25. “Octiober”, August 16, 1937 (Yiddish). Return
  26. “Octiober”, August 9, 1937 (Yiddish). Return

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