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

 

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Slonim guidebook

Pol. Słonim, Bel. Слонім, Yid.סלאָנים

A house of a Jewish family in Slonim
A house of a Jewish family in Slonim (Author: Pivovarchik, Irina)

Beginnings

The first mention of Slonim dates back to 1252 and states that the Prince of Galicia Daniel Romanovich sent “his brother [...] to Vawkavysk and his son to Usłonim” to fight against the Lithuanians. From the mid-13th century, Slonim belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and in 1531, it was granted the Magdeburg rights allowing the town a high level of self-governance and considerable economic independence. In 1586, the Chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Lew Sapieha, became the head of Slonim town council, soon transforming it from a provincial town into an important political centre. Under Lew Sapieha, the local castle was extensively reconstructed, and a new stone palace (called the Sapieha Palace) was established next to it. In 1597–1685, the palace hosted meetings of the nobility of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, held before the Sejm’s sessions and attended by deputies and senators. To be able to receive so many visitors, Sapieha built guest houses close to the castle. He also paved the marketplace plaza and streets, planted orchards, and built new bridges. In 1591, the Magdeburg rights for the town of Slonim were confirmed by Sigismund III Vasa, and in 1605, Lew Sapieha managed to obtain the “right of staple” on foreign merchants, obliging international merchants moving through Slonim to stop at the town council and offer their merchandise for sale. In the same year, Sapieha founded the first local weaving guild.

From the 16th to the 18th century, Slonim was a major trade centre, owing its popularity mainly to the Grand Lithuanian Hetman Michał Kazimierz Ogiński, who founded several companies there and built a canal that connected the Yaselda (a tributary of the Pripyat) and the Shchara Rivers. The town appearance changed; a town hall and a church were built, and new market stores were set up. About 1770, Ogiński also established a court theatre and an orchestra. The theatre employed professional dramatic and opera actors from Poland and Italy, painters, ballet dancers, and a choir made up of serfs. As a result, Slonim (as well as also privately owned Shklov) became known as the “Athens of the North.”

In 1795, after the Third Partition of Poland, Slonim was incorporated into the Russian Empire. From 1919 to 1939, it was again part of Poland as the capital of Slonim County in Nowogródek Voivodeship (Palatinate).

 

The Jews of Slonim

The first mention of Jews in Slonim comes from 1551, when the town was listed in the register of Jewish communities exempt from the household tax, the so-called srebrszczyzna (silver tax). In 1623, Slonim Jews reported to the kahal of Brest, but three years later, the Slonim Jews formed an independent community with their own kahal. In 1660, many Jews of Slonim were ruined as a result of local started by Hetman Stefan Czarniecki’s soldiers during the Potop era – a period of devastation in Polish history with its Cossack wars, peasant rebellions, Swedish and Muskovy invasions and internal military clashes.

At the turn of the 18th century, the town’s Jews traded in lumber and wheat, engaged in the production and sale of alcohol, and carried out various crafts. The Ogińskis encouraged merchants and craftsmen, including Jewish ones, to settle in Slonim. As a result, by 1766 the Jewish population numbered 1,154 people residing in and around the town and 4,289 in the whole of Slonim County.

The chronicle of the local Bikur Holim (Visiting the Sick) society, which provided help to poor and sick Jews, notes that an annual fast was introduced to commemorate the events of the 26th day of the month of Sivan, year 5524 (17/18 June 1764), when Russian troops clashed near Slonim with the Polish levy of the nobility (pospolite ruszenie) commanded by Prince Karol Radziwiłł. The approach of the armies to the town provoked fear among the Jews, who expected a pogrom. Soon, fasting gave way to collecting donations for the hospital’s needs.

 

Economy at the turn of the 20th century

In the 19th century, the town population increased: in 1797, there were 1,360 Jews and Karaites living in Slonim; in 1847, there were 5,700 Jews, and by 1847, their number reached 11,515.

Jews earned their living from trade (selling lumber, fur, and leather), transport, wood processing, manufacturing metal products, firing bricks, and tanning; some of them owned steam mills. The first textile factory was founded in 1826 by a Jewish entrepreneur. It employed 35 people, including 20 Jews. By the end of the 19th century, about 30 small factories were opened in Slonim, almost all of them belonging to Jews. Jewish entrepreneurs contributed significantly to the town’s modernisation; for instance, a water supply system was built thanks to one Grisha Konicov, a Jew who invested into the urbanization of his native town.

