Shtetl Vitebsk
Shtetl Vitebsk, a Jewish town in the Russian empire

Vitebsk was the tenth largest Jewish center in the Pale of Settlement, after Warsaw (219,149 Jews), Odessa (138,915), Lodz (98,677), Vilna (64,000), Kishinev (50,237), Minsk (47,562), Bialystok (41,900), Berdichev (41,617), Yekaterinoslavl (aka Dnepropetrovsk, 40,009). Vitebsk, on the shores of Dvina river, was a major trade and cultural center, a stronghold of Orthodox Judaism with a strong hasidic presence. At the turn of the XX century there were almost 35,000 Jews living in Vitebsk, 52.4% of the total population.

From the data of The First All-Russia Census of 1897 for the Vitebsk gubernia (LDS microfilm 1732226):

  • Total population of Vitebsk gubernia: 1,489,246 (of those, 215,919 living in cities)
  • Jews and karaims: 175,635 (113,848 in cities)
  • Yiddish as mother tongue: 174,240 (112,455 in cities)
  • Total population of Vitebsk: 33,345 men; 32,374 women
  • Jews in Vitebsk: 15,897 men; 17,555 women
  • Age distribution of the Jews of Vitebsk gubernia:
    <1 2,558 2,474
    30-40 8,637 9,777
    40-50 7,328 8,370
    50-60 4,972 5,492
    60-70 3,173 3,140
    70-80 1,361 1,161
    80-90 316 256
    90-100 35 46
  • `The majority of Jews (52.09%) is concentrated, obviously, in the cities and towns ["mestechki", shtetls] where almost all of the industry and trade is in their hands. In every town of the [Vitebsk] gubernia ... Jews make up at least 1/2 of the total population.'
  • Religious affiliation among Jews: Judaism 99.94%, Russian Orthodox 0.03%, Catholics 0.01%, Protestants 0.01%, others 0.01%
The Soviet times

With the advent of the Soviet rule the Vitebsk Jewish community rapidly declined. In 1923 there were 39,714 Jews (43.7% of the total population), and in 1926 there were 37,013 (37.5%).

The self-proclaimed "first web page about Vitebsk" by Kirill Yurchenko is an excellent representation of how the history of Vitebsk was re-written in the Soviet times, to erase all traces of Jewish life. The author, probably a well-meaning Vitebsk native is clearly unaware of anything Jewish about Vitebsk. The web site does have some modern maps and both modern and historical images, all of them of christian landmarks. As far as I understand, only one image may be of some interest to Jewish genealogists: I believe the Jewish quarter was located immediately to the right of the bridge depicted there. If anybody knows otherwise, please correct me.