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Grodno Under Soviet Rule, 1939-1941

Grodno Under Soviet Rule, 1939-1941

On September 1, 1939, under cover of the Russo-German Non-Aggression
Pact, which had been signed a week earlier (August 23) and included an
appendix to divide Poland between the two countries, Germany invaded
Poland. At the same time, the Germans urged their Soviet ally to seize
the area that it had been allocated under the terms of the agreement.
The Soviet Union, surprised at the speed of the German advance and the
crushing defeat of Poland, lost no time. On September 17, the Red Army
crossed the border and within days had occupied all of eastern Poland.

According to another agreement (the German-Soviet Boundary and
Friendship Treaty of September 28), the border between the two
countries followed a series of rivers: the Pissa, Narew, Bug and San.
Within less than a month, western Byelorussia had been annexed to the
Soviet Union within the framework of the Byelorussian Soviet Republic.
Thousands of officials, journalists, teachers and administrative staff
were brought from Russia to organize life in the newly occupied areas.
The annexation process was rounded off by the adoption of the
Citizenship Law, stipulating that everyone who was in the occupied
areas on the day of the annexation was automatically considered a
Soviet citizen, as were all those who arrived in the wake of the
Soviet-German agreement by means of a population exchange (November
16, 1939). All other refugees, who belonged to neither of these
categories, were also entitled to request Soviet citizenship.

The annexation was accompanied by the Sovietization of private
property. Land, banks, factories, businesses, shops, and large
workshops were nationalized. Heavy taxes were levied on small private
businesses. Almost immediately the ruble was equalized to the zloty, a
step that violated the status quo according to which the ruble was
pegged at a lower value than the zloty. On December 31, 1939, the
zloty was abolished, leaving the ruble as the sole legal tender. In
the first weeks after their arrival, the representatives of the new
government - officers and soldiers, officials, workers and others -
went on a buying spree. Watches, pens, clothing, jewelry, shoes -
everything was snapped up; the shelves were left empty. At the same
time the authorities confiscated raw materials and entire warehouse
stocks. There were many other changes as well: Poles were denied
access to senior public-service positions; Russian and Byelorussian
were made the official languages; the courts were overhauled; the
churches were heavily taxed; and former senior officials and leading
personalities were arrested, including police and army officers,
judges, industrialists, landowners, bank officials, affluent merchants
and other well-to-do Poles. The detainees were exiled to remote
regions of Russia together with their families.

On the eve of these events, the Jews constituted 10 percent of the
population of eastern Poland, but their share of the population in the
cities was far higher. In the Bialystok district the Jews accounted
for 38.4 percent of the population, and in Grodno - for 42.6 percent.
Their intensive urbanization naturally meant that their social and
economic structure was capitalistic in character. In the eyes of the
new authorities, therefore, a large proportion of the Jews belonged to
the capitalist class. As a result they were more vulnerable than other
nationalities in eastern Poland to the new measures that stemmed from
the Soviet economic system.

On the eve of World War II, the Jewish population of Grodno was
approximately 25,000. This number remained stable despite the
deportations by the Soviets, since the Jews deported into Russia were
replaced by Jewish refugees who settled in Grodno.

The Red Army Enters Grodno. During the first three weeks of September
1939, before the Red Army entered the region, the entire Grodno area
suffered from the Germans' aerial bombardments. Those affected the
worst were the urban centers, as the Germans targeted industrial zones
and railway lines. The Polish army fell apart, and its soldiers fled
the front wounded, beaten, and broken in spirit. Utter confusion
prevailed. Businesses shut down, and normal life came to a standstill.

The Jews suffered even more than the general population. They huddled
in their homes and listened to the news on the radio. Some left the
city during the bombing raids and made for nearby towns; Jews residing
in the suburb sought shelter on the other side of the Nieman River, as
the danger was greatest in their one-storey houses.

