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[Page 74]

The Community of Minsk from the End
of the 19th Century Until the Revolution of 1917

by David Cohen

Translated by Jerrold Landau

David Cohen of blessed memory (1906-1973) – the living spirit in the practical work of the Book of Minsk. He was killed in a car accident in the midst of the work on the book. Read about him in our book on pages 668-670. David Cohen took upon himself the writing of this survey in accordance with the recommendation of Professor Shmuel Ittinger, before whom critical questions about the structure and the content of the book were brought for adjudication. In writing this article, David Cohen consulted with Dov Dinur of Haifa, a researcher into the history of the Jewish people. He toiled in collecting the bricks for the construction of this article, and in writing the draft until the day of the accident. Unfortunately, therefore, this survey is not quite as comprehensive as originally planned.
Before we begin the subject of the article, we will briefly survey the development of the Jewish community in earlier centuries.

From its inception in the 16th century until the 17th century, the community of Minsk was a poor community that did not play a prominent role in the organization of Jewish communities of Russia. With the passage of time, the community strengthened and began to take its place in the general organization of communities. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the community of Minsk already stood out in the Jewish communities of Reisin and Lithuania. Yeshivas were founded and renowned rabbis settled there. With the Russian conquest and the final partition of Poland in 1793, the city as well as the community began to develop significantly as an administrative center of the district. The main city in the region, situated in the north-west region of Russia, was Vilna, and at times the entire region was officially referred to as the Vilna Region.

For hundreds of years, there was competition between the communities of Minsk and Vilna regarding their place within Russian Jewry. Indeed, in the Russian census of 1897, the community of Vilna had a population of 64,000 Jews in contrast to Minsk which has 47,500. However, the percentage of Jews among the general population was 52% in Minsk in contrast with 41% in Vilna. In Vilna, the Polish cultural and literary influence was more deeply felt by the Jewish intelligentsia, whereas from the beginning of the 19th century, the community of Minsk forged a unique Jewish style that had great influence upon all of Russian Jewry. Personalities such as A. Lissin, Gregory Gershuny, Vladimir Medem, Alexander Goldstein and many others wrote about the “uniqueness” of Minsk Jewry in their memoirs.

The following are some rounded numbers portraying the demographic and economic situation of the community of Minsk during the aforementioned period, taken from the well-known Jewish Encyclopedia written in the Russian languages, published by Brokhaus-Efrom, Peterburg, volume 11, (1912), from the articles about Minsk that were written by Z. Rubashov (Shazar), A. Ginzburg, and Y. Shabad, and from the study of the Jewish population in Russia published by Statistical Institute, Petrograd, 1917.

of Jews
1847 13,000 

With respect to the economic situation, we must bear in mind that the city is situated in a poor agricultural area, lacking in natural resources. Commerce with Europe flourished thanks only to the forests, which were abundant in the region. The lumber was sent abroad through the rivers or the railway lines. The lumber trade was totally in Jewish hands. In 1876, the total number of merchants in the entire District of Minsk was 280, of whom 252 or 90% were Jews. In 1886, the number of merchants in the entire District of Minsk was 641, and the number of Jewish merchants was 563 or 88%. It is important to take note of the fact that during the ten year period from 1876-1886, the number of Jewish merchants more than doubled from 252 to 563. The greater financial means of the Jewish merchants enabled them to be content with a smaller margin of profit than the Christian merchants: 7.2% as opposed to 10.7%.

Manufacturing was almost totally in Jewish hands, but it was not large scale. In 1886, there were 21 manufacturing enterprises in the city, employing 500 workers with revenue of 1.5 million rubles. Throughout approximately 25 years, that is until the First World War, manufacturing grew in the city, but its general character did not change. It was centered in the manufacture of food and animal products, etc. There were only five metal factories which were not large. On the other hand, there were a large number of Jewish tradesmen in the city. According to police data, in 1904, there were 2,360 Jewish craftsmen, 2,751 assistants and 1,525 apprentices. In 1900, the society for teaching trades to Jewish youth in Minsk conducted a comprehensive survey on the situation of the Jewish tradesmen in the city. 1,564 men and 513 women responded to the survey, stating that they employed 1,700 male assistants and 939 female assistants, as well as 840 male apprentices and 318 female apprentices. We can get an idea of the small size of the workshops from the average number of 1.3 assistants and .55 apprentices per workshop. Only 31 enterprises employed ten or more workers. The fragmentation of the workshops caused a lengthening of the workday and poor sanitary conditions. The use of machines was almost non-existent in the workplaces. Of the 143 metalworking workshops, only five had lathes, and even those were not automated. Most of the tradesmen were shoemakers who worked primarily for shoe stores. After them came the tailors, seamstresses, carpenters, linen sewers, engravers, and hat makers. The average weekly income of a male assistant tradesman was five rubles per week, and of a female – two rubles per week. In comparison, the daily wages of a simple worker at the time of the Russo-Japan War was ½ ruble, of a builder 1 ruble, and of a tradesman, 2 rubles. The difficult economic situation of the Jews of the city can bee seen from the fact that in 1898, 17% of the Jewish families of the city received assistance for their Passover needs. With this background, we can understand the words of A. Lissin, that the class war of the community of Minsk was conducted between the desperately poor and the beggar.

