A visitor to the Holocaust memorial erected in Cherven, Belarus (Photo/Courtesy Belarus Holocaust Memorial Project)
A visitor to the Holocaust memorial erected in Cherven, Belarus (Photo/Courtesy Belarus Holocaust Memorial Project)

San Mateo duo leads local effort to memorialize Holocaust victims in Belarus

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Two Bay Area men are on a quest to make sure that the 800,000 Belarusian Jews murdered during the Holocaust are not forgotten.

San Mateo residents Cary Kletter and Gilel Klebanov are involved in the Belarus Holocaust Memorial Project, which began in 2003 when the British-based Simon Mark Lazarus Foundation launched an effort to erect memorials at the more than 500 sites where Jews were killed.

According to the BHMP website, the Nazis murdered roughly 80 percent of the Jewish population in Belarus, in massacre sites near cities, towns and villages throughout the country — including places such as Minsk, Pinsk, Babrujsk and Gomel that were more than 50 percent Jewish. Overall, Jews were the third largest ethnic group in Belarus in the first half of the 20th century, BHMP notes.

In 2006, BHMP joined with several family foundations — including one named for Cary’s parents, Miles and Marilyn Kletter — to establish a committee intent on preserving the memory of Holocaust victims in Belarus. The project does not raise any money from outside sources, Kletter said.

Kletter is involved on many levels: donating money for the memorials, operating expenses and the website; traveling to Belarus for ceremonies; coordinating with officials in Belarus; and working on the content and layout of the website. His involvement is a continuation of the work done by his father, Miles, who died in 2012.

“My father had no family connection to Belarus, but he felt strongly about the injustice of the Holocaust and the tragedy of the Shoah, and he wanted to do something,” explained Kletter, an employment attorney and real estate investor. “There should be a memorial for the people, a memorial for where it happened. If nothing is done, these locations are lost to history.”

As of November 2017, more than 105 Holocaust memorials had been erected throughout Belarus. That means there are still some 400 sites to go, and “we plan to erect a memorial at each site,” it says on the BHMP website.

Klebanov, who was born in the Belarusian countryside and lived in Minsk as an adult, got involved with the Belarus Holocaust Memorial Project a few years ago, well after immigrating to the United States in 1989. His involvement includes one trip to Belarus, speaking at a couple of memorial dedications and helping Kletter translate articles for the website.

“Life was OK, but to be a Jew was not easy,” the 65-year-old said about living in the former Soviet Union. “Jews were not second-class citizens; we were third-class citizens. Policies came from the top, especially if you were an open Jew, which I was. I never hid my Jewishness.”

If nothing is done, these locations are lost to history.

After Kletter and Klebanov met at a Chabad of the North Peninsula event a few years ago, Kletter was sharing some pictures of existing memorials in Belarus when Klebanov recognized the names of family members and offered to help as a translator on a July 2017 trip.

The journey marked only the second time Klebanov had returned to his homeland in nearly three decades. While there, he visited the gravesites of his parents and other relatives.

“It’s important for me, and important for the people who were murdered, to not forget them just because they were Jews,” Klebanov said. “It’s also important for the local population to understand this should never happen again … Everybody knows about Auschwitz, but in Belarus, 300,000 Jews were gassed at Trostinets,” an extermination camp about eight miles outside of Minsk also known as Maly Trostinets.

According to Yad Vashem, “about 200,000 people were murdered in the Trostinets area [and] about 65,000 were killed in Maly Trostinets,” which was “the largest Nazi extermination camp in the occupied parts of the Soviet Union” according to a European web portal of memorial museums.

It wasn’t until after becoming involved in the project that Kletter discovered a family history that he knew nothing about. His maternal great-grandmother, Rose Alperovitz (shortened to Alpert), was from Kurenets, a Polish shtetl before World War II and now part of Belarus.

Despite her heavy accent, Rose Alpert always insisted she was from upstate New York (even though Kletter’s sister had found a ship manifest showing Rose and her father sailed to the United States in 1902).

“What happened to the Jews of Belarus is a tragedy of monumental proportions,” Kletter said. “Belarus suffered terribly during the war — and not just Jews. One-quarter of the population of the country was killed. But Jews were subjected to genocide and targeted because of their religion.”

The memorials where the atrocities occurred generally stand nearly 6 feet and are inscribed in English, Belarusian and Hebrew. At the ceremonies to dedicate new memorials, Kaddish is recited and stories about Jewish life in Belarus are retold, most always with dignitaries and local resident in attendance.

“It is a Jewish value to honor the dead,” Kletter said. “I feel like I am fulfilling a mitzvah.”

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.