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History of Grodno Gubernia

   picture courtesy of Tomek Wisniewski, Bialystok, Poland

Originally in Lithuania/Litwa/Litva/Lita, Grodno guberniya was part of  the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, connected with Poland, and then annexed by Russia. The first mention of Lita occurs in the fifteenth century responsum of Israel Isserlein who refers to "Tobiah" who had returned from Gordita (Grodno) in Lithuania and said, "It is rare with our people from Germany to go to Lithuania." (Israel Bruna, Responsa, **25, 73).

Grodno, one of the oldest cities in former Lithuania, began as a village founded by a Russian price. The village is first mentioned in the Chronicles of 1128. Lida was founded at the same time as Vilna, about 1320. These cities had no Magdeburg Rights or gilds. However, following the death of Gedimin in 1341, his grandson Witold ascended to the throne. The Jews of Brest received a Charter of Privileges on 1 July 1388. Grodno obtained the same in 1389. These charters represent the earliest documentation of organized Jewish communities in the region. "The preamble to the charter reads as follows: "In the name of God, Amen. All deeds of men, when they are not made known by the testimony of witnesses or in writing, pass away and vanish and are forgotten. Therefore, we, Alexander, also called Witold, by the grace of God Grand Duke of Lithuania and ruler of Brest, Dorogicz, Lusk, Vladimir, and other places, made known by this charter to the present and future generations, or to whomever it may concern to know or hear of it, that, after due deliberation with our nobles we have decided to grant to all the Jews living in our domains the rights and liberties mentioned in the following charter." [The Jewish Encyclopedia. NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1916, Vol. VIII, p. 120.] The charter contains thirty-seven sections concerning all aspects of legal, business, and social relationships between Jews and Christians and proscribed punishments for its violation. This document closely resembles those granted by Casimir the Great and Boleslaw of Kalisz to the Jews of Poland, based on the charters of Henry of Glogau (1251_, King Ottokar of Bohemia (1254-1267), and Frederick II (1244), and the Bishop of Speyer (10 84). These charters grant privileges to a Jewish populace largely engaged in money lending. The Grodno Charters of 18 June 1389 and 1408 grant privileges to a community engaged in a variety of occupations including handicrafts and agriculture in the town that was the residence of the ruling Grand Duke.

The 1389 document reflects that Jews had lived there for many years, owned land, a synagogue and a cemetery near the Jewish quarter and lived in social and economic parity with Christians. The Jews belonged to the freemen class equal to lesser nobles ["shlyakhta"], boyars, and other free citizens. The starosta (official representatives of the Grand Duke) was called the Jewish Judge and decided all civil and criminal cases between Christians and Jews. Jews had complete autonomy over religious matters. The Jewish communities thrived under this system. Each community had a Jewish elder [title after the sixteenth century] as its head who represented the community in all external relations and in tax matters. Under the regime of the Jagellons, Jews became tax-farmers. Between 1463 and 1478, Casimir granted to Levin Schalomich certain lands in the vovoidship of Brest together with the peasants living on them.

In 1486, Bryansk custom duties were leased to Mordecai Gadjewich and Perka Judinovich, residents of Kiev. In 1487 Brest, Drohycin, Byelsk, and Grodno customs duties were leased to Astashka Hyich, Onotani Ilyich, and Olkan, all Jews from Lutsk. In 1488 some taxes of Grodno were released to Jatzkovich and his sons. In 1489, custom duties of Vladimir, Peremyshl, and Litovishk were leased to the Jews of Brest and Hrubieszow. According to the historian Jaroszewic in "Obraz Litwy", Lithuanian Jews of that time developed the country's commerce, even with business ventures reaching the Baltic Sea and export trade to Prussia. When Alexander Jagellon succeeded to the throne, he confirmed the Charter of Privileges. Four Jewish tax-farmers of Brest continued to lease the customs of Brest, Drohoczyn, Grodno and Byelsk affirmed on 14 October 1494. However, in 1495, Alexander expelled all the Jews from the country either because of personal animosity from Alexander Jagellon or his wife Grand Duchess Helena (daughter of Ivan III of Russia), or due to influences of the Spanish Inquisition, or because of Judaizing heresies. At this time, Jews who converted to Christianity automatically attained noble status. Property of the expelled Jews was allotted to various cronies of the Grand Duke. A nobleman named Semashkowich received the properties abandoned by the Jews of Grodno. On 4 October 1495, the estates of the Enkovich brothers of Brest were given to Alexander's secretary. On 27 January 1497, the estate Kornitza belonging to the Jew Levon Shalomich was given to the magistrate of Brest-Litovsk.

