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History of Shklov

Earliest History of Shklov

Between the 14th and 18th centuries, the part of Belarus in which Shklov is located was part of Poland-Lithuania.  The town of Shklov was first mentioned in chronicles in 1535, when it was burned down by princes of Moscow.   The first Jews began to settle in Shklov in its early history, probably in the beginning of the sixteenth century, and received a charter to settle in Shklov in 1668.   In the 17th and 18th centuries Shklov became an important commercial center where, according to a diplomat who visited in 1699, Jews were "the richest and most influential class of people in the city."  According to the Polish census of 1766, there were then 1,367 Jews in Shklov, the same number as in Minsk.   In 1772 Shklov was included into the Russian Empire, as part of the first partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. 

Shklov's location on the boundary-line between Russia and Poland meant that the town was often subjected to the devastations of war, but was also well situated for trade.   Since Jews constituted the greater part of the population of Shklov, they naturally suffered in these historical waves of violence, but some also profited from trade.   In 1635 the town was destroyed by the Cossacks; in 1708 it was sacked by the Swedes under General Lowenhaupt.   In 1812 Shklov was invaded and pillaged by Napoleon's army.   Though a relatively small provincial town, Shklov also had a "Golden Era" in which it was a center of Jewish learning and culture.  

The "Golden Era" of Jewish Life in Shklov (1772-1812),

The "Golden Era" of the Shklov Jewish community was the period between its annexation by Russia in 1772 and the Napoleonic War of 1812.  During this "Golden Era," Shklov was a thriving economic and cultural center, which boasted a renowned Yeshiva that had been established by Binyamin Rivlin (1728-1812), a close disciple and associate of the Vilna Gaon.   Rav Rivlin single-handedly played a major role in helping to make Shklov into a center of rabbinic learning in the 1770's, which it remained until he left for the Holy Land in 1812, immediately after Russia's defeat of Napoleon.  

With the partition of Poland in 1772, the part of Belorussia that includes Shklov was annexed by Russia.   After becoming part of Russia, Shklov developed as an important commercial center on the trade route linking Russia with Western Europe.   Although most of the Jews of the Pale of Settlement were poverty-striken, a certain number of Jews of Shklov acquired wealth as traders, merchants and suppliers for the army.   Although Jews were prohibited from settling in Moscow until the end of the 18th century, with the Russian annexation of Belorussia in 1772, several Jewish merchants from Shklov took up residence in Moscow; one of the most notable of these merchants was the trader and contractor, Nathan Note Notkin of Shklov. 

In 1783 the first Jewish printing house in Belarus was established in Shklov.   During the "Golden Era" Shklov became the largest center of Hebrew printing in Eastern Europe.   However, Shklov's prominence as a political center of Russian Jewry later declined in the early 1800's, and its role as a center of Hebrew printing was soon surpassed by Vilna and Grodno.    Among the most famous books printed in Shklov was the Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch, the major recodification of the Shulchan Aruch by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, known to Chabad Hassidim as "The Alter Rebbe," author of The Tanya.   Also known as Shulchan Aruch Harav, the first section was printed in Shkov in 1814.   

The "Belarussian Versailles" under Zorich (1778-1799)

In 1778, Shklov was give to Semyon Zorich, a Serbian noble who became a Russian officer and from 1777-1778 a favorite lover of Empress Catherine the Great.  The story of Zorich's relationship with Catherine and his dominion over Shklov is a fascinating tale of passion, ambition and heartbreak.   An officer of the Russian Court, who was known for having spent time as a prisoner of the Turks, the handsome young Zorich was presented to Catherine by Court nobleman Prince Grigory Potemkin in 1777 and became her lover and "favorite" and then lived at the court.   Zorich was described as being very passionate and temperamental, particularly when ultimately confronted with the news of being jilted by Catherine.   When Potemkin presented Catherine to a replacement in 1778, Zorich threatened to kill his rival, challenged Potemkin to a duel, and argued with Catherine.    Though Catherine nonetheless sent away her jilted lover, as a parting gift she bestowed upon him the estate of Shklov

Under the leadership of Zorich, Shklov became a veritable "Belarussian Versailles."   Having grown accustomed to the Russian Court, once in exile, Zorich set about creating a lavish atmosphere that would be fit to be visited by Catherine herself.   He established a military school for children of the nobility and established a Cadet Corps.   He built a theater and a huge greenhouse.   He selected a group of the most talented local peasant girls and had them trained in theater and dance by an Italian teacher.   In addition they were taught reading, writing, mathematics and French.   Once of the most talented of these girls was the beautiful Catherine Azaravich.   Zorich created a court in Shklov with sumptuous dinners, concerts, theater and ballet performances.   To express his continued devotion to the Empress, on Catherine's name day, Zorich gave a grand ball with fireworks, the like of which were not seen elsewhere.   In 1780 the Empress Catherine, who had journeyed to nearby Mogiliev to meet up with Emperor Franz Joseph, visited Shklov, where Catherine and Franz Joseph were hosted by ex-favorite Zorich, and spent the night.   Zorich hosted a magnificant dinner and showered his ex with such lavish hospitality that she even visited Shklov a second time soon after.    

