Belarus 110 Years Later
In 1905 his grandmother Ida left the village of Novy Svierzhan, about 60 km (46 miles) to the southwest of Minsk. At the age of 13 she set out to travel with her family to the United States of America. She never returned.
In her perfect English with no trace of an accent she rarely reminisced about her past. One hundred and ten years later at the age of 65 he travelled back to her birthplace to discover his roots and another country.
He found the places, but they carry no memories. He found a country which preserves few traces of his ancestors. And yet Professor Krohn thought it was a trip worth making. But without a local, this would have been nearly impossible.
Belarus remains a country with little infrastructure for English-speaking visitors. The newly appointed Head of the National Tourism Agency, Veranika Darozhka, recognises the potential of ‘nostalgic’ tourism and seemingly has the proper experience to make it work.
Getting to Belarus
According to Belstat, 140,000 tourists visited Belarus in 2015. Roughly 70 to 80 per cent of these were from Russia. By contrast, neighbouring Lithuania accepts around 2m visitors each year. Sweden, comparable to Belarus in terms of population with 9.8m inhabitants. attracts around 5m tourists, and the UK, comparable to Belarus in size, attracts a staggering 31m each year.
Professor Krohn had to start planning the trip in advance. A journey to Belarus cannot be made on a whim. US citizens need to obtain a visa from the Belarusian Embassy in Washington or Consulate in New York. The process requires extensive preparation and financial investment. Preparations in his case included obtaining an invitation from a former student residing in Belarus, confirming that he could stay with them. The cost of a visa was $130.
His teaching obligations brought him to neighbouring Latvia from which he managed to take inexpensive trains to Lithuania and then to Minsk. He got lucky, as no low cost carriers will bring you to Belarus. He found ground transportation services swift and reliable. The only downside was that trains had no designated space for suitcases in them. Upon arriving in Belarus, he realised that English would not suffice. He taught himself to read Russian, but understanding the spoken language was harder.
Discovering Jewish Heritage
Novy Svierzhan remained where it used to be, 46 miles south-west of Minsk. However, for Professor Krohn there was little to discover. The population of Novy Svierzhan currently totals 2,086 people according to the 2009 census. Interestingly, in 1900 according to the International Jewish Cemetery Project, the Jewish population was 732.
Even according to current figures, it accounts for one third. That number of people must have left some heritage behind. However, there remained only two traces, neither of which well preserved. The locals easily directed Professor Krohn and his two guides to the remnants of a synagogue and the Jewish cemetery. Interestingly, everybody, even the youth, knew exactly where to look for them. Both looked dilapidated and abandoned.
The next stop was Mir and Niasvizh. Both cities boast well-preserved major tourist attractions listed by UNESCO as World Heritage sites, including the sixteenth century Mir Castle and a palace. Few people know, however, that the 1921 census of Mir showed that 55 per cent of the population was Jewish. Mir or Mirrer Yeshiva was established in 1815 by prominent local Jews and gained a reputation far beyond the little town, attracting students from many parts of the world.
Except for a small private museum run by a local enthusiast by the name of Viktar Sakiel, no other places in Mir contain information about the once vibrant community. One of the four rooms in his private museum features Jewish culture and exhibits collected in the cellars and attics of his neighbours. He works as a collector, fund-raiser and a tour guide for his little enterprise. Some of the exhibits are for sale, many can be touched, and all can be photographed.
Reworking the Past, Looking at the Future
A few Hollywood celebrities trace their ancestry to Belarus, including actors Kirk Douglas and Lisa Kudrow. Many other less famous descendants of Jews from the former Russian Empire have re-discovered their heritage. However, 110 years seems too long ago for Belarusian history. Except for a few private or foreign sponsored initiatives, there seems to be little effort by the state to either preserve or feature the Jewish past of the country.
Yet maybe the government has recognised the historic, cultural and financial potential of Jewish heritage in Belarus. In early March the National Tourism Agency selected Veranika Darozhka from among eight candidates to become its director. Darozhka’s profile features work for the Jewish NGO network and a fellowship at the University of Jerusalem.
In her interview with the traveling.by portal she states the following: “I take deep interest in promoting Belarus in the international arena. I understand the challenges of the current situation and have a vision of how to deal with them and move forward”. Most importantly she notes among her priorities: “This is so called ‘nostalgia’ tourism because so many people had left Belarus in the past and have now become interested in it. Our country has a diverse, rich heritage to offer to various nations".
This rings true for many Jews in the United States, including Professor Krohn, who trace their ancestry to former shtetl or miastechka in Belarus. And while he certainly admired the nature, hospitality and culture of modern Belarus, he just wished he could see more of his own once vibrant culture preserved and featured. Professor Krohn says:
Except for the incredibly moving memorial to the Jews descending to the killing pit, there is a notable paucity of Jewish sites in Belarus. But then I expected little in this regard and I cannot say I was disappointed. The other point I can make with total honesty is that my first trip to a country in the current Russian orbit was fascinating and enjoyable in its own right. The food was good, the transport well organised, the parks absolutely glorious and the broad thoroughfares remarkably clean and well tended for such a large city.
Belarus continues to be expensive to get to and hard to get around without knowledge of Russian or Belarusian. The new leadership at the National Tourism Agency should generate much-needed initiatives reflecting historic cultural diversity and do away with the unnecessary entry restrictions.