Tried to blog, but didn’t leave myself nearly enough time. Showered and then rushed to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War.
It was packed with Soviet propaganda, obviously no mention of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or the Soviet invasion of Poland. Red Army soldiers were consistently referred to as heroes or patriots.
There was one mention of Jews in the entire museum. They were otherwise incorporated into general statistics despite accounting for the vast majority of victims (as in all Soviet memorials).
The museum was flooded with Belarusian soldiers.
Rushed back to the hotel where I met my translator, Natalia Gurevich. She is around my age. Natalia was actively involved in Hillel where she met Darina Privalko (who organized my trip). She kindly drove me to pick up a sim card before heading to the Minsk Jewish Campus at noon.
Host to a bevy of Jewish organizations, the community is funded mostly by the Joint Distribution Committee. Of particular note is JDC’s welfare program called Hesed, which offers housing for hundreds of elderly, operates a food bank and a Jewish daycare.
We also visited the Hillel headquarters, made sure to take a picture for the folks at Northeastern.
At a quarter past noon we met Vadim at the complex’s Jewish History and Culture Museum of Belarus. A one room exhibit, Vadim provided an overview of Jewish life and history in Belarus while Natalia translated. He described Jewish life in Eastern Europe as particularly brutal under the Russian Empire, who restricted Jewish residence to the Pale of Settlement (occupied Poland-Lithuania) when they conquered the region in the late 18th century. Their political oppression, Vadim suggested, contributed to their involvement in socialist politics and support for the Russian Revolution.
He described Belarus as a battleground between the Litvaks, based in Vilnius, and Hasids to the south. I was particularly interested in his discussion about yeshivas. In the late 18th century, Belarus became home to the ivy league of Yeshivas, which were founded by disciples of the Vilna Gaon.
I was interested to learn about the flood of emigration that started in the late nineteenth century. The vast majority of Jews left illegally, having purchased an all-inclusive package from smugglers including a fake passport, transit to a port and tickets to America.
At 2:00 Natalia and I left for a nearby cafe where we met Rabbi Grisha Abramovich, my tour guide for the next few days. Rabbi Grisha is the chief rabbi of the Progressive Jewish community of Belarus. After a coffee we bid farewell to Natalia and started our tour of Jewish Minsk.
With our driver, Pavel, we started at the Yama Memorial- literally ‘the pit’. Erected in 1947, it was the first Holocaust memorial in the Soviet Union. It stands where on Purim, March 02 1942, Nazi forces murdered 5,000 Jews from the nearby ghetto. The largest in German occupied Soviet Union, the Minsk Ghetto held roughly 100,000 Jews. Of Belarus’ pre-war Jewish population, about 200,000 managed to evacuate or join the Red Army before Nazis arrived. The remaining community of 800,000 was eviscerated.
Until Belarus gained independence in 1991, the Yama Memorial was the singular tribute to Holocaust victims in Minsk. As Judaism was otherwise suppressed, the Yama Memorial became a symbol of Jewish resilience and the preferred site of Jewish assembly. Since the collapse, additional memorials have been erected surrounding.
We then drove to the district of Rakowska where the 19th century yeshiva still stands. Rabbi Grisha described it as a yeshiva for those not so inclined to study. It now houses the Rakovsky Brovar restaurant and bar.
Students were often ‘distracted’ by the many attractions of Minsk and the nearby etiquette school for young Jewish women.
Nearby stands a pre-war Jewish residence. The Rakowska district miraculously survived the various battles of German occupation and retreat.
Rabbi pointed out the practically built rear side- all it needs is a chuppah to function as a sukkah.
It was a short walk to the Rakowska Synagogue, one of three that survived the war. 83 places of worship stood in Minsk prior. Built in the 19th century, the Rakowska Synagogue served Minsk’s middle-class.
We drove next to the Great Choral Synagogue. Constructed in 1903, it served Minsk’s upper-class. It now houses a theater.
We then made our way to the old Jewish cemetery, razed by the Soviets. At her entrance stands nine memorials to the 30,000 Jews deported from Western Europe to the Minsk Ghetto where they met their deaths. Rabbi Grisha was instrumental in erecting many of them.
Just behind the memorials we found a collection of toppled tombstones discovered only in the last decade during metro construction and pipeline projects under the abandoned cemetery. At least 100 stones have been found.
One of few traditional wooden homes that remain in Minsk stands adjacent the cemetery. It is used as a set for historical films.
Around the corner stands Rabbi Grisha’s synagogue, bought only in 2011.
He showed me his three torahs, donated by American Jewish communities. My visit coincided with not one, but two programs: a NFTY meeting and a lecture on Kabbalah. Rabbi Grisha kindly offered me delicious cabbage blintzes (I hadn’t eaten all day) as I interacted with members of his community.
Rabbi Grisha asked me to make a few remarks to participants of the Kabbalah program. I told them how meaningful it was to see a Jewish community flourish in the land of my ancestors. An elderly man (or as they call them in Eastern Europe, ‘survivors’) told me that he served in a partisan brigade with Simon Lapidus of Minsk. My great-great-grandfather, Henry Lapidus, was born here in 1863. Henry immigrated with his wife Ida to Bayonne, New Jersey in 1892. It’s possible that Simon was a relative, but Lapidus was a relatively common surname among Ashkenazi Jews. Nevertheless, it was a special moment.
With that, we traveled by the old Jewish hospital, which functioned as a partisan headquarters during WWII. It now serves as a music academy.
We ended our tour at the two other functioning synagogues of Minsk. Combined, the three synagogues represent the three Jewish communities of Belarus- Progressive, Chabad and Litvak. There are roughly 40,000 Jews still in Belarus, half of whom reside in Minsk. There are about 15 Jewish communities across the country.
Built in 2010, the Chabad synagogue is the first built in Belarus since 1930.
It stands on Kropotkina street, where records indicate that my family lived in the late 19th century.
We finally ventured to the Litvak synagogue, which Rabbi Grisha described as the most conservative.
Relations between Jewish communities are never easy, but they seem to fare better in Minsk than in Vilnius. Hanukkah events were coordinated so as to not overlap.
Rabbi Grisha and Pavel dropped me off at the hotel after a very successful day. Talked to parents then blogged.