MOSCOW (Dec. 2)
Richard Grusha admits that his newly found passion to erect monuments commemorating historical events and his country’s famous men may have earned him a reputation as an eccentric, with some people in his native town of Lida, Belarus. But a recent initiatives by the 42-year-old artist and sculptor from the town of Lida in Belarus, has brought him recognition from the small local Jewish community — and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee invited Grusha, along with a selected group of local philanthropists, to attend its 90th anniversary celebration, held in Moscow in November.
Grusha is not Jewish, which made him one of the few non-Jews among the group of Jewish philanthropists at the event.
“I’m probably the only non-Jew here,” said Grusha, while attending one of the festive events at a Moscow hotel marking the JDC’s anniversary.
Grusha, a self-taught artist whose colorful landscape paintings carry a stamp of influence from Eastern European folk art and French post-impressionism, has been dubbed “the Belarussian Van Gogh” by a local newspaper in his native town.
Last year, he did something that extended his reputation: Grusha created and erected with his own money a monument to Holocaust victims on the site of a massacre in Lida.
“A few years ago, I made it my personal commitment to commemorate the names, events and dates that were important for the history of Belarus,” he said.
In recent years, Grusha created several monuments to Belarussian and Polish historical figures who lived in Belarus that earned him a UNESCO medal and an exhibition at the agency’s Paris headquarters.
“For Belarus, our wartime past is a big part of our heritage,” he said, referring to the fact that during World War II this country lost almost one-quarter of its prewar population of nine-million, including 810,000 Jews.
“Those were the people who gave up their lives so we can live today,” he said.
Grusha is of Polish Catholic descent, as are many citizens of Lida, a town of 100,000 in the western part of the country near the border with Lithuania. Between the two world wars this territory belonged to Poland until it was annexed by the USSR in 1939.
In June of 1941, the town was occupied by German troops. The entire Jewish population of Lida — about 9,000 before the war — was massacred by 1943, as were about 3,000 Jews from nearby shtetls and several hundred refugees from Vilna who escaped from Lithuania to find refuge in the Lida Ghetto.
Three years ago, a local Polish survivor showed the Jewish leaders a site where he remembered a large group of Lida and Vilna Jews being executed in the spring of 1942.
“It took us over two years to verify this testimony,” said Asya Saulkina, the leader of some 250 Jews who make up today’s community in Lida.
The task was especially urgent because the municipality had already allocated that site to a local businessman to build an auto repair shop.
“We finally did find the human remains,” she said, adding that she decided to put up a monument on this site the moment she saw a toy — a small red and blue rubber ball — among the uncovered remains.
It took Grusha — who not only came forward with his design for the new memorial but also did most of the work himself, paying several thousand dollars out of his own pocket — to get the project completed.
Saulkina said she was grateful to the artist.
“He wants to leave his mark as a philanthropist,” Saulkine said of the artist. “We are lucky that he lives in our town.”
Grusha said he is currently working on other similar Holocaust-related projects, including a large memorial in the Belarussian town of Stolin, on a site where 9,000 Jews and 4,000 non-Jews were killed by the Nazis during the war.
“I’m sure with what happened on this land I will have enough projects to work on for years to come,” he said.
Grusha said his focus is the humanitarian aspect of his projects.
“A man should not pass by those sites where innocent victims are resting,” he says. “This is my duty, to do what it takes so people know what happened here.”