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Jews under Soviet Rule

Attempts by religious communities to renew Jewish life during the postwar reconstruction period The case of Belorussia, 1944-1953
Leonid Smilovitsky
p. 475-514


Les juifs sous le régime soviétique. Les tentatives des communautés religieuses de renouveler la vie juive pendant la reconstruction de l’après-guerre : le cas de la Biélorussie, 1944-1953
Dans cet article, nous étudions la politique menée par les autorités soviétiques à l’égard des juifs biélorusses dans l’après-guerre. Alors que l’on assiste, chez les survivants de l’Holocauste, à un retour du religieux et à un regain d’intérêt, dans le monde, pour les juifs soviétiques, le régime soviétique s’engage sur la voie de la répression, en particulier après 1948.

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1During World War II, Jewish life in Nazi-occupied territory came to a complete stop. Among thousands of refugees who managed to escape and were sent to Siberia, the Povolzh´ie, the Urals, Central Asia and Kazakhstan, were practicing Jews who joined small local communities. It was a difficult thing to preserve tradition under the circumstances of war. In the summer of 1944, when Belorussia was liberated, virtually no synagogues or prayer houses had remained intact. Buildings had been destroyed and looted of their ritual objects, interior decorations and furniture, and old Torah scrolls and precious libraries had been ravaged by the Nazis and their collaborators. Most people hoped to return to their place of residence after the liberation. These hopes, however, failed to materialize. The rise of Jewish national consciousness was regarded by the authorities as a challenge aimed at defying the regime, a challenge that cast doubt on the virtues of the Socialist way of life.

  • 1 Ben Zion Goldberg, Yidn in Ratn-Farband : zeyer lage, zeyere problemen, zeyer tsukunft [The Jews in (...)
  • 2 A.A. Gershuni, Yehudim ve-yahadut bi-Verit ha-mo´atsot, Yahadut Rusyah mi-tekufat Stalin ve-´ad ha- (...)
  • 3 Joshua Rothenberg, Judaism in the Soviet Union : “A Second Class” Religion ? (Waltham (MA) : Brande (...)
  • 4 Rabbi N.Z. Gottlieb, In the Shadow of the Kremlin : Personal Sagas of Jews who Risked Their Lives a (...)
  • 5 Yaacov Ro´i, “The Jewish Religion in the Soviet Union after World War II,” in Yaacov Ro´i, ed., Jew (...)
  • 6 Abraham Greenbaum, “The Soviet Rabbinate after World War II,” Shvut, 14 (1990): 197-202; Idem, “Rab (...)
  • 7 Mordechai Altshuler, “Synagogues and Rabbis in the Soviet Union in the Light of Statistics, 1953-19 (...)

2Studies of Jewish national and religious life are of great importance. Western scholars were long denied access to archives and had to confine themselves to official materials available from Soviet sources. These consisted of publications on history, politics, law, scientific research, legislative acts related to religious matters, periodicals, as well as indirect evidence derived from memoirs of contemporaries who had participated in or witnessed particular events. Recently, the source corpus related to the problem has expanded, and many archive materials are now available, which in combination with the evidence collected from contemporaries makes it possible to tell the real history of Belorussian Jewry. Major works here were conducted by B. Goldberg1, A. Gershuni2, J. Rothenberg3, N. Gottlieb4, Y. Ro´i5, A. Greenbaum6 and M. Altshuler7.

  • 8 Felix Corley, Religion in the Soviet Union : An Archival Reader (London-Basingstoke : Macmillan, 19 (...)
  • 9 John Anderson, Religion, State and Politics in the Soviet Union and the Successor States (Cambridge (...)

3Some documents shedding light on religious life have appeared in recent years.8 The former Communist Party and State archives in Moscow and Belorussia have preserved a lot of important data on the topic. Most of them had top secret status and remained closed for more than 70 years because they gave a real picture of the regime’s activity against practicing Jews and their congregations. General information on the situation of the religious population in the Soviet Union is provided in the works by John Anderson, Jane Ellis, John Forest, Walter Kolarz, Robert Conquest and others.9

4The main idea of the present paper is to characterize Soviet religious policy in Belorussia during the first postwar decade, when observing Jews, upon their return from evacuation and the Red Army, tried to rebuild and reopen synagogues, legalize prayer houses, perpetuate a memory of the Holocaust, rebirth national self-awareness and tradition. For such purpose, we make a general description of the Jewish population and observers in Belorussia immediately after the liberation of the republic and in the following decade. Special attention is paid to the establishment of the Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults (CARC) and its representatives’ activity in the BSSR, to worshippers’ attempts to renew their congregations, to the role of minyans and shtiebels, to the obstacles standing in the way of Jewish religious revival, to victimization and persecution as a logical continuation in the process of putting an end to postwar religious revival.

  • 10 Leonid Smilovitsky, “Jewish Religious Life in Bobruisk, 1944-1954,” Jews in Eastern Europe, 2, 27 ( (...)

5Some aspects of these efforts have been described in a number of our previous papers.10

1. The Jewish population and worshippers of Belorussia

  • 11 Projektgruppe Belorussian, ed., Die Partizipation der Juden am Leben der Belorussischen Sozialistis (...)

6The tragedy of the Holocaust had a great impact on Jewish observers. Before World War II, 375,000 Jews lived in the eastern parts of the republic (BSSR). When the USSR annexed Brest, Pinsk, Grodno, Molodechno and some other regions of western Belorussia from Poland in September 1939, the Jewish population of the republic increased by more than 400,000, to nearly 800,000. During the short period between 1939 and 1941, the Jewish population within the new borders of Belorussia grew to nearly 1,000,000 people as a result of the arrival of approximately 200,000 Jewish refugees from Central Poland to the BSSR.11

  • 12 Report of Kechko, CARC representative of the Polotsk oblast for the first quarter of 1948, GARF (Go (...)
  • 13 E. Eberlin, “Evrei na Mogilevshchine” [Jews in the Mohilev Oblast], archives of the newspaper Einig (...)
  • 14 Response of Volchkov, chairman of the Executive Committee of Mozyr Town Council to Ulasevich on Dec (...)
  • 15 Petr G. Nikitenko, Andrei A. Rakov, Demograficheskie problemy sotsiuma ; sostoianie i tendentsii ra (...)
  • 16 Itogi Vsesoiuznoi perepisi naseleniia 1959 goda. Belorusskaia SSR [Results of the All-Union Populat (...)

