My Vitebsk

by Esther (Herschman) Rechtschafner


History of Vitebsk

Vitebsk is the capital city in the northeastern district (Vitebsk oblast) of Belarus (8). It is situated 320 kilometers (200 miles) north of Minsk (9). It often opposed invasions of conquerors, because of its advantageous geographical position (10). It borders with Russia and Latvia. Its name is derived from the city originally being a river harbor on the Vitba (11).  It is situated on the banks of three rivers: Dvina,(12) Vitba and the Luchesa (13). This is a fertile region, which produces grain and various kinds of fruits (14), and can be considered the main forestry region of the Belarus Republic. There are glaciers and lakes in its vicinity (15).

The Dvina River divided the city is into two parts. There is a bridge (16) that connects these two sides of the city 17). Therefore Vitebsk was composed of two parts, one was called "The Large Side" and the other "The Small Side (18)." The "Large Side" was the business center (19).

Old Vitebsk

(Jewish quarter is at right of bridge)


City view

The Bridge today

Vitebsk was always an attractive city. The variations in natural beauty were used in the planning of the city. The city has many large parks.  The public buildings, such as schools, hospitals, courts, police, etc. are suitably located (20).

Vitebsk is one of the oldest settlements on Europe. According to legend, Princess Olga of Kiev founded it, after a successful battle against the Baltic tribe Jacviahi (21). The first chronicled information about Vitebsk is from the eleventh century (22). The city has been much heard about, since then. It was then a city of the Krivizi Tribe (23). There is a Russian Church that has existed since the 12th century (24). The city was part of the Polatsak Principality, and then the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (25); and in 1101 became an independent principality.  Trade was carried on with Smolensk, Polatsak and Riga. From 1281 to 1297 it was part of the Smolensk Duchy (26). Because of its location "from Varangians to Greeks" it was an important fortress and trade center. Since early times the town had been known as a "warrior". Therefore it is understood why its ancient emblem featured a horseman holding a spear and shield (27).



In 1320 it was annexed by Lithuania, and thus together with Lithuania became part of Poland. Then its citizens received some merchant privileges and the right of self-government. In 1410 a troop from Vitebsk, together with the Lithuanian army, Poland and Czech volunteers, took part in the Grunwald battle against the German Teuton Knights In 1597 the city was granted the Magdeburg rights charter. In 1623, the rights of an independent city were denied, as a punishment to the local inhabitants (28) who revolted, drowned and overthrew Iosafat Kuntsevich (29).

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Vitebsk suffered from aggressive wars with the Moscow Principality (later Kingdom) against Lithuania. Almost every year numerous poorly armed hordes of Muscovites ruined Eastern Belarus. Vitebsk was burned to a crisp by soldiers of Ivan the Terrible (16th century), of the czar Alexei Mikhailovich (17th century) and of Peter the First (1708). The Moscow army captured the city in 1654. Afterwards, in 1667, it was returned to Poland (30).  Vitebsk was annexed to Russia, in the first partition of Poland, in 1772 (31). After this unification with Russia, Vitebsk became an ordinary provincial town of a huge military empire (32). Vitebsk became the capital of the district in 1796 (33).  The cultural, educational, scientific, and health service development were a rapid pace. The downtown district was rebuilt in the neoclassical style under Imperial Russia (34).

During the Napoleon’s campaign in Russia of 1812, Vitebsk noblemen supported the French because the latter promised to restore self-government in the former Polish - Lithuanian kingdom; but the Russian army mobilized Belarus peasants. Despite being desperate to fight a decisive battle with the Russians, Napoleon Bonaparte decided to delay attacking for 24 hours. This gave the Russian commander Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, who had just discovered that General Bagration could not join him with his Second Army, time to withdraw his troops eastwards. A soon-to-be overrun rearguard was left behind at Vitebsk, and the main Russian force eluded Bonaparte's net (35). After the war, the Russian Czar ordered that a monument in honor of 1812 battles, be erected in Vitebsk (36).

The Russian government abolished the ancient Belarusian constitution, the famous 1588 Statute of Lithuania, and after the suppression of 1830-1831, opened Belarus for Russian colonization in 1840 (37).

Trade in Vitebsk was mainly of tobacco and flax. These products were sent to Riga, by way of the Dvina River. The completion of the Orel-Vitebsk-Dvinsk railroad, in the 1860’s, caused an increase in commerce between Vitebsk and the towns and villages of the area (38). This railroad also went into Russia and to the Baltic states (39).

The Vitebsk station was the first railway station (40), to be built in the whole of the Russian Empire (41).

The WWI front went straight through Belarus (42). During WWI, many Russian-German battles took place in Belarus, and a lot of the country was destroyed. Germany took Belarus, but in 1921 the country was divided between Poland and Bolshevik Russia (which became the USSR the next year). The Soviet section of Belarus was subjected to purges and agricultural collectivization during the 1930s, and its culture and independence were quashed. Thousands of Belarusians were executed, mostly in the forests outside Minsk (43)

Because of Soviet Rule, thousands of residents who had previously come from Lithuania and Latvia, used their rights of relocation and emigrated to the Soviet Union (44). The Yevsektsiya (45) established one of its’ Belarus-Russian centers in Vitebsk (46). It published the paper: Der royter Shetern” (The Red Star) until 1923 (47).

