19 August 2020

The 13 centuries of Jewish
history and culture in Belarus

Paintings by Marc Chagall in the lobby in the Hotel Kazimierz II in the Old Jewish Quarter in Kraków … Marc Chagall was born in Belarus in 1887 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing earlier this morning about the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the role of religious communities in the present political crisis and upheaval in Belarus. But I ought to have discussed how Belarus has been an important centre of Jewish learning in eastern Europe for centuries.

The Jewish community in Belarus today is the third largest in the former Soviet Union – following Russia and Ukraine. According to estimates by demographers at the Hebrew University, Belarus is home to between 10,400 and 25,000 Jews. On the other hand, official statistics estimate the total population of Jewish households at 45,000, although 14,000 Jews were registered at the start of the century.

Although Jews are free to practice their Jewish religious and cultural life, an increasing number of anti-Semitic incidents has become a cause of concern for the Jews in Belarus.

The largest centre in Belarus is in Minsk, home to some 20,000 Jews. There are several thousand Jews in many of the country’s smaller cities and towns, including Bobruisk (6,000), Mogilev (6,000), Gomel (5,500) and Vitebsk (5,000), and about 500 each in Baranowicz, Borisov, Brest (around 1000), Grodno, Orsha, Pinsk and Polotsk.

There are synagogues in most towns with larger Jewish populations, and they generally provide Sunday schools for children. There are several rabbis, both local and foreign-born.

There are Jewish schools in Gomel and Minsk, and others throughout Belarus. Minsk has a Jewish People’s University that functions as an evening school and is affiliated with the Belarus State University. In 1994, a Centre for Jewish National Culture was opened in Minsk in 1994, as was a Centre for the History of the Jews of Belarus in Vitebsk.

There is a lively Jewish press, including two Jewish newspapers in Minsk and a Jewish magazine, Mishpoha.

There are numerous sites of Jewish interest, including ruins of synagogues, yeshivas and burial grounds in many towns. Many Jewish buildings are intact, although some have been put to other uses.

The Union of Belarusian Jewish Organisations and Communities – the Belarusian affiliate of the World Jewish Congress – is the major umbrella organisation of Jews in Belarus. For the most part, Jewish life is decentralised, and many local organisations are fully independently.

The history of the Jews of Belarus is closely linked to the history of Jews in Lithuania. As early as the eighth century, Jews lived in parts of the lands of modern Belarus.

An early rabbinic authority, Solomon Luria, arrived in Ostrog in the late 16th century. He was regarded as one of the greatest Talmudic authorities in Poland and Lithuania. Others included Abraham Rapoport (known also as Abraham Schrenzel), Maharam Lublin, Joel Sirkes, Meïr Katz and Mordecai Jaffe. Their decisions are frequently marked by their breadth of view.

The Cossack rebellion in 1648-1657 destroyed the organisation of the Jewish communities in Belarus, and the survivors who returned to their old homes later in the 17th century were practically destitute.

By the end of the 19th century, many Belarusian Jews were part of the general flight of Jews from Eastern Europe to the New World due to conflicts and pogroms in the Russian Empire.

The Jewish population of Belarus reached 910,900, or 14.2% of the total population, in 1897. Jews were the third largest ethnic group in the country in the first half of the 20th century.

Jewish political organisations, including the General Jewish Labour Bund, took part in the creation of the Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918. For some time in the 1920s, Yiddish was an official language in East Belarus along with Belarusian, Polish and Russian.

Following the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1920), under the terms of the Treaty of Riga, Belarus was split into Eastern Belorussia, under Soviet occupation, and Western Belorussia, under Polish occupation, and 350,000-450,000 of the Jews came into Poland. Yakov Gamarnik, a Ukrainian Jew, was First Secretary of the Communist Party of Belorussia and the de facto head of state in 1928-1929.

Up to World War II, Jews remained the third largest ethnic groups in Belarus and were more than 40% of the population in cities and towns. It was said 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 (Eastern Belorussia) or 6.7 to 8.2% of the total population.

