East European Jewish Affairs


Volume 22, Number 2, Winter 1992

Important Reprint


Zmitrok Biadula, Zydy na Bielarusi (The Jewes in Byelarus), Minsk: 1918, reprinted in facsimile 1992 by Miznarodnaja Asacyjacyja Belarusistau and Bielaruskaje Tavarystva Archivistau.

Zmitrok Biadula, a leading figure in Byelorussian literature in the first half of the twentieth century, was, as is well known, a Jew. A former yeshiva (Jewish religious seminary) student, who decided to make his literary career in the Byelorussian rather then Yiddish language, he was in a unique position to produce this essay.

Indeed, the essay, which first appeared in the daily Bielaruski Slach, was, when it first appeared, in 1918, unique. 'Not a single line has so far appeared in the Byelorussian press about Jewes in Byelarus', Biadula observed in his preface. Seventy-four years later, this statement is still largely true. Apart from the occasional of Jewish characters in plays or novels, for decades virtually the only literature about Jews available to the general reader consisted of anti-Zionist and anti-religious polemics. Only in the last two years, following the declaration of Byelorussian sovereignity in July 1990, did a few tentative articles occure, and a trilingual (Byelorussian/Russian/Yiddish) 'magazin' was launched in Bobruisk - though to date only one issue has appeared.

The reappearance of Biadula's essay, as part of series of reprints of seminal pamphlets from the past, is therefore of considerable significance. Independence, and the revival of Byelorussian language as the medium of pablic life, has evoked among Byelorussians not only widespread interest in their own history and traditions but also in the history and traditions of the Jews, who for many centuries have been cohabitants of this part of Eastern Europe. Fore Jewish readers, this pamphlet pinpoints as it were a picture of the Jewish community of Byelarus during that brief 'window' between the collapse of the Tsarist empire and the establishment of Soviet rule in Byelarus.

The essay is divided into four parts. The first part gives a brief historical outline of the coming of the Jews to Byelarus and their conditions of life there before and after the Russian acquisitions of these lands. The second part deals with contacts between the two cultural traditions. The third part deals with Jewish cultural and community life in the major cityes. The final part discasses Jewish interest and involvment in the movement of national awakening which focused on the newspaper Nasa Niva and the bid for independence in 1918. Throughout, Biadula stresses the close contact between and interdependance of the two communities. 'Here in Byelarus', he writes,

more then in neighbouring counries of the Jewish 'ghetto', their economic and cultural-national existence was created over long years.

Of course, this creativity could not fail to have an effect on the character of the country, just as it had to take on certain of the country's peculiarityes, and in this way a natural exchange of cultural values between Jews and Byelorussians was created.

The fact that these two nations lived as neghbours created conditions of life and economic relations in wich one nation could not have existed without the other.

Trade and crafts in our country were developed by the Jews. And it mast be said that in this respect they stimulated life in our country considerably and constantly introduced a great many useful things to it

The towns and small towns, in which the population was predominantly Jewish, gave the Byelorussian peasants the chance of normal trade exchanges. The merchants and craftsmen were also necessary in this benighted (when under Russia) country, where there had never been any economic culture.

The symbiosis of the two communities, however, went far deeper than economic contacts. "There are", says Biadula,

common Jewish Byelorussian folk melodies and proverbs in which Yiddish and Byelorussian words are intermingled. In Byelorussian there are words like 'chaurus', 'bachur', and 'adchaic'* and many others which are purely Hebrew words. In the Yiddish language there are even more Byelorussian words.

In his time, in 1911-1912, a Jewish journalist and editor of various Jewish journals, Mr. Hurvic in Vilnia, turned his attention to this subject. He put together a collection of Jewish-Byelorussian proverbs, added explanatory notes, and sent it for publication to a foreign journal.

(It would be interesting to find out whether Hurvic's work was, indeed, ever published, and if so where.)