When the local government broke down, a menacing atmosphere could be
felt among the Poles, as they believed that the Jews were confirmed
admirers of the Russian Communist occupiers. The Poles took advantage
of the few days between September 18 and 20, 1939, after the Polish
forces had left Grodno but before the entry of the Russians, to
perpetrate a large-scale pogrom in the city. However, a few prescient
Jews had organized paramilitary units in order to maintain security
and order and prevent vandalism and looting. Thus, in the residential
suburb at the city's entrance a group of young Jews and Byelorussians
(co-workers in a glass factory) banded together to disarm a gang of
thugs from the Polish army. Another gang, which had organized when
Grodno workers had freed political prisoners, decided to impose order
in the city. Their leader, a member of the Polish judiciary named
Mikulsky, gathered a lawless rabble around him, including policemen
and members of the nationalistic organization OZN armed with rièes and
pistols. They wandered through the city, stealing, looting,
brutalizing, and killing the defenseless population. Their pogrom
claimed twenty-çve fatalities.

The arrival of the Red Army on September 22, 1939, put an end to the
anarchy, uncertainty, and lawless violence. The Jews greeted the
Russian forces joyfully, viewing them as their saviors. Even Jews who
wanted no part of either communism or socialism were grateful.

One local resident, Feigl Broide, expressed these feelings lucidly in
a letter to her son, Abraham, in Palestine:

We are all alive, thank God, and the Red Army saved us from Polish
hooligans. If the entry of the Red Army into Grodno had been delayed
by even one day more, not a Jew would have been left alive. (Letter
from Feigl Broide to her son, Abraham, in Eretz Israel, November 23,
1939, in the possession of Rahel Broide, Kefar Menahem.)

The Soviets, who were aware of the tension between Jews and Poles,
endeavored to suppress the outbursts of antisemitism, which reached a
peak on the eve of the Red Army's entry into Grodno on September 22,
1939. The principle that antisemitism was incompatible with the Soviet
regime was backed up with deeds, and anti-Jewish violence was
vigorously punished. In June 1940, the thirteen Grodno pogromists -
among them Polish army officers, policemen, and members of
anti-revolutionary organizations - were tried in a Soviet court. The
ringleader, Mikulsky, escaped to Lithuania. Four of the defendants
were sentenced to death; seven received prison terms of six to eight
years; and two were released. The Jews felt that their lives were no
longer dispensable and that they had as much government protection as
the rest of the population. This new feeling of equality marked a
considerable contrast to the atmosphere of hatred and threat that had
prevailed during the Polish period. The Soviets also implemented a new
employment policy that enabled many Jews to find jobs as civil
servants; some served in the militia, and in one of Grodno`s quarters
there was a Jewish police chief.

By comparison with the blatant, crass antisemitism of pre-war Poland,
the Soviet regime seemed to its new Jewish subjects to be enlightened
and fair, at least at first glance:

The Soviet army did not come as a conqueror and did not behave like
one. The soldiers behaved courteously, the Jews among them did not
hide their origin, but displayed an interest and a cordial attitude
toward the [local] Jews and aroused their sympathy for the new
regime.( Rivka Perlis, The Halutz Youth Movements in Nazi-Occupied
Poland During the Holocaust (Ph.D. Thesis; Hebrew), Jerusalem, 1984,
p. 55.)

Whatever apprehension the Jews may have had about the Soviets, it was
negligible compared to their overpowering dread of the Nazi
alternative, even though little was then known about the Nazis'
atrocities in Germany and elsewhere.

However, to the Poles, in contrast to the Jews, the Soviet Union was a
traditional enemy. They regarded the Red Army as an invading force
that was determined to eradicate Polish independence in collusion with
Nazi Germany. Indeed, the new regime took economic measures against
the Poles and in many areas lowered their standard of living. Senior
officials were removed from their posts, various groups were arrested
and deported, and Russian replaced Polish as the official language. In
short, the Poles loathed the annexation to the Soviet Union and
dreamed of revenge.

The Jews' overt joy at the Red Army's arrival only aggravated the
tension; to the Poles the Jews were, if not traitors, then
collaborators with the hated new regime. The Poles' feeling of
impotence, their frustration at being unable to express their feelings
in deeds, for fear of the authorities, only deepened their hatred of
the Jews, and they awaited a propitious moment to act. The Jews,
sensing the threat which was gathering momentum below the surface,
endeavored already then, when the Soviet regime was at the height of
its power, to explain themselves to the surrounding population and to
prepare for the future. (The future, indeed, would demonstrate that
their fears were well founded. During the Nazi period the Jews faced
danger not only from the occupier but also from the Polish population,
whose reactions to the Germans' anti-Jewish actions ranged from
studied indifference to Schadenfreude and informing on Jews to the

