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Jewish Life in Belarus
The Final Decade of the Stalin Regime, 1944–1953

Leonid Smilovitsky, Tel Aviv University, Israel

*** Recipient of Choice magazine's 2015 Outstanding Academic Titles award ***

Jewish life in Belarus in the years after World War II was long an enigma. Officially it was held to be as being non-existent, and in the ideological atmosphere of the time research on the matter was impossible. Jewish community life had been wiped out by the Nazis, and information on its revival was suppressed by the communists. For more than half a century the truth about Jewish life during this period was sealed in inaccessible archives. The Jews of Belarus preferred to keep silent rather than expose themselves to the animosity of the authorities. Although the fate of Belarusian Jews before and during the war has now been amply studied, this book is one of the first attempts to study Jewish life in Belarus during the last decade of Stalin's rule.

In addition to archival materials, the present research is based on a questionnaire submitted to former residents of Belarus in Israel, as well as information from periodicals, collections of documents, statistical reports and monographs.

Read a book interview with the author

"This remarkable contribution to Soviet and Jewish historiography reveals a largely unknown chapter: the stubbornly courageous attempts by surviving Belarusian Jews to preserve their Jewish religious and cultural identity in the face of the Soviet regime’s concerted effort to suppress Jewish identity as well as any explicit references to the annihilation of over 80 percent of Jewish Belarusians during the Holocaust.  Fewer than 200,000 Jews remained after the Soviets drove the Germans out in 1944.  With extensive use of Belarusian archives, including records of the secret police and interviews and correspondence with hundreds of Belarusian émigrés living in Israel and the US, Smilovitsky (Tel Aviv Univ., Israel) has written a carefully detailed study of Belarusian Jews' daily struggles to live as Jews during the final decade of Stalin’s reign.  The author also makes use of the very large and growing library of research and memoirs recently published in Russian and Belarusian.  This is a great work of creative, careful scholarship that tells a tragic story of stubborn courage in the final years of Stalin’s reign—a sad tale that yet inspires. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Most levels/libraries."—R. M. Shapiro, Brooklyn College


346 pages, cloth
$60.00 / €45.00 / £38.00

"For many years, historians largely assumed that the Jews who survived the war either sought complete assimilation into Soviet society or were too cowed by governmental persecution to assert their Jewish identities. Only a few brave refuseniks and dissidents continued to identify as Jews. Newer research, however, has shown that at least outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, ordinary Soviet citizens of Jewish heritage continued to express their Jewish identities in the decades after the war in a variety of ways. Smilovitsky’s book adds to our understanding of how Jews presented themselves in postwar Belarus.
The book is a useful resource for scholars of Eastern European Jewish life." - American Historical Review

"Leonid Smilovitsky in his deeply researched book searches for evidence of how Jewish religious institutions and rituals reemerge in such a war-torn place. And he finds it.
The author depicts the acts of petitioning the state for the right to build synagogues, eat kosher food, tend Jewish cemeteries, and establish prayer quorums heroically, as elements of 'the self-sacrifice and devotion to his faith that characterized the observant Jew in postwar Belarus and his tenacity in continuing to practice his religion whatever the risks and consequences'. While Smilovitsky reads this as a romantic story about the tenacious Belarusian religious Jew, one might also read these efforts as expressions of the desire to find some semblance of dignity in difference in a ruined postwar Belarus. The war years had marked Jews for death, and now Jews came together as Jews in life. In documenting that, Smilovitsky shows how desperately Belarusian Jews wanted to maintain a public Jewish identity." - Slavic Review

"Jewish Life in Belarus is an important contribution to the understanding of the multilayered shades and complexities of postwar Jewish life and identity under Stalin through a regional approach. The book examines Soviet policy toward the Jews, Judaism, and Jewish culture from 1944 to 1953 in the cities and towns of Belarus. It focuses on the regime’s attempt to supervise and restrict Jewish religious and cultural life and provides new evidence about the struggle that many Jews carried out as they strove to establish synagogues, keep the laws of kashrut, uphold Jewish rituals, and perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust and its victims. Exploring Jewish legal and underground religious institutions, private and public religious and cultural activities, Smilovitsky challenges the notion of a “silent” and submissive Jewry in the postwar years of Stalinism. By drawing on exceptional archival data—including documents from the Central Archives of the KGB of the Republic of Belarus and the Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults (CARC)—as well as on correspondence from former residents of Belarus, Smilovitsky reveals the degree of resilience and agency exerted by Soviet Jews at the time. His work allows us to understand some of the dynamics that would characterize the revival of Jewish national identity and the emergence of the liberation movement of the 1960s." - The Journal of Modern History

"This book is important for scholars interested in the aftermath of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. The author justly distinguishes between Sovietized Jews who had lived in the republic’s pre-1939 borders and “westerners”—former Polish citizens, who constituted a small portion of the total Jewish population of the republic, but played a disproportionally significant role in Jewish life.
The author, originally from Minsk himself, thoughtfully used his intimate knowledge of the topography, history, and social fabric of Soviet Belarus. He accessed and quoted for the first time numerous documents from the Belarus state, party, and KGB archives of Minsk as well as of Gomel, Mogilev, and Brest, and this makes the monograph particularly valuable. A number of important documents related to religious life are published in the appendices. The book is a big step forward in the study of Belarus and Soviet Jewry. - The Russian Review

"The book reveals many unknown pages of Jewish life in Belarus in these years and illustrates various aspects of Soviet policy toward the Jewish population. Smilovitsky’s well-structured and well-edited book is a solid and important contribution to the history of the Jews in the Soviet Union. It is written in a scholarly popular style that makes it accessible to a wide audience. Smilovitsky makes extensive use of documentary sources from eleven libraries and archives. He provides clear arguments and conclusions in each chapter. In the appendix, the author reproduces important documents that can be used along with the book for teaching Soviet Jewish history. Hopefully other works that show the specifics of Jewish life in the different Soviet republics will follow this breakthrough research." - H-net Online