During this period when Zorich feted a lavish court in Shklov, approximately 80 percent of the town's population was Jewish.   As a result, in Shklov, Russian aristocrats and the local Jewish population came into unprecedented contact.  Some of the more prominent Jews of Shklov then had access to the lavish cultural life of the Court, thus coming into direct contact with Russian life and institutions, and, as a result, their social and cultural horizons were broadened.  Zorich's Court and Shklov's Jewish commercial economy became inextricably intertwined, as Zorich's lavish lifestyle required a constant flow of imported luxury items.   Shklov's most prominent Jewish merchants became closely associated with Zorich's court, and through it became drawn into the business and social world of Russian officials.    On of the dancers in Zorich's Shklov ballet company was a Jewess named Elena Yankelevich.   Zorich's court and its institutions thus transformed life in Shklov, introducing the customs of European high society to a predominantly Jewish commercial town, which was a truly unusual phenomenon.    
Picture of Semyon Gavrilovich Zorich
Portrait of Semyon Zorich

18th Century Intellectual Schism: Chassidim vs.  "Mitnagdim"

A significant development of the 18th century in Jewish life was the spread of Chassidism in Eastern Europe.    One of the major intellectual schisms of the 18th century was the struggle for influence between Chassidism and its opponents, who were known as "Misnagdim" or "Mitnagdim," a Hebrew word meaning "opponents."   The most prominent leader of the Misnagdim was Rabbi Elijah (Eliyahu) ben Shlomo Zalman, commonly known as the Vilna Gaon, or "the Gra."   This opposition arose in response to the growth of the Chassidic movement, begun by rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760) , known as the Baal Shem Tov ("Master of the Good Name").   Already during his lifetime, and gaining momentum after this death, disciples of the Baal Shem Tov taught his mystical approach which launched a spiritual revolution in Jewish life.  Jewish masses flocked to this new inspired brand of mystical Judaism.   However, the fledgling Chassidic movement encountered stiff resistance among Lithuanian Jews (known as Litvaks).   The Vilna Gaon and his followers put up the fiercest resistance, and became known as the "Misnagdim."  Bitterness between the two camps ran deep.  Shklov was a bastion of followers of the Vilna Gaon.  

Jews in the town of Shklov enjoyed a close relationship with the Vilna Gaon, and Shklov thus played a unique role in the battle against Chassidism.   In early 1772, Shklov became the first Jewish community in Eastern Europe to issue an official ban against the Chassidim.   This ruling was fully endorsed by the Gaon, who then mobilized the Vilna community to issue the Vilna herem (ban) against the Chassidim in May 1772.   This systematic campaign against Chasidism was also adopted in other communities in the region.    The Rabbis of Shklov, often referred to as "Chakhamai Shklov" (the Sages of Shklov), who were among the most enlightened Jewish leaders of their day, became the driving ideological force behind the anti-Chassidic movement in the Mogilev province.  They were a circle of disciples of the Vilna Gaon led by Rabbi Benjamin ben Shlomo Zalman Rivlin (1728-1812).  
Portrait of the Vilna Gaon
 Portrait of the Vilna Gaon

The Perushim and the "Yishuv"

Followers of the Vilna Gaon from Shklov who emigrated to the Land of Israel played a key role in early emigration to the Land of Israel, and building the early "Yishuv" (settlement) in both Safed and Jerusalem.   The Perushim were a group of disciples of the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman) who left from Vilna and the surrounding areas in Lithuania and Belarus for the Land of Israel.  The Perushim began their journey to the Holy Land from Shklov, as some of the key leaders of this movement were from Shklov.    They migrated  in three groups, the first in 1808 led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, the next two groups in 1809, led by Rabbi Sa'adya ben Rabbi Noson Nota of Vilna, and Rabbi Israel of Shklov.   They traveled from Shklov on foot, and by horse and wagon, heading to the Land of Israel via Constantinople, from where they sailed by boat to Acre.   After their arrival in Israel the fledgling communities suffered enormous difficulties, including earthquakes, disease and attacks by the Arabs.   But this group of early settlers helped establish a foothold in the land of Israel from which the modern state later developed.  

