MOGHILEV, Belarus, Jan. 15 (JTA) — Victor Shpuntov struggled to find the words in English.
He had not spoken the language since his school days some 20 years ago, and his frustration was showing.
“I understand about being Jewish,” Shpuntov eventually stammered.
An engineer from Moghilev, a town in southern Belarus, Shpuntov was talking about Leon Uris’ book “Exodus,” which someone had given him five years ago.
His wife, mother and daughter — three generations of Shpuntovs — sat around the table listening proudly to Victor. Although they do not understand English, they understood the sentiments reflected in Victor’s face.
Shpuntov’s story is not uncommon. He grew up during the Communist era, but it is only since Belarus gained independence, in 1991, that Shpuntov and other Belarussian Jews have been allowed to develop a cultural and religious identity.
The town of Moghilev is situated in what was once the Pale of Settlement, the Jewish heartland between the Baltic and Black seas where Jews were confined by czarist edict. Today, however, it is has been almost emptied of Jews through emigration in the first half of the 20th century, decimation during the Holocaust and renewed emigration since the fall of communism.
Only some 3,500 Jews remain in the Moghilev, about 1 percent of the total population.
Endemic anti-Semitism at the state level does not help the situation.
Authorities refuse to return former synagogues to the Jewish community, and Moghilev’s Jewish cemetery has repeatedly been desecrated. The remaining members of the Jewish community walk past the remnants of their architectural heritage — which now serve as leisure centers — and can only imagine their past.
Politically isolated since 1991, Belarus currently is governed by a hard-line former Communist, President Alexander Lukashenko. He doesn’t have many Jewish backers. The Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, which regularly releases reports on human rights and the status of Jews in the former Soviet Union.
Nevertheless, Moghilev’s Jewish community is slowly reviving its traditions. Several days before Victor Shpuntov’s interview with JTA, the family attended the first Shabbat service held in Moghilev in seven decades, organized by a British charity, Jewish Chernobyl Children, an organization that works to help Jewish children living in the areas affected by the 1986 nuclear disaster in nearby Ukraine.
It was an unfamiliar and odd situation for the hundred or so people who gathered on that cold Saturday morning in the main hall of the Moghilev Cultural Center in the heart of town. For most, it was their first experience of the religion they were born into.
“It relaxes my heart,” said one middle-aged woman, tears in her eyes.
A man in his 70s peered through broken spectacles at a cantor reciting a prayer from the stage.
“I was 5 when my father prayed at home,” he said slowly. “All elderly people prayed, but the young were scared because it was forbidden. For the rest of my life, I never saw a service again.”
Last year, Kim Kuznik learned how to pray at a Jewish center in Minsk. After a lifetime of ignorance, this former “hero of socialist labor” rediscovered his Judaism.
Even the leader of the Jewish community, Vladimir Schlecter, had been a committed Communist. Ten years ago he was director of a chemical plant; today he struggles to find a platform for his new, thoroughly revised political beliefs.
“The children are our future,” he said, holding a glass of vodka in the air in tribute. “But they have problems, and we need to help them.”
The problems he is referring to are not solely ones of Jewish identity and education. There is another, more insidious evil that affects Jews and non-Jews alike in Belarus — environmental pollution.
The meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in April 1986 is still having a huge impact on the population. Although the Ukranian government recently closed the plant, restrictions on farming generally go unheeded, spreading radioactivity.
There is believed to be a direct correlation between disease rates and time spent in a contaminated area. However, a Jewish doctor explained that it is not a simple matter of geography.
Gennady Karpelev, who works at a radiological center for Chernobyl-related diseases on the outskirts of Moghilev, recently pointed to a map on the wall.
“Radiation is propagated in a variety of ways,” he said. “A village on one side of the road could have high levels of radiation, and on other side of the road the situation could be fine. It is now difficult to tell which areas are ‘clean’ and which are ‘dirty.’ ”
The cumulative effects of radiated produce and water are still being felt. The World Health Organization estimates that over one-third of the children in the Belarussian town of Gomel who were aged 4 or younger on the day of the Chernobyl disaster can expect to develop thyroid cancer.
In addition, the WHO predicts another 50,000 cases of thyroid cancer in the region in coming years.
A regional deficit of iodine — a vital ingredient for a healthy thyroid — and chemical factories spewing toxic waste that encircle the town is worsening the situation in Moghilev.
What hope is there for the children of Moghilev?
Vacations abroad, organized by charities, offer one glimmer. Groups of children spend a month with foster families in different countries, where they are exposed to clean air, water and food. Doctors in Belarus say this can be enough to boost a child’s immune system for two years.
Still, many young people are leaving town.
Svieta Feldman, 14, recently diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, is moving to Germany. Although her condition is in remission thanks to drugs supplied from abroad, Feldman’s family hopes that a move to Germany will offer the best chance for a healthy life.
With emigration to Israel also an option, the numbers who attend Anna Staraselskaya’s cheder, or Jewish primary school, are diminishing.
The heart of the Jewish community, Staraselskaya accepts the exodus with dignity.
“There is no future for Jewish people in this country,” she said sadly. “The process of emigration will continue, and we cannot stop it. However, while Jewish people live here, they must feel they are Jewish.”
Those who survived the evils of the 20th century in Moghilev are now the torchbearers of its Jewish renewal. However, the community here will never regain its size from the days of “the Pale,” and it relies for hope on charities such as Jewish Chernobyl Children.
Vida Brumina, a young woman working at the Union of Belarussian Jewish Organizations and Communities in Minsk, speaks with an unexpected maturity.
“We may be free now, but there are still some things left in our mind from Soviet times,” she said. “The best place to start renewal is in ourselves.”
Jewish Chernobyl Children can be contacted in Britain by telephone at 44-208-368-7782 or 44-208-209- 0031.