Belarus City Links Chagall to Lost Jewish Culture

Marc Chagall, who was briefly the art commissar in Vitebsk, Belarus, in 1977. Credit Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

If it weren’t for Marc Chagall and his paintings of rabbis and fiddlers, goats and lovers floating above its rooftops and church spires, Vitebsk would be just an obscure provincial city in Belarus, a country that remains eerily frozen in a Soviet-era past.

On top of a building overlooking a vast central square, a giant sign reminds visitors of the “Immortal Feat of the Soviet People.” The city is spotless, its sidewalks swept regularly by broom-wielding street cleaners. Traffic is sparse, slowed by a steady stream of trams and buses. The giant Holy Assumption Orthodox cathedral dominates a hill above the Western Dvina River. Like much of the city, the cathedral was rebuilt after the devastation of World War II.

There is nothing, however, to suggest that for the first decades of the 20th century, this city was almost half Jewish, a stronghold of Orthodox Judaism and later Zionism.

Many Jews left in the decade after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1918; Chagall, who was briefly Vitebsk’s art commissar before he clashed with another artist-in-residence, Kasimir Malevich, also left, first for Moscow, and in 1922, for Berlin and then Paris. After July 11, 1941, when the Nazi occupation of the city began, some 16,000 Jews were rounded up in a ghetto and systematically massacred.

For the 4,000 Jews now living in Vitebsk, Chagall holds the key to a vanished world — of stock figures such as the rabbi, the peddler, the newspaper seller, living in a neighborhood of crumpled houses with tethered goats and cows out back, or in his imagination, flying overhead.

Today, all that remains of that neighborhood is Chagall’s one-story childhood home, now an evocative museum that bears witness to a life once sheltered by family, tradition and culture — all of it gone. Across the river, a handsome Chagall Arts Center holds a collection of his graphic works, donated by the artist’s family and friends.

Chagall’s legacy is publicly honored here today, but it took a long time. For half a century, long after his work had been celebrated around the world, he was scorned by the Soviet cultural establishment, for both his dreamy modernism and his Jewishness. He was listed in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia as a “French painter and graphic artist.”

In 1987, on the centenary of his birth, at a time when Soviet taboos were being swept away by glasnost, a leading Moscow museum honored him with a major exhibition, but in Vitebsk, his name still inspired contempt. “Chagall doesn’t suit us politically,” said a local Communist boss back then. “He’s a Zionist.”

Chagall had anticipated this obliteration of his memory, writing once that he would not be surprised if Vitebsk forgot about a man who “worried, suffered and took the trouble to implant Art there, who dreamed of transforming ordinary houses into murmurs and the simple inhabitant into a creator.”

And yet, until his death in the south of France in 1985, Chagall mined an unrequited love for his hometown, repeatedly returning for inspiration. He always insisted that he was a Russian-Jewish painter, even after he immersed himself in Western Europe’s dizzying experimental art scene. He went so far as to call Paris “my second Vitebsk.”

Today, the remnants of Vitebsk’s once vibrant, multifaceted culture are sparse. The ruins of the old Choral Synagogue are still not restored. Jewish festivals and weddings are hosted at a local community center, but the big event in Vitebsk each year is the Slavonic Bazaar, an international celebration of Slavic folk songs.

What remains of Chagall’s world are the whimsical scenes that linger on museum walls and public buildings here and around the world. “I did not live with you, but I did not have one single painting that did not breathe your spirit and reflection,” he wrote in an open letter to Vitebsk, published in a New York newspaper on Feb. 15, 1944, just as the city’s Jewish past was being snuffed out.


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