The history of the Belarusian nation is very complex and unclear. From the medieval times on, Belarusian people had belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, then to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and then, in the 18th century, Belarusian territories were incorporated into the Russian Empire. Its complicated history led to the occurrence in the Belarusian historiography of many different cultural narratives.
Up to this day, the notion that Belarus is part of Russia is commonly viewed as true. Moreover, it is widely believed that Belarus was never an independent state, but it should be remembered that the year 1918 saw the establishment of the Belarusian People’s Republic, while in 1991 an independent state of the Republic of Belarus was formed and has existed as such ever since. That is why all the affairs pertaining to the Belarusian nation have always been considered as the affairs of a national minority occupying the Russian lands. Politically, any international operations and foreign policy adopted by Russia were automatically imposed upon the Belarusians.
Another cultural narrative, a Polish one, portrays Belarus as belonging to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and then to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and, until 1918, the year of regaining independence, views Belarusian people as one of the Polish minority groups. For a long time all historical references to Belarusian territories were treated as part of Poland’s history. Such perception of the Belarusian history raised a lot of controversy, especially among Belarusian and Lithuanian historians.
The beginnings of a Belarusian national cultural narrative date back to the early 20th century. The cultural narrative was related to the national revival that was taking place at that time in the country, (including such manifestations hereof as flourishing of the Belarusian language, literature, culture, and finding one’s own identity). It was at this time that the term Belarusian and Belarus appeared in use with reference to the people and to the territories they occupied. In the 1930s, for their beliefs, those who had began and continued the discourse were either murdered or sent to Soviet forced labor camps (Gulags). The cultural narrative, which still exists, did not come back to historiography until the 1990s. However, it should be clearly noted that there are very few historians in Belarus in contemporary times who represent the country as having its own culture and traditions which are unlike any other countries’. Far more such academics can be found outside Belarus, for example in Poland, Russia, Lithuania, or other countries where Belarusian scientists have migrated.
Throughout the Stalin era, a common cultural narrative was one that had corresponded to the beliefs of Józef Stalin, who, from the 1930s on, propagated Russification of Belarus, negating any differences between Belarusians and Russians. Similar attitudes are supported by the present administration of Belarus. This is the official type of a narrative course which is used and taught in state schools.
This political system and propagation of these specific ideas have led to a situation where not only the language has been russicized, but the entire country has been politically, culturally and ideologically subordinate to Russia. Any issues that have to do with national minorities, in particular the Jewish population, are negatively portrayed, and the Jewish heritage is destroyed.
This article aims to analyze the problem of how Jewish subject matter and the Holocaust are portrayed in the curriculum and elementary school history textbooks published in Belarus after 2000.
Educational System in Belarus
Children in Belarus begin school at the age of six. It takes nine years to finish elementary school, and another two to graduate from high school. At this level, students are taught two national languages: Belarusian and Russian. As higher education is considered prestigious in Belarus, many people who finish elementary and high schools apply to colleges and it takes usually five years to complete studies at a university.
A curriculum designed by the Department of Education is a complete course. History in elementary school (which lasts 11 years) is taught in grades 5 to 11. The Department of Education has established that the History of Belarus is taught in grades 6 to 11 and it is discussed in parallel with general history, taking into account the division into eras. The goal of teaching the Belarusian History is to shape national and personal identity of students, and to educate a citizen who will be responsible for his own and his country’s future.
The curriculum expects to make students familiar with the most important events which had a tremendous impact on the formation of the Belarusian nation and the present territory of Belarus. The following topics are discussed during history lessons: the ancient state of Kievan Rus (Ruś Kijowska) with Duchy of Polotsk (Księstwo Połockie) as its part, Grand Duchy of Moscow (Ruś Moskiewska), Grand Duchy of Lithuania, development of a Belarusian ethnic group within the Second Polish Republic, the role of religion in the process of shaping political and cultural boundaries of the nation, causes and implications of incorporating the Belarusian territories into the Russian Empire, and formation of an independent Republic of Belarus.
