Ancestry Tours: Jewish Heritage in Belarus

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 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.

Jewish Heritage Tour ExpertsWith over 30 years of regional knowledge and on-the-ground representation, MIR is an expert at designing independent trips for Jewish people searching for their roots, or their relatives, in Central and East Europe. We are experts in Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and the Baltics, all countries that fell beyond the Pale of Settlement that Catherine the Great decreed back in the late 18th century.

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.

WW II memorial in Minsk, Belarus. Photo credit: Joanna Millick.

WW II memorial in Minsk, Belarus
Photo credit: Joanna Millick

Travel to Belarus – Just Beyond the PaleJust across the border from Russia and at the edge of the Pale of Settlement, Belarus has a long legacy of Jewish life, nearly ending with the Second World War.

(click on photo to see larger version)

MinskJews have lived in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, since the 16th century. A vital and flexible community, the Minsk Jews were able to adapt and thrive as the city changed hands from the Kingdom of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the Russian Empire. Minsk became one of the largest and most important Jewish communities in Russia, with a Jewish population of over 50,000.

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.

Minski, BelarusPhoto credit: Joanna Millick

Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus
Photo credit: Joanna Millick

KhatynSituated 37 miles north of Minsk, the village of Khatyn was razed in a Nazi reprisal in 1943 and all of its residents except one perished. The site is now a memorial with a sculpture of the only survivor, Yuzif Kaminsky. Located nearby are other reminders of Belarus’ war suffering: the Graveyard Villages, honoring 186 villages that the Nazis annihilated; the Trees of Life, remembering 433 other places which were destroyed but rebuilt; and the Memory Wall, listing the Nazi concentration camps in Belarus and commemorating their victims.

Khatyn Village, Belarus<br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Symbolic chimneys of destroyed villages at Khatyn, Belarus
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

VitebskVitebsk, on the shores of the Dvina River near the border with Russia and Latvia, is the fourth largest city in Belarus. It is best known as the hometown of artist Marc Chagall, and the setting for many of his dream-like paintings.

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.

Khatyn Village, Belarus<br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

The Graveyard of Villages at Khatyn, Belarus. Each plot includes a handful of soil from its destroyed village
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Discover Your Heritage with MIR

MIR has been designing unforgettable custom itineraries though the modest little towns of Belarus for over 30 years.

Explore Belarus on an Award-Winning TourMIR’s small group tour, Belarus, Ukraine & Moldova, earned the title of “Tour of a Lifetime” by National Geographic Traveler.

To find out more about our custom & private travel expertise,  connect with a Private Journey Specialist to get started planning your own Jewish Heritage trip to Belarus.


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(Top photo credit: Martin Klimenta – The Trees of Life at the Khatyn memorial, Belarus.)

PUBLISHED: January 30, 2015

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2 thoughts on “Ancestry Tours: Jewish Heritage in Belarus

  • Nancy A. Horowitz Flagle

    I would like to take my 91 year old mother on a visit to the area from which our family emigrated. The name of the shetl was pronounced “Lepla”. Those of our family who did not emigrate to the usa before 1920 did not survive. I know this would be an unimaginable and beyond wonderful experience for us. Is this trip even possible to contemplate?

    • Аляксандр Белы

      if you are still interested in this tour, please contact me. I am a gide to Jewish Belarus, and incidentally, my ancestors come from Lepel (correct spelling) and area. Alexander