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A short history of the Rechitsa district and other parts of southeastern Belarus

Nature

The old Rechitsa district is in a landlocked wedge of land that sticks out from southeastern Belarus into Ukraine.

The Dnieper, a large river that winds its way down from northwestern Russia to the Black Sea, forms the eastern boundary. If you cross the Dnieper from the city of Rechitsa and travel 71 miles, you reach Chernigov (Chernihiv), an ancient, historic city. If you float 134 miles south along the Dnieper, you soon get to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. The Dnieper empties into the Black Sea at Odessa, Cherson and Mykolayiv.

The Pripet River, a smaller river that flows east from western Ukraine, then heads south and empties into the Dnieper, forms the southern and western boundaries. The first south of the Pripet whose name is familiar to Americans is Chernobyl. Chernobyl is 76 miles south of Rechitsa. The town of Pripet, the town that is actually closest to the infamous nuclear power plant, is 69 miles south of the city of Rechitsa, and just across the Pripet River from the boundary of the old Rechitsa district.

The famous old city of Pinsk is 181 miles west of the city of Rechitsa. It sits on the Pripet River.

The maps in The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History show that the wedge of land between the Pripet and Dnieper is naturally made up of pine forests and some grasslands. Farther west, the land is marsh land. A photo of Loev in the Gomelskaya Oblast guidebook shows women farmers walking across a very flat, lush green field that looks a bit like a particularly flat parcel of land in Kansas.

A map in The Historical Atlas of East Central Europe shows the region is good for grain, honey, wax, and that environmental favorite, tar.

The Gomel oblast, a "state" in Belarus, now includes the old Rechitsa district along with other parts of southeastern Belarus. It has about 1.6 million residents. The capital city, Gomel, has about 500,000 residents. Census figures from before the Chernobyl nuclear power plant had its problems showed that Rechitsa region had about 120,000 residents; the Loev region, about 50,000 residents; and the Bragin region, about 35,000 residents.

History

52,000 years ago -- A map in Colin McEvedy's Ancient History atlas, which may be a bit out of date, shows that the area now in southeastern Belarus is just south of giant glaciers.

10,000 years ago -- Another McEvedy maps shows the Swiderians migrating to the area around this time.

Vytautas Straižys and Libertas Klimka report in an article, "Cosmology of the Ancient Balts", that the Swiderian people are known for their spears, bows, flint-head arrows, and domesticated dogs. Swiderian artists used pictures of deer to represent the Sun and the Moon.

7,000 years ago -- A McEvedy maps shows that the Finns, who used stone age technology, dominate the region.

4,000 years ago -- The early Slavic culture begin to evolve somewhere near the Rechitsa area. The Baltic peoples lived north of Rechitsa, the people of the Volga battle-axe culture lived to the east, and the people of the Thraco-Cimmerian "steppe battle-axe culture" lived to the south.

The Celto-Ligurians, who made beakers shaped like bells, dominated western Europe.

2,800 years ago -- A McEvedy map shows that Middle Eastern traders have already found a way to procure amber from a supplier on the Baltic Sea. The trader seems to have started by going up the Adriatic, not Dnieper, but you never know.

2,700 years ago -- The Scythians, once of Eurasian history's many groups of pushy Central Asians, sweep into land that's now in Ukraine and southern Belarus. The Scythians press against and probably mingle with the Slavs in the Rechitsa area. Meanwhile, the ancient Greeks are establishing market city colonies along the north coast of the Black Sea. Maybe the same diseases, climatic trends or other factors that are causing the Greeks to move are also causing the Scythians to move.

2,400 years ago -- A McEvedy map shows that trade routes in the region known to the Greeks end somewhere around the coast of the Black Sea. On the other hand, a 2000 paper on Crimean coastal archaeology by a team led by Sergei Zelenko of Kiev University shows that archaeologists have found that Greek amphora (jugs) reached land now in southeastern Belarus around this time, and that Greek ceramics and cloak pins reached Chernigov by 400.