This property distribution continued until mid 1501 when Alexander assumed the throne of Poland. At this time, the Jews were allowed to return to Lithuania and their properties and possessions were to be returned to them. Prince Alexander Juryevich, vice-regent of Vilna and Grodno, was to oversee the restoration of property and settlement of debts owed to them; however, they were required to repurchase their former property, pay for all improvements and mortgages, and equip annually a 1,000 horse cavalry regiment at their own expense. Sigismund I (1506-1548) improved conditions for Jews. In 1508 when Prince Glinski rebelled, two Jews of Brest, Itzko and Berek, furnished him with information. The leading Jew of the country, Michael Jesofovich excommunicated them publicly, prompting eventually an improved tax collection system that  he oversaw for Sigismund as prefect over all Lithuanian Jews [1514].

The communities of Brest and Grodno flourished along with Troki, Pinsk, Ostrog , Lutsk, and Tykotzin. According to new statutes of 1529, the life of a Jew  was valued at 100 kop groschen as was that of a nobleman while burghers were only valued at 12 kop groschen. Apparently, the Jewish tax-farmers overstepped their legal authority leading to a Brest Jew named Goshko Kozhchich being fined 20-kop groshen for illegally imprisoning the nobleman Lyshinski. Relationships between Jew and Christian were cordial, with shared participation in dining, athletics, and festivals. Around 1539 a baptized Jew spread rumors about converts to Judaism harbored in the Jewish community. Sigismund ended the harassment of Jews in 1540 when he declared them free of any suspicion. His wife Bona Sporza settled a quarrel between the Grodno Jewish community and one of its powerful families (Judah Yudicki) over the appointment of a rabbi named Mordechai [ben Moses Jaffe, rabbi of Cracow?], son-in-law of Judah Bogdanovich. (Another man, Mordechai ben Abraham Jaffee was rabbi of Grodno in 1572. See below)

In 1544, Sigismund II, August became Grand Duke of Lithuania and Polish king in 1548. He treated Jews and Lutherans/Calvinists with liberality. At that time, the rabbi of Brest, Mendel Frank, was called "the king's officer" while prominent Jews were called "Pany" or sirs. Until 1569 with the union with Lublin, Lithuanian Jews lived on grand ducal lands and enjoyed his protection. After the mid-1500's, relationships between the minor nobility and the Jews deteriorated. The prevalence of mixed marriages disturbed the clergy. The shlyakhta resented Jews as middlemen in agricultural dealings, the Jewish exemption from military service, and the wealth/power of the Jewish tax- farmers. Living on the protected lands of the king, Jews avoided some of the conflict with the resentful nobility. However, in 1555, the nobility began to attain more power. A blood libel controversy arose in 1564 but was squelched by Sigismund August in a declaration of 9 August 1564.

