Originally in Lithuania/Litwa/Litva/Lita, Lida was part of the Grand Duchy connected with Poland and then annexed by Russia. Vilna and Troki were the original vovoidships of Lithuania. In the thirteenth century, the duchy of Samogita (Zhmud) was added. Lida District was in the Great Lithuanian Principality from the second half of the 13th to the 15th centuries when the capital was Vilnya. In the fifteenth century responsum of Israel Isserlein, he refers to "Tobiah" who had returned from Gordita in Lithuania and said,
"It is rare with our people from Germany to go to Lithuania."
(Israel Bruna, Responsa, **25, 73)
Lida was founded at the same time as Vilna, about 1320. These cities
had no Magdeburg Rights or gilds. Starting in 1341 when Witold ascended
to the throne, Jews began to obtain the Charter of Privileges. The Jews
of Brest received a Charter of Privileges on 1 July 1388. Grodno obtained
the same in 1389. These charters represent the earliest documentation of
organized Jewish communities in the region. The preamble to the charter
reads as follows:
"In the name of God, Amen. All deeds of men, when
they are not made known by the testimony of witnesses or in writing, pass
away and vanish and are forgotten. Therefore, we, Alexander, also called
Witold, by the grace of God Grand Duke of Lithuania and ruler of Brest,
Dorogicz, Lusk, Vladimir, and other places, made known by this charter
to the present and future generations, or to whomever it may concern to
know or hear of it, that, after due deliberation with our nobles we have
decided to grant to all the Jews living in our domains the rights and liberties
mentioned in the following charter." [The Jewish Encyclopedia.
NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1916, Vol. VIII, p. 120.] The charter contains thirty-seven
sections concerning all aspects of legal, business, and social relationships
between Jews and Christians and proscribed punishments for its violation.
This document closely resembles those granted by Casimir the Great and
Boleslaw of Kalisz to the Jews of Poland, based on the charters of Henry
of Glogau (1251), King Ottokar of Bohemia (1254-1267), and Frederick II
(1244), and the Bishop of Speyer (1084). These charters grant privileges
to a Jewish populace largely engaged in money lending. The Grodno Charters
of 18 June 1389 and 1408 grant privileges to a community engaged in a variety
of occupations including handicrafts and agriculture in the town that was
the residence of the ruling Grand Duke. The 1389 document reflects that
Jews had lived there for many years, owned land, a synagogue and a cemetery
near the Jewish quarter and lived in social and economic parity with Christians.
The Jews belonged to the freemen class equal to lesser nobles ["shlyakhta"],
boyars, and other free citizens. The starosta (official representatives
of the Grand Duke) was called the 'Jewish Judge' and decided all civil
and criminal cases between Christians and Jews. Jews had complete autonomy
over religious matters.
The Jewish communities thrived under this system. Each community had a Jewish elder [title after the sixteenth century] as its head who represented the community in all external relations and in tax matters. Under the regime of the Jagellons, Jews became tax-farmers. In 1487 Brest, Drohycin, Byelsk, and Grodno customs duties were leased to Astashka Hyich, Onotani Ilyich, and Olkan, all Jews from Lutsk. In 1488 some taxes of Grodno were released to Jatzkovich and his sons. According to the historian Jaroszewic in "Obraz Litwy", Lithuanian Jews of that time developed the country's commerce, even with business ventures reaching the Baltic Sea and export trade to Prussia.
When Alexander Jagellon succeeded to the throne, he confirmed the Charter of privileges. However, in 1495, Alexander expelled all the Jews from the country either because of personal animosity of Alexander Jagellon or his wife Grand Duchess Helena (daughter of Ivan III of Russia), due to influences of the Spanish Inquisition, or because of Judaizing heresies. At this time, Jews who converted to Christianity automatically attained noble status. Property of the expelled Jews was allotted to various cronies of the Grand Duke. For example, a nobleman named Semashkowich received the properties abandoned by the Jews of Grodno. This property distribution continued until mid 1501 when Alexander assumed the throne of Poland. At this time, the Jews were allowed to return to Lithuania. Their properties and possessions were to be returned to them. Prince Alexander Juryevich, vice-regent of Vilna and Grodno, was to oversee the restoration of property and settlement of debts owed to them; however, the Jews were required to repurchase their former property, pay for all improvements and mortgages, and equip annually a 1,000 horse cavalry regiment at their own expense.
Sigismund I (1506-1548) improved conditions for Jews. In 1508 when Prince Glinski rebelled, two Jews of Brest, Itzko and Berek, furnished him with information. The leading Jew of the country, Michael Jesofovich, excommunicated the pair publicly, prompting eventually an improved tax collection system that he oversaw for Sigismund as prefect over all Lithuanian Jews . The communities of Brest and Grodno flourished along with Troki, Pinsk, Ostrog, Lutsk, and Tykotzin. According to new statutes of 1529, the life of a Jew was valued at 100 kop groschen as was that of a nobleman while burghers were only valued at 12 kop groschen. Relationships between Jew and Christian were cordial, with shared participation in dining, athletics, and festivals.
