Searching for Ancestors in Belarus

Louis Mayer, one of the founders of the Hollywood studio Metro-Golden-Mayer and the ‘inventor’ of the Oscar award was born in Minsk.

Isaac Asimov, Marc Chagall and Leon Bakst were born and grew up in Belarus. Fifteen Nobel Prize laureates, Jacques Cousteau and and many other notable personalities have Belarusian ancestry.

At the same time, the Guggenheim museum lists Chagall as a painter from “Vitebsk, Russia.” While many outstanding people have Belarusian ancestry, Belarus remains a kind of terra-incognita, overlooked in most biographical notes in museums, books and Wikipedia.

Toponyms such as White Russia, Russia and Poland are used in place of Belarus and mislead those in search of their family history.

The complexity of the contemporary situation in Belarus does not make matters any easier. However, the country could potentially capitalise on the increasing interest in genealogy; private businesses are already taking their first steps in the field of ancestry research.

Shifting Borders, Shifting Identities

The shifting borders between Belarus, Soviet Russia and Poland in the beginning of the 20th century can easily lead to geographical confusion. The complex position of Belarus between the Russian Empire and Poland made it the middle ground in several wars.

The borders of Belarus shifted more than 15 times in 23 years between 1917-1940. Together with the borders, the identities of local inhabittants shifted as well. Locals could define themselves as Russian, Polish, Belarusian, Lithuanian, Jewish, Litvin and Slav and commonly spoke several languages within one family.

These identity uncertainties were complicated when immigrants arrived, for example, to Ellis Island and listed themselves according to the basic options provided, most often opting for “russians.” As one of the ancestry researchers on the blog mynativebelarus notes: “My grandparents listed themselves [in the US census] as Russian, spoke Polish and now I find they were actually from Belarus.”

Thus, contemporary toponymic confusions are not only the result of a lack of geographical knowledge, but are a direct consequence of the shifting identity of immigrants from Belarus.

The Pale of Settlement

in 1791 Catherine the Great forced all Jews living in Russia to migrate to the territory of contemporary Belarus, Lithuania, eastern Poland and Ukraine

The Pale of Settlement is another key concept in the history of emigration from the territory of Belarus. The Pale of Settlement defined a region in the western Russian Empire where most of the Jewish population lived. Catherine the Great demarcated a border in 1791, forcing all Jews living in Russia to migrate to the territory of contemporary Belarus, Lithuania, eastern Poland and Ukraine.

The Jewish population comprised up to 50% of Belarusian city-dwellers in 1918. Yiddish was one of the four official languages used in the Belarusian Soviet Republic. Some of the western regions, including Navahrudak, Pinsk and Slutsk were up to 80% Jewish.

Many Jews from Belarus emigrated to Europe at the end of the 19th century due to economic hardships, while others moved east into Russia during WWII. Before and during WWII some managed to escape and moved to the US, but 1989-1991 whitnessed the peak of emmigration. More than 227,000 Jews from Belarus moved to Israel and the US.

Thus, if your family is of Jewish heritage and originally comes from the region of “Western Russia”, most likely this really means the territory of contemporary Belarus, Eastern Poland or Northern Ukraine.

Nostalgic Tourism

According to BelStat, around 276,000 tourists visited Belarus last year. 88% of tourists come from Russia, since Russians perceive Belarus to be a cheap ‘European’ place to visit.

While Belarus is not exactly a go-to tourist destination, there is a much potential for “nostalgic tourism.” It seems that to some, Belarus is a unique living museum of the Soviet past. Certain initiatives, such as FSP (Freaky summer party), which takes place in Minsk every July, have started offering complimentary tours of Minsk, branded “so soviet, so sexy.”

However, it is not only the soviet past which attracts western tourists. Many are also coming to discover their family history and learn about their ancestors’ past. A thread related to Belarus on the family history website ancestry.com has over 3000 messages, suggesting that the demand for heritage tourism is high.\

people of Jewish ancestry are currently the group most actively conducting genealogical research in Belarus

Since a large proportion of Belarusian emigration was Jewish, people of Jewish ancestry are currently the group most actively conducting genealogical research in Belarus. Today, around 55,000 people identifying as Jewish live in Belarus; half of whom live in Minsk. This population is far smaller than at the beginning of the 20th century, when around 800,000 Jews lived in Belarus.

There are quite a few Jewish cultural and social organisations in Belarus, particularly in Minsk. Many of them offer help in researching ancestry and Jewish heritage, as well as providing databases of Jewish toponyms, names and the like. Profits mainly go to the preservation and rebuilding of Jewish heritage sites.

Historic cemeteries are another useful tool in researching one’s heritage as well as an unconventional tourist destination. The indexing project Graves.by aims to document historical cemeteries, gravestones and the like and make them accessible to a wider audience. Currently, they have 21 documented cemeteries and one can pin a request for specific gravestones. In addition, there is an index of Jewish cemeteries that accounts for more that 90 entries.

While there is some activity in the field of genealogical research, similarly to other private businesses in Belarus most initiatives are short-lived. While Belarusians have not yet managed to fully capitalise upon foreigners searching for ancestors in Belarus, the demand is high and some steps have been taken.

Breaking the mould

Accounts of those visiting Belarus in search of their ancestors are often grim, grey and even haunting. A Belarusian visa costs from 35$ to 140$ and requires a few days wait-time, and registration of place of residence can put off many eager ancestry researchers.

​embarking on a heritage tour to Belarus can bring fruitful results and unconventional local experiences

At the same time, embarking on a heritage tour to Belarus can bring fruitful results and unconventional local experiences. Some examples of positive experiences include those of Princeton University alumnus Stanislaw Maliszewski researching his family property Zastaria in Western Belarus, or the account of one Professor Krohn from America, in search of his family history near Minsk.

Since little to no information is available online, doing some family history research in Belarus can be an alternative to more conventional tourist destinations. At the same time, the Belarusian tourist industry could capitalise on the history of Belarusian emigration, and provide specific tours for those interested in researching their ancestry.

Maryja Rusak

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