Historical Overview of Jewish Tolochin, Belarus

By J.R. Rothstein [1]January 2020

Before the Russian Revolution, the Jews of White Russia, a region which covers most of modern-day Belarus, including the shtetl or village of Tolochin, were forced to live in a region known as the “Pale of Settlement,” a region which spanned from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. About five million Jews (94% of the total Jewish population, about 12% of the Russian population) lived in this region. The poverty rate was high and the Jews had the worst jobs and worked for the lowest wages and in the most demeaning positions. Pogroms occurred frequently throughout the Russian Empire.

Map of the region around Tolochin

Tolochin or Talachyn (Belarusian: Талачы́н, Łacinka: Tałačyn, pronounced [taɫaˈtʂɨn]) or Tolochin (Russian: Толо́чин; Polish: Tołoczyn, Lithuanian: Talačynas, and Yiddish: טאָלאָטשין) was and is a small village in the Viciebsk Region of Belarus, an administrative center of the Talachyn district. It is perhaps the coldest city in Belarus in winter, with a record low of -42.2C. The hamlet of Tolochin was founded in 1433 in the Vitebsk province of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (which later became the Kingdom of Lithuania.) The town ran across a famous trade route and for this reason the city was often subjected to conquest, destruction and ruin through the centuries.

In 1604, Lev Ivanovich Sapieha founded here a Christian Basilian monastery, a hospital and a school. Since at least the mid-17th century, Tolochin became a significant center of trade and the settlement held major market fairs at least three times a year. During the war between Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1654-1667) the hamlet had 314 houses, which were all burned down.

Some claim the town itself was first settled by Jews. Other references suggest a Jewish presence as early at the 16th century while others place it as only beginning as late as 1717. However, from the third quarter of the 17th century historical documents mention Jewish settlements in the greater Tolochin region – settlements such Bobr, Belynichi, Gory, Glusk, Dubrovno, Krynki, Mir, Ross, Staroselie and our Tolochin. In 1766, 648 Jews were enrolled in the Tolochin Kahal and its parishes.

In 1772, Tolochin became a border crossing point. In this city, as an important settlement on the way from Poland to Moscow, a custom house was also established. At this time, the eastern part of the town became called Old Tolochin and the Western part New Tolochin. The border check-point and a custom house functioned in the town until 1793.

John Ledyard, the American explorer and adventure, visited Tolochin in or around 1788. After several weeks of traveling, he arrived at the Russian-Polish borderlands. The region was a thicket of disputed boundaries between numerous states, with Tolochin at its center. Ledyard describes his journey to the Drut River, from which he crossed into Poland, and entered Tolochin. He writes:

At last the dear moment came that I was conducted over a Bridge across a little River, across the Barrier into the little Village Tolochin in Poland.… I was conducted for quarters to the house of a Jew. Not being permitted to enter the Dominions of a people more destitute of principle than themselves they hover about its boundaries here in great numbers.  It was a large dirty house filled with dirt & noise & children.… [The region] is besides almost solely inhabited by Jews who are ever nuisances except in places totally Commercial.

The Jews of Tolochin were at the center of the Russian Empire’s decision to censor Jewish books. In or around 1790, Jewish books were imported by Tolochin locals from Poland into the town. The Governor of the Tolochin region, General Passek, discovered these books as they passed through Tolochin. Upon their inspection at the custom house, the authorities ordered the Jewish books to be detained and confiscated. Catherine II of Russia upon learning that Jewish books were being imported into the Russian Empire thereupon took the informal local ban and formally prohibited the importation of Hebrew books throughout the Russian Empire. The edict provided that the Jews could obtain their supplies of religious literature only from Russian printers.

Around the same time, the famous Rabbi Shlomo of Tolochin, who was one of the greatest disciples of the Vilna Goan, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (known as the Vilner Gaon or Gra), migrated to the holy land. Rabbi Shlomo was the only one among the Gaon’s disciples to make aliya (emigrate) to the Land of Israel while his teacher was still alive.  Rabbi Shlomo of Tolochin reached the Land of Israel on the first of the month of Nissan, 1794.  He was known as a great Torah scholar and a miracle worker. Research creates the impression that Tolochin had a minimal Chasidic presence and that its inhabitants considered themselves “Litvaks” under the guidance of the Vilna Goan and his disciples.

