The Jewish community most probably appeared in Wilejka (Vileyka) in the 18th century. In 1797, 926 Jews lived there, but in 1847 – 257. Such a sharp decrease may have been caused by natural disasters such as floods and fires. Later on, the Jewish population started to grow; according to the 1897 census, there were 1,328 Jews in Wilejka (out of 3,560 inhabitants of the town).

The second half of the 19th century was a period of economic growth in the town. Trading activities were gradually replaced by crafts and manufacturing. Jewish warehouses, financed by merchant banks, began to engage in the export of local lumber. Ten local hotels were owned by Jews. At that time, most of the inhabitants of Wilejka were Hasidim, the minority – Orthodox.

World War I caused considerable damage to the town. Two mills, a sawmill, a brewery and three soap factories were operating under the difficult economic conditions of the 1920s. The local Jewish industry suffered considerable losses as a result of the anti-Jewish economic boycott of the 1930s.

In the 1920s, the community encompassed ca. 1,100 people, in the 1930s – about 1,000. A Hebrew school, later belonging to the Tarbut association, was opened in 1918. Over the years, Zionist ideology was gaining more and more following. The Zionist youth movements were very popular. Some of the young activists migrated to Palestine.

In 1939, Wilejka was annexed by the Soviet Union. Jewish enterprises and workshops were nationalised. The richest Jews were deported to Siberia.

Germans entered Wilejka on 25 June 1941. Many homes were plundered in the first days of the occupation. At the end of June 1941, the German occupation authorities sent Jews to forced labour. In July, in at least two executions, Germans killed more than 500 Jews – 150 men and boys on 12 July and many more on 29 July. In August 1941, around 7,000 prisoners of the ghetto in Baranowicze were brought to the town and then murdered.The Judenrat was set up on the order of the German authorities.

In autumn of 1941, Wilejka became one of the main towns of Generalbezirk Weissruthenien. Jews were transferred into two overcrowded ghettos. According to one of the accounts of the evenst, their liquidation took place on 2 March 1942. On that day, Germans murdered 1,300 people, leaving only 26 professionals alive. According to other sources (Holokost na teritoryi SSSR), the last prisoners of the ghetto were killed in the autumn of 1943.

Bibliography

  • Jielienskaja I., Rozenbłat Je., Wiliejka, [in] Holokost na teritoryi SSSR, Moscow 2009, p. 155.
  • Wilejka, [in] The Encyclopedia of Jewish life before and during the Holocaust, eds. S. Spector, G. Wigoder, New York 2001, p. 1447.
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