The earliest mentions of a Jewish settlement in the former Wołkowysk (Vawkavysk) District date back to mid-16th century. One of the oldest Jewish communities in the Wołkowysk area was the Mścibów kehilla, founded after 1520, mentioned for the first time in 1551. According to some publications, Jews were present in Wołkowysk in 1577[1.1]. However, historical sources concerning the 16th and 17th century do not feature any mentions of the existence and activity of the Jewish community in Wołkowysk, even though several Jewish communities had already existed in the area (Mścibów, Mosty, Świsłocz, and others). Jews from Wołkowysk were not included in the house tax register from 1690 (although Wołpa [Voupa] is not included either, even though researchers have established that quite a few Jews lived there at the time; there was even a synagogue in the town).

The first documents evidencing the activity of the Jewish community date back to the early 18th century. At the time, the community was experiencing intense demographic and economic development. In 1717, the Treasury Tribunal was processing the complaint of a lessee of an inn, Kossakowski, against the subordinate Jewish community (przykahałek) of Wołkowysk. In 1736, a representative of the community, burgher Jesse Izaakowicz, submitted a complaint to the Lithuanian hetman, at the same time requesting a payment of 1,200 tymfs (silver coins) which had been taken from the community by the Confederate Marshal (Vitebsk Governor). The hetman was also asked to cover the annual losses incurred by the community (in the amount of 250 zloty), caused by soldiers stealing horses which the community had been delivering to the Crown for 20 years. In return, the Jews of Wołkowysk promised to pray for the hetman's health[1.2].

In 1766, 1,282 Jews lived in Wołkowysk. A map of the town made in the 18th century features a Jewish school (a prayer house?) opposite the town hall, on the corner of two streets leading to the market square.

In 1820, 931 people belonged to the community: 458 men and 473 women. In 1834, there was no synagogue in the town, but there were five prayer houses and four cheders. The community supported a rabbi, three dayans (judges), a hazzan (cantor), two gabbaim (treasurers), a shohet and three mohalim. Nonetheless, the number of Jews living in the town fell to only 606. Historian N. Bikhovtsev believes that the community shrank due to the migration to other regions and abroad[1.3].

In 1840, the Wołkowysk Town Council sought to punish Szmuel Łuniew for carrying out the duties of a rabbi in the village of Roś without prior notification of the governorate administration. The incident, which eventually ended with an unprecedented case of the Jewish community soliciting the support of state authorities, could have had a religious subtext. Most Jews living in Russia were Hasidim, while the community in Wołkowysk was probably composed of misnagdim. Łuniew's denunciation could have been caused by an internal religious conflict[1.4].

In the mid-19th century, Wołkowysk became a site of social experiments and cultural interactions. Local officials went as far as to charge the townsmen for the permission to wear traditional Jewish costumes. On 23 September 1865, 13 roubles and 65 kopecks were paid to the Town Council by Szepszel Brocki and Jechiel Galler for the right to wear traditional clothing. Such a fee was a rarity even in those times; in an investigation of the matter, it was discovered that the legal basis for the regulation was the directive issued by the General-Governor of Grodno in 1844. The funds collected through the fees were used to support the campaign of the “settlement of Jewish farmers.” At the time, several Jewish agricultural colonies (e.g. Galilean, Israeli, and others) were opened in the Wołkowysk District[1.5]. At the same time, Jews were being continuously expelled from “ordinary villages” in accordance with Russian legislation dating back to the days of Catherine II and further strengthened by the so-called May Laws (including the Act of 3 May 1882 on the ban on the settlement of Jews outside cities and towns of the Russian Empire). On 29 December 1895, for example, the police unit of the Wołkowysk District ordered for retired soldier Mowsza Dawidowicz and his family to be displaced from his brick factory in Wołkowysk, because according to the map of 1892, the factory was located outside the town, by the road to the village of Jaćwież[1.6].

In 1854, the authorities opened a state Jewish primary school in Wołkowysk. However, the attempts to teach children in Russian were opposed by the community, which was strongly attached to the traditional education system.

According to data from 1864, Wołkowysk was inhabited by 3,328 Jews (1,859 men and 1,869 women). The town had a synagogue and six beth midrashim. There was a number of influential families in the community, each of which specialised in specific fields of industry and services. In 1832, for example, the Pines family owned several cloth factories in the Grodno Governorate: four in Ruzhany, one in Izabelin, and another one in Wołkowysk[1.7].

In 1872, there was a wooden synagogue and eight houses of prayer in Wołkowysk. Each of them had its own rabbi and a gabbai. Burial plots at the Jewish cemetery were divided into three categories. The fee for a burial in the 1st category cost 8 roubles, and in the 2nd and 3rd category – 5 roubles[1.8].

