(Initially: Anti-Amnesia Navigator)
“KH Space” Cultural Institution
Location: Brest, Belarus
Implementation period: April 2016 – May 2017
Coordinators: Aksana Haiko, Sviatlana Haidalionak
Context. Problem. Objectives
There are many significant parts of the history of Brest, which are not represented in the school textbooks, museums or tourist routes. The history of life and destruction of the Jewish community of Brest during the Second World War is one of them. The very memory of the life and the contribution of the Jews to the development of Brest has disappeared as result of the Holocaust and the destruction of buildings and places associated with the Jews. Returning these memories has become the goal of our project.
We could not look past this issue since half of the city’s inhabitants having been killed is the biggest disaster in the history of Brest. However the memory of these events is not there in the narratives of Brest history. The word “Holocaust” does not appear in the Belarusian textbooks, and the very topic of Holocaust is still not being openly discussed.
We decided to “squeeze” the present narrative of Brest’s “heroic” past. The myth of the heroic defense of the fortress overshadowed the incredibly cruel death of the city’s residents as well as the tortures and deaths of thousands of prisoners of war, all of which is also not common to mention when talking about Brest. Neither the Brest citizens nor the tourists have got any clue about another history apart from the history of the heroes defending the Brest Fortress. We found it important for Brest to get a history told not by the creators of myths and textbooks, but by its actual citizens.
Another challenge was the existence of a strict censorship of works of art. The Kryly Khalopa Theatre has faced bans of performances, commissions and other restrictions for more than 10 years. We wanted to create a product that would be impossible to make a subject to censorship.
The audio-play, which is a part of the Brest Stories Guide mobile application, as well as the web-site breststories.com, are the objects of all our efforts. It is based on the materials from archives and the interviews with the eyewitnesses of the events related to the extermination of Jews in 1941-1942, which may characterize the play as a source for studying the history of Brest and Belarus. In addition the project is an innovative theatrical and tourism product and it is distinguished by an unconventional approach to work with historic heritage.
The viewer / listener is given an opportunity to interactively participate in the play that takes place in the city. The main material of the production is comprised of the voices of witnesses of events and a map marked with the key places of Jewish heritage and historical events.
The project was presented on May 27, 2017 and caused great interest from the public. Even at the stage of pre-presentation the feedback from the Facebook followers demonstrated that people see our important influence in changing their image of Brest. The media expressed their interest at the early stages too: many journalists from the Brest media were asking for an interview already a month before the presentation.
Working with Yefim Basin, a representative of the Jewish organization Hesed-David gave positive results. Being an expert and a researcher of Brest and the Jewish topic of the city for a long time, he shared the materials yet unknown to wide public such as books published in New York and interviews with people who left Belarus for Israel and the United States. He also helped to establish cooperation with other Jewish organizations for further possible collaboration on the project.
The communication and the work with Christian Ganzer, the German historian who has been involved in the history of the Brest Fortress for about 10 years and has publications in the Belarusian media as well as a book about the Brest Fortress proved beneficial. He supported us with the testimonies of German eyewitnesses to the events in Brest and photos from his archive, helped us find materials and assessed our project very positively. In this particular case fruitful cooperation was established on the grounds of the similar views on the problem.
The attempt to establish collaboration with another Brest historian and an expert on the Jewish history did not have any positive results, as we met a rather hostile and distrustful attitude towards the initiative and the fear that we would use the materials collected by the expert for gaining personal profit. On the contrary, a Brest historian Irina Vauraniuk helped us with advice and references to the sources.
We managed to form a team that worked in harmony and communicated quite closely, despite the heterogeneity of tasks (script and direction, IT, sound record and audio mixing, work with historical materials, etc.). We made every effort to ensure that everyone participated in the decision making process and the creative component of the project one way or another. We organized regular working meetings of the entire project team.
Project Value for the Organization
We came up with an innovative project, and many of its tasks were completely new for us: creating a mobile application and a website, connecting the audio and the map, other technical issues, and a deep immersion in archival sources and documents as well. The absence of a clear initial idea of the workload became our internal problem. It turned out that we did not fully realize what the workload is and how much time it would actually take to do everything. As a result, many team members got much more work, and some people took part in the project almost as volunteers.
In addition to the major boost in the professionalism and project management skills, the Brest Stories Guide undoubtedly influenced the organizational development of our theater on the whole. The CHOICE project team provided huge support in the form of consultations with Aliaksey Kanstantsinau, which changed the image of the organization in many ways today. In particular, we went through a rather difficult period of internal development: we completed the process of registering our initiative as a social and cultural institution, formalized the relations within a very creative team by actually restructuring it, identified the functional “blind spots” in the organization and found new people to fill in these gaps. It was the first time for us to realize a project with so many experts involved – about 20 people. By expanding the circle of experts, we also changed our method of work, which is fairly closed under the usual conditions.
The idea to attract actors from the local drama and puppet theaters – a community we couldn’t quite reach out to before – was a big success. As a result, three Honored Artist of the Republic of Belarus as well as several other professional actors took part in the work on the project. Working on audio-play became a new professional experience for them as well.
We used the services of Ahniya Asanovich, an external professional PR expert, and we can already see the benefits of this cooperation. We have reviewed our position on the information campaign and its impact on the development and the promotion of the project. The thematic workshop of the CHOICE program also helped a lot and allowed us to receive a consultation with Mariya Hvardzeitsava later on. After that we were contacted by the Brest experts on social networks promotion who kindly suggested sharing their experience of public relations gratuitously. In the end, we conducted a much broader information campaign than it had been originally planned.
We already see the interest in our project coming from the representatives of very diverse fields. To date, we have received an invitation to run a workshop on the intersectoral projects technology within the framework of the European Humanities University conference in Vilnius. We have also been invited to present the project at the Festival of Three Cultures in Wlodawa, Poland. Urbanists take interest in the project as well.
We are planning to continue the work on the project as it was initially conceived to embrace broader topics. We hope to translate the play into English with the help of the Jewish community so as to make it accessible to foreign tourists. There are also plans to make other “trails” of the Brest Stories Guide, which would be related to the women’s history of Brest. This is important to us as women in the history of the city lack representation, while tourists and locals bear the “heroic male” image of Brest.