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[Page 27]

Chapter 1

Features of the Holocaust in Belarus

This article was first published in Journal of Genocide Research 2003, 5(1),
117-129 and is reprinted with permission of the publisher, Taylor and Francis <http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals>

A Demographic Profile of the
Jews in Belorussia, 1939-1959

by Leonid Smilovitsky, Ph.D.

Diaspora Research Institute,
Lester and Sally Entin Faculty of the Humanties, Tel Aviv University

Before the Soviet-German War, the population of Belorussia was 10,528,000, or 9,200,000 within the modern borders of the country[1]. The Jews numbered about a million, and may be tentatively classified into several categories.

One of them was comprised of the Jews who lived in Eastern Belorussia. It was part of the former Pale of Settlement and consisted of the Gomel, Minsk and Mohilev oblasts (regions), which were traditional places of compact Jewish settlement. According to the January 1939 Soviet census, 375,000 Jews resided there[2]. On the basis of the annual population growth, it may be concluded that Eastern Belorussia had about 405,000 Jews in the first half of 1941. In the Soviet Union, Judaism was persecuted, synagogues were being closed, and Zionism was considered the worst manifestation of Jewish nationalism. The Yiddish schools were closed down, the circulation of Yiddish publications was considerably reduced, the activity of writers' and artists' organizations restricted, the Jewish kolkhozes disbanded and national administrative districts abolished. Despite all this, the compactly residing Jewish population preserved remnants of the traditional Jewish style of life. There the Minsk, Gomel and Mohilev dialects of Yiddish still were being spoken. During the 1939 census, 55 percent of Belorussian Jews named Yiddish their native language (37.4 percent named Russian and 7.6 precent, Belorussian)[3]. There still existed the Jewish folklore, customs, cuisine, and the feeling of belonging to a group was not yet extinguished among Jews. Young people were being more actively involved into the Soviet reality and distanced from Jewry. Many saw in the community a remnant of the past, which ought to be dealt with in order to build a free society in the workers' and peasants' state. Many were trying to adjust to the new reality as fast as possible and moved to big cities in the republic, or in Russia and the Ukraine. Life in urban centers deepened their removal from the Jewish traditions. Many deliberately renounced Yiddish in favor of Russian, many received vocational training and higher education and began to occupy responsible positions in state administrative bodies, in cultural, scientific and medical institutions and served in the army. The percentage of mixed marriages increased significantly, and the Jewish shtetl, where they left their relatives, and parents remained, was becoming more and more a symbol of a vanishing world.

The second category was comprised of the Jews of former Eastern Poland, which became Western Belorussia (the Bialystok, Vilna, Novogrudek and Polessie voievodstvo (administrative unit), where the Jewish population comprised 350,000-450,000, or 9.7 percent of the total population[4]. After September 17, 1939, these territories were divided into the Soviet Belostok, Brest, Baranovichi, Grodno, Vileiki, Molodechno and Pinsk oblasts. The Jews were mostly concentrated in small towns and shtetls and worked as artisans and craftsmen, small-scale merchants or middlemen, and were engaged in agriculture and forestry. The stratum of educated people among them was narrow and the number of mixed marriages low. Most of them spoke Yiddish, and there were many synagogues, yeshivas, Hebrew and Yiddish schools and cultural establishments. In 1939-1941, the Soviet authorities did not yet manage to seriously shatter the social and cultural foundations of Jewish life, although they destroyed the Jewish economic structures.

The third category consisted of tens of thousands Jewish refugees from Central, Western and Northern Poland who fled from the Nazis and sought asylum in the territory of Western Belorussia annexed by the Soviet Union. It is difficult to establish their precise number, but according to a memorandum by Lavrentii Tsanava, Chief of the Belorussian NKVD (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, or State security) submitted to Panteleimon Ponomarenko, First Secretary of the Belorussian Communist Party, as of February 5, 1940, there were 72,996 Polish refugees, among them 65,796 Jews[5]. Not all the refugees applied for registration, and their actual number was close to 100,000.

Among them were those who crossed the border clandestinely or those who refused to accept Soviet citizenship or evaded mandatory employment. The social composition of the refugees was heterogeneous. Among them were blue- and white-collar workers, teachers, doctors, students, schoolchildren, entrepreneurs, landlords, industrialists, former Polish soldiers, etc. A considerable number of political leaders of Polish Jewry were also among the refugees. The Jewish political organizations were banned, and their activists persecuted.