Following the Soviet annexation of East Poland in 1939, including Western Belorussia, Belarus had 1,175,000 Jews within its borders, including 275,000 Jews from Poland, Ukraine and elsewhere.

It is estimated that 800,000 of 900,000 – 90% of the Jews of Belarus – were killed during the Holocaust. Of the Soviet Jews who were killed in the Holocaust, 246,000 Jews were Belarusian – two-thirds of all Belarusian Jews.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and Belarusian independence saw most of the community – like the majority of the former Soviet Union’s Jewish population – leave Belarus for Israel.

The painter Marc Chagall (1887-1985), the composer Irving Berlin (1888-1989) and Michael Marks, co-founder of Marks and Spencer, were born in Belarus.

The first Israeli President Chaim Weizmann (1874-1972) and former Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin (1913-1992), Yitzhak Shamir (1915-2012) and Shimon Peres (1923-2016) were all born in Belarus.

The Nobel economist Paul Krugman, the fashion designer Ralph Laurent, and the actors Kirk Douglas, Harrison Ford and Lauren Bacall – a cousin of Shimon Peres – were born into Jewish emigrant families from Belarus.

The philosopher and writer Noam Chomsky, who was born to Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia. His father Ze’ev ‘William’ Chomsky fled the Russian Empire in 1913; his mother, Elsie Simonofsky was a teacher and activist born near Minsk.

Paintings by Marc Chagall in the lobby in the Hotel Kazimierz II in Kraków … Marc Chagall was born in Belarus in 1887 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Where is the Church in
the protests in Belarus, and
has it links with the state?

President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has often attended All Saints Church, Minsk, but has described himself as an ‘Orthodox atheist’ (Photograph: Siarhei Leskiec / Belarus Digest)

Patrick Comerford

As street protests and political unrest continue to spread throughout Belarus following the recent presidential elections, what about the religious beliefs of people in Belarus?

I have wondered what is the Church saying in Belarus, and why priests are not seen on the streets of Minsk in the same way priests were seen on the streets of Kiev during similar civil disturbances in neighbouring Ukraine six years ago?

Christianity is the main religion in Belarus, and the Belarus Orthodox Church is the largest single religious group. However, the legacy of state atheism means a large number of Belarusians have no religious affiliation or identity.

The most recent estimates by the Ministry of the Interior say 48% of Belarusians are Orthodox Christians, 41% have no religion or are atheists or agnostics, 7% are Catholics in either the Roman Catholic Church, which has close ties with Poland, or the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church, a ‘uniate’ church re-established in Belarus in the early 1990s. Another 3.5% are members of other religions, including a small number of Jewish and Muslim communities.

Other statistics say 59% per cent of Belarusian people are Orthodox Christians. However, reports say many Orthodox churches empty and that as few as 18 per cent of Orthodox church members, or 5 to 10% of the population, regularly attend church services.

With such a low level of engagement by people with Church life, state support has become important in helping the Orthodox Church to hold onto its prominent role in public and civil life in Belarus.

Like other religious traditions, the Orthodox Church suffered severely during Communist rule. But, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of an independent Belarus, the Orthodox Church has become one of the important pillars of the state ideology in modern-day Belarus.

No other churches or religious traditions come close to the profile and influence the Orthodox Church enjoys in Belarus. The Orthodox Church signed an agreement with the government in 2004, giving it obtain exclusive rights of influence in the fields such as education, health care, and crime prevention.

The main church building in Minsk is the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, built in the 1630s and 1640s. But one of the most splendid buildings in the capital is All Saints’ Church, completed in 2008.

The BBC reported during a visit to Vatican in 2009 President Lukashenka described himself as an ‘Orthodox atheist.’ He has attended several celebrations in All Saints’ Church with his youngest son.

However, the Belarusian Orthodox Church is not independent and is totally integrated into and fully subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church.