In 1882, the ‘burgher class’ of Wołkowysk consisted of 1,803 persons, including 243 Orthodox Christians, 769 Catholics, 31 Lutherans, and 760 Jews. Three Catholics and a Jew, Zelik Franstein, sat in the Town Council. Between 1887 and 1890, the list of people allowed to stand in the municipal election included 16 Christians and 10 Jews (1st grade positions); 49 Christians and 56 Jews (2nd grade positions); 109 Christians and 181 Jews (3rd grade positions); altogether 174 Christians and 247 Jews[1.9].

According to historical sources, no pogroms or any serious conflicts with Christians took place in Wołkowysk at the turn of the 20th century. The local community was not affluent. The majority of local Jews lived in extreme poverty, which is why the town experienced a wave of mass emigration even before 1914. Ca. 400 families from Wołkowysk left for Palestine. Many families and individuals also emigrated to the United States, Canada, South America, Australia, or even Africa. Despite economic difficulties, the cultural and religious life of the community was well developed. At the turn of the 20th century, a Jewish theatre was opened in the town. Around the same time, the “Maccabi” Jewish Sports Club was founded. In September 1910, a Jewish literary society was established in Wołkowysk by, among others, dental technician Leopold Alperin (the society existed until World War I)[1.10]. Wołkowysk was the hometown of writer and journalist J. Rabinowicz.

During World War I (1914-1918), the Wołkowysk Jewish community did not experience persecution on the part of German authorities. On the contrary – well-educated, German-speaking Jews were granted positions in the town administration and other offices. Sometimes they also received help from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. During the Polish-Bolshevik War, in July 1920, Wołkowysk was briefly occupied by the Bolsheviks, who were driven out of the town by the General Leon Berbecki 3rd Polish Infantry Division. During the Bolshevik rule in the town, many of the leading positions were taken by the Jews.

In the early 1930s, Jews constituted ca. 9% of the total population of the north-eastern part of the Second Polish Republic. Although there were no laws prohibiting non-Christians from settling in the countryside, Jews traditionally lived in towns and cities, where they constituted even 50-70% of the population. Wołkowysk was a prime example of this trend: in 1928, it had the total population of 17,181 people, among which 8,722 were Catholics, 1,031 were Orthodox Christians, and 7,428 were Jews (56%). In 1939, according to the data collected that year, the town had 17,254 inhabitants, including 8,627 Poles, 1,208 Belarusians, and 6,901 Jews (40%).

In the interwar period, Wołkowysk boasted three synagogues, two cemeteries, mikvot, about ten schools (including a Talmudic school, Jewish high school, branch of the Tarbut Jewish Educational and Cultural Association), a library, theatre, shops, and a Jewish hospital. Wołkowysk Jews cooperated closely with other associations and communities active in the neighbouring localities. In the years 1928-1929, the municipal authorities of Wołkowysk and other localities started to provide financial assistance for the Jewish Institute of Science in Vilnius. On 17 March 1936, the inhabitants of the town took part in the nationwide strike of Jewish workers against anti-Semitism and fascism.

There were cells of many political parties and organisations operating in the town. There was an active branch of the Kultur-League, established in 1922. Its aim was to create cultural institutions and promote Yiddish. The year 1929 saw the establishment of the Jewish National Thought Club (Żydowski Klub Myśli Państwowej), an organisation advocating for the assimilation of the Jewish population. It existed until the mid-1930s.

The interwar Jewish press published in Wołkowysk was very diverse. One of the many Jewish periodicals was the Wołkowysker Lebn weekly, issued from 13 July 1926 until 25 July 1939. It was not affiliated with any political party and operated as a press organ of the Petty Traders and Merchants Association. Its editor-in-chief was Zon-Mazja, while its editorial office was located at 79 Szeroka Street. Another apolitical periodical was Wołkowysker Wochnblat, published from 24 February 1928 until 28 March 1930. The magazine’s editorial office was located at 11 Zamkowa Street, the members of editorial board were: D. Nowik, M. Chaim-Rubinowicz, and J. Fischer. Another magazine, Wołkowysker Sztyme, was published for nine years, from 1927 to 1936. Moreover, various publications of diverse Jewish parties and social movements were distributed in the town, some of them illegally[1.11].

In the interwar period, Judaism and its traditions continued to have a profound influence on the life of Wołkowysk Jews. The rabbi was a figure of great authority even though the Jewish community was undergoing continuous modernisation. Non-observance of customary norms was severely punished. The Tygodnik Wołkowyski weekly described the case of Icek Szereszewski, fined for killing a bird without the consent of the community. One of the most characteristic inhabitants of the town was shohet Gurwicz, living at Brzeska Street. He supposedly wore a kapoteh blackened by blood.

