Leonid Smilovitsky: Jewish places of memory in Belarus have a huge educational potential

Leonid Smilovitsky: Jewish places of memory in Belarus have a huge educational potential

Belarus and Israel have much in common. Among the founding fathers of the State of Israel and its politicians are many who have roots in Belarus. Numerous Belarus-born Jews gained prominence elsewhere in the world. Like in other parts of Europe, Belarusian Jews faced the extermination policies of the Holocaust on the territories occupied by the German Nazis during WWII. In the late 1980s – early 1990s, the number of Jews in Belarus decreased because of mass emigration to Israel and other countries. Numerous places of memory in Belarus still remind about the Jewish presence. An expert in the history of Jewish life in Belarus, Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky from the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at the Tel Aviv University provides his view on the importance of the Jewish places of memory for as historical sources for studying ethnic diversity in Belarus.

ICELDS: On 14 May 2018, in his speech at the opening ceremony of the US Embassy in Jerusalem Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner mentioned Belarus as a place where his grandparents had lived. Although it was not the main message of his speech, why is it important that famous Jewish politicians and public figures publicly acknowledge their family roots?

Leonid Smilovitsky: People want to underline that they are not abstract units. For nearly ten years, Kushner has been visiting Belarus on multiple occasions. He also supported Tamara Viarshytskaya in her activities for the maintenance of the Jewish Resistance Museum in Navahrudak, one of the few exhibitions of this type in the post-Soviet space. The fact that Kushner feels that his belonging to Belarus shows him as a person with the concrete understanding of history. He knows his own roots and wishes therefore to emphasize his origin. The mentioning of Belarus in his speech, differs him from many other politicians and public figures, who believe that their origins and family roots don’t have any impact on their current activities. His attachment to his family roots contains an important message for all of us. In the age of globalization, we have to think how to preserve our ethnic identity and cultural distinctiveness. We shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Maintenance of national identity shouldn’t be neglected by the state which also must prevent extreme manifestations of nationalism and superiority of one nation over the others. There is a very good antidote for this, which is called state respecting human rights and governed by the rule of law.

ICELDS: Jewish places of memory in Belarus gradually become tourist attractions, although they have significant potential in educating people about history and ethno-religious diversity. What is their educational potential and how it is actually used by the Belarusian authorities?

LS: I personally oppose the phenomenon of “historical tourism”, as this approach has an odor of simple money making. If tourism lacks an educational element, it cannot sustain in a long-term perspective. Therefore, the concept should be changed. It should rest on a clearly pronounced fact that Jews form a part of Belarus’s history. It is also necessary to have a look on the demographic situation and ethno-confessional relationship in a historical perspective. One should assess what is remaining. Thus, Jewish places of memory in Belarus have a huge educational potential.

There are many non-Jews who are enthusiastically dealing with Jewish heritage in Belarus at the local level. I frequently ask them why they got engaged in these activities. Their answer is always almost the same. They were neither able to learn about local Jewish life from books, nor been told by their families and friends. When they started focusing on local history, they personally learnt about the number and active role of Jews in the life of their native settlements. These local enthusiasts feel injustice for those who significantly contributed to the development of their native towns and cities. They gradually start focusing on this topic and contribute to the preservation of Jewish history at the local level in Belarus.

Much has changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now an adherence to Jewish culture and traditions can be openly declared in Belarus without negative consequences. Similarly, a study of the history of Jews is not punishable. Still people tend to think that what is not allowed is banned, while the state lacks a comprehensive program in this field of history of Jews in Belarus. What is currently being done, is merely the achievement of individual enthusiasts.

This situation should change in order to address an enormous educational potential of history of Jews. The authorities of Belarus should use multifaceted approach. More emphasis should be placed on the fact that Jews are an important part of Belarus’s history, on the cross-cultural interactions, and on joint sufferings during turbulent years. It’s time to restore justice and bring history of Jews in Belarus back from oblivion. Yet, knowledge about other ethnic groups contributes to both mutual and self-respect.

ICELDS: Why in many cases some prominent Jewish sites in Belarus (like those in Lužki, a birthplace of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda) are still neglected? What could be done to improve the current situation?

LS: I visited Lužki two years ago and was appalled by the state of things there. The logic goes that this landmark could serve as a bridge between Belarus and Israel and contribute to the development of mutual understanding and cooperation. Yet, today decisions are frequently made by the people who are focused on current policies and live for the moment. For them, the importance of historical events is not always understandable and significant.

Meanwhile, the main role belongs to the country, where the remnants of Jewish culture are located. The restoration of the monuments of Jewish culture will not require huge financial efforts. The current population of the former shtetls in Belarus has a need to be proud of the history of their birthplaces. This approach should be supported and maintained by the authorities. It forms distinctiveness of the local population and contributes to the promotion of tolerance among them. As a result, this population won’t likely to have Antisemitic sentiments or prejudices towards other ethnic groups.

The State of Israel should also be involved in the initiatives aimed at the preservation of Jewish culture abroad, particularly сoncerning coordination and promotion of activities implemented on-site to a wider public. It will result in a maintenance of a specific linkage between the former shtetls and the descendants of those who once lived there.

This poses the question what Jews have to do with it. Basically, this linkage applies to the representatives of all ethnic groups who once lived in a certain area. However, the contribution of Jews to the economic, cultural and social development of Belarus was enormous. Yet, their involvement is buried in oblivion after the interwar processes of Sovietization and the Holocaust.

Interview conducted by Dr. Kiryl Kascian

Image: Commemorative plaque of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) in Lužki (Belarus), © Leonid Smilovitsky

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