Jews of Belarus Move to Save Their Past

Major Initiative with Government will Preserve Historic Jewish Sites

Union of Religious Jewish Congregations Undertakes Bold Initiative



One of the saddest legacies of the Second World War and the post-war era is the destruction and deterioration of major buildings and sites of Jewish importance. Today in Belarus, however, the self-reliant Jewish community, led by the Union of Religious Jewish Congregations is making sure that the Nazi mission to destroy Jewish culture in East Europe does not succeed. In cooperation with the Belarussian Government and organizations and individuals in the States and Europe the Union is undertaking an ambitious plan to retrieve our heritage from the destruction and disregard of the past.

Yuri Dorn, head of the Jewish religious community and President of the Union of Religious Congregations, has been concerned about preserving his country's Jewish heritage since he was a young man. As far back as 1988, when many other Jews were afraid to affirm their faith and co-operated with the Communist regime Mr. Dorn was organizing Jewish study sessions and compiling archives and histories of Jewish buildings, cemeteries and communities. Today he is one of Belarus' leading experts in Jewish history.

"It always saddened me to see the great buildings of the Jewish past, such as the Volozhyn Yeshiva and Slonim Synagogue being used as food shops and warehouses," says Mr. Dorn. "It was if the Sistine Chapel were being used as a hot dog stand. Our past and our traditions require, cry out, for dignity and respect."

Today the dream of saving these buildings is becoming a reality. The Belarussian Government's Committee on the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Heritage in the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Belarus has endorsed the Union of Religious Jewish Congregations of the Republic of  Belarus and the East European Jewish Heritage Project (UK) as organizations for the restoration of Jewish buildings, monuments and cemeteries.

Referring to past efforts working with Mr. Dorn, Dr. Dmitri S. Bubnouski, Chairman of the Committee says, "The experience of working with him proved his high organizational abilities." The Committee "appeal[s] to all whom it may concern and, first of all, to the world Jewish community to give the Union of Religious Jewish Congregations and the Jewish Revival Charitable Mission support and assistance in this noble endeavour." [The Jewish Revival Charitable Mission is the Belarussian affiliate of the East European Jewish Heritage Project].

One of the first projects undertaken by the Union is the Restoration of the Volozhyn Yeshiva, the Mother of All Yeshivas and the founding institution of  the modern Yeshiva movement. The Committee has also endorsed this project specifically: "Built in 1803, the Volozhin Yeshiva is one of the best examples of spiritual centres that need revival. Many prominent people known world-wide, such as Rav Cook, and Hyam Volozhyner and many others, studied and taught there. This educational institution was the prototype and the example for important Talmud centres in Europe, Israel, the USA. . . .

"By this document we certify that in 1998 the Volozhin Yeshiva was registered on the State List of Historical and Cultural Monuments of the Republic of Belarus. The Belarusian Republican Council on the Historical and Cultural Heritage of our Committee examined and approved of the restoration design documents prepared on the initiative and paid by the Union of  Religious Jewish Congregations of the Republic of Belarus and the Jewish Revival Charitable Mission.

We appeal to the world Jewish community to render support and to take part in turning this important project into life. We guarantee the State support on the part of the organizations responsible for the preservation of the historical and cultural heritage of the Republic of Belarus."

Prior to this undertaking the Yeshiva was languishing as a dilapidated 'culinaria' (food shop) dispensing sandwiches, drinks and baked goods. The Volozhyn local authority gave title of the Yeshiva to the Union last Autumn and preliminary work has begun for its restoration and return to use as a holy building.

The Slonim Synagogue is another example of the Union's initiative in salvaging and renewing the Jewish past in East Europe. Listed by the World Monument Fund as the number one site of Jewish interest in East Europe requiring restoration the building was the victim of a botched attempt at restoration in 1989. "The building looks like it was mugged." Says Franklin J. Swartz, Executive Director of the East European Jewish Heritage Project. The building, because of its value as a navigational landmark was spared by the Luftwaffe only to be used after the war as a warehouse. "The floor of the main building is now covered in a foot of rubble and bird droppings. The paintings on the wall, which were restored in 1989, are beginning to peel," according to Mr. Swartz who is overseeing the survey of the building. "Fortunately a good roof was placed on the main building several years ago and, as a result, it remains structurally sound giving us another five to six years for restoration. The outer buildings, though, were not re-roofed and will probably collapse by the Summer's end. Conservation efforts have to start now, in the next few months, or the Synagogue, in its original form, will be lost to us." Local authorities have formally endorsed the project and the EEJHP's and the Union's plans.

The local population also supports the project. "When I was photographing the building locals, non-Jews, asked me to take lots of pictures to show the world how important it was not allow the building to decay," said Mr. Swartz. "The population appreciates the importance of its Jewish heritage. Belarus, in many ways, is a unique country in East Europe. It has always been tolerant and that tradition is carried on today. Of all the former Soviet Republics it is the only one without internal or border conflicts and where there is no discrimination on the basis of nationality or religion. Both the Jewish and non-Jewish community deserve our support."

Chief Rabbi of Belarus, Rav Sender Uritsky, describes the effort for restoration as, "one of the great material achievements of the Belarussian Jewish community. It is another example of the Jews of Belarus taking the initiative."Franklin J. Swartz adds, "Working with the Religious Community is a pleasure. It insures a standard of integrity that makes it possible to deal with world-wide supporters, such as the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, the World Monument Fund and concerned individuals without qualms. In the past this region has been plagued by individuals who have viewed projects of this sort as a means of profit. The Union, on the other hand, knows the true spiritual value of these endeavours. I am completely comfortable working with them." The Union has a schedule of other major buildings and monuments to be restored in the near future.

Fact Sheet from the East European Jewish Heritage Project

From 1992-1997:

a. 46 Russian Orthodox Churches

b. 37 Roman Catholic Churches

c. 4 Mosques

d.. 2 Other confessions' religious buildings were restored in Belarus





Feel Free to use this information and to pass it on For more information and photographs please contact:

Franklin J. Swartz
Executive Director
East European Jewish Heritage Project (Reg'd UK)
Jewish Revival Charitable Mission (Reg'd Republic of Belarus)
13b Dauman Street
Minsk 220002

Tel/fax +375 17 234 5612/234 3360

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