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The original document contains many footnotes, mostly concerning references for factual material. These footnotes have not been noted or translated in this translation. Those interested in this type of source material are asked to refer to the original Hebrew document.


by Dov Rabin

From the Beginning Until the Second World War

Chapter 1
: The Beginning of the City of Grodno

The Name

According to one opinion, the source of the name Grodno is from the German-Scandinavian word "Gardr", which means an enclosed and protected area. It is conjectured that this area was used as a grain storehouse for Scandinavia during the time of the Norman invasions in the 9th century of the Common Era. At that time, Scandinavia was afflicted by famine, and obtained its food from the basins of the rivers that flow into the Baltic Sea. According to another opinion, Grodno was known to the Scandinavians by the name of "Garti".

The Lithuanians who ruled Grodno until the 12th century, called the city "Gardas" or "Gardinas", which means an place fenced off for the raising of sheep. It was situated in the central economic area of Lithuania. Lithuanian legend tells of an idol Gardintas, the protector of lambs, to whom the inhabitants of this city dedicated a grove outside of Grodno. This grove was holy to them. This city is known to the Lithuanians as Gardintas until this very day. It seems that they received this tradition from the Normans.

The German noblemen of the Teutonic orders called Grodno by the name "Garten", which also has the meaning of a fenced off area. It seems that this name was on account of the spacious garden which in olden days surrounded the wooden fortress. Or perhaps it was called "Garten" on account of "Gardinas". It was also known by the names "Garton" and Gartena".

The city was known as Horodno, Grodno, and Horodon by the Slavs. In their language, this word means, city, fortress, or a fortified area. Some people explain "Grodno" as a short form of "Grod Nov", which means a new city or fortress. The city was known as Grodno by the Slavs in later times as well. It was also called that name by the Jews, who also knew it as Horodni; and in writing Horodno, Hradni).


Grodno existed in prehistoric times. In the suburb of "Koloza" and across the Nieman river, remains of a settlement from the Neolithic era were discovered. In the area of Koloza, Greek and Roman coins from before the Common Era have been found. This provides evidence of an active economy in the area. Resident tradesman supplied amber from the Baltic regions to the shores of the Black Sea, and to Greece and Rome.

The origin of the first residents of Grodno is unknown. In the era of large scale population movement during the 4th century, the Goths settled the area of the Nieman. From evidence provided by archeological excavations that took place in Grodno, it is clear that the area was already populated during the first millenium of the Common Era. The historical period of the city begins in the 11th century, when the city was first settled by the Jadwigim, or Yatwiaga tribe, which originated in Latvia-Lithuania, and which was later destroyed by the Russians.

Grodno is first mentioned in ancient Russian records in the year 1127. During that time, it served as the capital of the large principality of Grodno, and was the residence of the Russian prince Vasvolod Davidovitz. In recent archeological excavations, the remains of a brick fortress from the 12th century were discovered. The chronicles attribute the founding of Grodno to the above mentioned prince, who became aware of the strategic importance of the area during his battle expeditions. The settlement sprung up on a cleft that slopes into the right bank of the Nieman, in an arc that runs from the east to the north, near the old peaceful ford, opposite a small island that was near the mouth of the Horodnitza River (which was later known as the Horodnitzanka). This location was a natural base for ruling over the important waterway, which connected the area with the Baltic Sea.

Grodno was located at the meeting point of three ethnic groups – the Russians, the Lithuanians, and the local Poles – and not far away from the settlements of the Teutonic Prussians. It became known as a city of strategic and economic importance. This importance determined the fate of the city already from its earliest days, and over the generations it changed hands many times. In 1241, the Tatars invaded, and later it was conquered by the Lithuanians, however in 1253, it fell into the hands of Daniel Romanovitz, the prince of Galicia-Volyn. He was not able to maintain control for very long, for in 1270, the Lithuanians again ruled over the city. However, for more than 100 years (1290-1400), the city was the target of many invasions by legions of German knights, who razed it over and over again. During the rule of the Lithuanian Archduke Witold (or Vitovt) who called himself the "Prince of Grodno", it served from 1398 as the auxiliary capital of the Lithuanian Archduchy.

