Visit to Belarus in November 2019

Simon Kaplinsky, the Steering Committee Chair and Foundation Chief Executive Michael Mail had a week long visit to Belarus in early November. Their report is below.

We met and in some cases re-met officials at government level, local activists, consultants and of course the Mayor of Slonim. Our feeling on our return to the UK was that the initiative to bring the Slonim Great Synagogue back to life has taken a big step forward. Indeed, the time felt right for this project. Civic society in Belarus is becoming more aware of the Jewish contribution and the need to acknowledge and highlight it, and in particular to commemorate the Holocaust.

Discussions with Mayor Henadzi Khomich

In Belarus, the Second World War has been memorialised as a tragedy for the nation as a whole, without acknowledging the magnitude of the disaster for the Jews in particular. There is now a growing recognition of the great contribution made by the Jewish community to the country over many centuries and we found widespread support for the retention and repair of the synagogue, in particular from the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Minsk and from the Foreign Ministry. The Foreign Ministry is charged with increasing tourism, especially among people with family links to the country, and considered our project to be potentially an important aspect of this work. In London, the Belarusian Ambassador had previously acknowledged the lack of a Holocaust Museum in Belarus and suggested we consider providing one in Slonim as part of our initiative.

We visited a newly completed and very moving memorial at the Trostinets Camp outside Minsk designed by Galina Levina. She is a prominent Jewish architect who knows Slonim well and has been advising us. She participated in producing the record drawings of the synagogue in the 1990s which will help guide us in the future restoration. We met many other people from civic society. The most surprising and exhilarating visit was to the studio of a group of artists led by Alexandr Austrakh who have worked together for many years recording historic buildings and restoring art work. They are avid Yiddish speakers and gave us a warm welcome through Yiddish song! In the 1990s they visited the synagogue in Slonim and were appalled to find the frescos being ruined by water coming through the roof. They made drawings of the main frescos capturing their colour and vibrancy and also incredibly detailed drawings of the structure. A great find and their drawings will hopefully have a prominent place in the museum to be.

Wherever we went we found surprising connections and support. At our meeting with the Chief Rabbi of Belarus, he gave us a strong endorsement.

In terms of the crucial meeting with the Mayor of Slonim, we came well prepared with ideas and proposals as success clearly depends on his support. He is focused on growing the local economy quickly and smartening up the town. To get his backing we need to demonstrate that we are serious and capable. We were able to show that we have already repaired loose roof sheets and most recently installed devices to assess if the walls, which have significant cracks, are moving. They have to be left in place for some months before the results become available in May 2020.

Fixing the crack monitors

We brought our first thoughts on how to move forward which we presented to the Mayor. It provided the basis of a constructive discussion. On our return to London we revised our proposal in the light of the Mayors priorities and have resubmitted them to him. We await his response but anticipate that it will take further discussion to find a satisfactory set of plans.

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