If we return to the Russian census of 1897, the number of residents in the entire district of Minsk (round numbers) was 2,148,000 people, including 345,000 Jews, comprising 16% of the population. The civic population of the district numbered 225,000 people, including 134,000 Jews, comprising 59%. There were 101,000 Jewish livelihood earners in Minsk, of which 41.5% were in manufacturing, 28.8% in trades, 6.1% in agriculture, 5.8% in communication and transport, 5.8% serving as private officials, 5.9% in free trades and government officials, 5.4% undefined. In addition, ½ of a percent of the Jews, that is 1,147 people, served in the security forces. There were 99 Jews working for the railway, and 13 Jews for the post and the telegraph. There was also no shortage of wage earners in the oldest profession: prostitution – there were 111 Jews (10 men and 101 women).

Through the ten year period from 1904 to 1914, the Jewish population of the city declined from 53,000 to 45,000. If we take into account the natural increase of the Jews of the district of Minsk during this era – 1.8%, we find that more than 10,000 people emigrated from Minsk in this period. They went abroad, primarily to the United States.

During the 1870s and 1880s, there was rapid economic development in the northwest of Russia, thanks especially to the laying of the railway lines. New enterprises were founded not only with Jewish money, but also with Jewish effort. Yehoshua Sirkin, an activist of Chibat Zion in Minsk, was a member of the railway directorship. Y.L. Wilinsky, a Zionist activist and father of the poet Miriam Yellin Steklis, also served as a member of the directorship of the railway until the end of the First World War. Leo Goldberg writes in his memoirs that his grandfather commissioned a railway line on his own account and gave it over to the government in return for a contract for the permanent provision of wood for fueling the engines. It is said that during the first years of the operation of the railway, there were Jewish ticket agents who urged the Jewish travelers to hurry and enter the trains, for the “Foyezd” is about to move. However, after a few years, the Jewish workers were replaced with uniform wearing gentiles.

In 1914, the population of Minsk reached 100,000, for the city had become an administrative and military center. That year, the number of Jews was 45,000. They were no longer the majority in the city, due to the arrival of many Christians of the area into the city. Shalom Aleichem, who visited the city, testifies to the development of Minsk during the years prior to the outbreak of the First World War. He was impressed with the style of building, and especially with the tallest building in the city, six stories high, which was erected by the Jew Polak.

According to the 1897 population census, only 2% of the Jewish population of Minsk did not list Yiddish as their mother tongue. In other Jewish centers in Russia, the number of Russian speaking Jews was almost double. It is interesting that during that era, English language evening courses opened up due to the growth of the overseas emigration movement. The public schools, Talmud Torah, a dental school, a trade school for girls and boys, an agricultural farm, the Y. L. Nofech Hebrew Yiddish and Russian public library, an old age home, a 65 bed Jewish hospital, soup kitchens for the needy, and other benevolent and charitable institutions were strengthened from communal money as well as donors from benefactors.

The writer and historian from Minsk, Saul Ginzburg, notes in his writing that several Jews of Minsk played an active role in the Polish revolt against Czar Alexander II in 1863, due to their business relationship with the Polish landowners of the region. According to his words, the Russian General Moraviov who put down the Polish revolution understood the delicate situation of the Jews and related to them with a certain tolerance. The Minsk merchant Gershon Eisenstat and his son were imprisoned because they helped smuggle money from abroad for the Polish revolutionaries. Despite the fact that they were accused, they were only imprisoned for a brief period. Lev Levanda, the Jewish Russian writer who participated in the revolt, describes the youths of the Jewish intelligentsia of Minsk who were close to the revolutionaries. The Polish government of that time dealt with the problem of how to refer to these Poles: “Poles of the Mosaic persuasion”, or “Preservers of the ancient tradition”.