The persecution began practically at the outset of Soviet power and affected various ethnic groups: Poles, Belorussians, Ukrainians and Jews. Those arrested were deported by virtue of the decree of the USSR Central Executive Committee and the Council of People's Commissars of July 17, 1939 that concerned “unreliable individuals residing in the border zone,” and of the NKVD order to forcibly resettle members of the families of individual labelled as Trotskyites and saboteurs who allegedly were deeply involved in anti-Soviet activities[6]. As early as October 22, 1939, the total number of the arrested reached 4,315. The accused were dealt with by extra-judicial bodies, that is, by the so-called NKVD's “troikas” (three-men commissions) or by a “special conference” of the Military Board of the BSSR Supreme Court[7]. Mass deportations of Polish, Ukrainian and Jewish residents of Western Belorussia were carried out on February 10, 1940 (50,372 deportees), April 13, 1940 (26,777), June 29, 1940 (22,879), and June 19-20, 1941 (24,419)[8].Having been disappointed in the Soviet reality, and scared by the repression, some of the refugees expressed their wish to return to the part of Poland occupied by Germany. But the Germans refused to admit them. Only a few managed to clandestinely emigrate to America, Britain, France, Palestine and other countries[9]. The total Jewish population in the territories incorporated by the Soviet Union in 1939-1940 was 2,000,000. The number of Jews deported into the Soviet heartland, mainly refugees from Poland , was 250,000 and of those who voluntarily left the annexed territories, 85,000. Thus, during the war years about half a million Jews who were non-Soviet citizens remained in the non-occupied part of the Soviet territory[10].

The evacuation of civil population began in the early war days. By September 1941, when the entire territory of Belorussia fell under the German occupation, about 1,500,000 people had managed to leave for the East; and the Jews comprised no more than 10 percent of them[11]. In July 1944, the republic's population was 6,293,600[12]. According to the official data, the population losses due to military operations, the extermination of the civil population by the Nazis, wounds, hunger and disease was 2,200,000[13]. According to other data, the number of victims in Belorussia was about 3,000,000[14]. The genocide by the Germans was directed first and foremost against the Jews[15]. In Eastern Belorussia the individual's chances to escape depended on the social group to which he/she belonged, the place of residence, one's degree of being informed and the resoluteness to leave one's belongings behind. In the former Pale of Settlement, the younger people, Soviet officials and professionals had more chances to escape in comparison with the older people and common workers. It was easier to escape from large cities than from small towns; however, one's chances strongly depended on the time available for escaping.

The total number of Holocaust victims in Belorussia is still unclear and debates on the issue are still going on. M. Gilbert is of the opinion that 245,000 Jews perished in the genocide[16] while R. Chernoglazova puts the number at 376,851[17]. Other estimates are: V. Adamushko, 455,100[18], A. Bagrovich, 500,000[19], D. Meltser and V. Levin, 700,390[20], E. Ioffe, 811,000[21], A.Leizerov, 800,000[22] and R. Hillberg, 1,000,000[23]. To the loss of the Jewish civil population one should add the losses among the Jewish soldiers. One hundred ten thousand Belorussian Jews were drafted or volunteered into the Red Army. Of the total half-million of the Jewish soldiers in the Red Army who fought against the Nazis, 216,000 fell in action. According to Prof. E. Ioffe, 48,000 of them were from Belorussia[24].

By the beginning of hostilities in June 1941, of the five million Jews in the USSR, four remained in the occupied territories. During the war years, 2,711,000 Jews perished; of them, about a million lived within the 1939 Soviet borders, and 1,651,000 in the territories incorporated in 1939-1940. In 1946, the number of Jews in the USSR was 2,310,000, including 2,045,000 old Soviet citizens, and 265,000 Jews from the incorporated regions[25]. In 1945-1947, thousands of Jews left Belorussia, posing as Polish citizens. By 1947, 85,000 Jews, 120,000 Poles and 469,000 Belorussians had reached the West[26]. A considerable part of Jews soon left for Palestine.

The Holocaust not only reduced the Jewish population in Belorussia by 80 percent, but also changed its social and cultural composition. The greatest number of victims were the Yiddish speakers, those who lived in small towns and common people, clinging to the old Jewish traditions of the Pale. In 1946-1948, only 568 Jews remained in the Molodechno oblast, whose small groups resided in 16 districts[27]. In the Polotsk oblast, only 2,500 remained[28]; in Mohilev, only12,000[29]. In a small town of Kalinkovichi, there were 1,460, compared to 3,386 in 1939); in Mozyr, 4,500 of the pre-war 6,307 remained[30]. In Minsk in 1950-1953 lived more than 15,000 Jews compared to 70,998 in 1939[31]. In a number of towns and cities, the number of Jews was supplied by the migrants from the rural areas. By 1953, the total population of Belorussia reached 7,693,400 due to the increased birth rate, to those who returned from the inland (Central Asia, Kazakhstan, the North Caucasus, and Russia), discharged soldiers and officers, those recruited for work in Belorussia from other Soviet republics, and repatriants from Germany and other European countries[32]. It is difficult to estimate the number of Jews in Belorussia, since no special statistical data were being collected in these years. However, judging by the results of the 1959 All-Union census , according to which there were in Belorussia 150,100 Jews out of the total population of 8,046,700, one may assume that in 1953 there lived no less than 130,000 Jews. Tables 1 and 2 give a territorial breakdown of the Jewish population in Belorussia according to the 1939 and 1959 censuses:

