Honouring Jewish Heritage and Fighting Anti-Semitism in Belarus
Eastern Europe is central to Jewish history, but the region today lacks Jewish heritage sites. Very few landmarks commemorate the millions of Jews exterminated there during WWII, or their role in local culture and society before the Holocaust.
A new project, “Shtetl Routes: Vestiges of Jewish Cultural Heritage in Transborder Tourism”, aims to address this problem: by November 2015, tourist trails honouring the Jewish heritage of Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine will link the border regions of the three countries together.
The trail is likely to pass through the Belarusian towns of Navahradak, Slonim, and Pinsk. The first materials on the Jewish sites in Belarus will already appear online in the next few months.
Launched by the Brama Grodzka Theatre NN Centre in Poland, the project benefitted from a €400,000 grant from the European Union’s Cross-border Cooperation Programme Poland-Belarus-Ukraine 2007-2013.
The project is controversial in a region where anti-Semitism remains widespread. According to the 2009 population census, only about 0.1% of Belarusian citizens are Jewish. But according to a 2008 European Values Survey (EVS), one in every five Belarusian respondents admitted to not wanting Jews as neighbours.
The project envisions the creation of three tourist trails along Jewish heritage sites in the border regions: one in Poland, one in Ukraine and one in Belarus, as well as a shared international trail. The project also aims to promote on-site and archival research and create a guidebook and Internet portal on Jewish history in the region.
The project even envisions 3-D virtual models of five Jewish towns, or “shtetls,” to be built in each of the participating countries. On the Belarusian side Yanka Kupala State University in Hrodna and the Museum of History and Regional Studies in Navahrudak are responsible for the project.
Forgotten history of the Belarusian Jewry
Judging by the scant mention of Jews in Belarusian school textbooks and state media, Belarusians might conclude that their country does not have much Jewish history. In reality, Jews were highly concentrated in the area as early as the fourteenth century.
Poland and the then Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which included Belarusian lands became the centre of European Jewry due to a combination of push and pull factors. The Jews fled persecution in Western Europe, especially in the German states. At the same time, they took advantage of the many economic opportunities granted by the Polish monarchs. Although Jews could not own land or hold public office, they thrived as a middleman minority.
Soon after the partitions of the Commonwealth by the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian empires, the area experienced an influx of Russian Jews due to the institution of the Pale of Settlement. Instituted by Catherine the Great in 1791, the Pale restricted the residence of Jews to the western provinces of the Russian empire. In the 19th century, the Pale was home to over five million Jews, representing 40% of the world’s Jewish population at the time.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Jews amounted to over 30% of the Belarusian population. Some towns, such as Minsk, Pinsk, Mahiliou, Babrujsk, Homiel, were nearly 50% Jewish. Some of the most famous Belarusian Jews include artist Marc Chagall, composer Irving Berlin, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. In the 1920s, the Yiddish language even had the same status as Belarusian, Russian, and Polish in Soviet Belarus.
A few decades later, over 90% of the Belarusian Jewish population was exterminated in the Holocaust. Since 1989, most of the remaining Jews (over 57,000) have emigrated to Israel, bringing the Jewish population of Belarus down to 13,000, according to the 2009 census.
No Jews as neighbors?
Strikingly, anti-semitism in Belarus remains even in the absence of Jews. Most Belarusians are likely to have never met Jewish people in person. Even so, some 20% of Belarusians would prefer not to have Jews as neighbours, according to the 2008 EVS, a cross-national survey research program on basic human values, covering over 47 European countries/regions. In Belarus, 2008 EVS wave was sponsored by the European Values Study (EVS) Foundation, Department of Sociology at Tilburg University and by Renovabis at the Belarus State University.
The share of the Belarusian population negatively predisposed against Jews is far greater than in neighbouring Latvia (9%), Ukraine (11%), Russia (14%), or Poland (18%). Only Lithuanians, with 28% of respondents mentioning Jews as undesirable neighbours, proved to be more anti-Semitic in the 2008 EVS. The survey results suggest that anti-semitism is especially prevalent in small towns and rural areas.
Disturbingly, Belarusians have become more anti-Semitic since the 1990s, as can be seen when comparing the 1999 and 2008 EVS results in the figure below.
According to the Union of Belarusian Jewish Associations and Communities, many Jewish cemeteries in Belarus are in disrepair and some have been vandalised. Most Belarusian synagogues suffer from a lack of proper upkeep.
For example, the Hrodna synagogue, the oldest functioning synagogue in the post-Soviet space, was in desperate need of renovation. As restoration work was ongoing, in November 2013, a fire destroyed the facade of the synagogue and damaged floors and windows.
Many non-Orthodox Christian churches also suffer from a lack of funding and attention from the state.
Reviving tourism in Eastern Europe’s pariah state?
The Shtetl project could mark an important step toward combating the ignorance about Jewish history and anti-semitism in Belarus. An added benefit is that the project will contribute to the development of cultural heritage sites in Belarus. Of the 119 thousand tourists who visited the country in 2012, nearly 80% came from Russia, mostly for gambling. According to Belstat, international tourists spend just four days on average in Belarus, which suggests they may be visiting the capital Minsk en route to Russia or Ukraine.
The meagre interest of tourists may result from Belarus’ negative reputation abroad and poor tourist infrastructure. Lonely Planet calls the country “Eastern Europe’s outcast”, stating on its website that “the country's flattening in WWII means that there's relatively little of historic interest to see”.
Tourist infrastructure is particularly poorly developed outside Minsk. Many historic buildings require restoration, especially in western Belarus, the area covered by the Shetl trails project. The border region presents additional challenges due to arduous customs procedures, which include humiliating security checks targeted at smugglers of cigarettes and alcohol.