In analyzing a detailed syllabus in respect of teaching students about the Jewish subject matter and the Holocaust, one can draw a conclusion that the program is very deficient.
In the 5th grade, students learn about the history of ancient Israel, in the 7th grade about a national minority that lived in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, whereas in the 9th grade they read about legal restrictions introduced against Jews. In the 10th grade, teachers inform students what the phenomenon of genocide and Holocaust was.
Jewish Subject Matter and Holocaust as portrayed in school textbooks
To verify how specific points of the curriculum designed by the Department of Education are presented during lessons, we should first turn our attention to school textbooks used by teachers and students alike. The following list was made by Ms Irina Polyakowa
Eighteen history textbooks have been published in Belarus after 2000, one of which contains no single piece of information about the history of Jews and the Holocaust. Other textbooks, to a greater or lesser degree, contain references to the Jewish community that are consistent with the proposed curriculum. The first part of A 5th Grade Student Textbook of Ancient History, Part One, edited by V.S. Koszelev (Mińsk, Narodnaja asvieta, 2009) is devoted to the history of the civilizations of Ancient East and America. In the chapter ‘Phoenicia,’ there is one phrase which reads, ‘Phoenicians and ancient Jews, or the people of Israel, profoundly influenced the history of human culture’ (p. 78). Chapter 23, ‘Ancient Palestine’, consists of four parts: 1. Natural Conditions, 2. Origin of Jews, 3. Kingdom of Israel, 4. Jewish Religion.
Thanks to this information, the 5th grade students have an idea about the first settlements of Jewish people. They learn about Kings David and Solomon, how the kingdom of Israel came into being, they read about the establishment of Jerusalem and the First Temple and about the division of Israel into two kingdoms, and what is more, they get to know the Jewish religion. There is a conclusion at the end of the chapter stating that “The ancient Jews profoundly influenced the history of human culture, accepting monotheism and creating the Old Testament – the first part of the Bible.”
A 7th Grade Student Textbook of the History of Belarus, edited by J.M. Bochan (Mińsk, Narodnaja asvieta, 2009, in Belarusian) portrays a Jewish community in the chapter ‘Ethnic Minorities in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.’ Students learn about the causes of the Jewish Diaspora, and then about the spread of the Yiddish language, and about the life of Jews in Western Europe. Terms like ghetto, kehilla, etc. are introduced. There is a list of Jewish professions and sites where they first established their kehillot in Belarusian territories – in Brześć and Grodno. The 15th century was presented as a time of mass migration of Jews to Belarus.
A 9th Grade Student Textbook of World’s Modern History 1918-1945, edited by G.A. Kosmacz (Mińsk, Centrum BUP, 2006) makes students familiar with such issues as the reasons for the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship in Germany. An excerpt from the book reads, “Genocide became a means to exterminate Jews. Every Jew was supposed to wear a special patch sewn to their clothes in the form of a six-pointed yellow star. They were repressed and murdered on a mass scale. More than six million people fell victim to this policy in the years 1933-1945” (p. 31). A supplement to this chapter contains a description of the Kristallnacht and its course.
A 9th Grade Student Textbook of the History of Belarus 1917-1945 (Mińsk, Centrum BPU, 2006, in Belarusian) contains a chapter entitled “German-Nazi Occupation Regime in Belarus” where the policy of genocide within Belarus is discussed. Students will study a short note about the number of ghettos and Holocaust victims in Belarus.
A 10th Grade Student Textbook of World’s Contemporary History 1945-2000, edited by G.A. Kosmacz (Mińsk, BUP, 2006); chapter “Soviet State in 1945-1953” mentions the persecutions of Jews in the USSR. We read: “A campaign exposing “cosmopolitism” and persecutions of Jews increased towards the end of the 1940s. A famous actor, Michoelc was killed, and a conspiracy of “Kremlin physicians” was organized” (p. 95).
