The Ledger of Slonim

by Kalman Lichtenstein


There is no definite date when the town of Slonim came into being. Records show that in the 11th century, a wooden fortress named Slonim was built on the left bank of the Schara River. According to the Polish historian Dlugash, a battle broke out in 1040 in the vicinity of this fortress between the forces of Kiev (Russia) led by Graf Yaroslav and the Lithuanians. The Russian forces won and were in control of the area until 1103 when the Lithuanian Graf Radziwill defeated the Russians and captured it.

In the beginning of the 13th century, the Russians again defeated the Lithuanians. In 1241 the whole area was overrun by the Tartars (Mongolian) hordes of Baru-Kahn. Later that year the Asiatic tartars were forced to retreat. Slonim was then incorporated into Lithuania. In 1569 Poland and Lithuania united and for the next 226 years, Slonim was an important Lithuanian duchy center within the framework of greater Poland. Due to many wars that followed, Slonim suffered greatly until the end of the 18th century when Graf Oginski (owner of many square miles of land adjacent to Slonim), became interested in rebuilding the entire area. In 1795 greater Poland was divided between Russia, Germany and Austria. Slonim was taken by Russia and remained under the czarist regime from 1796 to 1915 when the Germans captured Slonim in World War I.

After three long years of hunger, epidemics, and two confrontations between the newly recreated Poland and the Russian Red army, Slonim was twice under the Soviet regime. In 1920 Slonim was recaptured by the Polish army. It remained in Poland until 1939 when Stalin, with Hitler's acquiescence, incorporated Slonim into Soviet White Russia. In 1941 the Nazi hordes captured Slonim from the Reds and in the first year annihilated 70 percent of the Jewish population. In 1944, before the Red army recaptured the city, Slonim was completely destroyed. Slonim today, under the Red regime, is but a small, insignificant administrative point. There is not a single Jew left in Slonim.

The First Jewish Settlement in Slonim

The Lithuanian government, envious of the prosperous Polish cities (prosperous thanks to the Jews who escaped from the Crusaders), encouraged Jewish immigrants from Poland to settle in Lithuania. In 1388, the Lithuanian Duke Veetold granted the Jews the same privileges and rights that they received in Poland. From all indications, it appears that Jews began their settlement in Slonim that same year. The first Jewish cemetery dates back to the 15th century.

Slonim Jews were credited with the development of commerce in the 15th century. In the second half of that century, under King Kasimir the Fourth of greater Poland and Lithuania, Jews enjoyed full rights and privileges. In 1495 the Lithuanian duchy decreed the expulsion of all Jews from the Lithuanian duchy including Slonim. The decree remained in effect for eight years. In 1503 it was nullified and Slonim Jews returned to their homes and reclaimed their properties. The Jewish population in the 16th century rose to 400, or 15 percent of the total population. In 1569 Lithuania was annexed by Poland and the immigration of Polish Jews to Slonim increased.

Early in the 17th century, Slonim hired its first rabbi, Moshe Lima, who later served as rabbi in Bresk and Vilna. While in Slonim, Rabbi Lima was considered to be the highest authority on Halacha (Jewish law) in Lithuania. In 1642, the famous large synagogue was completed and was the most beautiful house of worship in the Lithuanian duchy. The Jewish population reached 1200 by the middle of the 17th century and 1400 by 1797.

The 25-year span from 1700 to 1725 was an important chapter in the spiritual life of the Jewish community; the era of Haskalah (Enlightenment) reached Slonim. Rabbi Samson, together with other Maskilim (Enlightened) Jews, brought in new ideas and knowledge to Slonim. Rabbi Samson contributed to a large library with books in various languages and a desire to spread knowledge among his Jewish brethren. The famous Gaon (genius) from Vilna (the leading opponent of Chasidism) visited the library and supported the new Haskalah era. A bitter dissension broke out in the Jewish community, however, between Chasidim and Mitnagdim (opponents of Chasidism). In 1722 the first excommunication order against the Chasidim was issued in Vilna (the center of Mitnagdim). Czar Nicolai the First decreed that every town and hamlet in the Pale furnish Jewish teenage boys for the army. The youngsters were sent to barracks far away from home to serve twenty-five years in the army. Slonim was assessed a number of recruits. The few rich Jewish parents were able to bribe the authorities and the Jewish "catchers" hired by the government filled their quota with the poorer Jewish boys. This led to a confrontation between the masses and the richer element. By the second half of the 19th century, the Jewish population had reached 10,000.

