The history of Volozhyn
Volozhyn, based on the Volozhynka River, is first mentioned in the chronicles at the end of the 14 century. It was a borough in Oshmyany district since 1551, a private property of the Radziwills and then the Slusheks and the Chartoryiskys.
The main road from Minsk to Vilno crossing the borough was the reason of its growth. In 1681 the owner of Volozhyn Yuzef Sluzhka founded a Caholic Church with a monastery in Volozhyn. The properties belonged to the Bernardines – the wooden church burnt down in 1815 and the monastery got closed in 1864.
The old Russian map of Volozhyn area
In the early 18 century the borough featured five streets, two Catholic and two Russian Orthodox churches, over 100 households. In 1803 the new owners of Volozhyn initiated grand development. St.Yuzef Cathedral was built in the main square in 1816 to be redesigned into a Russian Orthodox Church later. At the same time the Tyshkevich family built a palace and a park complex on the bank of the Volozhynka River.
In the first half of the 19 century the borough was a regional trading hub for cattle and agricultural products. The residents of Volozhyn were mostly engaged in pottery, weaving, carpentry and other crafts. In 1897 Volozhyn numbered 4500 residents.
Between 1806 and 1892 Volozhyn hosted a yeshibbot – a Jewish educational institution with about 400 students from Russia, England, Austria, Syria and other countries. It was such a prominent establishment that it was referred to as the mother of yeshibbots. In fact, the yeshibbot functioned with intervals right until the break of the WWII.
St. Yuzef Church in Volozhyn
The infrastructure of Volozhyn at the turn of the 20 century included the office of the district authorities, three churches, a post office, a synagogue, a hospital and a pharmacy, two hotels, over two dozen shops, a cloth factory and a woodworking factory.
Today’s street plan of Volozhyn was determined by the historic evolution of the city which was almost entirely redeveloped with small rectangular blocks. Today’s Sovetskaya Street crosses the city from east to west – it is the core of the town, the remainder of the old Vilno highway.
Volozhyn air view in the modern days
The old town of Volozhyn appeared on the hill and still makes the city center today. The town’s population is slightly over 10 000 people. The sights include the palace and park of the Tyshkevichys, St. Yuzef Cathedral in Svobody Square, wooden and stone houses in Gorky Street, Jewish yeshivah and cemetery.
Volozhyn Yeshibbot gave the Jewish world a whole range of prominent rabbis. Established on the idea of Vilno Gaon Ilya it was to give way to the new Talmud tuition system. The foundation process started in 1803 and the first classes took place in 1806 with just a dozen students.
Rabbi Chaim Byalik took care of the place and its fame started to draw students from other countries. The rabbi raised money to build a wooden building that was replaced with a three-floor masonry. Throughout the next century the Volozhyn Yeshibbot got closed three times but always re-opened. At different points the building housed about 400 students from across the world.
Volozhyn Shul, a photograph from my drone, October 2015
Strict rules applied to all students right from the application process – only the most talented Talmud learners were admitted. They were on a full board and overnighted on the benches of the yeshibbot. The day started at 8 in the morning with a group prayer followed by breakfast and classes until 1 pm. Lunch prayer was followed by studies that lasted until 8 pm though some students read well into the midnight. Some woke up at 3 am to continue.
The students also were engaged into self-education – they helped each other to improve the command of foreign languages and studied other subjects constantly perfecting themselves spiritually. Officially the Volozhyn Yeshibbot was closed in 1892 but apparently it was in operation unofficially right till 1939.
The prewar Jewish population of Volozhyn was 1434-strong. The Nazi invasion started on 26 June 1941, four days after the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Jewish community alerted by the events was split into two groups one of which found every reason to stay overlooking the stories by the refugees from Poland. The other group that abandoned Volozhyn along with the Belarusian and Russian refugees going east was much smaller.
Almost immediately the Judenrat was forcibly selected by Gestapo. Prominent leaders of the community were murdered first thing. In August the ghetto of Volozhyn was established to accommodate 3500 Jews from Volozhyn, Vishnevo and the area. Jews were put to tortures and regularly killed. Their forced labor activities were murderous in combination with intolerable living conditions. An anti-Nazi Jewish underground group appeared.
The USSR Commission that investigated the Nazi crimes pointed out that the majority of the victims of Volozhyn and the district were Jewish, including 64 last students of the Yeshibbot. The first mass execution came in May 1942 followed by 2000 Jews murdered a month later. 225 Jews were shot in Dubinskaya Street in September 1942. About 400 Jews were burnt alive by the Nazi and local collaborators in a barn in January 1943. 1500 Jews were viciously murdered in small groups at the Volozhyn Jewish Cemetery in 1943. There was only one survivor.
Jewish group prayer at the Volozhyn cemetery, 2014
In 1992 international sponsors fenced off the Jewish cemetery in Volozhyn and several plaques commemorating the Jewish victims were installed throughout the city.
If you are planning to visit Volozhyn, perhaps in the course of your ancestral trip to Belarus do not hesitate to contact your guide in Minsk!
Flying over Volozhyn
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