The Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic

The Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic

 

The Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) was founded on 1 August 1920, with Minsk as its capital. According to YIVO, Jews expressed cautious support for the Bolshevik regime, hoping it would bring stability. The new constitution gave Jewish citizens full civil rights, and Yiddish was formally recognized as a state language. State schools offered a soviet curriculum, taught in Yiddish. In Minsk, Yiddish theatre and culture flourished.  At the same time, however, Jewish religious observance and Zionist ideals were discouraged. Kehilas were dismantled and rabbis were persecuted. The state's (unspoken) aim was again 'de-Judaization' but this time, Jewish 'folk culture' was to be preserved.

Letters from rabbis, addressed (in German) to the “Joint,” describe the poverty and distress caused by the new, secular regime. For example, Rabbi Oscher Sandomirsky from Daraganowo writes:

"The great need, suffered by so many Russian rabbis, and which affects me too, persuades me to write to you again, with the plea that you stretch out a helping hand to calm the hunger of my family. All the sources of income, which existed up until now in small towns, are now gone. Here it was particularly the sale of yeast and the income from the Schechita (kosher slaughter); neither exist any more because the Schechita is no longer independent and yeast is now sold by the cooperative. Price inflation has increased greatly, while my total income is no more than 6 rubles per week. Therefore, I beg you again to please grant me somehow some help and I hope that you will hear my plea. …I also permit myself to ask your help for some other rabbis - my friends - who are suffering from great poverty: 1) Rabbi Herz Ruschansky in Pohost near Ihumen, who has a large family and is very poor; he is a great man and totally dedicated to the study of the Tora…

 (Rabbi Sandomirsky goes on to list seven more rabbinical colleagues who, like him, studied at the Slutzk Yeshiva). At the end of the six-page collection of letters, there is a list of 100 additional rabbis (their names and comminities are shown) who sent similar pleas to the “Joint."

Although Minsk began to recover after 1920, rural communities continued to struggle. The forests had been nationalized and private business was no longer allowed, so Jews who had worked in the lumber industry or owned small shops were now without income. Because WWI had put an end to the residence restrictions governing the Pale of Settlement, many Jews now moved to the big Soviet cities, where employment beckoned. In "A Plate from Pogost" Lyalya Gutin tells how a move to Moscow affected her family. 

Reports written in 1923 by the JDC as part of a request for reconstruction funds, paint a bleak picture of conditions in the two towns. The two-page "Report on Berezino” says (in part):

         ...Beginning with 1919 the situation of the inhabitants has changed for the worse. (Berezino) happened to be at the frontier line and thus changed hands several times. In 1919 following the Polish invasion the town were plundered; in 1920 before the withdrawal of the Poles the town was bombarded by the Red troops; shrapnel set fire to many buildings and the best part of the town was either burned or demolished. At that time 22 of the best houses and as many Jewish stores were burned...

The situation in Pahost was even worse. In its relatively isolated location, the small shtetl (1,200 persons, of whom 500 were Jewish) was more vulnerable to bands of marauders.  A typhoid epidemic added to the suffering. The "Report on Pogost” paints a dire picture:

        .... During 1920 and 1921 the town was attacked several times by bandit bands; as a result - 3 Jews were hanged and the population was robbed. Consequently, after all these sufferings the Jewish Population became very poor and at the present time it is in great distress. Its only support was the food packages received from America, and in the absence of such the inhabitants would have died from hunger.

To repair the schools, supply minimal medical care and sanitation facilities, the “Joint” was asked to grant $1,800.00 in aid for Byerazino and $1,400 for Pogost.

We do not know whether the requested aid arrived, but even if it did, the communities were not rejuvenated. Byerazino's population continued a slow decline. In 1923 it was 1,800 but by 1926 only 1,563 Jews lived there. No longer able to work in the timber industry, or as traders or shopkeepers, some Jewish families turned to farming. On its memorial page for Berezino, Yad Vashem displays a photo of the workers on a nearby collective farm, taken in 1926. Yad Vashem also reports that due to the government's increasing enforcement of anti-religious policies, some of the town's synagogues closed in 1929 - 1930. 


Sources and Additional Reading

Bemporad, Elissa. 2010. "Minsk." YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Accessed 29 February 2016 http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Minsk.

"Memorandum for Dr. Bogen. Report on Berezino, Minsk Gubernia." American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Accessed 3 March 2016. http://search.archives.jdc.org/multimedia/Documents/NY_AR2132/491-498/NY_AR2132_00429.pdf

"Report on Pogost, Minsk Gubernia."  American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Accessed 3 March 2016. http://search.archives.jdc.org/multimedia/Documents/NY_AR2132/499-505/NY_AR2132_00586.pdf

Murray-Seegert, C. 2012. “A Plate from Pogost: Life During the Soviet Regime." JewishGen. http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/Byerazino/

Teller, Adam. 2010. "Trade." YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Accessed February 8, 2016. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Trade

“The Untold Stories. The Murder Sites of the Jews in the Occupied Territories of the Former USSR. Berezino.” Yad Vashem. Accessed 19 March 2016. http://www.yadvashem.org/untoldstories/database/index.asp?cid=342

Zeltser, Arkadi. 2010. "Belarus." YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Accessed 2 February 2016. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Belarus 

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