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A History of the Jews of Mir, Belarus 

Beginnings - 17th Century

Jews first began to settle in the town of Mir early in the 17th century, long after the town was established. The town is mentioned in records for 1345. (See History of the Jews of Mir translated from the Mir Yizkor Book for detailed history.) By 1569 it was a possession of R. Radzivil-Sirotka who owned the castle, a building which has been the object of many attacks over the centuries. The town and the estates surrounding it were the possessions of the Radziwill princes.

Initially, the Jews of Mir were under the jurisdiction of the community of Nesvizh , about 15 miles away. As the Jewish population of Mir rapidly grew, they developed their own community organizations.

Jews were involved in local trade and in the fairs held in Mir twice a year. Jews from all parts of Poland and Lithuania came to the fairs at Mir to trade furs, horses, oxen, spices, grain, textiles, tobacco and wine. Jews were also the carters whose wagons moved the traded items.

Encyclopedia Judaica reports that from 1673 the taxes owed by the Jews of Lithuania to state institutions and debts to other creditors were occasionally collected at the Mir fairs. In 1685, after complaints by the Jewish representatives, Catherine Sapieha of the Radziwill family instructed the administrator of the town to respect the rights of the Jews and to refrain from dispensing justice or arbitrating in their internal affairs.

18th - 19th Century

At the beginning of the 1700s, the Jewish population continued to increase, as evidenced by the records of Jewish contributions to the poll tax. There are also records which indicate that merchants of Mir were in communication with Leipzig, Koenigsberg, Memel and Libau.There were over eight hundred Jews in Mir by 1806. Some were tailors, goldsmiths, cord-makers and merchants. In the 65 nearby villages there were fewer than 500 Jews in 1818. By the end of the 19th century, there were more than 3,000 Jews in Mir (62% of the town population). Most were craftsmen such as scribes, carters, butchers, and tailors. The wealthier Jews were merchants dealing with wood, grain, horses and textiles.

By the 1850s, many people in Mir were poor. According to an official newspaper in the Minsk Guberniya that reported on poverty in each town of every district , Mir had a population of 1464 in 1858. Of those 1200 were considered poor.(1) But the Jews built a wooden synagogue about that time, which was used for about 50 years before it was destroyed by fire in 1901.

Famous rabbis had officiated in Mir, such as R. Meir b. Isaac Eisenstadt, R. Zevi Hirsch ha-Kohen Rappoport, R. Solomon Zalman b. Judah Mirkish, R. Zevi Hersh Eisenstadt. During the rabbinate of R. Joseph David Ajzenstat (1776- 1826) the famous Mir Yeshiva was founded (1815). The Yeshiva becamea central part of the spiritual life of the Jewish townspeople. Later, in the beginning of the 19th century Habad Hasidism acquired considerable influence in the community.

Jews were leaving Mir in significant numbers by the end of the 19th century. They emigrated to escape pogroms and poverty. Some went to large cities in the eastern United States. (There was at least one Mir Congregation on the lower east side of New York City by 1890.) Others went to small towns in the Midwest where the climate and geography were much like their homeland and economic opportunities were not so limited.

Mir has been threatened many times. The Napoleonic invasion was disastrous.

20th Century

Mir Jews responded to threats of pogroms in 1904-5 by organizing a self-defense organization. There were other organizations formed, including the Bund and Po'alie Zion.

In 1905 a published list of town populations reports 1463 people living in Mir. Of those, 1200 were considered poor. (Newspaper list translated by Vitaly Charny).

WWI resulted in destruction and more economic hardships. During WWI the Mir Yeshiva headed by R. Eliezer Jedah Finkel, moved to Poltava, in the Ukraine and did not return until 1921.