Jewish Minsk played a primary role in the Chibat Tzion movement. The organizations for the settlement of the Land of Israel, especially the “Agudat HaElef” encompassed broad strata of the population, and not just isolated wealthy people. The masses of the Jews of Minsk paid their small monthly payments to purchase lots in Israel, and prepared for aliya. There were many members of Bilu in Minsk and the region. The attempt to settle in Ein Zeitim by the members of Agudat HaElef of Minsk did not succeed well, and the land was given over by Yehoshua Sirkin to Baron Rothschild after many difficulties. However, the contact between the first people who made aliya and the community of Minsk continued throughout the time. The activists Yehuda Nofech, Chaim Chorgin, Avrahm Kaplan and others visited Israel; and when the Herzliya Gymnasium was founded in Tel Aviv, children of the honorable people of Minsk were sent to study there.

The first attempt of self defense in the annals of the Jews of Russia took place in Minsk in 1897. This spontaneous event encompassed all strata of society, from the Class A merchants to the poor people. During the time of Easter, Russian soldiers and captains perpetrated a pogrom and attacked the Jewish neighborhoods, but they encountered a strong opposition. In the court case that took place immediately after these events, a group of Jews headed by Avraham Kaplan were accused because they attacked the soldiers and captains, and destroyed their weapons. Kaplan himself was accused of removing the weapon of the a Russian captain from its sheathe. The prosecutor in this case, Shemakov, was one of the founders of the shameful “Black Hundred”. He accused the Jewish community in its entirety of forming a defense organization and an independent regime. He even went so far as to state that gentiles who opposed the rampaging soldiers also joined the Jewish “movement”. We should note that during the time of the court case, the police captains testified in favor of the Jews. The matter ended with the imposition of a fine of 20 rubles for the damage that was caused to the guns of the soldiers.

The communal agitation that took place in Czarist Russia during the 1870s and 1880s did not pass over Jewish Minsk. Many of the leaders of Chibat Zion, such as Chaim Chorgin and Yehuda Nofech, began their communal activities as members of the “Narodania Volya”[*2] but when they strengthened somewhat, they began to concern themselves first with the Jewish poor. Chorgin set up a summer camp for children afflicted with tuberculosis, and Nofech helped to establish a trade school for poor children, and later founded a library in Minsk that was called after his name.

Large Russian parties such as Socialist Revolutionary (S .R.) and the Social Democrats (S. D.) and Bund, whose center was in Minsk, grew out from within the Narodnik circles. It is appropriate to note that Genia Horowitz was successfully involved in the arranging of the founding meeting of the Social Democratic Party that took place in Minsk in 1898. Jews of Minsk also played an important role in the founding of the S. R. Party about two years later. We must note in particular Gregory Gershuny and Fruma Frumkin, who was taken out to be killed because of her participation in an attack on the mayor of Moscow. This Gershuny, who was nicknamed “The Eagle of the Revolution”, valued greatly the dissemination of education amongst the masses of the people, especially the study of nature. The testimony of David Zakkai, one of the editors of Davar is believable when he states that his love for the study of nature was imparted to him by Gershuny, whose lectures he heard in Minsk. Gershuny was sentenced to death for his revolutionary activities; however the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. During the court case, Gershuny mentioned in his speech that he was proud of his Judaism. He succeeded in escaping from prison in a barrel of sauerkraut and he arrived in the United States.

The first meeting for the founding of Bund also took place in Minsk, in 1895, even though the official founding of the organization took place two years later in 1897 in Vilna. Without doubt, the Bund played an honorable role in the Jewish workers' movement in Russia, as well as in the general workers' movement in Russia, even though it is doubtful if it played an important role in the Russian revolution. It is more correct to state that the Jewish revolutionary parties in Russia served as a sort of background which hastened the coming of the revolution. Vladimir Medem hints in his memoirs that the leadership of the Russian S. D., which in practical terms was a group of leaders who were exiled abroad, was jealous of the Bund, which was a mass movement active within the Jewish Pale of Settlement. Shalom Hertz, the historian of the Bund, asserts that the Bund caused a social revolution amongst the Jews. He notes the class consciousness and self respect of the masses of laborers who were then on the lowest rungs of the Jewish social structure. Its program for its national plan was based on the demand for “cultural autonomy” and a battle against Zionism. This battle which broke out between the two movements on the day of their founding can be seen from the writings of the Bundist Beinish Mikhaelevitch and the Minsk Zionist leader Yitzchak Berger. With the passage of time, it seems that the dream of establishing a “Garden of Eden upon the earth” and a solution of all the Jewish problems which would apparently be based on the worldwide revolution of the proletariat was not able to live under one roof with the different dream of the establishment of a “Jewish State”. The Russian revolutionaries saw the Bund in a different light. Georgiy Plachanov, the wise leader of the S. D. described the members of the Bund as “Zionists who are afraid of seasickness”. Chaim Zhitlovsky tells that after the Sixth Zionist Congress, at which the Uganda proposal was accepted, the Bundists met with tears in their eyes. Veteran Minsk Bundists who came to America, such as Lissin, Chanin, Vladek and others, recognized the foundations of redemption in Zionism and supported the workers' movement of the Land of Israel both morally and financially. Lissin was the fist of the leaders of the Jewish Workers Movement in the United States to join the Movement for the Working Land of Israel.

