Nearly Gone, but not Forgotten
One of my early realisations in coming to Belarus was that, given how significant the Jewish imprint on the region had been, how little of it remains unrecognised as part of the area’s unique heritage.
How it happened
For 800 years until WW2, the area of present day Belarus was multi-ethnic and multi-lingual with a population that spoke one or a combination of Belarusian, Yiddish, Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Tartar, Karaim (a Turkic language) and Romany. Predominant amongst this was the Yiddish language and the Jewish population. The latter arrived in large numbers in the 14th century from Germany where they escaped discrimination to live in a more tolerant part of Europe, which, at that time were the Polish and Lithuanian states sandwiched between the Holy Roman empire on one side and east Slavonic princedoms, including growing Muscovy, on the other.
In 1791, Catherine the Great of Russia demanded that Jews in the Russian empire be forced to resettle in the western part of the empire, to the newly acquired territory of present-day Belarus, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania. This area became known as the ‘Pale of Settlement.’ The resettlement of Jews was made, apparently, to enable the Russians in Moscow and to the East of the Pale to regain their monopoly over trade by expelling Jews from the area. This edict remained in force until 1917.
Before WW2, the Jewish population comprised the second largest ethnic group in the region of Belarus. Indeed, many of the major towns were over 50% Jewish. They were strong in trade and manufacturing and it is said that non-Jewish businessmen learnt Yiddish so that they could communicate more effectively in business. Up to the 1930’s, there were schools that taught in Yiddish, and Jewish art flourished. Even so, numbers of Jews had been decreasing because of massive emigration to Western Europe and the United States in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. These emigres left their mark on the world. Many US household names, Ralph Lauren, Kirk Douglas, Harrison Ford, Lisa Kudrow, are from families originating from Belarus, as was one of the MGM founders, Louis B Mayer. Chaim Weitzman – the first president of Israel, Shimon Peres, Yitzak Shamir, Menachin Begin, Yitzak Rabin, who dominated Israeli Politics from the 1970’s to the 1990’s hailed from this area. Michael Marks moved from Slonim to Leeds in around 1882 setting up a market stall and the chain of Marks and Spencers. The family of Irving Berlin, composer and lyricist, hailed from near Vitebsk, emigrating to the USA in 1893.
From 1939 to 1944 , between 60% and 90% of the Jewish population was murdered. As well as the sheer tragedy of it all, an event that is still difficult to grasp, it is also devasting to consider what future potential intellectual, artistic and literary contributions to Jewish culture and the world have been lost with the shootings, gassings, forced marching and brutally sadistic deaths at the hands of the Nazis.
After World War 2
In the post war years, Jewish culture all but perished and its imprint on Belarusian life has become a shadow. Jewish cemeteries were abandoned and neglected or have disappeared altogether, sometimes the land being used for collective farms. Tombstones were used to pave roads. Those synagogues that escaped wartime destruction were turned into warehouses or other functional buildings by the post war authorities. The ghosts of countless believers worshiping God, performing bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals remain but their past civilisation is now generally unrecognised and unremembered in society’s general canvas, running the kaleidoscope between neglect and deliberate removal. After WW2, the Soviet authorities wanted to fashion history in its own image rejecting symbols and artefacts that did not fit in with its own narrative. Despite these efforts, it is an unavoidable fact that the heritage of Belarus is multi-layered and multifaceted, even if some layers are forgotten and some facets are ignored.
For example, In the town of Nyazvizh, there is piece of grassy land near the centre which was the old Jewish cemetery. The gravestones had been dug up during the German occupation. After the war, the authorities wanted to build apartment blocks on the land. However, it was pointed out that people would not live on the ghosts of the dead, even in a society where housing was badly needed. The dwellings were constructed somewhere else and the land remains untouched. Broken gravestones lie scattered in the grassy undergrowth.
Recently, in the town of Brest, construction workers found the remains of bodies of Jewish prisoners who had been executed by the Nazis. It appears that nobody knew they were there. The territory of Belarus is peppered with now forgotten places of execution, of Jews and of others.
The post war attempt to erase the memory of Judaism was not necessarily anti-Semitic, though this undoubtedly was a factor. Polish influence and, indeed, Belarusian culture, were similarly suppressed in the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. The area was ‘Sovietised’ which, in effect, meant ‘Russification’ as Russians were brought in from other parts of the USSR to repopulate the area, as happened in the Baltic Republics, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and Kaliningrad oblast. In the case of Jewish life, historical references is also important: the authorities rarely referred to the ‘Jewish holocaust’ because it diluted the official narrative of the ‘suffering of the Soviet people.’ This position is still generally adhered to both in Russia and in Belarus.
The current situation
Within what remains of the Jewish community, the need to preserve the heritage is mixed. Jewish people themselves generally tend to assimilate themselves into society as a whole and rarely highlight their heritage or identity. For them, here is no practical merit in doing otherwise. Although some of the older people still speak Yiddish, generally it is dying with each successive generation. Those who want to emigrate to Israel, following many others who have left in the last 30 years, tend to learn Hebrew. There are Jewish organisations devoted to reinforcing Jewish identity, renovating cemeteries and synagogues, and building educational programmes. Many are funded from outside the country. Sometimes these groups cooperate though often they don’t, due to their different, even conflicting agendas. In addition, non-Jewish Belarusians, who feel a loyalty to Belarus’ past traditions or simply out of sense of humanity, have spent time and effort renovating their local Jewish imprint, be it cemeteries, memorials or the gathering of artifacts for display.
Over the last hundred or more years in the Belarusians lands, the traditional pattern of multi-ethnicity and tolerance that allowed people of different faiths, ethnicities and traditions to live together has been compromised by outsiders. As an independent state, Belarus still has a great opportunity to consolidate its uniqueness by recognising the rich traditions of all its ethnic groups, not least by acknowledging the cultural contribution to the area that the Jewish population had given it in the 800 years. The rich intermingling of languages, religion, ethnicities and cultures of the area is what made this area special in Europe and gave it a specific identity. It would be a shame if this tradition of tolerance and the heritage which gave rise to it were to disappear altogether..