The success of the Russian Revolution, during the First World War resulting in great changes thoughout the Pale of Settlement. By war's end, Poland became an independent nation, with wide borders. Mir, close to the eastern edge of Poland, became a Polish town in the district of Nowogrodek. The nearby city of Minsk was now in the new USSR. (click on map)

By 1921, in spite of the significant emigration, there were 2,074 Jews (55% of the population) living in the town. By 1929 there were 365 listed businesses in the town which had reported a total population of 3,741 as of January 1928. The economic situation continued to deteriorate during the 1920s and Jews had difficulty supporting schools and libraries. Mir had a Yiddish elementary school and kindergarten (founded in 1917) as well as Tarbut, Yavneh and Beth Jacob schools. The Jewish library had been founded in 1908.

map of Poland 1921-1939
Click map for larger image

Between 1939 and 1941, under Soviet rule, many business and even large buildings were taken over by the government. The Mir Yeshiva left again. Rabbi Finkel, many other rabbis and yeshiva students went to Lithuania because that country was still independent. About 300 people associated with the Mir Yeshiva went to Kaiden early in 1940*. The story of the escape of Mir Yeshiva to Shanghai during WWII, thanks to visas issued by Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul-general to Lithuania, has been the subject of several books. After the war, the rabbis and students founded the Mir Yeshiva in Brooklyn, New York. R. Finkel survived to establish the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

The Germans captured Mir on June 27, 1941. First they executed Jews on charges of Soviet collaboration. On Nov. 9, 1941, 1,300 Jews were murdered on the outskirts of the town By May of 1942 the remaining Jews were confined to an ancient fortress in the city. Some of the young people escaped and joined resistance movements. All those who remained in the town were murdered. The 200 or more in the resistance movement lived in the forests. Those who could joined Soviet partisan units, mainly the Brothers Bielski brigade and took part in sabotage activities. Jewish partisans from Mir continued fighting the Nazis until the war ended. (See Mir in US Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia for details.)

Mir, in the mid 1990s was a small town with a population of 2,600 people. None of the Jews who were born in Mir live there today.

Notes

Much of the information above comes from Encyclopedia Judaica 1978 edition.

(1) data provided by Vitaly Charny, who translated it from 1905 newspapers and posted it to the Belarus SIG discussion group, belarus@lyris.jewishgen.org

Vitaly Charny has also translated the family names of people living in Mir in 1816, from the Mir 1816 Revision List. The list is posted on the Belarus SIG web site. The Belarus SIG web site at JewishGen provides additional information about Mir .

According to "Where Once We Walked" Mir is a town in Minsk Guberniya, Belarus (Byelorussia, White Russia) located about 50 miles (88 km) southwest of Minsk, the capital. Its exact location is 53.27 degrees N - 26.25 degrees S. 1921 Jewish population - 2,074.

The Soviet Encyclopedia lists Mir as an urban-type settlement in the Korelichi Raion, Grodno, 17 km from the Gorodeia railroad station on the Mensk-Baranovichi line. A Belarus web site says:

Mir is a town in the Karelicy district, Hrodna region, 26 km south-east of Karelicy, 17 km north-west of Garadzeia, a railway station at the railway Brest-Mensk. Population 2,600 (1995)

Mir is currently in the Novogrudok District, in the Minsk Oblast of Belarus (2014)

It is difficult to look for books on Mir, the town, because the word "mir" has many meanings. Mir is a name given the rural peasant commune as well as the posad (urban) commune in Russia from the 13th to the early 20th century. Since the 13th century, the mir existed in villages and settlements on state, palace, boyar and monasterial lands. Mir is also the name given a Soviet space ship. Mir means peace in Russian.

Links to other web pages

*About 300 rabbis, students and families associated with the Mir Yeshiva escaped to Keidan, Lithuania early in 1940. There are contemporary reports of their move and resettlement in Keidan written (in Yiddish) for the monthly bulletin of the Keidaner Association of New York by B. Cassel, grandfather of Andrew Cassel, who set up the Keidan Shtetl site. The site contains numerous articles, stories and poems relating to Keidan's history.

Details of Belarus History and politics can be found on the Virtual Guide to Belarus

More Maps of Belarus

Detailed maps of Mir

Nearby town with a web site: Nesvizh. Click to visit this informative site.

Jewishgen has a web site for the Belarus SIG which features an on-line newsletter. There is an active Belarus SIG discussion group, search engines with access to hundreds of pages of indexes to old records and more.

Mir Area Towns

You can contact me at: rkimble@uoregon.edu
 
Updated August 2014

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