Table 1: Jewish Population in BSSR as of January 1, 1939

Territory Total Jews Belorussians % of Jews
Belorussian SSR 5,568,994 375,092 4,615,496 6.7
Vitebsk oblast 1,281,238 68,950 1,061,754 5.38
Gomel oblast 908,449 62,146 734,556 6.84
Minsk oblast 1,305,937 104,704 1,058,662 8.01
incl. Minsk (city) 238,948 70,998 124,061 29.71
Mohilev oblast 1,401,020 69,454 1,187,621 4.95
Polessie oblast 672,350 24,141 572,903 3.59

Table 2: Jewish Population in BSSR as of January 1, 1959

Territory Total Jews Belorussians % of Jews
Belorussian SSR 8,054,648 150,084 6,532,035 1.86
Brest oblast 1,190,729 6,012 1,024,618 0.5
Vitebsk oblast 1,276,113 18,986 1,036,549 1.48
Gomel oblast 1,361,841 45,007 1,181,096 3.3
Grodno oblast 1,077,365 3,745 647,341 0.34
Minsk oblast 1,473,030 9,054 1,292,958 0.61
Minsk city 509,489 38,842 324,875 7.62
Mohilev oblast 1,166,081 28,438 1,137,643 2.43

Table 3: Jewish Population in Rural Areas of BSSR in 1939 and 1959

Territory Total 1/1/1939 % of total pop. Total 1/1/1959 % of total pop.
Belorussian SSR 45,697 1.08 5,593 0.098
Brest oblast -- -- 297 0.005
Vitebsk oblast 8,223 0.88 894 0.016
Gomel oblast 5,432 0.83 2.094 0.037
Grodno oblast -- -- 232 0.004
Minsk oblast 12,911 1.4 1416 0.025
Mohilev oblast 10,255 0.95 -- --
Polessie oblast 8,846 1.48 -- --

(Tables 1,2 and 3 have been compiled using the following sources: Vsesoiuznaia perepis' naseleniia 1939 goda. Osnovnye itogi (The All-Union Population Census of 1939), (Nauka: Moscow, 1992), pp.70-71; Itogi Vsevoiuznoi perepisi naseleniia 1959 goda. Belorusskaia SSR (The Results of the All-Union Population Census of 1959. Belorussian SSR) (Gosstatizdat: Moscow, 1963), pp. 124-132; Mordechai Altshuler (ed.), Distribution of the Jewish Population of the USSR, 1939 (Jerusalem, 1993), pp. 38-40.)

The above data show that by the end of the 1930s the Jewish population in the eastern regions of the republic comprised 6. 7 percent of the total population, while in the capital, Minsk, almost a third, 29.71 percent. The majority, 98.2 percent lived in the urban areas, while in the rural areas only 1.8 percent. The Holocaust led to almost total extermination of the Jewish population in the shtetls, tens of district centers, towns and cities. While by the summer of 1941 the Jews comprised 12.8 percent of the total population in the BSSR (including the refugees from Poland), in 1959, it was only 1.86 percent. In the Vitebsk oblast the number of Jews decreased from 77,173 in 1939 to 18,986 in 1959 and comprised only 1.48 percent of the total oblast population, instead of 5.38 in 1939; In the Minsk oblast, 104,704 and 9,054 (8.01 percent and 0.61 percent) respectively; In the Gomel oblast, 62,164 and 45,007 (6.84 and 3.3 percent); and in the Mohilev oblast, 69,454 and 28,438 (4.95 and 2.34 percent). It is difficult to make a similar comparison with respect to the Brest, Grodno and Polessie oblasts, since the former two were part of Poland as of January 1, 1939 (the corresponding demographic data refer to the 1931 Polish census), and the latter, Pinsk oblast, was abolished in 1954, and no data was collected on it in 1959. The number of Jews in the rural areas, which was insignificant before the war (1.08 percent) became absolutely negligible (0.098 percent). The number would have been even less, had the Soviet authority not been sending specialists from the city into the rural areas -- teachers, jurists, engineers, book accountants, doctors, technicians, administrative workers, etc.-- some of whom happened to be Jews.

The destruction of Jewry was accompanied by its dispersal. The refugees and evacuees were sent to distant parts of the USSR: Western Siberia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where the percentage of Jews was before negligible. Only in Tashkent alone, more than 100,000 Jews survived the war[33]. However, this did not result in the establishment of new centres of Jewish concentration. Many faced the manifestations of anti-Semitism, which became more widespread during the war. The refugees cherished the desire to return to their homes. According to the 1959 census, 147,500 Jews lived in the Central Asian republics, or more by 67,400 than lived there in 1939. Assuming that no less than a quarter of this number may be attributed to the natural growth of the pre-war Jewish population in these republics, only 50,000 Jews may be considered as the arrivals from the Ukraine, Belorussia and Russia, with the accounting for their natural growth. Therefore, it is possible to assume that also from these places the great majority of Jewish refugees and evacuees returned home.