Obviously, the Scythians and other Ukrainian peoples could have handled all the trade themselves, but it's interesting to think that, in theory, an occasional bold Jewish adventurer (or unlucky Jewish slave) could have passed by Rechitsa as early as the first century, in the days when the Second Temple was still standing in Jerusalem!

2,200 years ago -- The Sarmatians, an Iranian Central Asian people from north of the Caspian Sea, move into land now in Ukraine and southern Belarus.

100s and 200s -- The Romans knew about the Scandinavians before, but Gwyn Jones implies in her History of the Vikings that the Romans are using routes that go around western Europe, during this period rather than up north along the Dnieper.

The Goths, also known as the Sarmatians, probably handle the trade between the Scandinavians and the Roman world over the Black Sea routes.

But it's a little hard to trust the reports on Dnieper trade routes because, let's face it, it's hard to find information about contemporary trade along the Dnieper, so it's hard to see why any trade reports from the year 70 would be available.

The Belaruskaya SSR Karotkaya Entzyklapedyya says the Rechitsa area may have been settled around this time by people belonging to the "Zarubinetz" culture. The Zarubinetz culture, which flourished around Kiev, Ukraine and the Pripet marshes, was made up of people who lived along the banks of rivers and smelted iron.

132 to 135 -- The Romans kill as many as 500,000 people to suppress the Bar Kochba rebellion in Palestine, giving the Jews still living there an incentive to head north. (See Time-Line for the History of Judaism)

300s -- The Ostrogoths, a Scandinavian people, take over most of the land now in Ukraine, southern Belarus and other parts of Eastern and Central Europe. The Ostrogoths are the ones who get the blame for loving the western half the Roman empire to death.

400s to 600s -- The western half of the Roman empire is disintegrating, the eastern half (the Byzantine empire) is getting its act together, and the Arab peoples are expanding and getting ready to adopt Islam. Whatever religious forces, droughts, natural disasters, environmental problems and diseases that destroyed the western half of the Roman Empire may have contributed to chaos that disrupted trade on the Dnieper. Or maybe it simply hurt the quality of recordkeeping and actually helped promote trade along the Dnieper by disrupting other routes. So far, I haven't found any good sources that discuss this time period along the Dnieper.

400s to 700s -- The Slavic peoples grow in numbers and split into distinct cultures. The land now in the Rechitsa area is at the point where the Dregovichian culture (modern Belarus), the Radimichian culture (modern northwest Russia) and the Drevlianian culture (Ukraine) met, according to a map in Paul Robert Magocsi's Historical Atlas of East Central Europe.

Gomel is a Radimichi city, and the Slownik Geograficzny describes Rechitsa as a Drevlianian city.

600s to 1600s -- Efforts by Christians to gain control over Western Europe, and efforts by Western Europeans to form coherent, secure countries, lead to a thousand years of persecution against the Jews, with bloody peaks in France and Germany in the 1000s, and the 1300s, and a peak in Spain during the Spanish Inquisition in the 1400s through 1600s. Sometimes persecution may have caused Jews to flee from the Rechitsa area to other parts of the world, but sometimes it may have pushed Jews from places like France and Germany to places like Brest, and from Brest east to Rechitsa, Bragin and Loev. Back in the early 1800s, southeastern Belarusian Jewish surnames such as Frankel, Katzenelson, Rubinstein and Margolin seem to give evidence of direct or indirect migration from places like Alsace-Lorraine.

700s -- The Khazars move in from Turkey and kick Slavic tuchus. They make trade between the Black Sea coast and Birka, a town in what is now Sweden, possible by ruling peacefully over the land along the southern Dnieper River and forcing the peoples along the northern part of the river to pay tribute. The Khazars also help protect the "Silk Road" trade routes between Birka and the big commercial cities and towns in Asia. The Khazars get along great with the Jews, and they actually adopt Judaism as the state religion 789 to 809, according to Magosci's A History of Ukraine.

