The history of Kletsk
Kletsk is one of the area’s oldest towns archaeologists suggest – it dates back to around 10 century A.D. as a Slavic settlement. Kletsk that lies 140 km away from Minsk evolved into a town and a center of a principality that separated from Turov Principality. It was a property of local princes and the Dukes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
In 1506 a 30 000-strong Tartar army was destroyed near Kletsk by the army of the Duchy. That happened three years after they flattened the town. Many Tartar survivors were made free and settled in the area.
The new owner of Kletsk – Queen Bona Sforza – conducted her agricultural reform here among the first areas in the Duchy in the 1550s. In 1552 Kletsk featured: a castle, a marketplace and five streets, about 200 households, a Catholic and five Russian Orthodox churches with a monastery. Roads to Pinsk, Nesvizh and Slonim were leading through the town.
An old Russian map of Kletsk
Between 1558 and 1939 Kletsk belonged to the Radziwill family. Being Calvinists at the time they converted the Trinity Church into a Calvinist temple. A school was open by the monastery and then a printing house.
The two castles in Kletsk were wooden: one of them housed the court buildings of the Radziwills while the other was home to the locals. At that point Kletsk featured over 11 streets and over 400 households.
In 1652 the city was granted Magdeburg Right and the coat of arms. In 1683 Stanislaw Radziwill founded a church and a monastery of the Dominicans.
The Russian-Polish wars of the 1650s and the Northern War between the Russian Empire and Swedish Kingdom in the 1700s put Kletsk into a pretty bad crisis. In 1713 the population of Kletsk was about 600 residents while its ruined defences were never restored. In 1791 the place featured 290 residents. The town’s recovery wasn’t complete in the late 18 century so in the Russian Empire its status was lower – a borough.
In the early 19 century Kletsk was a borough were trade and crafts made the population’s main income. There were weekly markets and four annual fairs here of which horse fair was particularly famous.
Kletsk authority members are mentioned in 1899 address book
In 1886 Kletsk witnessed a pretty damaging fire that wiped out about 80 houses, 4 Jewish praying houses, a synagogue and a bathhouse. To prevent fires in future a Firefighting society of Kletsk was established in the late 1800s.
In 1897 Kletsk numbered 4220 persons and featured the office of the local authorities, two Russian Orthodox churches, a Roman Catholic church, a mosque and five Jewish prayer houses. Secular infrastructure included a post office, a hospital, a pharmacy, a brewery and about 150 shops.
In 1921 Kletsk regained the status of a town being under the Polish control. Since 1940 it was a district center.
Today’s Kletsk has a number of enterprises that make the core of the town’s economy. In spite of the Great Patriotic War destruction the Dominican monastery and a Roman Catholic church survived along with a Russian Orthodox church at the cemetery.
Typical dwelling house in Kletsk
Historic memorials include the memorial to Soviet partisans and soldiers in the central square, a memorial to the Nazi victims (4500 people murdered) and a memorial to 1100 Jews executed in Starina forest in July 1942.
The Jews of Kletsk
Before the war the population of Kletsk was 9000-strong and included 6000 Jews. After the beginning of WWII in 1939 there was a perceptible inflow of refugees from other Polish cities in the west.
The Jewish community of Kletsk was first mentioned in writing in 1529 since a special tax was introduced for the Jews of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
A few centuries later in 1921 the population of Kletsk was made up of Jews by 73 per cent – 4190 out of 5671. 40 per cent of the Jews were merchants, about 30 – craftsmen. On Mondays the villagers from the nearby settlements would drive into Kletsk to sell their farming products and buy their supplies, generally from Jews.
Kletsk Synagogue, substantially rebuilt
Similarly to the economic role of the market square the Kletsk synagogue block played a major part in the religious life of the community. Medical aid establishments, synagogue and bathhouse were also located here. The Soviet takeover of Western Belarus in 1939 completely altered the run of life of the Kletsk Jewish community. Introduction of the Soviet mode of life was interrupted by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.
The Nazi occupation of Kletsk started on 25 June 1941 from which point on the Jewish population was being maltreated by the invaders. The Jews were to wear yellow six-point stars and were forced to do hard works. A Judenrat was established. Numerous bans were introduced followed by the requisition of valuables: jewelry, clothing, food. Tortures were in place and regular executions that became more frequent once a police force was established out of collaborators.
On the 24 October 1941 34 Jews were executed at the cemetery in Nesvizhskaya Street. The rumors in town said a ghetto was being established and the Jews of Kletsk were getting ready for the worst.
An order was voiced to assemble in the central square on 29 October. The intention of that was quite clear – some people were parting with their relatives, others parted with their valuables: gave them to the Christian friends or hid them. Columns of Jews were arriving to the central square and even those who were trying to hide were caught and delivered to the site.
Central street of Kletsk
Trucks with Lithuanian soldiers appeared out of nowhere and through the panic a division of the crowd took place: 2000 Jews were marched to the cold synagogue – the craftsmen. Out of these 500 elders were returned to the square and with the rest of the crowd, by the groups of about 100 people they were taken to the cemetery. Pits had been dug out in advance – the Jews were ordered to undress and lie down into a grave after which they were shot. Escape attempts were stopped. According to the official report of the Nazi, 5900 Jews were destroyed during that action.
The survivors were put into the ghetto with over 30 persons living in a house and forced to work. While Judenrat trusted the Germans the youths wanted to escape and join the partisans. Others were building shelters for the fear of further executions. As the tensions between the Judenrat and young rebels mounted the tragedy was approaching.
On 22 July 1942 in the early morning the ghetto was surrounded. However, instead of a typical execution a skirmish erupted in the ghetto and some of the young fighters managed to escape into the forests. Ghetto population came under fire from the police while the houses were set on fire by the rebels to cover their escape. As a result of the battle the majority of the ghetto population was killed either in the ghetto or trying to escape. Several dozen young men joined the partisans and made it to the end of the war.
The chiefs of the executors were found and taken to custody after the war. Regrettably, the cemetery of Kletsk was badly damaged afterwards so only the remains were fenced off and cleaned up. Two memorials were placed to commemorate the Jewish victims of the Nazi occupation.
If you wish to take a tour to Kletsk to track your ancestry in Belarus or as a part of your Belarus package tour, do not hesitate to contact your Minsk guide!
A Jewish group driving "home" to Kletsk
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