Chapter 2
: The Beginnings of Jewish Settlement

The "Permit of Residence" of 1389

In their desire to develop their kingdom, the Lithuanian rulers of the 14th century required new elements – travelling middlemen, merchants, and artisans – and they opened up the gates of the land to immigration. They regarded with favor the arrival of Jews into Lithuania in general, and into the area of Grodno specifically.

The first record of Jews in Grodno is from 1389 – a "Permit of Residence" issued by the Lithuanian Archduke Witold. The opinion of the historians is divided with regard to the place of origin of the first Jewish residents of Grodno and of north-central Greater Lithuania in general. According to the theory of Avraham Eliahu Harkavi and Dr. Y. Brutzkus, they came from the southeast, from Russia. According to a second opinion they came from the west, from Poland, and from the refugees of the black plague, and the persecutions of Germany. According to the researcher Meir Balaban, the first Jewish residents of Lithuania were composed of two elements, just as they were in Poland: the first ones were the easterners, who came from the Khazaria [1] via the Kiev area of Russia, and perhaps via the Moscow area of Russia, and secondly, there was the western Ashkenazic element who arrived somewhat later. M. Balaban writes that it would seem that a large wave of Jews arrived in Lithuania at the time that it was joined to Poland; who would have been Jews from Lvov who lived under the "Permit of Residence" issued by the Lithuanian Archduke Witold in 1388 to the Jews of Brisk and Trakai, which was a copy of the older Letter of Permit issued by King Kazimierz the Great to the Jews of Lvov in 1364.

A special Permit of Residence for the Jews of Grodno was given to them on June 18, 1389 in Luitzk (Lutzk), and granted them additional rights and freedoms over and above what was granted to the Jews of Brisk. Due to the uniqueness of this Permit of Residence, which was distinctively different from the text of the western permits, we will bring down the main part of this permit in full:

"The Jews of Horodno may continue to live and to retain possession of those sections in which they now dwell, that is to say, the area starting from the bridge of the Horodno fortress, which leads to the marketplace, on both sides of the street up until the road that leads from the road of the fortress to the slope (Podol); the back side of these yards face the houses that belong to the church of / [2]Wlido / along the length of its banks / to the fortress that is next to the small church. / These / these areas above the Horodnitza, upon which stands the Jewish house of G-d.

Including their cemetery, where they bury their dead, near the portions of land of the Jews above the Horodnitza, until the Horodnitza river itself, and until the property of the lord Ivan Feodorovitz: and from the other side of the river, along its length, until lane, up until the Catholic / church.

For that cemetery, and for whatever they now own or whatever plots of land they will acquire / for themselves / in the future, just as the land of their Jewish house of G-d, they will not have to pay any payment or taxes to our land.

Furthermore, we permit them to hold any kind of foodstuffs in their houses, and to pour any kind of drinks in their houses, whether home made, or whether bought from what is imported into the city, and they will pay to our land the yearly tax.

They are permitted to conduct commerce and business in the marketplace, in stores, and on the street, on an equal footing with the local residents. Similarly, they are permitted to engage in various types of work.

It is permitted to sell in an open manner to the Jewish butchers who buy cattle, entire carcasses, or quartered carcasses to anyone who wishes to purchase, and similarly to cut the carcasses up into pieces, without / them being required / to remit to our land any kind of tax, neither from the shoulders nor from the fats.

They are permitted to use the arable land and meadows, which they now own or which they will acquire in the future, if they remit / a tax / to our land equivalent to what would be remitted by the local residents."

From the text of this Permit of Residence, which was authorized later on in the centuries that followed by the kings of Poland Zygmunt August (August 19, 1547), Jan Kazimierz (June 20, 1655), and Stanislaw August Poniatowski (December 19, 1785) – we learn that at the time it was first issued, there already was a Jewish community in Grodno, that Jews dwelt in specific streets near the slope of the banks of the Horodnitza river (this area of Grodno was called by the locals from that time on, until our own time "Jorzika", that is to say "Yorizdika" – the area of the Yorisdiktzia, which had a separate legal system from that of the remainder of the city), that Jews had their own "house of G-d" (i.e. house of worship) which overlooked the slope to the river bank, they had their own cemetery (along the line of the slope eastward, which is indeed the location of the ancient Jewish cemetery), they had houses and other property, and they owned land for planting and pasturing around the city, and that they earned their livelihood by business, work and agriculture.

