History of the Jews in the Soviet Union
The history of the Jews in the Soviet Union is primarily the history of Jews in its component states.
The history of the Jews in Armenia dates back more than 2,000 years. After Eastern Armenia came under Russian rule in the early 19th century, Jews began arriving from Poland and Iran, creating Ashkenazic and Mizrahi communities in Yerevan. More Jews moved to Armenia during its period as a Soviet republic finding more tolerance in the area than in Russia or Ukraine. After World War II, the Jewish population rose to approximately 5,000. However, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union many left due to inadequate services and today the country's Jewish population has shrunk to 750. Despite small numbers, a high intermarriage rate, and relative isolation, a great deal of enthusiasm exists to help the community meet its needs. There are about 100 Jews presently living in the Republic of Armenia, mainly in the capital Yerevan. They are mostly of Ashkenazi origin and some are Mizrahi Georgian Jews.
The History of the Jews in Azerbaijan (Judæo-Tat: çuhuro / жугьуро / ז'אוּהאוּרו; Yiddish: אידם; Azerbaijani: cuhudlar, yəhudilər; Russian: евреи) dates back to Late Antiquity. Historically Jews in Azerbaijan have been represented by various subgroups, mainly Mountain Jews, Ashkenazi Jews and Georgian Jews. After Sovietization all Zionism-related activities including those of cultural nature that were carried out in Hebrew were banned. In the early 1920s a few hundred Mountain Jewish families from Azerbaijan and Dagestan left for Palestine and settled in Tel-Aviv. The next aliyah did not take place until the 1970s, after the ban on Jewish immigration to Israel was lifted (see: Refusenik (Soviet Union)). Between 1972 and 1978 around 3,000 people left Azerbaijan for Israel. 1970 was the demographic peak for Azerbaijani Jews after World War II; according to the census, 41,288 Jews resided in Azerbaijan that year. Many Jewish émigrés from Azerbaijan settled in Tel-Aviv and Haifa. There are relatively large communities of Mountain Jewish expatriates from Azerbaijan in New York and Toronto. Similar to many immigrant communities of the Czarist and Soviet eras in Azerbaijan, Ashkenazi Jews appear to be linguistically Russified. The majority of Ashkenazi Jews speak Russian as their first language with Azeri sometimes being spoken as the second. The number of Yiddish-speakers is unknown.
The Jews in Belarus were the third largest ethnic group in the country in the first half of the 20th century. Before World War II, Jews were the third among the ethnic groups in Belarus and comprised more than 40% of the population in cities and towns. The population of cities such as Minsk, Pinsk, Mahiliou, Babrujsk, Viciebsk, and Homiel was more than 50% Jewish. In 1897 there were 724,548 Jews in Belarus, i.e. 13.6% of the total population. Some 800,000 Jews—90% of the Jewish population—were killed in Belarus during the Holocaust. According to the 2009 census, there were 12,926 Jews in Belarus (0.1% of the population). The Jewish Agency estimates the community of Jews in Belarus at 70,000. Marc Chagall, Mendele Mocher Sforim, Chaim Weizmann and Menachem Begin were born in Belarus. By the end of the 19th century, many Belarusian Jews were part of the general flight of Jews from Eastern Europe to the New World due to conflicts and pogroms engulfing the Russian Empire and the anti-Semitism of the Russian czars. Millions of Jews, including tens of thousands of Jews from Belarus, emigrated to the United States of America and South Africa. A small number also emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine. During the first years of Soviet occupation of Belarus, Jews were able to get managing positions in the country. In WW II, atrocities against the Jewish population in the German-conquered areas began almost immediately, with the dispatch of Einsatzgruppen (task groups) to round up Jews and shoot them.
In the second half of the 20th century, there was a large wave of Belarusian Jews immigrating to Israel (see Aliyah from the Soviet Union in the 1970s), as well as to the United States. In 1979, there were 135,400 Jews in Belarus; a decade later, 112,000 were left. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Belarusian independence saw most of the community, along with the majority of the former Soviet Union's Jewish population, leave for Israel (see Russian immigration to Israel in the 1990s), when most of the former Soviet Union's Jewish population left for Israel. The 1999 census estimated that there were only 29,000 Jews left in the country. However, local Jewish organizations put the number at 50,000, and the Jewish Agency believes that there are 70,000. About half of the country's Jews live in Minsk. Despite anti-semitic government policies, national Jewish organizations, local cultural groups, religious schools, charitable organizations, and organizations for war veterans and Holocaust survivors have been formed. Since the mass immigration of the 1990s, there has been some continuous immigration to Israel. In 2002, 974 Belarusians moved to Israel, and between 2003 and 2005, 4,854 followed suit.
The history of the Jews in Estonia starts with individual reports of Jews in what is now Estonia from as early as the 14th century. However, the process of permanent Jewish settlement in Estonia began in the 19th century, especially after they were granted the official right to enter the region by a statute of Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1865. This allowed the so-called Jewish 'Nicholas soldiers' (often former cantonists) and their descendants, First Guild merchants, artisans, and Jews with higher education to settle in Estonia and other parts of the Russian Empire outside their Pale of Settlement. The "Nicholas soldiers" and their descendants, and artisans were, basically, the ones who founded the first Jewish congregations in Estonia. The Tallinn congregation, the largest in Estonia, was founded in 1830. The Tartu congregation was established in 1866 when the first fifty families settled there. Synagogues were built, the largest of which were constructed in Tallinn in 1883 and Tartu in 1901. Both of these were subsequently destroyed by fire in World War II.
