Gomel History

 

(The following information was taken from sources cited at the bottom of this page. If anyone feels that there are historical inaccuracies that people should be made aware of, or if you would like to add to this information, contact Paul Zoglin)

The earliest references to Gomel are from 1142.  It is not certain when Jews first settled in Gomel but given that it was annexed by Lithuania in 1537, it is probable that a Jewish community was established soon after that. 

During the Cossacks' uprising in 1648 about 2,000 Jews were killed in Gomel. Here is an account of what happened from the Jewish Encyclopedia:

Many of the wealthy Jews of the Ukraine sought refuge in Homel, which was a strongly fortified town after it came into the possession of Prince Chartoryski, and that the commandant of the fortress treacherously delivered them over to Hodki, leader of the Cossacks, in consideration of a payment of 1,200 florins. Outside of the city walls the Jews were stripped and surrounded by the Cossack and were called upon to embrace the Greek Orthodox religion or meet a most terrible death. The rabbi, whose name was Eliezer, persuaded them to hold fast to their faith. With the exception of a small number who managed to escape to the adjacent woods and of a few young men, the Jews remained faithful to their religion, and were killed in a horrible manner. 

When the Poles returned in 1665 the jewish community was renewed. Many Jews who were converted by force were permitted to return to Judaism.

By 1765 there were 685 jewish families living in the city. Chabad Chasidism won many converts, and in the mid-19th century one of its leaders, Isaac B. Mordecai Epstein, served as Rabbi. 

Gomel was given the status of district capital in 1852. Its geographical situation and position as a railroad junction made it an important commercial center. The annual fair attracted many Jewish merchants. The Jewish population was 2,373 in 1847, with an additional 1,552 in Belitsa (Beilica) across the river Sozh.  In 1897 there were 20,385 Jews in Gomel (56.4% of the total population). It had 30 synagogues, including the Great synagogue built by Count Rumyantsev in the middle of the 19th century. While a few wealthy Jews in Gomel traded in forest products or were government contractors, many thousands of poor families lived in the “rov,” the valley described by J. Ch. Brenner in Me-emek Akhor (1900). 

Toward the end of the 19th century a Jewish revolutionary movement, centered on the Bund, developed in Gomel. Zionism also gained many adherents there and several Hebrew schools were established. Zionists from Gomel settled in Israel and participated in the building of haderah; many were pioneers of the second and third aliyah.  (For more on the second aliyah see the The Cultural and Social Background of the Second Aliyah.)

In 1903 there was a pogrom in Gomel. A self defense group was organized under the command of Yehezkel Henkin in which the Jewish political parties participated. Here is an account of the 1903 pogrom from the Jewish Encyclopedia:

Anti-Jewish outbreaks occurred in Gomel in Sept., 1903. Rumors of impending riots had been circulated in the latter part of the previous month. The trouble arose on Friday, Sept. 11, when a watchman wished to buy from a Jewish woman a barrel of herring worth six rubles for one ruble fifty copecks. In the fight which followed between the Jewish peddlers of the market-place and the Christians who came to the aid of the watchman, one of the Christians was injured and died the same day. The riot was renewed on the following day, and when it had been quelled the town was practically under martial law.  Meanwhile a number of anti-Semitic agitators, probably executing the orders of the authorities, inflamed the passions of the mob, exhorting them not to leave their fellow Christians unavenged. On Monday, Sept. 14, about 100 railway employees gathered and began to break the windows and to enter and plunder the houses of the Jews in the poorest quarters of the town, one of which is called "Novaya Amerika" ("New America"). A number of Jews armed and began to defend themselves, but the soldiers prevented them from entering the streets where the plundering was going on, and forced them back to their homes, beating and arresting those who resisted. According to a reliable report, other soldiers and the police looked on in an indifferent way while the mob continued its plundering and committed all kinds of excesses. The shrieks of children could be heard in the streets which the soldiers had blocked against the Jews without; and when some of the Jews tried to force their way down the side-streets, the soldiers fired on them, wounding several among them and killing six.