7The Holocaust reduced the Jewish population of Belorussia by 80 % and changed its social and cultural composition. The greatest number of victims was among Yiddish speakers, non-intellectuals who lived in small towns and clung to the old Jewish traditions of the Pale. In 1946-1948, only 2,500 Jews remained in the city and oblast of Polotsk ;12 in the Mogilev oblast -- 12,000.13 In the small town of Kalinkovichi, Jews numbered 1,460 (as compared to 3,386 in 1939), and in Mozyr -- 4,500 (6,307 in 1939).14 More than 15,000 Jews lived in Minsk in 1950-1953 (70,998 in 1939). In some places of the republic, the number of Jews was supplemented by migrants from the rural areas. By 1953, the total population of Belorussia reached 7,693,400, partly due to an increased birth rate. It included people who had returned from the hinterland (Central Asia, Kazakhstan, the North Caucasus, and Russia), discharged soldiers and officers, work seekers from other Soviet republics, repatriates from Germany and other European countries.15 It is difficult to estimate the number of Jews in Belorussia, because no overall statistical data were collected in the years 1945-1958, and the last census had been in 1939. However, judging by the results of the 1959 All-Union census, which listed 150,100 Jews out of a total population of 8,046,700 in Belorussia, one may assume that in 1953 no less than 130,000 Jews lived there.16

  • 17 Report of Ulasevich, chairman of the Council of Ministers of the BSSR, to Poliansky, Gusarov and Po (...)
  • 18 Response of D. Strazhnikevich, chairman of the Executive Council of Kalinkovichi and secretary of t (...)
  • 19 Report from N. Tagiev, member of the Executive Committee of CARC in Moscow on June 15, 1949, GARF, (...)
  • 20 Report of Dzezhko to Ulasevich from Brest on October 30, 1954: GARF, f. 6991, op. 3, d. 277, l. 249 (...)

8Statistics of observant Jews and synagogues frequently contained figures relating to the overall Jewish population as well.17 In 1947, Mozyr had a Jewish population of 4,500, or 26 % of the town’s total population, but only 350 were officially listed as regular synagogue members ; whereas in Kalinkovichi, 100 out of a population of 1,460 Jews were regular synagogue members.18 In 1948 there were 360 observant Jews in Orsha, over a thousand in Bobruisk,19 and 2,500 in the Polotsk oblast. In 1950-1953, about 3,000 of a total of 15,000 Jews in Minsk observed Jewish traditions to some degree and celebrated Jewish holidays. At the same time, 200 of the 300 Jewish families in Brest described themselves as “not indifferent to religion.” The same pattern appears in the religious congregations of Gomel´, Vitebsk, Mogilev, Zhlobin, Rechitsa and Pinsk, numbering in each city between several hundred and 5,000 members.20

9The war had brought about basic changes in the demographic and social profile of the religious Jewish community in Belorussia. The Holocaust had reduced their numbers drastically, altered age and gender patterns of congregations, and caused changes in occupational and educational patterns as well. The prayer services mostly drew elderly people, for whom observing the traditions remained an integral part of their lifestyle. In time, their efforts to retain their faith became stronger, while temporary indulgences on the part of the authorities produced vain hopes that the situation would change for the better. Far fewer women than men in the observant community came to the prayer houses, which made it even more difficult for the authorities to establish the exact numbers of religious Jews. Yet many women observed the traditions at home behind closed doors, and they often encouraged their husbands to retain the faith of their forebears.

10In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the authorities did not succeed in their attempts to force observant Jews to abandon their faith and their values. This was probably because Jewish tradition was preserved mainly inside the home and not in public venues. Though the number of observant Jews had shrunk, this did not shatter the faith of a core of stalwart people. On the contrary, restrictions and prohibitions imposed by the regime only strengthened the Jews’ national consciousness.

2. Establishment of CARC

  • 21 CARC: Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults at the Council of Ministers of Belorussia [SDRK -- (...)
  • 22 The terms “sect” and “sectarian” were used pejoratively since Tsarist times to refer to religious a (...)
  • 23 Russkaia pravoslavnaia tserkov´ i Velikaia Otechestvennaia voina, Sbornik dokumentov [The Russian O (...)
  • 24 “Ob organizatsii Soveta po delam religioznykh kul´tov” [The organization of CARC. Decree of the Sov (...)

11In May 1944, the CARC21 was opened under the auspices of the Soviet government (the Council of People’s Commissars). While its main office was in Moscow, it had commissioners in each of the union republics, the one in Minsk being assigned the task of regulating relations with all official religious minorities in Belorussia, including Jews, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, the Armenian Apostolic Church, Muslims, Buddhists, and other religious sects.22 The Council for the Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church had been established in 1943 to oversee the majority religion.23 Regarding interfaith relations, the regime constantly reiterated that all religious denominations in the Soviet Union should enjoy equal rights, without dominating or persecuting one another.24

12The Council was to draft religious legislation, to oversee the execution of governmental acts and decrees, to register congregations, prayer houses and their equipment, and theoretically was meant to provide religious communities with ritual items and religious literature. In addition, CARC was to act as a neutral arbitrator in cases of disputes between religious communities and local Soviet authorities, and had the right to demand information from regional Party committees and Soviet State organs of power related to religious cults. All state and public institutions and departments had to get Council approval for any activity related to religious life. As CARC’s purpose was to exert greater control over the activities of minority religions, it did not introduce changes in state policy but functioned chiefly as a bureaucratic organization.