A 10th Grade Student Textbook of the History of Belarus from Primitive Times to Late Eighteenth Century (Mińsk, BPU, 2006, in Belarusian) mentions Jews in chapters “Social Relations in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Second Polish Republic” and “Ethnic Minorities in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.” There is a passage which discusses “a mass migration of Jews from Western Europe as a result of persecutions.” Terms like ghetto, kekilla, vaad, Yiddish and Judaism are introduced. References are made to five large Jewish kehillot in Grodno, Troki, Łuck, Brześć, and Władimir. Additionally, the book makes a comment about the types of economic activity practiced by Jews like “crafts, collection of custom taxes, trade, and accounting.”
A 10th Student Textbook of the History of Belarus from Primitive Times to October 1917, edited by J.I. Traszczanek (Mińsk, Obrazowanije, 2008, in Belarusian) informs students in the first chapter that 70 percent of townspeople in Belarusian territories, which were part of Russia, were Jewish.
The fact that Jews concentrated in Belarusian guberniyas can be explained with the existence of the so-called settlement zone. Then, “Polish and Jewish nationalism” (sic!) is presented as a reason for “an insufficient growth of Belarusian national movement.” Further chapters describe how Belarusian towns had been established in the second half of the 17th century (p. 109) and there are references to Jewish people displaced from Poland and Germany, who established communities.” Terms like kehilla board, rabbis, synagogues, cheders, Yiddish, Judaism are introduced. A fact is emphasized that economically, the Jewish communities “had always been more prosperous that the rest of the population.” The chapter titled “Belarusian Lands in the Russian Empire (1772-1801)” speaks about a regulation on the establishment of “Jewish settlement zones” enacted by Catherine II and the introduction in 1814 of the body of a kehilla board. It is stated that the new regulations initiated a “denationalization of a Belarusian town,” which, in turn, led to “overpopulation of the towns with Jewish beggars and the formation of Jewish town bourgeoisie.” Another chapter contains statements that “Belarusian cities and towns were under the pressure of Jewish settlement zones: Jews made up over 10 percent of the total population inhabiting cities and towns, and about 60 percent of the Belarus’ bourgeoisie,” “most trade businesses were in the Jewish hands,” and that the settlement zone “paradoxically, was convenient for the Jewish bourgeoisie.” Only a few lines are devoted to Jewish socialists and there is a mention of the General Jewish Labor Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia (BUND).
An 11th Grade Student Textbook of World History from Nineteenth to Early Twenty First Century, V.S. Koszieliev (Mińsk: Centrum BUP, 2009), discusses the establishment of the Nazi regime in Germany and draws attention to the fact that the Nazi party propagated anti-Semitic slogans.
An 11th Grade Student Textbook of the History of Belarus from Nineteenth to Early Twenty First Century, edited by J.K. Nowik, (Mińsk: Centrum BPU, 2009, in Belarusian); chapter “The German-Russian War” reads that “the Jews were bound to be exterminated” by Nazis. Further, a Mińsk ghetto is mentioned where about 100,000 people were killed. There is also information that “In Belarus, there were created more that 100 Jewish ghettos where Nazis imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Jews, residents of Belarus and other European countries.”
An 11th Grade Student Textbook of the History of Belarus from October 1917 – Early Twenty First Century, edited by J.I. Traszczanek (Mińsk: Narodnaja asvieta, 2009, in Belarusian); the chapter devoted to the October Revolution and Russian Civil War informs that “The local industry and trade were in the hands of the Jewish bourgeoisie, which exploited not only Jewish proletarians, but all of the proletarians, irrespective of their ethnic origin. Jews constituted 75 percent of the population of Belarusian cities and towns.”
A fragment about the ethnic cleansing, which took place in 1924 and whose victims were students of vocational schools and universities, reads that, “The first to be killed were the children of Jewish traders, servants and craftsmen.”