The first Jewish workers’ organization was set up in 1897, followed by the establishment of the Bund, Poale Zion, and the Zionist Socialist Workers’ Party branches. From 1905 to 1906, a united self-defence unit of Jewish socialist parties operated in town. In 1913, Jewish workers went on strike to protest against the Beilis trial in Kiev, were the tsarist police instigated by the anti-Semitic Black Hundreds and the Union of Archangel Michael accused Menahem Mendel Beilis, local Jewish clerk, of committing a ritual murder and allegedly killing Andrei Yushchinsky, a Christian boy. In 1921, 6,917 Jews lived in Slonim constituting 71.7 percent of the population. All political parties that existed in Poland at that time had their local branches there. Yet in the 1930s, the Zionists (especially the Revisionist Zionists inspired by Zeev Jabotinsky) were particularly influential.

 

The synagogue

In 1642–1648, the Great Synagogue was established in Slonim with the permission of King Władysław IV. It was built on the site of a wooden shul that had burnt down. The Great Synagogue was built as an important part of the town defence system, and its massive stone walls hid a richly decorated interior, filled with stucco ornaments and wall paintings. The main façade of the synagogue featured compositional and artistic arrangements characteristic of the 17th and 18th-century Baroque school. In the 18th century, the synagogue was significantly rebuilt, but some original stuccowork and drawings have been preserved.

In 1881, the synagogue was badly damaged by fire. It was re-opened thanks to donations, but as this was done without the permission of the authorities, the building was put under arrest. On May 11, 1883, rich Slonim town dwellers requested the governor to re-open the synagogue and allow them to use the money they raised to “restore the synagogue to a satisfactory condition.”

The synagogue was in operation until 1940. After the war, it served as a warehouse. Since the mid-1990s, the building has been abandoned, falling into decline and awaiting renovation. In 2001, it was handed over to the Jewish Religious Union of the Republic of Belarus.

Another synagogue building, constructed in the modernist style in the early 20th century, still stands at 26 Kamunistychnaya St. Today, it houses the medical school gym.

 

The dynasty of tzadikim

The founder of the Slonim Hasidic dynasty of tsadikim was Avraham ben Yitzhak Weinberg (1804–1883), head of the Slonim yeshiva and one of the most prominent Hasidic leaders of his time. His influence extended to the Jewish communities of the northern Polesie region, all the way from Slonim to Brest-Litovsk and from Kobryn to Baranovichi.

When Weinberg was still alive, Noah (d. 1927), one of his grandsons, settled in the land of Israel, in Tiberias, where he spread the rites and customs of Slonim Hasidism. In 1942, Slonim Hasidim founded in Jerusalem a Talmudic academy named Bet Avraham Slonim. From 1955, their leader was Noah’s son, Avraham III. One of Jerusalem’s streets was named after the founder of the dynasty – Avraham of Slonim.

 

Rebbe Avraham Weinberg said the following: […] melody is like a hammer and words are like a nail. Man wants to drive a nail into the wall, but is prevented by hard stones. So he hits the nail with a hammer, and drives it into the wall. If he hits the wall instead of the nail, the wall will crumble and this will be of no avail.

With this metaphorical description, Weinberg wanted to emphasise that singing zmirot (lyrics) from the holy books to a cheerful or sad melody made particular sense because, when hearing the melody the human heart opens up and words carrying holiness and faith can penetrate the inner soul.

 

Social and educational life

In the 1880s, there were 21 synagogues and prayer houses in Slonim. In 1910, the town had seven synagogues, several prayer houses and cheders (elementary Jewish schools), a Talmud Torah school, and four private Jewish schools (two for boys and two for girls). In the interwar period, there were Tarbut secondary schools with instruction in Hebrew and TSYSHO schools with instruction in Yiddish.

 

Jewish press in Slonim

The emergence of the Jewish press was an important sign of the profound changes that took place in the Jewish community of Slonim after World War I. The first local publication was Unser Zhurnal (Yid.: Our Journal), published by the Jewish community from 1921 and edited by its president Moshe Zabłocki. Originally a weekly, it was later issued more often (until 1925), in cooperation with a Jewish newspaper based in New York, Morgen Zurnal (Yid.: The Morning Journal) and with the help of the Slonim Association in the USA.

Another title was Slonimer Wort (Yid.: The Slonim Word), also edited by Moshe Zabłocki, but under the auspices of the Zionist Congress. It was issued between 1925 and 1926. The year 1927 saw the appearance of a biweekly Unser Shtime (Yid.: Our Voice), edited by Yekhezkiel Rabinovich and founded under the pressure of the Poale Zion (Right-wing branch) party members. According to accounts in the Slonim Memorial Book, this periodical, which was published on an on-and-off basis until 1933, was distinguished by its high-quality journalism; it served primarily as the party platform to attract new followers.