Before World War II, Wołkowysk experienced a wave of Jewish emigration to the United States, Palestine, and other countries. In the second half of the 1930s, the relations between the nationalities living in Wołkowysk became noticeably more antagonistic. Anti-Semitic youth organisations began to emerge; their leader was Hugon Tymiński, pharmacy owner. Young people would gather in front of shops and advise customers not to buy anything from Jews. Slogans were written on walls. One morning, a large white sign appeared on the high stone fence surrounding the church, in a place which could be reached only by a ladder. It read: “Jew is the enemy!.” “Do not buy from Jews!” – thus read an often repeated slogan written on the walls of Jewish shops. Nonetheless, unlike in Słonim, Białystok, and several other cities, serious anti-Semitic incidents and pogroms did not occur in Wołkowysk[1.12]

The situation changed with the outbreak of the war, and especially after the German invasion. During the Soviet occupation (1939-1941), there was no persecution of the Jewish population as such. Although many institutions were disbanded and political activity was banned, the Soviets did not prohibit Jews from engaging in religious practices or harass them in any other way. Nonetheless, the economic predicament of the community became quite difficult as a result of the restrictions imposed on private companies.

The situation of the Jewish population changed drastically after the German invasion on 28 June 1941. Even former local anti-Semites did not support the genocide, which was the considered national policy by the occupation regime. The first attack of German troops on Wołkowysk constituted the biggest blow to the local Jews. The town was bombarded for six days, starting from 22 June 1941. The centre of the town – the area where most local Jews lived – was almost completely destroyed. Many Jews perished during the bombings. Each surviving home served as a shelter for a number of families, some people dug out pit-houses, while others lived in attics and cellars.

Immediately after taking control of the city, the Germans selected Jews and communists from among the prisoners and shot them soon afterwards. The same fate befell the pensioners of the Jewish old people’s home. The Jewish community was ordered to establish a twenty-member Judenrat; it was headed by physician Izaak Weinberg and his deputy – Jakub Siedlecki. On 8 July 1941, various anti-Semitic regulations were introduced: the obligation to wear signs of Jewishness on clothes and place them on houses, the ban on walking on the pavements, going out at night, appearing on market squares and in other public places, as well as using public transport. The Judenrat received daily quotas for debris removal. The obligation to work applied to all peopled aged 16 to 60. The bodies found in the ruins were buried in the Jewish cemetery.

Mass arrest started right at the beginning of the occupation. On the fourth day after entering the city, Germans encircled Jewish houses and detained ca. 200 people featured on a list of the representatives of the elite: lawyers, judges, doctors, social activists. They were all transported to the local fortress and then shot secretly in the courtyard. Their bodies were loaded on trucks and buried right outside the town. Further arrests and mass executions followed soon afterwards.

Local Jews fled to the nearby forests and joined the partisans. Staying in close vicinity of the town, they were able to contact it whenever necessary. When, for example, a radio receiver broke down, radio-technician Rojtman would come from Wołkowysk to repair it. During an attack on a German transport, one of the partisans was seriously wounded. Doctor Weinberg (Judenrat chairman) went to the forest to help the wounded. When, later on, Germans captured the same partisan, they noticed that his wound had been professionally seamed and thus realised that he must have received help from one of the doctors. Ca. 15 people were arrested (including Weinberg) and they were all shot.

After the death of Weinberg, Noe Fogs became the chairman of the Judenrat. At the turn of November 1942, Fogs ordered all Jews to leave their houses and move to the ghetto at the behest of Germans. The ghetto was located between Kolejowa and Koszarowa Streets (current Zholudeva and Krasnoarmeyskaya Streets). Its area was divided into three sectors, separated by three rows of barbed wire. There were two potable water taps per sector. There was no mikveh inside. In each part of the ghetto, there were several underground bunkers housing 500 people each. The bunkers were dug three metres into the ground and were 55 m long and 10 m wide. Along the walls, wooden bunks were placed in three rows. In the middle of the room, there was a large table with benches on the sides; the floor was a plain dirt floor. Next to the shelter, there was one toilet. The buildings in the Wołkowysk Ghetto were erected by Soviet prisoners of war held in the nearby POW camp. Specialists and skilled workers deemed useful by Germans were placed elsewhere. They lived in better conditions than the other prisoners.

Germans imprisoned about 18,000 people in the Wołkowysk Ghetto; 7,000 were Jews from Wołkowysk, and 11,000 – people from nearby towns and localities (Zelva, Izabelin, Porazava, Piaski, Voupa, Lyskovo), as well as from Ruzhany and Mosty. The occupiers used the prisoners as free labour. From time to time, executions or deportations to German Nazi concentration camps took place.

In the years 1941-1943, Germans murdered over 4,000 people in the wilderness of Mysie Góry-Prochownia (ca. 1 km away from the town). In the years 1965-1966, obelisks commemorating the victims of the murder were erected there. Some Polish inhabitants of Wołkowysk helped their Jewish neighbours. At the end of the war, two residents of the town, Stanisław Busłowicz and Aleksander Nowosad, were honoured with the title of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Germans carried out the final liquidation of the Wołkowysk Ghetto on 26 January 1943. The last surviving Jews were loaded on a train and transported to the German Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Ca. 25 Jews lived in post-war Wołkowysk. Most of them eventually migrated out of the town. Nonetheless, according to the census of 1999, Wołkowysk still had 31 Jewish inhabitants.

Sierhiej Ramanau


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