The Jews of Grodno in the 15th Century – Expulsion and Return

The Jews of Grodno enjoyed equal rights with the rest of the citizens, and they were able to lead their lives without disturbance even during the time of the 1440s, when the "Magdeburg Law" was introduced as the legal system. This law was brought to Poland and Lithuania by the Germans who were invited to settle in their cities, and excluded the Jews from its jurisdiction, and thus also from business and the trades, etc.

     Map on page 21-22

gro022s.gif [4 KB] -- Click here to extend the pictureGrodno of the 13th-15th centuries.

This map contains a legend, and also labels directly on the map.

Labels on the map are as follows:

Scale in upper left area is in meters. The mark below indicates that the north direction is at the top of the map.

Thin river flowing from upper left corner is the Horodnitza.
Thick river flowing along the lower left area is the Nieman, and an island is shown on the left side of the river.
The area above the Nieman, just above the island, is called Koloza.
In the upper right area, to the right of the Horodnitza Stream, the area marked with gravestones is the Old Jewish Cemetery. Below it, the building marked with the Magen David is the synagogue.

The street that starts at the right edge, near the top is Dominikanska Street, also known as Vilna Road.
Going off of Dominikanska toward the cemetery (near 4) is the Street of the Jews.
Going left from the bottom of Dominikanska is the Street of the Fortress.

At the right edge, near the center, just right of the Street of the Fortress is the Old Marketplace.

Going down from the right edge, just below the Old Marketplace is the road to Podol, also called Karel Street. Just to the right of it, in brackets is Mieszchanska.

  1. The German Market
  2. The Upper Fortress
  3. The Lower Fortress during the days of Witold
  4. Dominican Church
  5. The Threefold Church
  6. Pravoslavi house of worship
  7. House of worship in Koloza (Pravoslav)
  8. Bernardine Church – palace of the Lithuanian Archduke

Kazimierz Hiagloni who ruled over Lithuania from 1447-1492, followed in the path of Archduke Witold. He later ruled over Poland, and was known for his good relations with the Jews. He lived most of his days in Grodno, and he died there. There is mention of Jews in Grodno in the documents of the second half of the 15th century – Bogdanovitz, Chatzkovitz, and Kunczicz – the owners of farms and fields, meadows, fish ponds, and mills. The Grodno Jew Yanko Yatzkovitz, and his sons Yitzchak and Moshe were responsible for collecting the tolls from those who crossed the Grodno bridge. The wealthy Jew Yehuda Bogdanovitz, known as the son of Matityahu, one of the most important tax collectors in Lithuania, was responsible for the first tax offices. During that century, the Jews of Grodno did business with Kovno, Danzig and Königsberg. They would go downstream on the Nieman River to Kovno, and further on to Königsberg, bringing with them rye, flaxseed, flour, and cattle hides. They would return upstream with salt and herring to sell in Grodno and other places. The Jews of Grodno were engaged in competition with their compatriots from Brisk in the areas of business and tax collecting. The Brisk residents had the upper hand during that time, since the Jews of Grodno were dependent on their brethren in Brisk at that time, since the Briskers had possession of the Permits of Residence for all of Lithuania. Only in the third quarter of the 16th century did the Jews of Grodno succeed in obtaining their own copy of Permit of Residence, for the needs of their own community.

The data that we have describes a load of cargo that was transported by a Jewish wholesaler, Shimon the son of Nachum of Grodno, to Königsberg, and the cargo brought in return. This data gives us reason to surmise that the business ventures of the Jewish merchants were conducted on a large scale. When a Jewish merchant from Grodno was robbed by an official of the "Großmeister" (a title of the head of an order of Teutonic knights) in Prussia, around 1948, on his way to Danzig, he brought Kazimierz the Fourth Hiagloni, the King of Poland and Archduke of Lithuania with him, and requested return of the stolen property.