Our survey of the Jewish workers' movement in Minsk is incomplete if we do not mention here the “Zubatov episode”. In order to weigh in against the revolutionaries, one of the agents of the Czarist secret police hatched a brazen idea to establish an unaffiliated workers' movement whose aim would be to struggle for the betterment of their economic lives. He attempted to “sell” this idea to the leaders of the workers' organizations in Moscow, Petersburg, etc., but he did not succeed in obtaining practical results. However, his plan received an unplanned resonance in Minsk when Zubatov succeeded in attracting to his activities a twenty-something year old Jewish woman, Mania Vilvoshevich and several other Bundist activists. Within a brief period, his ideas spread through the Jewish Pale of Settlement until his movement began to endanger the status of the Bund and other Socialist movements. In various cities such as Minsk, Vilna, Odessa, and others, unions of printing workers, cleaners, salespeople, shopkeepers, etc. were attracted to Zubatov's movement and called themselves “unaffiliated”. The Socialist movement accused them of “selling their souls to the Satan”, being provocateurs, agents of the secret police (Ochrana), etc. Without entering into this debate, we can establish that the leaders of the unaffiliated group attained several improvements in the inhuman working conditions that prevailed in Russia at that time, especially for the Jewish workers in the Pale of Settlement.

We will now survey the activities of the various Zionist organizations that arose in Minsk after the First Zionist Congress in 1897. These groups adopted various names, including “Shoafei Zion”, “Kadima”, “Hatechiya”, and others. However, there was a common bond uniting them: they worked within the framework of the General Zionist Movement.

In his book on the history of Tzeirei-Zion[1], Yisrael Ritov wrote that Hatechiya in Minsk called itself a populist movement. Its members included teachers, students, business assistants, bookkeepers, workers, laborers, and general youth. From an ideological perspective, Hatechiya in Minsk was less radical than the same organization in Warsaw and Pinsk. Its primary work was in the “black work” of the Zionist movement: the selling of the shekel (token of membership in the Zionist movement), the collecting of money for the Keren HaKayemet LeYisrael (Jewish National Fund), the selling of stocks of “The Treasury of Jewish Settlement”, arranging Zionist gatherings and celebrations, and other such activities. The members of Hatechia called themselves “The hands and the feet of the Zionist movement”. Hatechia maintained connections with Hapoel Hatzair. When its members made aliya to the Land Israel, they joined Hapoel Hatzair.

Shimon Shnipper[2] who made aliya with the Second Aliya, and later lived in Ashdot Yaakov, tells that the first issues of the Hapoel Hatzair weekly came to Minsk from the land of Israel in the name of Noach Tyomkin the owner of the pharmacy. His home was a meeting place for Zionist activists in Minsk. These activities were illegal under the Czarist regime, even though they were not particularly persecuted.

Ritov further writes that the Eleventh Zionist Congress that convened in Basle in 1911 decided among other things: “A. To participate with full dedication to the work of the present, and to save the emigrants for nationalist Judaism. B. To direct the immigration eastward, especially to the Land of Israel and Syria. Important developments were taking place then in the Land of Israel itself: The success of Degania (founded in 1909) was clear[*3], the foundation of the agricultural organizations in the Galilee and Judea was created – these were the foundations from which the general Histadrut grew. – – – The honorary center (note precisely, the honorary center and not the organizational center) of the Tzeirei Zion movement was moved temporarily to Minsk, which was the city in which the “Minsk style of Poale Zion” had been created. The predecessors of Poale Zion were Marxist, or Socialist without Marxism in orientation. One of the largest and most active chapters of Hatechiya existed in Minsk from 1905-1907. With the passage of time, the Hatechiya organization was disbanded and its members dispersed, some to the General Zionists, some to competing workers' organizations, and others to their own homes. Many made aliya, forming a not-insignificant portion of the Second Aliya. However the vast majority reorganized and established a chapter of Tzeirei Zion (Young Zion), headed by Eliezer Kaplan. This is the secret of the founding of the center in Minsk.”