In 1566, however, the nobility finally attained power. They were allowed to participate in the national legislature and produced the repressive Act of 1566. That act stated: "The Jews shall not wear costly clothing, nor gold chains, nor shall their wives wear gold or silver ornaments. "The Jews shall no have silver mountings on their sabers and daggers; they shall be distinguished by characteristic clothes; they shall wear yellow caps, and their wives kerchiefs of yellow linen, in order that all may be enabled to distinguish Jews from Christians." [p. 126] About twenty years later, however, the nobility withdrew these restrictions. Stephen Bathori from Transylvania attained the throne about [1570?] via an election and confirmed the privilege. Mordechai Jaffe, author of Lebushim" went to Grodno, built the large synagogue with an ark inscription showing the building was completed in 1578. He was active in the Council of Four Lands and developed methodical study of rabbinical literature. During the reign of Sigismund III (1587-1632), Saul Judich, representative of the Jews of Brest in 1593 addressed the commercial rivalry between the Jews and the burghers encouraged that decrees of Sigimund III that declared inviolable Jewish autonomy in religious and judicial matters. The illegal assumption of magistrates of Brest over kalah or royal matters was stopped. Saul Judich was a prominent tax-farmer and "servant of the king" who is first mentioned in a decree of 1580 as defending, with other community leaders, the rights of Brest Jews against Christian merchants. He was a favorite of Prince Radziwil, a Calvinist. This same privilege was then extended to the Jews of Vilna in a charter permitting Jews to purchase real estate, engage in trade equally with Christians, to occupy houses belonging to nobility, and to build synagogues. They were exempt from city taxes as tenants of nobility and subject to the king's vovoidship jurisdiction rather than that of local magistrates. Sigismund also demonstrated negative attitudes toward Jews when he provided for the elevation of Jewish converts to Christianity to noble status, leading to what was called "Jerusalem nobles."   That law was repealed in 1768.

As Jesuits gained power in Lithuania, the Jews of Grodno faced increasing restrictions until the reign of Ladislaus IV (1632-1648.) No fan of the Jesuits, he confirmed the Charters of Privileges of the Jews of Lithuania on 11 March and 16 Mar 1633. For all his good intentions, Ladislaus was unable to enforce his will. After 1648, the Cossach uprisings effectively mark the end of Jewish economic security in Lithuania. By May 1676, King John Sobieski received numerous complaints from the Jews of Brest led by their rabbi, Mark Benjaschewitsch who received jurisdiction over criminal cases involving Jews in his community and the power to impose corporal punishment and the death penalty. The Lithuanian Council [Jews were taxed as a single body, pro rata agreements made among their representatives meeting frequently at Brest- Litovsk, Vilna, Pinsk, and Grodno] brought some order to chaotic conditions faced by the Lithuanian Jews. Yet, the kahals were insolvent by mid-1700. References to the yeshiva at Brest are found in the writings of Solomon Luria (d. 1589), Moses Isserles (d. 1572), and David Gans  (d.1589).

On  December 14, 1795, Slonimskaya Guberniya was formed consisting of eight uezds: Slonimski, Grodnenski, Brestski, Kobrinski, Pruzhanski, Volkovyski, Novogrudski, and Lidszki. In a year, Slonimskaya and Vilanskaya guberniyii were united in one and were given the common name: Litovskaya Guberniya. After this, in five years, Slonimskaya Guberniya was separated again and was named Grodnenskaya Guberniya. The decree about the foundation of a new Guberniya in Lithuania came after the 9th of September, 1801 and was carried out in the course of the next year, 1802. The Guberniya stayed in such condition for the next forty years. In 1843, to the previous Guberniya, Belostokskaya Guberniya was added. This new province was acquired by Russia according to the Tilsit Agreement of 1807 and consisted of four uezd: Belostokski, Sokolski, Belski, and Dragichinski. Belski and Dragichinski were united into one; Lidski uezd became part of Vilenskaya Guberniya. Novogrudski uezd became a part of Minskaya Guberniya. Thus, Grodnenskaya Guberniya consisted of nine uezds: Grodnenski, Sokolski, Belostokski, Belski, Brestki, Kobrinski, Pruzhanski, Slonimski, and Volkovyski. Grodnenskaya Guberniya covered 704.5 square miles, the "smallest" Guberniya in, larger only than Russian provinces of Moskovskaya, Tulskaya, Kaluzhkaya, and Yaroslavskaya (if not considering provinces in Poland, Finland, and Ostzeiskaya). Compared to the countries of Western Europe, the Guberniya had almost the same territory as Switzerland, larger than Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands although it yielded in population. There were 1,842 men per sq. mile in the territory and 37 men in one sq. verst (wiorst). As a result, Grodnenskaya was average among the other Russian gubernii. For example, Podolskaya, Poltavskaya, and Kurskaya gubernii, as well as the provinces of Poland and others, exceeded Grodnenskaya in population density by 1.5 times, Western European countries (France and Austria) by two times, Germany by 2.5 times, Italy by 3 times, and England by 3.5 times.