Table 4: Jewish Population in USSR and Autonomous Republics in 1939 and 1959

Republic Total 1/1/1939 % of pop. Total 1/1/1959 % of pop.
USSR 3,028,538 1.8 2,268,000 1.1
Russian Fed. 956,599 0.9 875,307 0.7
Ukraine 1,532,776 5.0 840,311 2.0
Belorussia 375,000 6.7 150,085 1.9
Moldavia 30,006 5.0 95,107 3.3
Azerbaijan 41,245 1.3 40,204 1.1
Armenia 512 0.04 1,024 0.1
Georgia 42,300 1.2 51,582 1.3
Kazakhstan 19,240 0.3 28,048 0.3
Kirghizia 1,985 0.1 8,160 0.4
Tajikistan 5,166 0.4 12,415 0.6
Turkmenia 3,037 0.2 4,078 0.3
Uzbekistan 50,676 0.8 94,344 1.2
Latvia 95,000 4.8 37,000 1.7
Lithuania 250,000 9.2 25,000 0.9
Estonia 4,500 0.4 5,000 0.5

(Table 4 has been compiled using the following sources: Vsesoiuznaia perepis' naseleniia 1939 goda. Osnovnye itogi; Itogi Vsevoiuznoi perepisi naseleniia 1959 goda. Sovetskii Soiuz (The Results of the All-Union Population Census of 1959. The Soviet Union) (Moscow, 1962), pp. 202-208; Eesti Statistika, no. 173/4 (Tallinn, 1936); S. Gurin, Jundi vohemusrahuse Statistika Eestis (Tallinn, 1936); Official Census of Latvia (Riga, 1939); Lietuvos gyventojai tautyhemis: The Population of Lithuania According to Nationalities, Statistikos Biuras (Kaunas, n.d.).

Despite the fact that re-evacuation met with serious difficulties and often led to disappointment, it became a large-scale process in 1944-1946. Most of Jews preferred not to settle in their former places where they were born, grew-up and were forced to escape, but in neighbouring district towns and oblast centres, and even in other republics. Jews from Kobyl'niki, Pleshchenitsy and Svir' moved to Molodechno and Vileika; from Rudensk, Mar'ina Gorka, Smilovichi and Zaslavka, to Minsk; from Loev, Vasilevichi, and Khoiniki, to Rechitsa; from Vetka, Dobrush, Kostiukovichi and Chechersk, to Gomel; from Kobrin, Zhabinka, Kamenets, and Vysokoe, to Brest, etc. The main reasons for the moving were the impossibility to settle on the ashes of one's home, death of relatives, lack of housing and jobs.

Another characteristic feature was that in the western regions of Belorussia there were practically no Jews who lived there before the war. In their place, Jews from the eastern regions settled there. In 1944-1946, thousands of families from the Gomel oblast moved to the Pinsk oblast driven by hunger caused by bad harvest. It was a common occurrence in these days. In its report to Moscow, the CC of BCP(b) (Communist Party of Belorussia) informed that in the first two years after the republic's liberation “part of the population from the badly suffered regions moved to the most intact regions of Belorussia, the Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Russia”[34]. And yet another obstacle to the restoring of the republic's population was the involvement of Belorussia's inhabitants into the settlement of population in the former territories of East Prussia emptied of Germans, which were merged in 1946 into the Kaliningrad oblast of the RSFSR. This issue has not yet been considered in literature. Its territory was 15,100 sq. km. Thousands of new settlers from Russia, the Ukraine and Belorussia were being urgently sent there. In 1947-1949, 2494 people were sent there from Belorussia; in 1950, 2324[35]. Among them, there were many Jewish families in search of housing and work. Some were attracted (“recruited”) by material stimuli, some were mobilized in order to fulfill goals set by the Soviet authorities.

In addition, thousands of people were sent from Belorussia to the Karelo-Finnish SSR, the Arkhangel, Tomsk, Tiumen, Irkutsk, Molotov (Perm), Sakhalin and other oblasts, to the regions (krai) of Krasnoiarsk, Altai, and Primorie of the Russian Federation. Altogether 89,936 people settled in these territories in 1947-1953. The following table illustrates the dynamics of that process:

Table 5: Number of Settlers from Belorussia in Remote Areas of Russian Federation, 1947-1953

Territory 1947-50 1951 1952 1953
Karelo-Finnish SSR 6,976 7,840 18,565 8,182
Archangel oblast 1,012 -- -- --
Altai region 1,037 -- -- --
Amur oblast -- -- -- 1,273
Irkutsk oblast -- 2,164 38 178
Kaliningrad oblast 4,818 -- -- --
Kemerovo oblast -- -- -- 41
Kurgan oblast -- -- 3,113 1,756
Krasnoiarsk region -- -- 3,064 1,169
Molotov oblast -- 3,794 3,605 5,227
Omsk oblast -- -- -- 127
Primorie region -- -- -- 383
Tomsk oblast -- -- 152 --
Tiumen oblast 641 1,475 -- --
Khabarovsk region -- -- -- 423
Cheliabinsk oblast -- 4,882 5,282 2,209
Chita oblast -- -- -- 30
Total 14,484 20,095 34,359 20,998

The table was compiled on the basis of documents from the
Russian State Archives for Economy (RGAE), F. 5675, Op. 1, D. 678, Part 1, L. 170.

