History

Jewish settlement in Slonim started at the end of the 14th C following encouragement from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Jews were credited with the development of local commerce in the 15th century which was a golden age of the Jewish community, which came to end when they were temporarily expelled by the Duchy in 1503.  The Jews re-established themselves and became specialists in the timber and grain trades, and some were active in the distilling industry and in handicrafts. The wealth of the community allowed the creation of the Great Synagogue in 1642.

Slonim became a major centre of Jewish life, producing many scholars, community leaders and rabbis. In the 19th C, it was famous in Jewish academic circles because of the activity of Rabbi Abraham Weinberg, the first Chassidic Rebbe of Slonim. Due to his reputation, Slonim Yeshiva came to prominence among religious Jews and many came to study in Slonim. By the middle of the 19th C, Slonim Jews maintained 7 synagogues and 14 prayer-houses. In 1897, 11,515 out of 15,863 Slonim inhabitants (72.5%) were Jews.

Between the wars the Jewish community led an active social, cultural and religious life. In 1939 Slonim had a population of 25,000 of which 17,000 were Jewish.

Red Army units occupied Slonim in September 1939 after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Slonim became one of the main centres of Jewish migration from Polish territories taken by the Nazis and the situation in town became extremely difficult because of the number of refugees.

The Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 by which time the Jewish population in Slonim had grown to 22,000. By the end of 1942, in a series of 4 ‘actions’ they had murdered all the Jews apart from a very few who were useful to them. Small numbers of Jews escaped into the forests to join the partisans. The Great Synagogue was used as a warehouse by a German agricultural machinery manufacturer. Jewish workers were able to hide arms amongst the agricultural machinery which were passed to the partisans.

Just 200 Jews survived the War and a Jewish community that had existed and thrived for centuries was extinguished in the most brutal of circumstances.

Communism followed after the War and the story of the Jewish community and the Holocaust was something that, in the Soviet era, could not be spoken of. The single storey sections of the Great Synagogue were used as retail outlets while the main structure was used as a furniture store. All of the single storey structures which surrounded the main hall have since fallen into disrepair and collapsed.

The building now lies abandoned and derelict yet remains the most prominant marker of the former Jewish community. Indeed, despite its current poor state, this Synagogue remains to this day the best preserved in all of Belarus.

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