The greatest event in the annals of the Zionist movement in Minsk was without doubt the “Russian Zionist Convention” that took place in Minsk in 1902. The reason that specifically Minsk was chosen as the locale of the convention was because in that city, the movement included the broadest circles. Another reason was the fact that a police permit was obtained for the convention, apparently through the assistance of Mania Vilboshevitch. The incident which the president of the State, Zalman Shazar, told at the celebration in 1962 of the 60th anniversary of the convention of Minsk was very typical of the atmosphere of the convention. Shazar's uncle was a delegate to the convention, but his father also did not want to pass up on the chance to hear the lectures and deliberations. The hall was filled to the brim. Many people congregated around the building and next to the windows. There were not yet microphones at that time, and the pressure of the crowds against the windows was so great that stewards were forced to go outside and warn those congregated to refrain from damaging the windowpanes, for if they do, they would have to pay for the damages. Shazar's father, a levelheaded householder and respected merchant, played a trick with one of the windows. He broke the pane with his cane, paid the fine on the spot, and thereby succeeded in listening clearly to the Zionists in the convention hall.

A typical theme of the Zionist movement in Minsk during those years was the mutual activity and the lack of friction between the various segments and branches of the movement. Yitzchak Berger, one of the founders of Poale Zion in Minsk, and Chorgin, formerly from Narodania Volya[*2], were among the heads of the Zionists. Several of the members of Hapoel Hatzair moved to the Territorialist Party, whereas others moved to the Social Democratic Party that was headed by Borochov. There were also supporters in Minsk of Chaim Weizmann's faction. Chaim Tnezer, the teacher and Zionist activist, was elected to the city council from Tzeirei Zion. Menachem HaLevi Itzkovitch was active in the radical wing of Poale Zion that raised the banner of the Hebrew language. Even before the Helsinki Convention (1906) which called for the participation of the Zionists in the action program of the Diaspora, there were leaders of the Zionist movement in Minsk who were involved in the activities of the communal council and other local organizations.

Another important convention in the annals of the Zionist movement took place in Minsk – the Tzeirei Zion convention of 1912. Yisrael Ritov notes in his book that after the Tzeirei Zion convention in Lodz that took place without government permission and at which most of the participants were arrested, the need for addition conventions and national consultation was felt more strongly. The people of Minsk took upon themselves the initiative of arranging the convention and actualizing the idea. With the participation of delegates from all across Russia, they deliberated in particular on the problems of the organization of the movement and the methods of practical implementation, such as the question of hachsharah (practical preparatory efforts for aliya) as a precursor to aliya. The idea of the chalutz (pioneer) had already budded with the influence of the actual reality in the Land of Israel. The idea began to mature through written and oral publicity efforts as well as the convention in Minsk.

During those years, Minsk developed as an important center for Hebrew creativity and the revival of the Hebrew language as a spoken language. Here and there, people began to use the Sephardic pronunciation[*4], through the influence of and the contact with the land of Israel. The study of the Hebrew language in Minsk encompassed thousands, and turned into a national movement that included as well ordinary Jews who were not members of any organized Zionist party. It is appropriate here to mention Vladimir Medem, the apostate who returned to his Judaism, who tells in his memoirs that his first contact with the Jewish people was through the study of the Hebrew language with a neighboring lad, in exchange for lessons in the Russian language.