The Bureau of Vitebsk Historical Archives was established in 1927. It became the State Archives of the Vitebsk Region in 1938. It was the largest Archive in Belarus in 1941 (48).

The Vitebsk State Medical University was founded in 1934 (49).

World War II (50) was a very hard in Vitebsk. The Soviet Army and people's voluntary detachments did their best to save the town. It was captured by Hitler's invaders but never subdued.

On June 26, 1944 Red Army troops cleared the town of the fascist occupants. Since then, every year Vitebsk people celebrate this date. The city was then in ruins. Only 118 people survived in the basements. This was from a population of about 170,000 before the war. Only in the end of the 1960s, population of Vitebsk achieved the level of 1939.

From 1919 to 1991, Vitebsk was part of the Soviet Union (51).

Among the famous people who came from Vitebsk are: (52)

Jewish History of Vitebsk

Jews have lived in Vitebsk since the end of the 16th century (53). Up to 1551,there were only a few Jewish people there, who were impoverished both materially and spiritually (54). King Sigmund III Vasa gave a charter to the residents of the Vitebsk, in 1597, which, “in accordance with the long –held practice”, forbade Jews to live in the city (55). The residents of the city received this from King (56);  however, it appears that some Jews did live there at this time, and that they were under the protection of the local nobility (57). They received permission to run the noblemen’s inns and taverns (58). Two Jewish merchants were residents of the city in 1605 (59).

The Jewish community grew, but there was conflict with the Christian population over he rights and privileges of the community. The local ruler, S. Sangushko, permitted the construction of a Synagogue, in 1627. They received official permission to live in the city, in 1634 (60). “The Jew’s Gate” appears in a document from the 17th century (61).

Jews fought to defend the city, in the war between Poland and Moscow, in 1654. The Russians then conquered the city, and these Jews were taken captive until 1667, when peace was made with Poland. When these Jews returned to the city they faced litigation with their neighbors, who had confiscated their property. King John III Sobieski granted a charter to the Jews, which restored their privileges and promised them freedom of religion and commercial rights, in 1667 (62).

The Jewish community started to keep a Pinkas (63) in 1706, and it was kept for over 200 years. The listings were in Russian and Polish, and included debts owed by the community, taxes, and problems concerning the Jews of the surrounding villages, organized prayer groups, financial rulings (64) concerning weddings and britot, and property rulings (65).

Towns and villages in the province of Vitebsk, where Jews lived, were: Voleg (66) , Polozk, Sirotino, Pereli, Suraz, Gorodok, Yanovitchi, Ola, Austveat, Aushan, Leiningoff, Ausvia, Glazmanka, Dagda, Ilino, Drisa, Zolinz, Krasabska, Krinzberg, Koblizi, Kaman, Nevil, Nikolaybo, Zashniki, Lutzin,lepel, Sevz, Revinski, Rezitza, Varkliani, Pridroisk, Rusitza,  and Dvinsk (67).

There was a war with Sweden, in 1708, and then the Jewish quarter of Vitebsk was destroyed by fire (68). The city council showed animosity toward the Jews. Then the local residents occupied the plot where the Synagogue had stood, and built a Church there. The Lithuanian Supreme Court ordered that the land be returned to the Jews, and that they be paid 13,500 gold pieces to cover the damages (69). A few months before the verdict, Governor Potzei of Vilna ordered the removing of the cross that had been erected where the Synagogue had stood, to bury it in the cemetery and not to let such an occurrence happen again. There were large fires in 1711, 1733, 1752 and two in 1757 (70). The kings of Poland renewed and confirmed the charter of Jewish rights, freedom of religion and of trade, in 1729 and 1759 (71).

The Vitebsk Jewish Community was part of the Council of the Lands (72). It was under the jurisdiction of the Brest-Litovsk(73) community, and part of the Reisen district (74), which was subject to the Lithuanian Council (75). There were complaints in 1711 and 1738 about the Vitebsk Community (76).

In the 1780’s, the Jews were granted the right to vote in local elections; but they needed a certificate from Czarina Katrina II, to the governor of Belarus (77).

Prior to his death, Alexander I expelled all the Jews from Mohilev and the Vitebsk area on January 13,1825 (78). The Jewish community grew, because Jews were expelled from the surrounding villages (79). The Jews were best at promoting trade and industry. They were the majority in lumber, flax and tobacco trade. This was with Riga, by way of the western part of the Dvina River (80).

The Jewish community continued to grow, as commerce increased in the area, due to the railroad (81). Some Jews transferred their businesses to Vitebsk, after their expulsion from Moscow, in 1891 (82). Hundreds of Jewish tailors sewed for the Russian market (83).

The Jewish population was made up of religious learned Jews and enlightened Jews. They worked as merchants, artisans, clerks, day-workers, wagon drivers, etc (84). The majority of the Jewish workers were in trade and industry. They made up about 80% of the industry workers (85). About 400 Jews worked in lumber. Jewish carpenters worked in the manufacturing of furniture. Jews also worked manufacturing bricks and in breweries (86). Trade was in agricultural products and clothing (87). The leading merchants in the city were Jewish (88).

