FSU Seminar

Vilnius, Lithuania and
Minsk, Belarus

The Hornstein-BGI FSU Seminar is an immersive, transformative learning opportunity for students in their second year of study.

It is carried out in partnership with the Brandeis Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry and made possible in part with support from the Genesis Philanthropy Group.

Display at the Belarusian Great Patriotic War Museum, Belarus.

The Holocaust through a Belarusian Lens

By David Korenthal

As North Americans, I believe we have a well-defined sense of what happened in World War II. In a nutshell, the European Allies fought valiantly, the Americans entered the war and helped lead the invasion of Normandy, we made our way through France and into Germany, and lo, the war was ended!

While there are obviously many more details, the basic story is one of American and Allied triumph. When we learn the history, we learn that the Soviets played a large part, but we seldom talk about them in relation to the victory. Mostly we view the Soviets as yet another party involved in the war.

I was therefore surprised when the first thing we heard when we began our tour with Natalia, the Belarusian Great Patriotic War Museum’s guide, was that the museum was “dedicated to the Soviet victory over the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War.” I knew immediately that it was going to be a version of World War II that I had hardly learned about before.

The area that is now Belarus suffered greatly during that war. Because it was the most direct route from Berlin to Moscow, it ended up being the battlefield of the Eastern Front. In addition to the decimation suffered by the Jewish population, nearly a third of the entire Belarusian population was killed during the war. Today, that has manifested itself in a general sense that the whole country is made of “survivors,” which is further compounded by the fact that Minsk itself has been destroyed at least once a century for the last eight hundred years.

It seemed, as we made our way through the Belarusian Great Patriotic War Museum, that who died was somewhat less relevant than the Soviet triumph over the Nazis. This narrative, heavy on the Soviet victory, acknowledged that there was a sizeable Belarusian Jewish population, but hardly went further than that.

During our visit to the museum, a group of young school children on their own tour was just behind us. While they generally stopped at the same locations as we did, there was a noticeable difference in their route as opposed to ours. As we stopped in the one section dedicated to the Jewish population, complete with Nazi and soviet propaganda, relics from the Einsatzgruppen (German killing squads that swept the countryside), and profiles of prominent Jews from the area, the young schoolchildren received just one comment from their tour guide.

Alena, our classmate and resident Russian-speaker, overheard the guide say to the children, “Before the war, there were many Jews here, but they were all killed.” The guide then went on to describe one of the many brutal methods the Nazis used to exterminate the Jewish population, and then continued on with the tour.

It seemed an odd presentation of the Holocaust, by our standards, but as our tour with Natalia continued, we realized that acknowledgement of the former Jewish population might just be the best the Belarusian narrative can do. As North American Jews, we know there was so much more that can be said about the Holocaust and the attempted genocide of the Jewish people. That narrative doesn’t seem to be taught in schools.

Soviet influence and uniformity have had a great influence on the way Belarusians think of themselves today. Their view is that everyone survived WW II. One group’s survival or death is no more significant than any other group’s survival.

While perhaps a hard pill to swallow for Jewish professionals who deal daily with the conversations of Jewish exceptionalism, it was striking to experience a culture where survival is valued universally.