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Becoming Soviet Jews in Minsk.Jews Profit From and Suffer From Communism. 1920 War

jan peczkis|Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Elissa Bemporad, a Professor of East European Jewish History at Queen’s College of the City University of New York. Her work presents a wealth of information, and I focus on a few issues.


Author Elissa Bemporad inadvertently confirms Endek sources as she writes, (quote) Following the 1831 and 1863 Polish revolts, the northwestern provinces of Minsk, Vilna, Grodno, and Kovno were exposed to an efficient—and at times violent—Russification campaign intended to stifle the Polish independent movement and its local supporters. Sponsoring the use of Russian in lieu of Polish, tsarist functionaries hoped to ensure the political loyalty of the Minsk population to the Russian empire…The policy was relatively successful in the Jewish milieu. (unquote). (p. 15).


Fast forward to the years immediately after the Russian Revolution of 1917. While there was a variety of leftist Jewish organizations in existence, it appears that they differed little from mainstream Soviet Communism other than on Jewish-specific matters. For instance, in describing the Bund, Bemporad writes, (quote) While many Bundists embraced Communism as an ideology, they still remained committed to the Bundist idea of a separate Jewish organization and a distinctly Jewish political identity. (unquote). (p. 58).


During the 1919-1920 Polish-Soviet War, the Minsk-area Bund, Poale-Zion, Labor Zionists, and various politically-unaffiliated Jewish workers, all formed armed units that fought on the side of the Red Army against the Polish forces. (p. 27). This confirms Polish sources about extensive Jewish-Soviet collaboration against Poland--whose very existence hung in the balance.


The author points out that the Russian Revolution caused the end of tsarist-era legal restrictions against Jews at universities, government, and other institutions. However, that was only one side of the coin, as we shall soon see, and the privileges did not last.

The reader learns that Jews constituted only 1.8% of the population of the pre-WWII Soviet Union (p. 217) and 6.7% of the Belorussian SSR. (p. 3). They accounted for 19.1% of white-collar positions of the BSSR in 1939. (p. 217).

During 1934-1941, Jews held 33.7 percent of the posts of the central apparatus of the NKVD, 40.5% of the top leadership and secretariat of the NKVD, and 39.6% in its main State Security Administration (GUGB). (p. 3). [See the first Comment under this review.] Clearly, the Jewish share of the top leadership of the dreaded Communist security forces was at least twice that of their share of white-collar positions. This refutes the exculpation that would have us believe that the Jewish overabundance in the top leadership of the NKVD was an artifact of their overabundance among white-collar workers.

Jews flooded the universities. Not surprisingly, the Jewish share of the student body at Belorussian State University, at Minsk, skyrocketed, and spaced-out other ethnic groups. In the early 1920’s, it was in the 54%-67% range. (p. 44). Obviously, this was unacceptable in the long-term. Thus, even in the USSR, Jewish admission to universities did not stay absolute. For instance, in Bemporad’s words, the Soviets instituted “affirmative action” policies in order to get more Belorussian students into universities. (p. 44). (This makes the Jewish attacks on Poland, for its numerus clausus policy of limiting the Jewish student body to the Jewish share of Poland’s population—10%--all the more ironic. See below.)

Especially after WWII, the Jewish advantages under Communism waned considerably. Later, the Soviet Union was widely considered to be anti-Semitic.


Thanks to the social changes wrought by the Russian Revolution, many Jews lost their livelihoods, (quote) Because of their pre-revolutionary occupation, more Jews than non-Jews faced legal restrictions under the new regime. According to one source, 40 percent of Jews and 5 percent of non-Jews were disenfranchised in the Minsk Province. (unquote). (p. 34).

(Quote) While opening its doors to Russian Jewry, the Soviet regime banned Jewish political organizations outside the Communist Party, denied religious Jews and their institutions the right to continue playing a role in Jewish life, and destroyed a wide range of autonomous Jewish organizations. (unquote). (p. 4).

In terms of specifics, Bemporad comments, (quote) The Sovietization of Minsk involved an onslaught against Jewish life. Shortly after taking over the city in July 1920, the Bolsheviks dismantled most existing Jewish institutions. Many religious and educational institutions such as synagogues and HADORIM (Jewish religious schools) as well as the Minsk KEHILLA, all of which formed the core of Jewish life before the Bolshevik rise to power, were closed down and their buildings municipalized. The Jewish cemetery on University Street was requisitioned from the Jewish community by the Land Commission of the City Executive Committee and turned into a grazing field for goats. (unquote). (p. 31). By 1924, about half of the synagogues and houses of prayer in Minsk had been confiscated by the Soviet authorities. (p. 115).