Belarusian-Chinese ‘Geely’ Car, Spiritual Revival and Local Elections – Belarus State TV Digest
Channel 1 covered an official award giving ceremony honouring prominent Belarusians.
Alexander Lukashenka introduced his fellow citizens to the new Patriarch of Belarus Orthodox Church Pavel with warm words.
Will the Belarusian-Chinese cars 'Geely' become an international hit? The head of state discussed this project with the Prime Minister Michail Miasnikovich and the Minsk Regional Governor Siarhei Shapiro.
The elections of deputies to local councils in March will take place according to a series of new rules. They include compulsory disclosure of the information on any criminal record and any sources of income. State TV concluded that the new legislation would allow Belarusian voters to get to to know their candidates better.
State awards to the prominent Belarusians. State TV afforded a great deal of coverage to the annual state award ceremony “Spiritual Revival” for important public figures who contribute to the spiritual life of Belarusian society, the journalist explained.
This year Lukashenka entered the stage together with Pavel, the new Patriarch of the Belarus Orthodox Church. “There is a special meaning in this unity,” the state TV journalist noted. In his speech, the head of state underscored the important role of the Orthodox Church plays in society. He also focused on the fact that the church remained the only confession that the state had signed an agreement of co-operation with.
The reporter noted that the head of state spoke about the values that unite Belarusian society, such as their national ideas. Lukashenka emphasised that although throughout its existence Belarusian culture was under the influence of other cultures, including Rus, Western European and Asian, the country has still managed to protect its identity.
While Patriarch Pavel accompanied the head of state on the stage, camera also spotted in the audienceTadeusz Kandrusievich who leads Belarusian Catholic Church.
Among others, Lukashenka awarded the news agency of state TV for its production of a series of historical movies as well as Mikola Mytlicki who translated Chinese poetry into Belarusian.
Belarusians are getting ready for elections. Elections to local councils will become one of the most important events of the year, state TV reports. However, this year new legislation will regulate the electoral campaigns. According to these new amendments to the previous laws, candidates have to disclose the sources of their income and report any criminal record. According to the reporter, it will also make candidates better known to voters.
State television even took the time to present a candidate running in the local elections, Natalia Slelian. She comes from one of the most authoritative civil society organisations in the country, Belaya Rus, the reporter emphasised.
How to be elected to the local councils? During its news segment, state TV went on to explain the three ways how one can become a candidate in the upcoming elections. It can happen either through a political party or labour collectives. Alternately, one can become a candidate through the collection of signatures by a group of independent initiators, composed from 3 to 10 people.
The head of state gets a report on the work of the Belarusian police. Lukashenka met with Ihar Shunievich, the head of Ministry of Internal Affairs. State TV noted that he was happy with the report and praised a work of the Belarusian police.
The reporter mentioned the achievements of the ministry, such as a decrease in the crime rate, with nearly 1,200 fewer offences occurring in 2013 than in 2012. The militia have also registered fewer cases of speeding.
Will the Belarus-Chinese 'Geely' car become a hit? Strategic partnership between Minsk and Beijing continues according to plan, state TV reports. The head of state met with Prime Minister Michail Miasnikovich and Semen Shapiro, Governor of the Minsk Region, to discuss one of the joint Belarus-Chinese projects the 'Geely' automobile. In the opinion of the journalist, production of cars remains one of the most promising projects and should bring tangible benefits to Belarus.
The head of state wants to make the joint Belarusian-Chinese project an internationally recognised brand. Within 5 years production of the automobile should raise to around 120 thousand annually. In the words of Lukashenka, building automobiles is among the most prized dreams of many Belarusians.
Improvements in housing? Recently improvements in housing construction in Belarus has been high priority for officials. The head of the head of the state's administration, Andrej Kabjakou, went on a trip to learn precisely how housing was being built in Barisau. The state TV report showed a house which had been under construction since 2011, with no concrete date for its completion set at this time. Kabjakau was informed about sources of financing for the housing's construction and the degree to which the housing had been completed.
2013 was a critical year in the housing industry in Belarus. On another occasion, state television continued covering issues facing housing. “The head of state gave his word to ordinary Belarusians that things will all be set straight”, journalist proudly stressed in their coverage of the issue. “These are actions coupled with words”, she commented.
Thank to a series of improvements in the legislation and construction management, initiated by the head of state, the industry should now function more efficiently. Another serious achievement in regard to solving the housing problem was a decree signed by Lukashenka.
No stability in the aftermath the Arab Spring. In a less than a minute of coverage, Channel 1 reported on the unstable situation in the Arabic world. They briefly mentioned that the third anniversary of the revolution Tunisia was commemorated with a demonstration against the authorities.
“Its participants state that they do not feel any improvement since the revolution in 2011”, the journalist alarmingly noted. She explained that a wave of upheavals led to serious changes in power in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Morocco. “All of these countries have not only lost their stability, but also their brand as a place that is attractive to tourists”, she continues. These events have significantly weakened their respective economies.
Syria is also affected the ongoing internal armed conflict between the authorities and rebels. Bashar Assad, together with the international community, are trying to preserve hope that they will be able to re-establish the previous level of stability enjoyed in the country.
Vilnius has approved its transition to the Eurozone, In the spring time a bill on joining the other countries who use the euro as their currency will be headed to the Lithuanian parliament. If approved by parliament, the country could introduce a new currency as soon as January 2015. State TV noted that recently Latvia joined the eurozone. Its citizens, however, are unhappy primarily due to an increase in prices the state TV channel argued.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1). Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.