Ancestry Tours: Jewish Heritage in Belarus
People all over the world want to know where their grandparents came from, and to see where and how they lived; maybe to look up long-lost relatives. And that’s especially true for people with Jewish ancestry whose relatives lived in Central and East Europe at the time of the Holocaust.
Websites such as JewishGen.com are huge assets for people researching their family history in this part of the world, with thousands of databases of names and locations of Jewish families and their former towns and shtetls. But, planning a trip to explore your heritage gets more complicated if you have to travel overseas and through formerly forbidden territories to get to where relatives used to live.
MIR’s Director of Sales, Joanna Millick, is particularly interested in Jewish Heritage tours, and is our resident expert. She is from Poland herself and has extensive experience as a tour guide and at hand-crafting Jewish heritage tours. To find out more, you can discuss your heritage travel ideas with Joanna and read the story of how she was drawn to this specialty.
(click on photo to see larger version)
By the beginning of Nazi occupation in 1941, 90,000 Jews lived in Minsk. The Minsk Ghetto was established on the outskirts of town soon after, and the majority of its inhabitants were killed in its first years. What set Minsk apart, however, was the existence of a strong Jewish underground resistance movement, which was able to save nearly 10,000 Jews, a record during the years of the Holocaust.
A Jewish Heritage tour of Minsk includes a visit to the Jewish History and Culture Museum, which features photos, documents, artifacts and films chronicling the Minsk Jewish community since its earliest years. The original Choral Synagogue is still standing, but was totally redesigned as a neo-Gothic Russian drama theater. Most of Minsk’s other synagogues were re-purposed or allowed to fall into disrepair as a result of Soviet state atheism and entrenched anti-Semitism.
The town was an important trade and cultural center as far back as the 12th century. Vitebsk became a significant Jewish settlement, or shtetl, after Catherine the Great’s decree exiling Russian Jews to beyond the Pale of Settlement. As the largest city near the border, Vitebsk drew many of the displaced Jews of St. Petersburg and Moscow. By 1900, almost 35,000 Jews lived in Vitebsk, over 50% of the population.
During WWII, the fighting between the Nazis and the Red Army nearly wiped out the entire population of Vitebsk, and it was not until the end of the 1960s that the town regained its pre-war population. Almost none of these were Jews. Today, more than 350,00 people live in Vitebsk. Its Chagall Museum, established in 1997 on Pokrovskaya Street, where his family lived, has only copies of the artist’s work.
(Top photo credit: Martin Klimenta – The Trees of Life at the Khatyn memorial, Belarus.)
PUBLISHED: January 30, 2015