In 1441, Grand Duke of Lithuania Kazimierz Jagiellończyk granted trading privileges to Minsk. From the very beginning, customs duties were paid directly to a Jew from Troki called Michał Danilewicz. The town experienced a large influx of Jews after 1495, when they were expelled from the territory of Lithuania proper. In 1579, King Stefan Batory issued an edict on the rights of Jews in Minsk. The community was granted further privileges by Zygmunt III Vasa in 1606 and 1616. In 1625, he gave them the right of perpetual usufruct of the square where the synagogue was located; they were also allowed to take ownership of a fenced plot of land for the purposes of establishing a cemetery.
During the first assembly of the Lithuanian Va’ad in 1623, Minsk was treated as a community forming part of the Brześć District and paid the poll tax of 600 groschen. As soon as in 1631, however, the Jewish community of Minsk became an independent entity. In the years 1648–1649, during the Khmelnitsky Uprising, Jews were expelled from the town; they eventually came back in 1658. In 1671, townsmen and employees of the Town Hall raided the property of the Holy Spirit monastery – some of the areas owned by the monastery were inhabited by Jews. In 1679, Jan III Sobieski granted another privilege to the Jews of Minsk, which led to their long–lasting prosperity. In 1685, the first yeshiva was opened in the town. In the 18th century, Minsk became to be widely recognised as a centre of Jewish education, with Rabbi Ezechiel Halprin (Heilprin), active in the years 1712–1743, being held in especially high esteem.
After the Second Partition of Poland, Minsk was incorporated into Russia. In 1802, the town had 2,675 Jewish inhabitants. Minsk started to develop in the 19th century, initially mostly thanks to trade in grain and wood. Jews soon became specialists in these fields and in the 1880s, their share in the local trade amounted to 88%. Some crafts, for example tailoring, were fully dominated by Jews.
In 1835, Minsk was one the places where Jews started to settle in larger numbers. While in 1847 Minsk had 12,976 Jewish inhabitants, this number rose to 47,562 in 1897 (52.3% of total population). The Jews of Minsk formed the fourth biggest community in the entire area of Jewish settlement. In 1909, Jews constituted 43.3% of the town’s population, Belarusians and Russian – 34.8%, Poles – 11.4%. In 1914, Minsk had 45,000 Jewish inhabitants, making up 42.5% of the population.
The Jewish community remained under strong influence of the Midnagdim, although there were several Hassidic synagogues in the town as well. Nonetheless, yeshivas were financed and controlled exclusively by the disciples and supporters of the Vilna Gaon. In the 1880s and the 1890s, the inhabitants of the town could attend the Great Synagogue and ca. 40 houses of prayer. At the end of the 19th century, the community was headed by Rabbi Jehuda Perelman, known as the Great Scholar of Minsk. At the beginning of the 20th century, more Jews started to attend public schools, where all subjects were taught in Russian. Even earlier on, in the years 1881–1882, 140 out of all 552 students of the male Classical Secondary School had been Jewish; out of 59 girls studying in the Girls’ Secondary School, 22 had been Jewish. Apart from public schools, Jewish parents could also send their children to dozens of cheders and Talmud–Torah schools. Local Jews also enjoyed significant political influence, as evidenced by the fact that Zionist lawyer Szymon Rosenbaum was elected to the First State Duma as a deputy from the Minsk Governorate. Despite the fact that the community proudly boasted its importance, many Jews emigrated from the town, mostly to the USA. It is estimated that up to ca. 20–25% of all Jews of Minsk migrated abroad at the beginning of the 20th century. This was caused by pogroms organised with the participation of soldiers, which took place on Easter Day in 1897 and in 1905.
During WWI, the town experienced an influx of thousands of Jewish refugees who had been displaced from the area of the frontline by the Russian authorities. Among the refugees there were students of the famous yeshiva in Valozhyn. In 1917, the size of the Jewish community grew to 67,000 people. At the time, there were 83 houses of prayer in the town. In 1918, elections to the Community Board were held with the town under German occupation; most seats were taken by Zionists and Poale Zion.
On 8 August 1919, after the Polish Army had entered Minsk, a pogrom took place in the town. Over 30 Jews were killed. Another pogrom came with the withdrawal of the Polish forces, on 9–11 June 1920. Two thirds of all shops in the town were destroyed, most of them Jewish-owned, and numerous houses were set on fire; many women were raped and the pogrom resulted in the death of a number of people.