  • 25 P. Gidulianov, Otdelenie tserkvi ot gosudarstva v SSSR [The separation of church and state in the U (...)

13Soviet policy towards religion had been spelled out in the following pieces of legislation. The decree “On the Separation of the Church from the State and the School from the Church,” issued on January 23, 1918,25 deprived all religious organizations of the status of legal entity and of the possibility to own property, including synagogues and cemeteries. Private (individually owned) synagogues were expropriated together with other property of their owners. Jewish schools were transferred to the authority of the People’s Commissariat (Ministry) of Education, Jewish hospitals -- to the Commissariat of Public Health and Jewish almshouses -- to municipal departments that provided social services, etc. Religious communities were forbidden to collect membership fees and wealthy contributors were either bankrupt due to the imposition of Soviet rule or had emigrated. Hence, due to the lack of financial resources, after the Revolution old synagogues were hardly ever repaired and new ones were not constructed. Many synagogues in Belorussia were damaged, destroyed, or desecrated during military operations or pogroms of the Civil War from 1918 to 1921.

  • 26 N. Orleanskii, Zakon o religioznykh ob´´edineniiakh RSFSR [The Law on religious associations in the (...)

14During the NEP (New Economic Policy, 1921-1928), there was a short period of liberalization in state policy towards religion. The years 1928-1929, when the remnants of the market economy were liquidated, were marked by new antireligious legislation. The Law on Religious Associations of April 8, 192926 greatly restricted the rights of the congregants. Freedom of religious and antireligious propaganda was changed to “freedom of religious confession and antireligious propaganda.” The regime referred to synagogues as clubs for businessmen and Zionists, and networks for the spreading of anti-Soviet slander. Campaigns of mass closure of churches and synagogues started.

  • 27 Artur G. Dalgatov, Pravitel´stvennaia politika po otnosheniiu k etnokonfessional´nym men´shinstvam  (...)

15Article no. 124 of the Soviet Constitution (1936) declared freedom to hold religious services. It was claimed that religion in the Soviet Union had no social roots and retained relevance only for a fraction of the population as a remnant of capitalism. The “tenacity of religious superstitions” was described as a temporary phenomenon, since the majority of observers were actively engaged in building communist society.27 Nevertheless, in 1936-1938 came a new wave of repression against Jewish religious activity. This time the majority of the remaining synagogues -- often the last ones in their respective cities -- were closed. In September 1939, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Red Army occupied western Belorussia with a large traditional Jewish population. After the beginning of the Soviet-German war in June 1941, all synagogues stopped functioning, were destroyed or burnt down, and those Jews who were not evacuated or exiled, perished.

  • 28 Navitsky, ed., Kanfessii na Belarusi ..., p. 234-235.
  • 29 “The role and goals of the Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults at the Council of Ministers o (...)

16Despite its clearly negative attitude to religion, against the backdrop of the war, the regime wanted to gain maximal political support. As the economy also had to be rebuilt, the regime considered it politically expedient to avoid tension among the populace28 and to moderate local authorities’ antireligious tendencies. Between 1921 and 1941, while atheists had enjoyed widespread approval for their activities, observers had been persecuted, many places of worship had been destroyed or sequestrated, and massive repressions, arrests and deportations of religious figures had taken place. CARC now recommended that local authorities refrain from imposing administrative sanctions on religious people and be guided entirely by prudent political considerations. The July 1945 conference of CARC commissioners in Moscow criticized the attitude of certain administrative and party officials in some regions of the country who regarded the establishment of CARC as a temporary, war-related measure that was unworthy of serious cooperation or involvement. This lack of motivation in cooperating with CARC either resulted from skeptical attitudes concerning the viability of religions or from the shortage of resources local authorities suffered in the postwar years. The conference organizers made it clear that the mission of CARC was a “long-term responsibility of high importance,”29 and ordered local authorities not to obstruct the religious revival occurring nationwide.

17But it was one thing to make political declarations, and quite another to implement them. The actual attitude towards the various religious denominations was quite different from the official one. Religious people had been branded as public enemies of the regime for the last twenty years, and local authorities were not inclined to cooperate with them after 1945. This difference was especially pronounced in Belorussia with its traditionally multinational population and multiconfessional religious structure. Western Belorussia had become a part of the USSR only in 1939, and its socio-economic system had not yet undergone total sovietization or russification. Almost all the faiths were represented in Belorussia despite its relatively small size (220,000 km2): the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, Protestantism, Islam and Judaism.

3. CARC commissioners

18The Institution of CARC commissioners was in charge of working with religious communities at the local level. At this local level, it is essential to note how on the one hand, central policies of tolerance in the immediate postwar years were often contradicted by resistance on the part of local officials, while on the other hand, impotence of local officials could also be exploited by congregants to soften central repressive policies. We will try to shed some light on those paradoxes of the local implementation of centrally promoted policies by examining the recruitment, work conditions and activity of CARC commissioners.

19CARC’s assignment included control over the situation and trends within religious communities, coordination of communication between the state and party leadership, local authorities and religious communities. CARC was also in charge of monitoring observers’ political views, state of mind, and reaction to political and social developments in the republic.

  • 30 YVA, collection M-46/25, p. 1-2.

20On May 29, 1944, CARC staff were appointed at Councils of People’s Commissars (after 1946, Councils of Ministers) of union and autonomous republics, as well as at region and territory (krai) councils of deputies ; the officials were to report directly to the USSR Council of Ministers. This was intended to endow them with broad powers. It was emphasized at the first All-Union convention of CARC commissioners (1945) that their work with observers should be conducted with utmost seriousness as they represented the Soviet state. Analysis of duties, staff membership and salary scales gives an insight into tasks, functions and routines special to the commissioners’ work.30

  • 31 One can get an idea of the scale of salaries by comparing them with those of CARC technical staff : (...)