Towns are somtimes called "books made of stone" with streets being its pages. Indeed, old buildings can tell us a lot about the past, carrying us many decades back to early days. Sadly enough, such buildings are few. The majority of old town buildings were made of wood and when fire occurred it destroyed almost everything. However, the economically better developed residences of rich magnates were composed of stone-made castles, palaces, churches and monasteries which have stood till [sic[ today. Nearly all factories, workshops, warehouses and stores wre concentrated in Belarusian regional and sometimes district centres.
The most common industries in them were soap, brick, paper, tobacco and matches manufacture. Timber processing, textile production and tanning were also popular. Dozens of people were involved in some of these productions. The most highly developed towns were becoming not only administrative but cultural centres. All public life in the towns was concentrated around churches and in market squares. Those were the places where all major administrative buildings -- the Governors' houses, govenment offices and shops were located. Some towns (Magileu, Vitsebsk, Grodna, Nyasvizh), once they wre granted the Mageburg Right, would build a City Hall where the Magistrate sat.

Market squares were usually lined with rows of shops -- protypes of contemporary department stores. They were built as a complete rectanle (Brest) or as an elongated structure, or as several buildings (Navagrudak, Babruisk, Pinsk). in some places (Nyasvizh, Vaukavsyk) the shopping rows formed the Cyrllic letter [like the math sign for pi]. Inside the buildings were small rooms used as multi-purpose shops. To link the rows there were arcades or colonnades (Brest, Navagrudak, kobryn). As fires destoyed big parts of wooden towns, their centres were gradually filled with stone or brick houses. Streets were laid with cobble stone, had sidewalks of wooden boards or even, in some towns, of brick. In the eveing, they were lit with gas lamps. Living in the new buildings were wealthy industrial tychoons [sic], traders and white collar workers. The architecture of the houses was either modern or pseudostyle. Many houses were plastered, their facades being decorated with beautiful stucco-work. Other buildings stayed unplastered but had intricate brick- or stone-work, specific architectural forms and details. Basically, these were profit-making enterprises, with ground floors occupied by various shops which had numerous colourful sign-boards. Upper floors were used as residence or were rented by private businesses. Streets in the centre of a town were more busy than in other parts. There would be a threatre and a cinematograph where the first mute films would be shown. in Minsk these cinemas were called Arts Theatre, New Illusion. In Ragachou--Modern. in Babruisk--Gigant, All the World, Eden, etc. The townsfolk would spend their free times in parks, gardens, and on river banks. A city part would normally have a wooden stage from which an orchestra would play and actors would perform. in winter there would be a skating rink. Some towns had sports grounds and cycling tracks. In Minsk, the cycling track was situated in the Governor's Park (today the Central Children's Park). There was a big cycling track in Gomel which was then located in Maximov Park which now has turned into the Gomselmas factory stadium. Vitsebsk had a yachting club. One would not imagine a town of those days without a cathedral, a church, a mosque or a synagogue which would wonderfully match the town's architecture. Together with the City Hall, the fire and water towers, they created a unique charateristique [sic] silhouette of every town.

The streets of old-time towns were normally straight (Polatsk, Ragachou, Asipovichy, etc.). However, certain town (Mazyr, Navagrudak, Slonim) were located on hilly terrain or along rivers, so the streets in them were not symmetrically straight. Streets in towns would normally originate in the centre, around market places, cathedrals and churches and gradually flow into main roads or highways. Such streets were given the names of towns or cities to which those highways took you. St Petersburg Street in Orsha and other towns, Smalensk and Surazh Streets in Vitsebsk, Brest Street in vaukavysk and Pinsk, Vilenskaya Streets in Minsk and Lida. The names of streets of those days would obviously reflect the then popular Merchants Streets, in Minsk--Governor and Asylum Streets, in Brest -- Police Street, in Pinsk, -- Prison Street, in Bobruisk -- Muraviev and Stolupin Streets. Horse-drawn transport was the most popular one at the time. From early morning till [sic] late at night the streets were filled with the rattle of wooden, iron-bound wheels of coaches and village carts that flooded towns. In winter wheels would be replaced with a sledge and the sweet ding-dong of the bells fixed to the harness could be heard from afar.

