Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk

Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk

by Elissa Bemporad


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Minsk, the present capital of Belarus, was a heavily Jewish city in the decades between the world wars. Recasting our understanding of Soviet Jewish history, Becoming Soviet Jews demonstrates that the often violent social changes enforced by the communist project did not destroy continuities with prerevolutionary forms of Jewish life in Minsk. Using Minsk as a case study of the Sovietization of Jews in the former Pale of Settlement, Elissa Bemporad reveals the ways in which many Jews acculturated to Soviet society in the 1920s and 1930s while remaining committed to older patterns of Jewish identity, such as Yiddish culture and education, attachment to the traditions of the Jewish workers' Bund, circumcision, and kosher slaughter. This pioneering study also illuminates the reshaping of gender relations on the Jewish street and explores Jewish everyday life and identity during the years of the Great Terror.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253008138
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 04/01/2013
Series: Modern Jewish Experience Series
Pages: 292
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Elissa Bemporad is Jerry and William Ungar Assistant Professor in East European Jewish History and the Holocaust at Queens College, City University of New York. She is editor (with Margherita Pascucci) of Conzeniana, a series in Yiddish literature and culture.

Read an Excerpt

Becoming Soviet Jews

The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk

By Elissa Bemporad

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Elissa Bemporad
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00827-5


Historical Profile of an Eastern European Jewish City

In Eudoxia, which spreads both upward and down, with winding alleys, steps, dead ends, hovels, a carpet is preserved in which you can observe the city's true form. At first sight nothing seems to resemble Eudoxia less than the design of that carpet, laid out in symmetrical motives whose patterns are repeated along straight and circular lines.... But if you pause and examine it carefully, you become convinced that each place in the carpet corresponds to a place in the city and all the things contained in the city are included in the design, arranged according to their true relationship, which escapes your eye distracted by the bustle, the throngs, the shoving.... An oracle was questioned about the mysterious bond between two objects so dissimilar as the carpet and the city. One of the two objects–the oracle replied–has the form the gods gave the starry sky and the orbits in which the worlds resolve; the other is an approximate reflection, like every human creation.... But you could ... come to the opposite conclusion: that the true map of the universe is the city of Eudoxia, just as it is, a stain that spreads out shapelessly, with crooked streets, houses that crumble one upon the other amid clouds of dust, fires, screams in the darkness.

In the Beginning

Home to Polish aristocrats and landlords, Jewish merchants and artisans, Russian-Orthodox and Uniate (Greek Catholic) merchants, and a small community of European Muslims, or Tatars, Minsk was located in the heart of Belorussia, the region enclosed by historic Russia to the northeast, Lithuania to the northwest, Ukraine to the south, and Poland to the west. Over the centuries, the city moved across geopolitical borders, which resulted in altering its geocultural profile. Part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania since the fourteenth century, the city was incorporated into the Russian empire at the end of the eighteenth century. It rested surrounded by villages and rural settlements inhabited primarily by Orthodox peasants who spoke Belorussian, and Jewish merchants and artisans who spoke Yiddish. While the official documents of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were drafted in Old Eastern Slavonic, or Ruthenian (a predecessor of modern Belorussia), under Polish-Lithuanian rule Polish became the official language used by the aristocracy and royal administrators in Minsk. When the tsar stepped in, in 1793, Russian replaced Polish as the linguistic medium employed by the new government's bureaucracy. Built by the Poles in the fourteenth century, inhabited by the Jews since the sixteenth century, and administered by the Russians since the late eighteenth century, until the end of the nineteenth century the streets of Minsk echoed mostly with Polish, Yiddish, and Russian.

The Minsk Jewish community dated back to the early sixteenth century, when Polish King Stefan Batory granted a few Jewish families their first charter allowing them to trade within the city limits in exchange for liquid assets. Mostly engaged in tax collection, lease-holding, and handicrafts, from the beginning Jews played a prominent role in the city's commercial life. Not unlike the rest of early modern Europe, however, their prosperity depended on their competition with the local Christian merchants, who pressured the king to invalidate the charter rights. In a few instances the king gave into the demands of the local Orthodox population. But practical judgment and economic profit ultimately guided his decision concerning the status of the Jewish population. Throughout the seventeenth century, the Polish-Lithuanian crown granted the Jewish community permission to buy land for a cemetery, acquire real estate on the city market square, and engage in commerce without noticeable restrictions. When the merchants of the bigger and wealthier Jewish community of Brisk (Brest-Litovsk) (which had jurisdiction over the Minsk Jewish community in religious and fiscal affairs) tried to prevent Minsk Jews from attending the fair in Mir—a major commercial hub at the time—King Jan III personally intervened and ruled in favor of the Minsk merchants. This unusual case of the crown meddling with internal Jewish affairs reflects the extent to which Minsk Jewish businessmen served the king's interests in the region during the seventeenth century.

