Favorite Son


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 imagea 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 countriesand especially newly independent countries trying to assert their national identitylook 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. …

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