Thursday, May 28, 2009

Belarus: Help Save the (Wooden) Synagogue in Ivenetz

Top three photos: Former synagogue of Ivenetz, Belarus.
Bottom: former rabbi's house.
Photos provided by Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus

Belarus: Help Save the (Wooden) Synagogue in Ivenetz
By Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) n.b. Yuri Dorn, Coordinator of Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus has provided information the synagogue and its current situation, which I have edited into this account.

Following the destruction last month of the former synagogue of Luban, Belarus, greater attention needs to be paid to the fate of other Jewish buildings in the country – especially buildings in good enough condition to save for new use without excessive cost. One of these buildings is the century-old wooden synagogue in the town Ivenetz (photos), which is the next building threatened with a new sale and potential demolition (to contribute see information at the end of this post). The building was used as a movie theater from the 1950s to the 1980s, and then as a dance club. Ironically and tragically, given the fate of the Ivenetz Jewish community, the last tenant was a private business which produced tombstones. The municipality, which owns the building, has contacted the Belarus Jewish community about plans to sell the site at auction.

At the end of the 19th century (1897) the total population of Ivenetz was 2,670; ad 1,343 of these were Jews. There were 2 active synagogues. (Today there are only four elderly Jews in the town.). In the summer of 1898 the local Jewish community obtained another parcel of land not far from the market square, the area where most of the Jews had settled. In the spring of 1899 group of 20 Jews including a Rabbi submitted request to the Minsk Governor to allow them to build a wooden synagogue on that land. They said that two existing synagogues had been built 70 and 40 years previously, and Jewish population since that time had grown and needed more room.

Construction permission for the new synagogue was received on August 6, 1899. It is not known when construction began, but on the 1912 list of buildings of Minsk uyezd (district) this building described as following: "New wooden synagogue in town Ivenetz, capacity up to 400 people….Single story building with interior balconies for women". When the Communists took over this part of Belarus in 1940 the synagogue was closed.

In June 1941, when the Germans occupied the town they collected all local Jews in a Ghetto, which they located on land of Catholic church. The wooden synagogue building was converted into the stables. When Ivenetz was liberated from Nazis in July 1944, only about 20 Jews returned to their homes, and the synagogue was not used.

Click here for images of Jewish Ivenetz

Click here for selections of the Ivenetz Yitzchor book

The synagogue remained empty until the mid-1950s when the local administration repaired the floor, put on a new roof, disassembled the women's balcony (which had been reached by an exterior stair, destroyed ten years ago) and installed electricity. The building was a movie theater from the late 1950s through the early 1970s and then a dance club until 2006.

The overall condition of the building is not bad. It is an attractive wooden structure. Few traces of its former Jewish use are visible, but at least one interior wall has painted decorations that were recently discovered and then painted over again. In the photo one can see traces of the faux-architecture. The interior space is ample and well lit with the original windows.

The Belarus Jewish community must now decide whether to claim the building – if they do not assert ownership, they will forfeit their rights, and the building will be put up for auction and sold. Most likely a new owner would acquire the building for commercial use (such as a store or small workshop or factory, etc), or demolish it for use of the land.

In order to adapt the 100-year old building for commercial use the new owner would need to invest a lot of money, since there are demanding building codes that have to be met for income-producing buildings that accommodate a large numbers. It is probably cheaper to demolish the building and use existing foundation to construct a new building with modern amenities. The synagogue building is situated in the center of town, where land is pretty expensive (by local standards). Since the land goes with the building, it would be a very attractive investment.

The local authorities in Iventz have done everything right (unlike the recent situation in Luban). They first asked the Belarus Jewish community about interest in the property. Refusal now by the community will protect the municipality from further claims and allegations in case if the building is eventually destroyed or rebuilt.

There are other traces of the Jewish past still visible in Ivenetz. The former rabbi’s house stands, now used as a music school, as well as about 30 other pre-War “Jewish” houses.

The old Jewish cemetery survives with about 400 intact matzevot. A few years ago volunteers from the Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus catalogued and photographed all the stones. Just recently another lot with an old Jewish cemetery was discovered in the town. This cemetery may date back to the beginning of 18th century, but it is hard to tell since so far only 2 surviving gravestones have been discovered. In the woods, not far from the town there is a Holocaust memorial, erected few years ago on the place of execution of Jews from Ivenetz and surrounding villages.

The local historical museum also has a section about the history of the local Jewish community, which Research Group hopes to see expanded through cooperation with the museum. Not far from the museum in a building formerly a Jewish smithy, is a craft center that sells local pottery and weaving, and where artisans demonstrate their work, and where visitors can try their hand at different crafts under expert supervision. This center is a local attraction for school groups and tourists, and local administration is planning to open more cultural attractions like this. Creating a Jewish Heritage Center in Ivenetz would fit in with this type of development

If the Belarus Jewish community does take possession of the former synagogue, they propose to develop it as a research and educational center, to focus on the history of Jewish Ivenetz and the Jeiwsh communities in surrounding places within a radius up to 50 km (30 miles), including Rakov (1,250 Jews before the Holocasut) , Derevnoe (450), Rubezhevichy (1,600), Volozhin (3,200), Volma (200), Kamen (400), Naliboki (380), Koidanovo (2,700). The plan calls for historical and genealogical information from various Belorussian archives will be channeled into this center. The information is unique - never published before. Extracted information will be translated into English. The Center’s genealogists will do this on a voluntary basis, but the idea is also to charge for some services to maintain costs of the Center. Plans are also to involve young people in these efforts, and preliminary arrangements have been made with the youth organization “Hillel”, which will send groups to Ivenetz to collect memoirs from local old residents and help with some construction work for the building.

The admirable intention to protection and preserve the Ivenetz synagogue within a broader vision of a regional Jewish Heritage Center has been inspired by similar projects in Poland, France, Italy, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. Even more than in those places, however, the Belarus has limited resources, and they are unable to leverage significant government funding. Nor are the eligible for EU support – something that this is beginning to really assist Jewish heritage projects elsewhere. On the other hand, the projected costs for this project are relatively modest.

How to Help

Documentation and research costs needed to put forward the legal to the building are less than $1,000 and the International Survey of Jewish Monuments has offered to advance this money from its Emergency Documentation Fund. Repair and adaptive reuse costs for the building over the next five years are estimated at less than $25,000 – a real bargain in these times. How the building will be sustained and how the Center will manage in the long term still needs to be addressed.

U.S. tax-deductible contributions to this project can be sent to:

International Survey of Jewish Monuments
P.O. Box 210,
120 Julian Place,
Syracuse, NY 13210.

Write “Ivenetz” on the check.

From Europe contributions can be made to
(I recommend make contact before sending or transferring money):

The Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus
220002 Minsk
13B Daumana St.

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