The horrid living conditions of those living within Jewish Tolochin continued to astound those outsiders, like John Ledyard, that visited. Napoleon Bonaparte and his expedition, on November 22, 1812, passed through Tolochin during his eastern military expedition and encountered local Jews living in poverty. The terrible crowding of the Jewish population of Tolochin was the result of formal government measures to evict Jews from the countryside to cities and towns. History records numerous complaints and petitions to the state from the Jews of the region.  For example, in 1825, the Jews of Tolochin characterized their situation as follows: “from great oppression in one house of two or more families, they were punished by extreme poverty so that we can’t have any daily food.” 

New Tolochin or “Zarechny Tolochin” was founded in the second quarter of the 19th century on the western bank of the Drut River and was a part of Mogilev province of the Russian Empire. The word “old” or “Starro” was added in due course to the name of the original part of the town. In the 1870s the Tolochin railroad station (Moscow-Brest) was built four (4) kilometers outside of town. 1880 Old Tolochin had 160 wooden houses, 110 of which belonged to Jewish families. New Tolochin had 93 houses, 27 of which were Jewish. There were also four houses made of stone – three in Old Tolochin and one in the new part. On the whole 1,119 Jews were working in Old Tolochin and 253 in New Tolochin in 1880. In 1886 Old Tolochin had three Jewish schools and numerous synagogues.

In 1888, a boy was born in the family of Moysi and Lei Baileen. The newborn was called Israel Baileen. In 1893 the family moved to New York. Israel in America became the famous Irving Berlin. In 1911, Irving created the famous Alexander’s Ragtime Band. He would become one of Tolochin’s most famous children.

Between 1750 to 1940, the Jews of Tolochin constituted the overwhelming majority of the population, at times as high as 90%. This created a great sense of attachment by the local Jews to the village which can be categorized as a classical shtetl. Shprintsy (Sophia) Lvovna Rohkind (1903-2000), a well-known linguistic scholar, author of a Yiddish-Russian dictionary, and a native of Tolochin, in her unpublished memoirs described the pride the local Jews felt towards their town. She writes:

Tolochin is my homeland and the homeland of our ancestors - preserved in my soul as a memory of childhood and adolescence, about close and dear people, about family joys and sorrows, about what is dear to every person, which cannot be forgotten even until old age.

According to a former Jewish resident of Tolochin, Anatoloy Schneider, the Russian authorities put a lot of effort into the military and financial development of this region. People from other towns would come to Tolochin to buy things – there were a lot of wholesale shops, stores, kiosks and a big trade square. Jews were traditionally involved in selling timber, cereals, vodka, fish, confectionery and small wares. Jews were also known to be excellent craftsmen: blacksmiths, potters, tailors, shoemakers, tanners, barbers and bakers. Trade, however, remained their major occupation and the Jewish inhabitants were heavily dependent on the trade fairs, and other trade related migration. The shops sold everything: groceries, haberdashery, pottery, fabrics, clothes and meat. Fish was brought three times a week from places that had lakes or rivers.

Schneider also describes the geographic layout of Tolochin. The shops were also close to the post office and the telegraph. Craftsmen also lived here: tailors, shoemakers, and blacksmiths. The street ended with a highway. Immediately after the market square, the main street - Orsha Street (now Lenin Street) began. On it were a large synagogue and two smaller ones. On the first floor of the large synagogue, men prayed, women prayed on the second floor. At the synagogue courtyard, wedding ceremonies usually took place. The crowds brought the groom and the bride, accompanied by relatives and friends, put up a chuppah (wedding canopy) and held the wedding ceremony.

Zarechnaya (Zarechenskaya) Street, now Engels Street, was one of the longest. It began near the bazaar, crossed the Drut River and stretched far to the west, intersected by many alleys and streets. The street lighting was bad. In some places, the kerosene lamps were dimly lit, and the main source of lighting was a weak light falling from the windows of the houses.  Not all the streets in Tolochin were paved. In the fall they had to walk on the dirt, only on the sides were wooden sidewalks. The streets were poorly lit, here and there lanterns with kerosene lamps were near the houses, but mostly they were satisfied with the light from the windows, which was also not very abundant. 

A big challenge for the city was frequent fires. The housing stock consisted mainly of wooden buildings and fires occurred frequently. In 1897, a Jewish fire brigade was created in the city. As evidenced by the archival documents, the members of the squad had good training and discipline.  A newspaper report captures one such fire which occurred in 1884:

The fire which took place on the 10th of March destroyed the Jewish community mikva and five private houses with their belongings. The owners of the houses were local Jews: Israel Berka Rodshtein, Leiba Zusin, Chaya-Ryvka Khotovkin, Abram and David Alkins. 