Many Hebrew teachers who were blessed with fine teaching skills and enthusiasm for the topic were centered in Minsk. These included A. Obrungin, Ch. D. Rosenstein, Podyomski, M. Itzkovich, Ch. Tnezer and many others who imparted their teaching through private lessons, modern cheders and schools. Classes in Jewish history took place on Saturday nights and Sundays. We should also mention the teacher Mariles who spent several years in Israel, and then settled in Minsk where he taught Hebrew in the suburb of Komarovka. The students of Herzliya who used to return to Minsk for their summer vacations also used to spread the Hebrew language. Shimon Shnipper of the Second Aliya tells that before the aliya of the members of his group, they were asked to come for a public farewell. This took place in the Kalter Shul, one of the important synagogues of the Shulhof. After Rabbi Nissenbaum's lecture, Shnipper ascended the podium and delivered a farewell speech in Hebrew, with Sephardic pronunciation. Shnipper himself earned his livelihood from the giving of private Hebrew lessons using the Sephardic pronunciation that he had learned from the teacher Mariles. He tells about how he taught the son of a Jewish wagon driver in the suburb of Komarovka. At times the father of the student, who was a wagon driver, sat and listened to the study of Bible in the Hebrew pronunciation, as he swelled with pride.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, economic life drew to a halt. Many families were left without breadwinners due to the draft of the men. Many searched for ways to evade the draft. They would hide in inside rooms, which led to searches, investigations and informing. However, life slowly began to return to its normal course, and several areas of business that were connected to military supply actually flourished. After the rapid advance of the German army, the front located itself in the region of Minsk until the revolutions of February and October 1917 broke out. Then, Minsk was under Bolshevik rule for a period. The Germans conquered Minsk in 1918 without a battle.

As a result of the wartime activities, a large stream of Jewish refugees passed through the community of Minsk. The pretext for the expulsion of the Jews from the western districts to the interior of Russia was the suspicion that the Jews were apparently spying on behalf of the German Kaiser. After the disorderly retreat of his battalions, the supreme commander of the Army of the Czar, Nikolay Nikolaevitch issued an order to expel the Jews to regions outside of the Pale of Settlement. Myriads of Jews passed through Minsk in wagons and trains, including Jews from Congress Poland, Kurland (Latvia), Lithuania, and towns from the district of Minsk itself. During this time of emergency, the community of Mink demonstrated its readiness and capability to help its brethren in need. Thousands of refugees were housed in the synagogues and the schools. The members of the community brought them food, blankets and clothing. The rabbis gave permission to bring the provisions even on Sabbaths and festivals, and there were instances where all of the cholent[*5] pots were brought to the housing areas of the refugees. Jewish assistance committees that were recognized by the Russian authorities operated, and extended financial aid to the refugees.

During that time, Jewish activists and writers. Including Sh. Ansky, Shaul Tshernikovsky and others were housed in Minsk.

{Photocopy page 81: Passport of Eidel (later Louis) Shkolnik, issued in Minsk in 1908.}

With this, we conclude our survey of the community of Minsk from the end of the 19th century until the Bolshevik Revolution. This community was still to endure the libels of the Communist era, with the struggle to maintain the Jewish ember that whispered in secrecy until these days, when the siege was broken and the aliya to the Land of Israel began.

Text Footnotes:
  1. Yisrael Ritov, Chapters in the History of Tzeirei Zion, Tz. S., Published by Am Oved, Tel Aviv, 5724, 1964. Return

  2. David Cohen of blessed memory worked for the preservation of the memoirs of Minsk from the mouth of Shimon Shnipper who was lying on his death bed. Cohen died before the work was finished, and about two weeks later, on the 17th of Adar II, 5733 (1973), Shimon Shnipper died – a note from the editor. Return

Translator's Footnotes:
    *1.    This percentage appears to be a typographical error. It is actually 51.9. Return
    *2.    A political party (Literally – the Will of the People). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narodnya_Volya. Return
    *3.    Degania was the first Kibbutz. Return
    *4.    The method of Hebrew pronunciation common among Sephardic Jews, as opposed to the Ashkenazic pronunciation. The Sephardic pronunciation was used for the revival of modern Hebrew. Return
    *5.    A stew generally served at lunchtime on the Sabbath, having been left over the heat since before the onset of the Sabbath. Return

[Page 82]

Province of Minsk

by Shlomo Even-Shoshan

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The author was born in Minsk in 1910. He made aliya to Israel in 1925, and lives on Kibbutz Sde Nachum. He is an editor of the publishing division of HaKibbutz HaMeuchad.
Our involvement in the Province of Minsk stems only from the complete obligation to fill, albeit in a partial fashion, the void in our book that attempts to establish a monument for the community of Minsk and its role in the annals of our people, its struggles, battles and conquests. The character of the community of Minsk in the latter generations would not be fully expressed even if we were to find everything related to the essence of the community within the bounds of the city itself were we not to turn our attention in the first volume of our book toward the status of the city as a provincial center – as one of the large centers of Russian Jewry within the Jewish Pale of Settlement. It is no surprise that among the conceivers and first activists of this book, including well-known people in the annals of our nation, there are some who were not born in Minsk itself, but rather in one of the cities or towns of the Province of Minsk. However, once Minsk became one of the stopping points for some period during their lives, they regarded themselves as Minskers in all ways, proud of its accomplishments and agonized over its destruction, wishing with every fibre of their being to form a monument and memorial for it.