The total number of Jews killed is given as 25; seriously injured, 100; slightly injured, 200. Three hundred and seventy-two Jewish houses and 200 stores were plundered and destroyed. On Sept. 17 the bodies of the following persons who had been killed in the riots were buried in the Jewish cemetery of Gomel: Elijah Oberman (tailor); Phoebus Halperin (aged 24; merchant); Zalman Kaganski (aged 20; only son); Mordecai Kaganski; Boruch Petitzki (aged 25); Behr Leikin (aged 45); Meïr Davydov; Zalman Cohn; Ḥayyim Piachetzki; and Behr Kevas. The scroll of the Law, which was torn by the rioters during the destruction of the synagogue, was also buried. About one-third of the Jewish population escaped. While the chief of police and other Christians gave shelter to some of the victims, several of the merchants took part in the riots. From a report presented by representatives of the Jewish community of Gomel to Assistant Minister of the Interior Durnovo (Oct. 1, 1903), it is evident that the first account of the riots in the official organ of the government was incorrect, and that they had been carefully planned several weeks previously.

Thirty six members of the Jewish self defense group were prosecuted by the authorities, along with the perpetrators of the pogroms, and charged with committing pogroms against the Russian populations.  In the end 12 non-Jews and 18 Jews were given 1 year of penal servitude and the court petitioned the Tsar to reduce their sentences. (For more on the 1903 Pogrom see the Museum of Family History).

During World War I thousands of refugees from the war zone took refuge in Gomel and several yeshivot moved there from Poland and Lithuania.

Soon after the October revolution in 1917, Gomel was closed to all haderim and the synagogues and prayer houses were gradually transformed into clubs and cinemas. The rabbi of Gomel, R. Borishanski, was arrested for opposing the communist suppression of the jewish religion.  The community decreased from 47,505 in 1910 (55%) to 37,475 in 1926 (44%). A significant part of the Jewish population worked in cottage industries as well as in factories as engineers and production managers. Most of the city's artisans were Jews. Among the Jewish working population in 1926, 3,482 were factory workers, 4,057 were white-collar workers, 3,235 artisans, and 5,046 worked the land. In 1930 there were eight Jewish kolkhozes near the city, where 1,889 Jews (400 families) farmed 21,000 acres of land. In the 1920s, 6 Yiddish schools and two kindergartens were in operation. There was also a Yiddish teachers college, but it was moved to Smolensk in 1929.

In 1939, the Jewish population in Gomel was 40,880 (29% of the total). In the beginning of the German-Soviet war many Jews succeeded in escaping into the Soviet interior. The Germans entered the city on August 19th, 1941. The Jews were concentrated in four ghettos under conditions of overcrowding, starvation and disease. Three labor camps housing 1,500 Jews were set up in the city. In October 1941, 2,365 Jews were murdered. By December 1941, 4,000 had been killed. Woman and children were gassed in vans. In the following months the Germans proceeded to murder the remaining Jews. Near the city is a monument to the victims of the Nazis, but without reference to their nationality.

After the war, Jews returned to Gomel although none of the Yiddish-speaking institutions were restored. A petition requesting the return of the synagogue building to the Jewish community was rejected by the authorities. In 1947, religious Jews collected enough money to obtain a private house for use as a synagogue, but the authorities confiscated it and forbade prayer assemblies. In 1963, the militia attacked a private prayer group, dispersed them during their service and removed two Torah scrolls and other religious accessories.

In 1959, there were about 25,000 Jews living in Gomel.  In 1979,  26,416 and in 1989, 22,574. By the year 2000, the majority of Jews left Gomel to move to Israel, the United States, Germany, and other countries around the world. According to the population census in Belarus in 1999, there were 4029 Jews living in Gomel.

Due to its closeness to Chernobyl, Gomel was one of the places most affected by the nuclear disaster on April 26, 1986. 

The restoration of Jewish life in Gomel began at the end of the 1980's. Since 2006, Beit Yaakov, the one functioning synagogue in Gomel, has held regular prayer services and organizes several programs for the Jewish community of Gomel.

sources:
Jewish Encyclopedia (1901-1905), Volume 16 p450-451
Encyclopaedia Judaica (2007), Volume 7, p 747-748
Beit Yaakov web site:
http://www.jewishgomel.com/eng/clauses/nasha-istoriya


Compiled by: Paul Zoglin
Updated: September 2017
Copyright © 2009 Paul Zoglin

   

 

 

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