After the recent conflicts in Ukraine, some sections of the Belarusian Church have expressed an interest in self-governance and separation from Moscow. But, unsurprisingly, there is no positive response from the Patriarchate of Moscow or other sections of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Belarusian Orthodox Church is officially the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in Belarus, similar to a province with a modified autonomy, but not a separate church. It represents 11 Russian Orthodox eparchies or dioceses in Belarus and is the largest religious organisation in Belarus.

The leader of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Pavel (Ponomaryov) of Minsk, is a Russian who was born in Kazakhstan in 1952. He succeeded Metropolitan Philaret who stepped down in 2013. His detractors say he congratulated Lukashenko on his recent victory, even before the official results were announced.

The Church enjoys a much smaller degree of autonomy compared to the neighbouring Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is semi-autonomous and which has remained part of the Russian Orthodox Church since the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine last year.

Easter celebrations in a church in Zaskavichy, near Minsk (Photograph: Siarhei Leskiec / Belarus Digest)

The Belarusian Orthodox Church strongly opposes the tiny and largely emigrant-based and much-smaller Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. It accuses the BAOC of using the present crisis to accuse the larger, mainstream Church of collaboration and to call on Belarusian people to demand separation from the Russian Orthodox Church and establish their own group.

The BAOC was first formed in Minsk in 1922 by people who once belonged to the Polish Orthodox Church, which was granted autocephaly by Constantinople after World War I. This Church survived in Belarus until 1938, when it was destroyed by the Soviet authorities. It was revived among exiles in the US in the late 1940s, and since the fall of the Soviet Union it has attempted to re-establish itself in Belarus.

On Thursday last [13 August 2020], Metropolitan Epiphany Dumenko, the Primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, called on the Belarusian people to ‘request a tomos from the Mother Church,’ referring to the decree from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople that granted self-rule or autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in January 2019.

‘These days, the people of Belarus are suffering greatly – our neighbours, with whom we have had many centuries of common ecclesiastical and state history,’ Metropolitan Epiphany said.

He says the Belrusian Church, like the Ukrainian Church, had been annexed in the past by the Patriarchs of Moscow and that moves like this ‘continue to have tragic consequences for Orthodoxy throughout Eastern Europe.’

‘The future of the Belarusian people, the independence of the state, the freedom and security of citizens and their lives are under threat,’ he writes. He says the Orthodox Church of Belarus ‘has the same reasons and right to request’ a decree from the Ecumenical Patriarchate or ‘Mother Church’ similar to that granted to his own church.

However, Metropolitan Pavel of Minsk denied earlier last year [January 2019] that there was any real desire for autocephaly in Belarus. He said similar action had caused much trouble in Ukraine,and would mean the destruction of the Church in Belarus.

Last week [14 August], Archbishop Svyatoslav Lohin of the BAOC issued his own appeal to the Belarusian people, calling on them to ‘protect their freedom of choice and the future of their state,’ and accusing the Belarusian Orthodox Church of un-Christian behaviour.

Archbishop Lohin is the sole bishop of the BAOC, and it has three parishes in America, one in Canada, three in Australia (Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth), and one in England (Manchester). It has no official churches in Belarus, although there are religious communities there.

While the whole civilised world stands with those who ‘defend their dignity and their voice in the presidential elections in Belarus … unfortunately, not all Christian churches in Belarus support and pray for their people,’ Archbishop Lohin says.

Despite these claims, Metropolitan Pavel has said this week that prayers are being offered for the Belarusian people and land in every church and monastery in his Church, and he has called on the Belarusian authorities and people to find a peaceful solution to the present crisis. The Holy Synod of the Belarusian Orthodox Church made the same call in a statement on Saturday [15 August 2020].

Moreover, the Church says, its clergy and laity are busy collecting medicine, food and hygiene products for people who have been injured and detained during the protests over the past two weeks.

Easter celebrations in a church in Zaskavichy, near Minsk (Photograph: Siarhei Leskiec / Belarus Digest)