Belarus -- Chagall's memory, officialdom and Vitebsk

Tablet Magazine runs an article by Judith Matloff about how authorities in Belarus have exalted Marc Chagall to a local hero in his native town, Vitebsk. The article quotes me briefly noting how newly independent countries have seized on various figures (Jewish and non) with a sometimes very loose relationship to the place where they were born as local heroes. I had mentioned to the author the case of Slovakia, where John Dopyera, the inventor of the dobro (resonator guitar) had immigrated to the United States with his family as a teenager. Dopyera was long described as a Czech or Soviet, and it was only in 1989 that his Slovak origin was rediscovered. Enthusiasts set up a Dobrofest, and I believe that even a Slovak postage stamp was issued in Dopyera's honor.

In the context of this post (and the Chagall article) I want to highlight again, as I have done previously on this blog, the work being carried out by the Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus. Click this link for their web page on Vitebsk.

Favorite Son -- Belarus embraces Chagall but leaves his Jewishness at the door

By Judith Matloff | Oct 14, 2010

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, painter Marc 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.

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