Jakaŭ Hutman: Today's Regime in Belarus Pursues a Policy of State Antisemitism
for Third Way by Michael Timokhov
Third Way (3W): Why did the Jewish people leave Palestine and settle all over the world?
Jakaŭ Hutman (JH): The Jews were banned from their land after an uprising in 69 AD that was brutally stifled by Rome. Since that time and practically till 1948, when the state of Israel was created, they lived in many different places of the world. Some part of the Jewish nation still lived in Israel, but most of them were a diaspora spread worldwide.
3W: When did the first Jewish settlers come to Belarus? What was their occupation, how did they integrate into Belarus?
JH: Until 1917 the assimilation did a small progress and the Jews stayed a relatively closed group of population of the Russian Empire. There were only few cases of Jewish people leaving the community by adopting Christianity.
The official historiography says that Jews came to Belarus around 600 years ago. But still there is evidence of a much earlier Jewish presence in the Belarusian lands. According to a 850 years old legend, the town of Mazyr in central Polesia was found by a Jewish merchant named Mazyr who travelled down the river Prypiać to Kyiv. Suddenly there was a storm on the river, Mazyr's boat turned over and the merchant's 18 years old daughter drawned. The Jewish tradition says that the funeral must take place immediately after the death, and the merchant settled at his daughter's grave.
As to the number of the Jewish population of Belarus, so in 1919-1920 Jews made up 70-80% of the population of cities like Pinsk, Minsk and Babrujsk. In 1896 48-50% of the population of Minsk was Jewish. Right before the World War 2 Jews made up 10% of the population of Belarus. A fact that is not widely remembered now is that the Soviet motto "Workers of All Countries, Unite!" was written on the emblem of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic in Belarusian, Russian, Polish - and Yiddish. There were rural administrative units where all documents were kept and trials were held in Yiddish. Besides that there were numerous Jewish doctors. As Jews were the best educated part of the population, many of them started working for the Bolshevik administration, for the NKVD and Cheka
3W: What are the roots of antisemitism? What was antisemitism like in Belarus in the course of history?
JH: The roots of antisemitism are still unknown. In one countries people hate us for richiness, in the other - for supporting the Bolsheviks et cetera. A known fact is that the second mass killer of Jews after Hitler was Bohdan Khmelnytskyi, the Ukrainian ruler of the 17th century. His troops killed about 300 thousands Jews, that made up an even larger percentage than Hitler's genocide.
As to antisemitism in Belarus, we can say that its level was relatively lower than in other countries. Before the October Revolution there were many Jews and even non-Jewish speakers of Yiddish. But still, pogroms happened in Belarus from time to time as well. For example, there was a major pogrom in the city of Homiel in the beginning of the 20th century.
But because of a higher level of tolerance of the Belarusians towards Jews much more of the people could survive in the ghettos organised here by the Nazis during the World War II. It were, p.e., the Lithuanian national military units who committed mass killings of Jews in Nazi-occupied Belarus - but no Belarusian Polizei was killing Jews in Lithuania or guarding the Warsaw Ghetto. Of course there were individual cases of antisemitic murder, but it was of a much smaller scale than in Lithuania.
There was an interesting case in the times of the Litvin-Polish Commonwealth, when two brothers were ministers of finance: one in Poland and the other in Great Lithuania. The first one adopted Christianity and became a noble status. The other stayed Jewish, and was therefore expelled from the country. After that the economy collapsed and he was invited to come back.
3W: Who are the most famous Jewish people born in Belarus?
JH: We, Jewish people who live or lived in Belarus, are called "Litvak". We are the only people to have a reminder of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in our name. Historically there were Jewish religious centres in different times in different countries of the world. First, after destruction of the First Temple , the centre was in Mesopotamia; in the beginning of the Middle Age the centre was Mauretanian-controlled Spain. In the 18-19 centuries and until the World War II the territories of modern Belarus and the Republic of Lithuania were a centre of Jewish education and religion. The famous Mir Yeshiva was a destination for students from countries as far as Argentina. The Chabad-Lubavich religious movement was created in the Belarusian town of Lubavičy (now part of Russia).
