A glimpse of Jewish Minsk

Forgotten stories of three buildings in Belarus

Debra Brunner (opens in new window) (The Together Plan)

Minsk, the capital of Belarus, has a rich historical heritage largely influenced by its Jewish population whose history dates back centuries.

In the 15th century, Minsk became the most important commercial centre of Belarus. In 1441, Kazimierz Jagiellończyk, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, granted it trading privileges which meant Jews could lease custom duties.

The centuries that followed brought times of prosperity and growth for the Jews of Minsk because they were granted privileges to acquire real estate and were free to buy land for new cemeteries. Between 1648-1649, they were expelled during the Khmelnitsky Uprising, returning in 1658.

By the 18th century, Minsk became widely recognised as a centre for Jewish education. In 1917, the size of the Jewish community grew to 67,000 people, with 83 houses of prayer in the town.

In the first few months of 1941, there were around 90,000 Jews in Minsk. When the Germans invaded the city in June that year, the number of Jews in Minsk grew to around 100,000. Jewish refugees from Białystok (in Poland) and the territory of 'West Belarus’ moved into the city trying to escape Nazi violence.

With the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Belarus became a bloody battleground. Much of Minsk was destroyed and over 100,000 Jews were killed in the Minsk Ghetto. Jews in Belarus who survived the Holocaust lived under communism and religious oppression.

Today in Belarus, UK Charity The Together Plan is working on a community-centric sustainable development project to build a Jewish Cultural heritage route in Belarus as part of the AEPJ European Route of Jewish Heritage, and one of the Cultural Routes of the Council of Europe. The project involves working with communities in Belarus to identify and map tangible and intangible Jewish heritage.

Jews once lived across the whole of the territory of modern day Belarus. The goal of the project is to show where that life existed by marking buildings to highlight the contribution the Jewish communities made and, in doing so, helping those that are there today.

Here are a few of the secrets that Minsk has to share - buildings with Jewish provenance that nobody knew about until now.

The Firefighting Museum

In the middle of the 19th century, the Volunteer Firefighting Society of Minsk was formed at the address 12, Gorodskoy Val. Right after its creation, the society built a fire station on the other side of its public plaza due to frequent fires and entire streets burning down from minor mishaps.

The majority of the city's population at the time were Jewish and so were most of the firefighters. Therefore, the Jewish community paid for the construction of the fire station which opened on 21 January 1885, with a six-horse stable for the Fire Society next door.

The fire station building has survived intact and unscathed and today is the Museum of Firefighting. It introduces visitors to the local history of firefighting traditions and equipment as well as its firefighting heroes. It also shares rare photographs and archival documents covering the largest fires in the history of Belarus.

The old building of the Minsk Philharmonic

Few know of the pre-war building of the Minsk Philharmonic located at the address 17, Karl Marx.

Surprisingly, before the Great Patriotic War, Minsk was the jazz centre of the Soviet Union. Eddie Rosner, the German Jewish jazz performer, trumpeter, arranger, and conductor - one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century - lived and worked in the city. For seven years, he led the first and unfortunately last of Belarus' state jazz orchestras - the finest swing big band of 1940s USSR, by European standards. Rosner was the first jazz instrumentalist in Soviet history to be awarded the honorary title of Honoured Artist of the Republic.

Eddie Rosner's first concert in Minsk was held in October 1939, and within a year, he led the Belarusian Republican Jazz Orchestra. Minsk marvelled, relishing in 'Rosner's jazz'. His orchestra played in liberated Minsk in 1944, as well as for Stalin in Sochi in 1945.

With such uproarious success, rumours spread that Eddie played a trumpet made of solid gold. However, in 1946, jazz was banned in the Soviet Union, and Eddie was forced to leave first for Moscow and then for Germany. His emigration resulted in a ban on his name and on any mention of him. Eddie Rosner never took his rightful place among major cultural figures, and today is known only to a small circle of jazz fans.

House of Government

Independence Square is one of the loveliest squares in Minsk, connected to the name of the talented Leningrad architect Iosif Langbard. Langbard was from a Jewish family that lived in Bielsk, a quiet town in Grodno Gubernia (region). He had a talent for drawing and after graduating from grammar school, studied architecture.

In 1929, Langbard commenced designs for the development of the centre of Minsk - his Government House won an all-Union competition. It was the largest building in pre-war Minsk, even now it is striking in its grandeur.

Motivated by success, Langbard contemplated the refurbishment of the entire Belarusian capital. His concept envisaged the preservation of pre-revolutionary architectural monuments, but promoted the 'creation of a new city based on Belarusian architectural traditions'. The construction of the Government House took place from 1930 to 1935, influencing not only Independence Square, but Minsk as a whole.

In 1934, Langbard designed the square in front of the Government House (called Lenin Square until 1991). The square was intended to become a social centre, ushering in new architecture. And so it happened: it was redesigned on numerous occasions, evolving with the city.

Until the end of the 1950s, the square featured a public garden and small stone buildings. Between 1963-1964, the old buildings, including those near the Minsk Hotel, were demolished to enlarge the square. Today, Independence Square is a unified complex of commercial, entertainment, and historical-cultural buildings in an integrated layout.

These are a few stories of Jewish heritage in Minsk, for a full ‘Streets of Jewish Minsk’ tour, visit the website J-Story.

This blog is part of the Jewish History Tours project, which builds a platform for self-guided audio-tours about Jewish history and culture.