In 1495, three years after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the Archduke Alexander Hiagloni expelled the Jews from all of Lithuania. The Jews of Grodno found refuge in neighboring Poland. The non-moveable property of the Jews was taken from them, and the loans which were owed to them by the Christians were cancelled, or alternatively, were required to be paid to the coffers of the Archduke. Alexander distributed the property, villages, houses, and gardens of the exiles to the priests, monks, boyars [3], citizens and also the apostate Jews. Control over taxation was transferred to the boyars, apostate Jews, and settlers who were brought in from Germany and Sweden. The reason for the expulsion was attributed to the financial difficulties of the Archduke at that time. Apparently, Alexander hoped to free himself in this manner from his debts and obligations to the Jews, and to increase his income from their expropriated property.

In 1503, Alexander rescinded the order of expulsion, and permitted the exiles – via a special letter in the name of the Grodno Jews Eliezer the son of Moshe (Leizer Moizeszovitz), and Yitzchak the son of Feivel (Eizik Fiszovitz) – the return and settle in any place where they had previously resided. He commanded "their synagogue, cemetery, fields, farms, and meadows to be returned to them", and he commanded the "dukes, princes, boyars, and citizens from the area of Grodno who owed money or the value of money" to the Jews to pay their debts. He also commanded the Jews to reimburse the temporary Christian landlords for all the expenditures which were paid in "gifts" to the Archduke for the property which was given to them, and any expenditure for the increase and maintenance of the property. He also commanded the Jews to pay for a troop of one thousand horsemen for the Lithuanian army (in 1514, they were released from this obligation). There is reason to surmise that the special "Powrotny" tax (return tax) that the Jews of Lithuania used to be required to pay in the olden days was also imposed on them after the rescinding of the order of expulsion.

The turn of events which brought about the return of the Jews to Lithuania was tied in part to factors which existed prior to the expulsion: first and foremost, the financial difficulties of the Lithuanian treasury due to the war with Russia, and in addition, the slowdown of business, and the reduction of income from taxes, etc. As well, Alexander, who was crowned in 1501 over all of Poland, would be unable to forbid the Jews from residing in only part of his land. The return of the Jews to Lithuania was also good "business" for the Lithuanian treasury due to all the payments which were imposed on the Jews, as described above.

The acquisition of property became easier only after a significant amount of friction, and in 1507, King Zygmunt the First gave a letter to the Jews of Grodno, at their own request, which made it obligatory to return to them, by authority of the command of King Alexander, the houses, stalls in the marketplace, fields and meadows which belonged to them prior to the expulsion. Furthermore, in 1525, the king presented Yehuda Bogdanovitz with the rights of acquisition of land, which had previously been purchased by his father Bogdan in the area of Grodno prior to the expulsion.

Chapter 3: The Period of Growth (1503-1647)

1. The General and Economic Situation

Status of the Jews of Grodno

In the days of the rule of Zygmunt the First (1506-1548) the community of Grodno established itself and expanded, and even began to send roots out to the surrounding area. Already by 1522, some residents settled in Tiktin, having received their permit of residence in Grodno. This permit granted them various rights in their new place. At approximately the same time period, Jews of Grodno also set up the nearby community of Nowy Dwor. It is recorded in the annals of 1541, that the Jewish 'Kozlaski' family in this town chased away with force or arms men of rank who wished to appropriate their homes. We learn in this timeframe the Jews of Lithuania (the Pans – landowners and other men of rank), wore swords upon their loins, in the same manner as the gentile nobility. This had been forbidden to them up until that time.

According to the Lustracja (the royal listing of property – for the purpose of administration) of 1560, the Jews of Grodno owned 60 plots of land upon which houses were built – out of a total of 543 built up plots in all of Grodno. This represents 11% of the total. However, the percentage of Jews in the total population was somewhat larger, as can be deduced from the percentage of taxes that they were required to pay. In 1549, according to this number, the Jews represented 17% of the taxpayers of Grodno.

According to the Lustracja of that time period (1552-1566), the community of Grodno was the second largest of Lithuania, second to Brisk of Lithuania where the Jews owned 90 houses (out of 746 in the city, which is 12%). In Pinsk they owned 43 houses (16.4%), in Kobrin 27 (12%), and in Nowy Dwor next to Grodno – 16 (14%), etc.

The Jewish historian Yitzchak Shifer estimates that a Jewish household in that time period consisted of approximately 28 people. Therefore it is possible to estimate that the Jewish population of Grodno in 1560 was about 1,700. However, according to the researcher S. Brashodski, the number of people in a household was only about 16. According to that estimate, the Jewish population of Grodno would have been about 1,000.