The first group of Perushim to arrive in Israel, led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, settled in the city of Safed (Tzfat) in the north.  Some had wished to settle in Jerusalem and reclaim the Ashkenzic Compound left behind in 1720 when the followers of Rabbi Judah he-Hasid were forced out and all Ashkenazim banished from the city.  The Arabs had burned the synagogue in the Ashkenazic Compound, and the pile of rubble which remained had became known as the "Ruin of Rabbi Judah he-Hasid" or simply the "Hurva" (Ruin).    Fearing that the descedants of the Arabs creditors who drove out Rabbi Judah he-Hasid's group still held the original promissory notes, the Perushim went instead to Sefad.  

Rabbi Israel (Yisroel) of Shklov, who led the third group to Israel, was one of the closest disciples of the Vilna Gaon.  His most famous work is "Pa'as HaShulchan" the classic on the laws pertaining to living in the land of Israel.  The story behind his decision to author this work is very moving.   In 1821, on the day after the holiday of Shavuot, the Arab population in the Galilee attacked the Jewish community of Safed, leaving many dead and wounded.  This terrible calamity was followed by a deadly plague, which caused Rabbi Yisroel to leave Sefad for Jerusalem.  But the plague spread across that holy city as well, claiming the lives of his wife and all of his children, except his youngest daughter Shaindel.   Ultimately Rav Yisroel also contracted the plague.   As he lay ill and dying with his young daughter in his arms, he prayed fervently, wept and made a vow that if he were to survive, he would dedicate himself to writing a major treatise expounding the laws of the Torah pertaining to living in the Land of Israel.   Fortunately, he survived and then spent his years working to fulfill his promise, publishing his work in 1837.   By providing the basis codifying Jewish law on agriculture and how it is to be be practiced in the land of Israel, Rav Yisroel's book helped structure the future of agricultural development in the Land of Israel.
The Perushim played a critical role in the rebuilding of the "Hurva" Synagogue.   In 1815 Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, leader of the Safed Perushim moved to Jerusalem with a group of followers.   They wanted to reclaim the Ashkenazi Compound and rebuild the Hurva Synagogue, believing that this would have great Kabbalistic significance that could be a prerequisite for hastening the coming of the Messiah.   They had tremendous difficulties in getting permission from the Turkish authorities but finally in 1864 succeeded, and the Perushim then were able to rebuild the synagogue.   It became Jerusalem's main Ashkenazic synagogue until it was once again reduced to rubble by the Arab legion during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.                               

From1948, the building remained in ruins for years, though a commemorative arch was built on the site in 1977.  As an interesting postscript to this story, for decades there was debate about how to rebuild the "Hurva," and various plans were considered.   Plans to rebuild the synagogue in its 19th-century style were approved by the Israeli government in 2000, and the newly-rebuilt synagogue was dedicated on March 15, 2010.   Now rebuilt, the "Hurva" once again stands prominently in the plaza near the center of Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter of the Old City.   Its rebuilding is an important symbol of the continuity and rebirth of Jewish traditional life in Jerusalem.     Once again the voice of Jewish prayer is heard in the Hurva.  However, the building is not as open for both prayer and tourism as it should be.   There is an uneasy coexistence between the religious and the Ministry of Tourism.   Access is often blocked, as tourists are only allowed to visit at certain specific times once or twice a day, from one entrance, while those who wish to pray enter at other specific prayer times through another entrance.   Aspiring visitors are often turned away, and often cannot come back at the permitted times, and so fail to enter the "Hurva".   A building of such historical and religious significance should have more open access for all those who wish to see this splendid synagogue or pray within its walls.
Painting by Reuven Schklenker of
              Hurva pre-1948
Caption: "Hurva Pre-1948" - Painting by Reuven Shklenker

Shklov in the 19th Century

In the early years of the 19th century, Shklov's prominence as a cultural center of Russian Jewry declined rapidly.  This was due to several factors.   First, the death of Semyon Zorich in 1799 dealt a blow to the town's economic and cultural vitality.   Having died without heirs and deeply in debt, his Court was liquidated by the Imperial Treasury.   Shklov declined as a trading center and the Jews of Shklov soon experienced economic crisis. With the migration of Shklov's rabbinic elite to Israel with the Perushimm, Shklov ceased to be a bastion of rabbinic-Misnagdic culture.  The yeshiva established by Rav Benjamin Rivlin dwindled to a small local institution which no longer enjoyed national stature.   The output of Hebrew printing declined sharply.  With the departure of the Vilna Gaon's disciples, the Jewish religious culture of Shklov changed.   Without the strong opposition to the Chassidic movement articulated by disciples of the Gaon, Shklov soon experienced a growth of influence of the Chassidism and became a bastion of Chabad-Lubavich, though some families continued as followers of the Vilna Gaon.  Six of the thirty books printed in Shklov between 1813 and 1825 were treatises of Chabad Chassidim.  

