The revival of the Jews of Belarus

Many Belarus Jews, who were hiding their identity, are now coming forward and declaring their Jewishness, discovers Elli Wohlgelernter during a visit to
Minsk —

In a large pit in the middle of town here, at a place called Yama, stands a monument dedicated to 5,000 Jews killed by the Nazis in that spot the day before Purim, 1942. Erected in 1946, the monument was the first and only one in the USSR devoted to the Holocaust which displayed Yiddish writing. Remarkably, not only did the monument survive the efforts of Stalin to eradicate all traces of Jewishness, but it also became the only one in Belarus where Jews could legally gather without any interference from the government, which they did throughout the period of Communist rule.

Today the ditch has been expanded to include a walkway and plaza, trees planted for Righteous Gentiles. There is an evocative sculpture that stands on a slope parallel to the steps leading into the pit of Yama, depicting Jews being forced down into the ravine. A memorial ceremony was held there yesterday by emissaries of the Jewish Agency, who are here for their annual conference.

“We have thousands of monuments here in Belarus, and on most of them it says that ‘Soviet citizens were killed here,’ even if 100 percent of those killed were Jews,” said Baruch Camil, head of the agency’s operation in Belarus. “But this is the only one in Yiddish. It was something that kept the Jewish community together, whatever that ‘community’ was, where together they could do something as Jews, even during the time of Stalin and during the Communist period. I heard one of the Jews who came say, ‘those who died here kept us alive as Jews.’ ”

Today the ditch has been expanded to include a walkway and plaza, trees planted for Righteous Gentiles. There is an evocative sculpture that stands on a slope parallel to the steps leading into the pit of Yama, depicting Jews being forced down into the ravine. A memorial ceremony was held there yesterday by emissaries of the Jewish Agency, who are here for their annual conference.

“We have thousands of monuments here in Belarus, and on most of them it says that ‘Soviet citizens were killed here,’ even if 100 percent of those killed were Jews,” said Baruch Camil, head of the agency’s operation in Belarus. “But this is the only one in Yiddish. It was something that kept the Jewish community together, whatever that ‘community’ was, where together they could do something as Jews, even during the time of Stalin and during the Communist period. I heard one of the Jews who came say, ‘those who died here kept us alive as Jews.’ ”

Today the community is very much alive, though no one can say for sure how many Jews there are, or how long the community will last. There are 26 Jewish communities in Belarus, five statewide organizations and 15 local cultural organizations. They have 16 Reform congregations and 24 Orthodox , of which 10 belong to the Habad movement, according to Camil. There are three Jewish schools in Minsk, one each in Gomel and Pinsk, and some 20 Sunday schools.

Estimates of how many Jews all these organizations are serving varies. The official 1999 Belarus census puts the figure at 27,800, out of a total population of 10.4 million. Community leaders say there are 70,000 Jews, while others estimate that those whose mother was Jewish is over 200,000.

“A lot of Jews who were hiding it and didn’t call themselves Jews are now coming forward and declaring their Jewishness, a big percentage,” said Leonid Levin, president of the Belarus Jewish community and the man behind the sculpture at Yama.

“People were afraid before, because the Communist regime made a lot of problems for Jews,” Levin said. “Right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a lot were afraid – people wanted to save their children [from problems], and were changing their names to Russian names.” Camil said the low figure of 28,000 is a result of the way the census-takers asked their questions.

“They would say, ‘Your nationality is Belarus, yes?’ Very few would argue with them and say, ‘no I am not Belarus, I am Jewish.'” The history of the Jews in Belarus dates to the 14th century, when they were employed as tax collectors. By the end of the 19th century, they comprised as much as 90 percent of the population of Pinsk, and 50 percent of Minsk. Some of the famous Jews who came from Belarus include Haim Weizmann, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, Shimon Peres, Marc Chagall, the Chofetz Chaim, and the first Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Since 1989, 68,000 Jews have immigrated to Israel from Belarus.

Camil said that he sees “no future for a Jewish community in Belarus,” and that while most of the elderly will stay because “they know this place, they talk this language, they are familiar here,” many with relatives in Israel have a different perspective.

“I have not met anyone here who does not have someone in his or her family in Israel,” he said. “Those with children already in Israel, I think they will follow them and go live in Israel.” Those whose children still living here, he said, also recognize that there is little future for them. “Though it’s a difficult decision, I think many of them will eventually decide ‘Yes, I want to go too.’ “

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