Statistics from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries confirm the economic standing of the Minsk Jewish community. In 1797, 10,625 Jews (and 7,008 Russian Orthodox) belonged to the urban lower-middle-class social estate (meshchane) and engaged in small trade and commerce; 322 Jewish merchants (and 226 Russian merchants) engaged in wholesale trade in the city. In mid-nineteenth century, 253 Jewish merchants in Minsk (and only 10 non-Jewish merchants) belonged to the third merchant guild. In 1886, 88 percent of the merchants living in the city and district of Minsk were Jewish. Besides controlling almost entirely the lumber trade in the Minsk Province (guberniia), Jews owned some of the largest factories in the city, including the Botvinnik and Ashkenazi glass factory, the Karlip and Ginzburg tobacco factory, the Lekert brewery, and the Kaplan, Tasman, and Grinblat typographies. This was a noteworthy accomplishment given the lack of industrial resources and general economic backwardness of the Belorussian region.

Following the 1793 second partition of Poland, and its incorporation into the Russian empire, the city became the capital of the Minsk Province and grew into an urban center of sizeable political importance. It became a Russian administrative center, home to tsarist deputies and officers. The city also grew into an important bureaucratic center for the supervision of Russian Jewry: here, state officials argued over the different paths to the solution to the so-called Jewish Question in the northwestern provinces of the empire. The geopolitical transformation of the region also generated a change in status of the Russian language. Following the 1831 and 1863 Polish revolts, the northwestern provinces of Minsk, Vilna, Grodno, and Kovno were exposed to an efficient—and at times violent—Russification campaign intended to stifle the Polish independence movement and its local supporters. Sponsoring the use of Russian in lieu of Polish, tsarist functionaries hoped to ensure the political loyalty of the Minsk population to the Russian empire.

The shift from Polish to Russian as the language of the political and cultural life of the city affected the Jewish population as well. With such a high proportion of Jews concentrated in the region's urban centers, Russian authorities were forced to address the Jewish population as part of their political schemes. From the end of the eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century, the number of Jews living in the city had constantly grown, increasing from 1,322 in 1776, to 12,976 in 1847 and 47,562 in 1897, or 52.3 percent of the city population. Expecting Jews to be pragmatic and shift to the language of those in power, tsarist bureaucrats hoped to turn them into rivals of the Polish independence movement and supporters of Russian language and culture in the northwest.

This policy was relatively successful in the Jewish milieu. While the bulk of the Minsk Jewish community was trilingual—Yiddish being its spoken language, Hebrew its written one, and Russian, instead of Polish, the language used to communicate with the surrounding non-Jewish population—a number of Jews started using Russian only. They were significant not in their number but in their influence and wealth. By the end of the nineteenth century numerous Jewish institutions, societies, and philanthropic organizations of the growing urban bourgeoisie operated primarily in Russian. These included a private modern school, an elementary school, two dental schools, a trade school for boys and girls, a library, an agricultural farm, a hospital, and the local branches of the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment Among the Jews of Russia OPE (Obshchestvo dlia rasprostraneniia prosveshcheniia mezhdu evreiami) and the Society for the Protection of the Health of the Jews OZE (Obshchestvo zdravookhraneniia evreev). When comparing Minsk to Vilna, Daniel Charny—brother of the distinguished literary critic Shmuel Niger—underscored Minsk's "Russianness." "Minsk was always 'half Yiddish and half Russian,'" wrote Charny, "[so much so that] a Jew from Vilna would feel in Minsk almost like a foreigner, ... as if he was staying in a hotel, where it's good to spend the night only."

The linguistic Russification and embourgeoisement of certain sectors of the Jewish community of Minsk, in particular its commercial and entrepreneurial elite, led to acculturation, social interaction with the Russian officialdom sent in from Russia proper, and, in some cases, even conversion to Russian Orthodoxy. Born in Bobruisk in 1833, in a traditionally observant Jewish family, Pauline Wengeroff married a successful tax-farmer from Minsk, who in 1871 became vice director of the Commercial Bank in the city. Chonon Afanasii Wengeroff became such a prominent figure that following the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 he was the only Minsk resident besides the city mayor to be invited to St. Petersburg to lay a wreath on the grave of the deceased tsar. The Wengeroffs, who in the words of Pauline led a "well-to-do and elegant life in Minsk," were also very active in the local Jewish community: with the help of Rabbi Chaneles and contributions by wealthy local Jews, they founded a Russian-language vocational school for Jewish boys and a Russian-language trade school for Jewish girls, supported by the Jewish Ladies' Club of Minsk. In spite of this commitment to Jewish communal life, when writing her memoirs in the first decade of the twentieth century, Pauline lamented the rampant assimilation in her household and her children's conversion to Christianity. One became a well-known scholar of Russian literature; one the owner of a preserves factory; and one a celebrated pianist.