At the beginning of the 19th century Shklov was still a major trading center, which boasted a wharf on the Dnieper River.    Later its economic importance was reduced.   In the second part of the 19th century, the landlord Voeykov was the master of the town, and at the end of the century the owner was Krivoshen.   In 1898 he founded a cardboard plant which later worked as a paper mill, and is presently known as the "Spartak Paper Mill."   That Spartak Paper Mill is still functioning today.     

During the 19th Century, Shklov was a predominantly Jewish town.   According to the 1897 census, at that time  Jews were 78% of the total population of Shklov.   In 1905, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, Jews made up nearly 88% of Shklov's population.   

Pre-WWII 20th Century

After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, from 1919, Shklov was within the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic (RSFSR), and from 1924 in the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR).   As Communism took hold in the 1920s, a Jewish kolkoz  (collective farm) was opened in the Shklov vicinity, called "Iskra."    During WWII, that Jewish kolkhoz was the site of a ghetto, and most of the Jewish residents of the kolkhoz were then exterminated.  

With the advent of Communism came the banning of religious practice in the Soviet Union.   In Belorussia, the Communist Party, and in particular the Jewish Section of the Party, known as the "YevSektsia" waged an extremely active campaign of propaganda and persecution against the Jewish religious way of life.   Though comprised of Jews, the goal of the YevSektsia was to destroy Jewish tradition, and wipe out Judaism as a religion.    The YevSektsia started trying to close the Jewish religious schools as early as 1924.   The Jewish schools (hederim) and yeshivas were closed down and synagogue buildings were converted to secular use.    Instead, a network of kindergartens and schools were opened where Communist ideology was taught, and notions of religion were ridiculed.   As the Jewish Communists to create a framework for a Soviet-inspired secular national-Jewish culture in Belorussia, at first a network of Jewish schools giving instruction in  Yiddish.   A Yiddish School operated in Shklov until 1934, when the Yiddish schools were shut down.  

In Shklov, as well as elsewhere in Belarus, Jews did not give up their religious way of life immediately.   Even in the late 1920s Jews still fought courageously for the right to publish prayer books and maintain synagogues.   Many hederim and yeshivot (Jewish schools) were maintained secretly.   In Shklov a very brave rabbi, Rabbi Mordechai Feinstein (brother of the well-known Rav Moshe Feinstein who emigrated to the United States) risked his life to continue running a secret underground yeshiva until the 1930s.   He was arrested in the Spring of 1936 for the "crime" of continuing to teach Torah.   Police took Rav Mordechai Feinstein away from his holiday table during the Jewish religious festival of Shavuout, and deported him to Siberia, where he later died in exile.   His efforts kept Jewish learning alive during the difficult period until the 1930s and he is remembered as a Jewish hero.    

For most of its existence the Jewish Section of the Communist Party, or "YevSektsia" as it is known in Russian, was headed by Semyon Dimanstein.   Dimanstein actually had smicha (rabbinic ordination) from the Lubavicher Rebbe, but nonetheless after becoming a staunch Communist, later being the one who interrogated the Rebbe and gave the order to arrest him.   The arrest of the Lubavicher Rebbe, Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson in 1927 was one of the shameful excesses carried out by the YevSektsia at this time.   Ironically, the YevSektsia was disbanded in 1929, and many of its leading members perished in the Great Purge in the 1930s.   Dimanstein was arrested and rec
SHKLOV JEWISHGEN WEBSITE eived death sentence in 1938 and was executed.  

The history of Shklov during World War II is covered in greater depth in a separate section.    In short, Shklov was occupied in 1941 by German forces who set about systematic program of liquidation of the Jewish population.    Only those Jews who had been serving with the Soviet forces at the Front, or who had evacuated to the East survived.  Several eye witnesses survived who were children the day the Jews were shot but managed to escape the fate of the rest of the community.   Shklov was liberated from German occupation June 28, 1944.  

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