Thanks to the East-West trade the Khazar empire foster, "Oriental coins have been dug up, dating from 699, or near two hundred years before the arrival of the Varangians (Scandinavians)," Alfred Rambaud writes in his book Russia. "There are a great number of these coins in the country. Near Novgorod, a vase was discovered containing about 7,000 rubles' worth of this early money."

If you want to fantasize about Jews traveling to the Rechitsa area around this time, remember that plenty of Jews lived along the eastern parts of the Silk Road, in areas that are now part of Iran, Iraq, Georgia, Uzbekistan and other far off lands.

Some nice, ordinary people who are interested in Jewish history, and some virulent anti-Semites who want to find a way to distinguish modern Eastern European Jews from the Jewish people described in the Torah, say massive conversions of Khazarians to Judaism created the Ashkenazic, or Central and Eastern European, branch of the Jewish people. Michael Hammer, a researcher at the University of Arizona, has published a study of variations in the Y chromosome suggesting that at least half of modern Jewish men are descended from an original Middle Eastern population, and that the rate of non-Jewish men marrying into the Jewish people has been very low. Critics question the way Hammer's team has analyzed the data.

945 -- Shiite Muslims conquer Baghdad, a city that was home to about 40,000 Jews and 28 synagogues at the time, possibly giving some Baghdad Jews an incentive to head toward the Dnieper.

988 Vladimir the Great supports Byzantium and resists Rome by converting the residents of Kiev from the traditional Slavic religion to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

1018 -- Kiev has a "Jewish gate," and local soldiers attack Jewish homes during the Polish occupation of the city, according to Paul Hamm's Kiev: A Portrait, 1800-1917.

1058 -- The Turks take Baghdad from the Shiite Muslims and probably create more westward-bound Jewish refugees.

1100s -- The old Rechitsa district is in the Volhynia quarter of the Kievan principality. (Slownik Geograficzny)

1147 -- Bragin falls under the control of Sviatoslav Olgovich, a member of the princely family that competes with the Monomakh family for control over Russia. (Slownik Geograficzny)

1189 -- Bragin falls under the control of Rurik (Slownik Geograficzny)

1214 -- Prince Mstislav of Novgorod burns Rechitsa to the ground. (Slownik Geograficzny)

1220s to 1240s -- Genghis Khan and his Mongol Hordes invade and burn Chernigov and many other cities. They don't actually seem to have conquered the Rechitsa district, but they were right across the river and must have had a lot of influence.

The nature of the Mongolian rule over the area, which lasted for hundreds of years, is controversial. Traditionally, Russian historians have said that the Mongol conquest was especially bloody, and that the Mongol rule was wholly bad. Nowadays, some historians say the Mongol conquest was relatively normal, as conquests go, and that the Mongols boosted trade (and the role of Jewish traders and other traders) by creating a relatively safe, peaceful zone stretching from the Dnieper to China. European Jewish traders seem to have made their way to China along the Silk Road trade routes and formed communities in China around this time. (See Michael Pollak's Mandarins, Jews, and Missionaries: The Jewish Experience in the Chinese Empire.)

The idea that Jewish Greek travelers settled in Rechitsa in the first century or that Jewish Khazar travelers settled in Rechitsa in great numbers in the 900s is probably fanciful, but the idea that the Mongols' Silk Roads brought some Iraqi Jews and other Central Asian Jews to Rechitsa may be more realistic.

The Mongols sack Baghdad, ending the Abbasid Caliphate, killing as many as 800,000 people, and giving surviving Jewish residents an incentive to head west, according to a Web site set up by the Baghad Jewish Community of New York that's available through Google but appears to be down. (See Google cache of the BJCNY Web site)

1387 -- The old Rechitsa district, including the town of Rechitsa, is ceded to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Poles and Lithuanians, who view the Ukrainians much the way European Americans viewed Native Americans in the 1700s, hire Jews to run their estates through a kind of subletting system called the "arenda" system. It seems as if the landowners may have brought the Jewish estate managers from the better established Jewish communities in Latvia, Lithuania and Brest.

