On February 14th we ran our first-ever Making History Together session with 17 enthusiastic young people, aged 12 and 13 along with some of the parents eager to discover more about the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. The session ran for 90 minutes led by our wonderful Project Coordinator, Leo Levine, who opened the programme explaining that this would be a journey to explore hidden history as a way to help us learn how to be the best version of ourselves, to be changemakers for good. The session was packed with a variety of activities; we watched films, explored hidden history, ran a show and tell, told the story of an escape through a tunnel, and we even donned hats and learned how a spoon can not only save a life but also remind us of how the world can, at a turn, be turned upside down! This programme that has been created by The Together Plan has been made possible thanks to Jewish Child’s Day Charity and The Jewish Chronicle Newspaper. To watch our opening film, click here
In Minsk, we have donated a new television to the College for use by the students who are participating in the Making History Project there. A group of teenagers, not Jewish, will also be exploring this hidden history. Their programme will be presented in a different format to the UK group, with the Belarus group meeting in a physical space and the UK group having all their sessions on Zoom. Some of the Belarus sessions will be in the format of visits to sites in Minsk and beyond as they take steps to delve into the unknown history of their own country. Their first session took place on February 24th at their College. By way of introduction, our facilitators introduced the theme of the Holocaust in Belarus. Some of the group knew a little, some had heard of it, some knew nothing at all. They watched a film (made by The Together Plan last year) featuring Frida Reizman who escaped from the Minsk Ghetto when she was a child. Frida, 85, was present, and she spoke to the group and answered their questions. The session prompted important conversation and ignited interest among the participants to speak with their family members and grandparents to ask what they knew of that time. We will see what comes from those conversations. Suffice to say – the programme is now in motion in the UK and in Belarus and we look forward to the next sessions with anticipation.
In Belarus, we are focusing on bringing people together to explore the history and heritage of the Jews of Belarus. The aim is to create social opportunities and shared physical space, where possible in the current climate, and bring a much-forgotten narrative to the fore. The story of the Jews of the Soviet Union was very much subsumed into the Soviet narrative. To that end, there is much work to be done to bring it into focus.
The Together Plan is working to build a Cultural Heritage Trail through Belarus and communities and individuals in the country are playing a role in the developments. In Brest, Minsk, Vitebsk and Polotsk – activity is underway to explore Jewish sites, collect information, research Jews of renown, and photograph places of interest; abandoned synagogues, cemeteries, massacre sites, memorials, important towns and more. These are stories that need to be told. In the words of Neil Adams of Southbank University, in his blog about Jewish Rechitsa, written for The Together Plan, ‘ I knew nothing about this part of the world that had been hidden from our “Western” eyes behind an iron curtain for 50 years.’ The Jewish narrative was indeed so suppressed within the Soviet Union that many people living there today know almost nothing of this vital Belarusian history. The film ‘The Mystery of the Black Book’ by Documentary Filmmaker Boris Maftsir explores the suppression of Jewish identity in the Soviet Union. It highlights the irony of the Soviet fight to defeat Nazi Germany in the Second World War whilst at the same time there was rampant and rising antisemitism in the Soviet Union. To tell the story of the Holocaust and the Jews went against the narrative that all Soviet Citizens suffered together as Soviets, therefore better to wipe the story and not tell it at all.
For this reason, much of our work is centred around storytelling, and we put communities and individuals in Belarus at the centre of this work. We are always delighted to help amplify this history to a wider audience and give community members a voice, so we were, therefore, delighted to assist the production team at the Jewish television channel STMEGI TV, making a documentary about the Holocaust in Belarus. Our staff on the ground helped to plan their filming schedule in Minsk, Mir Novogroduk, Brest and Pinsk and we facilitated an interview with a ghetto survivor in Minsk.
One of our initiatives is to encourage interest in the theme of Jewish heritage through youth clubs. In Polotsk, plans are already underway and in March a new heritage club at the Polotsk Jewish Cultural Educational Foundation will begin its activities. Led by an enthusiastic group of young adults and a professional tour guide who is active in the community, they will map a walking trail, they will run a Sunday club with arts and crafts and will give monthly presentations to community members to show what they have discovered. Whatever they find will be added to the Cultural Heritage Trail that we are creating. In this way the community will feel empowered, knowing that they are contributing to something of enormous value to Belarus and the Diaspora. Equally, as the world opens up and people will be able to travel freely again, the community will be easily found on the trail, not isolated and disconnected. We are excited to see how the new club progresses.
