Tuesday, July 10, 2007

BELARUS I: arrival, the joint

The following is the first installment of ADT's adventures in Belarus, which as we mentioned is a the last sketchy country in Europe (if you consider Albania non-sketchy). ADT, the author of Voices of Wanderlust: 5 years and 70 countries of globe-trotting and soul-searching, will post more Belarus and euro adventures in the near future.


I planned to go to Belarus with my then-girlfriend, on a family trip to return to the city of her birth along with her parents (she moved to the states when she was 9, and to israel when she was 24). Two weeks before the trip, we broke up which left me with the conondrum to go or not to go. Of course, as I've realized about myself, the inherent challenge and difficulty of the trip made it impossible to turn down...despite all the excellent reasons to stay in Tel Aviv and get my shit together.

I flew Belavian airlines on a plane chock full of Russian speakers. I'm fairly positive I was the only non-Belarussian/"tourist" on that flight. My first hint that I was entering a Russian speaking land was the guy next to me opening the overhead compartment mid-flight to brandish a huge bottle of vodka. He gave me a hefty shot as he proceeded to polish off nearly a third of the bottle (along with his wife.)

The airport was somewhat 3rd-worldish, but after buying my "obligatory" government health insurance ($4), I was on my way to the city. This is the 8th CIS (former USSR) state that I've visited in the past few years, and quite possibly, takes the cake on the strangest. As with most perspectives on things, this one changes dramatically as soon as you've been here and see it first-hand. I'm now sitting in a modern western-style internet cafe in a brand spanking new underground mall beneath the gargantuan government building in Lenin square, just a block away from the imposing KGB building (still in use).


I spent the first two days having conversations with myself to prevent insanity from creeping in. The level of spoken english here is quite possibly the lowest I've ever encountered. My level of Russian (currently about 7.5 words) is about 6x as much as anyone's english on the streets. On the 3rd day, I attempted to change my circumstances and suceeded quite well. It involved two visits to the far-away Israeli Cultural Center and the Israeli embassy. Unbeknowest to me until much later that day, I needed to go to the embassy just to get security clearance to get past the Russian (non-Hebrew) speaking thugs at the front door of the cultural center, and speak with a very helpful, attractive Hebrew-speaking lady in the back office.

A couple hours later, they drove me in their diplomatic-plated car to the Jewish community center in Minsk, a large, heavily guarded complex of buildings funded solely by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC.) Inside, there's a quaint Jewish museum (the only one in Belarus, obviously) with pictures and documentation through the years. It was easy to get an idea of what has happened to the Jewish community throughout Belarus by walking around. The two main "exhibits" were 1) An old wooden doorpost on whose side you can see the indentation from where the mezuzah once stood, and 2) Original torah scrolls from a synagogue that were recovered from a guy's attic years after the War. The guy (non Jewish) took them from destroyed synagogue because he said they seemed like a good, strong material...suitable for insulating his roof. And so he used them for decades until his son came across them in the attic. He gave them up to the Jewish community of Belarus only after the Joint (JDC) agreed to fix his roof in exchange. These two exhibits were also the only ones with English translations. The second one, incidentally, was of particular interest. I read the town's name, Smilovitz, and remember my grandma saying the name of her hometown, and it sounding very familiar. And that's how it came to pass that I would explore my roots on this Belarussian trip...through an amazing series of events that led me to that one caption.

With the help of the Joint, I would find myself in Smilovitz three days later, meeting with and having lunch with two of the remaining five Jews in the city. Twenty five years after my great grandparents left Smilovitz, the entire Jewish community of thousands were wiped out in a mass execution by the Nazis. These two adorable grandmothers are nearly all that remains of a once thriving community. After they fed us to oblivion, and tried to marry me off to one of their granddaughters, they took us (me and an American girl I met on a JDC grant) to the old Jewish cemetary and memorial. The cemetary is all overgrown and unkempt, but the Hebrew writing on the tombstones was still clear. An old woman was gathering hay among the stones to bring to her farmhouse a few meters away. The mist and biting wind just added to the surreal atmosphere of it all. Our next stop was the execution pit where all of Smilovitz's Jews were murdered. I was shocked to find out that a local man was allowed to build his home and garden on half of the site. The other half is overgrown grass and a large Soviet monument, memorializing the "Soviet martyrs." In typical Soviet style, it paid homage to the Soviets who were murdered and completely downplayed the Jewish carnage. After reading and seeing similar things take place throughout the death camps in Poland, I wasn't too surprised by this. On the way back to Minsk, the driver took us to the large concentration camp, one of the largest in the entire Nazi ring. They've since used the space as a municipal garbage dump. A tiny memorial (written only in Belarussian) is all that remains. The smell of compost made it difficult to stay for too long.

---ADT, 7 July 2007

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