Jewish businessmen are in charge of getting the peasants to farm their farms and pay the rent, and they and their friends set up the taverns (korchmas) and other cash-based businesses. The Jews who take the jobs may not have much choice about what they do for a living, and the system may work out fine in the early years, but (surprise surprise!) it ends up infuriating the Ukrainians.

Many Jews in the old Rechitsa district seem to have worked in the lumber and transportation businesses. They may have had close ties with big-time commercial lumber

1511 -- Rechitsa and Bragin fall under the control of Sigmund I of Poland. Rechitsa receives the Magdeburg privilege -- a charter giving a community that generates large amounts of tax revenue some ability to govern its own affairs. (Slownik Geograficzny)

1604 -- Bragin and other land fall under the control of the Wisniowiecki/Visnevetzkiy family because of something to do with Russian dynastic issues that I can't translate. (Slownik Geograficzny)

1640s and 1650s -- The Belarusians in the Rechitsa district side with the Cossacks, against the Poles and the Jewish administrators who served them, during Khmielnicki's bloody rebellion against the Roman Catholic church and Polish-Lithuanian rule. Loev is the site of especially blood battles. Two of the leaders involved in the local action are Janusz IX Radziwill and Prince Trubecki.

1648 -- The Dobrin family, which was heavily married into the Rozovskij, Milyavskij and Rudoj families, has a tradition that its members moved to the Rechitsa area from Latvia or Lithuania around this time, according to my cousin, Nitsan Richter. I talked to someone else whose family came from Bragin and owned a commercial lumber operation with strong ties to Danzig, an old German port on the Baltic coast.

1788 -- The French revolution terrifies Russian leaders by showing them that the disintegration of the old feudal order under the pressure of industrialization could turn peasants into blood-thirsty revolutionaries. From our point of view, many Russian leaders who lived in the 1800s were oppressive dictators. From their point of view, it seemed as if they had to be tough to prevent a violent revolution. Ironically, their efforts to prevent a violent revolution seem to have led to the revolution of 1917.

1793 -- Russia wins the Rechitsa district from Poland. Historically, Russia had avoided allowing any Jews but Karaite Jews to live on her soil for many decades, but it lets Jews continue to live in the Belarusian lands and other lands newly acquired from Poland.

1800s -- Prominent noble families in the area include the Rokickis, the Judyckis, the Horvaths and the Konoplins. Common and prominent Jewish surnames early in the century include Katznelnson, Rapoport, Shapiro, Frankel, and Galperin/Halperin. Names that appear later (after more families use surnames) include Zlotnik, Milyavskij, Serebryannij, Ravikovich, and Rozovskij.

Early 1800s -- The Russian Empire struggles to pay the bills from its operations and the Napoleonic wars by wringing more money than ever from tavern (korchma) taxes. Jews own many of the taverns and have to deal with a confusing, corrupt collection system. Around this time, Jewish communities collect a "korobchka" (box) tax on each box of kosher meat sold, and a candle tax on Shabbat candles. The money pays for social services, bribes, etc. Some may have gone to the national government, but I haven't found a source I understand that talks about that.

1848 -- Popular uprisings and revolutions in Western Europe spook Russian leaders and remind them of the French revolution. Meanwhile, Karl Marx, a Jew, is writing books about overthrowing those lousy capitalists.

1850s -- The Russian government called up a lot of Jewish men to fight in the Crimean War, on the Black Sea Coast. The disastrous results of the war lead the Russian government to throw off some of its old repressive tactics, develop a complicated, idealistic system to free the serfs, and even treat the Jews a little better.

1876 to 1877 -- The Russian government called up a lot of Jewish men to fight in the Russian-Turkish war.