21The top leadership of CARC consisted of the Council’s chairman, deputy chairman, two members of the Council and executive secretary. They were assisted by a staff of several consultants, a legal advisor and a librarian-interpreter. The administrative apparatus of the Council was divided into three departments. Affairs of Judaism, Buddhism and Islam were taken care of by the same department. Ivan Vladimirovich Poliansky, the first appointed CARC Chairman, was given the authority of a cabinet minister and received a monthly wage of 2,500 rubles. His deputy received 2,200 rubles monthly, and the wages of consultants, legal advisor and heads of departments were within the range of 1,600 to 1,400 rubles.31

  • 32 NARB, f. 7, op. 4, d. 532, l. 139.

22Starting from the autumn of 1945 and until the end of 1955, Kondratii Alekseevich Ulasevich, a functionary from Moscow, served in the capacity of CARC commissioner at the BSSR Council of Ministers.32 Regional representatives of the CARC commissioner were subordinate to him (Doman’kov in Minsk, Kishkurno in Polesye oblast, Dzezhko in Brest, Chizh in Grodno, Brylev in Pinsk, etc.). The issue of cadre selection was of crucial importance, since CARC representatives were supposed to be individuals of broad horizons, with professional skills, competent in the history of religion and specific features of various religious denominations and able to follow the latest trends and changes in Soviet legislation. The political, educational and professional background of a CARC representative was required to be equal to that of a political lecturer (propagandist) of a regional communist party committee. However, the actual opportunities for performing service duties available to representatives were not even nearly equal to those enjoyed by party and Soviet apparatchiks at the regional level.

  • 33 GARF, f. 6991, op. 3, d. 257, l. 98.

23The office of representatives was not regarded as prestigious, and staffs in some parts of the republic were not always complete. Despite the fact that representatives were appointed at high administrative levels (departments of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Belorussia and the BSSR Council of Ministers), positions often remained vacant. In 1946, due exclusively to the personal efforts of the Central Committee of the Communist Party staff department, three new representatives were appointed : Ivanov (Baranovichi), Deriabin (Mogilev) and Volodin (Vitebsk). The selection sometimes proved wrong. There is evidence that Volodin had a weak general and poor political background. Dzezhko, the curator of the Brest oblast, turned out to be not fastidious enough and failed to gain the respect of subordinates even though he held a candidate of science degree and had previous experience as a lecturer. Safonov (Gomel´ oblast) occasionally misunderstood his job duties, and Bogdanovich (Pinsk oblast) not capable of making independent decisions ; as a result, practicing Jews often complained about his actions or simply ignored him. Throughout the year 1947, party bodies could not find appropriate replacements of the functionaries who had failed in their tasks in the oblasts of Molodechno and Polotsk.33

  • 34 The person’s name is not indicated in the documents.
  • 35 NARB, f. 7, op. 4, d. 19, l. 491.

24The exact administrative status and welfare standards of local CARC staff remained ill-defined. When the position of CARC representative for the Minsk oblast became vacant, the intention was to appoint a teacher from Baranovichi, a holder of an academic degree, a diligent, respected and tactful person whose knowledge was appropriate for the position.34 However, the office did not grant him service housing, and he took another job. Salary rates for CARC staff were set by executive committees of district councils, which inevitably limited representatives’ degree of independence and made them dependent on local authorities. Comrade Chizh, representative for the Grodno oblast, was the only one who managed to secure himself a monthly wage of 1,300 rubles, while his colleagues in other districts got less. For this reason, representatives preferred to move to other jobs -- at the public prosecutor’s office, or in educational and welfare bodies, etc.35

  • 36 Ibid., f. 4, op. 87, d. 690, l. 17-18.

25The leadership of district communist party committees (party bodies) and executive committees of region councils (state bodies) did not regard CARC commissioners’ tasks as important. Some representatives had to combine their duties as CARC employees with other assignments which they fulfilled at the command of district authorities. In 1946-1947, Kishkurno, representative for Polesye oblast, also worked in the capacity of head of the district fuel industry and paid little attention to the affairs of religious cults.36

  • 37 Ibid., op. 3, d. 334, l. 11.

26CARC functionaries were frequently sent on lengthy business trips that had nothing to do with their official duties. The representative for the Molodechno oblast was sent to the Ivye district to check if kolkhozes were ready for the harvest campaign, and to the Volozhin district to check crop yields and supervise the handing of crops over to the state.37 In the first quarter of 1947, K. Ulasevich was sent on a business trip, “not limited in time,” to supervise the sowing campaign. In 1949-1953, CARC representatives for the oblasts of Baranovichi, Brest, Pinsk and Grodno were repeatedly sent on trips with assignments related to agriculture or other sectors of the economy.

27Some CARC staff’s working conditions did not meet basic requirements. Their offices were often located in poorly equipped premises and they lacked professional literature and even stationery. Some representatives complained that their offices were too small to even seat a visitor. In other cases, due to the lack of an anteroom, representatives of different denominations ran into one another in the doorway, while a representative thought it undesirable that one would know what the other had talked about in his office.