The battle between the Maskilim on the one side, and the Chasidim and Magidim on the opposite side, reached a climax when a young Maskil received permission from the czarist government to open a public library containing Russian and Hebrew secular books. (Early in the 19th century, there appeared a new crop of traveling rabbis -- Magid or moralists. They joined the battle to stop the spread of Haskalah.) The Haskalah headquarters in Petersburg (Leningrad) supported the Slonim library. The Russian authorities felt that the Haskalah movement would help to Russify (assimilate) the Jews of the Pale. The Maskilim scored a victory when the Talmud Torah School began teaching arithmetic and the Russian language in the upper-level classes. The Maskilim appeared to have influenced the majority of Slonim Jews; however, in the early 80s the cultural rivalries were temporarily halted by the wave of pogroms in southern Russia after the coronation of Czar Alexander the Third. In White Russia, where Jews accounted for close to 80 percent of the population, the Pogrom mobs failed to organize confrontations with Jews and resorted to arson, destroying many Jewish homes.

The cultural confrontations continued, and most of the rabbis of the 19th century did not master the Russian language. This brought about the creation of a new post -- rabiner (government rabbi) -- who represented the Jewish population in the eyes of the government. The rabiner was also in charge of the vital statistics bureau. The first rabiner in Slonim was hired in 1879 and was elected to the post by representatives of all the synagogues, under the supervision of government representatives.

Anti-semitism did not abate with the coronation of Nicolai the Second; the revolutionary movement added more fuel to the Jew haters and arson continued to threaten Jewish homes. A voluntary fire department was organized for self-protection.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Slonim became the hub of commerce for the entire area. The Russo-Japanese War slowed down this business development and strengthened the anti-semitism movement. In 1902 Russian Socialist Democrats and Russian Socialist Revolutionaries together with the Jewish Bund (Jewish Socialist Democrats), sent in the first agitators to Slonim. The majority of Slonim Maskilim were Zionists. The political Zionist movement created by Dr. Herzl in the late 1890s sent many orators to Slonim. The religious element did not enjoy the Zionist preachers, neither did the Jewish labor organization (the Bund).

Slonim, in the early part of the 20th century, became a fertile base for all types of "isms". Zionism, Socialism, and religious fanaticism. Self-preservation was the only element that united the various organizations. The pogrom of 1903-4 in southeastern Russia (Kishinev) depressed the Slonim Jewish population and caused many to emigrate to America. The youthful element of the Socialists, Zionists, and revolutionary groups created an underground self-defense organization. In 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War, Slonim became a mobilization center that brought in many army reservists from the surrounding areas. The Jewish leadership was informed by the military commandant that a group of fifty Cossacks and two commanders were available for hire to help prevent pogroms. It was never divulged how much bribe money the commandant received: the Cossacks received 5 kopeks per day and the officers received 3 rubles per day plus food, drink and sleeping quarters. The early years of the 20th century were disturbing and panicky and the economy was depressed. The Zionist organization established a fund to help the poorer element with interest-free loans. Other groups created credit institutions to help the needy. By 1907 the general economic condition improved somewhat, but many youths were emigrating from Slonim to other countries. Twenty-five hundred Jews emigrated from Slonim in the seven years from 1907 to 1914.

In 1904 Slonim welcomed Rabbi Mordecai Rosenblatt. Rabbi Rosenblatt was not as learned as some of the previous rabbis; he was more of a mystic; a man with a warm heart, if not a sharp mind. He was respected by non-Jews as well as Jews. He was interested in alleviating the sufferings of his Jewish community.

In 1902 the Mizrachi (religious Zionism) was organized. A year later, the Poala-Zion (labor Zionism) organization was started. Slonim was obviously well-represented in the Zionist movement -- general Zionism, Mizrachi, and the Social Zionist Poala-Zion. Thus the Haskalah movement was replaced by the political Zionist organization in Slonim on the eve of World War I.

In 1914 Slonim appeared as a stable, idyllic shtetl in spite of the many changes that took place between 1880 and 1914. On the 8th of September 1915, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the motorized staff from Grodno came to the city. Slonim, en masse, came to see the first automobiles, but the streets of Slonim, muddy or sandy, were not prepared to handle the motor vehicles. Rabbi Mordecai Rosenblatt permitted the Jewish workers to resurface the streets for the autos on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Late in July 1915 the front was approaching Slonim. Rumors of evacuation were heard and the Russian army was to fortify the east bank of the Schara River to stop the Germans. Slonimites were fearful that the city would be destroyed in the battle. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the 18th of September 1915, the Germans entered Slonim. The east side of the city suffered greatly from their artillery.