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Small Communities

Journey to Slutsk

We have visited the city of Slutsk with one of the oldest Jewish communities in Belarus several times, most recently in May 2019. The project of a lapidarium for recovered and rescued Jewish gravestones is particularly impressive.

The city of Slutsk, located 100 kilometers south of Minsk, is one of the oldest cities in Belarus. Today, it has approximately 60,000 inhabitants. Before World War II, 77% of Slutsk's population was Jewish. In 1943, the German occupiers established three ghettos in and around the city. They murdered over 70,000 Jews and destroyed most of the historical buildings.

 

Today, there is a growing Jewish community again, with about 100 Jews living in the city. With our help, the members are better able to create an active community life, acquiring and imparting Jewish knowledge and values.

 

Community life takes place in a lovingly furnished room in the basement of a building. Around twenty young families regularly take part in community life. Among the approximately 80 members are also many widowed women. Holocaust survivors also join regularly. The community organizes meetings where the participants do handicrafts, sing, or knit. Every Friday evening, there are Kabbalat Shabbat prayers followed by a traditional communal dinner. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated by the community with a feast, with songs and prayers sung in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian.

 

During World War II, the Nazis removed gravestones from Jewish cemeteries and used them to build houses, among other things. The Jews from the ghetto had to carry the stones from the cemetery to the construction site. A few years ago, a house was renovated and some very old gravestones (circa 17th/18th centuries) were discovered. The 264 stones were cleaned and are now stored in one place. The inscriptions are still legible on 70 stones, but unfortunately not on the rest.

 

The municipality needed to find a solution for these gravestones and contacted the city authorities. The city council offered a piece of land next to the only remaining cemetery so that the stones could find their final resting place in a lapidary. Around twenty city officials support this idea and are helping to implement it. It would be the first lapidary on Belarusian soil. The architect, Galina Lewina, designed a building for it. However, the funds needed (approx. $5,000 USD) for the realization of this project are not yet secured.

 

In recent years, Slutsk has increasingly become a tourist destination. There is already a Holocaust memorial in Slutsk, which Leonid Levin created years ago in the center of the city. Many hope that, in the future, the lapidarium (where all the broken gravestones are stored) will attract Jews from all over the world who are searching for their roots and looking to research their family history.

 

Natascha directs the community's children's program for youths aged 6 to 16. Many children visit the children's club regularly. Natascha has made an album with them about the Jewish history of Slutsk and showed us photos of young people helping clean the recently rescued gravestones. The young people also made drawings to think about how the stones could be designed for future use.

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