Belarus remains a hidden gem on the landscape of Jewish cultural heritage in Europe. The Together Plan charity, member of the AEPJ since 2019, has a dedicated team in the country working to bring a national Jewish heritage route into focus. The Together Plan team comprises a Jewish author and historian, an experienced heritage coordinator specialising in the field of Jewish partisans and an administrative team. Across the country we refer to local archivists, tour guides and academics and outside of Belarus we look to collaborate with historians and specialists at the National Library of Israel, Yad Vashem and museums and libraries across the Diaspora.
Through our office in the UK, we broker connections to Jewish Belarusians across the globe, in search of stories and family archive information. Personal stories are of great historical importance. The Together Plan helps people all over the world to access their ancestral records in the archives in Belarus. Information collected in the archives going back to the early 1700’s helps us to understand how Jewish people lived; what hardships they faced, what they did for a living, even what distinctive features they had. The archives before 1917 are, for the most part, well stocked and tell us so much.
In the past six months, The Together Plan team has been working with the support of the AEPJ, the Jewish Heritage Network (Amsterdam) and Izi Travel to create online audio tours. The first two tours have been meticulously mapped, researched, and created in Minsk and in Polotsk and are a superb tool for people, wherever they are in the world, to start discovering Jewish Belarus. For local Belarusians the tours open a door to their own hidden past and for the local Jewish community in the country they play a restorative role, since they validate the very existence of the communities of today.
In Belarus there are Holocaust survivors still living in the places where they experienced the horrors of loss between 1941 and 1944. In the late 1990’s in Minsk, young artists were invited to participate in an exhibition on the theme of the ‘Holocaust’. At the end of the exhibition’s run, the art was placed in storage and forgotten. At the beginning of 2022, these paintings were discovered and handed to one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors in Minsk. The art was then brought to The Together Plan team who took the initiative to bring the exhibition back to life. The restored artworks became the focus of a special event on Holocaust Memorial Day in Minsk and this exhibition is now touring through Belarus. So far 4000 school children have seen the paintings and the exhibition will be displayed for a month at the National Library of Belarus.
In London on the eve of Yom Hashoah, 27th April, JW3 ( London’s Jewish Cultural Centre) in collaboration with the World Zionist Organization and the Israeli Business Club organised a powerful evening featuring the documentary film ‘And You Chose Life’. The film tells the story of Shraga Dgani, a partisan from Ilya, Belarus who fought against the Nazis and for the establishment of the state of Israel. Debra Brunner, The Together Plan’s CEO in London was the invited guest speaker at the event,who gave a lecture on ‘Cultural heritage, preservation of memory and Jewish Belarus’. Orna Shuman, the daughter of Shraga Dgani has given The Together Plan acces to her family story and archival materials for the Ilya section of the Belarus Jewish Route, for which we are immensely grateful as it is these personal real life stories which give insight and meaning to the history of the Jews of Belarus.
May 9th in the former Soviet Union is an auspicious date in the calendar which marks for them, the end of the Second World War – known there as the Great Patriotic War. It is a holiday for all and a day of victory day parades. This year, in Belarus, The Together Plan in collaboration with Belarusian partners on the ground, are commemorating the Minsk Ghetto with the opening of the alley of trees on the land that was the Minsk Jewish cemetery. This cemetery was part of the territory that was the Minsk Ghetto between 1941-1944. The Minsk Municipality has kindly donated and planted 122 trees and 41 plaques will be officially unveiled to remember the names of 41 heroes, partisans and prisoners of the Minsk Ghetto – survivors, righteous gentiles and underground movement fighters. Not through planning, itwas somewhat serendipitous that 41 plaques will feature at the opening, marking 1941 the year the Minsk Ghetto was formed, with 81 trees yet to have plaques. 41 plus 81 brings us to 22 – the year of the opening of this important Jewish site and indeed a site that will feature on the Belarus Jewish Cultural Heritage Trail.
In spite of the focus of our work being on Jewish Belarus, when the war started in Ukraine on February 24th, we launched an appeal to support communities in Moldova and Poland who were welcoming and supporting Ukrainian refugees fleeing the conflict. We are delighted that we were able to send funds to Moldova and Krakow. In Krakow, through the support of The Together Plan, the FestivALT organisation (the alternative Jewish Festival) was able to start a new initiatve for Ukrainian seniors and this programme is proving to be a real lifeline for people in Poland. We were delighted that we could play our part to bring this programme to life.