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A Jewish legacy is vanishing in Belarus 70 years after Hitler

On June 22, 1941, Hitler’s men swept into Belarus and within a short period, killed some 800,000 of the Jews living there. Of those who remained, most left. A few stayed, but even now that number is dwindling.

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Riva Katz is one of four Jews in Ivenets, a shtetl wiped out by Nazis. She survived, as village children had been evacuated to Uzbekistan. June 22 marks the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Belarus.

Diana Markosian

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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.”

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