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[Page 148]

Minsk – Jerusalem of White Russia

by Chaim Lavshai

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The author, Chaim Lavshai (Lifshitz) was born in Minsk in 1917. He made aliyah to the Land in 1937.
He was a civil servant. He edited booklets. He translated and published poems and articles in Hebrew and Yiddish.
The destruction of the community of Minsk was not like that of the other Jewish communities that were destroyed in the Holocaust. Minsk, the capital of White Russia, and in the years before the First World War – the regional city and chief city of the cities of the region of Reisin [1] and its region – suffered and was destroyed twofold. It was destroyed by Hitler's legions, in the presence of the enemy Eichmann, may his name be blotted out. On Purim of 5612 (1942), a day of mass murder of more than 5,000 people – young, old, women and children – it suffered its second destruction. The first preceded this one by approximately 25 years, when the Bolshevik regime arose and wiped out Judaism and anything that is called by its name.

Minsk, a great city for G-d and people, with myriads of Jews, a prince among the cities, was overturned by aliens. The Red Revolution that overturned it and all of wide Russia, was like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. As its comrade Vilna, Minsk also merited a nickname full of meaning – Jerusalem of White Russia [2]. Until that revolution – fast trains went out from the wonderful Vilna pathways and formed a bridge and connection of business and culture between them.

Its Rabbis and Great Ones

The vast majority of the population of Minsk was Jewish, and in the latter half of the 1920s, the Jewish population reached more than 50,000 people.

In this large Jewish hearth, there were – already from the previous century – great people and famous rabbis, worthy of praise. The Gaon Yechiel Halpern, known from his historical work “Seder Hadorot” [The Order of the Generations], served as the Rabbi of Minsk in the 18th century, and headed a famous yeshiva. At that time, the great one of the Gaonim of that generation and the following generations arrived in Minsk: Reb Aryeh Leib, the author of “Shaagat Aryeh” who also founded a large yeshiva. However, something took place between these two yeshivas and they became hostile to each other. The people of Minsk defended the author of “Seder Hadorot”, and sent the author of the “Shaagat Aryeh” away from the city on a Friday. The monument of the grave of the “Seder Hadorot” stands to this day, intact and fenced off, in the old cemetery, which was completely ploughed and paved over. All of its monuments and graves were willfully desecrated.

In the 19th century, the following Gaonim lived and worked in Minsk: Reb David Tavli the author of “Nachalat David”; Reb Gershon Tanchum; Reb Yaakov Meir [Gorodinsky, elsewhere transliterated from the Polish as Grodzenski]; and the “Gadol” Rabbi Aryeh Leib Perlman the author of “Or Gadol” [Great Light], a commentary on the Mishna. The latter served as the rabbi of the city. The influence of these Gaonim and personalities upon Minsk and its Jews was great. They spread its fame throughout the scattered breadth of Jewry.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Gaon Eliezer Rabinovitch served as the Chief Rabbi of Minsk. He was the son-in-law of the “Gadol”. His death, a few years after the revolution, brought deep shock to the Jews of Minsk. Many of them participated in his funeral, including Communists and gentiles.

After the death of Rabbi Rabinovitch, his son-in-law Rabbi Menachem Mendel Gluskin, continued on in the rabbinate. He was a dear and refined soul. He died in Leningrad, to where he was exiled with his family after the

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Yevseki government of Minsk libeled him and confiscated all of his property. Other well-known rabbis, who dedicated their souls to the preservation of the ember of Judaism, lived and worked in Minsk during the time of Rabbi Gluskin and after him. These included Yehoshua Zimbalist, Izak Rabinovitch, Moshe Gordon, the Magid Binyamin Shakovitzki, Rabbi Asher Kershtein, and others. These people worked and risked their lives for Judaism, under the ruthless police, imprisonment, and torment. Through their power and the powers that spread from their power – Judaism flickered, whispered, and guarded its embers lest they be completely extinguished.

A City of Refuge

During the period of the First World War, in the spring of 1915, the community of Minsk took the chief crown of Russian Jewry, which until that time had been borne by the community of Vilna, with the community of Minsk being second to it (There was the “Gaon” of Vilna and the “Gadol” of Minsk). This was caused by the fact that Nikolai Nikolevitch, the chief army officer of Russia, expelled the Jews of Poland and Lithuania, and ruthlessly uprooted them from their areas of residence. The pretext for the expulsion was the closeness of the Jews, who were suspect of being unfaithful to Russia, to the border regions with the enemy country of Germany.