  • 38 Ibid., l. 12

28Representatives faced major hardships with transportation. Worshippers might address one as “sir minister”, but when the latter had to visit remote areas on inspections, he had to take a walking stick and set off on foot, while clergymen were riding around in horse carriages and cars. Sometimes observers offered some aid that a representative found hard to reject, like butter, eggs, cheese and meat, calling it “by no means a bribe,” but “a humble gift” and adding that they knew about the difficult situation of CARC staff. Occasionally, congregants attempted to influence a representative through actions of questionable legality. In 1946, in Polotsk, the authorities seized a house intended for use as a synagogue that had been purchased with money donated by practicing Jews. The latter looked for another solution. It became known to representative Kechko that they had built a wooden frame on Ostrovsky Street and had brought boards to make the roof. When he came to inspect the site in March, Jewish observers asked him how much it would cost to register the community, to which Kechko replied that communities were not for sale. Then he was offered refreshments with alcoholic beverages, which he rejected. According to an employee of Polotsk’s raispolkom (district executive committee), Jews retorted by saying that Kechko “scorned their nationality” and they filed a complaint against him at the Council of Ministers of the USSR. This episode in Polotsk was another evidence of practicing Jews’ desperate attempts to obtain a place for prayers after all their applications to various authorities had been rejected.38

29One of the primary functions of CARC representatives was to see to correct and timely execution of religious legislation aimed at regulating community life. They collected information on the local population’s attitudes towards religious activities, as well as on the behavior of congregants and clergy. Representatives often had no clear-cut guidelines or instructions that could help them in their interaction with worshippers in specific cases. This cleared the way for arbitrariness, since decisions were not made in view of the significance of the matter at hand, but rather on the basis of the representative’s personal likes or dislikes.

  • 39 Ibid., f. 952, op. 1, d. 5, l. 87; d. 20, l. 126.
  • 40 One synagogue in Brest was occupied by a branch of the Red Cross, the other accommodated a movie th (...)
  • 41 GARF, f. 6991, op. 3, d. 275, l. 75.

30The most common violations of practicing Jews’ rights were indefinite delays and eventual refusal to grant community registrations and the reopening of synagogues. In 1945, employees of the Minsk executive committee were highly negligent and slow in preparing the file on the registration of the city’s Jewish community. After a six-month waiting period, the observers’ request was rejected.39 In 1946, V. Ledenev, chairman of Polesye’s oblast executive committee, and M. Zilber, secretary, refused to approve the decision of the Mozyr city council that ruled in favor of reopening the synagogue on Proreznaya Street. In Brest, Pastuhov, chairman of the city council, did not want to consider an application submitted by worshippers who requested premises for prayers. When asked why the application had not been considered for more than a year, Pastuhov answered : “The matter is not worth hurrying, have patience, there are more important things to do.”40 After that, it was announced that the application form “had been mislaid.” In Gomel´, Abramenko, deputy chairman of the regional executive committee, kept on saying he had no intention whatsoever even to consider the issue of prayer houses, since he saw no need for them.41

  • 42 Presbyter is an elected leader of a Protestant congregation.
  • 43 YVA, M-46/13, p. 7; GARF, f. 6991, op. 3, d. 66, l. 177; d. 270, p. 63.
  • 44 NARB, f. 952, op. 1, d. 17, l. 281.

31CARC leadership in Minsk expressed dissatisfaction with the activities of their representatives at the local level, namely with their low professionalism, as well as lack of desire and ability to study rituals and customs of religious cults. Some anecdotal evidence demonstrates sheer ignorance. In 1945, officials from Pinsk reported of three Zionist groups (in total, 350 strong) that were active in the city and district and were led by presbyters.42 Brylev, representative for the Pinsk oblast, had no idea what the Torah was, and Ivanov (Baranovichi oblast) wanted to know what a shofar was for. During one of his raids on minyans and shtiebels in1947, he made a list of ritual objects and asked congregants what exactly they needed the ram’s horn for.43 Ulasevich reported to his superiors in Moscow that the rabbi and congregants of Minsk synagogues were planning to perform a burial of Torah scrolls, and requested advice as to what his response should be and whether or not he should forbid such practice.44 In the 1940s and 1950s, the absurd term “Jewish churchmen”, was common in the lexicon of party and state functionaries.

  • 45 GARF, f. 6991, op. 3, d. 66, l. 177.

32Officials’ ignorance often outraged religious feelings and created difficulties for communities. The regime, however, believed that professional incompetence of local bodies played into the hands of energetic “religiozniks”, above all the Judaic clergy, by providing them with reasons for intensifying their activities. It was emphasized at the All-Union convention of CARC’s in December 1950 in Moscow that Judaism was not being studied deeply enough and some high-ranking CARC representatives knew nothing of Jewish holidays, while they should realize that “this cult is very active and demands constant attention.”45

33Despite criticism, CARC work routines remained unchanged. In 1947, the institution of CARC representatives for eastern BSSR territories was abolished “as not needed”. The representatives’ functions were transferred to the ideological organs of local Soviets and Communist Party Committees. The authorities decided that religious communities there were few in number and the congregants were unable to regain their prewar status and could thus be ignored. The main emphasis was now laid on the western areas of the republic, where a large-scale campaign had been under way including comprehensive “Sovietization” of all aspects of life, collectivization of agriculture, and a battle against local nationalism and against other phenomena that worried the regime.

34The mere fact of establishing the institution of commissioners and their representatives for the affairs of religious cults immediately after the end of World War II indicated that the state acknowledged de jure the presence and role of religious communities in the Soviet Union. The status of CARC as a body reporting directly to the USSR Council of Ministers was meant to make it independent of local administration and able to expediently solve problems of religious communities. This intention was not carried through. A commissioner’s staff was often too small, or formed of people who had failed at previous positions in party or state offices. Professional incompetence, poor cultural background and ignorance of religious matters, alongside rigid discipline and centralized administration, did not allow CARC staff to act expediently and efficiently in smoothing over conflicts between observers and local authorities. As a result, disappointed practicing Jews complained to higher leadership in Minsk and Moscow.

