Back to the Pale—Visitors Saw Problems and Promise in Belarus

by Ina Friedman, special to JUF News

Reproduced by permission of the Chicago Jewish United Fund News, Aharon Cohen, Editor.

Incredible things are happening in the former Soviet Union today. On their way to Jerusalem for the annual Assembly of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), 500 delegates stopped in seven republics of the FSU to see what their Federation contributions are doing. I joined the delegates who went to Belarus.

Many readers of JUF News are closer to this thickly forested, eerily quite, and terribly sad country than they may suspect. As the heart of the Pale of Settlement (the only place where Jews were allowed to live in czarist Russia from the end of the 18th century), it was likely the place where your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents came from.

It is the place where Lubavitch Chasidism, the Bund, and the Labor-Zionist movement were born. Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Shimon Peres all hailed from this area.

Its villages inspired Marc Chagall to paint his famed works on the theme of the shtetl. And many of these villages—with their dirt roads, small wooden houses, outhouses and wells, freely roaming chickens and goats—still look as they did in your Zeydeh’s day.

We landed in the capital, Minsk, on June 22, the 56th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the USSR. Belarus lost 2,230,000 of its citizens—a quarter of its population—in the “Great Patriotic War.”

Between he scorched-earth policy of the retreating Red Army and the Luftwaffe’s bombardments, many of its cities were practically razed. The Nazis went on to destroy 209 towns and 9,200 villages, most by burning their inhabitants in their homes as retaliation for the activities of the partisans, who thrived in the Brothers Grimm-like forests. About a third of the slaughtered (800,000) people were Jews. The countryside is dotted with monuments to the fallen, the most impressive being the memorial at Khatyn (designed by Leonid Levin, a Jewish architect who is now also head of the Jewish community of Belarus).

Minsk itself boasts the only monument in the whole of the FSU dedicated, in Russian and Yiddish, to Jews murdered by the Nazis. Jewish war veterans, now in their 80’s and 90’s, proudly haul out their Red Army uniforms to display their medals. In Belarus, it feels as though World War II happened just yesterday.

County of Dire Poverty

The most prosperous Soviet republic before the breakup of the USSR, Belarus has since been reduced to dire poverty. The average monthly wage is $50. People on welfare or unemployment squeeze by on $10 a month; war veterans and pensioners on about $40.

“Belarus prospered economically during the Soviet period, and the USSR was very popular here,” explains outgoing US Ambassador Kenneth S. Yalowitz, who recently spoke to the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish United Fund in Chicago.

“The country imported raw materials and exported heavy industrial equipment, especially automotive equipment, to the other republics. Now the economy has collapsed because it lacks these raw materials. This is one of the few places in the FSU where people are unhappy about the dissolution of the Soviet Union.”

Similar sentiments, explains Yalowitz, are also the reason for both the recent setback in democratic rule and the efforts of the Belarus government to form a union with Russia. President Alexander Lukashenko recently dispersed the democratically elected Parliament and appointed a new one, mostly of his own supporters. Human rights suffered a severe setback as he led the country back to Soviet-style rule.

“People here have a strong nostalgia for the old way of doing things,” says Yalowitz. “It is an elderly population, a third of it being military pensioners. The rest are mostly rural or first-generation city dwellers, and there is strong resistance to change here.”

Twenty-five years ago, 9 percent of the population of Belarus was Jewish. Today official statistics put that figure at 1 percent (100,000 Jews, who are officially recognized as an ethnic minority). But no one really knows how many Jews are living there. JAFI’s statistics show that between 1989 and the end of 1996, 56,473 Jews emigrated to Israel from Belarus, which today has the highest rate of aliyah in all of the FSU. Yet more Jews emerge every day.

Initially JAFI stressed getting them out as quickly as possible. Today the “rescue mission” takes a different form: providing for the elderly, reviving Jewish culture, and preparing younger people for aliyah.

Both JAFI and the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which receives funding from the United Jewish Fund, are engaged in outreach programs to locate and serve the country’s Jews.

“We send our people to sit in Jewish cemeteries, wait for someone to visit a grave, and then ask about the other Jews in the town or village,” explains Sarah Bogen, the JDC Coordinator for Belarus in Jerusalem. Amazingly, after three generation of a campaign to create the “new Soviet man” and systematically destroy Jewish culture, even young people—many the product of mixed marriages—still regard themselves as Jews. They are a tabula rasa about their history, religion. But by word of mouth (or by contacting the Israeli embassy), they hear about JAFI’s program and join them to learn what it means to be Jewish.