Jewish Communal Life: Change and Adaptation.Two parallel processes
marked the Jews' situation under the Soviet regime: on the one hand,
it was an auspicious period for bettering oneself by acquiring an
education, a profession, and general culture; but, at the same time,
all Jewish aspects of life were expunged. While industrial enterprises
benefited all the residents of the city and its surroundings,
virtually everything distinctively Jewish was rooted out. General
schools were opened, but the Hebrew school was shut down; public
libraries flourished, but the Jewish library was closed. The Jewish
youth movements were replaced by the Pioneers and the Komsomol
(Communist Party youth organizations for children aged ten to fifteen
and for those over fifteen, respectively). Only the theater was
permitted to exist, but even that under the strict eye of the censors.
In Grodno, where nearly half the population was Jewish, the
eradication of the distinctively Jewish spheres of life was flagrant.

Communal and Religious Life. Naturally, the liquidation of the civil
institutions and organizations resulted in the disbanding of the Va'ad
ha- Kehillah, and all activity in Jewish social and welfare
institutions was terminated. The Jewish charitable organizations,
including the orphanage and the old-age home, ceased to exist; such
institutions now had to cater to the general society. Every change in
personal status (marriage, birth, death, etc.) had to be registered in
the Department of Civil Operations (ZAGS). The staffs of the communal
organizations were left idle and had to adjust to the new conditions
and their deteriorating economic status. Even though in theory the
Jewish religion is treated as the private affair of each individual,
and if it remains within those parameters it is not persecuted,( The
Holocaust of Polish Jewry (Hebrew), Jerusalem, 1940) in practice the
Jews were unable to observe the Sabbath, since Sunday was fixed as the
official day of rest. Most of the Jews, who were now employed in the
state economy, could not afford to lose part of their already
miniscule wage or risk their superiors' wrath if they did not appear
for work on Saturdays. At a later stage, absence from work for reasons
other than illness would be punished by a fine and even arrest.

Although the synagogues were generally not shut down, they were taxed,
and the entire responsibility for their upkeep was placed on the
worshippers. Following the dissolution of the Va'ad ha-Kehillah, the
synagogues assumed greater importance as a meeting place for observant
Jews, and, when refugees began arriving from western and central
Poland, they fulfilled a key organizational and relief function. As
compared with other areas in which the Soviet authorities took a rigid
approach, they were a bit more lenient in matters of religion; they
allowed the observant some breathing space and refrained from making
mass arrests among clerics.

Anti-religious propaganda was conducted mainly through the press. The
newspaper Bialystoker Shtern in particular lashed out against Judaism
and excoriated its nationalist character. In a lengthy article
entitled Communism and Religion (June 1940), the paper attacked
religion in general and the Jewish faith in particular. It contrasted
reactionary, nonscientific Judaism with Communism, the fomentor of a
new social order that educated people to help themselves instead of
believing in divine deliverance. The paper would step up its
anti-religious propaganda as the Jewish holidays approached, and
especially before Passover and the High Holy Days. The Jews were
called on to work as usual on these days and not to crowd around the
exploitative rabbis and the well-heeled in the synagogues. The paper's
general message, which ran like a thread through its pages, was the
need to intensify the anti-religious campaign. Still, the scathing
attacks on religion and the calls for a greater propaganda effort are
indirect evidence that, despite all the difficulties, some Jews
succeeded in observing commandments - attending synagogue, fasting on
Yom Kippur, celebrating Passover - albeit with care not to attract
attention. It must be emphasized, however, that only a small group of
Jews remained loyal to their faith; most abandoned religion under the
new circumstances.

Education and Culture. Owing to the chaos in the city, the schools did
not reopen at the end of the summer vacation. However, because of the
importance they attached to the educational system, the Soviets
considered it urgent to reactivate the schools as soon as possible and
adapt them to their system. As soon as the situation in Grodno
stabilized, the Municipal Department for Popular Education (the
Gorono) convened a meeting of all teachers of all nationalities from
all the city's schools. They were addressed by the head of the
department, a Jew from Minsk named Shapira (a shoemaker by trade), who
explained the Soviet method of education that was to be introduced in

Very soon words were translated into action. All the schools were
converted into seven- or ten-grade institutions, or into technical
schools, based on the Soviet system. The largest number of schools
were Byelorussian, followed by the Russian schools, then the Polish,
and finally a single Jewish school with ten grades. Clearly this did
not correspond to the population distribution, since Jewish children
constituted the overwhelming majority while Byelorussian pupils were a
distinct minority. Thus there was practically no choice for Jewish
parents but to send their children to the few Polish schools or to the
Byelorussian schools, where the Byelorussian children from the
neighboring villages studied (and their educational level was very
low). The same pattern was repeated in the one Jewish high school,
where the majority of the pupils and teachers had formerly been part
of the secular-Zionist Tarbut system. The new curriculum was adapted
to the Soviet format, and Yiddish rather than Hebrew became the
language of instruction.

