Friday, 16 September 2016

Russia/Belarus: fruitful summer research on Jewish heritage

Sefer – the Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization in Moscow — carried out three weeklong field schools this summer during which students documented Jewish material heritage and carried out interviews and other research on local Jewish history and traditions.

Two of the sessions took place in Russia — in Smolenskaya oblast and in Bryansk district — and one took place in Belarus, in Beshenkovichi, where one of the aims was to completely document the Jewish cemetery as part both of a broader catalogue of Jewish cemeteries in the country and a general Jewish heritage preservation project in the town .

The idea to organize the school in Beshenkovichi was initiated by the project of preserving and reconstruction of historical heritage of Beshenkovichi shtetl. This project is coordinated by Jewish community of Vitebsk and international community “Beshenkovichi Shtetl Memorial Restoration” (led by Anna Klimovich from Saint Petersburg). Volunteers from different countries have worked for two years on the Jewish cemetery in Beshenkovichi. Now there is an idea to create a Jewish museum in Beshenkovichi. Sefer Center decided to support the initiative of the international team and joined the project by organizing the field school on Jewish ethnography and epigraphics.

Some 29 people took part in the August 3-12 session in Beshenkovichi which was organized by Sefer Center together with the Institute of Slavonic Studies (Russian Academy of Sciences) and supported by Genesis Philanthropy Group, UJA Federation of NY and Russian Science Foundation.

During the field work

the Jewish cemetery in Beshenkovichi was catalogized completely (1200 tombstones were described). First tombstones are dated from the end of the 18th century, the latest – the beginning of the 20th century. A detailed map of the cemetery was made too.

The session in Bryansk, July 24-August 2, was also organized by the Sefer Center together with the Institute of Slavonic Studies (Russian Academy of Sciences) and supported by Genesis Philanthropy Group, UJA Federation of NY and Russian Science Foundation. There were 25 participants.

In addition to ethnographic work, the students fully documented several Jewish cemeteries — one of which has several wooden grave markers, and one had many matzevot made from repurposed millstones.

The epigraphic group succeded to catalogize completely the Jewish cemetery in Surazh, the remains of Jewish cemetery in Mglin and especially interesting old part of Jewish cemetery in Unecha (where even five wooden matsevot were preserved). 1000 epitaphs were recorded in total. Each matseva was read, cleaned, photographed, measured and put on the map (there were also professional geodesists in the group). On the old parts of actual cemetery in Surazh monuments from the 1880s were found, with beautiful decoration and fonts. The matsevot on the Mglin cemetery also were interesting by decoration and shape – most of them were made from millstones.

Participants will now make a catalogue and maps of cemeteries, for eventual publication.

The session in Smolenskaya oblast, during which students worked in Roslavl, Smolensk and the small former shtetls of Stodolishche, Pochinka and Shumiachi, was a continuation of ethnographic research organized by the Center in 2015 and consisted primarily of ethnographic research.