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Belarusian Jews divided over war on their doorstep

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There’s a Jewish “joke” in Belarus that the Jews cried when Ukraine was born. They understood it would lead to bloodshed. Not only has that prophecy come true a few times in history, but we’re watching it unfold again before our eyes.

Both Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus trace their heritage to the Kyivan Rus’ federation in eastern and northern Europe from the late 9th century to mid-13th century. The countries have much more in common with each other from a historical, cultural, and linguistic perspective than either does with Russia.

My grandmother, Sara Altuska, came from the Belarusian city of Brest. The sole Jewish reminder of her now vanished world are its tombstones that date back to 1830, and even they haven’t escaped the vestiges of war.

“As children, we played football with the skulls and bones we found here,” a stooped over elderly man, walking past where the old Jewish cemetery used to be, tells me in Russian. A soccer field has since been built with a parking area and sports club at the one end and an open field at the other. As I look around, I see broken Jewish tombstones lying among the unruly grass in the backyard of people’s homes. Many used them to pave their basement floors.

“No-one stopped us from taking them,” the old Belarusian man continues. “No-one cared about that.”

But 86-year-old Frida Reizman cares a great deal. She lost more than 100 close members of her family in the Holocaust, and remembers all too clearly that “when we were in the ghetto, we were more afraid of the Ukrainians, Poles, and Lithuanians than the Germans. All the guards in the concentration camps were Ukrainian, and they were so brutal – they just wanted to kill Jews.

“You can’t hide a crime. For many years, it was hidden in the Soviet Union and no-one talked about the participation of Ukrainians on the side of Hitler and the Nazis. But now, G-d is punishing them”.

Between 10 000 to 25 000 Jews live today across Belarus. The numbers are hard to establish because many don’t even know they are of Jewish origin. Most are descendants of survivors.

Thirty-two-year-old Alexandra Astashkevich found out by chance that her great-grandparents were Jewish. A school friend invited her to a Shabbat meal, and after telling her parents how much she enjoyed it, they rather matter-of-factly mentioned the family’s Jewish roots. Astashkevich lives in Polotsk, the oldest city in Belarus, which once boasted an 80% Jewish population but today has a community that, “I can count on my fingers. The problem is that a lot of Jewish teenagers don’t know they’re Jewish,” she says.

The links with Ukraine are strong.

“I’m nervous about what’s happening there. I have lots of friends there. Ukraine, for me, was always close. We went to the Black Sea several times. I had a lot of vacations there. I like Ukrainian music and TV shows. The Ukrainian people and culture are close to me.”

Astashkevich believes the Jewish community, like the broader Belarusian society, is divided over Russian president Vladimir Putin’s war against their neighbour.

“Unfortunately, many people in Belarus support Putin’s politics because a lot of older people watch only local TV which is full of propaganda. They can’t think critically. Like my mother-in-law. She says, it’s on TV, and so it must be true; they only tell the truth.

“But I mix with people who have the same thoughts as me. We all feel scared because at any moment, the war can come to our home and cities. I just don’t believe Putin. I don’t believe a word he says.”

Rabbi Mordechai Raichinstein was born in the Belarusian city of Mohilev and is also a descendant of survivors. He jokes that when people ask him what Putin is thinking, he replies, “I don’t know, he hasn’t called me in a few weeks.”

He’s reluctant to give his thoughts on the war because he believes a rabbi’s opinion can affect the Jewish community. But he’s prepared to say, “It’s very complicated. It doesn’t matter what side a person is on, I’m very sorry that people are being killed and of course, I want the bloodshed to end immediately because every life has a value.”

Like Astashkevich, Raichinstein doesn’t believe Nazism is a particular threat in Ukraine, although he feels there’s antisemitism everywhere “because people don’t like someone who is different. Everyone knows the names of people who were Ukrainian antisemites, and when you walk past and see their names on a bench or a memorial, it doesn’t make you feel good. The Ukrainians built a statue of the antisemite Bohdan Khmelnytsky [he unified all spheres of Ukrainian society that led to the National Liberation War of the Ukrainian people in the 17th century]. He’s a national hero in Ukraine. I’d prefer that they get rid of the statue, but just because it’s there doesn’t mean the Ukrainians are Nazis.”

In his private capacity, he has helped all those who have phoned from Ukraine, although very few refugees have come to Belarus and the Jewish community hasn’t organised a formal response.

“Everyone has his or her own opinion about the war, and it just causes arguments and divisions in the community, so it’s better for people not to give their opinion. The connection between Belarus and Russia is tight, particularly financially. The governments are also close and one can cross the border without any problems. At the same time, Jewish people tend to feel for Ukraine because we understand what it’s going through.”

As for Belarus, he’s never encountered any antisemitism, and says he’s not afraid of it. The only comment he’s ever received is the question, “How does your kippah not fall off?”

But Holocaust survivor Reizman disagrees.

“My mom always said, ‘Watch out and be careful of Ukrainians and Poles’. That’s how Jews felt right after the war. I still don’t have any connection with them. There’s a problem with neo-Nazism in Ukraine. The problem exists everywhere – in the family, in the community, in the country, and of course, the best way to solve it is through dialogue and kindness. But as we see now, that didn’t work, and so we have a military conflict.

“The conflict needs to be stopped as soon as possible, but the dialogue and kindness isn’t coming from the top. People need to think about who they vote to be their leaders.

“America has a hand in this conflict. It’s trying to build its military and if the reports are true, it has also built biological laboratories in Ukraine. Joe Biden is a criminal, and is more responsible for what is happening than the Ukrainians.”

As for my grandmother, I walk around the city of her birth, uncovering precious little. It’s as if a Jewish community, which accounted for more than half of the city’s inhabitants before the Nazis murdered nearly 30 000 of them in 1942, has simply disappeared. In 1944, when the Soviets liberated Brest, only nine Jewish citizens were alive.

The tragedy of the Holocaust is twice-enforced here because so many Jews disappeared into mass pits without a name or outward sign of where they died. My grandmother never knew what happened to her parents, grandparents, and cousins. The only reminder is the tombstones, some broken, others intact, that are still surfacing all over the area. I’m desperately hoping to find my family’s name on one.

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