Building a Jewish cultural heritage trail that will tell the story of the Belarusian Jewish peoples spanning 700 years is complex and intricately challenging. That notwithstanding, the USP of our route is that we are building it with the community on the ground. This is a truly collaborative endeavour. As members of the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Heritage and Culture (AEPJ) we are guided by their professional team and Scientific Committee and we are working alongside 22 route managers working across the territory of the continent of Europe.
The AEPJ, an NGO created in 2004, is a network of European institutions, including public bodies, private foundations, federations of Jewish communities and NGOs, that serves as a platform to develop cultural initiatives and educational programs to European Jewish sites. The AEPJ network acts as a channel for intercultural dialogue and promotes better knowledge and understanding of European history, creating awareness of cultural diversity and strengthening European citizens’ cultural identity.
The AEPJ serves as an organisational umbrella to welcome, promote, train and help develop unique Jewish cultural and heritage projects of excellence around Europe. A community, a network and a meeting point of professionals working in the field of Jewish Heritage. The AEPJ helps organisations develop their programs, offers training in the field of Jewish cultural tourism and exchange of good practices and promotes the development of transnational programs.
With a heritage approach in line with the Council of Europe, with its integrated and cross-disciplinary approach to cultural heritage and diversity, the AEPJ promotes fundamental European values of human rights, cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue seeking to bring the Jewish heritage closer to all European citizens, involving them in the production, circulation and conservation of Jewish culture and heritage.
Through the AEPJ, we are now collaborating with the Jewish Heritage Network. (JHN). JHN’s core mission is to leverage innovative technologies to provide global access to Jewish heritage content and so over the coming months, we will be working together to create a digital online Jewish Belarus collection that will be made available through the Europeana website. Europeana works with thousands of European archives, libraries and museums to share cultural heritage for enjoyment, education and research and their collections provide access to over 50 million digitised items – books, music, artworks and more.
Along with a growing number of Jewish and non-Jewish professionals working in the field of Jewish heritage, because of this project developed exclusively by The Together Plan, Rabbis, archivists, communities and individuals in Belarus, we will be working together to build this collection. Additionally, people living outside of Belarus with stories, photos, books, artwork, and records pertaining to the story of the Jews of Belarus are invited to contribute. This is an exciting major step forward in the development of the heritage trail. There is much work to be done as this starts to gather pace. We are incredibly excited to see how people are in Belarus are becoming more interested and how they are coming together to commune around the stories that have for so long been untold.
Our mission as a charity is to bring people together to revive community life, through community capacity building. Using Jewish heritage, culture and identity we are creating opportunities in Belarus for self-development, and so far we have initiated two heritage youth clubs; in Minsk and Polotsk with a third about to be launched. The aim is to create dialogue around Jewish history and heritage. In both clubs, young people have started to explore, research, ask, photograph and more. In both Minsk and Polotsk, those involved have started to understand just how much Jewish history surrounds them; buildings with important provenance but no public markings, sites where synagogues once stood, places where historic events took place, places of destruction, alongside places of celebration and achievement. These young heritage explorers have launched Instagram pages so that people can follow their progress. Polotsk’s page ‘Jewish Heritage Polotsk’ can be found here and Minsk’s, newly launched page can be found here. The Minsk group started to visit sites of Jewish historic importance this month and both clubs are being supported by historians and professionals. All of their findings and research will be contributed to the Belarus Jewish Heritage trail that we at The Together Plan are building, and it is hoped that in time, visitors and travellers to Belarus and to Polotsk and Minsk, will be able to find these living Jewish communities where they will be able to explore the Jewish trails that are being created as a result of this capacity-building initiative.
September 6th sees the launch of the European Days of Jewish Culture Festival, and we at The Together Plan will be participating. The Jewish heritage clubs will each run their own event in celebration of their developments. The theme of the festival this year is ‘Dialogue’ and there is much to talk about. In a culmination of our collective efforts, our Together Plan’s Youth for Youth Club (made up of young adult members located across many different countries) will be planning and running ZOYMEN an online two-day event that will feature up to 35 sessions, in English, Russian and English, and some just in Russian. There will be a great line-up of speakers covering some really exciting topics and the event is open to all. Work is already underway to bring this fascinating event together. For now – save the dates for Zoymen 2021- October 16th and 17th.
Our unique two-pronged Holocaust education programme is continuing and this month we bring you an update of the progress of both groups here in the UK and in Belarus. Our history makers in the UK, Jewish children going through Bar and Bat mitzvah, received their postal packs at the beginning of the month on the theme of ‘Power and Leadership’. The hidden history took them into the world of the Jewish partisans and the accompanying booklet explored ‘power’ and ‘leadership’ looking at different world leaders, questioning what is good power and what is bad. In the online session, our facilitators; Leo Levine and Sophie Peterman explored the theme further. The participants discussed the theme in breakout rooms and collaboratively created word clouds on ‘power’ and ‘leadership’. They watched and discussed a film clip from ‘Defiance’ and they made resources from recycled materials, a challenge to see what they could make with very little that might be of use to a Partisan unit living in the forest. It was a compelling and fascinating session.