An 11th Grade Student Textbook of the History of Belarus from Nineteenth to Early Twenty First Century, edited by A. A. Kowalenko (Mińsk: Centrum BPU, 2006, in Belarusian) refers to Judaism as one of the three main religions in Belarus. The first three chapters focus on explaining how the settlement zones were marked out and there is a list of regulations pertaining to Jews whose great contribution to crafts and trade is stressed. The chapter called “Formation of Belarusian Nation” speaks about a large number of Jews in Belarusian cities and towns indicating that “Jews were the most numerous among the Belarus’ bourgeois traders and industrialists and they owned 60 (while the Belarusians only 25) percent of businesses.” Further chapters give some statistical data concerning the number of Jews and Jewish education in the SSRB (Socialist Soviet Republic of Belarus), as well as in the eastern provinces of the Second Polish Republic. When the topic of the Nazi occupation of the Belarusian lands is discussed, it is noted that “the Jewish population was murdered on a mass scale and that, in the first days of war, Jews were shot to death in great numbers…” Then the problem of establishing ghettos in Belarus is brought up and the number of people kept in the largest Mińsk ghetto is given (about 80,000).
The information provided above shows that not all of the authors of school textbooks meet the requirements listed in the curriculum, and some of the books do not mention the problem of the Holocaust at all. The remaining ones do stick to the curriculum, but the Jewish subject matter and the issues related to the Holocaust are treated in a very superficial manner and the portrayal of Jews cannot be considered positive. Students do not learn everything about the Jewish population who once inhabited the Belarusian territories, about its great significance for the growth of the country, science, culture and art. Most of the time they are shown as members of rich bourgeoisie who did not have a friendly attitude towards the Belarusians.
There is some information about the Holocaust and the establishment of ghettos in Belarus, but the causes of these events are not explained.
Some of the textbooks make references to demographic data, which clearly indicates that, in some periods, Jews made up most of the population of Belarusian cities, yet they are not regarded as having had any greater influence on the development of the history and culture of individual cities, trade, science or culture.
Authors of only two 10th grade school textbooks expect students to know such terms as kehilla board, rabbi, synagogue, cheder, Yiddish, and Judaism, whereas all of the other textbooks lack this terminology.
The information that refers to the Jewish community is very sketchy and does not give students a chance to learn about the whole history and the importance of the group.
Educational Aids in the Teaching of Jewish History and Holocaust
There are few educational aids in Belarus that could improve the teaching of the Jewish subject matter. Sometimes some books are written, and documentaries are made in the Belarusian and Russian languages (broadcast for example on Channel Belsat), and those interested in the subject can find occasional articles that appear in widely available magazines like Arche, Komunikat, Nasza Niwa weekly and other.
Out of the textbooks which are obtainable on the market, one can for example refer to A Student Textbook of the History of Belarus authored by History PhD Emanuil Iofe from Mińsk. One of its sub-chapters is called The Jews of Belarus in the Seventeenth to Eighteenth Century. It consists of a short introduction and five parts: 1. Development of Jewish Structures, 2. Economic Life of Jews, 3. Consequences for the Jewish Population of the Division of the Republic of Poland, 4. Jewish Rights in the Nineteenth Century, 5. Religious and Spiritual Growth.
Our attention should also be turned to other books, which focus entirely on the issues concerning Jewish population, and these include Jews on History Pages by E. Iofe and S. Asinouskiego (Mińsk, 1997), Jewish Spiritual Culture in Belarus by A. Skira (Mińsk 1995), Jewish Communities in Belarus from Late Eighteenth to Late Twentieth Century by S. Kuźniajewaj (Mińsk, 1998).