In 1954-1956 thousands of settlers from Belorussia were sent to the virgin lands in North Kazakhstan and other Asian republics of the USSR. They were mostly young people and childless couples, specialists whom the authorities tried to charm by the romance of “conquering new frontiers.” Among them were Jewish young people, discharged soldiers, former partisans, that is, vigorous Jewish people who could have given life to a new Jewish generation in Belorussia. However, for the most part, they became permanent settlers in the new lands, and never returned to the republic[36].

In the postwar years, the Jews preferred to settle in large urban centers. According to the 1959 census, the percentage of such settlers increased to 95.3 percent of the total Jewish population of the USSR (as compared to 87 percent in 1939 and 82 percent in 1926). In contrast to other Union republics, this process was less pronounced in Belorussia, which, in addition to Minsk (where 95 percent Jews of the republic lived) had a few other industrial and cultural centers where one could find a job to one's heart: Brest, Gomel, Grodno, Mohilev, Molodechno, Pinsk, etc. The average age of the Jews in Belorussia decreased in the postwar years.

Table 6: Jewish Population in Belorussia by Age and Gender in 1959

Age (years) Males % Females %
0 - 4 5,647 3.8 5,356 3.6
5 - 9 6,109 4.1 5,755 3.8
10 - 14 6,107 4.1 5,811 3.9
15 - 19 3,514 2.3 3,603 2.4
20 - 24 5,666 3.8 6,005 4.0
25 - 29 5,411 3.6 5,834 3.9
30 - 34 5,959 3.9 7,883 5.2
35 - 39 4,774 3.2 6,505 4.3
40 - 44 3,705 2.5 5,622 3.7
45 - 49 4,486 3.0 6,923 4.6
50 - 54 4,074 2.7 6,923 4.6
55 - 59 3,545 2.3 6,166 4.1
60 - 64 3,755 2.5 4,270 2.8
65 - 69 2,460 1.6 2,470 1.6
70 - 74 1,645 1.1 1,608 1.0
75 - 79 650 0.4 826 0.5
80 - 84 265 0.2 396 0.3
85 + 116 0.07 177 0.1
Total 67,862 45.2 82,193 54.8

A considerable part of Belorussia's Jewish population now consisted of people who grew up during the Soviet era (53,403, or 48.1 percent). In 1959 children under school age and of early school age (under 9) comprised 7.4 percent, and of mid-school age (10-14), 3.9 percent. The percentage of teenagers (age 15-19) was very low, only 2.4 percent. The main reason for that was a very low birth rate during the war years, which later resulted in a demographic gap. The percentage of those who began to earn their living, or became college or university students (age 20-24), was higher, 4 percent. They were born before the war (in 1935-1939), later evacuated and continued to study. Few children and teenagers survived the war in the occupied territory. After the war there were 4 percent of young people who had served in the army, had a profession and created families (age 25-29). People of the productive middle age (30-49) comprised 17.8 percent. They were actively engaged in the economy and carried the main tax burden. The older generation (age 50-64) comprised 11.5 percent. During the war, they were 32-46 years old. They fought at the battlefield, worked in the Soviet hinterland, and raised children. In adversity, they stood and did much for the post-war reconstruction of the national economy.

Senior citizens (age 65-74) comprised 2.6 percent. These people had ruined health by the end of the war. Most of them lost their children and close relatives, had no shelter, and were in an acute need of help. The percentage of old people over 75 was even lower (0.9 percent), due not only to bad health and natural deaths. During the war they were already 60 or more years of age. They were physically unable to survive the escaping or evacuation; they mostly stayed home in the hope of the enemy's mercy. For the most part, they perished in ghettos, or died in the evacuation.

There was also certain regularity in the breakdown of Belorussian Jewry by gender. The percentages of males and females were almost equal in the following age groups: age 0-14 (12 percent male, 11.3 female), 15-24 (6.1 and 6.4 percent), and 25-29 (3.6 and 3.9). The difference began with the age group of 30 to 34 years. Women in this group comprised 5.2 percent compared to3.9 percent for men. This was mostly due to the fact that all but a few young men, born in 1925-1926 who were drafted into the Red Army in 1942-1943, fell in action. The same trend is characteristic for the 35-39 age group. Here women again are more numerous than men (4.3 and 3.2 percent). But the greatest gap in favor of women was in the 50-59 age group (8.7 against 5 percent). In this group, by 1941, men reached 36-40 years of age and comprised the bulk of soldiers in active service, those who were drafted during the first war weeks, those who were encircled after the defensive battles in summer and fall of 1941, and prisoners of war[37]. For the older groups (60-85), the ratio of men and women is approximately equal.

