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About Us
History of the ajs

From 1945 to 1991, Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain. Behind it, the Soviet Union restricted the rights of Jews, and many of those who applied to leave the country had their applications rejected («Refuseniks»). Refuseniks were ostracized, monitored, and faced many financial difficulties, including losing their jobs. But citizens of the Free World protested and chanted in front of the Soviet embassies: «Schalach et ami – Let my people go! Let my people go!»


In 1979, this impulse resulted in the creation of the Action Community for the Jews in the Soviet Union, or the ajs for short. The ajs, which operated alongside the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, was dedicated to action and providing financial and moral support. ajs members organized protests meant to mobilize world public opinion and to strengthen the Refusniks' will to resist. They also served to provide them with Western information. Financially, the ajs provided resources to support numerous families and made them feel that they weren't forgotten. Moral support came through frequent correspondences and covert visits to the Soviet Union.


Courageous Swiss Jews, on behalf of the ajs, traveled to Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and Moscow to secretly visited Refusniks and give them (illegal) gifts. Often these gifts, which had been prepared by experts, would be used to bribe Russian officials in prisons and hospitals. At considerable risk to themselves, these young people who visited behind the Iron Curtain played couriers between Western Jews and their Eastern brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union.


In 1991, the Eastern Bloc (also known as the Communist Bloc and the Soviet Bloc) collapsed and a new Eastern and Central Europe emerged. Former Soviet republics, which were desperately poor and were experiencing runaway inflation, became sovereign states. For Refusniks, this was a time of hope and opportunity, as they were no longer refused the ability to emigrate. But many Russian Jews decided to stay, wanting to rediscover and strengthen their Jewish roots in Eastern Europe.


At a meeting in Paris, the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union recommended that the ajs focus its efforts on taking care of the Jews in Belarus. The idea was rooted in the fact that neither Switzerland nor Belarus was big, so it would be a suitable match. Subsequently, the AJS shifted from being politically focused to being primarily a humanitarian organization, supported by solidarity and humanity.


During this time, ajs in Switzerland became synonymous with food parcels and clothing collections. Aid transports were organized with collected clothes, medicines, medical supplies, and food. Countless donors, members, and friends supported the transport preparations voluntarily and free of charge. For nearly 15 years, at least one large truckload went to Minsk per year, often accompanied by members of the Board of Directors, who personally monitored the distribution on site.


The Executive Board soon found reliable local partners and loyal friends, like Sofia Abramova, in the Jewish aid organization Chesed-Rachamim in Minsk. Without her and our partner organization, nothing would have worked then, and only very little would work today.


In the early 1990s, the ajs began working with Leonid Levin and the Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Associations and Communities (UBJOC). This collaboration led to the many successful execution of annual support projects for small Jewish communities. Today, this organization is an extremely important local partner for ajs.


The cessation of aid transports in 2006 was a major turning point in the history and mission of the ajs. Since then, the ajs is focused on providing financial support for social and cultural projects that benefit people with disabilities and severe limitations. Because a limited pool of technically trained resources exists in Belarus, the ajs needed to be highly involved. For example, for the past ten years, Liliane Bernstein, a psychiatrist and former board member of the ajs, led a coaching program (according to the Balint method) for psychologists and leading social workers.

Unfortunately, since 2020 it is no longer possible for the board to travel to Belarus. However, we are in lively exchange with our partner organizations.

(The photograph above is from the Beit Hatfutsot Archives)
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