Around 1539 a baptized Jew spread rumors about converts to Judaism harbored in the Jewish community. Sigismund ended the harassment of Jews in 1540 when he declared them free of any suspicion. His wife Bona Sporza settled a quarrel between the Grodno Jewish community and one of its powerful families (Judah- Yudicki) over the appointment of a rabbi named Mordechai [ben Moses Jaffe, rabbi of Cracow?], son-in-law of Judah Bogdanovich. (Another man, Mordechai ben Abraham Jaffee was rabbi of Grodno in 1572.)
In 1544, Sigismund II, August became Grand Duke of Lithuania and Polish king in 1548. He treated Jews and Lutherans/Calvinists with liberality. At that time, the rabbi of Brest, Mendel Frank, was called "the king's officer" while prominent Jews were called "Pany" or sirs. Until 1569 with the union with Lublin, Lithuanian Jews lived on grand ducal lands and enjoyed royal protection.
In 1568, "Rech Pospolitaya" united the Polish Principality and the Lithuanian
Principality. About the mid-1500's, relationships between the minor nobility
and the Jews deteriorated. The prevalence of mixed marriages disturbed
the clergy. The shlyakhta resented Jews as middlemen in agricultural dealings,
the Jewish exemption from military service, and the wealth/power of the
Jewish tax-farmers. Living on the protected lands of the king, Jews avoided
some of the conflict with the resentful nobility. However, in 1555, the
nobility began to attain more power. A blood libel controversy arose in
1564 but was squelched by Sigismund August in a declaration of 9 August
1564. In 1566, however, the nobility finally attained power and were allowed
to participate in the national legislature. They produced the repressive
Act of 1566 that stated:
"The Jews shall not wear costly clothing,
nor gold chains, nor shall their wives wear gold or silver ornaments. The
Jews shall no have silver mountings on their sabers and daggers; they shall
be distinguished by characteristic clothes; they shall wear yellow caps,
and their wives kerchiefs of yellow linen, in order that all may be enabled
to distinguish Jews from Christians." [p. 126] About twenty
years later, however, the nobility withdrew these restrictions.
During the reign of Sigismund III (1587-1632), "the privilege" was extended to the Jews of Vilna in a charter permitting Jews to purchase real estate, engage in trade equally with Christians, to occupy houses belonging to nobility, and to build synagogues. They were exempt from city taxes as tenants of nobility and subject to the king's vovoidship jurisdiction rather than that of local magistrates. Yet, Sigismund also demonstrated negative attitudes toward Jews when he provided for the elevation to noble status of Jewish converts to Christianity, leading to what then was called "Jerusalem nobles." That law was repealed in 1768.
The Council of Lithuania evolved from the Council of the Four Lands and was the body that governed the Jewish Communities from 1623 to 1764. Various seventeenth and eighteenth century records exist from the council, with the signatures of community representatives.
In 1795/6, the region was in the Lithuanian "Litvskaya" guberniya of the Russian Empire. In 1801, Lida was part of Grodnenskaya Guberniya, Russian Empire. Lida remained there until 1842, when jurisdiction returned to the Vilna Guberniya. Guberniyas as a political designation were abolished after the Russian Revolution in 1917. The 1st and 2nd Uchastoks ["parts"] made up Lida (Lidzky uezd) District during the 8th and early 19th centuries. The district center was the town of Lida. Other large towns include Eisiskes, Nowy Dwor, Ostrina, Radun, Rozanka, Szczuczyn, Vasilishki, Voronovo, and Zaludok.
Summary of Lida's government in the 19th century:
Grodnenskaya guberniya covered 704.5 square miles, the "smallest"
guberniya in, larger only than Russian provinces of Moskovskaya, Tulskaya,
Kaluzhkaya, and Yaroslavskaya (if not considering provinces in Poland,
Finland, and Ostzeiskaya). Compared to the countries of Western Europe,
the guberniya had almost the same territory as Switzerland, larger than
Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands although it yielded in population.
There were 1,842 men per sq. mile in the territory and 37 men in one sq.
verst (wiorst). As a result, Grodnenskaya was average among the other Russian
gubernii. For example,
Podolskaya, Poltavskaya, and Kurskaya gubernii as well as the provinces of Poland and others exceeded Grodnenskaya in population density by one and a half times, the countries of West Europe (France and Austria) by two times, Germany by 2.5 times, Italy by 3 times, and England by 3.5 times.
Copyright © 1999, Ellen Sadove Renck
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