City in the Mogilev province of Belarus. Bobruisk was home to a Jewish population by the end of the sixteenth century. In 1765, 395 Jews were recorded as having paid a poll tax. Bobruisk was incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1793 and in 1808 had 504 Jews.
Among the leading rabbis of the nineteenth century were Ya‘akov David Willowski (known as the Ridbaz; 1845–1913) and Refa’el Shapiro (1836?–1921), who later became head of the Volozhin yeshiva. In 1823 the Altshul yeshiva was established as the first yeshiva in the city. In 1853 a state-sponsored Jewish school was opened.
Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, many Jews became involved in the lumber and wood export industries. Of great importance was the opening of the Liepāja (Lat.)–Romny (Ukr.) railway line in the 1870s. As Bobruisk’s role as a center of commerce grew so did its Jewish population, reaching 20,759 (60% of the total) in 1897 and 25,876 (61%) in 1914.
Simḥat Torah flag, Bobruisk, Russia (now in Belarus), 1902. Lithograph by Sh. M. Sokhor, published by the bookstore of Ya‘akov ha-Kohen Gintsburg. Zionist leaders Theodore Herzl and Max Nordau are depicted and the reverse carries an excerpt from “Hatikvah” (Hope), the song that is now Israel’s national anthem. (Gross Family Collection)
A branch of the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement was established in 1885, and the Jewish socialist movement began to develop in the 1890s. The Bund set up an underground printing press in 1898. Zionist groups became active in the early 1900s: Po‘ale Tsiyon in 1901; Sha‘are Tsiyon, a religious Zionist group headed by Rabbi Shemu’el Aleksandrov (1865–1941) in 1902; and various women’s groups. A Zionist “model” or “reformed” heder (ḥeder metukan) opened in the city in 1900. The Katsnelson family played an important role in Jewish cultural and public life.
In 1917, the Bund, Po‘ale Tsiyon, Tse‘ire Tsiyon, Zionist organizations, and Fareynikte showed heightened activity. The Bobruisk Bund split in December 1918, leading to the founding of one of the first Communist Bund (Kombund) organizations in the country. From 1918 to 1921 the Jewish population suffered from the civil war and the Soviet–Polish war. On Yom Kippur 1919, Polish soldiers mocked worshipers and chased them from the Magid synagogue; in 1920 they looted Jewish property.
In 1923 Bobruisk had a Jewish population of 19,619 Jews (54% of the total); in 1926, 21,558 (42%); in 1935, approximately 19,300 (37%); and in 1939, 26,703 (32%). Membership in Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir reached 300 and the organization remained active until the arrest of its members in March 1926. In 1925 there were also 40 members of He-Ḥaluts. In 1925 a court operating in Yiddish was established in the city and also a Jewish workers’ university that functioned in Yiddish. In October 1926 the Yiddish literary circle Yunger Arbeter was formed.
Blood libel rumors circulated in the spring of 1926 but the authorities intervened, averting a pogrom. In November 1928, after a Jewish woman named Barshai was insulted at a glass factory near Bobruisk, the Belorussian authorities began a campaign against antisemitism.
The religious publishing house of Ya‘akov Kohen Ginzburg operated in the city until 1928. In 1927 it printed approximately 85,000 religious items (prayer books, calendars, children’s alphabet books, and so on.). In its last year the Ginzburg press issued the book Yagdil Torah, the last original Jewish religious work published in the USSR. During the late 1920s a number of heders were still operating, along with approximately 40 synagogues, almost all of which were closed by the end of the 1930s. On the eve of their closure in the summer of 1938, seven Yiddish schools in Bobruisk had more than 1,100 pupils.
On 28 June 1941 Bobruisk was occupied by German troops. By early August 1941 a ghetto was set up the city outskirts and in early October the Jews were transferred to a smaller ghetto. Mass shootings began in September and October. In one Aktion on 5–7 November, 5,281 Jews were killed. Thereafter, only “specialists” remained in the ghetto, along with those who had successfully hidden during the November roundup. A second Aktion took place on 30 December and the ghetto was demolished. A total of 14,000 Jews perished in Bobruisk.
In August 1948, after a long struggle, the Jews of Bobruisk succeeded in opening a synagogue, registering a religious community, of more than 1,000 members. Authorities closed it after a few months. Thereafter, worshipers gathered for prayer in private homes. A Jewish religious community was next permitted to register officially in 1989.
In the postwar period the Jewish population continued to decline. In 1959 there were 15,600 Jews, in 1970, 14,500, in 1989,10,468 (5% of the total population), and in 1999, 1,260 (0.6%).
In September 1988 the Mendele Moykher-Sforim Jewish Culture Club was established. Avanim, a literary and art anthology, appeared the following year, and a monthly, Mishpokha, in 1998. In 2001 a Jewish community center opened.
Daniel Romanovskii, “Skol’ko evreev pogiblo v promyshlennykh gorodakh vostochnoi Belorussii v nachale nemetskoi okkupatsii (iul’–dekabr’ 1941)?” Vestnik evreiskago universiteta 4.22 (2000): 151–172; Yehuda Slutsky, ed., Bobruysk: Sefer zikaron, 2 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1967), text in Hebrew and Yiddish; Leonid Smilovitskii, “Jewish Religious Life in Bobruisk, 1944–1954,” Jews in Eastern Europe 2.27 (1995): 43–54.
Translated from Russian by Yisrael Cohen