However, even the one Jewish high school was short-lived. The
municipal department of education convened a meeting of parents who
voluntarily decided to turn the school into a Russian one. Its new
name was Russian Ten-Grade School No. 7. Gradually the teachers were
replaced with others who came from Russia, and Christian pupils were
placed in Jewish classes. Thus Yiddish-language instruction also came
to an end.

In fact, the Jews' cooperation was illusory. Their vote in favor of a
Russian high-school was prompted in no small measure by utilitarian
considerations: they wanted their children to get ahead and knew that
knowledge of Russian would open more doors. But even then there was
criticism of the Jews' decision, and particularly of the teachers,
this time because of the Yiddish aspect:

In Grodno, in the school of commerce, in which the teachers urged
Yiddish (not knowing Russian), only 50 percent of the parents voted
for instruction in Yiddish. It should be remembered that just
yesterday these same parents were Zionists or Bundist Yiddishists.( Al
Masuot (Hebrew), Merhavia, 1940, pp. 132-134)

This criticism concludes with the statement that the teachers in the
Hebrew school failed in their duty. Perhaps they did not betray their
Zionist faith, but they remained quiet and complacent and made not the
slightest effort to keep the spark alive. Yet if the parents took a
utilitarian approach, the teachers, too, had to adapt to the new
situation. Indeed, there was no real choice, and the transition from
Hebrew to Yiddish was the least of the evils.

The propaganda articles that appeared in the Bialystoker Shtern praise
the Soviet educational system in Grodno profusely. Twenty-one
elementary schools were established in the city, with Byelorussian the
language of instruction in ten, Yiddish in five, and Polish and
Russian in three each. According to the paper, the Jewish pupils in
Junior High No. 16 were pleased at not having to learn unnecessary
subjects. The paper was referring to the fact that the new curriculum,
as an integral element of the Soviet system, abolished classes in the
history of the Jewish people, Bible, and Judaism. The Yiddish language
and its literature remained the final vestiges that differentiated the
Jewish schools from the others.

The Jewish pupils themselves recalled this as a lively period. There
were many sports activities and musical events, and parades were
frequent; an inter-school Olympics was held, and the Pioneers and
Komsomol were active. The Jewish teachers, though, had a different
perspective. These teachers, and especially those from Galicia, who
did not know Russian, worked hard, but became a caricature of the
language. It is certain that in virtually no time they would have been
replaced by teachers sent from the Russian interior, but [the Soviets]
did not manage to effect this because the war [with Germany] erupted
just as the school year ended.( Hersh Smolar, Jewish Life in Soviet
Western Byelorussia 1939-1941 (Hebrew), Shevut 4 (1976), p.
134)Textbooks were also in short supply. The schools, now incorporated
into the Soviet system, were not prepared for the hasty opening of the
school year. The curriculum had undergone sweeping revisions and the
textbooks had to be brought from the Soviet Union. A report in the
Bialystok regional newspaper relates that textbooks in Polish and
Yiddish were being printed in Kiev and that a large shipment was due
soon in Bialystok and its surroundings - evidence that the problem was
not only the language and the new subjects, but that there was also a
shortage of teaching materials and, above all, textbooks.

To help cope with the expanded educational system and its innovations,
special courses were held for teachers, and training was provided for
new teachers. The Bialystok educational department held a series of
courses in that city and in Grodno for teachers of geography, history,
Byelorussian, Russian and others.