A marked place between the Jews of the republic was occupied by the social strata that prior to the war did not pay much attention to their ethnic origin: educated individuals, officials and party members. Beginning with October 1943, the results of the Holocaust were being gradually revealed. There was not a single Jewish family that did not lose at least one close relative. The participation of local collaborators in the genocide became evident. The authorities ignored the anti-Jewish direction of the Holocaust, prevented erecting monuments to the Jewish victims, and suppressed publication in the press of information about the extermination of Jews (mostly in Russian as more accessible to a wide audience). Having conducted the trials of the most known collaborators, they ignored the appeals of the Jews who demanded trials of those who robbed them and stole their property. The regime not only refrained from taking measures against anti-Semites but, to the contrary, blocked the advancement of Jews.

At the same time the authorities put artificial obstacles to the development of Yiddish culture under the pretext that most of the Soviet Jews had already mastered Russian. Its total liquidation was painful even for those who had no need of Yiddish culture, but saw in it a symbol of equality with other nationalities of the Soviet Union. This policy became more pronounced with the escalation of the cold war. The Jews were considered unreliable, because many of them had relatives abroad. The attempt at self-identification of a part of Soviet Jewry made after the proclamation of the State of Israel in 1948 was also viewed by the authorities in a negative light. The results of the Soviet assimilationist policy influenced the stand of the Jewish population of Belorussia towards their mother tongue:

Table 7: Languages Declared by Jews as their Mother Tongue

Years Yiddish Belorussian Russian Other
1939 55 % 7.7 % 37.4 % 0 %
1959 21.9 % 1.9 % 76.1 % 0.09 %

(The table was compiled on the basis of the book: M. Altshuler, Distribution of the Jewish Population of the USSR,
19 39 (Jerusalem, 1993), pp. 17-19; Itogi Vsevoiuznoi perepisi naseleniia 1959 goda. Belorusskaia SSR, pp. 124-125.)

These data show that during the 1939-1959 period, the percentage of Jews who named Yiddish their mother tongue decreased from 55 percent to 21.9 percent. The absence of Yiddish schools and other educational institutions, the Yiddish press, artists' and writers' unions and publications in Yiddish led to the liquidation of the Jewish linguistic environment. The aftermath of the Holocaust and the ideological compains of the first postwar years made using Yiddish unsafe. In actual fact, the regime considered Yiddish as a manifestation of Jewish nationalism. The sharp decrease of the interest in Belorussian by the Jews (from 7.6 percent to 1.9 percent) is also understandable. Although the Belorussians, as the titular nationality, had all the attributes of national life, the authorities were prejudiced towards any national language, except Russian. The place of Yiddish was solidly occupied by Russian, whose percentage increased from 37.4 to 76.1 percent. Russian received the most preferred status as the guarantee of unity of all peoples in the Soviet Union.

These trends are observed also at the all-USSR level. While in 1926 Yiddish was declared to be their mother tongue by 72.6 percent of Soviet Jews, by 1939 their number declined to 41 percent. In 1959, only 21.5 percent of Soviet Jews (487,786) named Yiddish as their mother tongue, while 76.4 percent (1,733,183) named Russian and 2.1 percent (46,845) other national languages[38]. Many Jews whose assimilation was in an advanced stage before the war, now felt not only a commonness of fate, but doubts about the possibility to enter as equals into postwar society. Belorussian Jewry was in a minority compared with Ukrainian and Russian Jewry. The war also influenced the average age of the Jews in BSSR, which was 33.7 years against 39.3 in the Ukraine and 41.2 in Russia. The ratio between the genders was approximately the same in the three Slav republics of the USSR .

Table 8: Distribution of Jews in Belorussia, Ukraine & Russia By Gender, According to 1959 Census

Republic Total Males % Females % Average Age
Belorussia 150,085 67,890 45.2 82,188 54.8 33.7 years
Ukraine 839,916 372,098 44.3 467,098 55.7 39.3 years
Russia 855,498 394,465 46.1 461,042 53.9 41.2 years

At the same time, by 1959 Belorussia was first in comparison to the Ukraine and Russia concerning the number of children born by Jewish mothers, as is seen in the following table:

Table 9: Number of Children Born to Jewish Mothers in Belorussia, Ukraine & Russia, 1959

Republic Total Jewish Fathers % Non-Jewish Fathers %
Belorussia 2,266 2,254 90.6 318 9.4
Ukraine 9,419 7,773 82.5 1,646 17.5
Russia 8,846 6,497 73.4 2,349 26.6

(Source: Mark Tolts, “Demographic Trends Among the Jews in the Three Slavic Republics of the Former USSR: A Comparative Analysis,” Papers in Jewish Demography 1993 in Memory of U.O.Schemeltz. Ed. by Sergio DellaPergola and Judith Even (Jerusalem, 1993), pp. 160, 162, 171-175.)

