Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine


Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine


NN Theatre

Ruzhany guidebook

 Pol. Różana, Bel. Ружаны, Yid. ראָזשענוי

Ruzhany guidebook

A Sapieha residence

The first written mention of Ruzhany (Różana) dates back to 1490. The magnate family of Sapieha received Ruzhany in their possession in 1598 and made the town their main residence. Towards the end of the 16th century, Lew Sapieha, the Chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, had a castle built on a high hill of Ruzhany; the castle was often visited by the members of royal family. After a visit to the castle of Ruzhany, Władysław IV Vasa said that he had “[…] spent nine days in unspeakable luxury as the marshal’s guest.” Additionally, he was showered with gifts by the generous host and received “[…] a Belgian carpet worth 10,000 zloty, a ring for the queen, bought for 16,000 zloty, and a sable fur bought for 3,000 zloty in Moscow […].” Thanks to the efforts of the Sapiehas, Ruzhany was granted Magdeburg municipal rights and its own coat of arms. Ruzhany Castle, rebuilt in 1784–1786 and designed by Johann Samuel Becker, was a magnificent palace and park complex that used to be called the “Belorussian Versailles”, or the “Versailles of Polesie”. Yet, the estate approached the brink of bankruptcy, which forced Aleksander Sapieha to lease the palace out in 1829 to a Jewish entrepreneur, Mordechai Pines.

Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz recollects: “In Różana, the princely estate once owned by Hetman Pociej, a famous drunk, I saw a different ‘library’ of cups […]. These were cups that could hold two or more bottles, and which had different shapes: of sticks, pistols, or bears. What a pity! It was from those unmeasured vessels that the fathers and grandfathers had drunk away Poland’s wellbeing, happiness, independence, and unity. They rested in peace, whereas we and our children have to suffer because of their idleness and inactivity.”

From 1786 until the early 20th century, the palace hosted a factory producing silk fabrics, velvet, and cloth.


The Jews of Ruzhany

The first mention of the Jews of Ruzhany comes in a record stating that, by the 1623 decision of the Lithuanian Vaad, Ruzhany became part of the Brest kahal region. Decades later, in 1662, the Ruzhany community received the status of an independent kahal. The Jews living there suffered severely during the Great Northern War between Russia and Sweden (1700–1721). Despite that, the community was considered prosperous, and in 1721, it paid 1,100 zlotys of poll tax (the same amount was collected by the entire Vilnius community). Later, the situation of the Jews deteriorated to the point that they began leaving Ruzhany. In 1766, the community diminished to 326 members, 154 of them living in the town.

As the result of the Third Partition of Poland (1795), Ruzhany became part of the Russian territory. In 1847, there were 1,467 Jews living in Ruzhany, and in 1897 there were 3,599 (71.7 percent of the population). After the opening of six textile factories and several spinning mills in the first half of the 19th century, many Jews from the town and the surrounding area began to work there. In 1810, Itzko Leibovich, Berko Meierovich, and Gershko Yankielevich opened here a textile factory. By 1829, Jews owned three local textile factories. Some Jewish families grew vegetables and engaged in fruit farming on leased land. In 1850, two Jewish agricultural settlements were established near Ruzhany – that was part of greater Nicholas I’s plan to transform trading Jew, whom he deemed unproductive, into agricultural workers engaged in manual labor. Jews from those villages were among the first émigrés from Bielorussia to the land of Israel, where in 1884, they established the farm of Ekron, subsequently kibbutz Mazkeret Batya. In 1875, almost all of Ruzhany burnt down in a fire; the flames also destroyed Jewish prayer houses and the synagogue.


Accusations of ritual murder

The Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary (1908–1913), Yevreyskaya entsyklopedia (Rus.: The Jewish Encyclopaedia) contains the story of a blood libel that happened in Ruzhany:

The story had a continuation, centuries later, told here by Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, a Russian economist and a Gulag prisoner, whose father-in-law was related to one of those who in the 17th century volunteered for martyrdom to save the community.