The investigation showed that on the night of March 9, a local peasant, Ivan Shopik, was using the stove to make the mikva warm and negligently fell asleep. The fire began and destroyed all the neighboring houses belonging to the named above persons.

The fire has damaged Staro-Tolochin Jewish community for 2000 rubles, Rodshtein for 1000 rubles, Zusin for 300 rubles, Khotovkin for 150 rubles, Abram Alkin for 650 rubles, Dovid Alkin for 50 rubles, and Ryzh for 100 rubles. [2]

However, not all fires in Tolochin were accidents. Many were arson attacks by non-Jews against their Jewish neighbors in the contexts of pogroms. Pogroms against the Jewish community occurred frequently throughout the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century.

Irving Berlin, the great American composer and musician and Tolochin’s most famous son, told his first biographer, Alexander Woollcott, that his first memory occurred laying with the rest of his family beside a dirt road, wrapped in a blanket, at night, watching as his home and other homes in Jewish Tolochin being burned in a pogrom by non-Jews. Aaron (Harry) Paretzky reported that, in approximately 1900, non-Jewish locals rounded up some of Tolochin’s Jews, herded them into one of the local synagogue’s, and lit the building on fire. These Jews consisted of women, old men and children. They were freed by Aaron, along with a group of teenage boys, whom had been hunting and/or playing in the forest. The group, upon returning to the village, heard the cries of their friends and family in the process of being burned alive. The boys broke up the door of the synagogue which had been bolted shut and freed their co-villagers.

The poverty, the violence against Jews, and a wave of new ideas radicalized some segments of the local Jewish population of Tolochin. The following is an account of some of the social unrest in Tolochin. The below should be viewed as a local variant of the type of national unrest that would continue for years, and eventually culminate in the Russian Revolution of 1917. The account, found in an official history of the revolution, is as follows [3]:

Apart from the said above, as my duty requires me to do, I am reporting to Your Excellency, that in the parish of Orsha a local police chief went to investigate the situation in Tolochin with a platoon of dragoons for reasons of civilian riots – similar to the ones that happened in Kopis, Lyadi and Shklovo. As the police chief’s investigation reported, the people participating in the riots were solely local youth, up to 200 people.

The following [Jewish] individuals stood out of the crowd as leaders and guiding hands: Shepshel Izrin (Шепшель Изрин), Haim Diment (Хаим Дымент), Josel Rutstein (Йосель Рутштейн), Sholom Rozh (Шолом Рож), Zalman Korlin (Залман Корлин), Jankel Levin (Янкель Левин), who shouted: “make away with the tsar, monarchy, priesthood, government, capitalism, police; long live a republic of freedom.” They held, taking turns, a red flag with a title, it is not yet known what the title said, the only thing that was seen clearly was a big letter “D”.

Some people were walking in front of the crowd, armed with revolvers and shot more than anybody else. As the police chief reported, in Tolochin they escaped or hid with his permission, with peace persisting while he was there.

Today I received a telegram from the police chief reporting that once the dragoons that he needed to visit prince Lyoubomirsky’s mansion left, the youth of Tolochin began to do daring violence to the local population. Taking into account that the police chief needs the half-squadron of dragoons that he has under his command for the city of Orsha and for the parish in case of a need to quell agricultural turmoil, I sent a troop of soldiers to Tolochin. Apart from that I have suggested the police chief to have a full investigation which will find out about the instigating and leading activity of the people mentioned above to take measures for their arrest.

Acting in lieu of the Governor, vice-governor Ladizhenskiy (Ладыженский), Head of Chancellery.

The years between 1900 and 1936 witnessed the decline of Jewish Tolochin. The mixture of state sponsored pogroms along with the social unrest that swept the Russian Empire led a large portion of the Jews of Tolochin to emigrate from the village prior to the 1917 Russian Revolution. During the interim years between the revolution and World War II, numerous families immigrated to larger cities within the Soviet Union, particularly to Minsk and Moscow. Nevertheless, during the early Soviet period 106 Jews were craftsmen, and 37 families engaged in agriculture. A Yiddish elementary school also operated in Tolochin. 

Most of the Jews that fled Tolochin migrated to the United States where they maintained their distinct identities as Tolochiners. These Tolochin immigrants established a “fareng” or organization to help other Tolochiners emigrate to the United States and acculturate to their new homeland. The society, known as the Tolochiner Friends Society, first President was Harry Paretzky and was organized officially on December 30, 1914. This society required that its members pay dues and that any person who came from this town could become a member. If a person fell on hard times, or didn’t have a job, the society would help them. The society also had a form of universal health care. It hired a doctor out of university and the society paid the doctor a stipend and the doctor saw members of the society at a discounted rate. The society made sure that to take care of its members who in many cases were part of an extended Jewish family with centuries deep roots in the Tolochin region. The minutes and records of the society are presently in the possession of Rebecca Grutman Kirkpatrick.