With the exception of those Jews who lived in areas of the city where the majority of the residents were not Jewish, the Jews were concentrated in the following area: The Jewish Street, from the fortress to the marketplace (in our day the "Area of the Kosher Butchers" or in Yiddish the "Koshere Yatkes"), and on the Narrow Jewish Street (known in our day as the "Butcher's Street", or in Yiddish the "Treife (i.e. non Kosher) Yetkes", which went out from the large Street of the Fortress, and also in the street along the length of the Horodnitza valley.

This area, pretty much with the same boundaries, served as Ghetto A in the days of the end of the community when it was under Nazi rule. This was the large ghetto, and the only gate to this prison was on the Narrow Jewish Street. In 1560 as in prior generations, the area along the length of the Horodnitza served as the dwelling place for the poorer people. We find in the Lustracja that the smaller plots of land were located in that area.

In that year, the Lustracja notes the following Jewish communal buildings: the synagogue, and a hospital on Plebanska Street (that is "the Street of the Priest", known in our day as "The Lane of the Rope Makers", Shmuklereshe Lane in Yiddish; known officially as Market Street, and in Polish "Rinkowa").

The community of Grodno flourished greatly during the reign of King Stefan Batori of Poland (1576-1586), who was kindly disposed toward the Jews, and granted them their rights in 1578. In his attempt to cement the union of Lithuania and Poland, in 1569 Batori chose Grodno as his favored residence. He received the representatives of Czar Ivan the Terrible of Russia, and of Elizabeth Queen of England in the castle which he built in the area of the ancient fortress.

[Page 25-26]

gro026s.jpg [3 KB] -- Click here to extend the picture Remnants of the "Shulhof" ghetto.

The location of the ancient Jewish quarter. Photographed at the end of the 1940s from the Lurzike side. Above the hilltop, on the left left is the area of the old Jewish cemetery.

[Page 27-28]

gro028s.jpg [3 KB] -- Click here to extend the picture

Grodno in the 16th century.
A gravure from 1578.

During the reign of Zygmunt the Third (1587-1632), men of the Order of Salvation began to appear in Lithuania. They were invited in to fortify the Catholics against the Reformation movement, which began to spread there in 1616. The Salvationists established themselves also in Grodno, and with their arrival a period of libels and accusations against the Jews began, which grew stronger with the passing years.

The Beginnings of Oppression by the Christian Citizens

The Christian citizens (the "mieszczans") of Grodno looked from that time on with a grudging eye upon the continual successful development of the Jewish community in the city. Already in the 15th century, the rights to purchase salt, herring and wheat directly from the farmers and merchants of Königsberg and Kovno was removed from the Jewish residents – so that they would be forced to buy these things from the citizens of Grodno. In order to impose further hardship on the businesses of the Jews, they were only permitted to deal in wholesale.

In 1549, a group of Christian citizens of Grodno brought a complaint before Queen Bona Sporca (the wife of Zygmunt the First, who was active in affairs of the state, and visited in the city from time to time on account of her properties which she owned in the vicinity of the city), that the Jews of Grodno were not willing to pay one quarter of the Srebszczyzna tax that was imposed upon Grodno, which they had customarily paid in the past. (This tax was paid in silver coins.) In addition they complained that they were derelict in other payments and civic obligations. The Jews retorted that they had never borne such a large portion of the civic payments. The queen decided that the local Jews were required from that time on to pay 17% of the total royal taxes that were imposed upon Grodno.

The citizens were also resentful that the Jews, who were beginning to become cramped in their own quarter, had begun to spread out of their boundaries. The mieszczans complained to the queen also about that situation. The queen decided that buildings and agricultural land which the Jews had already purchased from the citizens up to that time would be free from civic law and taxes. However in the future it would be forbidden for the Jews to purchase houses from the Christians without a special permit from her, and those that would be purchased in legal fashion would be subject to the local civic law (and not the law of the king, whose jurisdiction extended over the Jews and their property on account of the Permit of Residence).