The Jewish World in Belarus from Late Nineteenth Century to Holocaust (Świat żydowski na Białorusi od końca XIX wieku do Holokaustu) by Mikołaj Iwanow, a professor at Opole University and an associate with the Swaboda radio broadcast station. Professor Iwanow analyzes the number of Jews in Belarus at different times, raises the problem of self-identification of Lithuanian Jews (Litvaks) and shows the process of a quick spread of Hassidism among Belarusian Jews in the 19th century. The author emphasizes peaceful and friendly relations between Belarusians and Jews and the lack of any greater manifestations of Anti-Semitism among Belarusian population. Iwanow stresses the great role that Jews played in the development of businesses in Belarus. The process of establishing Jewish Zionist organizations and Social Democratic parties is shown here as well. Iwanow informs his readers that up until 1917 Belarus had offered very favorable conditions for the growth of different forms of Jewish life, and after the February Revolution, even underground organizations could freely and openly carry on their activity and issue their own periodicals. Most of the Jews were in favor of Zionism, which the Bolsheviks combated right after they assumed control over the country. The author reminds that the Red Army organized pogroms of Jews, but, on the other hand, he notes that the government of the Belarusian People’s Republic had always declared its solidarity with the Jewish nation, though it could not realize its program the way it wished. Professor Iwanow also points out that in the Eastern Borderlands (Kresy Wschodnie) and in the Socialist Soviet Republic of Belarus, the life of the Jewish population developed in a completely different way during the interwar period. Conditions for Jews to be active improved in the Second Polish Republic where they could develop their cultural and religious needs. Meanwhile, in Soviet Belarus, synagogues were destroyed; Zionist organizations, and in the 1930s also Jewish schools and universities, as well as magazines, newspapers and bulletins were dissolved and closed. After the Belarusian western territories had been incorporated into the USSR, the Soviet authorities got rid of Jews and destroyed their culture in the whole of Belarus.
Professor Iwanow also authored a sub-chapter entitled Terror, Deportation, People, Genocide: Demographic Changes in Belarus in the Twentieth Century (Terror, deportacja, ludność, ludobójstwo: zmiany demograficzne na Białorusi w XX wieku) in which he determines the number of people who lost their lives in Belarus during the two world wars, and also as a result of the Holocaust, the Polish-Bolshevik War and Bolshevik repressions. In summing up the data, Iwanow comments that these figures are unprecedented on the European scale.
The Belarusians noticed that the books available on the market as well as the content of the history student textbooks lacked information concerning Jewish community and the Holocaust. A few enthusiasts came up with an idea of writing a textbook that would help teachers educate about the Mińsk ghetto and the Holocaust. The Swaboda Radio Broadcast Station website informs that the term Holocaust generally does not appear in schoolbooks. As stated by Mr Kuźma Kozak, “[The new] student textbook has been prepared by historians and people who are engaged in preserving the memory of the Holocaust, such as Leonid Lewin, who built the Chatyń and Jama memorials. In the book, there are also two accounts of former Mińsk ghetto prisoners and of two people who rescued Jews. This is the first school textbook of such kind. One of the authors of the textbook, a famous architect and president of the Belarusian Union of Jewish Associations and Communities, Leonid Lewin, says that “Anti-Semitism played a very important role both during the war and afterwards and it is very difficult to eradicate these roots today. We do a lot to make sure that the memory about what happened is preserved and we achieve this by building memorials. About forty monuments have already been built, and before that, there was not even a single rock indicating that a Jew had died in a particular place. People just do not know about it. In the past it was prohibited [to talk about it], and now everybody keeps silent about the problem, but it should be discussed, and should be mentioned, so as to make people remember, all the more that these Jews were citizens of our country. This school textbook is based on memoirs and on museum material.”
Up to now, Belarus has been the only country with no student textbooks devoted to the Holocaust. The authors of the book hope that the changes they initiated concerning the interpretation of a history syllabus in Belarus will have their own continuation in the form of a whole teaching system that would be created to teach students about Jewish history and the contribution Jews made to the cultural, scientific and economic development of Belarus. It is also important that a preliminary analysis be made of the causes and consequences of the extermination of Jewish population.
The article was written in May 2011 by Marta Szymańska, a graduate from Warsaw University, Department of Belarusian Studies, and the work was based on the research made by Ms Irina Polyakowa, a history teacher from Grodno.
English translation by Katarzyna Czoków.
Міністэрства адукацыі Рэспублікі Беларусь, Вучэбныя праграмы для агульнаадукацыйных устаноў з беларускай мовай навучання Сусветная гісторыя. Гісторыя Беларусі V-XI класы, Зацверджана Міністэрствам адукацыі Рэспублікі Беларусь, Нацыянальны Інстытут Адукацыі, Мінск 2009.
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