City now in Belarus; also known in Polish and Russian as Grodno and in Yiddish as Horodno or Grodne. Grodno’s Jewish community, one of the oldest in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, existed as early as the fourteenth century. Its privilege, allegedly obtained in 1389 from Grand Duke Vytautas, was, however, a forgery dating from the early sixteenth century. The first Jews settled mainly in the western part of the town, near the Old Castle; ultimately their quarter expanded eastward and they also settled in districts owned by noblemen, outside municipal jurisdiction. By 1560, an estimated 1,000 Jews lived in Grodno, and by 1765 this population had expanded to 2,418.
Group portrait of students of the First Jewish Real Gymnasium, Grodno, Poland (now Hrodna, Belarus), 1925. Languages of instruction were Polish and Russian, with one hour for instruction in Hebrew language and Jewish history. Photograph by L. Gelgor. (YIVO)
Economic rivalry arose between Grodno’s Jews—who worked mainly in commerce (primarily in agricultural goods) and as artisans—and non-Jews. In 1666, the latter carried out a pogrom, assaulting Jews and demolishing many houses and market stalls. In 1790, Grodno’s Jews were accused of ritual murder, leading to the judicial murder of at least one Jew.
The Grodno community was one of three main communities in the Lithuanian Council, and it housed one of several copies of the council’s pinkas, or official minutes. The town was also an important center of Talmudic scholarship. In 1793, a Jewish printing press opened in the town. Among the rabbis of Grodno were many outstanding scholars, including Mordekhai Yafeh (Jaffe; 1525/30–1612), Yonah ben Yesha‘yah Te’omim (first half of the seventeenth century), and Mosheh Avraham (second half of the eighteenth century). Controversy surrounded the appointment of a successor to Binyamin Braudo, who died in 1818; as a result, the post was discontinued and replaced by rabbinic judges (more hora’ah).
After the third partition of Poland (1795), Grodno fell under Russian rule. In 1816, there were 8,422 Jews living in the town, constituting 85.3 percent of its population; by 1887 that number had risen to 27,343, though the proportion had fallen to 68.7 percent. By the latter date, Jews owned 76 percent of Grodno’s factories and made up 70 percent of its artisans. Before World War I, the Shereshevsky tobacco factory in Grodno employed more than 1,500 workers, mainly Jews.
Patient undergoing treatment at the Jewish Hospital, Grodno (now Hrodna, Bel.), 1926. Photograph by L. Gelgor. (YIVO)
In the 1890s, Grodno became an important center for the Zionist movement, whose adherents lent material support to many initiatives in Palestine. At the same time, the General Jewish Workers Bund functioned in the town. In 1921, 18,697 Jews resided there, making up 53.9 percent of the population. In 1931, their number had risen to 21,159, but Jews then constituted less than half (42.6%) of the total. Misnagdim set the tone in Grodno, which was home to the Yeshiva Sha‘are ha-Torah, led by Shim‘on Shkop.
Antisemitic activity in 1935 resulted in the deaths of two Jews, while many others suffered injuries and a substantial number of Jewish stores and homes were destroyed. Another pogrom occurred in 1939, just before the Red Army entered Grodno.
From 1939 to 1941, the Soviet Union occupied Grodno. During this time, some 4,000–5,000 Jewish refugees arrived from German-occupied lands to the west. About half of these refugees were later deported into the interior of the USSR. On 13 July 1941, after taking over the city, the Germans executed 100 Jews among the intelligentsia, and in November of that year they created two ghettos, one in the city’s center—to house 15,000 Jews designated as “productive”—and the other in its suburb of Słobodka, to house 10,000 “unproductive” Jews.
Postcard with scenes of Grodno (now Hrodna, Belarus), home of the nineteenth-century Polish writer Eliza Orzeszkowa (portrait, center), author of Meir Ezofowicz and other books with sympathetic portrayals of Jews, ca. 1915. Photograph by L. M. Gelgor. (YIVO)
The liquidation of the ghettos began in November 1942. The Germans deported Grodno’s Jews to Auschwitz—some via a transit camp in nearby Kelbasin, where many died as a result of disease and inhumane conditions—and to Treblinka. On 12 March 1943, the approximately 1,000 Jews remaining in the city were deported to the Białystok ghetto. When the Red Army entered Grodno on 14 July 1944, only about 250 Jews remained. Most of these survivors soon emigrated to Palestine, South America, or the United States.
Of Grodno’s Jewish community, only the brick synagogue—originally built in 1627 and rebuilt after a fire in the late nineteenth century—remains, but badly in need of repair. In 1992, it was returned to the newly formed Jewish cultural community of Hrodna.
Simeon Eliezer Friedenstein, Sefer ‘ir giborim (1880; rpt., n.p., 1968/69); Andrzej Woltanowski and Jerzy Urwanowicz, eds., Grodno w XVIII wieku: Miasto i ludność na tle trendów rozwojowych od średniowiecza do 1939 roku (Białystok, Pol., 1997).
RG 25, Vaad Hayeshivot (Vilna), Records, 1924-1940 (finding aid); RG 500, Alexander Pomerantz, Papers, 1920s-1960s; RG 648, Hyman (Chaim) Sheskin, Papers, 1924-1974; RG 782, Grodner-Lipkaner Branch 74, Workmen’s Circle, Records, 1919-1964; RG 995, Congregation Achei Grodno Vasapotkin and Chevra Mishnayos, Records, 1938-1959; RG 996, United Grodner Relief, Records, 1928-1967.
Translated from Polish by Anna Grojec