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Tachles (Jewish Weekly Magazine) No. 35 / August 28, 2020

Yvonne Bollag

A Look at Belarus

The pictures of the protests before and after the elections in Belarus went around the world. Curious, but also very worried, I open the morning newspaper. Again, the latest news about Belarus is, if not on the front page, then on the front pages. And this has already been for almost two weeks. It's a fact that takes some getting used to, seeing this country in the spotlight of the global media. I have known Minsk for many years through countless visits. I look at the newspaper articles and know where the pictures were taken. In recent years, I have usually been there in autumn for the Action Group for the Jews in Belarus (ajs) together with a colleague from the board to visit our aid projects and meet the employees of our partner organizations. The trip to Belarus was always a highlight in our annual calendar. But this year the trip and all the meetings with friends will not be impossible. Phone calls and e-mails don't really help either. In Belarus, projects can only be discussed openly on-site. Personal contact was always very important to me and to our Belarusian partners as well. A visit is therefore eagerly awaited every year. Until now it has never been difficult for us as representatives of a humanitarian organization and at the invitation of our friends to get a visa to Belarus. Nowadays, you don't even need a visa from Switzerland for a short stay. I was always able to move around freely and visit all the places that I wanted to see outside of our fixed program.


It is not possible in Belarus to be with the older Jewish population or to visit small Jewish communities without encountering the past and talking about history. Virtually no city or large town is described in the Belarusian travel guide without a section dedicated to Jewish heritage. Before the Shoah, it was not uncommon for almost half the population in small villages to be Jewish.


Unfortunately, the few small Jewish communities that are left today are struggling to survive. Young people are moving to the capital or abroad. The elderly population is slowly dying away. As a result, more and more small communities are falling through the cracks when it comes to securing urgently needed support. Even the effect of ajs's donations can sometimes have a limited impact when there are other criteria at play.

«In Belarus, projects can only be discussed openly on site»


Active congregational life often depends on the commitment of the local president. Notably, quite a few small congregations are presided over by female presidents. Just to name a few, I remember with pleasure my visits to Brest, Sluck, Salihorsk, and Baranavicy. They all have a well-functioning community life with various activities taking place over Shabbat and the holidays. The local community centers are often housed in the basements of large blocks of flats because better premises are simply far too expensive. Nevertheless, they have been lovingly prepared to be as comfortable as possible. Every visit leaves us with a new, gripping feeling. Especially from a Jewish point of view, Belarus presents itself as an inexhaustible treasure trove of history, culture, and religious connections. 


I will never forget the visit to the city of Mir, where the world-famous yeshiva of the same name stood until the Second World War. It was the second largest yeshiva in the country after Valozyn (about 100km north of Mir). Students came from all over the world to study there. Today, Jews no longer live in the town. The building is still standing, but now it houses a post office. Nearby, three buildings that formerly were synagogues, can still be clearly seen. They've long since been converted into residential buildings. When you let your imagination run free, it's not difficult to vividly imagine this place looking like the Shtetl so aptly portrayed by the most famous Belarusian artist, Marc Chagall. Still today, 100 years later, most of the houses look exactly as they do in Chagall's paintings. Visually, it feels as if time has stopped in this place. But politically, the situation felt more tense, like it is portrayed daily in the media.


During these weeks we are only able to remain in limited contact with our friends and those in need of help. But most of our projects seem to be going on, which is at least somewhat reassuring. Hopefully, we can plan another trip to Minsk in the near future and see everyone again.

Stapel von Zeitschriften
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