In 1554, the Christian citizens of Grodno again complained before the king that the Jews of the city refused to pay the Srebszczyzna tax. The Jews retorted that the Sejm which convened in Vilna in 1551 imposed on them, and upon all the Jews of Lithuania, a special annual head tax, and freed them from the Srebszczyzna. This retort was accepted by the king, who decided the law accordingly.

In 1563, King Zygmunt August imposed upon the Jews of Grodno a payment of 200 szok of Groszy (szok = 60, 60 groszy = 2 gold coins – known as zloty). This sum of 200 was from amongst the 4,000 that was imposed as an annual head tax upon the Jews of all of Lithuania. This compares to the 264 szok of groszy imposed on Brisk, 100 on Tiktin, etc.

When a fire broke out on the Jewish street in 1617, and burnt down the wooden synagogue – King Zygmunt the Third permitted the building of a new synagogue of stone or brick in the same place, on the condition that it would not be higher than other buildings. He also permitted them to rebuild their houses in the ramparts, along the "Jewish Street which crossed the Street of the Fortress" (The Street of the Fortress is "Shloss Gass" or "Zamkowa"). Due to pressure from the citizens, he forbade them to acquire new property in the city, or to build in additional areas.

Later on in 1633, King Wladislaw the Fourth permitted the Jews of Grodno to build new shops of brick in the marketplace and in their homes, that would replace the temporary wooden stores and huts. He permitted this in order to prevent further fires – however he forbade them to acquire new buildings or to enlarge the existing ones.

Means of Livelihood of the Jews

We have a great deal of information about the means of livelihood of the Jews in Grodno from the annals of the regional courthouse of the city from 1539-1542 which was published by the "Vilna Archival Committee". In Grodno, we find Jews who had business dealings with Shklov, Vilna, Kovno, Königsberg, and Danzig from one side, and with Posen from the other side. The Jewish merchants of Grodno exported to these places wheat, honey, wax and other local products, and imported woven goods, cloth, metal products (such as sickles), etc. In a later period, from 1569, the Jewish wholesalers from Grodno traveled to fairs in Lublin. They brought to Lublin various hides, cloth, wax and furs, and brought in return hats, woven goods, papers, spices, haberdashery, steel, rice, soap, silk, sugar, and other such goods.

We know of Jews in Grodno in the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries who owned agricultural lands, meadows, even forests in the areas surrounding the city, and vegetable gardens in the city itself. Many of these properties were bought from Christians in return for loans which were due to them.

After the "Uniat" of Lublin, (the unification of Lithuania with the Kingdom of Poland), in 1569, which raised the standard of the Lithuanian nobility to that of the Polish nobility and granted them further rights – the number of Jewish landowners of Grodno diminished, since they were no longer able to compete in this area on an equal footing with the nobility. We find during this period indication of the sale of property "in perpetuity" by the Jews to the gentiles.

In the annals of the above mentioned courthouse, there is ample evidence of loans with interest of the Jews of Grodno – Koniuk, Yechezkel and Yosef Lazarovitch, and others, and in particular the above mentioned Yehuda Bogdanovitch and his children (the "Yehuditzes"). These loans were made with obligation of return of money or the equivalent of money, such as wheat, honey, wax, and also service. Some of the borrowers would provide members of their household as surety to the lenders. Thus, Zachariash Shevelevitz "of the King's Boyars", and his wife had their son boarded with Nissan Chatzkovitz – until they could repay the loan which they received. Yechezkel and Moshe the sons of Yitzchak Choroshenkaya of Grodno received an entire group of servants from the Catholic Priest Simeon Ponoiawski as surety for a loan. Even greater was the number of Jews who loaned out small sums to the farmers, local citizens, and Tatars in the Grodno areas (Lososna), whether for obligations or for pledges. The Tatars took up residence around Grodno already from the days of Archduke Witold at the end of the 14th century. They also had a quarter in the city itself which existed until the end of the 19th century, and until Polish control returned to this city in 1919, their name was still associated with one of the streets.

The Jews of Grodno continued with various rental arrangements in the city and outside of it – based on their monopoly of the salt trade and the candle tax. These rentals included malt factories and inns. Yitzchak the son of Nissan of Grodno arrived at the end of the 16th century in Chernobyl, Ukraine, and leased there all of the bars, the "moyt" toll collection (the tax which was paid at crossroads and bridges upon entrance to a city or a region), and the candle tax. Jews of Grodno also leased the flour mills that were located on the nearby rivers, including the Lososianka.

In the annals of that time period, there are also recorded judgements against Jews who owed money to noblemen and Christian merchants. The received loans from them with liens upon their immovable property, and even upon their clothing. Many incidents are also recorded of small scale merchants – and apparently the majority of the Jewish businessmen in Grodno were small scale merchants – requiring small loans for business. They received these loans from civic officials, Christian citizens and also priests. These small scale businessmen were also deeply in debt to Jewish wholesalers and banks. There were incidents where Jews would give over members of their household, and even their wives, as surety for a loan. We will speak more about such incidents later.

Struggles of the Jewish Artisans

In 1601, the city of Grodno complained to the royal authorities that the Jews were buying rye from the Grodno marketplace, and shipping it by river to Kovno and Königsberg, where they bought salt and herring to bring back to Grodno. The complaint stated that in such a manner they were taking away the livelihood of the Christians, and causing great inflation and famine in the city and in the Grodno region. King Zygmunt August forbade the Jews of Grodno with serious consequences from doing wholesale business in bread, salt, and herring. In a reply to the leaders of Lithuania, the king stated that "It is forbidden to do business in bread, and other wholesale business, with the exception of alcoholic drinks and retail business in haberdashery".

This marked the beginning of the period of continual conspiracy of the Christian citizens to push the Jews out of their strong position in the economic structure of the city.

The Jewish artisans of Grodno were caught up in a prolonged struggle. Their number had increased in Grodno, as in all of Lithuania, due to the increase of the Jewish population, the additional artisans who came from among the Jewish immigrants from the west, the pushing out of Jews from other means of livelihood, and the increased competition among the remainder – in particular in the latter half of the 17th century after the disasters which befell a large portion of our people, and the wars which visited upon Grodno and its Jews.

The Jewish tailors, furriers, and hat makers met with opposition from the Christian guilds when they would bring their work to the market to sell to the farmers. The Christian artisans claimed for themselves, according to the "Magdeburg Law" the rights to the monopoly in the area of work, even though the royal "privileges" freed the Jews of Lithuania from the authority of the Christian guilds. In 1652, a complaint was brought by the union of Christian tailors in Grodno against their Jewish fellow-tradesmen, complaining that "for several decades" they did not accept the authority of the Christian guild and did not pay dues to it. This complaint was bought before an arbitrator (since the local court refused to adjudicate the complaint, as the matter was dependent on royal "privileges"). A compromise that was acceptable to the Jews was proposed. The tailors and furriers were required to pay a yearly payment of money and combustible material to the Christian guild, and in return they would be permitted to engage in those trades, and also in hat making. They would be permitted to sell their wares in the market and in their stores, and also to employ Christian workers and apprentices. They were also almost completely freed from any authority of the Christian guilds, and they were not required to pay the candle tax for the altars of the Churches, and to participate in any of their religious ceremonies.

The situation of the Jewish artisans in Grodno was better than that in other communities of Lithuania and Poland. Nevertheless, these rights which were granted in Grodno did not last for a long time.

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[1] The Khazars, or Kuzarians (Kuzarim) in Hebrew, are people of the land of Khazaria (Kuzaria), which was located in southwestern Europe, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. In the late 8th century, the king of Khazaria converted to Judaism, and much of his people followed him in this step. There are some theories, including the one mentioned here, that the westward migration of the Khazar Jews formed at least part of the nucleus of the early Jewish settlement in Poland and Russia. Other theories maintain that the present day mountain Jews of the Caucasus, may be descended from the Khazars. Still another theory maintains that the Turkish speaking Karaites of Crimea and Poland, who are just about extinct today, were descended from these Khazars. My own opinion is that there is likely some element of truth (although it is debatable how much), to all the above theories. When the Khazar empire broke up around the 10th century due to Russian and Mongol invasions, the residents were most likely scattered in various directions. Return
[2] These separators / are included in the Hebrew text. It is not clear what exactly they signify. They may signify page breaks in the original document. They most probably signify lacunae, since the document is somewhat disjointed. Return
[3] A boyar is a Russian aristocrat. Return

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