Nov. 29, 1880 -- An anti-Semitic correspondent for the Minsk Vedomosti, the official newspaper for the "Minsk Gubernya" (in other words, the state of Minsk, rather than the city of Minsk), pays a back-handed compliment to the relationship between the Jews and the non-Jews in the city of Rechitsa. He complains bitterly about his belief that Jewish merchants are inflating prices but adds that, "despite this, the peasants always greatly prefer to do business with the Hebrews. They complain bitterly afterward, but afterwards they are eager to do business again with the Hebrews at the next bazaar.... The burgers hold fast to that historic saying, "They that have drink live happily," repeating this phrase almost every day." The correspondent complaints that Jewish tavern keepers charged poor people too much for drinks and ended up turning the best houses in the city into taverns. The correspondent also writes about the Jews being active in the industry of transporting goods up and down the Dnieper, using tow ropes for upstream travel. Finally, he blames the Jews for the pollution coming out of Rechitsa's coal tar refineries.

1881 -- A revolutionary assassin kills Russian Emperor Alexander II, setting off a new reactionary phase that leads to physical and financial persecution against the Jews.

Late 1800s -- Rechitsa is a major educational center for the Chabad Chasidim and it's the residence of Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Shneerson, and Loev has a branch of the family whose tree is given in The Unbroken Chain. Loev dynasty surnames seem to include Twersky, Hager and Heilprin. But there seem to have been plenty of non-Chasidic Jews, too, because my family believes it's not Chasidic.

Some Jews in this area were atheist socialists. My great-grandfather, for example, was anti-religious, because he was angry that his mom had to work to support his father's Talmud studies.

1897 to 1898 -- In the Rechitsa district, 28,522 of the 222,000 residents were Jewish, and 5,334 of the 9,280 residents of the city of Rechitsa were Jewish, according to Vitaly Charny. (See Jewish Population for Towns in Minsk Guberniya)

Around 1905 -- By around this time, business directories show Jews owned the same kinds of businesses they might have owned in Chicago or Wichita, such as hat stores and stationery shops, but times were hard. Many Jews fled due to pogroms. Jewish charities seem to have helped about two-thirds go to the United States and one-third to Argentina, Uruguay or Brazil, and maybe some to Australia and South Africa. If you are in the United States and are descended from Jews from a town like Bragin, chances are high that you have a parallel cousin family in Latin America that you don't even know about.

Many Jews who left around this time seem to have sailed from Bremen and other Germany ports. Others stopped in England and sailed from English ports.

1914-1918 -- World War I devastates southeastern Belarus. The Germans occupy the area and kill many.

1939-1945 -- World War II devastates southeastern Belarus. The Germans occupy Belarus, flatten most of the cities and kill 2.2 million people, or one in four of all the residents. They kill or displace all but about 30,000 of the 1.5 million Jews, and almost 10 percent of the non-Jewish residents.

1945-1986 -- The residents of southeastern Belarus struggle against their memory of the horrors of World War II to rebuild, hoping to create a scientifically organized utopia. We think of the Soviet Communist leaders as thugs who oppressed their people, but it's just clear from looking at guidebooks for the region printed as late as the 1970s and early 1980s that the war had molded the Soviet people to serve it. They were suffering from national post-traumatic stress syndrome.

April 26, 1986 -- The Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which was actually in Pripet, a town in the old Rechitsa district, breaks down and spews radioactive material into the air.

The residents of the Rechitsa area, including the Jews who had hung on their or moved back in spite of World War II, now suffer high rates of what are believed to be radiation-related health problems, such as thyroid cancer and birth defects.

Some physicists and other experts say the health problems are not due to the lingering radioactivity, which they say is relatively low in areas where people are permitted to live, but due to malnutrition, other forms of pollution, etc.

2001 -- There are still some Jews and non-Jewish descendants of the original Jews living in Rechitsa, Gomel and other communities in southeastern Belarus. You can reach them and support them by talking to the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, at http://www.fjc.ru/belarusfr.htm