Article by: Tasha Ackerman
After school one Friday afternoon, Sasha Astashkevich of Polotsk, Belarus, asked her friend, also named Sasha, to go on a walk with her. Her friend, Sasha F, replied, “I’m sorry, I can’t… I’m going to Shabbat. Would you like to go with me?” Sasha A had no idea what the word, Shabbat, meant, but agreed to go with her after Sasha F told her how warm and welcoming the community would be. Her friend explained to her the Jewish ritual of Shabbat, how from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, Jews observe the day of rest. Traditionally, a Friday night dinner is accompanied by prayers, breaking of the challah, and sharing time with one another. After this first Shabbat experience, Sasha A began attending more services through the Jewish communities youth programme in Polotsk.
After attending a few youth Shabbat services with her friend, Sasha A told her parents about her recent activity and asked if they knew about Shabbat. She was shocked when her mother replied, “I guess it’s something Jewish, right?” and her father added on, “You know, your grandfather was Jewish…” Sasha thought, Pardon! While she had been taught about the Jewish history in Polotsk, she had no idea that her personal family history was connected to it.
Polotsk is a small city in Northern Belarus. Before WW2, Polotsk had a large Jewish community. In fact, at the turn of the 20th century, the town’s population was about 60 per cent Jewish, but the Jewish population began falling when pogroms broke out across the region in 1905, and then was nearly lost entirely during WW2. When the Nazis occupied Polotsk, the Jews were first moved into a ghetto, then to a closed camp where many died from hunger and disease. In 1941, around 7,000 Jews were brought to the forest outside Polotsk where they were executed. Many of the few who survived the Holocaust in Polotsk moved to Israel after the war. Those who stayed were subjected to hide their Jewish identity in order to assimilate into the atheist Soviet society following the war.
Sasha’s father continued to explain to her about her grandfather, Haim (Efim) Sverdlov and her great-grandparents, Berk-Tsuk and Frida. He talked about how Haim had been a famous hairdresser. Her family, luckily, had evaded the fate of most of the Polotsk Jews. During the war, the Red Cross had evacuated her grandfather, and great-grandparents to Turinsk, in the Sverdlosk region of Russia where they were able to reside until it was safe to return. She learned about the house they bought when they returned to Polotsk after the war, and discovered that it still stood near the house she lived in. This was a turning point for Sasha, a springboard into her Jewish life in her community.
“I am absolutely convinced that Jewish identity depends on your knowledge and feelings about your Jewish roots.” Learning about her family’s Jewish story, allowed Sasha to begin exploring what her Jewish ancestry meant to her. Sasha continued her involvement in the local Jewish community, and three years later had even planned to go to Israel with her friend on an educational program, though at the last minute decided to stay in Polotsk and Sasha F left.
In 2008, Sasha attended Minsk State Linguistic University to study intercultural communication and became a qualified interpreter for French and English. In 2012 she finally got the opportunity to travel to Israel, and after returning to Belarus the following spring, became involved with Finchley, a Jewish cultural education foundation in Polotsk. Knowing first-hand the value of discovering Judaism through youth programming.
At the same time that Sasha had been discovering her Jewish Roots, The Together Plan Founder, Debra Brunner, was travelling to Belarus to set up a twinning between Finchley Reform Synagogue and a Belarus Jewish community. At the time, the Polotsk community was going through a challenging period as the funding they had been receiving from outside charities was being withdrawn.
Finchley Reform began its twinning with Polosk in 2009, and Debra saw that the community was fragile and had no official governance structure of its own. She founded the Polotsk Jewish Cultural Education Foundation Finchley and started running summer programmes and brought UK youth leaders to Polotsk to help their peers learn how to build their own community programmes. As Debra came to learn about more communities in Belarus, who like Polotsk, needed help, The Together Plan was born. In 2011 Sasha took a lead role in the second summer programme that Debra organised in Polotsk which was planned and run by youth leaders from Finchley Reform Synagogue and through The Together Plan, Sasha was given a coordinator’s role in the mission to grow the Polotsk Jewish community, helping more people explore their Jewish identity.