The city of Vitebsk was a center of religious Judaism. It was influenced both by Lithuanian Jewry- Mitnagdim (89) and Hassidim (90). The Habad (91) influence was more prominent. The Jewish community was run by a committee which supervised the Rabbinate, kosher food, meat tax, ritual baths, education, charity, caring for the sick and needy, etc. The committee members were Rabbis, judges, doctors, bankers, aristocrats, etc. The committee dealt with the community’s needs and in connection with the government (92). The community chose the “small side” of the city as the place to build a Yeshiva (93).

The first Rabbi of Vitebsk (as far as is known) was Rabbi Areh Leib. He was Rabbi of the community from 1720 through 1771 (94). Other Vitebsk Rabbis were: Rabbi Isaiah Hefetz (95), Rabbi Gershon Rivlin, Rabbi Yizchak Isaac, Rabbi Jekutiel Zalman Landau, Rabbi Dov Nachum Horowitz, Rabbi Judah Leib Shneerson, Rabbi Aba Leib Shapiro, Rabbi Meir Goldber, Rabbi Baruch Rabinowitz, Rabbi Joseph Melamed, Rabbi Shamariyah Meraliya, etc. (96)

Among the famous Chassidim who lived and worked there were Rabbi Menachem Mendel (97) and rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady (98). (99) The Aliyah of Hasidim to the land of Israel of 1772 was from Vitebsk and the surrounding area (100). Rabbi Yisrael MePolozk (101) was another great Rabbi of the same period and from the group of Lithuanian Hassidim (102). The Jewry of Vitebsk remained divided between the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim (103).

Rabbi Yizhak Isaac Behard, who was the choice of the Admor (104), was the chief Rabbi of the city from 1803 to 1860. He was also the official government appointed Rabbi (105). Afterwards Rabbi Jekutiel Zalman Landau became the chief Rabbi. He was also the head of the Yeshiva of Vitebsk. He moved to St.Petersburg, but a new chief Rabbi was not chosen, because of the dispute between the Hassidim and Mitnagdim. At the end of the 19th century, 72% (106) of the school age children studied in the heder (107) and Talmud Torah (108) schools (109).

Vitebsk was the birthplace of B. Sobiesensky (110), and of the Talmudist David (111)

The pogroms of 1880-2 in Russia weren’t felt in Vitebsk. The Jews of Vitebsk collected money to help the needy Jews.

Vitebsk was the tenth largest Jewish center in the Pale (112) of Settlement, at the beginning of the twentieth century (113). Then, the Jews played an important part in the life of the city and area (114). The majority of Jews (52.09%) were concentrated in the cities and towns, ["mestechki", shtetls] where almost all of the industry and trade was in their hands. In every town of the Vitebsk Gubernia the Jews make up at least 1/2 of the total population (115).

The influx of Jews who had been expelled from Moscow strengthened the Haskalah (116) elements in Vitebsk (117). Various Jewish movements began to develop: the Zionist Hibbat Zion (118) movement, the socialist movement, the Bund (119). Vitebsk became one of the Bund’s first centers.

At first the Jews of Vitebsk heard of the awakening of the Zionist movement from the Hebrew newspapers: “Hameletz”, “Hamagid”, and HaShachar”.  A library was organized in a room of the home of the teacher Chitin, where newspapers and other Zionist literature were kept. This was the beginning of the “Hovevei Zion” organization in Vitebsk. The topic of Zionism was discussed with Aliyah as a goal.

This created a strong negative force among religious Jewry, for some thought it against Jewish law (120). However, one of the wealthiest Jews of Vitebsk, Rabbi Moshe Vitenberg did come on Aliyah with his family. He built a part of the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem, the Vitenberg houses (121). Visitors came to Vitebsk to speak about the goals of the Zionist organization. They gave long speeches in the Synagogues (122). Vitebsk became a center for the selling of etrogim from the Israel (123). The Hebrew writer Reuven Brinen came from Moscow to reside in Vitebsk. He had a great influence on the “national values” and his home became a center of the Hibbat Zion movement (124). A modern “heder” was organized, which served as a center for the promotion of the Hebrew language material (125).  A special Hebrew library was organized for “Hibbat Zion” material.(126) Reports of bad things happening in Israel, such as the attitude to religion among the young people (127), helped the non-Zionists (128).

Zionism was mainly cultural, but had political, economical (charity), social (meetings, groups) and physical (Aliyah [129] and government run anti-Zionist activities) aspects (130).  The youth also took interest in Zionism (131). The Kadimah Zionist Organization sent a few young couples on Aliyah (132). Women were also took part in the Zionist activities (133).

Herzl, political Zionism and the Zionist Congress made a big impression on the Vitebsk Zionist community (134).