Modern times

In the second half of the 19th century, a Jewish hospital was established in Ruzhany. In 1883, a charity called Linas ha-Tzedek (Shelter for the Righteous) was founded and a Talmud Torah school functioned, with about 300 students. It was in Ruzhany that one of Russia’s first branches of the Zionist organisation Hovevei Zion (Heb.: Lovers of Zion) was established; in 1884, its representatives attended a convention of Palestinophiles (the name for proto-Zionist activists) in Katowice. In 1904, a self-defence organisation was organized here to prevent pogroms. In 1905–1907, various political parties across the Russian political spectrum were active in the town.

In the interwar period, the number of the town Jewish residents gradually decreased, with 3,718 Jews living here in 1921 and 3,500, in 1939. The Jewish community tried to maintain their Jewish education and culture; the town had a Tarbut secondary school with Hebrew as the main language of instruction, a Yiddish secondary school, a private elementary school, and an amateur theatre. The religious community also maintained a nursing home.

Yechiel Michael Pines (1843, Ruzhany – 1913, Jaffa) – a religious and Zionist activist, writer, and teacher, proponent of religious Zionism (called Mizrahi movemement, in modern-day Israel – a national religious camp). He advocated multiple Jewish reforms, particularly educational, but thought that the religious life of the Jews should be left intact. He taught at the yeshiva in Ruzhany inspiring religious students with the idea of a settlement in the land of Israel. In 1878, having arrived in Jerusalem as a representative of the London-based Montefiore Foundation, he studied the possibilities of enlarging Jewish presence in Palestine. He was one of the founders of the association Thiyat Israel (Heb.: The Rebirth of the Jewish People), the aim of which was to make Hebrew a colloquial language. He also served as a superintendent of charities run by the Ashkenazi Jewish population in Eretz Israel. Pines’s works were published posthumously in three volumes in 1934–1939. The Israeli settlement (moshav) Kefar Pines was named in his honour.



One of the descendants of the Jews from Ruzhany executed during the ritual murder trial was Meir Kryński (1863–1916), a teacher, and an author of textbooks both in Hebrew and in Yiddish. He founded the first illustrated periodical devoted to literature and art published in Yiddish, Roman Tseitung (Yid.: A Gazette of Stories, 1906–1907), and was a co-founder of the Folkist daily Der Moment (Yid.: The Moment), perhaps the most widely read Yiddish newspaper with circulation about 40,000 copies. He was buried at the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. Ruzhany was also the hometown of Aharon Libuszycki (1874–1942), a Hebrew poet and translator, and the writer Zelig Sher (Shereshevsky) (1888–1971), the author of many books and memoirs in Yiddish. Sher studied at the yeshivot in Ruzhany and Slonim and learnt the weaving trade in Vilnius. He was an active member of the Socialist Zionist movement (Poalei Zion). After emigrating to the USA in 1909, he started to publish articles and short stories in American newspapers and magazines. During World War I, Sher served in the American army and fought on the French front, where he was wounded. When he returned, his short stories – both those about the war and others – began to appear in Jewish American periodicals: Forverts, Der Tog, and others, and the author himself became one of the editors of Di Tseit. Melech Epstein (1889–1979) had a similar history. He was a historian, a journalist writing for the Forverts (Yid.: Forward), Der Tog (Yid.: Day), and Morgen Fraykhait (Yid.: Morning Freedom), an activist involved in trade unions, socialist parties, and the Communist Party of the USA, which he left in August 1939, after the USSR and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbenthrop Pact. Twenty years later, he described his experience with the Communist Party in the book titled The Jew and Communism. The Story of Early Communist Victories and Ultimate Defeats in the Jewish Community, U.S.A., 1919–1941.

Yitzhak Shamir (Jaziernicki) (1915–2012) – an Israeli politician, who served twice as Israeli Prime Minister. In 1935, he emigrated from Ruzhany to Palestine. Besides the prime ministership, he held a number of other senior political positions: in the Mossad (Israeli Intelligence Service), in the Herut (a political party whose priority was to establish a Jewish state encompassing the entire historical territory of Israel), and in the Knesset.