After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it took a few weeks before Sasha could know how the war would touch her home country and her life, both directly and indirectly. She found herself fearful that her husband would be called to fight. Despite the hardship of abandoning everything she had known in the town where she grew up, she made the decision with her husband, parents, and sister’s family that it was time to move and start over in a new country.
Sasha’s family decided it made the most sense to try to move to Israel, due to her repatriation policies. According to Israel’s law of return, Jews are eligible for repatriation if they have at least one Jewish grandparent. Some point to the Nazi’s Nuremberg laws as a clear reason why grandchildren of Jews should have the right to consider Israel home; if one could be discriminated against under the Nazi regime for having a Jewish grandparent, then they should have the right to safety in Israel. Considering the loss of Jewish culture and life in many of the communities where olim, for new immigrants, from former-soviet nations come from (including grandchildren as eligible for Aliyah) is an important component of the Zionist movement and adds to the Jewish plurality in Israel. Sasha’s discovery of her Jewish heritage during her childhood led to her involvement in the Jewish community throughout her life, both enriching her own understanding of self and innovating ways to strengthen the Jewish community in her hometown. On April 14, 2022, her family sent in their application to move to Israel, and on January 17, 2023, they arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv with 12 suitcases ready to make Israel their new home.
Arriving in Israel was accompanied by happiness and the sense that they were where they were meant to be. Finally! In the first few weeks, a lot happened quickly; getting documents, passport, bank account, new job, new car, new flat… Sasha was surprised, reflecting how it had taken thirty years in her native country to acquire all of these things, but now in Israel, it had all come together in just a few weeks! They recognised they would need time to adjust to the confusion of a new language and the cultural nuances of a different order and mentality of the people around them. While all of these aspects were very different from their home country in Belarus – they were sure that with time, they would get used to it. In addition to having arrived with her family whom she loves deeply, she also has the comfort of her childhood friend. Now, Sasha F and Sasha A are neighbours in the same building in Israel!
Yet once again, as things were starting to settle for Sasha and her family, another war touched their lives. The terror attacks on Israel on October 7th now seared a new date in the hearts and minds of Sasha’s family. While gracious that her family does not reside in the south of Israel, Sasha finds herself once again living with the fear of war. She feels the consistency of living it through Facebook posts and the news. It’s unacceptable to her that the children cannot sleep at night, and heartbreaking when they ask if they will wake up to sirens.
“And for now, I can’t put all of my thoughts together in my mind,” Sasha attempts to reflect on the situation she now finds herself in- after this long journey to first discovering her Judaism, moving to Israel, and now finding herself in another war. The arch of not just her life, but of the wars that impacted her family generations before she was alive. Every day, she now has the need to consider how to act in case the worst happens. Holding mixed emotions, not feeling safe, but also holding pride for the Israeli people and admiration for the Israeli soldiers protecting them. “I just want it to be finished ASAP. I can’t think about religion, politics, or economics right now. There are not any excuses when people die- when children die. The only one religion I approve of is love– the only political stance I have is peace.”
Sasha admits, as weird as it sounds, she’s happy to be a part of it. For generations of Jews, the unbreakable bond of camaraderie is a source of strength, enabling us to persevere amidst adversity time and time again since we bear its weight collectively. Why even amidst a war, we light candles on Friday night, we pray for the safe return of our loved ones, we say the mourner’s kaddish for those we lost, and spend sacred time with those we can.
Watch The Together Plan’s film ‘Discovering Jewish Polotsk’
Frank Martin was introduced to The Polotsk Community through Debra Brunner and was able to visit, capture images and write this article.
More information on Jewish Polotsk – click here.
Special thanks to Finchley Reform Synagogue and the Belarus Project for the unwavering and continued support and belief in the Polotsk Jewish Community.