At the beginning of the 1920s, the Soviet authorities dissolved all Jewish political parties except for Poale Zion, which was active until 1928. In USSR-controlled Belarus, Yiddish was recognised as one of four official languages of the country. Various Jewish institutions were opened in the period: the Jewish Teachers’ University (in 1922), the Jewish section of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences (in 1924), a court division where Yiddish was used (in 1926), the Belarusian National Jewish Theatre (also in 1926), and a separate department of public transport with Yiddish (in 1931). There were also various Jewish libraries, including the collection of ca. 40,000 books in the Lenin Central Library. Minsk was also an important publishing centre. Separate Jewish institutions existed in Minsk until mid-1930s, although the last cheder in the town was shut down as early as in 1929; only the theatre managed to stay active for a while longer. In 1926, the town had 53,686 Jewish inhabitants (40.8%), and in 1939 – 70,998 (29.7%). Towards the end of the 1920s, Jews constituted a third of all manual workers in the town; 83% of them spoke Yiddish.
In the first months of 1941, there were ca. 90,000 Jews in the town (37%). The community grew in size as the result of the arrival of Jewish refugees from Białystok and the territory of “West Belarus” – the Polish territory annexed by the USSR. When Germans entered Minsk, there may have been up to 100,000 Jews living in the town.
In the first days of the occupation, Germans rushed tens of thousands of men of different nationalities to the village of Drozdy, located ca. 7 km from Minsk. Most Jews in the group were shot (among them there were 3,000 members of the intelligentsia). Remaining Jews were forced to live in a ghetto established by Germans on 19 July 1941. The occupant established a Judenrat, with Elijahu Muszkin selected as its president. In March 1942, he was hanged by Germans together with the chief of the Jewish police. After him, the function of the president of the Judenrat was performed by Mosze Jaffe, a lawyer from Vilnius.
There were three ghettos in the town, incorporating the total of 34 streets and a cemetery. During the occupation, over 80,000 Jews were murdered or died from exhaustion. In August 1942, there were only 6,500 local Jews still living in the Minsk Ghetto. Germans carried out several deportations, at times transporting Jews in unknown directions: on 14 August 1943 (to the cemetery), 26 August 1943, 31 August 1943. In the period between November 1941 and July 1942, ca. 30,000 Jews from Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and France were brought to Minsk by the Nazi. Only individual people survived. During the German occupation, a total of several hundred thousand people (estimates vary significantly) was murdered in Minsk and its surroundings, especially in the Trostinets extermination camp. The people directly responsible of the genocide in the town were Generalkomissar for Belarus Wilhelm Kube (killed on 23 September 1943 by a landmine hidden under his bed by his cleaning lady Alena Mazanik – an NKVD agent) and Sipo commander Eduard Strauch, whose orders were carried out by, among others, the Einsatzkommando E. K. 8 unit and Belarusian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian collaborators.
Minsk was liberated from the German occupation on 3 July 1944. At the time of the arrival of the Red Army, only 70 buildings in the town remained intact. Only 13 people from the ghetto lived to see the day of liberation – they had been staying in the bunker at Sucha Street (commonly called Suchaja).
The reconstruction of the Jewish community started with the return of ca. 5,000 Jewish partisans and their families from the nearby forests. Soon afterwards, on Sunday, 16 July 1944, the Partisan Parade was held in Minsk. People settled mainly in the suburbs, which did not suffer as much destruction as the centre of the town.
In January 1948, film director Szlomo Michoels was murdered in Minsk by NKVD agents. This event initiated the Soviet anti-Semitic campaign which prevailed throughout the last years of Stalin’s rule.
According to the 1959 census, Minsk had 38,842 inhabitants; 17,700 people indicated Yiddish as their mother tongue. In 1970, the number of Jews living in the town rose to 47,057, including 5,286 with Yiddish as their mother tongue.
In the 1970s, each 9 May thousands of Jews living in Minsk participated in public gatherings by the monument to the murdered. The events were overseen by retired Colonel Jewgienij Dawidowicz. Even though thousands of local Jews started to migrate to Israel in 1970, data from the 1979 census indicated that there were still 46,205 Jews living in Minsk, and in 1989, the town had 39,135 Jewish inhabitants.
Another wave of mass migration from the town took place after 1989. According to the 1999 census, 10,141 lived in the entire territory of Belarus. Minsk was still the centre of the community.
Initial version written by Jurij Borysiuk.
- Minsk, [in] Eliektronnaja Jewriejskaja Encikłopiedija [online] 15.04.2005, http://www.eleven.co.il/?mode=article&id=12776 [Accessed: 27.04.2016].
Minsk, [in] The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, eds. S. Spector, G. Wigoder, vol. 2, New York 2001, pp. 826–829.