In 1929, Poale Zion made another attempt to issue its own newspaper under the title of Slonimer Leben (Yid.: Slonim Life), which relied mostly on students submitting essays and news for its publication. The same year saw the re-emergence of Slonimer Wort, which appeared regularly every week for the next 10 years (from August 1929 until September 1939). It was a Friday supplement to a Warsaw-based daily Haynt, printed and circulated in 600 copies but read by about a half of the 10,000 Jews in Slonim. Slonimer Wort actively defended the policy of the National Minorities Club in the Sejm, a faction defending non-Polish and non-Catholic minorities in the independent Poland. It engaged in polemics both with the Orthodox party Agudat Yisrael and with the Marxist-oriented Bund. It supported young literary talents and wrote about important everyday life issues.

The success of Slonimer Wort encouraged other political parties to issue their own publications. Revisionist Zionists published Slonimer Woch (Yid.: Slonim Week) in 1933. The Agudat Yisrael issued Slonimer Yidishe Shtime (Yid.: The Jewish Voice of Slonim), especially before the elections of 1930, 1932, and 1935; and the Bund had its Der Weker (Yid.: The Alarm Clock).

In addition, before elections to the Jewish community, one-off issues were published, as well as leaflets, prospectuses, and brochures of various political parties and social organisations. Zionist youth organisations were particularly active in this respect. They could not afford a printing press of their own, so they used a hectograph (an early copy machine) to publish papers in Hebrew. Ha-shomer Ha-tzair issued Ha-medurah (Heb.: Bonfire) for its adult members, Sha’agat Ha-kfir (Heb.: The Lion’s Roar) for the younger, Ha-tsofe (Heb.: Scout) for scouts, and Mesibah (Heb.: Festive Gathering) for everyone. Another Zionist youth organisation, “Gordonia,” published similar papers: Dvareinu (Heb.: Our Words), Aloneinu (Heb:. Our Papers), and Aspaklaria (Heb.: The Glass). Moreover, secondary school students had their own magazines devoted to poetry and prose. Sixteen of these were issued in Hebrew under the title of Ha-netsots (Heb.: Spark). A similar collection was published in Yiddish, titled Bieriozke (Yid.: A Small Birch-tree), and five brochures were issued under the ambitious title Ha-heder – Voice of Hebrew Youth. A humorous magazine Kundas (Heb.: Joker) appeared occasionally.

 

Jewish sports life

Sports classes organised by the Zionist youth organisation Ha-shomer Ha-tzair encouraged young Jewish people to take up sports more seriously. This was also in line with the youth Zionist ethos, which sought, following the motto of Max Nordau, one of the leading European Zionists, to “create a muscular Jew” as the antithesis of “a yeshivah student, a frail and round-shouldered Talmudist.” The first sign of this trend was the establishment of the Jewish Sports Club, which brought together about 50 young men who, following the example set by the Polish soldiers of the local military garrison, decided to form their own football team. Soon, football games were played between the Jewish Sports Club, the Polish garrison team, and the Żyrowa Street seminary team.

The first political party to start a sports club for socialist athletes was Poale Zion. Established in 1926 as “Kraft” (Yid.: Strength), the club was later renamed “Ha-poel” (Heb.: Worker). The Revisionist Zionists inspired by Zeev Jabotinsky responded by opening the “Trumpeldoria” sports club named after the war hero Josef Trumpeldor, while the Bund socialists founded a sports club under the poetic name of “Morgenstern” (Yid.: Morning Star). In 1930, a branch of the world Jewish organisation Maccabee was opened in town, soon to be joined by the Jewish Sports Club. An honorary committee supporting Maccabee was appointed. Also, fund-raising was organised, enabling the Slonim branch of Maccabee to expand its sports activities. At the beginning, its members included 100 Jewish athletes in different sections: gymnastics, cycling, swimming, and rowing on the Shchara River, as well as skating and skiing sections in winter. The Maccabee football team played regularly against other Jewish teams, as well as against the garrison team, the Polish office workers’ sports club, the Żyrowa Street seminary team, and other Jewish clubs from the region. The garrison pitch was enlarged and could be used also by the Jewish clubs, following their agreement with the garrison. Once opposition by Orthodox Jews to having sports competitions on Saturdays was overcome, the stadium on Skrobova St. held regular games attracting crowds of Jewish sports fans. The competitions between Polish and Jewish athletes were not always peaceful, with football games sometimes turning into brawls. In the late 1930s, there were four Jewish sports clubs in Slonim with a membership of about 500, out of approx. 7,000 Jewish residents of the town.

 

World War II and the Holocaust

In September 1939, Soviet troops captured Slonim. The town became the centre of the Slonim region in the Baranovichi District of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Refugees from Nazi-occupied Poland started to flood into the town. According to the records of October 30, 1940, there were more than 15,000 of them (mostly Jews but also Poles). Immediately after the Soviets installed their rule, they suppressed and outlawed all Jewish communal activities, shut down religious institutions, and banned political organisations other than communist. Hundreds religious Jews and political activists were deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan. As a result of deportations, the number of refugees in Slonim significantly decreased. On April 12, 1940, the NKVD, Soviet secret service deported approx. 1,000 Jews, and a few months later the Bund activists shared their fate. Well-known Jewish leaders from Slonim, including Dr. Shmuel Wajs, Dr. Isaac Efros, and vice-mayor Boris Piasecki, were also deported.