The Jews of Vilna, Radin, Kovno, Brisk, Vilkomir and other areas from the regions of Poland and Lithuania, who lived in these cities by the thousands along with their leaders and rabbis, uprooted themselves and for the most part came to the “Jerusalem of Reisin”, to Minsk. Minsk was a great city unto G-d [3], populated with myriads of Jews, and under the influence of large, splendid Jewish institutions. Indeed, the Jews of Minsk opened the doors of their homes and their reserves of money for these refugees of war. They housed them and gave of their resources and strength to absorb them. Thus, the greats of that generation gathered into the midst of the Jewish center of Minsk – in the area of the old market, that is glazed and covered with wood and iron; in the alleys near the large square around which the synagogues are centered; and in the area of the Fish Market next to the Svisloch River whose waters flow swiftly in the summer and winter.

In the large and small synagogues that were centered around the streets Nemiga, Zamkova, Hakadarim [the potters] and in the alleys of “Bitza” [the bog], between the stores, and on the long, curved Street of the Butchers – Reb Yisrael Meir Kahan the author of the “Chofetz Chaim”, Reb Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, Reb Leib of Vilkomir, and Reb Yeshayahu Kareliz who later became known as the Chazon Ish, and many others sat, learned, and engaged in didactics. These synagogues were open day and night. Thousands of holy books were stored on their shelves and tables, as is the manner of synagogues in areas of Jewish settlement.

With the outbreak of the Communist Revolution and the establishment of the Soviet government, these rabbis and people were once again exiled. Some of them fled at the risk of their lives and returned across the borders to Poland and Lithuania, which became independent states after the war and were free from Communist rule, in accordance with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

Torah and its Studiers

Minsk was well known for its Torah, its studiers of Torah, its synagogues, its study groups, and its classes for the study of Torah, Mishna, and homiletics. It had many synagogues that did not close during the day and even during the night. Many of its synagogues were called by the name of the group that studied in them, or of the class that was given in them, such as: the Synagogue of the Chayei Adam [4], the Group of Tiferet Bachurim, etc.

The “Cheder” Synagogue was most famous, since the people of this synagogue would gather in the middle of the day, especially on Sabbaths. Their great rabbi, Reb Isser, and after his death his son-in-law Reb Aryeh, would sit on a high and exalted chair, not next to the table, but rather in the middle of the synagogue, on the bima [platform], surrounded by the audience

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of the many who heeded his voice, the exalted one in a high position. Silence would pervade. Even the rustle of a fly could not be heard as he spoke.

Next to the main square of the city, “Sobor” (whose name was changed to Sboboda – that is Freedom – after the revolution), there was a large, wide courtyard – the Synagogue Courtyard. Tens of synagogues, including the large, central synagogues of the city, were located there. The large, central synagogue was known as “Hakar” (the Cold), since at its inception, it did not have a stove due to its size. It was difficult to worship there in the winter. They would hire a quorum [minyan] of men to come to worship there, so that the prayers would not be missed there in the winter. The “Hachevra” synagogue, the large Beis Midrash, the small Beis Midrash, and many others – every synagogue with its story, every Beis Midrash had its studiers. The Synagogue Courtyard had three gates on each of the three sides that led to adjacent roads. (The story of the foundations, and history of these synagogues, as well as their capture, closing, and destruction by the Communist regime, is very long, and is worthy of being told in its own right.) In addition, there were beautiful and splendid synagogues scattered throughout town. Even group of artisans or professionals had their own synagogue, called after its name: the synagogue of the butchers, of the carpenters, of the plasterers. These were located in the area of the city where the craftsmen worked. Even the streets were called by the names of the professions.

In this city that was pervaded by the Misnagdic [anti-Hassidic] Lithuanian style, there were even three Hassidic synagogues. These were among the largest and warmest: Lubavitch, Koidanov, and Slonim.

A Center for Zionism and Pioneering

Minsk was one of the largest centers of Zionism. The Zionist movement in all its streams, from Poale Zion and Hashomer Hatzair until Mizrachi [5], found a wide venue for their activities in Minsk, and struck down firm roots in the sectors of the people. The wide publicity of the Zionist movement and also Minsk brought the General Convention of Russian Zionists to the “Paris” hotel in Minsk in 1902. This conference was conducted with great splendor. This was an era of oppression in Czarist Russia. The Czar behaved toward the Jews with a strong hand. Strange winds, rooted in the leftist and nihilistic movements, were blowing in the Jewish street. These were reflected by the “Bund” movement, the Anarchists, the Social-Revolutionary and Social-Democratic movements, and others. The Zionist Council of Russia became a gathering point for all Jews who were concerned about Zion and longed for the redemption. The movement straightened its back, raised its horn, and poured the dew of renewal into the hearts. The Jews of Minsk walked in its light in the outskirts of their city, dreaming and full of hope for the approaching redemption and the building of the Land. Years passed by, and grandfathers spoke about this large convention with pride and longing to their grandchildren who were born after the revolution.