In 1935 and 1936, there was a devastating famine in the region which only prompted further emigration from Tolochin to other regions within the Soviet Union. Reports provide that Jewish villagers were dying in the streets from starvation, with death rates higher than in the pogroms [4]. Oral reports provide that villagers ate dead bodies while the Russian government sent the town’s bread to Germany pursuant to the Soviet Union’s then treaty with the Nazi state.

This famine lasted until the Nazi sneak attack against the Soviet Union in 1941. The Nazis occupied Tolochin on July 6, 1941. A ghetto was set up in Tolochin and 2,000 Jews from the town and nearby villages were concentrated there. When the Nazi Einsatzgruppen units entered Tolochin they directed all the Jews to move to a central location. Then they divided Jews and non-Jews and lined up all the Jews and gypsies into a straight line. The Nazis directed all the Jews to step forward. Many Jews were immediately executed. In the ghetto many Jews were indiscriminately shot, killed, and raped by their non-Jewish neighbors. The remaining Jews, nearly two thousand, were eventually brought by horse carriage to Raitsy – which is located by the outskirts of Tolochin. In Raitsy, the Nazis (and their local non-Jewish and Crimean collaborators) stripped the remaining Jews of their clothing and marched them naked to what would be their common end in a mass grave. All, or most, of the Jews of Tolochin were individually and systematically murdered at gunpoint within a day or so of March 13, 1942. The town was liberated by the Red Army in June 1944. 

In the 1960s a memorial was erected at the location of the mass grave. Yuri Dorn, a former head of the Belarus Jewish community, reported that the details of ghetto life and the facts of the Jews’ execution were at once time found in the local museum at Pionerskaya ST., 4 which was once under the directorship of Irina Pikulik. The museum is located in the house that before the war belonged to a rich Jew, who was an owner of a glass-blowing shop. However, the author visited the museum in 2005 and there was not a single mention of Jewish life before the war or the unique destruction of Tolochin’s Jews as part of the Holocaust. It appeared to the author that reference to the cities’ Jewish past was systematically omitted from the museum’s official histories of the village.

As of June 1st 2004, 23 Jews lived in Tolochin all of them are elderly people and live in mixed Jewish and non-Jewish families. The synagogues were destroyed during World War II – although the building of the local cheder remains. A functioning pre-war Jewish cemetery is preserved in the town with the assistance of the local Lipshitz family, one of the last remaining Jewish families of the town. The family, until 2000, maintained some portions of the Jewish cemetery out of their own personal funds but the cemetery has since fallen into disrepair. The location of the cemetery is to the left of the road from Tolochin to the village of Slobodka. Non-Jewish locals have, in the past few decades, begun to make Christian burials at the cemetery and part of the cemetery is used for grazing by local shepherds. The author met most of the remaining Jews in 2005, and (nearly) all of them are senior citizens. No doubt within a short time, the last of the Jews of Tolochin will cease to live thus ending a chapter of a long history of Jews in the village.

1. J.R. Rothstein received his Juris Doctor, and Master of Laws in International and Comparative Law from Cornell Law School where he was Editor of the Journal of Law and Public Policy and an Albert Heit Scholarship recipient. Mr. Rothstein is a real estate law attorney and investor.  Previously, he served as a federal law clerk in received his Bachelor of Arts in Middle-Eastern Studies and African-American studies from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.  A former Fulbright Scholar, he has lived, worked, studied or traveled in some three dozen countries. He is passionate about oral history and genealogy.

2. Mogilevskie Gubernskie Vedomosti, 1884, #32

3. The selection is a translation of an excerpt from the following book: Дъло 1905 год у Беларусi. Зборнiк архiуных дакументау. Менск 1925. Цэнтральная комiсiя ЦВК БССР па азначэньню 20-х гадовага юбiлею рэволюцыi 1905 году i гiстпарт цэнтральнага комiтэту кп(б)Б Зборнiк архiуных дакумэнтау пад рэдакцыяй С. Агурскага, Б. Аршанскага i Iл. Барашки Дзяржаунае выдавецтва Беларусi Менск-1926, page 219.

4. This included members of the extended Rutstein, Paretzky and Epstein families.