Biadula goes on to cite some fascinating examples of Jewish-Byelorussian folk-lore. These include a 'beggar's rigmarole' which, he says, 'the Jews sing on All-Souls' Day' (Dziady). This is an acrostic on the Hebrew, not the Byelorussian, alphabet, whether Cyrillic or Latin:

Ach, braccia, halubcy, davajcie halodnamu vasamu zebraku chleba trochu. Ja-kaleka, lamaka. Mucelnyk. Ni-mahu sluzyc u pana. Cym kolvek ratujcie slapoha tatuniu.

(The apparent mismatch between halubcy and gimel is, of course, due to a lack of the letter 'g' in Byelorussian.) Also associated with All-Souls'Day, Biadula says, and also an acrostic on the Hebrew alphabet is the song 'Anton kancavy', which has the Hebrew refrain 'Ba-lajlo' (In the night).

Biadula also cites a 'very beautiful' Belorussian song, which the Hebrew refrain 'Lej-arcejnu' (To our land), sung to a 'hassidic melody', a song about the 'three Jewish patriarchs', Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and a Byelorussian 'Jak pajechau u karcomku' which, he remarks somewhat mysteriously, 'the Jews sing to the motif "Kol Nidre" unfortunately I do not remember the words'. He notes, too, number of instances of Jews adopting customs from Byelorussian 'superstition and mythology', such as strewing the byre with nettles and bracken on midsummer eve to stop witches from stealing the cows' milk.

Biadula is, however, not interested only in listing such cultural borrowings. He tries to analyse why they take place at all, granted the relative strength of the two cultures. 'At first glance', he says,

it might be expected that in transfers from culture of one nation to the other, the Jews, as the nation with the greater culture, should have had the advantage over the Byelorussians and should have had the greater influence, but in reality it is the other way around.

One reason, Biadula considers, is no linguistic or ethnic kinship between the two peoples (unlike the case with Poles and Russians, both of whom used these similarities to try to assimilate the Byelorussians). The second factor, Biadula says (turning to emotive, rather then scientific arguments), is the 'Byelorussian land'. Just as writers from Byelarus who write in Russian or Polish cannot 'eradicate in themselves the spirit of the Byelorussian land', he says, so

the Jews who live here, in their new homeland, have taken over more from the Byelorussians then the Byelorussians have taken from them. The mighty force of the Byelorussian land has given a special spiritual and physical appearance to the Byelorussian Jews. Now they differ from all other Jews, and throughout the whole world they are called 'Litvaks'.

Chapter 3, a mere three-and-a-half pages, gives an outline of the most notable developments of Jewish life in Byelarus (which, for Biadula, encompassed not only the territory of the current Republic of Byelarus, but also part of what is now Lithuania, including Vilna): the development of the kahal, and the conflict between the hassidim and mitnagdim. The importance of the Valozyn yeshiva (to which 'Jews came to study from the Caucasus, from Germany, from America etc.') is duly noted, as are the 'famous Tsaddiks' of Lubavicy, Kojdanava and Pinsk. Furthermore, Biadula says, 'Jewish mysticism (Kabbala) developed here in Byelarus'.

It is true that in dark years, when Byelorussian national consciousness almost died out, many Jews, like many Byelorussians, 'although they knew the Byelorussian language well, looked upon it as a "peasant" language and, being Russified themselves, unconsciously served the Russifying idea of Great Russia'. But these, he maintains 'were only the rich class, who had received their education in Russian schools'. The simple inhabitants of the shtetl, he says, knew, apart from their own language, only Byelorussian. And so, 'from the very beginning of the Byelorussian renaissance, Jews from the villages, albeit in small numbers, joined the pioneers of the Byelorussian movement' although the 'broader masses of the Jewish intelligentsia' remained mentally locked into a commitment to Russification.

