“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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“Eastern Europe’s outcast, Belarus lies at the edge of the region and seems determined to avoid integration with the rest of the continent at all costs. Taking its lead from the Soviet Union rather than the European Union, this pint-sized dictatorship may seem like a strange choice for travelers.”
– Lonely Planet: Eastern Europe
I am going to Minsk. It is a strange choice indeed. All I keep thinking in my head is, “didn’t our people work hard to get out of there?” More than that, my great grandmother was taken there against her will. Brought by train to a forest and along with thousands of other cultured, educated, Viennese Jews she was shot.
So why the heck would I choose to go there voluntarily?
I keep telling myself it is to honor and support my mother, who wants to honor her grandmother.
All of this is true. I do want to honor and support my mother and honor my great grandmother.
But this still feels a bit crazy.
I grew up breathing the Holocaust. It was a topic spoken of at almost every meal. Hitler’s Mein Kampf sat on the bookshelf right outside my door. For years I suffered from nightmares that I was being deported. I found my own way to deal with the pain in my family and our community. I eschewed all things Holocaust. I did not read books that were not assigned reading. I did not see Schindler’s List. Even as I pursued a PhD. In Jewish history, I chose to focus on the lives of German speaking Jews until 1914. I actively chose to remember those who were murdered as they lived and not only as the victims Hitler wanted them to be.
I am filled with trepidation. Clearly this will not be a fun trip. In addition to the guidebook description, we have been told to bring bug repellant and raingear to manage the swampy conditions we may encounter. One cannot visit Belarus without getting a visa which is obtained through a complex and archaic process.
You have to be part of an organized tour or work program. And very clear limits on the duration must be set in advance. So we are heading on a four day trip that heads out from Austria, my grandmother’s birthplace. The trip is organized by an Austrian woman named Waltraud Barton who is not Jewish. She dedicates her time to placing markers on the graves or former homes of Jews deported from Austria. My mother connected with her last year when she and my children dedicated a tripping stone outside the home from which my great-grandmother was deported. Waltraud is bringing a group of like-minded Austrian with her. My parents and I will be the only non-Europeans. While we will meet briefly with the Reform rabbi of Minsk, we will be the only Jews for most of the journey. I am bringing a tallit and yizkor candles. The entire tour will be conducted in German and my language skills will be stretched to their limits. My borders, rabbinic and otherwise will be pushed.
I do not know what remembering the Holocaust will look like for the coming generations. In my work on global Judaism with Be’chol Lashon I often teach about the expulsion from Spain which like the Holocaust displaced a whole community, destroying physically and spiritually much of the core. Yet centuries later it is often relegated to a footnote in history.
I do not worry that the Holocaust will have the same fate. In our modern era we have done well recording and memorializing the atrocities perpetrated by everyday people against Jews in Europe. But the process of remembering forward the collective loss is a collective responsibility. When I was younger, I was content to leave that responsibility of remembering the horrors to others but now, as my parents age, and the generation that knew the Holocaust first hand is disappearing, my sense of obligation is changing.
I honestly don’t know what that means exactly. I am trained as a historian but there are some things that cannot be reasoned from an armchair. I suspect that going to this place which on so many levels repels me will help me better understand what I think and feel. In general, we are taught to set out expectations and proceed towards goals. But this is different. This trip is an act of faith, faith that it will be all right in the moment, faith that emotionally I will be able to grapple with what I encounter, faith that this is not really a crazy thing to do, faith that meaning will be illuminated. Somewhere beyond reason, I believe that this trip is the right thing to do.