World War II and the Holocaust

After the outbreak of World War II, Ruzhany was initially captured by the Red Army. The Jewish population swelled due to the influx of several thousand refugees from the areas occupied by the Third Reich. The Soviets deported most of them to the distant regions of the Soviet Union such as Siberia and Kazakhstan, but some remained in Ruzhany. With the beginning of the Nazi occupation (in July 1941), a tribute payment and forced labour duty were imposed on the Ruzhany Jews; the Jews were forced to wear bands with the word “Jude” on their right arms. The Nazis established the ghetto that existed for a short time only. As early as November 2, 1941, Jews from the ghetto were transported to the Treblinka death camp. The entire urban center of Ruzhany, where the ghetto was located, was burnt down.

In 1965, an obelisk was erected in Ruzhany to commemorate the victims of the Nazis; as it was routinely done in the USSR, the inscription on the memorial mentioned only the peaceful “Soviet citizens,” and purposefully neglected the fact that a majority of the victims were Jews.


Traces of Jewish presence

Numerous houses built before the war by the Jewish inhabitants of the town remain till this date; one of them is the former pharmacy. The local history museum exhibition in the partly restored castle has a section devoted to the Jews of Ruzhany.


The synagogue complex

At 6 Jakuba Kolasa Street in Ruzhany, the synagogue building has survived, established probably towards the end of the 19th century, to the design of Samuel Becker, the court architect of the Sapiehas. A two-storey brick building with the main prayer room, it was in use until 1940, when it was closed down by the Soviet authorities. The building is currently in a state of ruin, but a stone bimah has survived. Next to the synagogue stands the building of the former yeshivah, opened around the 1840s. In 1855–1888, the rabbi of Ruzhany was Mordechai Jaffe (1820–1891), one of the illustrious pioneers of the first aliyah in 1888.


The Jewish cemetery

There is a Jewish cemetery with more than 200 surviving matzevot in Tchyrvonarmieiskaia Street. The oldest ones date back to the first half of 17th century, which means they are among the oldest preserved matzevot in Belarus.

Authors: Irina Yelenskaya, Ales Astrauch


Worth seeing

  • Synagogue complex (18th–19th c.), the former synagogue and yeshivah, 6 J. Kolasa St.
  • Jewish cemetery (17th c.).
  • Castle, formerly the residence of the Sapieha family (16th c.), Pianierskaya St.
  • Holy Trinity Church (1617), Tchyrvonoarmieiskaia St.
  • Orthodox Church of Sts. Peter and Paul (1675), 2 17 Verasnia Sq.
  • Former Basilian monastery (1788).
  • Church of St. Casimir (1792).
  • Former inn (2nd half of the 18th c.), Tchyrvonoarmieiskaia St.

Surrounding area

Lyskava (20 km): ruins of a synagogue (early 20th c.); a Jewish cemetery with about 150 matzevot; the Orthodox Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God (1933); the former missionary monastery (1763–1785); Franciszek Karpiński’s grave; Holy Trinity Church.

Kosava-Paleskaie (26 km): the Pusłowski Palace (1838); Orthodox Church of St. Anthony (18th c.); the Church of the Most Holy Trinity (1878); a Jewish cemetery; the manor house in Merachovshina in which Tadeusz Kościuszko was born.

Izabelin (38 km): the former stone synagogue (18th c.); the rabbi’s wooden house (early 20th c.); a Jewish cemetery; Church of Sts. Peter and Paul (1778); tombstones connected with the history of Lithuanian Calvinism); Orthodox Church of St. Michael (late 18th c.).

Ivatsevichy (38 km): the manor house of the Gołuchowski and Jundźwiłł families (18th c.); a memorial at the grave of World War II victims; a plaque commemorating the designation of a triangulation point that was part of the Struve Geodetic Arc in 1830, established to mark and measure the meridian.

Porazava (42 km): a brick synagogue, currently a warehouse; the old and new Jewish cemeteries; Church of St. Michael Archangel (1825–1828); Holy Trinity Orthodox Church (1872); the manor house in the Bogudzięki estate (19th/20th c.); a Catholic cemetery with a chapel (1894).

Vawkavysk (49 km): a Jewish cemetery, a collection of documents and ephemera from the Vawkavysk ghetto at the Vawkavysk War and History Museum in the manor house called Bagration’s House; Castle Hill (14th c.); St. Wenceslaus Church (1841); St. Nicholas Orthodox Church (1847); January insurgents’ cemetery.

Bronnaya Gora (50 km): a memorial at the site of the extermination of more than 50,000 people, mostly Jewish.




Other Media