As The Together Plan works to tell the story of the Jews of Belarus – slowly the picture comes into focus. This country has a 700 year Jewish story to tell, a story that is rich and tragic and the impact of the ravages of its turbulent history means that across the globe as people left, ran away, escaped, fled…. many took their artefacts, stories and memories with them. Today in museums, libraries, personal collections and privately penned memoirs there is vital information to be discovered. In this article we explore the shtetl of Druya – in the north of Belarus on the West bank of the Dvina river on the Latvian border.
In ‘Echoes of Druya’ by Joe Rapoport the author writes about his family history in Druya at the turn of the twentieth century before they moved to the USA. It offers an invaluable insight into the lives of the Jews of that area in 1906, from the perspective of Rapoport’s great-grandfather, Abraham Rapoport, and grandfather, Reuben Rapoport. Joe Rapoport details how his family lived in a small town called Milashova, 12km south of Druya. There, they lived a typically poor existence, with a couple interesting exceptions. One “very wealthy” relative by the name of Khoneh is described as living on his own large estate with servants. Furthermore, Abraham is described as a “big business man, dealing in flax”.
Flax was a large industry in that part of the country; Jews acted as traders and wholesalers; to be growers of flax or makers of linen was not permitted, by government decree, so they acted as go-betweens for the farmers and the linen spinners.
Another common means of making a living for Jews was to own and run a ‘kretchma’, a drinking tavern for the ‘goyim’, the peasants specifically. In such institutions, alcohol, typically vodka, was served at reduced prices and often illegally. For all the suffering the Jewish community experienced in places like Druya around this time, Jews were still able to carve out a relatively happy and prosperous existence as much as they could. Ordinary Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement is the story of the mundane and the simple pleasures, such as close family and community bonds, as much as it is of persecution. Further to that, Rapoport describes the “great Druyer shule [synagogue]” on the bank of the Dvina(/Daugava) River, where Jews would ‘kasher’ their dishes and gather on Rosh Hashanah to ritually cast their sins away through the ‘tashlich’ ceremony. Ordinary life gave rise to disputes amongst the Jews as well, but these were settled informally within the community, such by a rabbi. At that time, Jews “didn’t go to court”.
When one is trying to understand Jewish life in Druya at this time, it is vital to consider these more ordinary aspects of life which do not necessarily lend themselves to the story of persecution. That being the case, the Jews of Druya were not safe from the wider climate of antisemitism. Even the details of day-to-day life reveal the sad legacy of antisemitism which was embedded into the society of the Russian Empire. One of the Rapoport family recalls growing up in Milashova, where she was teased for being Jewish, and had a rock thrown at her on at least one occasion. The life of Abraham Rapoport is exemplary of the Jewish experience in the Pale of Settlement at this time. In 1906 he decided to leave Druya and the Russian Empire with his family. Growing up under the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, as a “young lad, [he] was lucky not to have been kidnapped and, like many other young Jewish boys, forcibly inducted into the army”. As such, many Jewish boys were sent by the Russian army to Siberia. Military service was for a term of 25 years and if the soldiers married, their offspring became the patrimony of the army. Often, they were forced to convert to Christianity. Of these, “many never lived to return home”. Tsar Nicholas 1 (1825 – 1855) believed that the army was the one true form of education and that Jews should be transformed into modern Russian subjects, loyal to the Tsar. Over the next twenty years, changing political reforms impacted the rules of conscription with much harsher requirements on Jews than non-Jews. In the early 1900s, the years 1904 and 1905 saw the most intense conscription activity due to the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War. One member of the Rapoport family suffered this fate and died in the war. Nor were Druya’s Jews safe from persecution either – with an extremist promonarchy group known as the Black Hundred attacking the town’s Jews at one point. It was in those circumstances that Abraham Rapoport and his family fled Imperial Russia in 1906, along with many others. Between 1880 and 1914, over 2 million Jews left the Empire. For Druya specifically, in 1895 its Jews numbered 5,000, and by 1910 it was 2,400. Those that stayed were to suffer even more of the horror that the twentieth century had in store for them.
Today, the legacy of the Jews in places like Druya lives on. It can be found in the descendants of those who fled, those entrusted with the life stories of their relatives. When summing up the history of the Jews in these two places at the turn of the twentieth century, it is difficult not to get bogged down in the detail of the terrible persecution that the Jews suffered. The atrocities of the pogroms, the indifference of the authorities and the cold reality of forced military conscription – have cast a long shadow over that period in time. The Jews of Druya lived the experiences of Jews all over the Pale of Settlement. Yet at the same time, it is important to bear in mind that there were better moments worth remembering. In their communities, largely closed off by the rest of society, they formed tight bonds. They relied on each other when they could trust no-one else and celebrated the aspects of Jewish life that we would recognise today, such as the religious rituals. When these Jews left their homeland behind, most never to return, they followed in the timely Jewish tradition of exile. It was not a decision any of them took lightly, for even with the interminable persecution the close family and community bonds of life in the Pale were hard to leave behind.
Watch The Together Plan’s film ‘Tour of Jewish Druya’ – click here.
From a research article for The Together Plan by Sam Behrens