High-schoool graduates who so wished could proceed to university or
vocational studies. The Soviet administration ensured that every
student received a scholarship keyed to his grades, and the top pupils
were exempt from tuition. The result was that in the Soviet-annexed
areas, including Grodno, academic studies and vocational training
assumed manic proportions. Courses were offered in quality-control,
for railroad workers, drivers, and nurses. Colleges, seminars, a
technical school, and a range of vocational high schools were opened.
Many young men and women were sent to courses outside Grodno, usually
in Bialystok. High-school graduates with good grades had no problem
continuing their studies, such as in a pre-medical school opened at
the initiative of the new government. All types of courses were
available even to those with barely any education. (Zippora Lusovitz,
who sold beer from the barrel, related: For that I took a course.) The
feeling was that all doors were open to students. Even those who had
been unable to study in the Polish period or had been compelled to
break off their studies now had the opportunity to complete their

Press. All the Jewish papers were shut down within a day of the entry
of the Soviet forces. Not a single Jewish paper remained in Grodno,
and only one Yiddish paper based in Bialystok, the Bialystoker Shtern,
was permitted to continue publishing. It covered all of western
Byelorussia. This paper was actually the successor to Unser Leben,
which had appeared in Bialystok since 1918, edited by Pesah Kaplan,
but now it received Communist dressing. Because of the plethora of
official material that the paper was obliged to publish, it became
basically a translated version of the Byelorussian paper, with little
space left for original material. (Still, it was in a better situation
than the Polish paper, which was barred from printing any original
material at all.) The reporters were in an awkward situation. They had
limited options for creativity because of the slew of official items
they had to print, yet they were constantly suspected of displaying
excessive independence, as though they were involved in shaping Jewish
public life. Eventually the paper was reduced in size. Besides the
articles and reports against the Jewish religion, it reported widely
on the party and its functionaries, elections, and the success of the
Communist system in various regional towns. Reports about events at
the front also appeared, but without commentary or attempts to draw
conclusions. The paper was silent on the persecution of the Jews in
the German-occupied areas.

Theater and Arts. The Soviet authorities considered the theater to be
an effective propaganda vehicle. Consequently, the Yiddish theater was
the only Jewish institution that was permitted to function, even
enjoying government encouragement and financial support. Refugee
actors and directors were very active in the theater. In Grodno a
theater company called Baveglecher Yiddisher Melukhisher Teater
(Wandering State Jewish Theater) operated under the direction of
Morris Lampa. As its name suggests, the company was highly mobile and
appeared in all the cities and towns of western Byelorussia - Slonim,
Wolkowisk, Sokolka, Baranowicz, and others. One of its productions,
Tuvia the Milkman, enjoyed great success and played to packed halls. A
series of theater workshops was also established. I was astonished to
see the number of tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, locksmiths,
painters, closet-makers and other craftsmen, said Zvi Aviram,( Zvi
Aviram, Episoden un Refleksen, Grodner Opklangen (Yiddish), September
1975.) who worked in the arts department.

Amateur arts were also developed. In the early summer of 1940, a
festival of arts was held in Grodno. Jewish choirs from the health-spa
town of Druskeniki and from the towns of Lunna and Amdur participated.

Grodno's Jews, like the city's other residents, enjoyed theater in
other languages as well. The arts department invited a variety of
groups from Moscow, Leningrad and Minsk, including theater and ballet
companies, the Red Army Chorus, orchestras, a puppet theater, and many
individual performers.

Libraries. As part of the re-education of the book-reading public, the
authorities purged the libraries. First all the libraries were shut
down so that their books could be screened. Books in Yiddish and
Polish were vetted according to Soviet criteria, and publications that
were found unsuitable - including, of course, everything in Hebrew -
were removed. Approved books were transferred to general, state-run
libraries. In Grodno, a supervisor from Minsk, working with two local
members of the Communist Party, scrutinized all the libraries in town.
They banned nearly all books written by Jews, permitting only the
Polish classics and works by Mendele Mokher Seforim and Sholem
Aleichem. All Hebrew books were purged. The Tarbut school

library, which contained 30,000 volumes in a variety of languages as
well as many manuscripts, was a treasure house of the old and new
culture. The librarian, Shmuel Ginzburg, sneaked into the library,
stole the valuable volumes, and distributed them among the school's
teachers and pupils for safekeeping until better times. Many books
were indeed disqualified, and tens of thousands of volumes were turned
into scrap paper. To fill the space on the shelves, Yiddish books were
soon brought from the Soviet Union for the regional library in
Bialystok, which also served Grodno.

