The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which united with the Kingdom of Poland in 1569, ruled most of Byelorussia (“White Russia”) until the reign of Catherine the Great in Russia (r. 1762-1796). Therefore, many Jews who identified themselves as “Litvaks” actually originated in shtetls located in Belarus. Upon the First Partition of Poland in 1772, Russia acquired the Eastern portion of present-day Belarus, including the towns of Vitebsk, Mogilev, and Gomel. The Second Partition in 1793 gave Minsk and the central region to Russia, and in 1795 the Third Partition incorporated the remainder of Byelorussia into the Russian Empire. Under Russian rule, the area was divided administratively into the provinces or gubernias of Grodno, Minsk, Mogilev, Vilna, and Vitebsk. In 1921, this territory was divided between Poland and Soviet Russia along the lines of the First Partition of Poland. In 1922, the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was one of four founding republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R., or Soviet Union). In 1924, Russia transferred the regions of Polotsk, Vitebsk, Orsha, and Mogilev to the Byelorussian S.S.R. Mogilev had a large Byelorussian population. Gomel and Rechitsa followed in 1926. The Byelorussian S.S.R. declared sovereignty from the U.S.S.R. in 1990 and independence in 1991, changing its name to the Republic of Belarus. For a detailed history of Belarus’ administrative/territorial divisions, visit https://www.jewishgen.org/belarus/lists/borders_timeline.htm.
Once you have identified the name of your ancestral town, you can locate it on a map using the following sources. It is also very helpful to identify the district (uyezd) and province (gubernia) in which the town was located at the time your relatives lived there, as well as the current district and province, using historical atlases and/or the website listed below.
Mokotoff, Gary, Sallyann A. Sack, and Alexander Sharon. Where Once We Walked: A Guide to the Jewish Communities Destroyed in the Holocaust—Revised Edition. Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2002. This gazetteer lists towns according to variant spellings and provides the present-day country and map coordinates of each town and an estimate of their pre-WWII Jewish population.
The JewishGen website contains three databases that may assist you in finding your ancestor’s town: the Communities Database, which is limited to communities with significant Jewish populations; the Gazetteer, which is not limited that way; and the Radius Search, which lists localities within a specified distance from given latitude/longitude coordinates.