So, while in Russia and the Ukraine, the non-Jewish fathers comprised 26.6 and 17.5 percent respectively, in Belorussia there were only 9.4 percent of them. The Holocaust, which reduced the Jewish population in Belorussia from 12 percent of the total population in 1941 to 1.9 percent, destroyed the traditional demographic pattern. The Jews, who were second in number after the Belorussians, become third after the Russians. The result was not only a physical reduction of the Jewish population. The location of the compact Jewish residences has been changed, migration widened, interest in the national language weakened, and the number of mixed marriages has grown. Not only have Jewish cultural heritage and Yiddish been lost; but assimilation has increased. On the other hand, the consequences of the Holocaust increased the national self-identity of the Jews. On the whole, the changes in the demographic situation after the war influenced the general nationalities' policy in Belorussia. Not only the Jews, but other minorities, too, lost their rights. The attributes of national life were granted only to the Belorussians. But they were formal in essence and did not promote a free national and cultural development. The way to Belorussia's Russification was open. The USSR center was transforming the republic into a test site for national uniformization.


  1. Belaruskaia Savetskaia Satsyalistychnaia Respublika (Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic) (Minsk, 1978), p. 49; Statisticheskii spravochnik sostoianiia narodnogo khoziaistva i kul'tury BSSR k nachalu Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny (Statistical handbook of the economic and cultural state of BSSR on the eve of the Great Patriotic War), Published by the Council of People's Commissars (Moscow, 1943), p. 25. Return

  2. Osnovnye itogi (The 1939 All-Union census. General results) (Moscow, 1992), p. 70. Return

  3. M. Altshuler (ed.), Distribution of the Jewish Population of the USSR, 1939 (Jerusalem, 1993), p. 18. Return

  4. Glowny U rzand Statystyczny Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej: Statystyka Polski. Pierwszy powszechny spis ludnosci z dnia 30 wrzesnia 1921 r. Skorowidz miejscowosci Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej (The Main Statistical Department of the Polish Republic: Polish statistics. The first general population census of September 30, 1921. Index of localities in the Polish Republic (Warsaw, 1923-1926); Glowny Urzand Statystyczny. Drugi powszechny spis ludnosci z dnia 9/12 1931 (The Main Statistical Department. The second general population census of December 9, 1931) (Warsaw, 1936-1938). Return

  5. Natsional'nyi arkhiv Respubliki Belarus' (National Archives of the Republic of Belorussia [NARB]), F. 4, Op. 21, D. 2075, p. 275. Return

  6. A. Khatskevich, “Aresty i deportatsii v zapadnykh oblastiakh Belorussii, 1939-1941” (Arrests and deportations in the western regions of Belorussia, 1939-1941), Belarusskii gistarychny chasopis, no. 2, 1994, p. 106. Return

  7. NARB, F. 4, Op. 20, D. 148, p. 9. Return

  8. NARB, F. 4, Op. 21, D. 1900, pp. 1-2; D. 2076, pp. 165-166; U. Adamushka, Palitychnye represii 1920-1950 gadou na Belarusi (Political repression in Belorussia, 1920-1950) (Minsk, 1994), p. 106. Return

  9. “Jewish Refugees from Poland in Belorussia, 1939-1940.” Introduced and annotated by Emanuil Ioffe and Viacheslav Selemenev, Jews in Eastern Europe, no. 1(32), 1997, pp. 45-60. Return

  10. Sh. Redlich, The Jews Under Soviet Rule During World War II (New York University, 1968), p. 44; Y. Litvak, Plitim yehudiim mi-polin bi-vrit ha-moetzot (Jewish refugees from Poland in the Soviet Union) (Tel Aviv, 1988), pp. 358-359; D. Levin, Tkufah be-sograim: 1939-1941. Tmurot be-hayei ha-yehudim ba-ezorim she-suphu le-brit ha-moetzot be-thilat milhemet ha-olam ha-shniya (A period in parentheses: changes in life of the Jews in the regions incorporated by the Soviet Union during WWII) (Tel Aviv, 1989), p. 332. Return

  11. M. Altshuler, “Escape and Evacuation of Soviet Jews at the Time of the Nazi Invasion: Policies and Realities.” In: Lucjan Dobroszycki, Jeffrey S. Gurock (eds.), The Holocaust in the Soviet Union and the Sources on th e Destruction of the Jews in the Nazi-Occupied Territories of the USSR, 1941-1945 (New York, 1993), pp. 77-104; Emanuil Ioffe, “Kolki zh iaureiau zaginula na belaruskai ziamli u 1941-1944 gg.?”, Belarusskii gistarychny chasopis, no. 4, 1997, p. 51. Return