35The attitude to CARC’s status and activities demonstrated by the central authorities (the Councils of Ministers of the BSSR and the USSR, the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party and the Communist Party of Belorussia, state ministries and committees) was indeed indicative of the slight significance attached to the mission of CARC. Only two All-Union conventions of CARC and representatives were called during the postwar decade (1945, 1950). The agenda included lectures, explanatory talks given by experts on controversial issues and exchanging experiences. Commissioners felt a critical shortage of professional literature and reference materials, were not given in-service training and often distracted from their main duties to deal with matters in agriculture and propaganda. At the same time, representatives were constantly subjected to criticism on the part of worshippers. These factors, along with low salaries and low prestige of a CARC representatives’ office caused turnover of personnel. In addition, local executive bodies were not ready to tolerate the interference of “intruders” from the All-Union center. CARC had little influence on the actual situation in the provinces, and in 1950 the office of its representatives for the western BSSR territories was abolished as “having served its purpose”. The only official who had worked within the CARC system throughout the period from 1945 to 1955 was Ulasevich, commissioner for the republic, who was recalled to Moscow in 1955. CARC was not replaced by any other organizations and preserved its functions in the aftermath. Only CARC leadership members and staff on All-Union, republican and regional levels were replaced. They received new instructions relevant to the changes in the Soviet internal policy subsequent to Stalin’s death.

36To sum up, analysis of the tasks and methods of CARC demonstrates the double-standard policy pursued by the state in relation to the needs and aspirations of observers, discredits the claims of religious freedom in the socialist society, and unmasks the hostility of the regime towards any manifestation of dissent.

4. Attempts to renew the congregations

Buildings and property

  • 46 T.S. Prot´ko, Stanovlenie Sovetskoi totalitarnoi sistemy v Belarusi, 1917-1941 gg. [Creation of the (...)
  • 47 P.P. Lipilo, V.F. Romanovsky, eds., Prestupleniia nemetsko-fashistskikh zakhvatchikov v Belorusii [ (...)

37In the period preceding the 1917 Revolution, there were 1,445 Russian Orthodox churches, 704 synagogues and 148 Roman Catholic churches in Belorussia (modern borders). By January 1937, many of them -- 1,371 Orthodox churches, 633 synagogues and 95 Catholic churches -- had been closed. This means that before World War II, after the 1939 annexation, the republic only had 71 active synagogues or 10 % of their total number at the time of the Bolshevik revolution. On the eve of the German invasion in June 1941, two thirds of the functioning synagogues were situated in the western regions of the BSSR.46 After the war the damage caused to the republic’s religious institutions of different denominations amounted to 705,300,000 rubles (at the 1941 rate).47

38Among the synagogues that survived, a number of them had historic and artistic value as architectural monuments that were theoretically under state protection. Among the partially destroyed buildings that could have been restored were the seventeenth-century fortress-like synagogues in Pinsk and Novogrudok (all in western Belorussia), the Holodnaia Synagogue in Minsk, the eighteenth-century synagogues in Ruzhana and Stolin and the wooden synagogues in Mstislavl, Narovlia (eastern Belorussia) and Zelva (western Belorussia). The oldest synagogues were in Shklov (1625), the citadel-like synagogue in Bykhov (1633, eastern Belorussia) and the baroque synagogue in Slonim (1642, western Belorussia). The synagogue in Oshmiana (western Belorussia) had a domed ceiling decorated with astrological and other motifs.

  • 48 A. Martynov, “Kobrin,” Aviv, no. 1 (2000): 22.
  • 49 A. Rosenbloom, Pamyat´ na krovi : Evrei v istorii goroda Borisova [Memory in Blood : Jews in the Hi (...)

39In Kobrin (western Belorussia), the nineteenth-century central synagogue, which was the sole prewar synagogue left standing out of seven, had become a brewery.48 In Luninets (western Belorussia), four synagogues were demolished -- two on Pripiatskii Street, one on Ob´´ezdnaia Street (today Kulakevich Street) and another one on Panteleev Street. In Borisov local residents had dismantled the Slobodskaia Synagogue, built in 1840. Before World War II, it was the only functioning synagogue out of 13 that had once flourished there. The interior was looted, while the sacred scrolls, prayer books and religious tomes were used as roofing material and fuel.49

  • 50 V.M. Lukin, B.N. Khaimovich, V.A. Dymshits, compilers, Istoriia evreev na Ukraine i v Belorusii : E (...)

40Synagogues with valuable architecture included the one in Baranovichi (1895, western Belorussia), the early-twentieth-century buildings in Krevo (western Belorussia) and those in Grodno, Volkovysk, Kaminets, Slonim, Pruzhany, Diatlovo (Zhetel) (all in western Belorussia), Gomel´, Mogilev, Minsk, Vitebsk, Shklov and Bobruisk (all in eastern Belorussia).50 Most synagogues and houses of prayer were, however, accommodated in ordinary buildings or occupied a few rooms in apartment houses with quite simple interiors.

  • 51 Letter of P. Maslov, CARC representative in Minsk, to Poliansky on October 15, 1945, GARF, f. 6991, (...)

41In October 1945, Petr Maslov, chief CARC representative in Minsk (eastern Belorussia), reported to Moscow that prior to the war there had been “rather a lot” of Jewish synagogues functioning in the republic, that most had been destroyed, and that the few surviving ones had been converted into non-Jewish offices and institutions.51 For instance, the Gomel´ (eastern Belorussia) synagogue at 156 Sovetskaia Street had been taken over by the regional department of domestic trade (Oblmestprom). Gomel´’s other synagogue at 41 Internatsional´naia Street was occupied by the city military commissariat.

  • 52 Report of V.I. Safonov, CARC representative in Gomel´, to K.A. Ulasevich, for the second quarter of (...)
  • 53 Letter of A.P. Kishkurno, Polesye oblast CARC representative, to Ulasevich on March 29, 1946, Ibid. (...)
  • 54 Grigori Ovsiannik, “Moy Stolin” [My Stolin], Mezuza, no. 7-8 (1997): 10.
  • 55 Statistical summary of the prayer houses in Bobruisk oblast on Jan. 1, 1946, GARF, f. 6991, op. 3, (...)
  • 56 Complaint of Borisov Jews to Ulasevich on March 12, 1946: CAHJP, RU-217/63, 9.

