Every summer up to 2019 our Youth for Youth team have been in Belarus running a summer programme, but with Covid putting a halt on travel, Youth for Youth (our summer programming team) had to adapt. What resulted was the Zoymen virtual online conference which brought everyone together in 2020 and will return in October 2021. Click here for more information.
Tamara Vershitskaya, a specialist in the Bielski Partisans and a heritage expert in Belarus joined The Together Plan team earlier this year and she has helped to facilitate an extraordinary international initiative which meant that a fascinating in-person summer programme in Belarus was able to take place.
This International exchange project (August 2021-March 2022), financed by the German Foundation Erinnerung, Verantwortung, Zunkunft centres around two historical sites: the first is Memorial and Educational Site House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin (GHWK) where the meeting took place in 1942 to decide how European Jews would be rounded up and sent to extermination camps in the General Government (the occupied part of Poland), where they would be killed. Watch a clip from the film The Rescuers, of Sir Martin at Wannsee, courtesy of Michael King. The second comprises various sites in and around Novogrudok (Belarus) linked to the history of the Jewish Bielski partisans. The project’s aim is to explore the concept of a “Living Memorial” engaging young people in shaping the narrative at historical sites of National Socialist persecution linking the topics of history and memory with the arts, philosophy, literature and the contemporary question of responsible citizenship.
The two sites were chosen because of their directly opposing purposes – with the GHWK a “site of the perpetrators”, central to the planning/theoretical origins of the deportation and murder of European Jews, and the sites in Belarus illustrating the subsequent practical repercussions in Eastern Europe through one of the most successful stories of Jewish Resistance in WWII.
Moreover, the GHWK has a long history and rich experience of being an established educational site; the former campsite of the Bielski partisans in the middle of the Naliboki Forest, on the other hand, is still an untouched area of land with no association of being an educational centre – at least not yet.
The programme did have to be adapted since, in its original planning, a visiting group would have travelled to Belarus to participate in the activities in Novogroduk. That element of the programme had to change, with only Belarusians participating in person but Zoom meetings took place during the programme to connect all the participants. Likewise, the activities in Berlin will take place with the Belarusian group joining virtually.
Roman Kroke, an interdisciplinary German artist and former lawyer is one of the co-creators of the programme and travelled to Belarus to run workshops alongside Tamara Vershitskaya along with a cameraman from Mediel, Belgium. Roman is one of Europe’s leading experts in leading on-site workshops for youth encounters especially at sites linked to National Socialist crimes. His unique approach involves using art as a medium to connect the specific historic profile of a site as well as its landscape with the multi-faceted living universe of young people while fostering their critical thinking about challenges in today’s world (construction of responsible citizenship).
This August, the art workshops took place in the midst of the Naliboki forest at the former campsite of the Bielski partisans, an untouched wilderness where nature has reconquered the terrain; where only the overgrown dugouts have remained as silent witnesses of the former Jewish settlement. The local group launched into the adventure of creating their personal “living memorial”, mostly with natural materials, creating an innovative space beyond “classical memorial plaques”.
The two group meetings in Berlin and Novogroduk are being filmed by MEDIEL (Belgium), one of the project partners, to produce a multilingual documentary which will be broadcast on European TV channels and will also be available for free online streaming. The results of the project will be presented in an exhibition at the Memorial and Educational Site House of the Wannsee Conference at the end of the project in March 2022. Places to exhibit in Belarus are still in the planning process.
Hear from two of the Belarus participants and what they experienced this August:
Mosquitoes, endless forests, wild animals and partisans. Wait, partisans? Yes, you’ve heard us correctly. Partisans with their unique stories, feelings and their struggle against dangerous surroundings. What’s up friends? We are Renat and Sonya. You may call us R&S and in this article, we will guide you through the dense territory of the Naliboki forest as well as through the hilly streets of Novogrudok and we promise you that once you’ve had a taste for this project, you will never forget it.
While my co-writer Renat is having a cup of tea, I’ll raise the curtains and explain to you the concept of the Living Memorial project. “A ‘memorial’ is a marker in a public space which provides a ritualized site of remembrance and a shared space to honour the deceased”, – says Dr. Larissa Allwork (University of Derby), and it’s absolutely true as long as you think about stone or concrete memorials. But for us the very word ‘memorial’ means progress growing in time, movement which has no ending point. A living memorial can be captured by a photographer and each time they come to the place of remembrance they will always find something new to enrich their collection. This project is focused on commemorating the Bielski partisans and their life story and deeds, and exploring new ways of preserving our past and history. Prepare to start thinking in metaphors. But let’s take one step at a time.