To our great sorrow, during the production of this book, the fruit of the efforts of the members of the society of natives of Minsk and its district, we were forced to restrict ourselves to the bounds of the city itself, for outside of its precincts there are not only such cities and towns of the Province of Minsk that already have their own honorable, comprehensive memorial books, such as Pinsk, Bobruisk, Slutsk, Rakow, Lakhowichi and others, but also other nearby cities that have not yet found their redeemer.

Due to the lack of space in this brief survey, we are not able to present the matter in its full breadth. We are not even able to present it superficially in a general fashion. We will not deal with the annals of the communities, the tribulations of life, the social makeup, etc. We will restrict ourselves to the briefest geographical survey, listing some of the names of the communities included in the Province of Minsk, and pointing out some of the names of the people hailing from those places. This will be done in a manner that hints to their reciprocal connection to the chief city, which served as the source of influence and inspiration to all of tem.

There were nine cities known as district cities within the bounds of the Province of Minsk as it existed from the end of the first half of the 19th century until 1917: Minsk, Bobruisk, Borisov, Igumen, Mozir, Novogrudok, Pinsk, Rechitsa, and Slutsk. A new administrative partition took place at the end of the First World War, when the Soviet republic of Byelorussia was established in 1919 with Minsk as the capital. The provinces of Minsk, Vitebsk, and Mohilev were included in the boundaries of Byelorussia. At the time of the Second World War in 1939, the western provinces of Pinsk and Novogrudok, and the district of Grodno were annexed to Byelorussia.

{Map page 83: A map of the Province of Minsk.}

As has been stated, we will discuss here the province of Minsk as defined by its boundaries until 1917. The Province of Minsk bordered on the provinces of Vitebsk and Mohilev on the east, the Province of Volhyn on the south, the Province of Grodno on the west, and the Province of Vilna on the northwest. We have before us a book in the Russian language, “The Jewish Population of Russia According to the Data from the Census of 1897 and According to New Sources”, published by the Jewish Statistical Society, Petrograd, 1917. Since the “new sources” in the book are quite sparse, we will utilize only the data from the census of 1897. According to that data, the Jews of the Province of Minsk lived in 189 cities, towns and villages. The number of Jews in each settlement ranged from 50 in the smallest villages to 47,562 in the capital of Minsk. The total population of the province was 2,147,621 people, including 345,031 Jews, making up 16% of the population. More than 38% of the Jews of the province, 133,619 people, lived in cities –in the nine district cities, as well as Dokshitsy and Nesvizh, forming more than 59% of the civic population. Approximately the same number lived in towns, where the percentage of Jews ranged from 9% in Luninets in the Pinsk district, for example, to 100% in Kalinkovichi in the Rechitsa district. The rest lived in villages. In his article on the Province of Minsk in the Russian language Jewish Encyclopedia, published by Brokhaus-Efron, Y. Shabad calculates that the percentage of Jews living in villages was one quarter of the general Jewish population of the province.

The percentages of Jewish residents according to the districts of the province range from 11% in the district of Borisov to 23% in the district of Minsk. As has been stated, all of the numbers mentioned here are from 1897. At the end of that era, that is, at the time of the 1917 revolution, changes began to take place on all sides. We can surmise that the natural increase on one side, and the increasing emigration abroad, especially to the United States on the other hand, had opposite effects on the oscillation of the numbers.

The 189 Jewish settlements in the province are divided by district as follows: Minsk – 11, Bobruisk – 23, Borisov – 11, Igumen – 20, Mozir – 43, Novogrudok – 19, Pinsk – 31, Rechitsa – 14, Slutsk – 17.

We will mention several of the residents of the province, starting with the district of Minsk. In the town of Stolovichi (Shtoivich) there were 2,409 Jews forming 64% of the general population. The man who later became the president of Israel, Zalman Shazar, was raised and educated in that town. He was also the author of the article on Minsk in the Brokhaus-Efron Jewish Encyclopedia. Michal Rabinovitch Ish-Minsk and Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv) were born in that town. The famous Jewish poet Avraham Reisen was born in the town of Koidanovo (3,156 Jews, comprising 67% of the population). His father, the Hebrew writer Kalman Reisen, a resident of Minsk, was also born in that town. The towns of Ivanovich, Rakov, Osipovichi, and Ostroshitski Gorodok are also in that district.

