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Jewish Population

The Jewish community of Belarus is the third largest in the post-Soviet era, after Russia and Ukraine. The Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Associations and Communities (UBJOC) estimates that there are 45,000 Jewish households in Belarus.


About 57,000 Jews have emigrated to Israel since 1989. According to the state census that took place around the turn of the century, only approximately 14,000 Jews were counted. Of those Jews, most live in Minsk, followed by Bobruisk, Mogilev, Gomel, and Vitebsk. There are numerous Jewish religious places, schools, a Jewish people's university, and a Jewish Press, which is considered "alive." There are cases of anti-Semitism in Belarus, but fewer than in other post-Soviet countries.


Until the Second World War, Eastern Europe was one of the most important Jewish cultural areas. Almost a million Jews lived in Belarus in 1897, representing 14% of the population. Now, one hundred twenty years later, only about 135,400 Jews (1%) are left.


Culturally and linguistically, the Jewish settlement area of Eastern Europe was divided into three regions: Polish, Galician, and Lithuanian-Belarusian Jewry. Belarusian Jews played an essential role in both the Jewish socialist and Zionist movements. Northeastern Yiddish was characteristic of Judaism in Belarus-Lithuania. Culturally, the Jewish Haskala (Enlightenment) movement spread rapidly and widely in Belarus from Vilna (Poland), which was then the center of Jewish learning.


In the late 18th century, Belarusian Jews were given legal equality in the Russian Tsarist Empire under Catherine the Great. However, the reforms from above did not bring about the politically intended assimilation. Large sections of the Jewish population became impoverished and emigrated as a result of forced resettlement. After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, pogroms also broke out in some Belarusian cities.


During World War I, the Jews were expelled from the western part of the country, which was a combat zone. After many pogroms, the Jews' hope for protection soon replaced their initial skepticism about the Bolshevik revolutionaries who had overthrown the tsardom in February 1917.


Semitism increased in the BSSR. Jews were increasingly discriminated against in the social and tax systems, with degraded as disenfranchised persons («Lishenets»). Consequently, many emigrated. Under Stalin, the practice of religion was suppressed in favor of the atheistic state ideology. Synagogues and Yiddish schools were closed in droves. The Jews had greater freedoms in Polish Western Belarus until the Second World War broke out and the Red Army occupied the area. In Belarus too, many members of the Jewish intelligentsia and those denounced as political “traitors» fell victim to the “Great Terror» under Stalin.


In the summer of 1941, at the time of the German Wehrmacht invasion, around 690,000 Jews were still living in Belarus. The first mass execution occurred within the first few weeks of the attack. More than half a million Jews were murdered in Belarus, effectively annihilating Belarusian Jewry. Those who survived the ghettos, extermination camps, and deportations fought bravely in the army or as partisans, hid with partisans or the civilian population, or saved themselves by securing non-Jewish papers.


The non-Jewish population hid and saved many Jews from the Nazis. There are 807 Belarusian «Righteous Among the Nations» registered at Yad Vashem, representing the highest proportion of European countries relative to a country's population. Likely, the true number of Belarusian «Righteous Among the Nations» is higher since significant parts of Belarus are now considered Polish territory.


In the post-war period, Jews in Belarus continued to be restricted from freely practicing their religion and culture. In the 1970s and 1980s, Belarus was even a center of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. Only perestroika (a political movement for reform within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) during the late 1980s) and the collapse of the Soviet Union and Soviet republics made it possible to revive Jewish culture. Once the Soviet Union fell, Jewish communities and schools, as well as regional and national organizations, were formed.

Sources and further information:


European Jewish Congress,

The Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe,

Project «Voices of the Jewish Settlements»,

Rüthers, Monica & Schwara, Desanka:Portraits of regions, in: Haumann, Heiko (ed.): Air people and rebellious daughters. On the change in Eastern Jewish lifestyles in the 19th century, pp. 11-70


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