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Favorite Son

Belarus embraces Chagall but leaves his Jewishness at the door

Judith Matloff
October 14, 2010
A sculpture of Marc Chagall behind the Vitebsk home in which he was raised.(Diana Markosian)
A sculpture of Marc Chagall behind the Vitebsk home in which he was raised.(Diana Markosian)

In Belarus, Europe’s last Communist-style dictatorship, tourism is not a big business. So I was intrigued to see busloads of sightseers roll through the city of Vitebsk during a recent visit there. Their destination, as it happened, was a trail paying homage to the country’s most famous native son, painterMarc Chagall. In a burst of nationalism, the country’s culture czars are eager to set the record straight that the 20th century’s most recognizable Jewish artist was not Russian, as commonly believed. They also realize that they can cash in on his name.

The glorification is such that Vitebsk, his birthplace, remembers Chagall with no fewer than three bronze statues in his image–a rare honor for anyone here other than Lenin. A day is set aside each year to pay homage to the modernist pioneer, with open-air celebrations including everything from international scholars to live goats like those featured in his work. Tourist attractions include the art school that Chagall founded in 1919 and a museum made up of the modest brick house where he grew up and exhibition space for some 300 of his works. The collection may not be as impressive as the one housed at the Chagall Museum in Nice, France, but the crowds here seem enthusiastic enough, judging from all the leggy women who sprawled on the statues for snapshots.

Lionizing the artist, says the Vitebsk museum’s director, Ludmila Khmelnitskaya, has been a way to assert national identity since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The Belarusian language is now taught at schools and, as a recent gas dispute with Russia showed, the government chafes when Moscow tries to boss it around. According to Khmelnitskaya, most Belarusians had never heard of Chagall before the museum opened in 1992, but the number of visitors it attracts has grown to 20,000 a year.

“It’s important to return his memory to the culture of Belarus,” Khmelnitskaya said, adding that Soviet encyclopedias listed him as from France, where he spent the bulk of his later years. His name was absent from histories of Belarusian art. “Chagall’s work reflects his memory of the city, yet he’s been neglected in the country where he was born.”

The embrace of Chagall, an outcast Jew under the Soviets, is not unusual for young states in Eastern Europe, said Ruth Ellen Gruber, an authority on Jewish heritage travel. In Slovakia, the 19th-century rabbi known as the Chatam Sofer is being heralded as a national historic figure alongside non-Jewish notables. His tomb is on the list of tourist sites. “Newly independent countries—and especially newly independent countries trying to assert their national identity—look for local heroes, prominent figures they can claim as their own and who can set them apart from countries that once dominated them,” Gruber said.

Yet the Belarusian embrace has its limits. The current authorities downplay the Hasidic traditions that inspired the man who was born into a pious family as Moyshe Shagal. The official website of Belarus fails to mention that he was Jewish at all, and there’s barely a sign of it in the museum built from his childhood home. The museum catalog fails to mention that the area around Vitebsk was the cradle of Hasidism or that Vitebsk was once heavily Yiddish-speaking. When Chagall was born in 1887, Jews made up more than half the town’s population, and up to 90 percent in some surrounding shtetls. His parents came from Liozna, the same village as Schneur Zalman, the founder of the Lubavitcher Hasidism whose teachings they embraced. The guidebook also ignores that anti-Semitism was so prevalent at the time that Jewish children were only allowed to attend heders and Chagall’s mother had to bribe officials to allow him to attend an ordinary school.

What curators do wax on about is Chagall’s lifelong fixation with the town he left at 33. He spent his remaining six decades abroad painting a folksy dream world where lovers and cows flew. Yet while, even today, snowy cottages and roosters can be found in any Belarusian village, Chagall’s motifs integrate specific references to Jewish rituals and proverbs. His fantasy world reflects real life—weddings, prayers, synagogues, births, and music—touched by Hasidic mysticism and Yiddish lore. The artist never lost sight of the suffering of his people, as well, and drew from biblical stories to portray pogroms and the Holocaust.

“Were I not a Jew,” he once said, “I would not have become an artist.”

The official glossing over of Chagall’s Hasidic roots should come as little surprise, considering Belarus’ uneasy relationship with its Jews, who experienced waves of anti-Semitism since they first settled in the region in the 14th century. Pogroms in the late 19th century sent tens of thousands of Belarusian Jews to Ellis Island and left many more wishing that they had done the same. The Communists who overthrew the czars closed most of Vitebsk’s 48 synagogues and banned religious practice. Official prejudice continues, if one is to take seriously the words of President Alexander Lukashenko, who famously said in 2007 that Jews live like pigs. (He later dismissed the comment as a joke.)

Few are left to set the record straight about Chagall’s Vitebsk. Before World War II, the town registered 37,000 Jews. Now only 1,700 remain, and the number dwindles each year, with many emigrating to Israel, where nearly every family now has a relative.

Congregants in Vitebsk can barely manage to scrape together a minyan for the synagogue, a simple white prayer house of pine benches and 35 regular members. Despite efforts by community leaders to revive Jewish traditions, assimilation has taken a toll. Members of the older generation said they had never seen a Torah until the synagogue opened in 1994, and many congregants don’t know any prayers. At a recent service, quite a few women lighting candles relied on a sheet that phonetically spelled out the Hebrew words.

Aside from a shrinking Jewish presence, only fragments remain of the landscape depicted by Chagall. “When I see Chagall’s pictures, it’s about roofs and ruins,” said Chaim Magarshak, an elder of the Vitebsk synagogue. “The wooden houses mostly burned down.” The Jewish homes he so lovingly illustrated were largely destroyed during the war.

The destruction of architectural heritage extends throughout Belarus, where only a few yeshivas and synagogues seized by the Soviets have been returned to Jewish hands. Most of these reclaimed buildings lie in such disrepair that handing them back is not exactly a generous act. It goes without saying that the tiny Jewish population lacks the money to restore most of the properties to functionality. The country’s first yeshiva, in Volozhin, has gaping holes in its floor. It, at least, has a roof and four walls, unlike the oriental synagogue in Bobruisk. While the government preserves historic churches in Grodno, the 16th-century Great Synagogue, a masterpiece of Italianate architecture, crumbles.

As for Vitebsk, Chagall could never bring himself to return. In 1973, he traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg but avoided Belarus. “He said that at his age it was dangerous to get too emotional,” said Khmelnitskaya, the museum director. “He was probably afraid to see how Vitebsk had changed from what he remembered.”

Judith Matloff teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block.

Judith Matloff teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block.