The final chapter enlarges on Jewish interest and involvement in the Byelorussian movement. In 1912, Biadula notes, there were allegations in the 'Black Hundred press' that Nasa Niva, the flagship journal of the Byelorussian movement, was receiving support from 'Jewish money'. This attracted the attention of Jewish journalists to Nasa Niva. During the next few years, several articles on the Byelorussian movement appeared in the local Jewish press - Dy Judishe Velt, Unzer Gegend and the Jewish 'collection' (a kind of almanach), Litva, published in 1914, which included translations from Byelorussian and Lithuanian literature and articles on the Byelorussian movement. The appearance of this collection stimulated further interest in Byelorussian matters in all the Jewish papers of the 'North-West Region', and even in the Jewish communities of the United States. A second number of Litva, including translations of poems by Janka Kupala and a short story by Maksim Harecki, was ready for press when, in the early weeks of World War I, the Russian government banned publishing in Yiddish.

Finally, Biadula brings the story up to date with the Revolution. When the Byelorussians in Minsk 'began to come out under their own flag', Biadula says, this was warmly greeted by 'nationalist Jews'. Byelorussians and Jews stood as a coalition with a joint list of candidates in the elections to the local Duma. When the All-Byelorussian Congress (which was working to create a state apparatus for Byelarus) was forcibly broken up by the Bolsheviks, the Jewish National Party published a protest against the violence. Naturally, not all Jews supported the Byelorussian movement. Its chief opponents among the Jews, Biadula says, were young Communists and internationalists who dreamed of a world without nationalities. Other, non-Communist Jews had what Biadula called 'more original' and 'naive' objection: the Jews are already dispersed throughout the world and have to learn the languages of the lands where they live - hence the splitting up of 'Russian Jewry into Byelorussian, Ukrainian, Russian, etc. would disperse them even further.

Nevertheless, Biadula notes, 'one cannot stand against the current of life' and, at the time of writing, 'Jewish pupils in Byelorussian schools are studying in Byelorussian and do so willingly'. And in March 1918 when the Bolsheviks withdrew from Minsk, the Byelorussian Secretariat (government) included two Jews - Gutman (Secretary without Portfolio) and Belkind (Secretary for Finance).

'What the future relationship between Byelorussians and Jews will be we cannot predict', Biadula sums up, 'but in any case the life of these two nations is so closely interconnected that each of them must take an interest in the other, if only from the point of view of economics'.

These words, today, are fraught with irony. Biadula, writing casually of Jewish children studying in Byelorussian schools, could not foresee the decades ahead, when Moscow's selection of Byelarus as a test-bed for its policy of sliyaniye would mean that, by the mid-1980s, not a single school in the capital, Minsk, would use Byelorussian as the medium of instruction. Nor could he foresee the Holocaust, which swept away the centuries-old Jewish communities of Byelarus. But it precisely this lack of knowledge of what was to come which makes this document so uniquely valuable. Present-day scholars, looking back on the brief, ill-starred, Byelorussian bid for independence in 1918 inevitably read into the events their awareness of what followed. Biadula's account of the Jews in Byelarus is a kind of snapshot in time, taken of a period when the future of Byelorussian people seemed more hopeful then at any time in the following seventy-four years.

This essay was first published, as we have noted above, in the newspaper Bielaruski Slach. Its first appearance in pamphlet form was financed, to judge from the note 'Kostam Z.B.' on the flyleaf, by Biadula himself. During the Soviet era, its existence was, not surprisingly, forgotten - except by the custodians of the spetskhrany. The initiative to reprint it now, when once again Byelarus is constructing its independent statehood, came from a married couple, the Zynkins - the husband an archivist in the Byelorussian National (ex-Lenin) Library, the wife an information officer at the Francisak Skaryna National Centre for Science and Education. Its appearance (at a time of acute paper shortage) under the joint imprint of the International Association of Byelorussicists and Byelorussian Society of Archivists indicates how highly those eminent bodies rate its importance for the Byelorussians. It is to be hoped that in due course a translation will appear in a language more accessible to the Jewish community of the world.

VERA RICH

*Chaurus - friendship from the Hebrew haver - friend, haverut (havejrus in the Ashkenazic pronunciation) - friendship; bachur - young man from the Hebrew bahur; adchaic, adchajac - revive, vivify - the Hebrew root is hay - live, with a Slavonic prefix and suffix (Ed.).