The many Jewish supporters of Communism (and not a few non-Communist Jews)--in the USSR, Poland, and the West--all turned a blind eye to all these gross Soviet Communist injustices against Jews, while freely railing against non-Communist Poland for relatively minor things such as the numerus clausus at universities. (pp. 202-204). Author Bemporad, though making the erroneous statement that Jews in Poland were marginalized (they were a flourishing civilization), and forgetting that the Jews in Poland WANTED to be separatist, nevertheless acknowledges that, (quote) Of course, interwar Polish Jewry enjoyed a degree of cultural, political, and religious autonomy unknown to Soviet Jews. (unquote). (p. 95).

So why all the selective Jewish anger about the comparatively trivial hindrances faced by Poland’s Jews? It could not owe to, as sometimes exculpated, ignorance of the situation of Jews in the Soviet Union. In fact, according to Bemporad, Poland’s Jews were “very familiar” to the Jews of Minsk, who often had friends or family across the border. (p. 204). So what was the actual reason? Could it be that, for some Jews, opportunism, careerism, and the acquisition of power were more important than the truth?


Jewish ritual slaughter persisted in Minsk, on a significant scale, through the early 1930’s, albeit in a rabbi-less, Sovietized form. (p. 113, 128), before declining to a trickle. (p. 130). The persistence of ritual slaughter owed in part to the fact that nearly half the population of Minsk was Jewish, and to the fact that at least half the local butchers were SHOHTIM or former SHOHTIM. (p. 127).

The author describes the post-Revolution persistence of the indirect levy on kosher meat (the KOROBKA), (quote) The SHOHTIM worked under the supervision of the city’s rabbi, a MASHGIACH, or ritual supervisor, made sure that the slaughtering process strictly abided by Jewish dietary laws, and collected a tax on each animal slaughtered according to the ritual. The tax was passed on to consumers in the price of each individual chicken or cut of beef. The proceeds of ritual slaughter were then divided between the ritual slaughterers and the rabbi, while the meat was sold to the local Soviet food cooperatives, at a higher cost than nonkosher meat. (unquote). (p. 121).

[The informed reader may recall that the SCHECHITA Law of 1937, in Poland, did not abolish ritual slaughter for religious purposes. It only curtailed the SCHECHITA establishment, thus ending the hidden tax that non-Jews had to pay to support the Jewish religion.]


A number of authors (e. g, neo-Stalinist Jan T. Gross) have argued that Jews who became Communists were not really Jews. This was hardly the case.

Let us first consider bris. Many Jewish Communists had their sons circumcised, and this custom persisted even under the harsh conditions of Stalinism in the 1930’s. (p. 140). This prompted Bemporad to raise a “Why?” and then to answer it, (quote) Why were many Jewish Communists so committed to this one element of traditional Jewish identity? The practice of circumcision, it seems, was integral to the question of “being a Jew”. (unquote). (p. 142).

Jewish Communists reconciled the “international” aspects of Communism, with their Judaism, by means of a privatization of the latter, (quote) In Soviet public settings away from the family, these Communists acknowledged the importance of the Marxist idea of the “merging of nations” to build Socialism, but in the private sphere of their home they could not fully renounce the deeply entrenched notion that only through circumcision would their son be truly Jewish. (unquote). (p. 142).

In addition, traditional Jewish practices were commonly secularized, and not eliminated. Bemporad quips, (quote) The persistence of kosher meat production (often without rabbinic supervision) and circumcision (often by a medical doctor) are indicative of the evolution of Jewish practices from religious commandments to ethnic habits and the transformation of Jewish identity from a religious to an ethnic category. (unquote). (p. 144; See also p. 134). (Across the border, in Poland, in the city of Grodno, the local Jewish population also underwent a decline in religion, and increasingly replaced their religious Judaism with an ethnic Judaism: p. 212).


By the 1930’s, Soviet policies had notably turned against Jews. For example, Bemporad comments, (quote) As a rule, the charge of Bundism—and not of Zionism—could descend on those who abided by certain religious practices, or on those who, like the Jewish director of a wine-cooperative in Minsk, exhibited Jewish chauvinism by calling Russian and Polish coworkers with the derogatory Yiddish term “SHEYGETS,” or non-Jew. (unquote). (p. 193). (The reference to this (number 101, p. 247) is an article in the Yiddish-language newspaper OKTYABR).
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