The Zionist organization became very strong in Vitebsk and had many good and influential leaders and members: Areh Freedman-Lvov (135), Moshe Shelgi (136), Moshe Vitenberg (137), Shlomo Midbari (138), Zev Cahanov (139), Rachel Rabin-Arnon (140), Chaim Lev Harifai (141), Dr. Korlzok (142), Dr. Liberman (143), , the write Ya’kov Rabinowitz (144), the teacher Meir Margargot (145) and others. Among the well-known Zionists of Vitebsk was Israel Zev Wolfson. In addition to being a publicist, a Hassid of Chabad, he was also a Zionist. He came to live in Israel in 1925. An expression of his love for Israel can be felt in this story: When one of his acquaintances was asked to list the population of Haifa, he remarked, “ to state the number of Jews in Israel is a holy act” (146). Many of these Zionists succeeded in coming on Aliyah (147).

The Zionist leader Gregori (Zvi) Hirsch Brook (148) was selected as the official government appointed Rabbi”, in 1901. He had great influence on the community, which lasted even after the authorities disposed of him. This was due to his signing the Wyborg Proclamation, when he was a delegate to the first Duma (149) (150). Gregory (Zvi) Mierovitz (151) managed to collect large sums of money and to send them on to Israel. The “HeHalutz” (152) organization took root in Vitbsk in 1918. Then Joseph Trumpeldor (153) visited Vitebsk and spoke in the Great Synagogue. He also participated in the Regional Council meeting of ”HeHalutz”, which met in Vitebsk in 1919 (154). A branch of the Poeli-Zion organization began then (155).

Many Zionists felt a need for a way to send charity to build up the land of Israel. Many tried to give charity: the “shekel”. The religious were impressed by this term, which comes from the Bible:) (156). This was done by various organizations such as “Shivat Zion” (Return to Zion) and “Sha’ari Zion” (Gates of Zion).

Charity was collected and sent to the Jewish national Fund to help build up the land of Israel. Zelig Beilin was very active in the collecting of the funds (157). Much of the correspondence to do with this charity took place in Hebrew (158). The donations were (159) sent by way of Grodno (160). The donators were very particular as to how the charity was donated, received and listed.(161) Sometimes reasons were given for collections (162). The Jewish National Fund stated that the contributions from Vitebsk were good, in relationship to the size of the city (163). There was some political problem with Ruppin (164) (165) He stated that charity could only be sent for the use of the Jewish National Fund, and not for any other reason. He wasn’t able to send reports every week of what was doing with the JNF (166). Mr. Beilin asked what happened to the JNF collection boxes that he was supposed to receive to give out to the community members (167).

The “Hatikvah” was sung by all at the end of Zionist meetings (168). These were also social meetings, sometimes there were guest speakers, and sometimes explanatory pamphlets were distributed (169). Vitebsk Zionists were invited and went to the National Zionist Convention in Moscow in April 1920. They saw a play put on by “HaBima” (170), even though the government was against this activity. All the delegates at this convention were arrested. They decided to continue with the convention in jail. After they were freed they continued with their Zionist work (171).

The development of the Zionism movement caused the Talmud Torah to be converted into a Hebrew School (172). 

The community especially wanted to help with the sending of the orphans of Kishinev, after the pogroms there in 1905, to Israel (173). They heard about the Uganda program, but none of the Vitebsk Zionists were for it (174).  Herzl was mourned deeply in Vitebsk (175). The Beilis (176) blood-libel was followed, and there was a big celebration when the truth came out. This did however did aid anti- Zionists and Anti-Semitism (177).

Several private gymnasiums opened up, after 1905 (178), and most of their students were Jewish. Y. Pen (179), the artist, opened an art school, which trained hundreds of young people. Among its’ students were Marc Chagall (180), S. Yudovin (181), Abel Pan (182), Amos Tsadkin (183), Oskar Mietchoninov, and others (184). Chagall, Ansky and Zhitlovsky were from Vitebsk  (185). The Vitebsk group of artists occupies an important and honored place in Jewish art (186). Marc Chagall loved his native Vitebsk very much. This is obvious from the dedication that he wrote for the Vitebsk Memorial Book (187).

Other famous people who came from Vitebsk were S. An-Ski (188), C. Zhitlovsky  (189) and M. Segal (190), (191) and Immanuel Velikovsky (192).

The Russian-Japanese War caused a large draft for Russian Jews, including of course the Jews of Vitebsk. Since they were associated with the various political groups, the awakening of revolutionary forces, caused trouble among them. This, in turn caused problems in the Jewish Autonomy. It also caused an uprising of Anti-Semitism (193).

World War I began. Announcements were received by telegram. Refugees arrived in Vitebsk. This caused economic problems, physical problems of settling refugees in Vitebsk, and worry about the Jews who were inside of Russia. The Jewish Community Committee aided the refugees(194). Vitebsk served as a station for many of the Jews who were expelled from Lithuania.  Some (195) stayed there permanently (196). People were “kidnapped to volunteer” to aid the army in digging trenches. The poorer people were frightened of this. The Jewish Community Committee planned for a way to pay these people (197). On Chanukah of 1915, Zionists were arrested and put in jail, for what they had said about Zionist hopes and aspirations ”to be a free people in our own land” (198).