Providing for the elderly

We met some of the elderly Jews of Belarus on a visit to Bobruisk, an industrial city about two hour’s drive from Minsk with a Jewish population of 2,800. About a third of them are pensioners. Here, as in the country’s other major cities, the JDC distributes food packages, runs a soup kitchen, distributes “meals on wheels” for the infirm, lends medical equipment, and dispatches household helpers to cook and clean a few times a week. Some of these services are extended through Hesed ve-Rachamim, a local organization established six years ago by five women in Minsk that now has 90 full-time workers and 250 volunteers. Hesed also runs a club for elderly members of the community to meet and celebrate holidays together.

One of the beneficiaries of these services is Riva Gelfand, a 73-year-old, carrot-topped, spry, and highly articulate woman who was evacuated to the Urals during the war, worked there as a bookkeeper, and now receives a pension of $36 a month. Riva’s house is immaculate, and she has running water in her kitchen, though she must repair to the outhouse for the rest of her bodily needs. She grows her own vegetables in summer, and spends most of the winter feeding logs into her wood-burning stove. For most of her life she has lived alone and is used to being self-reliant. Her parents are long gone, her brother was killed in the war, and she never married “because when I came home after the war, there were no men left.” It was a problem common to many Jewish women of her generation, making the greatest burden on them now their isolation.

She has lost touch with her relatives in Chicago and Israel. “I celebrated Passover with the community,” she says. “The Jewish people are my family.”

The other burden is poverty. “Everything is very expensive,” Riva explains. “I don’t buy clothes, because I must save money to run the house and do repairs.”

In the Jewish club of Bobruisk, we met many other members of the community, including the parents of teenage children sent to Israel, alone, on three Jewish Agency youth programs: “Naaleh 16,” “Selah,” and “Chalom.”

When it came time to depart, our hosts—touched by a visit by Jews from America and “Eretz Yisrael”—embraced and kissed and cried with us. They didn’t want us to go, and we honestly didn’t want to leave them.

Preparing the future, the children

We then moved on to the future, the children, first by a visit to a municipal kindergarten in Minsk that runs a special JDC-sponsored “Jewish enrichment” program for 3-to-6-year-olds. Smarty dressed for their foreign guests, the 4-to-5-year-olds sing songs in Hebrew and Yiddish and sing to the tune of “My Flag is Blue and White.”

As part of the curriculum, the children celebrate Oneg Shabbat and Jewish holidays at school, together with their parents and grandparents. There’s an exquisite irony here: just as generations of immigrant children taught their parents local customs in the the Americas and Israel, children in the FSU are now teaching their parents how to live as Jews.

JAFI also plans to open Jewish-enrichment kindergartens, but is held back by budgetary constrictions. Meanwhile, it concentrates its efforts on running ulpanim (for the study of Hebrew), youth clubs, youth movements, and winter and summer camps.

The ulpan we visited, peopled by men and women in their 20s-40s, is taught by local Jews who have been trained to teach Hebrew, and speak it beautifully.

The most impressive of the youth clubs here is the remarkable Hatikvah Choir. Hearing these 10-to-16-year-olds singing Hebrew, Yiddish, and English reduced many members of their audience, including the most jaded Israelis, to tears. The choir has a high turnover rate, as the children move on to Israel—with their families or on their own. One of the girls, on the “Naaleh 16” program, came with us on the plane to Tel Aviv.

There was even better to come. The height of the visit to Belarus was the trip to a JAFI summer camp for 13-to-15-year-olds. It is one of the 78 such camps operating in the FSU for 12,000 campers (despite far greater demand) at an average cost of $240 per week per child.

We were met by children dancing with Israeli flags in hand and were invited to join in. Afterward they took us by the hand and led us through their paces, delighted to show off their accomplishments in scouting, singing, dancing, and Hebrew.

The thirst for physical contact with other Jews and the enthusiasm of these teenagers is incredible. One has the feeling that in their grey, subdued country, this is the first time they’ve had an opportunity to let go and be loud, spirited fun-loving kids. The extent of the clamor is highlighted even more during our hot lunch (including roast chicken), when the bubbling campers suddenly turn into well-mannered and practically silent children. Eating, especially such delicacies as meat and fresh fruits and vegetables, is very serious business in Belarus.

Many tears were shed on this visit. But the greatest emotion was inspired by the work of caring for the elderly, revitalizing Jewish life, and preparing young people for a future in Israel.

“I can’t get over the spirit of these people who are participating in the building of Jewish cultural life,” said Leah Silverstein of Chicago, a member of the National Board of Hadassah who was in Belarus. “I’ve been in the USSR nine times since 1968, and I’ve watched the progression of the lifting of fear to the development of summer camps, women’s groups, ulpanim. These are people who are trying to help themselves, and we must continue helping them do so.”

Updated 9/2/99

Content last updated Friday, July 31, 2015 at 05:06 PM Mountain Daylight Time