For hundreds of years Jews lived in little towns called shtetls across Belarus, simple lives of wooden houses, dirt lanes, and Yiddish schools. Then 70 years ago, on June 22, 1941, Hitler’s men swept in and within a short period exterminated perhaps 800,000 of the Jews living there, 8 out of 10. Most survivors couldn’t bear to remain in their villages after the war, and they moved to big cities or abroad.
But a handful of Jews stayed on, and in scattered towns today one or two elderly remain, the guardians of an ancient collective memory. They are resilient, having survived pogroms, the Holocaust, and then the Soviet ban on worship that shuttered synagogues and forced prayer underground.
Why do they stay?
Relatives write from Israel talking of riches and community. Village life in Europe’s last Communist dictatorship is not easy for anyone, and many elderly Jews complain of neighbors who ostracize them. “It was hard to make friends,” says Ida Kaslova, the last Jew in Buda-Koshelevo. “I’ve always felt alone.”
She gets through the harsh winters with foreign charity and compensation from the German government. Other survivors rely on chickens and beets raised in their cottage gardens.
They say they feel rooted to this land. And after all the loss, they couldn’t bear more upheaval. Riva Katz found safety in Uzbekistan during the war and upon returning sought the familiarity of Ivenets village. “My parents were killed. But I knew people here, Jews,” she says. She is one of four left.
Estimates vary as to the size of the remaining Jewish population. The community puts the figure at 25,000; the government census reported half that many. In either case, everyone agrees that immigration to Israel is shrinking the Jewish population every year, to the point that the remaining few synagogues must arrange to have rabbis from abroad come and lead them and teach Hebrew.
Those who remain are the only links to the days when Friday evenings shuttered entire shtetls with Sabbath prayer, and everyone knew Yiddish.