A 15-year-old student of the famous Rabbi “Chafetz Chaim” (199) arrested for spying, and then put in the Vitebsk prison. The “Chafetz Chaim” came to Vitebsk for the trial. While he was there he delivered a sermon in one of the Synagogues. He took the “guilty” verdict calmly, remarking, ”let’s see what will soon happen!” Two weeks later the Czarist government fell and all the prisoners were set free. Of course, there was a big celebration at the prison gates (200). There was fear that the Russian soldiers may attack the Jews, if they were in want of food or drink. Therefore a place to eat and rest was set up for them (201).

On Shavuot, the Zionists, who had been arrested, returned home (202). Zionism became even stronger, even though there were conflicts with the other political groups. There was an ”All Russia Zionist meeting” and three representatives from Vitebsk attended: Zaks, Glusker, and Beilan. There were municipal elections in Vitebsk, and three Zionist representatives were given positions on the city council (203). The Talmud-Torah building was returned by the government and was renovated for community use (204).

After the revolution of 1917, at the beginning of the period of Soviet rule, the overall political situation was in upheaval (205). Jews, who had originally come from Latvia and Lithuania, left from within the borders of the USSR (206). Jewish community life declined under Soviet rule (207). The official aim was to erase all traces of Jewish life (208). This was also felt in Zionist meetings, with the rise of the young leftists (209). Anti-Semitism was felt, and there were economic problems in the community. The government closed the Zionist center (210). Many Jews became factory workers and government clerks, though others remained in their previous jobs (211). The Jews became suspicious of non–Jewish acquaintances, which were government workers (212).

In the summer of 1918 the feeling of Anti-Semitism worsened. Heavy taxes were enforced, which caused financial problems (213) for people on all strata. Hundreds of people were arrested and therefore many decided to leave the city (214), “soup-kitchens” were organized. Jewish government officials, who worked for Jewish causes worked together with the Jewish community to help the needy. Then the Bolshevik government began to deal with Jewish Education and religious tradition. There was a problem in obtaining flour for Pesach (215).

In the same year Marc Chagall founded an Art Academy in Vitebsk. Many Jews taught and studied there.

Yiddish was the language of many of the Jewish schools. There was a Teachers Seminary for preparing teachers for these elementary schools (216).

In August 1919, the Zionists were told that they had to stop their work, and that all Zionistic material should be handed over toe the government. Many Zionists had their homes searched. Zionists were questioned (217).

Jews in the vicinity of Vitebsk were murdered. The government had fair trials for the murderers. The Jews were still very frightened because of these events (218).

A very rich Jewish woman who had made a will before the revolution leaving a huge sum to Jewish charities, died. The government confiscated her savings (219).

In the summer of 1920, Russian and Lithuanian representatives met to make peace between them and set the borders. Dr. S. Rosenbaum, the Lithuanian representative, wanted the Vitebsk area included in Lithuania. According to legend, when he was asked how he chose where the border should be, his answer was ” places where the Jews say ‘Sabat Salom’, and not ‘Shabbat Shalom’, should be part of Lithuania” (220).  This was due to the way that the Jews of Lithuania spoke (221).

There was a public trial “over the Heder”, in 1921 (222). Even before the trial began, the Jews reacted and demonstrated strongly against it. The charges were against the type of education, the unreliable teachers, and the bad influence on the students. After the trial and the guilty verdict, the government was not very happy for many Jewish families continued sending their children to other “chedarim” or for similar education (223). Several of the city’s synagogues were confiscated (224). The church was willing to help the Jews with this problem, but this offer was not accepted. Some of the clerks in the government office, claimed to want to help the Jews, but there was a general feeling that they could not be trusted. The government took all the Torah scrolls and Jewish prayer books out of these synagogues, by truck, to a remaining synagogue, with much disregard. They were found desecrated there. The chief rabbi of Moscow was of course notified about what had happened. There was a demonstration and a petition was signed (225). (226)

It was decided to send a delegate to Moscow to try to reach an agreement.  Permission was granted for this trip. The answer to the request was that a committee would be sent to investigate. The committee decided to designate another building to be used as a synagogue.  The previous synagogue compound was opened up as a cultural center just before Rosh Hashana (227) .

The He-Halutz movement was harassed and ceased to exist in the 1920s (228). A semi-legal Habad yeshiva existed until 1930 (229).

During the 1930’s, there was a Pedagogic Institute in the Jewish section of the municipality. By the end of the 1930’s, all the Jewish educational institutes that were run in Yiddish were closed (230).

Before World War II, Vitebsk was predominantly Jewish and there were over twenty synagogues. (231)

The Holocaust  (232)

Before WWII, there were 50,000 Jews living in Vitebsk (233).

There are few that are able to tell of the Holocaust, for no survivor of what happened in Vitebsk was found (234). It seems that the Nazis succeeded in Vitebsk. Reports were kept by the Nazis in their archives, which were of help in understanding what had happened (235).

The Second World War was a great ordeal for the Belarus. Belarus was one of the first areas to be invaded by the German troops (236).

