Vitebsk is one of the oldest cities in Belarus, founded in the 10th century. The first written records on Jews date back to the 16th century, and the existence of a Jewish community on the territory of the city has been known since the first quarter of the 17th century, when the governor granted permission to build a house of worship, and royal privileges allowed the purchase of land and houses as property.
It is known that the Jews actively participated in the defense of Vitebsk in 1654, when it was besieged by the Russian troops of the voivode Vasily Sheremetev. After the capture of the city, the Jews were forced to pay a contribution, and also lost part of their property as a result of robberies. In 1667, according to the results of the Andrusov Armistice, Vitebsk again became part of the Commonwealth.
Relations with the Christian population were overshadowed by the incident of 1712. Then the synagogue burned down, and the city authorities built a church in its place. Protesting Jews were beaten. However, the Main Lithuanian Tribunal decided to return the land to the Jewish community and ordered the city authorities to pay 13.5 thousand zlotys compensation.
After the partition of Poland, Vitebsk became part of the Russian Empire. Already in 1772, more than 1.2 thousand Jews lived in it, which made up 25% of the townspeople. In the 1860s, thanks to the construction of the railway, the number of Jews in the city increased. According to the census of 1897, 34.2 thousand Jews lived in Vitebsk. They made up 52.4% of the townspeople.
At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews made up 80% of all urban artisans.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the city had 74 Jewish religious buildings. In the early years of the twentieth century, the post of the crown rabbi of Vitebsk was occupied by the famous figure of the Zionist movement Grigory Brook.
With the outbreak of World War I, Jewish refugees from Lithuania settled in the city. With the establishment of Soviet power, many of them preferred to return to the Baltic States.
In the 1920s, in Vitebsk, the Soviet government worked out a policy towards Jews. Therefore, in January 1921, a trial took place here, after which all the headers were closed, and the children who studied in them were distributed in Jewish schools with Yiddish instruction.
In the same year, the first Jewish pedagogical college in the USSR was opened in the city. His task was to train teachers who were to educate Jews loyal to the Soviet regime. In 1937, the institution received the status of a teacher training college, and in 1941 it stopped working.
With the outbreak of World War II, some Jews managed to evacuate. The city was captured in July 1941. A few days later, an order was issued to resettle all Jews on the right bank of the Dvina. During the action, 2 thousand people died.
In September 1941, the Nazis began to create a ghetto. In Vitebsk, not a part of city blocks, but a metal house and nearby non-residential premises were taken to a closed ghetto. Thus, in addition to hunger and epidemics, the Jewish population suffered from the cold. Until the end of October, under the guise of fighting disease and as a result of other actions, the Nazis killed about 6 thousand people. In December 1941, because of the liquidation of the ghetto, more than 4 thousand people died. In total, according to research, 20 thousand Jews were killed in Vitebsk.
In the first post-war decade, the Jewish population of the city declined. By 1959, there were 10.3 thousand Jews in Vitebsk. They amounted to 7% of citizens. By the end of the 20th century, 2.8 thousand Jews (1.7%) lived in the city, and according to the 2009 census, 1.3 thousand (0.38%).
Jewish Vitebsk presented Mark Chagall (1887-1985) and Samuil Marshak (1887-1964) to the world.
Among the military elite of the USSR, there were also many Vitebsk Jews: 9 generals, 2 rear admirals, 3 Heroes of the Soviet Union and 1 full cavalier of the Order of Glory.