Explaining the Unexplainable in Minsk

sacred books“Yes,” I told the baffled American immigration official, “I was in Belarus for a roots trip.” But this in no way captured my experience of touring in the environs of Minsk with a German speaking group out of Austria.  One of the challenges for me starting the journey in Austria is the automatic connection I feel with the place. I was very close with my grandmother who was born and raised in Vienna. She spoke German, ate Austrian foods, used cosmetics that had a European appeal. As complex as it is, I resonate strongly with the smells, flavors and sounds of Austria. Austria is one of my “homelands.”

By contrast Belarus, which was home to so many many Jews, is completely foreign to me personally. I spent 5 days in Belarus, which was 4 days more than my great grandmother. Reisl Hanni Brody was deported from Vienna, September 14th, 1942.  Four days later she arrived in Minsk, was taken to Maly Trostinec and together with all the other Jews in her transport shot. The language and the culture of Belarus do not resonate with me on an individual level. The only thing that connects me to this place is pain and death. This distinction is profound. When I am in Austria I feel compelled to better understand this culture from which I come, in Belarus I felt largely disconnected. Ironically, this disconnect was part of what made the overwhelming and challenging content of 5 days of Holocaust touring, bearable.

Bearable however, is a relative term. Over the 5 days, I heard so many horrid things that my capacity to distinguish between mass murder, horrid brutality and interesting fact has eroded. For example, from Vienna to Brisk, the urbane Jews of Austria travelled in the relative comfort of passenger trains. This helped Jews buy into the imagined hope that they really were,as the Nazis promised, relocating. Only after days of disorientation and hunger were they transferred to the cattle cars that carried them to their death. By this point they could barely protest. Apparently this ‘interesting fact,’ out of the context of other things I learned (which makes it seem kind of mild), comes across more on the horridly brutal when shared over a cup of tea.

Even the positive day of our trip offered little relief. We saw first hand the 200 meter long tunnel dug in 1943, which allowed 250 Jews to escape from a prison work camp near Novogrudok.  The work, perseverance and imagination this took is astonishing. Miraculously, most made it to the woods and were able to the join Bielski resistance detachment made famous in the movie Defiance. I am inspired by the acts of heroism in face of horrific odds and grateful for every life that was saved, but the suffering and horrific circumstances and that led to the need for heroism cannot be redeemed.

There is so much that will never be recovered. Belarus sits between Ukraine and Poland, in a place where borders were not so fixed. Nearly the entire Jewish population was destroyed. Some of the greatest Yeshivot, such as the Mir Yeshiva and the Brisk Yeshiva were located here. This was the birthplace of Marc Chagall. Historian Lucy Dawidowicz put the number of Jewish dead at 375,000.

The Jewish devastation is an important piece, but nonetheless only one piece, of the destruction that took place in Eastern Europe during WWII. While there is no consensus on the total numbers of the general population that died, it is estimated  one third of the total population-Jews and non-Jews- lost their lives. Those who survived often did so by collaborating. Old ethnic tensions were excuses for violence that the Nazis were all too glad to exploit. The property damage was extensive. Almost nothing remains of pre-war Minsk. It was all destroyed at the start of the war by the Germans. These types of scars do not heal easily. We see them on show today in the Ukraine.

Those of us whose relatives lived in this part of the world, and took the chance emigrating in the 1880 or thereabouts, should be eternally grateful.

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Posted on June 26, 2014

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