The Germans used many methods of propaganda (237) against the Jews. The local Vitebsk population didn’t help them (238). Many Polish refugees came to Vitebsk in 1939 (239). The physical conditions were difficult. There was a shortage of food. Since the Jews were predominant in local Soviet government, anti-Jewish feelings grew among population, which then tended to regard the oncoming Germans as deliverers (240). In July 1941 the Vitebsk region, once again, became an area of fierce battles.  It was clear to all that Vitebsk was the gateway to Moscow (241). German troops had crossed the border to the Soviet Union on July 22, 1941. The German air force heavily bombed the city, and aimed to enter the Soviet Union. By July 3, the German advance had been stopped at the line of the Western Dvina for a week, because of the local forces. Then municipality ordered the evacuation of the city (242). The local population and industry were then evacuated, to the East, by the Soviet regime; many others tried to escape (243). Part of the Jewish population, most of them municipal workers, was evacuated. Part of the Jewish population fled to the interior of Russia (244). Many men were drafted into the Red Army. Many of the evacuees were forced to return to Vitebsk, due to the quickness of the German army, and the fact that many escaped by foot, due to the absence of train coaches (245). Then the German Command used aviation and tank corps, and by July 10, the Nazis had captured Vitebsk, despite the resistance of the Red Army and the town's volunteer combat units.

Vitebsk was completely captured by the Germans on July 11, 1941 (246). Before retreating, the Red Army destroyed the city by starting a fire (247). Parts of the city were destroyed and burnt because of the fighting (248), including much of the old city (249). Immediately, the Jews suffered persecution, forced labor, and murder (250). During the following week, the German soldiers already murdered tens of the Jews of Vitebsk (251). Afterwards 27 Jews were caught, and found guilty of not showing up for the hard labor (252). They were shot to death in the center of the city (253). About 40 Jews were murdered on the bank of the Zapadnaya Dvina River on July 18, 1941 (254). Many refugees were arrested on July 24, 1941. Most of them were Jews. They were murdered outside of the city limits. Every day Jews were kidnapped for forced labor. One day 300 young people were chosen from those who had been kidnapped. They were found guilty of starting fires and put to death. Jews, between the ages of 16-56, were ordered to work for the Germans (255).

During the first weeks of the war the Judenrat (256) was organized.  The members were both men and women. At first the Judenrat was the responsible for filling the quota of Jews to be sent to forced labor (257). This task included the organizing of groups of workers, providing them with tools and food, bringing them to their work, and making a list of the Jewish population including those of mixed marriages (258), including children and grandchildren of mixed marriages; and afterwards (259) all the Jewish organizations inside the Ghetto. During the first two weeks of the war the Jews were concentrated in a few places, and on July 25, 1941 they were all ordered to go to the Ghetto within the next two days. The Ghetto was situated on the right bank of the Zapadnaya Dvina River, near the train station and the metal workers center. This was a neighborhood that was made up of mainly ruined and burnt houses. At first the Ghetto wasn’t fenced in, but soon after it was enclosed by a wooden fence; and a barbed wire fence and gate were put up on September 8, 1941. Thus the Ghetto was established in the town and 16,000 Jews were imprisoned there (260), in this small area (261). While Jews were crossing the river on their way to the Ghetto (262), the Germans drowned about 2-300 hundred of them. Belarus policemen guarded the Ghetto (263).

There were continuous murders of individuals and of groups of people (264). The Jews were ordered to wear the mark of recognition, the yellow badge, on their chests and on their backs. During these first weeks of the War, the Underground, that served this area succeeded in sending 25 Jewish families, by way of the front, into Russia (265).

The Germans selected approximately 300 men, between the ages of 14 to 55 for hard labor. They were all murdered in the Mazurino area, which is near the city, for they were accused of setting the city on fire on July 24, 1941 (266). The Ensatzkommando 9 (267) rounded up and murdered 332 Jewish intellectuals on August 12 (268).

Jews who had previously been in a camp for citizens, who were prisoners of war (269), were found guilty of organizing a revolt and 397 were killed on September 4, 1941. Any Jews who weren’t in the Ghetto were killed whenever they were found (270).

The Jews that went to the forced labor received a daily portion for 300 grams of bread. Aside from bits of soup, the other residents of the Ghetto didn’t receive any food from the Germans. Many Jewish youths tried not to go to the forced labor and hid in the Ghetto, for it was known in the city that many that went were murdered. The Ghetto was quite crowded, some lived in dilapidated houses.  Some even lived outside. The conditions got even worse when Jews from the neighboring villages and Jews that were found hiding in the city were brought there. Therefore the physical and sanitary conditions were quite hard there. The only Jews that remained outside of the Ghetto were tradesmen who worked for the Germans, eight Jewish doctors, a few pharmacists and the families of the Jewish committee (271). 

Local Belarusians entered the Ghetto during the first weeks and traded food for belongings. The Germans constructed a pipe, by which water was sent into the Ghetto. The Germans forbade these Belarusians to enter the Ghetto on September 16, 1941, and therefore the situation got worse. Even though it was forbidden for Jews to leave the Ghetto without official permission, many Jews, especially youths, did leave in order to find food. In September, the Germans caught and murdered Jews that were trying to leave the Ghetto, by way of the sewers (272).

