The European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative will launch in early July a three-month project to “comprehensively survey the Jewish cemeteries of Belarus.” Training is currently under way for the teams that will go out in the field.
ESJF said its survey teams will spread out across Belarus, “providing a full mapping of all the Jewish cemeteries in the country and their current state.”
ESJF said it expects that as many as 500 sites will be surveyed, and a full report will be published in the autumn. (The Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus has a list of more than 150 Jewish cemeteries on its web site.)
“We are very grateful also to our local partners in the Jewish community in Belarus and particularly to Chief Rabbi Mordechai Raichinstein for his technical support for this project,” ESJF said in a statement on its Facebook page.
The project is funded by the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.
It follows on from a bilateral agreement signed in September 2016 between the U.S. and Belarus regarding the protection and preservation of cultural property, focusing on that of groups “that were victims of genocide during World War II and are no longer able to protect and preserve properties without assistance.”
The bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Belarus is one of 25 such accords currently in effect. These agreements have resulted since the mid-1990s in surveys of Jewish cemeteries and other heritage sites in Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania, Moldova, Slovenia, Croatia, Ukraine. All these are available online in downloadable form on the U.S. Commission web site.
Belarus was renowned for synagogues, sages and yeshivas but has seen its Jewish heritage devastated over the past century, both by World War II and by Soviet rule: today’s Belarus was a constituent republic of the Soviet Union until 1991.
Many of the hundreds of Jewish cemeteries were destroyed, their gravestones were removed for use as paving and construction, and the sites Jewish cemeteries and mass graves were built over, ignored or marked with monuments that failed to note that the victims were Jews.
Some work on documenting Jewish cemeteries in Belarus has already been carried out, but seemingly not in the comprehensive manner of the ESJF/Commission survey.
In August 2016, for example, some 29 people took part in a field work session in Beshenkovichi , Belarus, one of whose aims was to completely document the Jewish cemetery as part both of a broader catalogue of Jewish cemeteries in the country and a general Jewish heritage preservation project in the town. The project was organized by the Sefer Center together with the Institute of Slavonic Studies (Russian Academy of Sciences) and supported by Genesis Fund, UJA Federation of NY and Russian Science Foundation.
During the field work the Jewish cemetery was completely catalogued, with 1,200 gravestones describes, and a detailed map of the cemetery was made.