On the eve of World War II, some 25,000 Jews (fifty percent of the total population) lived in the city of Brest-Litovsk, then in Poland, before that in Lithuania, and today in Belarus. Only 14 of them survived to return to the town after the war, despairingly seeking their way through the destruction and heaps of rubble of what had been one of the most glorious communities in Jewish history.
The city of Brest -- or Brisk, as it was known to its Jewish inhabitants -- recently marked the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Menachem Begin, former prime minister of Israel and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, with a ceremony and exhibition dedicated to his memory and his life's work. On the stage in the central auditorium of the local cultural center, small children danced a hora to the tune of "Red Halayla" ("Night is Falling") and the singer Dorit Reuveni sang songs of the Jewish underground. The elders of Brisk would undoubtedly have been rubbing their eyes in disbelief if they had heard the strains of Ze'ev Jabotinsky's "The East Bank of the Jordan" ("Two banks has the Jordan -- this is ours and that is as well...") and Michael Ashbel's "Up the Barricades" while the mayor of the town enthusiastically applauded.
This came at the close of a packed week of cultural events organized by the educational project Limmud FSU (Former Soviet Union). This incredible undertaking is the brainchild of Chaim Chesler, past treasurer of the Jewish Agency, together with Sandra Cahn of New York and Mikhail Chlenov of Russia. Chesler was one of the first people in the forefront of the struggle for the release of Soviet Jewry. Limmud FSU is now in its seventh year of its educational events directed at Russian-speaking Jews in all the countries of the former Soviet Union, in the U.S. and in Israel, and is part of Limmud International, the worldwide educational project started over 33 years ago in the U.K. and now active in over 60 countries.
During the week, more than 500 Jews -- men, women and children -- gathered together for an intensive celebration of Jewish culture and identity. In the land where some 800,000 Jews were led to their deaths in crematoria, gas chambers and in huge pits where they were shot like ducks in a shooting gallery, tens of lectures and presentations took place in front of packed audiences. Among them were speakers from Israel including Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein; the founder and director of the Yiddishshpiel theater company, Shmuel Atzmon; Yaakov Achimeir, the noted television and radio journalist and Israel Prize laureate; Professor Raphael Walden of Sheba Medical Center, together with his wife Dr. Zvia Walden (daughter of President Shimon Peres, who dedicated a center devoted to her father in his birthplace, the nearby village of Vishneyeva); television producer and director Boris Maftzir; singer and actor Sassi Keshet, and others.
For decades after the war, the Jews of Belarus were totally cut off from Jewish culture. The land which had given birth to some of the most important figures in modern Jewish and Israeli history, including Chaim Weizmann, Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Shamir, Nahum Goldmann, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, artists Marc Chagall and Chaim Soutine, writer Mendele Mocher Sefarim, and Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik and the Soloveitchik dynasty of rabbis, had been decimated and robbed of any Jewish content.
The communist rulers of the Soviet Union took care to eliminate from memory the little that remained. Jewish cemeteries, some of them many centuries old, were ploughed over and converted to playing fields and shopping centers. Synagogues were converted to theaters and sports halls and even the few monuments erected in memory of the victims recorded the "deaths of faithful Soviet citizens," with no mention that they were Jews.
After the immigration of tens of thousands of Belarusian Jews to Israel and their descendants, those that are left are wrestling with their Judaism. Up to just a few years ago, many of them knew nothing of their culture or their Jewish heritage. But today, in the streets of Minsk, Vitebsk and Brest, many of them can be seen with kippot on their heads and Stars of David around their necks, proud both of their Judaism and their Zionism and searching for ways to embrace them and discover them anew. Events such as Limmud serve to reinforce their identity and ensure that the chain will continue unbroken.