On September 30, 600 Jews of the Vitebsk Ghetto were shot in a ravine. The children were buried alive (273). There were very few Jewish men remaining in the Ghetto.

On October 1, 52 Jews, refugees from the city of Gorodok (274) who lived in Vitebsk, were murdered (275). A Nazi ambushed all these Jews who were on their way from Kornitz to Vitebsk (276). Young Jews fled to the forests in the area and joined up with the Soviet Partisans (277), although this was very hard in the winter.

The conditions in the Ghetto were hard; there was famine, and sickness (278). The systematic liquidation of the Vitebsk Ghetto began on October 8, 1941; on the pretext of epidemics that allegedly emanated from the place; and this was a basis for the beginning of a plague (279). In the course of the three-day (280) mass murder (281) Aktion, 4090 (282) Jews were taken by truck to the Vitbe River (283), where they were shot and their bodies hurled into the water. Thus the Vitebsk Ghetto was liquidated and more than 1600 Jews were killed. 

The local population was witness to this; however the people claimed that they just looked. Babies were taken to a different place. The Nazis reported 4090 Jews were murdered on December 19, 1941. This means that many were murdered or died previously. There was a camp for prisoners nearby. The 207 Jewish prisoners were taken out and murdered. It seems that there were Jewish Partisans in the vicinity in January 1942 (284).

A few Jewish doctors and pharmacists remained in Vitebsk after the liquidation of the Ghetto. Some of these were murders in 1942, after they had fled to the Partisans. The number of Jewish that were murdered or died in Vitebsk at the time of the holocaust is evaluated to be between 6500 and 8000.

According to the plans of the German Command, Vitebsk was to become a strong point of the German Army in the East. The Secret Nazi Police, the Gestapo, Security Service (CD), a large garrison, headquarters and hospitals functioned there. Repression spread on a large scale. The inhabitants, especially the Jews, were shot by thousands. They were buried in common-graves.

The underground resistance movement developed, and its goals were reconnaissance, propaganda and sabotage. It was supported by partisan detachments that were very active in rural areas.

At the end of 1941 the Red Army launched a counter-offensive and won back a large amount of the territory. As a result, the famous (Vitebsk gate), - a 40 km gap between the German army groups (Nord and Center), was created in the wooded and marshy area, 60 kilometers the northeast of Vitebsk (285). The Red Army was able to communicate with the partisan detachments through this gap. The Partisans aided the underground. The underground resistance spread on a high scale, underground workers exploded military trains and bridges, killed collaborators and got intelligence data. There were about 60 underground groups in Vitebsk during the entire occupation. In 1943 the Vitebsk underground numbered 847 underground workers. The German Security Service arrested about 130 underground workers from February through October 1943, and therefore put an end to much of the underground activity. Then the Nazis killed approximately a third of the underground. The underground resistance continued until Nazis (286) declared Vitebsk, a fortress and all the population had been removed from the town.

By the summer of 1944 the Red Army became stronger. An attack against the central part of the German front line began on June 23 1944. About 900,000 soldiers from aviation, tank and artillery corps took participated. This was called the ‘Belarus operation’.  Vitebsk was attacked by the 43rd Army commanded by General Beloborodov from the northeast, and by the 39th Army commanded by General Ludnikov from the southeast (287). Their plan was to encircle and destroy the 3rd German tank corps, which was situated in Vitebsk area. The German Commander General-Colonel Reinhgart realized that the this unit could be exterminated, and therefore on the morning of June 24, he asked Hitler for permission to surrender. Hitler ordered that Vitebsk must be held. The 206th infantry division was to hold Vitebsk and the 53rd infantry corps was to break out  of the encirclement. The German troops weren’t able carry out the order or even leave Vitebsk. Fighting began in Vitebsk on June 25. Vitebsk was seized by the Soviet troops, after fierce street fights, by the following morning. The town was razed to the ground. Only 15 buildings survived. On the morning of liberation, the population of Vitebsk numbered 186 people. On the whole, during the war 240,000 inhabitants of the Vitebsk region, nearly a third of its population, were killed in action or in the Nazi concentration camps (288).(289)

When the Russian army freed the city on June 26, 1944 no Jews were found there (290). The exact number of Jews from Vitebsk that were murdered in the Holocaust is not known (291).

There is a Memorial Forest in Netiv Halemed-He, near Jerusalem (292).

Vitebsk -After the War

Vitebsk, like most other large cities in Belarus, was ravaged by World War II (293).

Today Vitebsk draws many tourists (294) and countless foreign art students (295). The size of the city is approximately 4 square miles (296). Most of its buildings (297) were built in the 1950s and at the beginning of the 1960s (298). The population of Vitebsk was 342,381, in 2004. Thus, it is the fourth largest city in Belarus (299).

Moscow Ave. This avenue stretches for nearly 4km in the southern part of Vitebsk. It ends at the entrance of the
road to Moscow. The
Vitebsk State University and the Vitebsk Technological University are situated here.

Vitebsk has kept its small town atmosphere, and can be a nice place to relax (300). The picturesque neighborhoods of Vitebsk, and its ancient streets were always attractive for painters (301).

