Why Belarus is a Fascinating Place for a Jewish History Tour

Yesterday I collected a few “fun facts” about independent Belarus that reflect on why this country makes for a fascinating place to begin an exploration of a multicultural eastern European past…and possible present.  Our first few days, we explored Minsk, Volozhin, and Smorgon, each central for Jewish cultural history and Jews’ relationship to a multicultural region.

Minsk’s Victory Square
In the Victory Square Metro Station, the banner with famous Soviet-era photographs, reads “Holiday of Victory.” It is never necessary to mention which war and which victory all of these statues refer to–the Great Patriotic War, aka World War II.
Lenin…Lucy told us that it was legal to photograph the statue and the government building, but not the guards standing just out of the frame.
Helix at Yama
Creating a rubbing at the Yama memorial, 1946. Text is in Yiddish and Russian.
Nemiga 8, once home to the Institute for Belorussian Culture (Inbelkult), which was the home to the first Yiddish Studies research institute in the world, founded in 1924, one year before YIVO’s founding in 1925.
Jewlia and the Radical Jewish Traveler living a Chagall Fantasy in central Minsk.
Saturday on Upper Market, Minsk. Traditional Belarussian Folk Dancing. One of the only times I heard Belarussian publicly spoken.
Monument of a Crying Angel at a church dedicated to those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after being discharged from the Soviet military’s incursion into Afghanistan. Rub the wings for healing.
Traditional Belarussian Cooking Class. Funny, those traditional Belarussian “draniki” look like latkes.
The Radical Jewish Traveler getting some healing from the crying angel.

2) Animals at the circus, at least those who were raised and trained in Smorgon, the circus bear capital of the Russian empire, once had full length mirrors to get ready for a show.

Smorgon_Site of Bear Academy
Smorgon Bear Academy reading Moyshe Kulbak’s poetry about bears…and domestic violence.
Smorgon_Reading Moyshe Kulbak
Reading at Smorgon
Smorgon Cemetery 2
Smorgon Cemetery

In Smorgon, where the bears for Russian circuses were trained for several hundred years, there is a cemetery with Catholic, Orthodox, and Communist red star graves. There are also Jews buried in the cemetery, but there, Jews’ graves are marked as Communists with ared star and an enamel plaque adorning their graves. The one we saw was for Aron Moiseevich Kogan. When I pointed out to the group that it was fascinating to see such an amazing cultural and religious fusion in a cemetery of all places, one person asked, “How do you know Aron Moiseevich Kogan, the person buried under the red star gravestone, is Jewish?”

Smorgon Cemetery 3_Aron Kogan
Smorgon Cemetery and the grave of Aron Moiseevich Kogan.
Smorgon’s Lenin
Helix walking the dirt roads of Volozhin on our way to the Krenitse, or holy well where, to this day, the waters from this source are considered to be healing.
On the road…Volozhin
Volozhin Krenitse
Krenitse dunking house…looks vaguely like a mikveh or Jewish ritual bath.
Old Slavonic writing on the Krenitse’s small chapel.
Henry and horse
Landscape, Volozhin
In this house located on Kirov Street resides a veteran of the Great Patriotic War

The Volozhin yeshiva was going to be knocked down by the Lukashenko government if no one would pay $2000 (sic) to repair its roof. It was indeed repaired, but the building remains a dangerous fire hazard for which one needs to acquire the keys to enter from the chief rabbi of Belarus. Our amazing tour guide, Lucy Semenova, acquired the keys from said rabbi.  With bated breath, we watched the magnificent key enter the lock…and nothing.  The keys didn’t work, so someone in our group picked the lock.

Volozhin Yeshiva, keys provided by the chief rabbi of Belarus; access provided by Benny, one of the Helix artists.
Ruins, Volozhin Yeshiva
Ruins, Volozhin Yeshiva
Text study, Volozhin Yeshiva
Love bridge
Eccentric garden, outskirts of Minsk
City Market, Minsk
Kurapaty, Memorial to Those Murdered During the Stalin-era terror of 1937-8
Commemorating Kulbak, who was himself murdered at Kurapaty.
Kurapaty, Memorial to Those Murdered During the Stalin-era terror of 1937-8. This memorial is a local, not state initiative.
The Kurapaty bus stop. Our tour guide, Lucy, had never been to, nor heard of, Kurapaty until she started working with Helix four years ago.

Other fun facts:
1) Neo-natalist policy, rule 1: To buy an apartment in contemporary Belarus, the mortgage rate is 30%, a shockingly high interest rate.  But it is only that high if you have fewer than 3 kids.  If your family has three kids, you may get a state mortgage for only 5% interest; that very competitive rate drops to one percent with four kids.  And if your family is blessed enough with fecundity to have five children, the government will give you an interest-free loan. One would think that free mortgages would lead to a population boom, but the data is still out.
2) Belarussian national elections are October 11, 2015, and everyone already knows the winner even though there are four other candidates.  Signs encouraging people to vote are everywhere.
3) On our last night in Minsk, we met the only cultural activist I have met, who is simultaneously a Belarussisn cultural nationalist and a Yiddish-language activist for Yiddish, who has studied the language at the Vilna Yiddish Institute five times.  He produced a Belarussian-Yiddish dictionary and argues that to be a Belarussian nationalist, one has to support the country’s multilingual past, especially the language of its marginal minority, Yiddish.

Final fun fact, a common saying heard these days in Belarus: “It could be worse.” True statement as one looks around the world and also around the region.

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