  12. A. Rakov, Belorussiia v demograficheskom izmerenii (Belorussia in the demographic dimension) (Minsk, 1974), p. 125. Return

  13. Sudebnyi protsess po delu o zlodeianiakh, sovershennykh nemetsko-fashistskimi zakhvatchikami v Belorusskoi SSR, 15-29 ianvaria 1946 g. (Trial of the crimes committed by the German-Fascist invaders in the Belorussian SSR, January 15-29, 1946) (Minsk, 1947), p. 461. Return

  14. S. Polski and S. Matsiunin, “Tsana per u mogi” (Price of victory), Literatura i Mastatstva, July 6, 1990. Return

  15. Sh. Cholawski, The Jews of Belorussia During World War II, Harwood Academic Publishers (Amsterdam, 1998). Return

  16. M. Gilbert, Atlas of the Holocaust (London, 1982), p. 244. Return

  17. Tragediia evreev Belorussii v gody Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny, 1941-1944 gg. Sbornik materialov i documentov (Tragedy of Belorussian Jewry during the Great Patriotic War, 1941-1944. A documentary collection) second edition (Minsk, 1997), pp. 127-137. Return

  18. Mestsy primusovaga utrymannia gramadzianskago naselnitstva na chasova akupiravanai teritoryi Belarusi u gady Vialikai Aic hynnai Vainy. Dovednik (Places of forced confinement of the civil population in the temporary occupied territory of Belorussia during the Great Patriotic War. A reference book) (Minsk, 1996), pp. 8-13, 20-25, 34-36, 39-44, 49-54, 63-65. Return

  19. A. Bagrovich, Zhyk harstva Belaruskaia SSR u sviatle perapisu 1959 g. (Population of Belorussian SSR in light of the 1959 census) (New York-Munich, 1962), p. 65. Return

  20. V. Levin, D. Meltser, Chernaia kniga s krasnymi stranitsami. Tragediia i geroizm evreev Belorussii (Black book with red pages. Tragedy and heroism of Belorussian Jewry) (Baltimore, 1996), pp. 90-94. Return

  21. E. Ioffe, Belarusskii gistarychny chasopis, no. 4, 1997, p. 52. Return

  22. Mishpokha, no. 3, 1997, p. 79. Return

  23. R. Hilberg, The Destruction of European Jews (New York, 1961), p. 767. Return

  24. O cherki evreiskogo geroizma (Stories of Jewish heroism) (Kiev, 1997), vol. 3, pp. 462, 466. Return

  25. M. Kupovetsky, “Estimation of Jewish Losses in the USSR During WWII,” Jews in Eastern Europe, no. 2(24), 1994, pp. 25-37. Return

  26. Mikola Volacic, “The Population of Western Belorussia and Its Resettlements in Poland and the USSR,” Belorussian Review, no. 3, Munich: Institute for the Study of the USSR, 1956, p. 26. Return

  27. Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii (State Archives of the Russian Federation [GARF]), F. 6991, Op. 3, D. 322, p. 51. Return

  28. Ibid., D. 336, p. 39. Return

  29. E. Eberlin, “Evrei na Mogilevshchine” (Jews in the Mohilev region), the archives of the Einikeit newspaper. Ibid., F. 8114, Op. 1, D. 1131, p. 539. Return

  30. Belorusskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv (BGA) (Belorussian State Archives), F. 952, Op. 1, D. 13, p. 1; Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (Jerusalem), RU 153. Return

  31. GARF, F. 6991, Op. 3, D. 257, p. 196. Return

  32. A. Rakov, Op. cit., p. 126. Return

  33. M. Vekselman, “Struggle of the Tashkent Jewish Ashkenazi Community for the Return of Its Synagogue Building,” Shvut, nos. 1-2(17-18), 1995, p. 344. Return

  34. Rossiiskii tsentr khraneniia i izucheniia dokumentov noveishei istorii (RtsKhIDNI) (Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Contemporary History), F. 17, Op. 88, D. 718, pp. 4, 20, 24. Return

  35. Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv ekonomiki (RGAE) (Russian State Archives of Economy), F. 5675, Op. 1, D. 678, Ch. 1, p. 170. Return

  36. Genocide in the USSR, Institute for the Study of the USSR (Munich, 1958), p.87; The Crimes of Khrushchev, Part 6, Committee on Un-American Activities. House of Representatives (Washington, 1960), pp. 19-24. Return

  37. A. Shneer, Plen. Kak i pochemu 5 millionov soldat i ofitserov Krasnoi Armii okazalis v natsistskom plenu, 1941-1945 gg. (Captivity. How and why 5 million soldiers and officers of the Red Army became prisoners of war, 1941-1945) (Jerusalem, 1997), pp. 24-31. Return

  38. M. Altshuler, Soviet Jewry Since the Second World War. Population and Social Structure, Greenwood Press (New York-London, 1987), pp. 179-181. Return

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