In Minsk, the parallel group, college students, not Jewish and slightly older than the group in the UK, visited the Museum of Jewish Resistance in Novogrudek with specialist researcher Tamara Vershitskaya as their guide, and they also visited Maly Trostenets, on the outskirts of Minsk, the location of a Nazi extermination site, where Jews from Belarus, Austria, Germany, Poland and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia were shot. With no official Holocaust education in Belarus, few Belarusians know of the history of the Belarusian Jews or what happened in their country. For the Belarus participants of the Making History Together Programme, most of what they are learning is new for them. At the outset of the programme, there was a degree of mild curiosity and indifference among the students since the course was offered as voluntary and extra-curricular. As the students are being exposed to more of the content, meeting ghetto survivors and hearing more from historians and professional educators, their focus has sharpened and there is now a marked intensity in their attention.
There are three more months of the course still to go and much more to be revealed for both groups both here in the UK and in Belarus.
Our Making History Together Programme has had such an impact on the teachers, the Principal and the students of the College in Minsk who are participating in the course, that they have taken it upon themselves to start planting trees of peace in remembrance of the Jews who perished in the Minsk Ghetto between 1941 and 1943. In April, they went to the site of the former Jewish Cemetery that was within the area that was the Minsk Ghetto and planted trees with ghetto survivors and war veterans. Artur Livshtys, our Director in Minsk, was there to help. Artur has suggested that more trees be planted and that each tree should have a plaque in memory and in honour of the righteous gentiles who helped to save Jews and the resistance heroes. For such a project to become a reality, will require support and approval from the Minsk authorities, but we will be looking to explore this and we hope we can make it a reality.
During the past year, we have been developing and improving our archive services to meet the growing demands of people looking to find ancestral records in Belarus. DNA testing and genealogical research is a fast growing industry which is helping more and more people explore and discover who they are, where they came from and who their ancestors were. Through the service we offer we can help people along this journey as we have a dedicated team in Belarus, who work to find records in the archives in Belarus.
Through the service we offer, where records exist, we are able to help people discover more about their ancestors, but there is an aded advantage to this work. Every search we do tells us more about the Jewish communities of the past; how they lived, where they lived, what they did for a living, whether they were literate or illiterate, whether they kept an animal, whether they had scrapes with the law, what languages they spoke and who their relatives were, whether they had a surname or not. All of this information, rising up from the dusty pages of record books from hundreds of years back helps us to better understand the history of the Jewish people of Belarus which is vital research for the Jewish cultural heritage trail under development.
The archive work is highly complex work that requires patience and skill. Click here to read a fascinating blog by Rachel Gordon to learn more about the intricacies of the archive services.
For more information about what we can offer through our archive services, click here.
As April draws to an end, so does our time at the warehouse we have been running our Aid Together Project from in Mill Hill for the last five years. This cavernous dingy, run-down, long-abandoned, old Homebase warehouse has served us well but the time has come for us to move on. We had the good fortune to be able to stay in this space longer than we ever anticipated and for that, we are incredibly grateful. Until last year we were using this space to store our donations of humanitarian aid to send to Belarus, and our volunteers packed and sorted in the warmth of Pinner Synagogue, but when COVID struck, Pinner closed its doors and the volunteers retreated to the safety of their homes. The programme went on hold, but only momentarily. Slowly some of the volunteers decided to get back to the project. They took to wearing facemasks and continued to collect donations, much to the relief of many since most charity shops were all closed. In time, many of the volunteers got back to sorting and packing, organising themselves into small groups over different days to facilitate ease of social distancing and they did it all from the cold, unheated warehouse all through the winter.
Nothing was going to stop them and the social contact and camaraderie kept them in high spirits. For some, it wasn’t possible to get to the warehouse, so packing and sorting took place at home and our wonderful Elaine Collins from the office team, oversaw the clearing of all the unwanted items from the warehouse in readiness for our move. How proud we are of this incredible team. Click here to read more about how Suzanne Goodman who heads up the Aid Together volunteer team, turned her home into a sorting centre.
Once we knew we were going to be on the move, the team set about clearing, reducing and preparing. But where were we going to go? Debra Brunner, The Together Plan’s CEO set the wheels in motion to find us a new home and it wasn’t easy. But networking pays off and being a member of the BNI business network facilitated connections to be made which resulted in the finding of a new space. We would like to thank Hak Huseyin of Absolute Print, Charlie Perdios of Anthony Pepe Estate Agents and Jeremy Garson of Rise Legal, all members of BNI who were so incredibly helpful with our transition.
Last week, the volunteer team rallied and we made the move to Watford, with a second space coming in Haringey. Everyone pulled together and played a part and we are delighted to now be sharing space with a cohort of wonderful charities all doing superb work in the community.
We are always looking for the next available space so if you know of any empty commercial buildings please let us know.
Click here to read the blog about some of the volunteer heroes who helped us through the winter.