The majority of Minsk Jews were, however, craftsmen (primarily shoemakers, tailors, hatters, and turners), small traders, and members of the growing Jewish proletariat, typically employed as skilled workers in light industry, carpentry, and blacksmith workshops. The proportion of Jews engaged in shoemaking, tailoring, carpentry, and turnery in the city reached 71.2 percent at the end of the century. Most of them lived in poverty. When visiting Minsk in the early 1880s, the Russian economist Andrei Subbotin described the abject life conditions of the Jewish poor of Yatke and Shlos Streets, and of the Komorovke, Blote, and Liakhovke neighborhoods (as they were known in Yiddish), "who tasted bread and butter only in their dreams, ate potatoes and onions throughout the week, and like most inhabitants of the Pale suffered from protein deficiency because of the higher price of kosher meat." Most of the members of the Jewish working force attended synagogue, sent their children to a traditional Jewish elementary school, or heder, and were predominantly Yiddish-speaking. Only a thousand Minsk Jews, or 2 percent of the total Jewish population of 47,562, did not declare Yiddish their mother tongue in 1897. This proportion was almost half of that in the rest of the Russian empire.

The modest urbanization and industrialization process that swept through Russia during the nineteenth century left a mark on Minsk as well, as the city assumed some of the aesthetic traits of a modern city. By the early 1890s, Count Chapskii, mayor of the city at the time, introduced trolley cars, built a slaughterhouse, and had a number of streets paved. Minsk had two main train stations—the Brest Station and the Vilna Station—not too busy and located in small wooden buildings. With their passenger and freight cars heading to and coming from Moscow, they connected Russia with the northwestern regions of Lithuania and Poland. The publicist and traveler Shpilevskii—who wrote extensively for the periodical Sovremennik (The contemporary)—described Minsk as "one of the biggest and most beautiful cities of Western Russia. Thanks to the commodities and the reconstruction work carried out after the 1835 fire ... , Minsk can be considered the capital of Belorussia. It is bigger and more stylish than Mohilev and Vitebsk."

In Shpilevskii's description, most buildings were made of brick and had tiled roofs, and most streets were paved and tidy. Walking through the streets of Minsk in the mid-nineteenth century, visitors would have noticed the groves and alleys of the city garden, the building of the New Market (Novyi rynok), with its squared boulevard, post office, and Lutheran church; the High Market's square (Vysokii rynok) with its Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches, Bernardine monastery and bazaar; and finally, the Low Market (Nizkii rynok), where the City Hospital, with its oval shape of a "Greek temple" stood. The most modern section of the city was the New Market, or New Place. Here, city residents had access to imported goods from Vilna, Odessa, Moscow, and Warsaw, together with the local goods produced in the Minsk clothing and shoe workshops, "praised throughout Belorussia and exported to Kiev during the winter." Book dealers from Moscow would come to this section of the city, where the Minsk public library stood, and furnish local bookshops, well-supplied with Polish, French, and German books, with the latest Russian publications. The city's leisure institutions were clustered in the High Market: the casino, which hosted parties during the Carnival, the theaters, the acrobatic performances, the inns, coffee houses, and the most popular restaurant of all, Fogel and Tsybulskii.

Besides overemphasizing the quintessential Russian Orthodox character of the city and, at the same time, downplaying its Polish and Catholic past, Shpilevskii acknowledged, with a hint of regret, the Jewishness of Minsk. Not devoid of the anti-Jewish prejudice typical of nineteenth-century Russian conservatives, his vivid portrayal dwelled on the Low Market, also known as the Old City (Staryi gorod). This was the city's main Jewish quarter, dominated by the Jewish square, its small businesses, and on the Sabbath, the distinctive odors of the holiday meal. The High Market was also overwhelmingly Jewish: the residence of wealthy Jewish merchants who traded in clothing and silk, and the site of the first Jewish state school established in the city. Situated next to the cathedral, at the corner between Bernardinskii and Sobornyi Streets, the school was inaugurated in 1845 thanks to the initiative of some of the most prominent Jews of Minsk as well as the support of civil authorities. Despite the staunch opposition of the local Orthodox establishment, which in 1841 had forced out of the city through "curses and snowballs" the maskil Max Lilienthal for trying to establish a Jewish state school, the Haskalah dream of secular education was eventually realized. The Ministry of Education introduced Russian and arithmetic into the school's curriculum, and Minsk became one of the most prominent Haskalah centers in the northwestern provinces of the Russian empire.