Among famous Belarusian Jewish personalities we can mention the Vilna Gaon (Gaon means "Genius"). Being 13 years old he knew the whole Talmud by Heart. The man had no formal titles but was a religious leader of the whole european Jewry.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the creator of modern Hebrew language, was born in the village Łužki, Viciebsk gubernya. When the question of a language for the furure state of Israel arose, the man said that this language should be Hebrew. Before that Hebrew was used only for praying, but was never spoken in every day life. New words should be invented for all objects and ideas that appeared in the last 1000 years. It was the first case of a revival of a dead language.
Of course, we must mention the great painter Marc Chagall and his teacher Yehuda Pen.
David Sarnoff, the man who is called the Father of American TV, was born in Belarus. Kirk and Michael Douglas are of Belarusian-Jewish descent too.
Israel's former defence minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer has roots from Belarus. The first president of Israel was born in Motal, near Pinsk. Golda Meir was born in Kyiv but grew up in Pinsk. Shimon Peres was born close to Vałožyn, Yitzhak Shamir - in Ružany, Menahem Begin - in Brest. The founder of the Mossad has roots from Viciebsk. And in the USA if you see a Jewish person taking a serious post, you can be 80-90% sure he has at least a grandmother from Belarus. There was some special atmosphere in this land, that made such people grow up. Not the least role played the friedliness of Belarusians towards Jews.
3W: What are the most important Jewish places of Belarus?
JH: For religious Jews the most important are places where great rabbis worked and lived. Vałožyn, Raduń, Lubań, Kleck, Navahrudak, Baranavičy were places of famous yeshivas. In Raduń a man is buried who discovered what the Soviet regime really was about and said that one may leave the country even on Saturdays. In Vałožyn the leaders of the Volozhin Yeshiva are buried, Lubań (Słuck rajon) was until 1936 the working place of Moshe Feinstein. When he died in New York in 1986, 150 thousand people took place in his mourning ceremony, and when he was buried in Israel, 250 thousand people were following his coffin. In his generation he was the personality number one.
In a religious Jewish family every child knows about Raduń, Lubań and about these people - but people rarely know where these places really are. For less religious people, not only Jewish, a memorial place is, of course, Viciebsk, thanks to Chagall and the local artists school.
3W: What is the modern situation with Jewish memorials in Belarus?
The current regime's policy is directed towards their destruction. During the last five years two synagogues were destroyed in Minsk, in Mazyr two Jewish cementaries were destroyed and buildings were erected on their places. You can still find bones laying around in a trench near one of them. The land must have been given to somebody who had enough conscience not to build on a graveyard, but still there is only a trench left that is being turned into a dump.
The current regime pursues a policy of state antisemitism. Propaganda about the "criminal nation of Jews" is carried on by powers loyal to Lukashenka.
3W: The Holocaust is a tragic page of the Jewish history. Everybody knows about the KZ Auschwitz and the genocide in Europe, but there is still few known about the things that happened on the territory of the USSR, in particularily Belarus. What happened here?
JH: In fact more than 800 thousands Belarusian Jews and 55 thousands Jews from Western Europe were killed here. It means that of the 6 Million Jews killed in the Holocaust, 800 thousands (13%) were Belarusian Jews. Why does nobody speak about that?
Here a fact I never told publically before: in Mazyr a 3-volumes-book on the city's history was published, where the self-immolation of Mazyr Jews during the Nazi occupation was simply not mentioned. And this fact is a typical example of the state's attitude to Jews. I don't want to criticise the Soviet regime that is now over - I'm speaking of the things going on in Mazyr since 1994, when Lukashenka was elected president. In May of 1944 4032 bodies were exhumed from five common graves. Today only one of the graves is found, and a monument to people who are buried there, stands appr. 50 meters away from its actual place. It does not say that Jews are buried there, but it only says about "Soviet citizens".