42In Novo-Belitsa (eastern Belorussia), the synagogue building at 1 Kalinin Street housed an orphanage and a hostel for disabled war veterans.52 In Kalinkovichi, a kindergarten and nursery occupied the former synagogue. In Mozyr (eastern Belorussia), one synagogue was used as a boarding house and the other as a bakery. The synagogue in Osipovichi (eastern Belorussia) was turned into a barber shop.53 Stolin’s Sovetskaia Street synagogue was now home to a coffin manufacturer. The other synagogue had been demolished, and a building housing the office of the public prosecutor was erected on its site.54 In Bobruisk (eastern Belorussia), three synagogues were occupied by cultural and educational institutions, four were turned into dwelling houses, and two were used as manufacturing facilities.55 In Borisov (eastern Belorussia), one synagogue accommodated the local Young Pioneer house, while the second was used as a printing facility.56

  • 57 The Great Synagogue of Borisov was built in 1913; its dimensions were quite outstanding for a provi (...)
  • 58 Report of D. Guliaev, CARC commissioner of the Minsk Oblast to Ulasevich and Poliansky on October 1 (...)
  • 59 A. Litin, “Evreiskii vopros v Mogileve” in Gistoria Magileva : minulaye i suchasnaz´ [“The Jewish q (...)

43The same sad situation occurred in Minsk, where out of ten synagogues that functioned before the war five had escaped destruction. Among the five, the Great Synagogue of Borisov, which had been regarded as one of the finest in the region, was unscathed.57 After the liberation of the city, one became the regional police museum, another housed the “Belorussian” movie theater, and the remaining three were taken over by the Belorussian State University, a cultural institution, and a warehouse.58 In Mogilev, the synagogue at 21 Liebknecht Street became a boxing ring, while the one at 21 Lenin Street was used for gymnastics classes.59 Most of the remaining synagogue buildings were used for non-religious purposes immediately after the liberation of Belorussia (1944) or soon thereafter (1945). At the time, this was not due to the implementation of some anti-Semitic policy on the part of the State and its local representatives. However, in late 1945 and the period between 1946 and 1948, Jews were rejected for political, ideological or simply economic reasons when they tried to reclaim their property.

  • 60 Rosenbloom, Pamyat´ na krovi..., p. 44.

44Some synagogue buildings survived in Dedilovichi, Zembin, Plitchenko, Koshitsa, Chernevka and several other towns in the Minsk oblast. These buildings were generally plain wooden houses indistinguishable from the neighboring homes. On the site of the Mir yeshiva, local gentiles established an agricultural school. The synagogue in Zembin was dismantled by locals who carted away the bricks to build private homes.60

Appeals for legalization of synagogues

  • 61 Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR from November 19, 1944, GARF, f. 6991, op. (...)

45In November 1944, a decree entitled “Procedure for Inauguration of Prayer Houses of Religious Cults” was adopted by the Council of the People’s Commissars of the USSR (later called Council of Ministers). This decree stated that availability of a prayer house (synagogue) was an indispensable condition for registering a congregation. A petition requesting the establishment of a synagogue or a prayer house had to be signed by at least twenty local observant Jews (known as initsiativnaia dvadtsatka, ‘the twenty initiators’), all being of full legal age, none of them ever disfranchised by a court decision. After the petition was submitted, the authorities carried out a preliminary verification of the information provided. This complex, circuitous registration procedure aimed to disqualify any unauthorized acts. At the first stage, applicants submitted a petition to the executive committee of the local Soviet, which then reached a decision and sent the file to the regional CARC representative. The representative, in his turn, prepared the file for the CARC commissioner at the republican level. Next the issue was considered by the Council of Ministers of the Union of autonomous republics, and finally it was sent for approval in Moscow.61

46The executive committees of the Soviets had to verify that all conditions were met (that all petitioners were indeed of age, were local residents, and that none had ever been disfranchised by court decision or subjected to repressive measures). In addition, the authorities determined whether the signatories were indeed representatives of a larger congregation or represented only themselves. The condition of the provisional prayer house and its history -- who had nationalized it and when -- were also to be ascertained. The Soviets’ executive committees were to gather information on other prayer houses currently in operation within the relevant region or town. Moreover, they had to indicate the exact distance between the prayer houses and the petitioners’ place of residence.

47Registration meant that the religious community was formally recognized and was ostensibly granted the right of free religious practice. However, the members of a congregation were forbidden to engage in “religious propaganda,” to participate in social and charitable activities, and to provide religious education for their children.

  • 62 Report from Ulasevich to Poliansky on November 18, 1946: GARF, f. 6991, op. 3, d. 257, l. 95-96.

48On June 25, 1945, seven months after the procedural document was issued, statistics regarding the registration of congregations and related prayer houses of all religious denominations in Belorussia were as follows : of the 238 prayer houses belonging to different denominations, including Orthodox churches, only nine (3.7 %) had been registered by the authorities. Out of the nine, only one synagogue in the entire republic -- the one in Minsk -- was officially recognized as legal. The Council of Ministers demanded that collecting relevant data be sped up.62

  • 63 Project of the Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR, “On Religious Cults (with (...)

49Jews naturally wished to reclaim those synagogue buildings that had escaped destruction and were now occupied by non-Jewish institutions and offices. However, state intervention was needed to legalize their restitution. In December 1945, a Directive letter “On the Religious Cults (with the exception of the Russian Orthodox Church)” was signed by Viacheslav Molotov, the vice-chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars. The document banned firstly unauthorized closing of prayer premises in use, then use of cult premises, not currently in operation, for unrelated purposes. Only in extraordinary cases could a building be demolished or dismantled.63 In fact, the decree only alleviated the situation temporarily, and had no long-term effect.

  • 64 Directive letter of CARC in Moscow on February 12, 1946, GARF, f. 6991, op. 4, d. 1, l. 5.

