MINSK, Belarus, May 30 (JTA) -- For Ira Elshanskaya, a recent trip to see Jewish sites in Belarus brought some unpleasant surprises.
"It was a shock when in one place we were told that Jews once made up over one-half of the town's population, and even many non-Jews there were fluent in Yiddish. And now there is almost no one left," said Ira, a 10th-grader from Moscow Jewish School No. 1311.
Ira was one of 380 high school students across the former Soviet Union who recently toured Belarus, a former Soviet republic that was once one of the major centers of Jewish life in Europe.
The students, from 14 schools operated by World ORT, came to Belarus last month for a four-day tour to explore Jewish heritage, visit Holocaust sites and celebrate Jewish identity as the Israeli educators responsible for the trip tried to focus on Zionist pride.
To many students this was their first experience of visiting sites related to Jewish history or the Holocaust.
Like pupils at any Jewish day school around the world, these students study Jewish history in school and were required to learn about the places they visited beforehand. Still, it was jarring to see the remnants of Jewish life -- and death -- up close.
Many Belarusian towns hold the site of a Nazi massacre or a Holocaust-era mass grave.
At these sites, students held ceremonies and recited Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
One such ceremony was held in Khatyn, a village some 40 miles east of Minsk, where in 1943 Nazis burned 163 villagers alive -- as they did in dozens of other Belarusian villages.
Khatyn is the site of an impressive Soviet-era memorial that features a gigantic figure of an old man carrying his son's dead body and several dozen life-size chimneys scattered in an open field where the village's houses once stood. The chimneys make bell sounds as if the burned-down houses are mourning the people who once lived there.
Khatyn was not a Jewish village, and the Jewish theme is mentioned nowhere in this nation's prime memorial for World War II victims -- as was the case in virtually all Soviet World War II memorials.
Students tried to restore some measure of historical justice by holding a ceremony that included Jewish prayers and the Israeli national anthem.
"Standing here I still find it hard to imagine what happened in this country just a few decades ago, how many people perished, how much suffering there was here," said Lida Podolskaya, a student in a Jewish school in Moscow.
"This type of ceremony is a particular goal of the trip," Avi Ganon, World ORT representative in Russia and Belarus, said after the ceremony. The students, returning to their buses, were unusually silent and concentrated. "This is what would stay with them for the entire lifetime."
The program that brought the students to Belarus is part of a larger program known as Shorashim, or Roots, that was initiated four years ago by the Israeli Ministry of Education for the Jewish day schools it supports in the former Soviet Union.
Organized in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the program aims to tell students about the development of Jewish identity in the 20th century, from the destruction of the Holocaust to the building of the State of Israel.
The Belarus trip was co-sponsored by World ORT.
Beside visits to the Holocaust-era sites, students made trips to a dozen towns across the country, looking for remnants of Jewish life in the communities that once were lively centers of Jewish culture and learning.
"Without knowing how Jews lived here before the Holocaust, it is impossible to comprehend the scope of the tragedy," said Lena Fridman, a 20-year-old Jewish studies major from St. Petersburg who was one of the guides on the trip.
She said the students knew much more about the Holocaust than about everyday Jewish life and history in areas where many of the students' ancestors lived.
When visiting Shklov, a town east of Minsk, students were shown an odd detail on one of the few remaining old Jewish houses.
"There was a hole through one of the walls," Fridman said. "Few would know that in these places quite often Jews would make such holes to let the evil spirit out of the house."
"If you want to understand better who Jews were just a few generations back, you should look for such details, which can often tell you more than a thick book."
Anton Kochergin, a 10th-grader from ORT Moscow School No. 1299, said he has been on Jewish-interest tours to Poland and Ukraine before coming to Belarus.
"Unlike other places, the Jewish past here is not obvious," Anton said. "You have to look for it. But once you know a little, this land is all filled with Jewish history."
"This isn't just some distant history," Ira said. "This is also my own history. My grandparents lived in a place like that, as did most of our grandparents."
For Polina Soloveichik, the trip was full of personal meaning. The ninth-grader at the Sholom Aleichem School in Vilnius, Lithuania, said her own family roots are in Belarus.
She visited this country several times before but until this trip was unaware of its rich Jewish past. Now, she was on a bus bound to Vitebsk, a city in eastern Belarus that was the hometown of artist Marc Chagall, probably the city's most famous native son.
"I was most impressed by all these ancient cemeteries we visited," she said. "I've never been to a Jewish cemetery before and never thought they could tell you so much."
In the courtyard of the Chagall Museum in Vitebsk, the students filled out short questionnaires on their visit to this prime Jewish attraction in the city. As part of the questionnaire, they were asked what they would photograph in the city that carries some Jewish character.
One of the students picked a reproduction of one of the works by Chagall that showed Jewish Vitebsk.
"This is what it was like here," the student said showing the picture to others. "These are the houses we are looking at; you only need to look more closely."
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