By Laura Phillips
On 9th April 2014 Five FRS families, 11 adults, 5 Bnei Mitzvot and two 10 year olds, together with Nigel Roberts, author of the Bradt Guide to Belarus, set out on a visit to Belarus to see first hand what the Bnei Mitzvah twinning project was all about.
It's hard to know where to start and what to tell you about our trip, as there was so much crammed into a very short time.
- I could tell you about our arrival in Minsk and the first meal we had together in a lovely restaurant, which of course included Latkas and Herring.
- I could tell you about the first morning in Minsk where we met Frieda Wulfovna at the memorial for the Minsk Ghetto, her exceptional story of life in the Minsk Ghetto and the horrific cruelty of the Germans.
- I could tell you about the Minsk Holocaust Survivors’ Museum and how shocked we were to hear that the Minsk Jewish community pre-war was 60% of Minsk, and post war almost extinct, but it wasn’t just people from Minsk who perished here.
- I could tell you about how communism suppressed the information to the Belarusians and how they only recently learnt the history of their own country.
- I could tell you about how it wasn't just the Jews the Germans killed, but Belarusians at will. Overall a third of the population was wiped out.
- I could tell you about the eccentric and talented artist Vladimir Shappo and his treasure trove of a studio. An artist who gives some of his earnings to help self sufficiency project, who isn’t Jewish, but thinks he could be.
- I could tell you about the memorial at Khatyn where we remember 186 Belarusian villages burned to the ground by the Germans.
- I could tell you about Marc Chagall and where he was born, lived and was inspired to paint in Vitebsk, and how he loved the colour blue.
- I could tell you about the city of Vitebsk that before the war was home to 170,000, after the war 110, but is now vibrant and has a huge arena for concerts and hosts an annual music festival.
- I could tell you about the daily dose of Latkas and herring and the great food we had at every meal.
- I could tell you about the vodka, but best not…
- I could tell you about the fun the kids at the back of the bus were having as they made up songs about the trip.
- I could tell you about our Shabbat game of kindness and how much fun we all had with it, and how I loved being serenaded by the group on the bus with a song written by the kids.
- I could tell you about the memorial in the woods in Polotsk to 8000 Jews who were massacred there and the beautiful poems the teenagers read before they lit candles and we said Kaddish.
- I could tell you about the Friday night service at the Finchley Foundation Centre in Polotsk and how wonderfully confident the community are now at running the service.
- I could tell you about the special moment when our FRS children all said kiddish and bonded the two communities.
- I could tell you about the honour of being present to witness Boris and Dasha’s Bnei Mitzvot and how proud their families were to see them read from the Torah.
- I could tell you about the yummy lunch we had in the home of Raya, Sasha and Eylena, which of course included Latkas among other great local delicacies.
- I could tell you about our tour of Polotsk with Larissa who teaches the children English at Sunday School, and all we learned about the history of the area.
- I could tell you about the children of Belarus who put on a play for us in traditional dress and sang songs in the Belarusian language.
- I could tell you about the Eco restaurant we visited on the last night and the tree we planted there in the name of FRS and the Finchley Foundation in Polotsk.
- I could tell you about Artur who looked after us, translated for us and generally made sure we were where we needed to be, and Timor who drove us everywhere we needed to go.
- I could tell, you about Jonathan Clingman from FRS who did a great job translating for us and who does so much work with the b’nei mitzvot in the community.
- I could tell you about Debra Brunner and how much work she does for the community and what a difference one person who really cares can make, but hopefully you already know that.
- I could go on and tell you many more things about the trip...
But what I really want to tell you is hard to put into words, the feelings and emotions, the deep sadness of the history coupled with the joy of seeing a community reinvented. Of the passion they have to learn and get back their Jewish identity, of how much the work Debra and the rest of the work our community do here in London, makes a real difference to the daily lives of the people of this special new-born community in Belarus.
It’s hard to describe how special and emotional it is to see the children in Polotsk bringing their parents and grandparents into the Jewish world they were denied and to start to build community. Things we take for granted are just not there, and together we need to work to give them back a little of what we have always been privileged to have.
They made us feel so welcome that in a short time, we did not need to understand the words, for at a basic human level we are all family and that is why we will support this community to be self-sufficient, to learn to be Jewish and to pass on what they learn to others. My family originated from somewhere in the region, I’m not sure where, but I felt at home and know that it’s just a twist of fate that has us here in the UK with the freedom we have rather than being in a country where life is tough in a way we will never fully understand. We all had an amazing experience and a whole lot of fun with it, one we will never forget. So if Debra ever asks would you like to go, my advice is just do it, you will not regret it.