Thanks Sonya, the tea was fantastic, especially in Kletishche, where we spent 2 days working on our project in the former school building. Greetings to Dmitri and Svetlana, our generous hosts from the village. The first part of the Living Memorial project took place on August 8-13. Our first stopover is the city of Novogrudok, a small Belarusian city that is steeped in heritage. We were surprised to find out that the former Market Square of the city is full of ancient Jewish buildings. When in Novogrudok we were introduced to our future team. The first people we met were Tamara Vershitskaya (The Together Plan’s Jewish heritage specialist & project coordinator in Belarus) and Roman Kroke (interdisciplinary artist and pedagogical coordinator), with whom we got along immediately. Our team consists of many talented and initiative people, who contributed greatly to the development of the project. Each member of the team is a valuable source of ideas and knowledge. Thanks to Tamara, Olga, Oleg and Anastasiya, we became acquainted with Jewish culture and history in Belarus. Apart from the vivid historical places that we visited, one sight has a special place in our memory. A place where you feel connected to your ancestors, a place that will not leave you indifferent. We are talking about the Jewish Resistance Museum which stands at the site of the notorious ghetto. You should definitely visit this place and feel all the horrors that people experienced.
A two-hour ride from Novogrudok and we arrive at the Jewish partisan campsite in the mighty Naliboki forest, known as Forest Jerusalem. This forest meets you with impressive old oaks which served the Bielski brothers as a place to rest. But it is not the only thing which is worth mentioning. Partisan’s dugouts are scattered all over the camp. The Bielski brothers’ shelter in the forest used to be a town (shtetl) with its own facilities: main street, hospital, storages, ziemlankas (dugouts or sleeping quarters), workshops, small factories, a common kitchen and a prison. For the Bielski detachment, the forest was a sacred place that provided them with shelter and food that gave them a chance to survive.
But what does anything in this project have to do with metaphors? For most people, a metaphor is a stylistic device that is used in literature, but if you take a closer look at your life, you will see that it is full of metaphors. Your first step, your first mark at school, your first kiss. Everything can be a metaphor for someone. And this project is no exception. With the help of Roman Kroke, who marches to the beat of his own drum, we managed to see the Bielski partisan’s story in a fresh, new way.
Let me tell you that when you get the idea of metaphors in real life, you not only broaden your horizons but also start feeling history with your whole body. In the course of this project trees and nature played a leading role in the way to explore our inner universe. Imagine that you are an old oak tree with a dense network of branches uniting all the trees of the forest. The same is true for people, especially partisans who were closely connected to each other. Like trees, one cannot live without others. By the way, congratulations! Now you are thinking in metaphors.
After working on the project in teams using cardboard, tape and colour markers we were able to apply our vision of the Bielski partisan’s story in practice. When you are all alone with nature you only have natural materials at your disposal. No modern tools and advantages of technology. Only you and the forest. You either play by its rules or it will not give you a second chance.
In the Naliboki forest, we were told to create our own Living Memorial and we were given an hour and a half to do so. The most important thing for us was to find the right working place. At first, when you wander in the forest you feel out of place, that you don’t belong here. And suddenly something whispers to your ear: “Come to me, I will tell you my story”. Finally, feeling shivers on your skin you approach your own magical place where you can merge with the silence and start creating a new life – which we did. Each member of the team demonstrated their amazing installation. At that very moment, we realised that the “Living Memorial” isn’t only about monuments or places of remembrance, it’s about people who keep in their minds the story and here it was the story of the Bielski partisans. It is us, people, along with the trees who will never forget.
No matter where you are from, how old you are, whether you are a student or a history teacher, we are artists with our own vision, feelings, ups and downs, with our exceptional universes. Our life is a forest with mosquitoes, wild animals, running rivers and impenetrable swamps. And we are trees intertwined into one ecosystem. Once we’ve come out of the forest we will always get back to our roots.
Warm regards from Belarus,
R&S (Renat and Sonya)
The Project Team: