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A Journey to Belarus by Mark Kleinman
A Journey to Belarus
by Mark Kleinman
I write this at a great turning point for the United States as the nation struggles to reset its moral and economic compass. Tomorrow we will inaugurate Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America. Today, as we anticipate this inaugural event, we celebrate the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King would have been 80 years old and I suspect that had he lived even he would have difficulty dreaming that our nation would excitedly welcome an African-American President within the span of his own natural lifetime.
The ascendancy of Obama has parallels to the biblical story of Moses the slave becoming Pharaoh of Egypt. It is no wonder that Mr. Obama invokes the words and inspiration of Abraham Lincoln, America’s great emancipator, to remind us of the journey from enslaved outsider to leadership. This progression is a testament to the unique ability of America’s vibrant democracy to reinvent itself and to peacefully shed destructive beliefs and behaviors.
The story within this journal explores a page from the more brutal emancipation journey of European Jewry from Fascism. It highlights the unrealized dream of the first half of the 20th century that Diaspora Jews could live peacefully and equally within European society. This is also a story of the amazing bravery and power of the human will to live. It is a story that has captivated my imagination since childhood, so much so that I needed to visit a distant dictatorship to explore it for myself.
The travelogue that follows documents the events and ensuing impressions of my June 10-12th 2005 voyage to the Byelorussian capital of Minsk and the nearby ancestral village of Radoshkovichi. I journeyed on a long shot in search of truth and a personal connection to history, in search of understanding if not comprehension. I was uncertain about what I might find; places of horror and hatred, places of violence and pain. What I found was abundance of humanity in a country that remains consumed by the struggles of the war 60 years past.
This book is dedicated to the life of my mother, Esther Rubin Kleinman (March 23, 1923-July 4, 1977) and to the lives that her courage made possible. Her daughters Shoshana Zalmonovich and Gladys London. Her grandchildren and great grandchildren Avi Zalmonovich, Elliott Klein, Esther Zalmonovich, Jacob Drum, Jennifer Drum, Jesse Drum, Michael London, and Steven London. And to generations to come, may Esther’s courage be an inspiration. Her lesson to me is that the greatest adversity can be conquered through strength of will and spirit. Like Dr. King, her life was a struggle for emancipation. Her bravery is a reminder to never give up, even in the face of great challenge and darkness. Life is a sacred gift.
Sometimes as a child I would pull out the folder and wonder who these people in the ancient black and white photographs were. Pictures taken in places that looked a million miles away from the Brooklyn of the 1970’s that I knew. There were posed pictures of women, men, families and children, some with writing on the back in a language beyond my comprehension. Stoic expressions that conveyed resoluteness more than happiness.
Never knowing grandparents, uncles, aunts, or cousins my own age I wondered if I might find some of these relatives in the folder. I knew from a young age that my parents had survived Europe of the Nazi era. We didn’t talk about it much except for my occasional questions like the one to my dad at the age of 6, “what would you do if Adolph Hitler showed up here at our house?” When he answered, I’d throw him out the window” it gave me assurance that I was safe and beyond Hitler’s reach.
I am now an adult in my 40’s and have spent most of my life journeying away from my family’s past in the old world of Poland and Belarus. Building a life, a family, a career, being an American. In a single generation, as the son of exiled parents I developed a complete American identity. Sounding the same, dressing the same, with similar childhood preoccupations like mine in baseball and jazz. A common post immigrant refrain over the American centuries. Feeling equal patriotic ownership to the Fourth of July as the next guy, even if his great grandparents arrived 100 years earlier. Yet the contents of the folder draw me back to that old world.
In that folder that I’d explored many times over the years one of the photographs that captured my imagination was of my Grandmother Gitel Rubin’s grave site. My mother, Esther, then a girl of 7 or 8, her little brother Jake, her father Joseph, and Gitel’s sister Yenta Grundfest stood around the tall headstone. Gitel had died in her sleep of natural causes in the winter of 1931 while only in her 30’s and this picture, presumably, was taken at the tombstones unveiling the following fall. As tragic as Gitel’s untimely death must have been for her young family, it spared her from the scourge of war and fascism that would engulf this peaceful place less than 10 years later. Maybe she cleverly cheated the much worse fate of having to watch her loved ones and village destroyed? Could this grave site have been left in peace through the massive turmoil of the past 60 years? Might she have again cheated fate? To find the grave would allow me to stand at precisely the same place as the grandfather that many say I look like but had never known. Maybe I could even feel his presence. Become illuminated in his light.
Recently a business trip to Moscow afforded a convenient pretext for a trip that I’d imagined making for many years, a visit to my mother’s birthplace outside the Belarusian capital of Minsk. This would be my attempt to confront and get close to these relatives that I can never really know. Is it important to know where you come from to better define where you’re going? Is it true that “Everything is Illuminated by the light of the past” as Jonathan Safran Foer asserts in his novel by the same name?
The Journey to Belarus
The flight from Moscow to Minsk covers roughly 700 kilometers and takes two hours or possibly a good deal less if you are fortunate enough to travel on a Belavia Airways jet rather than one of it’s rickety 1960’s turbo props as I did.
I had one weekend and a clear mission: to locate the village where my mother grew up and to find my grandmother’s gravesite. Prior research assured me that the “shetl” village of Radoshkovichi, roughly 40 kilometers west of Minsk still existed. Before the war this scenic crossroads between the major population centers of Minsk and Vilnius had roughly 2500 inhabitants half of whom were Jewish. Today there is one known Jewish person in the town.
I began the expedition believing that my prospects of success were low. Few Jewish burial grounds in Nazi occupied areas remain undisturbed from fascist demolition, local vandalism, or outright neglect. Jewish tombstones have proven to be very useful in the building and repair of the areas roads and buildings. No one was left to care for these sacred Jewish places.
I arrived in Minsk on a warm and sunny Friday evening in June and was greeted at the airport by Yuri Dorn, a handsome bespectacled man with a broad and welcoming smile. Yuri is the Executive Director of the Union of Religious Jewish Congregations in the Republic of Belarus, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Jewish life, culture, and history. There are 43 Jewish community organizations in Belarus today and 37 religious congregations. Leaders insist that these groups are generally free to do their work inside the community.
With sufficient time to drop my bags at a nearby hotel and with the sound of prop rotors still whirring in my ear, we headed directly to the synagogue for Shabbat meal and prayers. At dinner I sat among a small group of community children and was surprised to feel the vibrancy of Jewish life. I watched curly haired kids laughing, wearing shirts with American icons, playing Coca-Cola instant win games from bottle caps. Yuri’s work presents these kids an opportunity to develop positive personal and spiritual identity in a land where it remains challenging to be a Jew. While the Belarusian Jewish population of 45,000 is spared any manifestation of state-sponsored anti-Semitism the community is careful when it comes to public celebrations of Jewish life.
This low key building tucked away off a main road is a former warehouse. It was provided to the Minsk Jewish community by President Lukashenko’s government rather than return the deeply significant pre-war synagogue which currently serves as an entertainment venue. This structure is the Jewish community’s focal point serving as prayer sanctuary, community dining room, senior center, religious school, adult education center, and center of community organization.
The life that Yuri leads in this country is a steady hardship. His parents emigrated to Israel years ago and his wife and young son have established residence in the comfortable suburbs of Cleveland. So why does Yuri stay in Belarus? Yes, he has commercial interests that keep him here, but to understand Yuri and his motivations, one must delve into his deep devotions; to god and to the betterment of the Jewish community of Belarus. The next time I allow myself to question if one person can make a consequential difference, I will look to the impact that Yuri Dorn has on the daily quality of material and spiritual life of the Jewish community of Minsk.
Despite a history of persecution, this Orthodox Jewish congregation in Minsk is surprisingly informal and welcoming. As a progressive Reform American Jew, I never felt out of place here and was even honored as a witness during the Torah reading on Shabbat morning.
Wobbly plastic lawn chairs furnish the sanctuary as well as the dining room which provides lunch and dinner to the elderly, often forlorn members of this Jewish community. The flimsy lawn chair decor signals an unsettling fragility to the arrangement that stands in stark contrast to the steadfastness of this community. While this congregation is helped by funding from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Committee for Material Claims against Germany, one easily senses that resources are quite limited.
For me, the miracle of remaining if not fully flourishing Judaism in this corner of the former Soviet Union was the beginning of my illumination. While the democratic gains made by the other former Soviet Republics have not taken root in Belarus, life here is stable and generally peaceful.
The wreckage that fascism has left in Belarus is almost incomprehensible. In this trampled country of 10 million pre-war, over 2.5 million Byelorussians lost their lives, among them over 800 thousand Jews. The weight of this loss looms overpoweringly even today some 60 years after the end of the war. The Soviet’s costly triumph over fascism seems at or close to the surface of just about everything. National, local, and ethnic war memorials, museums, even outdoor billboards marking the 60th anniversary of the victorious end to the “great patriotic war”. These reminders are always close by to jog the memory as if one could easily forget the devastation the war left on almost every family.
The Soviet regime lasted twenty-one months, a time when the Jewish population remained safe and life continued with only ideological change. Suddenly the events of June 22nd 1941 signaled a more violent shift as Germany attacked The Soviet Union.
The German Army occupied Radoshkovichi three days later on the 25th of June, 1941. In the first days of the occupation the Germans did not distinguish between Jews and gentiles; they treated everyone cruelly. Then came the first German military administration and with it the Jews felt the full brunt of German rule.
All Jews, young and old, were ordered to register. Fifteen of them were selected as representatives of the community, and the following orders were issued:
This period of tense uncertainty came to an end when at 6:00 a.m. on March 11, 1942; Radoshkovichi was surrounded by a squadron of over 500 Nazi SS and their collaborators. This Einsatzgruppen, or death squad, also included men from various military departments and local police. These men broke into the homes of the Jews and ordered them to the market square. Realizing that they were in great danger, many Jews sought refuge in hiding places or tried to escape from town. The chain of guards and the thick snow prevented any attempt to flee the village; those who tried were shot. The same fate awaited those who tried to hide in the stables or barns of their gentile neighbors. Somehow my teenaged mother and her younger brother survived the day’s events in this way. The remainder of her family did not.
On this day 980 Jews – men, women and children – were gathered at the market square. Those who were too sick to walk were summarily shot in their beds. From the market square the whole group was ordered to walk, under heavy guard, to the edge of town, to the street which led to the village of Odranka. There they were made to march, four abreast before the German authority, who chose 120 Jews with skills they deemed useful and locked them up away from the rest. The other 860 were beaten with clubs as they marched to the edge of town. They were made to undress, and then taken into a barn four at a time and machine gunned then burned. And so, on March 11, 1942, eight hundred-sixty of the Jewish community of Radoshkovichi was killed, in the first act of this tragic play.
The sad story of the Jews of Radoshkovichi parallel’s that of so many other towns of this region... My mother and Uncle Jake were fortunate to escape this mass murder by hiding in the barn of the Vlasow family, righteous Christians whose son was a fellow classmate of my uncle Jake.
After the events of the day a Jewish Ghetto was formed in the town by wrapping barbed wire around 12 houses and housing the remaining 340 Jews there 25 or 30 to a house.
Here my uncle lived under the protection of the family’s Russian housekeeper Maria while my mother, three years his senior went off to join with the Partisan group “The Revenge”. Before she and her Partisan colleagues could help him to escape, the SS returned to the town and murdered the remaining Jews including my uncle on March 7, 1943. Four days short of a year from the original massacre.
Of Radoshkovichi’s 1,250 Jews, only 40, a mere 3% survived to see the end of the war. Miraculously, my mother was one of those fortunate enough to survive the efficiency of the Nazi killing machine.
Arriving in Radoshkovichi
After services I was off on my journey to Radoshkovichi. Yuri arranged for a Byelorussian driver and Jewish heritage expert named Oleg and a translator named Bella to accompany me on my first visit. As we came closer to the village Oleg kindly slowed his car to provide a better view of the rolling hills, streams, and colorful family farms. It was not difficult to envision this place as it might have been in the early 1940’s. Seemingly, little in the basic tenor of life had changed. Farmers with pitch forks in hand atop massive stacks of hay on horse drawn wagons, Roosters prancing freely at roadside piercing the afternoon silence with their calls. The only sure signs differentiating the present day from 1940 were the modern cars traversing the roads.
My heart raced as we drove into this living town I had only imagined in gray and white. We parked at the village square where locals have market day once per week. The square proceeds up a gentle hill with a wooded park in the center and the police station at the top. Here my Grandfather built his photography studio and darkroom in the back of the family’s new spacious home. Equipped with the glass walls and ceilings that defined a high tech photography studio of the day the family led a better modest existence, with my mother attending an advanced school in a nearby village in preparation for university and her dream, of becoming a chemical engineer.
We searched for but were unable to identify my Grandfather’s house. Mom left descriptive clues in her own writings, but not a specific address. I suppose she never thought that anyone would venture back to this place. And why would she? When she died the Soviet Union was cloaked by an “iron curtain” and free visitation was not possible.
We went door to door, asking several older villagers if they remembered the Jewish photographer Josef Rubin and his family. I suppose that we arrived 20 or 30 years too late because even these elderly residents were children at the time of the war.
Two monuments stand in the town today at the sites of the mass executions. Within comfortable view of kitchen windows, churches, vegetable gardens, peaceful existence.
We made it to the Jewish cemetery on the northeast side of town and found that a new fence had been erected several years ago by a group of French and Israeli students. One could tell that the cemetery had not been visited for sometime as the grass was seriously overgrown and undisturbed.
The cemetery began on a flat plain of some 200 yards and then proceeded to slope downhill toward the river. Unkempt headstones, many broken or toppled lined the field and hill along with empty bottles of Vodka. Wading through the thick grass with photos in hand, Oleg, Bella and I began examining the headstones one by one in search of the grave of my grandmother, Gitel Rubin.
Meeting my ghosts
Dan Bern is an American folk singer/songwriter whom is compared to a young Bob Dylan. In his song, Lithuania, he writes:
“I'd like to be a good American and write an elegy to the automobile
These are my ghosts: Uncle Emmanuel, Uncle Eli, Aunt Mia
Sometimes I want to get next to them, sometimes I want to drive them all away
I saw my dad tell jokes, and teach me how to laugh,
Dan’s song echoed through my mind as I delved deeper into the cemetery, examining the forgotten tombstones one by one. Then suddenly, there it was near the top of the hill. We could barely make out the writing with 60 years of caked up mud obscuring the letters clear definition. Oleg had a wire brush in his car and we began scraping the dust away allowing the letters to more clearly reveal themselves. Bella, in her excitement, even employed her lipstick to help bring womanly life to the headstone. I went numb, suddenly frozen in this treeless cemetery upon the hill. Clouds in the big sky overhead were darting across the horizon, momentarily making it seem as if the ground was moving beneath my feet. I stood waiting for my illumination. Waiting for the rays of light, maybe even voices from beyond. All I heard was the din of afternoon traffic from the town below. I noticed that tombstones on either side were toppled or broken, and was awestruck that somehow this monument had stood through it all, without family visitation, seemingly awaiting a return. The best I could do to get closer was to stand in the same spot as my Grandfather in the photo that lead me here and pose for a picture that one day future generations might view.
With the kind help of Oleg and Yuri, Gitel Rubin’s grave has since been lovingly restored. I will visit Belarus again to see the monument in its renewed state, maybe with family and others searching for similar understanding. I am left with some small sense of closure having found this place of painful memory and joy. I also come away with hope that the country of Belarus and its children will see a brighter future.
If indeed, everything is illuminated by the light of the past, then Yuri Dorn’s selfless devotion to Belarus and its Jewish communities serves as a beacon for many, including myself.
Are you able to help the Jewish community of Belarus?
American Friends of Byelorussian Jews