As to Minsk, the Jewish cementary at Kalektarnaja str. (before the Revolution the street used to be called Habrejskaja - "Jewish street") was part of the Ghetto, 20 thousands of people who died in the Ghetto are buried there. Recently the officials denied to add the cementary to the list of national historical and cultural places, although per legislation it should be because of being a mass grave. Per legislation nothing may be done on that place except for sowing grass. But I suspect that they did not include the grave to the list specifically to start some construction there. Besides that, in Mazyr a part of a Russian Orthodox cementary (I'm not even speaking about antisemitism, but simply about barbarism here) was made a place for vegetable plantations, on an other part of it there are already two cottages built up. People who don't respect their own graves are nothing but barbarians.
3W: Do descendants of Jewish emigrants from Belarus remember about their forefathers' homeland?
JH: There is a joke about this: two Russian nouveau riches are laying on the beach, and one asks the other: "Are you missing the Motherland?" And the other man's answer was: "I'm not Jewish to miss Russia". And this joke says the truth in its way. Many people come specially to spend some days here in Belarus,to visit their ancestors' graves. I used to have 17 cousins in Mazyr, but now there is only one nephew left over. I never meet any familiar people on the streets, but when I come to the local cementary I see monuments to my relatives. And I know that every year on the first Saturday of May about 500 former inhabitants of Mazyr meet in Ashdod. In New York there are about 40 of us attending such annual meeting. When we come together, we speak about the town we used to live in, about the modern state of the old graveyards there and so on.
3W: What are the trends in the relations between Belarus and the Belarusian Jewish diaspora, between Belarus and the state of Israel? What should be done to improve them?
JH: The relations have no positive future until there is the Lukashenka regime in Belarus. Besides that the Jewish leaders in Israel and the USA have a huge lack of attention regarding Belarus. They ignore the things going on there.
We do not demand much from the Belarusian authorities. You don't touch Christian cementaries during the last 15 years - so leave our cementaries in peace as well. You have returned many churches back to the Catholic and Orthodox communities - so give the former synagogues back to the Judaic community too. Only when we will be treated equally, there will be no problems for us to help Belarus to take its "honourable place among the other nations", as Janka Kupała used to say.
Europe and the USA, who used to take such measures, must do it again: Belarusian officials respobsible for the state antisemitism must be at least prohibited to enter the Western countries. We know the people who published the book "War According to the Law of Meanness" (a scandalous antisemitic book published by people close to the Belarusian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church). We know the names of all judges who characerised the book as a "collection of scientific articles". We know the names of all the responsible persons who signed the order to destroy the memorial to the Jewish self-immolation in Mazyr, who coordinated the demolition of synagogues in Minsk. I hope to see the day in the future when they will face the trial for their breaking the laws of Belarus - not for destroying a synagogue, but for destroying an object of Belarusian cultural heritage. I really hope Lord will give me the chance to see that day.
3W: What are the relations between Jewish organisations in Belarus and the Belarusian authorities? How do they react to the state antisemitism?
JH: There have always been different tendencies in the behaviour of the Jewish leaders. There were people who put their nation's interests above their own interests - but there has always been the opposite too. This are the sad facts. In Belarus there is an active antisemitic propaganda, synagogues are being destroyed - but there is no real protest from the Jewish community against it, except for a few appeals to the Dear Tsar.
Finally, I do not want to accuse the Belarusian authorities and to the leaders of the Belarusian Jewish commutnity as much as I want to accuse the leaders of Israel, who ignore what is going on on the Jewish street in Minsk, the US Department of State who did not even bother to include the destruction of synagogues and Jewish cementaries in their human rights reports. I have many questions to the leaders of the Jewish organisations in the US who get an annual salary of USD 300,000 or USD 500,000 to protect the interests of Jews worldwide and to fight antisemitism. I have questions to the people who finance them. In a way similar to how they betrayed interests of the European Jewry before the World War II, they betray interests of living and dead Jewish people now.