In 1892 the first street-car appeared in the streets of Minsk. It was a small carriage drawn by two or, on hilly streets, by three horses. In 1898 Belarus' first electric tramway began to run the streets of Vitsebsk. This was also one of the first trams to come into being in the entire Russian Empire. In the early 20th century the bicycle was becoming common in city ctreets and presently cars appeared. The outskirts of old-time towns looked like village streets. They were lined with wooden houses surrounded by a fence. As a general rule, the streets were not cobbled, had no pavements and were not light at night. In spring and autumn they were so muddy that crossing them was a problem. Poverty reigned there. Some old towns were surrounded by boroughs and settlements. There was a Trans-Nieman borough in Grodna, Berezina and minsk boroughs in Babruisk. Minsk had a Tatar settlement and Grodna--the Alexander settlement. In Barysau and other towns such places were simply called settlements and were populated by people who moved to live here from other parts of the country or abroad. Boroughs often had the names of villages that were joined with towns. in Minsk this was the case with Kamarouka and Luakhauka. There were extraordinary, off-hand names, though. In Gomel of the early 20th century there were boroughs called American Caucasus, Whistle. ... Towns of Belarus on old-time Postcards, Viachka Tselesh, Minsk Belarus, 1998.pages 12-17.

From Belarus, A Story of Change, ISBN 985-09-0315-5

page 10:  Belarus is " the basin of the upper reaches of the Dnieper and the Neman and the middle part of the Zapadnaya Dvina and the Western Boog (right bank), middle and low parts of the Pripyat [river]. ... Belarus is also often called the land of lakes. Most of thelakes are scattered in the North of the Republic in the Belarussian Poozerye (lake district) and in the southern provinces which make part of the Belarussian Polessye (forest district). There are places where 10 percent of the surface is under lakes. This is true of the Ushaci and Braslav districts of Vitebsk region. Most of the lakes there are small but very deep, as a rule. They are permanently replenished by spring waters which is why the water in them is crystal-clear.

Page11: "...and the Neman valley, near Grodno, being the lowerst place...28 species of trees and 80 species of shrubs grow here. In addition to traditional trees, such as pine, spruce, birch, oak, maple, asp, hornbeam, alder and others, "foreigners" like Siberian and European larch, northern oak, Armour velvet and Manchrian nut ... coniferous forests are most widely spread in Belarus. national parks, the biggest and most widely known being the Belovzhskaya [page 14:] Pushca national park..."

page 26: "In the 6th-8th centuries, the tribes of Krivichi, Dregovichi, Rodimichi and Yatviagi, the latter speaking Baltic languages, were formed on the territories. These were independent states. ...In the 10th century, a large proportion of Belarussian lands made part of the Kiev Russ."

page 28: "In the late 11th-early 12th centuries, the Kiev Russ ceased to exist as a single state and split into several independent but economically and culturally linked lands. With the fall of the Russian Empire, the first prerequisites of the birth of the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarussian nations appeared. It took two centuries to overcome the feudal fragmentation and to unite the separated lands into one powerful state. Eventually, the Great Lithuanian Principality was established around the Novogorodok Province and Lithuanian territories. The establishment of a  prinicipality around Novogrodok (at present Novogrudok, Grodno provice) enabled the two nations to retain their independence and provide a worthy resistance to the Mongol-Tatar raids and the German expansionist claims. ... In 1569, the Great Lithuanian Principality and the Kingdom of Poland signed the Lublino Treaty to become a single federal state -- Rzeczpospolita. The Great Principality of Lithuania kept its own bodies of state administration, its legislation, the state language, the finanacial system, and the army. The supreme power in the Rzeczpospolita belonged to the Polish landlords. The alliance managed to survive for over two hundred years, beating back constant attacks from the east, west, and north....As a result of the three splits (1772, 1793, 1795), the Rzeczpospolita ceased to exist and the territories of Belarus went into the possession of the Russian Empire.

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Updated by May, 1999
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