The life of the small Jewish community in Estonia was disrupted in 1940 with the Soviet occupation of Estonia. Cultural autonomy together with all its institutions was liquidated in July 1940. In July and August of the same year all organisations, associations, societies and corporations were closed. The Jews' businesses were nationalized. A relatively large number of Jews (350-450, about 10% of the total Jewish population) were deported into prison camps in Russia by the Soviet authorities on 14 June 1941. In WW II, more than 75% of Estonia's Jewish community, aware of the fate that otherwise awaited them, managed to escape to the Soviet Union; virtually all the remainder (between 950 and 1000 men, women and children) had been killed by the end of 1941. The four Estonians held most responsible for the murders at Kalevi-Liiva were accused at war crimes trials in 1961. Two were later executed; the others avoided sentencing by going into exile. From 1944 until 1988 the Estonian Jewish community had no organisations, associations, or clubs. In March 1988, as the process towards regaining Estonia's independence was beginning, the Jewish Cultural Society was established in Tallinn. It was the first of its kind in the late Soviet Union. Unlike in other parts of the Soviet Union, there were no problems with registering either the society or its symbols. The Society began by organising concerts and lectures. Soon the question of founding a Jewish school arose. As a start, a Sunday school was established in 1989. The Tallinn Jewish Gymnasium on Karu Street was being used by a vocational school. In 1990, a Jewish School with grades 1 through 9 was established.
The Georgian Jews (Georgian: ქართველი ებრაელები) are from Georgia, in the Caucasus. Georgian Jews are one of the oldest communities in Georgia, tracing their migration into the country during the Babylonian captivity in 6th century BC. In 1801, the Russian Empire annexed Eastern Georgia. In the beginning of the 19th century, Ashkenazi Russian Jews were forced to move to Georgia by the Russian government. The Ashkenazi Jews and the Georgian Jews began establishing contact with each other, but relations were strained. Georgian Jews viewed the Ashkenazim as godless and secular, while the Ashkenazim looked down on the Georgian Jews. Zionism was a uniting cause for the two groups. Beginning in 1863, groups of Jews began making aliyah, mostly for religious reasons. The Red Army invaded Georgia in February 1921, prompting a mass exodus from the region.
Initially, the Soviets allowed the Jews to maintain their religious customs, but after a Georgian rebellion in 1924, the Bolshevik government terminated all Zionist activity, imposed economic restrictions, and generally discriminated against the Jewish community. As a result, many Jewish businesses were bankrupted and 200 families applied for exit visas. Only 18 were allowed to emigrate. In the mid-1920s, the Soviets focused on industrializing and secularizing the Jews of Georgia. Mass numbers of Jews were forced to work in factories or to join craft cooperatives and collective farm projects. In 1927–1928, OZET, the organization for settling Jewish workers on farms, established a number of Jewish collective farms. These small homogeneous communities became isolated Jewish communities where Jewish learning was continued. Recognizing this, the Communists disbanded the communities in the 1930s, scattering the Jews among various farms and destroying Jewish communal life. The situation of the Jewish community of Georgia improved dramatically due to the end of the Soviet occupation.
This is discussed in more detail in the following articles:
- History of the Jews in Armenia
- History of the Jews in Azerbaijan
- History of the Jews in Belarus
- History of the Jews in Estonia
- History of the Jews in Georgia
- History of the Jews in Kazakhstan
- History of the Jews in Kyrgyzstan
- History of the Jews in Latvia
- History of the Jews in Lithuania
- History of the Jews in Moldova
- History of the Jews in Russia
- History of the Jews in Tajikistan
- History of the Jews in Turkmenistan
- History of the Jews in Ukraine
- History of the Jews in Uzbekistan
The following articles discuss various aspects of Jewish history specific to the Soviet Union and the Soviet era:
- Antisemitism in the Soviet Union
- Soviet Anti-Zionism
- Aliyah from the Soviet Union
- Jewish Autonomous Oblast
- Post-Soviet Union:
- Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Eurasia: Armenia and Jews
- (Russian) The Electronic Jewish Encyclopædia: Azerbaijan
- Associated Press, Oct 21, 2008, "Belarus marks ghetto's destruction 65 years on"
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- Jewish History in Estonia at www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org
- Weiss-Wendt, Anton (1998). The Soviet Occupation of Estonia in 1940-41 and the Jews. Holocaust and Genocide Studies 12.2, 308-325.
- Berg, Eiki (1994). The Peculiarities of Jewish Settlement in Estonia. GeoJournal 33.4, 465-470.
- The Wellspring of Georgian Historiography: The Early Medieval Historical Chronicle The Conversion of Katli and The Life of St. Nino, Constantine B. Lerner, England: Bennett and Bloom, London, 2004, p. 60