What's the difference?

  • 2000-06-08
  • By Nick Coleman
As Belarusians commemorated victory in World War II, Nick Coleman asked: How is life for the country's Jews?

People don't want to study about Jews in schools. It's boring. Everyone suffered in the war. One in four Belarusians died," said 18-year-old Anna Yurovskaya, a youth leader at the Daumana Street orthodox synagogue in Minsk. The other teenagers there seem evenly divided on the issue.

They are probably better informed than their non-Jewish counterparts. Nikolai Fyeskov, head of secondary education at the Ministry of Education said: "Study of the Holocaust has been more extensive in recent years."

Pupils write essays and attend conferences, and teachers are better prepared, he says. But students, and a teacher tell The Baltic Times that little is taught about the Holocaust in schools.

But young Jews see themselves less in terms of the fight against anti-Semitism than their parents, according to Mark Gitler, American director of the Lech-Lecha (Find Yourself) youth center.

"I hear a lot about skinheads who don't like Jews, but I've never had big problems," Kostya Volman, 19, said.

In one of Minsk's concrete suburbs, Vika Brumina shows me round the Hased Rekhamin Welfare Centre, from which professionals and volunteers provide health care to elderly and house-bound Jewish people. Brumina is executive director of the Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Associations and Communities (UBJPAC). It brings together a wide variety of organizations, many supported by sponsors in the United States, for the "revival of the Jews of Belarus as a national and cultural commonality."

"Anti-semitism is not increasing," Brumina says. Mikhail Burshtein agrees. As a soldier in the Red Army, he took part in the Battle of Stalingrad and the advance on Berlin.

But in 1950, as a journalist for Minsk Pravda, "I was advised to take a non-Jewish name, if I wanted my articles published. Now there is no such anti-semitism in Belarus," he said.

The Jewish veterans' organization Burshtein now heads marked Victory Day on May 9 with 100 grams of vodka per person - a day's army ration - "to remind them about their past."

As a teenager, Mikhail Treyster lived in Minsk's ghetto, then in a concentration camp, before escaping, and joining a partisan brigade. He is sure World War II was different for Belarus' Jews. As well as thousands delivered from western and central Europe, 800,000 Belarusian Jews died, leaving 2 percent of the pre-war population.

"The fascists claimed to be supermen, but afterwards I saw them hanging in nooses. In their convulsions they didn't look like supermen," he said.

Treyster now heads the Association of Former Ghetto and Concentration Camp Prisoners which commemorates the dead and helps survivors claim benefits. They are also creating a holocaust museum. The first small room opened last year. But, like Anna Yurovskaya, Treyster does not think school pupils should have to study the Holocaust:

"The best way to kill any idea is to make it too global and compulsory," she said.

Brumina, Burshtein and Treyster all fear that increased anti-Semitism in Russia could spread to Belarus. Jewish leaders are bringing court cases against Orthodox Initiative, a publisher with links to the Orthodox Church. Orthodox Initiative recently published a 470-page anthology of mostly Russian, anti-Semitic texts, War By Mean Laws, with a print run of 30,000 copies.

The cover illustration shows Belarus and Russia (two people in respective national costumes shaking hands) being attacked by an axe-wielding devil, with stereotypical Jewish features. From above, an angel strikes the devil with a lightning bolt. In the 21st century, the epilogue claims, "Jewishness, in the guise of world democracy, is the most serious challenge faced by the Russian people."

The Belarusian Orthodox Church, however, says it is not anti-Semitic. Andrei Petrashovich, press secretary to the Patriarchal Exarch, points to the Patriarchal Exarch's contribution to a recent book commemorating the founding of Jerusalem.

"Hello Jerusalem" is a vivid example of cooperation between the Church and Jewish communities. War By Mean Laws did not have the Church's blessing, and does not reflect the official point of view. Relations between the communities are diplomatic and constructive," he said.

Yakov Bassin, UBJPAC vice president, claims to represent the majority of Jews for whom the Torah is not God's word, and who accept marriage with non-Jews. But their lack of knowledge of their history, traditions, and the Yiddish language concerns him. Cultural and educational programs within the UBJPAC aim to address this. But for Bassin, the state's inaction against War By Mean Laws is symptomatic of its suppression of Belarus' Jewish and non-Jewish language and culture. An arson at the Daumana Street synagogue last year and vandalism in Jewish cemeteries have not resulted in court convictions, evidence, he says, of state anti-Semitism.

When one suggests that suppressing texts can make them more attractive, he responds: "We aim to attract public attention when the authorities don't react to discourage further publications. The state press has been silent. Jews can't leave these claims unchallenged."

At Daumana Street synagogue, theology is not the liberal kind Bassin promotes. Gitler says, for example, that homosexuality "is against the Torah, which is the word of God." The young people there are different from their parents.

"I know more about the Torah and praying," Volman said.

Conditions in Belarus prompt many Jews to emigrate to Israel. Records from Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs show that 63,176 emigrated there between 1989 and 1998.

"If you have a way of escape, you take it," one woman, who asked not to be named, said. Her son, an ecology student, emigrated two years ago, thus avoiding a compulsory three-year work placement in the contaminated zone near Chernobyl.

"His friends here are earning 11,000 rubles ($12) a month," she said.

But others see their futures here.

"I love my country. I want to help rebuild it," Sergei, a student and journalist, said. o

The Minsk Holocaust Museum is at the Association of Jewish Culture, 6 Internationalnaya Street. Telephone: 17 2201236