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By Leonid Smilovitsky. Jews in Belarus: from Our Common History, 1905-1953 (Minsk, 1999)
By Leonid Smilovitsky. Jews in Belarus: from Our Common History, 1905-1953 (Minsk, 1999)


The history of the Jews in Belorussia is at the same time one of the most studied but also one of the most ignored aspects of East European Jewish history. It is worthy to note that when the term "Russian Jewry" was used with regard to the Jews of the Czarist empire, very often it was Belorussian Jewry which was being referred to. Almost all of the major movements in the history of Jews in Eastern Europe either took place in Belorussia or had strong ties with Belorussia. This is true for Haskala and Hassidism, Jewish socialism and Zionism, migration and traditionalism etc. All of the studies on the development of these movements shed light on the history of Belorussian Jewry. At the same time, surprisingly little is known about Belrussian Jewry as a group. Relatively few studies have been devoted specifically to the history of this community and the special characteristics of the Belorussian context which made this community such a productive and dynamic one. Almost all of the attempts in this direction began after the Bolshevik revolution. In other words these studies, while often original and rich in primary sources, were written under stultifying ideological conditions and often with serious limits on bibliographical sources.
The study of the fact of Belorussian Jewry in the period of the Holocaust has had no better luck than the history of Belorussian Jewry in general. The constraints imposed by the communist regime made writing about the specific Jewish experience under the Nazis almost impossible. This was also the case with regard to the resistance of Jews to the communist regime.
It is only in recent years that the first steps have been taken to reclaiming the history of Belorussian Jewry from oblivion. It is already clear that there is a multitude of sources in archives and other location which make at least a partial reconstruction of the Jewish past a reasonable goal. What is needed is trained and capable historians who have the desire to locate relevant sources, analyze them and then integrate them into a synthetic whole.
The volume of Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky is a major step in the direction of renewing the study of Belorussian Jewrys past. The rich variety of topics it deals with, the range of sources it brings together, both written and oral, expand our understanding of the active response of Belorussian Jewry to the challenges it was forced to face. This volume clearly demonstrates the desire of Belorussian Jews to take their fate in their hands, their resourcefulness and capability under conditions of extreme repression and persecution. This found expression in the efforts of Belorussian Jews to maintain cultural and religious life in the USSR despite governmental policies opposed to religion. In the Nazi period, the Jewish will to live found its expression both in the bravery of fighters and the resourcefulness of those who sought means for the physical survival of the Jews.
Reading the various studies collected here strengthen our awareness of how much more remains to be done -- both with regard to Jews in the pre revolution years, after the revolution and during both the Holocaust period and the post Holocaust years. It is now clearer than ever how much can be done if there is only a desire to do so and the necessary intellectual skills. In many issues, these studies have set an agenda for future investigations and new standards for research. Moreover, apart from the scientific value of these studies, these contain very human elements which can certainly serve as inspirations of humanity and conviction even in the very worst of possible conditions.

Shaul Stampfer, Ph.D.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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