A large portion of the activists of the Zionist movement lived and worked in Minsk and its environs. It is sufficient to mention Nachman Sirkin, Yehoshua Sirkin, Mania Shuchat, Eliezer Kaplan, the first treasurer Herzl Berger, Dr. Alexander Goldstein, and many others. First and foremost, there is President Shazar [6], who was also raised in Minsk and its environs.

Minsk was the cradle of Zionist activists, both with regard to finances and settlement, in the years prior to the revolution and even in the years following. These included “Agudat-Haelef”, which established the Jewish settlement in “Ein-Zeitim”, “Kadima”, “Hashomer Hatzair”, “Tzeirei Zion”, and others. There were natives of Minsk and its environs among the founders of Degania [7], and in the ranks of Bilu, as well as among the first students of the Herzliya High School in Tel Aviv. It is proper to mention in particular the convention of “The Zionist Soldiers on the Minsk Front” that was established in Minsk at the end of the First World War in the year 1918, under a Hebrew flag upon which fluttered the symbol of the Magen David.

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Poets and Writers

Minsk excelled not only in the realms of Torah and Zionism, but its position was also prominent and significant in the realms of culture, poetry, and literature. Poets and well-known people in these fields, such as H. Levek, B. Vladek, A. Lisin, Avraham Reisin, Moshe Kolbak, Zelik Akselrod, Izi Charik, Moshe Teif and many others, lived, composes, and were prominent in that region. The Hebrew writers Daniel Persky, Yknh”z, Michel Rabinovitch, Ch. D. Rosenstein, David Zakai, and Edel Presman were natives of Minsk.

During the 1930s and later [8], Yiddish literature and journalism arose in Minsk. The central theater, a gathering place for Yiddish writers, ensembles and choirs, meeting places for workers, and Jewish libraries all operated in Minsk. Theatrical groups and Jewish artists from Moscow, Kiev, and other cities would visit Minsk. Those who awaited them rejoiced with their Jewish hearts to hear the Yiddish language – the language which was interwoven with the Hebrew alphabet and Hebrew expressions.

Around the 1930s, a general conference of Jewish writers took place in the central Europa Hotel in Minsk. The poets Itzik Feffer, Peretz Markish and Izzi Charik stood out there.

The Yevsekia

The Yevsekia in Minsk formed an embarrassing era, with its war against Jewish religion and culture. Through its aim of denigration, it emasculated and cut down the image of Judaism and its standard bearers. It did not shy away from instigating libels and false court cases against promoters of religion. The court cases of the years 1925-1929 excelled in their evil. These included the case against the union of shochtim, and the case against the shochet Rappaport.

Even though the end of the Yevsekia came and its chief spokesmen were not vindicated for the government of Stalin liquidated them as well, Minsk, an important city in Israel, with great influence, a great center of Jews and Judaism – now lies silent. Its mouth was shut, and a Jewish desolation envelops it.

{Painting page 151: “And these sheep, how did they sin?” by Mark Zhitnitsky}

Translator's Footnotes:
1 According to the Yiddish dictionary of Uriel Weinreich, Reisin is a term for White Russia or Byelorussia. The term used in the first part of the sentence is 'Russia Halevana', which literally means 'White Russia'. The term used in the title and the latter part of this sentence is Reisin. I am not sure of the different connotations of these terms, but from this current sentence, it seems as if there is such. Return
2Vilna is often known as Jerusalem of Lithuania. Return
3A reference from the book of Jonah, describing the city of Nineveh. Return
4Chayei Adam is a detailed work on day-to-day halachah.Return
5Poale Zion is a general Zionist faction. Hashomer Hatzair [The Young Guard], is a Socialist, secular Zionist youth group. Mizrachi is the religious Zionist group.Return
6This refers to the third president of Israel, Zalman Shazar (his surname is an acronym of his original name, Shneur Zalman Rubashov.Return
7The first Kibbutz.Return
8The timeframe seems to be problematic here, as the Second World War followed the 1930s – unless this is referring to Yiddish culture in the post-war Soviet era, prior to the Stalinist purges of Jewish artists in the 1950s. From the names of the writers listed in the next paragraph, it seems probable that this era is indeed referred to (e.g.. Peretz Markish was one of the writers murdered under Stalin).Return

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