Slonim was taken over by the German army on June 25–26, 1941. At that time, the town Jews numbered 22,000, constituting two-thirds of the local population. The first operation aimed at liquidating the Jews was carried out on July 14, 1941. Seven km from Slonim, near the village of Pietrolewicze, more than 1,000 Jewish men were executed. The second Aktion was carried out by the SD troops on November 14, 1941, when more than 10,000 people, including all members of the Judenrat, were transported to the village of Czepielów (now Chapyaleva, 12 km from Slonim) and shot. On December 24, 1941, it was announced that all Jews had to move to the ghetto. From January to March 1942, the Slonim ghetto received Jews from Dziarechyn, Golynka, Byten, Ivatsevichy, and Kosava. Ghetto dwellers organised an underground organisation called the Anti-Fascist Committee. Though supervised by the Germans and the police, ghetto prisoners who repaired and cleaned weapons for the Nazi troops in the local mechanical shops managed to smuggle parts of weapons, grenades, loads, rifles, and uniforms out of the ghetto. One of the organisation’s members was Erich Stein, a German Jew and an engineer who supervised the labour camp workers; this greatly facilitated the collection of weapons. Once contact with the partisans was established, weapons, warm clothes, soap, salt, and radio receivers were sent to the forest. Dr. Abram Blumovich and Dr. Cieslawa Orlińska helped send medicine to the partisans. Underground activists started to escape from the ghetto to the forest – individually at first, and then in small groups.

When the third operation of liquidating the Jews was carried out in Pietrolewicze, from June 29 to July 15, 1942, it met with armed resistance from underground activists, resulting in eight Germans killed and seven wounded. More than 70 armed young Jews were accepted into the Shchors partisan unit, the rest organised a “family camp.” Nonetheless, during the third operation, around 10,000 Jews were shot and buried, while 700 men and 100 women were left in the so-called “small ghetto.” In December 1942, they too were executed. About 400 people from the Slonim ghetto survived.

 

Memorial sites

In 1964, a 12-metre obelisk was established in the village of Pietrolewicze (at the forest of Krzywa Góra), at the site where Slonim ghetto prisoners were executed in June and July 1942. To commemorate those killed on the Chapialeva Fields and on the Slonim–Baranovichi road, memorial stelae were erected in 1967. Another stela was placed in 1979 in the open field near Morgi on the right side of the Slonim–Derewnaja road, where approx. 2,000 Jews were shot and buried in 1942. The year of 1994 saw the creation of a memorial site at the former Jewish cemetery on Brest St., which had been destroyed in the Soviet times. The monument there, commemorating the Jews of Slonim and the region, was designed by Leonid Levin. Behind it, some remnants of gravestones can be found. No trace has been left of the other two Jewish cemeteries in Slonim – on Shkolnaya St. (near the synagogue) and on Gorky St.

Authors: Irina Yelenskaya, Ales Astrauch

 


Worth seeing

  • Great Synagogue (17th c.), 1 Savetskaya St.
  • Former Hasidic synagogue (20th c.), 26 Kamunistychnaya St.
  • Jewish cemetery (18th c.), Brest St.
  • Town hall (mid-18th c.), 6 Savetskaya St.
  • I.I. Stabrovsky Local History Museum in Slonim, 1 Lenin Sq.
  • Church of St. Andrew the Apostle (1770–1775), Lev Sapeha Sq.
  • Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary (1645), 11 Pervomayskaya St.
  • Holy Trinity Orthodox Church (17th c.), 23 W. Krayny St.


Surrounding area

Albertin (within the town’s borders): a palace and park architecture complex (19th c.) comprising: a manor house, an outbuilding, farm buildings (a barn, a windmill, etc.), sculptures, and a scenic park with a lake.

Zhyrovichy (11 km): the Basilian monastery and Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God (17th c.).

Synkovichy (12 km): St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Church – the oldest defence Orthodox church in Belarus (1st half of the 16th c.); buildings of the former manor farm and distillery.

Aziarnitsa (26 km): a Jewish cemetery (19th c.) with fragments of destroyed gravestones.

Palonka (30 km): a Jewish cemetery (18th c.), the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker (1924).

Bycień (30 km): a Jewish cemetery with about 100 gravestones (19th/20th c.); the Church of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary (17th c.).

Dziarechyn (34 km): a Jewish cemetery with about 150 matzevot; neo-Gothic Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (early 20th c.); a former presbytery and the gateway to a Catholic cemetery; a monument at World War II mass graves; Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration.

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