It’s the end of January 2021! In the UK we are in a firm lock-down, with strict instructions to stay home. Meanwhile in Belarus, although masks are the order of the day, there is no lock-down and people make their own decisions to stay home or go about their daily business as temperatures drop to minus 25ºC.
In spite of restrictions on movement, chilling weather conditions, and lock-downs, the buzz of activity at The Together Plan in the UK and in Belarus has never been greater.
With everyone working from the safety of their own homes, the TTP team in the UK are fully engaged and it was heads-down from the get-go as we turned into the new year. Our archive research team has been hard at work with enquiries now coming in from Switzerland, Canada, the USA, Argentina and Australia – oh and the UK of course. These come from people looking to find family records to help them build a clearer picture of who their ancestors were, what life was like for them and why they left. This is sensitive and complex work and requires care and consideration and great attention to detail. For The Together Plan, this work is vital on many levels. It gives us a clearer insight into how far Belarusian Jews emigrated, and why they left. With every search that we do for people, we learn more about the history; what people did for a living when they were living in Eastern Europe, when and why people left and where they travelled to. For the development of our heritage trail in Belarus, all of this information is key and helps to build a clearer picture of Jewish life as it once was.
To find out more about our Archive Research Services please click here.
This month we launched our ‘story bank’ as part of our heritage trail work and we are now inviting people with links to Belarus to share their story with us so that we can build a more informed picture of the Jewish community of the past. Stories such as this, sent to us, written by hand, last July, or this powerful story of survival. If indeed you are from or have links to the territory that is modern-day Belarus or know anyone who has, please invite them to submit a story using this link.
The development work for the Jewish Cultural Heritage Trail through Belarus is ongoing and extensive. This work is being driven by Debra Brunner in the UK and Artur Livshyts in Belarus. The AEPJ (European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Heritage and Culture) is the umbrella organisation that is spearheading the development of the European Route of Jewish Culture as one of the Cultural Routes of the Council of Europe. Members of the AEPJ across Europe are working to tell the history of the Jewish people. The story of the Jews in Europe is nothing is not complex, representing the highest and lowest points of human history: it is a story that included both great cultural achievements such as the Enlightenment, as well as dark eras of genocide.
The AEPJ is developing a new online portal dedicated to the routes in development and the introduction to the Belarus route being curated by The Together Plan can be found here. This month the AEPJ ran a fascinating two-day online conference. Participants attended from across the heritage field in Europe with guests joining from the USA. Debra Brunner and Artur Livshyts participated as members of the AEPJ and spent dedicated time with Jeremy Leigh from the AEPJ Scientific Committee on the strategy for the development of the heritage trail in Belarus. They were very pleased to hear that the route is developing well with clear goals and objectives and a unique approach of engaging local actors in Belarus to participate in the building of the route. A huge amount of work is being done at a local level to engage local people and communities to play a role in telling the story of the Jews of Belarus. There is a long way to go but the planned outcomes bring some exciting possibilities. Stay tuned as the project develops, but if in the meantime you would like to donate and support this work, please contact us here.
Not only is January the start of a new year, but it is also the start of a brand new programme Making History Together. With thanks to the support of Jewish Child’s Day Charity and media partners The Jewish Chronicle, we have been able to create this very exciting new initiative, a seven month global, virtual programme for bar and bat mitzvah age children in years 7 and 8 in the UK or the 6th and 7th Grades in the USA.
The programme offers a unique opportunity for the next generation to play a role in bringing to life an important piece of our Jewish history that few know about. In Belarus, there is no Holocaust education at all and around the globe, very few people know about the lives of the Belarusian Jews. This is vital Jewish history and our aim is to bring it to life through the eyes of our ‘History Makers’.
Participants will explore their own stories, and think about how they have been shaped by history. They will be encouraged to ask questions such as: “Why does history matter?”, “What can we learn from our history?” and “Why did the world forget about the Jews of Belarus?” As we move ever further away from this darkest period in our history, it is vital that we engage the next generation to hold a candle to the memory of those who perished, and to take ownership of their legacy so that future generations will learn to be the best versions of themselves. In parallel to the programme being run from the UK, a school group in Minsk, Belarus will also be delving into this piece of their history which for most will be new to them. The programme will culminate in a travelling exhibition in Russian and English and we hope it will facilitate conversation and debate around this important piece of little-known Holocaust history.
We have welcomed Leo Levine to our team at The Together Plan as the official Project Coordinator. Leo has been actively involved in many of our Youth for Youth activities since 2018. He took part in the first ‘Zoymen’ summer programme and travelled across Belarus to pave the way for the Jewish Heritage Trail developments in 2019. Majoring in History and Politics at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine USA and more recently receiving his History Masters from McGill University, Canada, Leo’s dissertation focused on the Soviet and post-Soviet history education on the ‘Great Patriotic War’. Leo’s mother was born in Belarus and his grandparents still live there. His grandfather has written a book documenting the history of Brest, Belarus 1930-60 and penned over 300 illustrations. Leo’s work with The Together Plan to raise awareness of the history of the Holocaust during the occupation of Belarus has directly led to our extraordinary plans for the year ahead.
In line with our ethos of togetherness and our mission to give Belarusians a voice, our International Holocaust Memorial Day evening was a truly collaborative event. Close to 80 people joined the Zoom from the UK, the USA and Belarus to commemorate this important day and to light candles in memory of the genocide of 6 million Jews and 11 million others who were brutally murdered by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. We were delighted to welcome Ambassador Jacky Perkins, the UK Ambassador to Belarus and Ambassador Maxim Yermalovich, the Belarus Ambassador to the UK.
Anthea Jackson, the Executive Director of Jewish Childs Day Charity launched the Making History Together Programme and we heard from Vitaly Misevets, Principle of the College in Minsk whose students will be participating in the programme. The College stands adjacent to the territory that was the Minsk Ghetto and Vitaly is an advocate for memorialising and marking sites of cultural value. To that end – he has had a plaque mounted on the exterior of the college to say that it stands close to the site of the Minsk Ghetto and he has plans to do more. Musicians from the Baruch Band in Minsk played live as we showed images of the Minsk, Slonim and Slutsk Ghettos, partisans, hidden memorials and massacre sites. We also showed some of the important work we are doing in Belarus towards revival as we work to put Jewish Belarus back on the world map.
The highlight of the event was Frida Reizman – a brave and stalwart survivor of the Minsk Ghetto. Frida never left Minsk. She escaped the ghetto as a child and after the war remained a silent witness. It is only in recent years that she has found her voice with the help of The Together Plan. You can read Frida’s story via our website in the book that we translated ‘We Remember Lest the World Forget – Memories of the Minsk Ghetto’. You can also watch our new film. A short documentary with Frida who tells her story as she walks the streets that were once the ghetto.
On February 14th we will run our first Making History Together session – the first of six. There are still a few places available. The closing date for overseas applications is January 31st and for UK applications it is February 5th. For more information please click here.
There is never a dull moment at The Together Plan and the buzz and productivity are supercharged in spite of the pandemic and we are only in January! Here’s to an exciting and productive year ahead.