There were 20,760 Jews in the district city of Bobruisk, comprising 70% of the population. Many Jews who left an impression upon the annals of our nation hail from this city, including Berl Katznelson, Yitzchak Tabankin, Rachel Katznelson-Shazar, Kadish Loz, Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum, the poet David Shimoni, and others. The Zionist leader Shmaryahu Levin was born in the town of Svisloch (120 Jews, 62% of the population)[1]. He dedicates many pages to his native town in his memoirs “Yalduti” (My Childhood). The poet Avraham Rogelson and the teacher Chaim Tnezer of Minsk were born in the town of Hlusk (3,801 Jews, 73% of the population). The rabbi and writer Simcha Asaf, the writer Zalman Epstein and his brother the linguist Yitzchak Epstein were born in the town of Lyuban (735 Jews, 95% of the population).

There were 7,722 Jews in the district city of Borisov, comprising 51% of the population. The city of Dokshitsy in this district has the largest percentage of Jews with respect to the general civic population – 77%. The future Biluist Yisrael Belkind was born in the town of Lahoysk. Moshe Cohen, later one of the heads of the Zionist organization of Minsk, was born in the town of Pleshchenitsy.

There were 2,817 Jews in the district city of Igumen, comprising 61% of the population. This was the birthplace of the poet H. Leivik, known as Levi Halpern, who was active in the Bund in Minsk and in his latter days was one of the activists for the Book of Minsk. Berezino (3,377 Jews, comprising 69% of the population) is known as the birthplace of the actress Chana Rubina and the writer Alexander Chashin. Dukor (604 Jews, comprising 44% of the population) was the birthplace of the Tsharny brothers: Shmuel Niger, Baruch Vladek, and Daniel Tsharny. All of them wrote a great deal in praise of their hometown in their writings. The great artist Chaim Sotin was a native of the town of Smilovichi. Cantor Avraham Moshe Bernstein, who composed the tune for the Poale Zion hymn “Hashevua”, was born in the town of Shats. Other towns in this district include Mogilno, Pukhovichi, Sotin, Uzda, Uzlyany, and others.

There were 5,631 Jews in the district city of Mozir, comprising 70% of the population. Other towns in this district include Glushkovichi, David Gorodok, Zhitkovichi, Lenin, Petrikov, and others.

There were 5,015 Jews in the district city of Novogrudok, comprising 65% of the population. The researcher Avraham Eliahu Harkavy was born there. The president of Israel Zalman Shazar was born in the town of Mir (3,319 Jews, comprising 61% of the population). The poet Yitzchak Katznelson, the writer Yehoshua Obsi, and the teacher in Minsk Menachem Itzkovich were born in the town of Korelichi (1,841 Jews, comprising 71% of the population).

There were 21,605 Jews in the district city of Pinsk, comprising 74% of the population. There were 5,334 Jews in the district city of Rechitsa, comprising 57% of the population. The grammarian Avraham Abronin, a resident of Minsk, was born in the town of Loyev in the district of Rechitsa. Other towns in this district include Kalinkovichi, Kruki, Bragin, Yanovichi, and others.

There were 10,264 Jews in the district city of Slutsk, comprising 77% of the population. The writers Y .D. Berkovich, and Yaakov Cohen, the preacher Tz. H. Maslianski, the historian Y. N. Simchoni and others were born in that city. Mendele Mocher Seforim, and A. Y. Papirna were born in the town of Kopyl (2,671 Jews comprising 59% of the population). The Chibat Zion activist Yehoshua Barzilai, and the author of “Rabbis and Wise Men of Minsk” B. Tz. Eisenstadt were born in the town of Kletsk (3,415 Jews comprising 73% of the population). The activists of the workers' movement and early members of Degania Yosef and Chayota Bossel, and the poet Levi Ben-Amitay were born in Lyakhovichi (3,846 Jews, comprising 77% of the population). The writers Shm”r, Nissan Turov and Sh. N. Kahanovsky were born in the city of Nesvizh (4,687 Jews, comprising 55% of the population).

As can be seen, it was not only noble Minsk that exerted its influence upon the residents of the province, but they also imbued the chief city with their Jewish roots and fine creative talents – to aggrandize the name of Minsk and help establish it as a central and important Jewish city in the annals of our people.

{Photo page 85: The platform of the civic railway station in Minsk.}

Translator's Footnotes:
  1. I have the Yizkor book of Svisloch, and the Jewish population would be closer to 2,000. I believe that this is a typographical error here. Return

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