Belarus Inks Agreement to Help Preserve Jewish Sites, Culture

NEW YORK -
Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei (center, left) stands with Ronald Lauder (center, right), president of the World Jewish Congress, at the group’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters Wednesday for the signing ceremony. (Hamodia Photo)
Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei (center, left) stands with Ronald Lauder (center, right), president of the World Jewish Congress, at the group’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters Wednesday for the signing ceremony. (Hamodia Photo)

Towns legendary to the Torah world such as Radin, Mir, Brisk, Grodna and Minsk will soon have a much easier time preserving the remnants of their rich Jewish history.

Toasting what he termed the “first steps” of a budding relationship with the United States, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei signed an agreement Wednesday afternoon in a ceremony in the Midtown Manhattan headquarters of a Jewish organization.

“Many Belarusians made their mark on American history,” Makei said, citing such figures as Irving Berlin, the Jewish-born songwriter considered the greatest American composer of all time. “We believe that this agreement will also help improve the Belarusian heritage in the United States.”

Back dropped by the red, white and blue flag of the United States, and the red and green Belarusian standard, the chairwoman of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, signed on behalf of the Obama administration. Leslie Weiss hailed the agreement as the 25th between the U.S. and a former Soviet satellite.

“It pledges that there will be no discrimination against any group’s efforts to preserve its ancestral property,” Weiss said, speaking at the home of the World Jewish Congress.

Bridget Brink, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, represented the State Department at the signing event.

Brink said that the deal “demonstrates the stronger relationship developing between the peoples of the United States and Belarus,” which had been frozen for years.

“The United States is a proud nation of immigrants,” she said, “and this means that precursors of our rich cultural heritage can be found in many other nations, including Belarus.”

The accord, which comes after three years of negotiations, obligates the government of Belarus to “efforts to protect and preserve places of worship, historic sites, memorials, cemeteries and archival material related all groups, with a focus on groups that were victims of genocide during World War II.”

The effects of the pact would be significant, attendees at the event told Hamodia. The government of President Alexander Lukashenko is seen as rife with bureaucracy, and this would cut the red tape for private groups to clean up cemeteries and restore legendary yeshivah buildings.

A private group currently has plans to refurbish the yeshivah in Volozhin, which was shut down by Tsarist Russia in 1892. It was returned to the Jewish community decades ago but is currently abandoned. The Chofetz Chaim’s yeshivah in Radin is today a non-Jewish cultural center.

The kehillah of Karlin Stolin, named for the two Belarusian towns where the Chassidus began, runs the only yeshivah for children in the central European country. They have about 150 students in the country, primarily in Pinsk.

The Belarusian government is hoping to increase tourism and grow closer to the U.S. through a growing willingness to extend its protection to minority groups.

“Belarus is interested in developing relationships with the United States,” said Makei, the foreign minister who is in town for the annual United Nations General Assembly summit. “There are more things that unite is than divide us. … We agreed that this positive atmosphere should be developed.”

With the Jewish community decimated during the Holocaust years, there was no one to advocate for their abandoned ancestral properties. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the Commission was founded by presidential order to preserve religious sites.