The Last Shtetl Jews of Belarus

From the Forward

It’s a lonely life for Jews who returned to their shtetls after nearly everyone else was massacred. More than 600,000, or 90%, of Belarusian Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. Today, most of these market towns have but a handful of Jews left struggling to get by on pensions so slim — sometimes no more than $120 a month — that they sometimes have to choose between heat and food. These survivors are often sickly, and unlike most Belarusian elderly, they lack extended family to take care of them.

People in villages can count on potatoes and cucumbers grown on small plots behind their homes, provided that they are in good enough physical condition to bend down and harvest them. Often, isolated seniors rely on neighbors and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee which, through Hesed welfare centers, provides home visits, meals and winter aid. For Nazi victims among these elderly, aid from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany is distributed by the JDC. The help isn’t much, and sometimes visits are no more frequent than once every three months. But it all alleviates suffering and reminds Belarus’s lonely elderly citizens of communities lost.

What the aid cannot restore is the collective memory of shtetl life that is about to vanish. When these last people pass on, so will 350 years of vibrant Jewish tradition in Belarus, which was once a major center of European Jewry and the cradle of Hasidism.

The Forward’s Judith Matloff recently traveled throughout Belarus to document some of the last shtetl Jews there.

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