Gorodok (Vitebsk Oblast)

(55°28' 30°00')

Brief History of Jews in Gorodok

By Zlata Krivichkina

The history of Jews in Gorodok, a small Belarussian town close to the Russian border, goes back to olden times. It is well known that one of the early leaders of Hasidic Judaism Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Horodok, lived in Gorodok in the second half of the 18thcentury. There is a story that in the winter of 1772 he and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, went to the Vilna Gaon with the aim of convincing him to rescind his ban on Hasidism, but the Vilna Gaon did not accept them. In 1777 Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Horodok decided to emigrate to Eretz Israel together with his 300 followers. They finally settled in Tiberias in 1780s and built a synagogue that may still be standing among the ancient synagogues of Tiberias.

Even after around these 300 Hassids left Gorodok in the end of XVIII century, the Jewish population of Gorodok in 1799 was around 700 people out of 1524 citizens. About 50 of them were merchants. Several years later, in 1810, there were already 943 Jewish people in Gorodok according to archive data.

The first official records of Gorodok Jewish households and prayer houses go back to the 1860s. As per the “Historical data of Belarussian notable places” book issued in Saint Petersburg in 1855, there were around 3500 households in Gorodok, more than 2000 of which were Jewish. There were 4 Jewish prayer houses in 1861 and already 6 of them in 1864.

We don’t know exactly when the Jewish cemetery was established in Gorodok even though judging by its size, the number of tombstones and historical data we estimate it as being around 300 years old. The oldest records with regards to the cemetery date back to 1869 when 2.7 acres of land was additionally attributed to the Jewish cemetery and added to what is now considered as “the old part” of the cemetery.

In the end of the 19th century Gorodok was 70% Jewish with around 2800 Jews living in the town and 1500 more living in the Gorodok district and being mostly involved in trade and agriculture. Official records state that in 1897 there were already 13 synagogues and prayer houses as well as two Jewish schools in Gorodok. Two synagogues had two floors and one of them was made of stone. Another synagogue was located on Staroneneleskaya Street which was mostly Jewish at that time. The street still exists and even some old buildings are still there. Michael Glazer and Trevor Bedeman’s relatives lived not far from that street

Marc Chagall’s second cousin lived in Gorodok. His name was Menya (which is short for Mendel most likely) Chagall. He was Marc’s father’s cousin. Menya used to visit Marc Chagall’s family frequently and often commented that he saw a boy painting, which was unusual for a Jewish boy at that time. Menya had a son Yakov who also lived in Gorodok and is buried at the Jewish cemetery together with his father. My parents used to know Yakov and his wife Sonya quite well.

In the early 20th century, the Jewish population of Gorodok was more than 4000 citizens. After the Revolution of 1917, the pale of settlement was eliminated and Jews were allowed to live anywhere they wanted in the newly created USSR. Some Jews moved from Gorodok to bigger cities. Moreover, the Soviet authorities didn’t appreciate any kind of religion. Soon several synagogues and prayer houses were closed, and only 3 of them were left by 1922. One of the two Jewish schools was closed in 1921 as well.

Nevertheless Gorodok still remained around 50% Jewish – there were 2660 Jews out of 5509 citizens in 1926. According to official records from 1918-1919 one of the heads of the town was Mr Dolgopolsky. There was a bookstore belonging to Ms Chanina, a drugstore of Mr Shteiner, a printing house of Mr Ryabchik and a cinema of Gaiduk & Vanidovsky. The Gorodok kerosene stores belonged to Mr. Kagan. Even the Gorodok official authorities were located in Mirka Mints’ house in 1919.

Before the Revolution, in 1913, Mr Dolgopolsky founded the Gorodok Jewish labor school. It was first located in two rented building which belonged to other Jews, Mr. Amusin and Mr. Akselrod. After the Revolution the school was very popular, and there were around 210 students there in 1918. On top of that, special courses were organized for Jewish children in 1917-1918 adding 300 more students to the school.

One remaining Gorodok Jewish school existed until 1937 under the supervision of Mr Lotvin. Many of the teachers who worked there were graduates of the Vitebsk Jewish college. In 1937 Mr Lotvin was arrested, accused of being a public enemy and shot. After that the school was closed and all the teachers moved to the Belarussian school until 1939 when the School for Working Youth was opened and many teachers moved there. The first headmaster of that school was my grandfather, Iosif Mendelevich Krivichkin. He worked there only for a short time as he went to the army that same year and only came back in 1947. After he returned to Gorodok he spent another two years as a headmaster until my father Mark Krivichkin was born in 1949 and was circumcised, which was not appreciated by authorities at that time.  Someone complained to the authorities about my father’s circumcision, and after that Iosif Mendelevich was fired. Ironically enough, my father graduated from that same school 18 years later.

Even though the school was closed Jewish children had some places to learn. There was a children’s technical school in Gorodok which was not officially Jewish but whose director and a large proportion of students were Jewish. The school was very successful and even presented its technical models in Moscow in 1938 and 1939. My great uncle Ruvim Kozhevnikov was one of the best students of that school. He remained interested in physics and maths for the rest of his life and even obtained several patents.  

On the 9th of July 1941, the Nazis came to Gorodok. 5 days before they bombed the area in order to destroy the bridge not far from Staronevelskaya street. Zalman Gelfand, one of the oldest members of Gorodok Jewish community, still remembers that incident. He recalled the bridge was not destroyed, but one woman was killed by the bomb explosion which caused panic in the town.  

The first restrictive measure for Jews was in introducing a yellow circle label that should have been placed at the right shoulder on the back of any clothes any Jewish citizen was wearing. Then robberies and pogroms followed affecting all the Jewish houses in Gorodok.

Jews were allowed to be free only for several weeks in the summer of 1941. During that time many of them were forced to work for the Germans. After that the first portion of Jews, mostly young men, was executed. Nazis brought them to the nearby village called Berezovka, forced them to dig graves for themselves and shot all of them.

At the end of the summer, the Jewish ghetto was organized. Small groups of Jews were taken away regularly and they never came back… In several months the remaining Jews, mostly old people and women with small children, were taken to the Vorobiev hills, another place not far from Gorodok, and shot the same way as in Berezovka. According to Belarussian Archive data, more than 2000 Jews were executed by Nazis in Gorodok.

After WWII around 400-500 Jews came back to Gorodok. They appointed Aron Yakovlevich Usvyatsov as their unofficial leader as he managed to stay religious during Soviet times and knew the Torah well. There were no synagogues opened in Gorodok after the War, however a shoichet was coming regularly until around the 1970s from nearby cities. Local Jews also baked matza for Pesach for many years.

Until the early 1990s, the Gorodok Jewish community remained significant. Karl Marx street (originally Naberezhnaya Street), the one where my grandparents and Michael’s relatives used to live, was unofficially called Jewish street as most of its population there were Jewish. Staronevelskaya street was also quite Jewish during the late Soviet period. However after Jews were allowed to emigrate, the majority of them left their small home town. Now most of them live in Israel, Germany and the US. In the meantime, the Gorodok community is becoming smaller and older year by year with only around 10-15 Jews remaining.

In the 2015s there are many outsiders who wish to encourage the small local Jewish Community and also to preserve the Jewish history and burial sites of Grorodok for the future. The Gorodok, Vitebsk, Belarus Jewish Sites appeal is campaigning for funds. The first is over two years to pay for emergency maintenance to preserve access and remove tree growth, in the longer term we wish to encourage research. With the help of the Together Plan we have had visits to and from their project in Polotsk, and with their help have put Gorodok sites on the map with an account on p250 of the Bradt Guide to Belarus, by Nigel Roberts.

May 2015