January 2013. Heavy snow is falling in the village of Vishnyeva, Belarus. A small group of people has gathered in the yard of the house where Shimon Peres was born and raised. The original shack is no longer there, but the well remains in its place. Yoram Dori, who has served as the president's strategic adviser for 20 years, lowers a rope and bucket, draws water and distributes it to members of the delegation.

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"For a fleeting moment I felt like Shimon Peres," Dori said later. "I imagined a small boy lowering the bucket and drawing water. The water truly tastes like the Garden of Eden. We drank from cups, Shimon Persky (Peres's original name) probably drank directly from the bucket."



It doesn't seem as though much has changed in the humble town since the mid-20th century. A horse and cart is still an acceptable means of transport, and many of the houses are made of wood. In some of the yards stand old and simple sheds. An accordion player and a group of locals in traditional Belorussian garb welcome guests to the town center with song and special bread.

"We decided to put a replicate up in the yard of the hut that the Peres family lived in," Deputy Governor of the Minsk Region Alexander Yushkevich declares, increasing the buzz of excitement in the crowd. He adds that an idea raised by Dori will also be implemented, to place in the main hall of the Civic Center an exhibition of Peres's work - "From Vishnyeva to the President's Residence in Jerusalem" - which will include materials with the help of FSU Limmud and the Shimon Peres Archives.

"Vishneyva is often mentioned in Peres's speeches," Dori days. "Here he imbibed his core principles. More than once he described his life in the hut near the well, whose water he still tasted, many years after he left. In Vishneyva he heard his grandfather's last words, when he left the village with his mother and brother in order to join his father in the land of Israel: 'My child,' his grandfather said, 'You will always remain a Jew.' Since I began my job I have always been curious about the place where Peres received the foundation of his faith, and finally the opportunity arose to see it."

Kaddish in heavy snow

The Israeli delegation traveled to Belarus upon the initiative of Haim Chesler, chairman of FSU Limmud, an international organization for Jewish studies for Russian speakers founded 30 years ago. In May Vishneyva will host the annual "Limmud Festival," which offers Jewish studies in a pluralistic environment to students and youth from around the world, mainly from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, USA, Canada, Germany and Israel. 600-800 youth will participate in the festival, which will also mark Peres's 90th birthday, which falls on May 29.

The trip to Vishneyva began 400 kilometers away in Brest, which is near the Polish border, and is the hometown of the late Menachem Begin. On the way, the delegation stopped to visit Volozhin, home to the most important yeshiva in Belarus until the outbreak of the Second World War - the Volozhin yeshiva (the "mother of all yeshivot"). Intellectual giants studied there, such as the heads of religious Zionism, Rabbi Haim Soloveitchik, Rabbi Yitzchak Yaacov Reines, and Rabbi Samuel Mohilever, as well as Tzvi Wissotzky, the founder of the tea empire.

"Peres told me that his grandfather and primary childhood teacher Rabbi Zvi Meltzer, also studied at the yeshiva alongside Haim Nachman Bialik," Dori says. "The building was preserved and only its exterior was refurbished. The building is modest and from it emerged giants. It turns out there is no need for yeshivot in marble palaces, but the scholarly spirit inside is what is important."

From Volozhin the delegation continued to snowy Vishneyva. "It's hard to digest how they lived in shacks like these in this cold and snow," Dori and Chesler wonder. "How they lived and learned, how they developed. Such a small place alongside such conditions produced the president of Israel, the former finance minister and mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa Joshua Rabinowitz, and president of the World Zionist Organization Nahum Goldman."



After visiting the Persky family's shack and the village center, the team went on to see a monument honoring those who perished in the Holocaust. The monument was erected during the Communist era on the side of a courtyard where many local Jews were shot to death. On one side of the monument, it is written in Russian that the victims are "Soviet citizens." On the other side a Hebrew inscription, which was added in 2005, states that  2,000 Jews were killed in Vishneyva, among them several members of the Persky family.

"In his speech at Bundestag on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2010, Peres described in chilling detail how 2,000 Jews from the village were led, with his grandfather Rabbi Meltzer at the front, to the wooden synagogue which was set alight by Nazis," Dori recalls, and despite the thick snow he takes a kippa from his pocket and places it on his head. "Magnified and sanctified be His great name," he calls, and the other members of the group join him in reciting kaddish for the deceased. When the prayer ends Dori says,"Here in Vishneyva we see that the Jewish people won. But what was awful was the price."   

Translated by Tamara Zieve

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