Political and Zionist Activity. The members of the He-Halutz youth
movements did not share the Jews' general delight at the arrival of
the Red Army. To them the Soviets represented both an immediate threat
to their organizational and ideological existence and a future threat
to their plans to settle in Eretz Israel. The Soviet regime was known
for its opposition to national movements overall and to Jewish
national movements in particular. Hence the incisive saying that was
often heard in the youth movements: Until now we were condemned to
death, now our sentence has been converted to life imprisonment.( The
Holocaust of Polish Jewry, op. cit., p. 34.)

In Grodno all activity came to a halt. The parties hid or burned their
archives, and activists went into hiding. To ensure that they would
not endanger the new regime by organizing resistance, the secret
police arrested and, in some cases, exiled them. One of the victims of
this policy was the Zionist activist Noah Bass, who was arrested by
the NKVD, interrogated, and ordered not to engage in Zionist activity.
Following his release, he was rearrested in June 1941, and placed on a
train to Russia. The train was bombed, and he and his wife were
killed. Chaim Snarsky from the Revisionists and other Betar movement
activists were also arrested. The head of the local Ha-Shomer ha-Za'ir
branch was summoned to the NKVD several times and was interrogated
about the movement's activities and about friends of his who were
undergoing hakhsharah training at Grodno.

Strangely enough, the first to be arrested were the leaders of the
Bund. The Soviets had a lengthy account to settle with the Bund, whose
members they viewed as servants of the reaction who do their work for
the benefit of the capitalists. The Bund Party Committee sought
cooperation with the new administration, but their leader, Leib
Shifres, was arrested in October 1939, together with other Bundists.
After five days of interrogation at the hands of the NKVD, they were
incarcerated in Grodno prison. There Shifres was questioned about the
CISHO school, about Bund activity, and about an ammunition dump that
Bund members had allegedly prepared together with the PPS party in
order to stage a revolt against the Red Army. The interrogator was, of
course,a Communist, a woman who had fled to Russia from Poland and
then entered Grodno with the Red Army.

Both the kibbutz and hakhsharah frameworks were eventually liquidated,
but in the meantime continued to exist in the occupied zone.

The kibbutzim were those of Dror and three kibbutzim were Ha-Shomer
ha-Za'ir, one of which, Ma'anit, was located in Grodno.

The kibbutzim did not hide their identity, and the authorities
displayed some tolerance in their efforts to persuade their members to
join the Communist camp, utilizing both propaganda techniques and
promises of personal benefits. But their patience soon ran out; the
kibbutzim were disbanded, and their members feared arrest. Some fled
to free Vilna in order to establish a He-Halutz center there and in
the hope of being able to reach Palestine; others went underground and
confined their activity to transmitting information from the Yishuv
(the Jewish community in Palestine) and learning Hebrew. The kibbutz
of Ha-Shomer ha-Za'ir in Grodno, which initially had served as a haven
for activists fleeing from the German occupation zone and as a way
station for those bound for Vilna, was liquidated in November 1939.
Its young members organized in underground cells of three or four
individuals and met to hold periodic discussions.

Many members of Zionist youth movements joined the Komsomol and were
active within it, even if this did not always stem from an inner
conviction; indeed, in many cases, they were pressured to join. But an
educational atmosphere prevailed, and the youngsters helped decide on
the themes of the various activity groups and took part in organizing
competitions. Those aged ten to fifteen were made to join the
Pioneers, which met once a week; the members wore special ties and
their shirts were decorated with symbols of various kinds.

Economic Developments and Employment Profile. The Sovietization of the
economy affected the entire population. However, the Jewish
communities in the large and medium-sized cities were more vulnerable
because of their distinctive social and economic structure. In Grodno,
the majority of the Jews were engaged in commerce, industry and
crafts, or in the liberal professions. Some owned factories or small

First to be nationalized were industrial enterprises. Often a factory
was nationalized together with its owner's home. Many of the
dispossessed factory owners had no other choice but to leave Grodno
and find a hiding place as well as a source of living somewhere else.
Others were employed as workers in the factories they had once owned,
and some were dismissed and arrested after a few weeks or months and
sent to distant parts of Russia. Managers were brought from Russia for
the large enterprises, such as the bicycle and tobacco factories, and
additional clerks (also from Russia) and workers were taken on. The
former factory owners received identity cards stamped Article 11, a
code that restricted their freedom of movement. Nevertheless, besides
those who were arrested and exiled, some escaped to Lvov, Slonim,
Vilna and other places.

