In isolated Belarus, unique Jewish culture hangs in balance

by: AFP

MINSK (AFP)---Inconspicuous in this Soviet-built capital, a few disheveled memorial stones testify to a once rich Jewish culture that activists fear now risks extinction.

From the artist Marc Chagall to Israel's president, Shimon Peres, some Jews born in the lands that now make up Belarus have gone on to great things.

But activist Yakov Basin is more inclined to despair as he contemplates the latest damage to a battered memorial erected in 1993 to German Jews brought to Minsk for extermination in World War II.

It is not only the swastikas drawn on the memorial stones to Jews from Bremen, Dusseldorf and Hamburg, he says.

What preoccupies him is the cumulative damage to this former centre of Jewish culture, which started with the closure of synagogues in the first decades of the Soviet Union, stepped up with the Holocaust in World War II and continues today under President Alexander Lukashenko.

"Why doesn't the prosecutor open a case into anti-Semitic publications or the vandalising of memorials?" demanded Basin.

"Our encyclopedia is virtually silent on the Holocaust and there's hardly a word on it in our textbooks," said Basin, co-leader of a union of Jewish organisations in Belarus.

In office for 14 years, Belarus' authoritarian leader has a way of courting controversy.

While taking a positive view of Soviet history and revelling in military parades marking the defeat of Nazi Germany, he has also praised Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, befriended Iran's anti-Semitic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and recently attracted criticism from Israel for an alleged anti-Semitic comment.

Lukshenko has however rejected charges of anti-Semitism and boasted of ethnic peace in his country.

"If anyone says that anti-Semitism thrives in Belarus or that we oppress the Muslim population here, don't believe it," he said in October.

What critics say Belarus has lost is any sense of the Jewish life that once thrived in its towns and cities, where Jews numbered between 40 and 75 percent of the population before the war and communicated in Yiddish.

Basin maintains that the old Soviet repression of Jews and other minorities continues under Belarus' current pro-Moscow leader, whom he accuses of "Russian imperialist chauvinism".

The catalogue of Soviet-era wrongs is long, ranging from closures of synagogues and destruction of cemeteries to the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's purge of leading Jews, such as the Yiddish-language theatre director Solomon Mikhoels, killed in Minsk in 1948.

-- 'It's a pity to read in Yiddish with no one to read to' --

Like his Soviet forebears, Lukashenko has shown little interest in singling out the wartime fate of Jews, despite the mass killing of an estimated 810,000 Jewish civilians within Belarus' present-day borders, 53,000 of them from western Europe.

Some of the victims are commemorated at a burial pit in Minsk where Jews were shot en masse. There are also plans, not yet elaborated, for a new memorial to the Minsk ghetto, from where 106,000 Jews were taken to their deaths.

But official ambivalence can be seen in the plight of a small Jewish museum recently assembled in the former ghetto in what was the home of a Jewish stonemason, near a Jewish cemetery converted into a park in 1970.

City authorities are pushing to take back the building, which is rented from the state with German help, as they plan an elite housing project on the site, says the museum director, Kuzma Kozak.

"Societies and organisations are doing a lot of things, but there is no systematic work, which should be done by the state," said the exasperated director.

"This is an original house. The street outside was called Jewish Street and has a Jewish cemetery. It was in the ghetto zone. There's nothing like it in Minsk," he said.

Survival of Yiddish language

Across town in the guarded compound of a Jewish cultural centre, 79-year-old Mikhail Akkerman pursues his own battle, for the survival of the Yiddish language, which he spoke as a child and says was also understood by his non-Jewish neighbours.

A survivor from a pre-war period when Yiddish had official status in Soviet Belarus, he helps interpret old documents and tries with partial success to rekindle interest among members of Minsk's small Jewish community.

It is an effort being pursued by a handful of enthusiasts and experts across eastern Europe.

"All the countries in the region lose something by not appreciating that the local Jewish culture is a unique part of their history... is every bit as native to the turf," said Dovid Katz, head of a Yiddish Studies Institute in neighbouring Lithuania's capital, Vilnius.

Katz is scrambling to assemble an "atlas" of the regional Yiddish dialect, Litvish, and to raise money for students, but warns that the outlook for the language in the region is "bleak".

As for Akkerman, he is almost alone in knowing a language he has barely conversed in since he last saw his parents on June 24, 1941, the day they sent him and his older brother out of the ghetto on foot, heading towards Russia.

"It's a pity to read books in Yiddish but to have no one to read to," he said. "Without the language, there is no culture."