Continuing on the theme of hidden history and suppressed narratives, between 2014 and 2018 a dedicated team at The Together Plan patiently translated, edited and curated the book ‘We Remember Lest the World Forget – Memories of the Minsk Ghetto’. The book is a compilation of 27 snatched memories of loss and trauma. The people who penned their memories did so in secret as elderly people decades after the war. They suffered in silence and only in 2012 had their memories collated into a private book. Only 300 copies of the Russian book were printed for personal use. It is thanks to The Together Plan that this book now exists in English and is available to the English speaking world. An important next step will be to translate the book back to Russian to be made publicly available to the Russian audience. A comprehensive new review and evaluation of the book can be read here.
Working on this book identified the importance of shining a light on the hidden narratives and of giving voice to the lost communities of the past and the communities of today. With that in mind, we are now translating two more books on the subject of the Minsk Ghetto. With every book that we translate, we reveal more history and create a clearer understanding of what happened in Minsk between 1941 to 1943. All this helps to inform the past and creates content for the Jewish Cultural Heritage Trail. With some of the child survivors still alive and still living in Minsk, we know that bringing their stories into the spotlight is of enormous importance for them and their families. In keeping with our mission, these translations help us to give voice to the forgotten and help communities to develop a sense of self-determination.
Our archivists in Belarus are busy. There is a real hunger to access family records. People want to know more and understand who they are and who their ancestors were, and we can assist them. Every search not only helps people access records where they exist but also give us more information for the Jewish Cultural Heritage Trail and a sense of the Shtetl life that was once so rich and vibrant, not only in Belarus but across Eastern Europe. With every search we learn more; the richness of the Yiddishkite that reigned in the shtetls of days now long gone. The family names, rarely seen in today’s Jewish world, to the trades the Jews were able to pursue; Stovemaker, cart driver, tailor, even publican. To read more about the archive service and the role it is playing in the charity’s work, click here. In the words of Yohanan Petrovsky-Stern The Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies, Northwestern University:
“The shtetl stands for the entirety of East European Jewish history and culture that was destroyed during World War II and wiped out by the Holocaust. The shtetl also remains significant on the East European historical map, although at present none of them now physically remain. A vibrant and burgeoning market town with a predominant Jewish population, the shtetl was a key point for economic development and trade throughout the centuries within the territories of what is today six, and possibly more, countries, including Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Moldova, and Ukraine. Although towns which were former shtetls, such as Bolekhiv, Chortkiv, Kazimierz Dolny Mir, Ostroh, Szczebzeszyn, Tykocin and Valozhyn in fact still remain, the localities that bear these names only too well remind us that they are shtetls no more and that the shtetl as an East European phenomenon has disappeared. Taken in its geographical diversity, the shtetl is the ‘Forgotten Continent – East European Atlantis’, with its unique civilization. Like Atlantis, the shtetl shaped and continues to shape the imagination of thousands of people, Jews and non-Jews alike. Like Atlantis, the shtetl was not only a locality but also a culture, with its peculiar language, religion, education system, family structure, economy, and way of life. Like Atlantis, the shtetl gave birth to dozens of myths – political, ethnic, religious, social, artistic, and literary. Like Atlantis, the shtetl became a metaphor and a utopia. And like Atlantis, the shtetl created a great civilization – and then vanished.”
Our young adult volunteers at The Together Plan are a passionate team of activists always looking to welcome new faces to their team. They go under the name of Youth for Youth and they can be found in the UK, Belarus and the USA. With so much to do at The Together Plan, they have come up with a new way of organising themselves into task forces. There are endless opportunities to make a difference within the charity and if you are 17-30 or thereabouts, and would like to get involved we would love to hear from you. Get some experience; organising events, sharing ideas and skills across virtual borders, help to build a programme or disseminate information about the work of the charity as a writer, blogger, social media fanatic or maybe you are a Russian speaker looking to use help with translations or writing. Everyone can be part of the community.
Last week Youth for Youth ran a fascinating event with invited speakers Jonny Benjamin from Beyond, and Zac Newman from Newman Tuition. The subject was Mental Health and it was run in dual language to an audience of people in the UK and in Belarus. We listened to the incredible story of how Jonny tried to commit suicide by jumping off Waterloo Bridge and how a stranger stopped him and changed his life. The talk was raw, honest and immensely impactful, meaningful, communal, and wholly inclusive because it was in two languages. The phenomenal skills of Youth for Youth member, Nick Trapp who translated the session enabled us all to be in one virtual room and to discuss a difficult topic in a safe and relaxed way.
If you would like to know more about Youth for Youth and how you can get involved, click here