unveiling 700 Years of Jewish History in Belarus
Abraham Events is an initiative that began in Covid which has grown over time. They run compelling talks for online audiences in the UK, the USA, South Africa, Sweden, Israel and beyond and on July 14th Debra Brunner was their invited speaker, to give a talk about Belarus’s Jewish story and the work of The Together Plan.
Jewish history is an intricate tapestry woven with stories of resilience, culture, and the pursuit of a better life. One corner of this rich heritage lies in Belarus, a country with a deep-rooted Jewish presence that spans over 700 years. On July 14th Abraham Events hosted a captivating talk by Debra Brunner from The Together Plan, where she unravelled the captivating narratives that make up this remarkable chapter of Jewish history in Belarus. Debra’s enlightening talk offered a glimpse into the vibrant past of Belarusian Jewry and its lasting impact.
Belarus is a country that has been part of many ruling empires; the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Jews settled in the Russian lands between the 7th and 14th centuries. Jews first came from the Germanic lands fleeing antisemitism and they brought with them religious practice and the Yiddish language. Between 1791 and 1917, Jews were forced to live in the Southwestern territory of Russia by decree of Catherine the Great, which resticted freedom of movement for the Jews. This territory was called the Pale of Settlement. Life in the Pale for many was economically bleak. Most people relied on small service or artisan work that could not support the number of inhabitants, which resulted in emigration, especially in the late 19th century. Yet Jewish culture, especially in Yiddish, developed in the shtetls (small towns), and intellectual culture developed in the yeshivot (religious schools) and was also carried abroad. In the early 20th century, 71.5% (10,815,655*) of the world’s Jews lived on the European continent (the Eastern Europe countries and Russia). Today, approximately 1.25% (190,000) of the world’s Jews live in this region and of those, approximately 25% are in Belarus.
During her talk, Debra passionately emphasised the significance of preserving the memories and legacies of the communities of the past, as they served as wellsprings of Jewish intellectual, religious, and artistic contributions. Moreover, Debra stressed how this preservation work is playing a fundamentally important role in the revival of Jewish community life in Belarus today.
Debra highlighted the significance of Belarus to the wider world, with the founding fathers of Israel (Chaim Weitzman, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Yithak Shamir, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon) all having ancestral connections to the country. Belarus was a hotbed of Jewish religious learning and Rabbinic dynasties, with the rise of the Hassidic movements and the Misnagdim (the opposers of Hassidism). Belarus brought us great artists – Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine and Leon Bakst, great musicians such as Irving Berlin (of ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Putting on the Ritz’ fame), contemporary actors with roots in Belarus – such as Lisa Kudrow from ‘Friends’, ‘Harrison Ford’ and Sacha Baron Cohen, to name a few (and there are many).
Tragically, the darkest chapter in Belarusian Jewish history unfolded during the Holocaust. The Nazi occupation resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Debra Brunner’s talk acknowledged the profound loss and shared stories of resilience and resistance that emerged from this harrowing period. She highlighted the importance of commemoration, education, and building bridges between generations to ensure the memory of the Holocaust lives on.
Debra shed light on the ongoing efforts of The Together Plan to revive and support Jewish communities in Belarus. Through educational initiatives, and community development projects linked to history and cultural heritage the charity is revitalising Jewish life and fostering connections between Belarusian Jews and the global Jewish community.
Education plays a pivotal role in preserving Jewish history and heritage. Debra Bdiscussed The Together Plan’s commitment to promoting intergenerational learning, creating platforms for dialogue, and ensuring the transmission of collective memory. By engaging young people and providing them with opportunities to connect with their roots, these initiatives aim to create a future where Jewish history remains a vibrant and integral part of Belarusian society. Through The Together Plan’s Making History Together Holocaust education programme, young people both in Belarus and beyond, are for the first time, able to explore this little known, yet fundamentally important history.
Debra explained how The Together Plan became a member of the AEPJ, European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Heritage and Culture in 2019, to build the Jewish Route in Belarus as a civil society initiative. This is part of the European Route of Jewish Heritage, one of the Cultural Routes of the Council of Europe.
We support our partners in the Together Plan, whose work is a reference in every sense and a source of inspiration for our European network. The Together Plan’s work in safeguarding the rich Belarusian Jewish heritage, its bottom-up and cross-cutting approach to heritage management, led by a wonderful team of people, deserves every possible opportunity for support. They are a beacon for heritage practitioners in Europe.
Victor Sorenssen, AEPJ Director
Debra explained how The Together Plan also offers an archive search service – helping people to locate ancestral records in the Belarus archives, and sends humanitarian aid and resources to communities, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in Belarus.
This insightful talk at Abraham Events shed light on the Jewish history in Belarus, spanning over 700 years. From its early beginnings to the vibrant communities that flourished, and the devastation of the Holocaust, Belarusian Jewry has left an indelible mark on the country’s cultural landscape. The Together Plan continues to play a vital role in preserving this legacy, promoting education, and fostering connections between past and present. By embracing the past, we can pave the way for a future where the richness of Jewish history in Belarus continues to be celebrated and shared.
Debra was delighted to be invited to speak for Abraham Events and was so pleased to receive so many wonderful emails from people who attended the talk from Israel to New Zealand. We are always looking for personal narratives and to that end we hope people will continue to connect with us, join our events, share their stories and be part of the work of The Together Plan into the future.
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