History of the Jews in Belarus

The location of Belarus (green) in Europe
Belarusian Jews
Regions with significant populations
 Belarus12,926 (2009)-70,000 (2014)[1]
 Israel78,859 Belarusian immigrants to Israel (in the years 1989-2013)[2]
Languages
Hebrew, Russian, Yiddish and Belarusian
Religion
Judaism, Atheism
Related ethnic groups
Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Russian Jews, Ukrainian Jews, Lithuanian Jews, Polish Jews, Belarussians
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The history of the Jews in Belarus begins as early as the 8th century. Jews lived in all parts of the lands of modern Belarus. Jews were the third largest ethnic group in the country in the first half of the 20th century. Before World War II, the Jewish population had dropped from roughly 910,000 to 375,000 due to mass migrations, but Jews were still the third among the ethnic groups in Belarus and comprised more than 40% of the population in cities and towns. The population of cities such as Minsk, Pinsk, Mahiliou, Babrujsk, Viciebsk, and Homiel was more than 50% Jewish. In 1926 and 1939 there were between 375,000 and 407,000 Jews in Belarus or 6.7-8.2% of the total population which was down from roughly 13.6% of the total population in 1897.[3] Some 246,000 Jews of 375,000—66% of the Jewish population—were killed in Belarus during the Holocaust.[4] According to the 2009 national census, there were 12,926 self-identifying Jews in Belarus.[5] The Jewish Agency estimates the community of Jews in Belarus at 20,000. However, the number of Belarusians with Jewish descent is assumed to be higher.[6]

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Early history

Throughout several centuries the lands of modern Belarus and the Republic of Lithuania were both parts of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Therefore, the history of Belarusian Jews is closely related to the history of Jews in Lithuania.

As early as the 8th century Jews lived in parts of the lands of modern Belarus. Beginning with that period they conducted the trade between Ruthenia, Lithuania, and the Baltic, especially with Danzig, Julin (Vineta or Wollin, in Pomerania), and other cities on the Vistula, Oder, and Elbe.

The origin of Belarusian Jews has been the subject of much speculation. It is believed that they were made up of two distinct streams of Jewish immigration. The older and significantly smaller of the two entered the territory that would later become the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from the east. These early immigrants spoke Judeo-Slavic dialects which distinguished them from the later Jewish immigrants who entered the region from the Germanic lands.

While the origin of these eastern Jews is not certain, historical evidence places Jewish refugees from Babylonia, Palestine, the Byzantine Empire and other Jewish refugees and settlers in the lands between the Baltic and Black Seas that would become part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The later and much larger stream of immigration originated in the 12th century and received an impetus from the persecution of the German Jews by the Crusaders. The traditional language of the vast majority of Lithuanian Jews, Yiddish, is based largely upon the Medieval German and Hebrew spoken by the western Germanic Jewish immigrants.

The peculiar conditions that prevailed in Belarus compelled the first Jewish settlers to adopt a different mode of life from that followed by their western ethnic brethren. At that time there were no cities in the western sense of the word in Belarus, no Magdeburg Rights or close guilds at that time.

Some of the cities which later became the important centers of Jewish life in Belarus were at first mere villages. Hrodna, one of the oldest, was first mentioned in the chronicles of 1128. Navahrudak was founded somewhat later by Yaroslav I the Wise; Kerlov in 1250; Voruta and Twiremet in 1252; Eiragola in 1262; Halshany and Kowno in 1280; Lida, Telšiai, Vilna and Troki in 1320.