Initially, the new regime did not harass small businesses. On the
contrary, such enterprises enjoyed something of a boom, albeit one
that was both artificial and short-lived, as they were given until the
end of 1939 to dispose of their remaining stock. Actually, this
presented no problem, for, as we have noted above, immediately after
the occupation the Russian soldiers went on a spending spree, buying
whatever came to hand and without haggling about prices. Many stories
sprang up around this buying binge. The local population was also
seized by the mania and began hoarding. A popular quip at the time
was: First you stand in line, and then you ask what's on sale. Within
a few months the city experienced a shortage of clothing, footwear,
and other basic items. As for the shopkeepers, although they got rid
of their entire stock, and at a good price, a large part of their
earnings went for the heavy taxes that were imposed to make their
pockets lighter, and those who failed to buy rubles in time suffered
drastic losses when the zloty was abolished as legal tender on
December 31, 1939. At the end of 1939, all the merchants had to close
down, since they could not renew their stock. Some had hidden goods in
their home, for fear of remaining without a livelihood; if caught,
they were tried and punished with imprisonment or exile.

The self-employed Jewish artisans, who constituted the majority of the
craftsmen in Grodno, generally took the hints from above and began to
organize in cooperatives and artels, an option that they preferred to
factory work. The transition was gradual. Initially, because of the
heavy taxes and the shortage of materials, they joined the existing
cooperatives, but soon new artels were established in Grodno for
shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, and barbers; most of the members were
apparently Jewish.

An important source of employment was the state bureaucracy. Jews held
clerking positions above their proportion of the population, but at
the intermediate and lower levels. The senior positions in Grodno were
reserved for Byelorussians, in accordance with the Byelorussification
policy in the republic.

Jews were far less prominently represented in the teaching profession.
Although, as we have described, the Soviets opened many schools and
courses, and a variety of cultural institutions provided the
intelligentsia with a livelihood, it was the Byelorussians who were
preferred. This was even more flagrant than in other spheres, because
they knew the language and because of the Byelorussification drive.

Most of the Jewish lawyers could no longer make a living because
private law practices were prohibited. The old judicial system was
replaced by people's courts based on the Soviet constitution, and only
lawyers with a clean record (i.e., of proletarian extraction) were
accepted in the new system. At the same time, the physicians' lot was
somewhat improved, as they were now permitted to work, in contrast to
the Polish period. However, they were absorbed into the state medical
service and, from the beginning of 1940, were no longer permitted to
engage in private practice. The Soviet regime's development of the
health system generated a large demand for nurses, both male and
female. Some of the self-employed pharmacists were also integrated
into the state system following the nationalization of the pharmacies
in December 1939. Jews also found work as engineers, a profession that
was in growing demand.

Those who found employment as salaried workers soon discovered that in
the Soviet regime wages were below the subsistence level. A worker
made about 250 rubles a month at a time when the official prices of
basic commodities were, for example, 1 ruble for a loaf of bread, 8
rubles per kilo of meat, 25 rubles for butter, and so forth. Clearly,
such a salary was not enough for even basic items.

Some Jews drew on the help of relatives in the Soviet Union. Letters
belonging to the Broide family indicate that their uncle sent them
sweets and that when he visited he brought them food and electrical
goods that were unobtainable in Grodno.

One of the most serious blows to the local population, including the
Jews, was the authorities' confiscation of rooms and apartments in
order to house the many experts who were brought in from the Soviet
Union. These included the families of Red Army officers and civilians
who were in charge of establishing the government offices. The result
was that the city's population increased dramatically. The authorities
seized flats with their furniture, or forced local residents to let
part of their homes to lodgers. There was not a house in the city
without a Russian family.

Some Jews were evicted for other reasons, such as the ban on residing
in the industrial zone. Houses and flats larger than 50 sq. meters
were confiscated and their owners ordered to find a residence 100 km.
away, since Grodno was declared a border city. The lack of uniformity
in the confiscation criteria and the authorities' arbitrary behavior
generated considerable tension. Many Jews were affected by the
confiscation of dwellings, since the majority belonged to the middle
or upper-middle class and were concentrated in the urban areas,
particularly in the city centers.