50In cases where it was necessary for congregants of the registered community to rebuild or to renovate a prayer house, the Councils of People’s Commissars, as well as district and regional executive committees, were advised to supply the building materials required. Registered religious communities were granted limited legal rights, including the right to open a bank account in the local branch of the State Bank (Gosbank), to buy means of transportation, and to rent, build and purchase premises. Ritual religious objects that had been confiscated by local authorities on behalf of the state were now regarded as ownerless property to be handed over to the religious communities. This 1945 decree was a significant supplement to the previously adopted decrees of the Soviet authorities (1918 and 1929) concerning the activities of congregations. 64

51Even before some of these national decrees went into effect, in the years 1944-1946, observant Jews from Minsk, Gomel´, Rechitsa, Mozyr, Kalinkovichi, Bobruisk, Borisov, Zhlobin, Mogilev, Orsha, Pinsk, Lepel and Vitebsk submitted the first requests to establish synagogues and register religious congregations. In Minsk, 70 observant Jews signed a petition submitted in early December 1944. They requested that the nineteenth-century stone building of the former synagogue at 1 Nemiga Street, occupied by the office of the chief archivist for the People’s Commissariat of the Interior (NKVD) of the BSSR, be returned to them. To the great joy of the city’s Jewry their request was granted in 1946. The restoration and refurbishing of the synagogue required substantial funds that were collected in a short period of time.

  • 65 Smilovitsky, “Jewish Religious Life in Bobruisk, 1944-1954,” Jews in Eastern Europe, 2, 27 (1995): (...)
  • 66 Statistical summary of prayer houses in Pinsk oblast on January 1, 1946, GARF, f. 6991, op. 3, d. 2 (...)
  • 67 Letter from Ulasevich to Poliansky, May 4, 1947, NARB, f. 952, op. 1, d. 8, l. 311.

52At the beginning of 1945, Bobruisk’s religious Jews requested that the former synagogue building at 53 Liebknecht Street be handed over. The building had burnt down, but the petitioners promised to restore it quickly at their own expense. In April 1946 approval was finally granted. One month later, the religious community completed the reconstruction and refurbishing of the synagogue, after collecting 100,000 rubles. Such an accomplishment greatly impressed the authorities.65 In Pinsk, a request for official registration of a congregation and for permission to use their synagogue in a legal way (as hitherto they had operated without permission from the central state administration of Minsk and Moscow) was signed by 83 observant Jews. It gained the support of Bogdanovich, CARC representative for the Pinsk oblast, who wrote that ever since the town’s liberation the Jews had been using a synagogue that had escaped destruction under the Nazis.66 Rabbi B.E. Rozenzveig was instrumental in organizing this and several other petitions for reestablishing Jewish religious communities in the towns and shtetls of the Pinsk region, where prior to the war there had been 35 active synagogues.67

  • 68 Report from Maslov to Poliansky, September 2, 1945, YVA, M-46/14, p. 13.

53In 1945, in Brest, 39 Jews signed a request to register the Jewish religious community to allocate premises for a synagogue.68 In Orsha, Vitebsk, Zhlobin and Kalinkovichi, congregations built special premises to be used as prayer houses, first registering them as private homes and then receiving the necessary permits from local authorities.

5. Appeals to the regime for mercy

  • 69 Archives of the newspaper Einigkeit, GARF, f. 8114, op. 1, d. 1131, l. 541.
  • 70 Report from Brest to Ulasevich, late 1945 (missing exact date), NARB, f. 952, op. 1, d. 8, l. 202.

54Soviet authorities used the restitution of synagogues and registration of Jewish communities as evidence of religious freedom in the USSR. The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Moscow was ordered to include such cases in reports sent abroad. In May 1946 Elizabeth Eberlin wrote an article, “Mogilev Jewry,” which was sent to New York, London, Toronto and Tel Aviv. The article reported that prior to the war there had been 20 synagogues in the oblast, all of them destroyed by “the Hitlerite vandals.” Two synagogues in Mogilev and Shklov had already been restored thanks to the assistance of Ivan Kazantsev, CARC representative for the Mogilev oblast.69 Ulasevich, in his memorandum addressed to Panteleimon Ponomarenko, chairman of the BSSR Council of Ministers, reported that in almost all cities and little towns where Jews resided, synagogues had been established in private apartments, although these had not received official permission to open. These makeshift synagogues were attended by “a quite significant number of practicing Jews.”70 Thus, the regime could not ignore worshippers’ demands. In a context of official tolerance in the immediate aftermath of war, Jews often appealed to the benevolence of the Soviet government. Those appeals to Stalin’s mercy grew ever more desperate in the following years, especially at the end of the1940s, as the regime adopted an openly repressive policy towards Soviet Jews.

  • 71 Telegram of Jewish observers in Minsk sent to the Kremlin, to Stalin’s attention on September 20, 1 (...)

55In September 1945, in a Thanksgiving prayer, the Jews referred to Stalin as “the savior, the only unconquerable commander, who had engaged in a duel with a murderous vampire, with Panther and Tiger tanks and had smashed them, thus saving both the Jewish and Slavic peoples.” They prayed the Lord to grant Stalin long life, good health, great success in all his undertakings, vowing to pass on his blessed name to be extolled by their descendants. In a prayer called “Victory,” the following words were recited in Yiddish : 71

  • 72 The practice of offering prayers for the good health and well-being of the leaders of states where (...)

Oh Lord, open the treasury of the heavenly blessings and shed your grace on our dearest savior Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin. Enlarge his power and might, grant him long years of life, let all his ways lead to success. Grant him strength wherever he goes, while seeking to increase the welfare of his people who have found haven under his care. Let the Lord’s blessings be upon his helpers and all those who labor hard to serve the people. May the spirit of wisdom, well-being and prosperity repose on them, for them to stand guard relentlessly and establish goodness and justice for all those living in the land of Russia.72

  • 73 Report from Kishkurno to Ulasevich on September 13, 1945, NARB, f. 845, op. 1, d. 12, l. 32; f. 861 (...)
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  • 66 S76ort from Ulasevich to Poliansky on NovembeF, f. xact date), NARB, f. :14, p. 13.
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