Back in March, the whole world ground to a halt in the fight against Coronavirus and we at The Together Plan put a hold on all of the work that we do, which threatened to put lives at risk. Our aid project was, and is, suspended (for now) and all of our fundraising events were put on hold. However many of our activities have continued, some have even bloomed in lockdown and new projects have been initiated. In the face of adversity, there is always opportunity. Our Youth for Youth programme has had a new burst of energy, our genealogical research programme has come to life, we have set about translating a second book on the Minsk Ghetto and we are making connections across borders for our Jewish Cultural Heritage Trail in Belarus in a way that simply was not possible before.
In 2014, Debra Brunner, The Together Plan’s CEO joined a business networking group called BNI (Business Network International). The Chapter she joined is based in north London joining ranks with a dedicated group of professionals who meet weekly (at a venue in north London) to support each other’s businesses. With the rule that you can only have one of any trade or profession in a Chapter, The Together Plan took the charity seat. Annual renewal is not a given and has to be approved by a committee so being an active member counts. Now in her 6th year of membership, BNI has been a continued source of support to the charity and equally, the charity has brought a wealth of immeasurable of support to the Chapter in return. In March, when the coronavirus pandemic pushed the world into lockdown, BNI responded immediately and took the entire global network, all 9000 Chapters around the world online. BNI went virtual! Suddenly, all sorts of opportunities presented themselves. Debra immediately seized the chance to attend other BNI meetings in other countries to build connections. As The Together Plan is building a Jewish Cultural Heritage Trail in Belarus and runs a Genealogical Research Service, it absolutely key, as part of our charitable work, to reach Belarusians in the diaspora. Suddenly, in lockdown, this became a real and exciting possibility.
From the capital, St Petersburg, the Tsars renewed the persecution of the Jews. This persecution was dominated and intensified by the pogroms of 1881: violent attacks on Jews and Jewish property which led to the immediate flight, within a single year, of more than 200,000 Jews to the United States, tens of thousands to western Europe, and 3000 to Palestine. From then on the exodus was substantial year by year……
Not only Jewish commerce, but also Jewish culture were the object of Tsarist repression. On August 17 1883….the Minister of the Interior, Count Dimitrii Tolstoi, forbade the performance of all theatrical shows in Yiddish – then the language of most Russian Jews and for the previous five years, the focus of a theatrical revival. Henceforth, until the revolutions of 1917, Yiddish performances, so central to Jewish life, had to be performed illegally. Often they would be put on in the guise of ‘German’ plays.
Thus Jewish life in Tsarist Russia, then the home of more than five million Jews, proceeded with artifice and anger, the Jews and the authorities in a continual, yet unequal, struggle. No decade was free from hazard or persecution. On 29th May 1891, 20,000 Jews of Moscow were expelled, and 2,000 of St Petersburg’s 21,000 Jews were deported, many of them in chains. Six months later, on 29th September 1891, the ant-Jewish pogroms once more, followed by the second mass flight, to the United States, South America, South Africa, western Europe, and again to Palestine. In the single year following the progroms of 1891, more than 100,000 Russian Jews left for America, followed by 65,000 during the next two years.
So many of these fleeing Jews from Russia would have been Belarusians. Belarus was after all at the heart of the Pale of Settlement, a western region of Imperial Russia with varying borders that existed from 1791 to 1917, in which permanent residency by Jews was allowed, and beyond which Jewish residency, permanent or temporary, was mostly forbidden.
And so, now back in the modern-day, landlocked, pandemic-gripped world, Debra Brunner set about virtual globe-trotting in a bid to find the descendants of those persecuted Jews who made their way to the Goldene Medina (as they called it in the shtetl, the country that glittered, that was best for the Jews). Has it been worth it? Absolutely it has, and this is just the beginning. Every meeting Debra has attended she has met with people who have connected her to those very descendants, and what’s more, has enabled some people to discover themselves, that they had a Belarusian ancestor who came to the USA – news to them!! Where will it lead us? Only time will tell.
*Map attribution – Herman Rosenthal; J.G. Lipman; Vasili Rosenthal; L. Wygodsky; M. Mysh; Abraham Galante (1905) “Russia” in The Jewish Encyclopedia: Vol. 10, Philipson–Samoscz, New York, N.Y.: Funk & Wagnalls, pp. 531, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=407572