The demographic nature of Minsk contributed to its perception as a Jewish city. Although the publicist Shpilevskii did not explicitly call Minsk a "Jewish city," the reader of his essay is left with the impression of a city inhabited primarily by Jews. With their merchandise, their Sabbath, their streets, and their institutions, Jews—and not Russians, Poles, or Tatars—seemed to dominate the city landscape. Pauline Wengeroff captured a snapshot of Minsk's Jewishness in the late nineteenth century: Walking through a busy street at the time of the 1881–82 pogroms that devastated the Jewish communities of the empire, her husband Chonon suddenly heard someone shout "Jew, get off the sidewalk!"

As he turned around he saw a Russian, his face full of hatred. The street was crowded with Jews. One man lifted his cane and called out to the anti-Semite, "What are you thinking of, to speak like that, to speak so scornfully? The street is free for everyone." In a moment the anti-Semite was surrounded by furious Jews. He disappeared very quickly.

The city's demographic nature countered therefore the gravity of anti-Semitic incidents. Sometime in the 1910s, Leybush Rozenbaum attended a State Gymnasium in Minsk, where a significant proportion of students was Jewish (fifteen out of forty in his class), while most teachers were not. The math teacher, of German background, once asked Leybush why he refused to answer when called upon. The student explained that his name was not Lev (the Russian version of his name)—as the teacher called him—but Leyb (a Jewish name). The teacher replied that such name did not exist, especially in written form, to which Leybush retorted "check my birth records and you will see that my name is Leyb." The math teacher kicked him out of the classroom. As Leybush recounted the incident at home, a heated discussion broke out between his parents: while the father advised moving him into a Jewish gymnasium, the mother favored going to battle with the anti-Semites. It was eventually her position that prevailed. The father went to school with his son's birth records as proof of the name and demanded from the school administration that he be called only Leyb.


Excerpted from Becoming Soviet Jews by Elissa Bemporad. Copyright © 2013 Elissa Bemporad. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1 Historical Profile of an East European Jewish City
2 Red Star on the Jewish Street
3 Entangled Loyalties: The Bund, the Evsekstiia, and the Creation of a "New" Jewish Political Culture
4 Soviet Minsk: The Capital of Yiddish
5 Behavior Unbecoming a Communist: Jewish Religious Practice in a Soviet Capital
6 Housewives, Mothers and Workers: Roles and Representations of Jewish Women in Times of Revolution
7 Jewish Ordinary Life in the Midst of Extraordinary Purges: 1934-1939

What People are Saying About This

author of A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present - Zvi Gitelman

Elissa Bemporad has deepened and enriched our understanding of the social transformations Soviet Jews experienced in the two decades after the revolution. Mining hitherto inaccessible archives, she deftly links larger historical processes to the changes in the lives of ordinary—and some extraordinary—Jews in one of the great centers of Yiddish culture and Judaism. Judiciously using photographs and the prose and poetry of the time, Bemporad vividly shows that tradition exerted a powerful influence even in Soviet times but was eventually defeated by the combination of attractive new opportunities, in intensive resocialization, and terror.

Hebrew University - Mordehai Altshuler

This is a veryimportant study. It does not follow the well-trodden paths, and does not employ the phraseology frequently found in books on Soviet Jewry. This study opens up vistas for additional work that will be written in its spirit. It successfully analyzes the deep social and cultural processes that took place in Soviet Jewry.

author of Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire - Jeffrey Veidlinger

Challenging traditional interpretations of Jewish life under Soviet rule as one of continuous oppression, stagnation, and deterioration, Bemporad's book instead demonstrates the complexities of the Soviet Jewish experience.

author of Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust - David Shneer

Bemporad has written an important study of Minsk’s Jewish community in the period of Sovietization. . . . She convincingly shows that Sovietization was a complex and often tense process of negotiation, with Red Army soldiers eating kosher meat, fist fights breaking out after synagogue confiscations, and men wondering if their wives were secretly circumcising their children. A great contribution.

author of Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Ar - Samuel D. Kassow

An original study that makes a major contribution to our understanding of the history of Soviet Jewry. Bemporad modifies old stereotypes about the rapid assimilation of Soviet Jews in the interwar period. This is wonderful book that is clear, well-argued, and beautifully written.

From the Publisher

Winner, 2012 Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History
Winner, 2013 National Jewish Book Awards, Writing Based on Archival Materials; Finalist, Modern Jewish Thought and Experience
Honorable Mention, 2014 Jordan Schnitzer Book Award

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