The Soviets brought with them new and different economic norms
expressed in low wages, shortages in materials, rising prices, and a
declining living standard. Nevertheless, most Jews were able to adapt
to the new situation, found work, and earned enough to make ends meet.
Quite a few Jews felt no substantial change, or thought that the
Soviet socioeconomic order suited them, even though most had not
previously been Communists. Indeed, the majority view was that the new
situation was the best that could be hoped for under the
circumstances: despite the shock of the new reality and the
disappointment in the regime, there was no better alternative on the

Refugees. Immediately after overrunning western Poland, the Nazis
began persecuting the Jews, and many fled eastward. The border with
the Russian zone remained open for a brief period, until mid-October
1939. At the end of that year the Soviet authorities strictly forbade
border crossings; the punishment was a three-year prison term.

Most estimates speak of about 200,000 refugees in the Soviet zone of
occupation, or 25 percent of the total Jewish population. Grodno was
inundated with about 4,000 Jewish refugees. Many of them were
intellectuals - writers, theater personalities, musicians - but there
were also some workers and craftsmen. Most regarded Grodno as a
temporary haven, or a transit station on their way to Vilna, which was
still free. The refugees filled the synagogues and the buildings of
the Jewish public institutions; every Jewish home took in as many as
possible. In the absence of organized assistance, the synagogue became
the center of aid for the refugees. The local Jewish population cooked
for them and assisted them with clothing and money. However, such aid
was insufficient to maintain the refugees indefinitely; subsequently
they became wards of the Soviet authorities, who acknowledged the need
to provide them with work and housing.

In late 1939 or early 1940, refugee-aid committees, known as Kompobez
(Komitet Pomoshchi Bezhentsam), were established in Grodno and other
cities. Their purpose was to assist the refugees with food and
clothing, while at the same time exploiting them for the economy and
the security services. The committees were also in charge of
registering the refugees for employment and for passports. However, as
little work was available locally, the Soviets began sending refugees
to the Russian interior, where workers were desperately needed. Many
of them, particularly young people, but also professionals,
shopkeepers, and even yeshivah students, willingly accepted the offer
to work in Russia. The Bialystoker Shtern reported the departure of
1,500 refugees from Bialystok, Grodno, and Wolkowysk to work in
Russian coal mines. Nevertheless, thousands of unemployed refugees
still remained in the region. Moreover, some two months later,
refugees began returning from Russia. One young man who returned to
Grodno after working in the Urals complained that the Russians had not
kept even one of their promises: the workers received neither humane
living conditions nor suitable food; they had no theater or films. The
work was backbreaking, the food was mostly a thin gruel, and no one
had strength to work. Some sold their clothes in order to finance
their return trip. Fleeing one's job was a crime, yet this deterred no

Despite the failures, Soviet propaganda described the refugees who had
gone to Russia to work in a positive light. For instance, the
Bialystoker Shtern published letters from some of the refugees. In a
letter dated February 4, 1940, published under the title We Are Happy,
refugees who had left in late December 1939 for work in Magnitogorsk
in the Ural Mountains told about the excellent treatment they had
received on the way, the warm reception upon their arrival, and the
good conditions and leisure-time activities. Two similar letters
appeared in the paper on February 22, 1940, one from the Caucasus and
the other from Kovrov.

Many of the refugees who remained in the Soviet area of occupation
tried to make a living from illegal commerce, including smuggling. As
a result, the authorities began to view the refugees as hostile
elements. Moreover, their interest in the German-occupied area and
their attempts to make contact with relatives who remained there
aroused the suspicions of the Soviet security authorities. In the
spring of 1940, the Soviets began issuing identity cards. The refusal
of more than half the refugees to become citizens, in the hope that
they would eventually be able to return to their homes in
German-occupied Poland, further rankled the authorities, and they
classified these refugees as unreliable elements. To ensure beyond a
doubt their loyalty to the regime, they were summoned to militia
stations and were ordered to choose between Soviet citizenship or
returning to German-occupied Poland. The majority, other than those
who had a job and young students, opted to return. In June 1940, the
authorities began arresting some of those refugees, usually in night
sweeps, and transported them to Siberia or elsewhere in the
northeastern Soviet Union. Probably more than 50 percent of the
refugees wanted to return to Poland, and nearly all of them were
deported. This would mean that about 2,000 of the refugees in Grodno
were exiled to the Soviet Union.

Those who remained and found work became refugees a second time when
war erupted between the Soviet Union and Germany. Some stayed and were
murdered together with the local Jews, but others managed to escape
into the Russian interior.