Vitebsk today is one of the major industrial (302), scientific and cultural centers of the Belarus republic The city has medical, veterinary, teacher-training, and polytechnic institutes (303).

Vitebsk is the seat of the provincial department of justice, courts and public prosecutor and notary offices (304)

The area is considered the Free Economic Zone "Vitebsk" (FEZ) [305]. A branch of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BelCCI) is situated here (306).  The Vitebsk Region annually attracts some $25-30 million foreign investments. These are usually trade loans for purchase of materials and equipment, leasing of automobile transport and equipment, and/or contributions to charter funds of commercial entities. About 150 companies with foreign interest operate in the region; with a total charter fund approximately $42 million (307).

The Vitebsk State Medical University (308) trains students to be doctors and pharmacists. There are also foreign students, who study for doctor and master’s degrees in these fields. Graduates are trained in 39 specialties; this includes residency in 22 specialties.

There are also post-graduate courses in 23 specialties, and courses for a doctor' s degree in 15 specialties. The faculty functions with the purpose of professional orientation of the youth and improvement of the general education level. The standards of admission rise every year (309).

Cultural life flourishes in Vitebsk. The Belarusian State Academic Theater, named after Yakub Kolas, is one of the oldest in the state. There are numerous cinemas, libraries, clubs and other cultural activities (310).

Recently, the Concert Hall was renovated.  A pipe organ was installed in two cases on both sides of the stage. This is the first such instrument in Vitebsk (311).

Although Vitebsk much suffered from numerous wars, the sights that have been saved are: Governor's palace (before 1772), Rathaus (Coloncha) the former City Hall (1775), St. Barbara's Catholic church (1785, rebuilt in the end of the 19 century), St. Michael church (18 century), parts of the Basilian and Bernardin Catholic monasteries (18 century), and some nice quarters of the old town,  and the monument in honor of 1812 (312). (313)

There are organized tours, which show off these places (314). Here is an example: seeing the location of Vitebsk on the picturesque banks of three rivers, touring the Chagall House Museum (315) which includes the art-center where Chagall's works are displayed and the House-Museum where Chagall's family used to live at the beginning of the 20th century; and after dinner at a local restaurant, continuing by railroad on the overnight train to Moscow (B,D:TRAIN DVINA)  [316]

Vitebsk takes much pride in the fact that Marc Chagall was a native of the city (317). There are two museums dedicated to painter Marc Chagall. (318). In June 1992, the monument in honor of Marc Chagall was erected on his native Pokrovskaja Street and a plaque with a memorial inscription was put on the wall of his house (319). It is said in Vitebsk that there's no business like Chagall business (320). 

Jews in Vitebsk – After the War

Jews began to settle in Vitebsk after its liberation. Some Jews returned. Some came because of the location (321). In 1946, there were 500 Jews in Vitebsk. In the later 1960’s there were 20,000 Jews in Vitebsk, but no Synagogue (322).

The Jewish Agency runs Jewish Community Center. A representative of the Jewish Agency from Minsk runs it (330). Vitebsk is part of this jurisdiction (331). The Joint, (332) and Hesed (333) organizations also have some social and cultural activities (334).

Recently, on July 13, 2004, the Jewish Community of Vitebsk celebrated the first Jewish wedding after 80 years. The wedding ceremony was done according to Jewish tradition, and the Chief Rabbi of Belarus, Rabbi Yosef Gruzman, was invited to conduct the ceremony (352).

Today the Jewish community of Vitebsk, similar to other remote and/or needy Jewish communities, receives help from other Jewish communities (356).

The Joint, Hesed and Yad Yisroel Organizations give social aid and help to the Vitebsk Jewish community. The workers are local, and about a half of them are Jewish (357). The volunteer workers are mainly Jews who now live in Vitebsk (358).


As I wrote in the introduction, to this article, my main reason for writing was to learn about the history of the Jews of Vitebsk. Now that I have finished, I feel that I have succeeded in doing so. I am also sure that there still is more important and interesting things about Vitebsk, which I do not know. Yet, I do hope that others will also benefit from the research that I have done.

I tried my best to get information about the current situation of the Jews of Vitebsk.  Most of this information was received by word of mouth. It hurts me that the Vitebsk community is now in need of aid from various organizations.

I learned many interesting things, while writing this article. I also learned things, which make it easier for me to understand about my Family. I understand how Jewish life was in Vitebsk, as far as religion, Zionism, socialism, and enlightenment are concerned. I also understand the big part that Anti-Semitism played in the life of this flourishing Jewish community. I have learned to love the Vitebsk that my Father loved; and understand now not only the emotional reasons, but also the logical reasons for this feeling.

As far as getting information from Yad Vashem, which came from Nazi propaganda films, this question arose due to this research and still remains dilemma for me

As understood, I am sad that the Jewish center that was Vitebsk is no more. I know now, that today there is a Jewish community in Vitebsk, and wish them much luck in their development. I feel that we should love and honor the memory of what was the Jewish community of Vitebsk, and therefore this way the Vitebsk that was, can continue to exist in our hearts. Now though, we must be take what we learned from this community, and be practical and hope and pray for a good future for the Jewish people in the State of Israel.