Friday, July 27, 2007

Around Minsk

Belarusians love flowers, monuments and street sculpture. When the weather warms up they're all in evidence.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Jewish Minsk

Our tour of "Jewish Minsk" unfortunately left no time for examining all the positive artifacts of a rich cultural history that included a thriving Yiddish theatre scene even in the early Soviet years, during which, for a short period, Yiddish was one of Belarus' official languages.

After the pit at Yama, where 5000 Jews were murdered in one night and the trip to the site of the Maly Trostenetz concentration camp, as well as assorted other stops, we ended an emotional day.
The photos, from bottom right going clockwise show (1) detail from monument to German Jews brought to Minsk to be killed; (2) Yama; (3) sign at site of Maly Trostenetz, where 206,000(!) were killed by Nazis; (4) Yama; (5)Alla, the guide, explaining the monument at Yama, which includes a tribute to ordinary Belarusians who risked their lives to save Jews on that awful day; (6) Winding down at the Lido cafeteria afterwards with Lisa and Yvonne, the two Fulbrights, Yvonne's husband Mike, and Erica, an American volunteer at the Minsk Jewish Community Center.

US Embassy Film Fest

The Pubic Affairs Section of the embassy sponsored a showing of American films in the original language in a large cinema in Minsk - not an easy thing in Eastern Europe where everything gets dubbed in the local language. When they asked me to do the introduction to "Annie Hall," I expected a handful of people. What I found was a packed house of several hundred people! I'd like to think it was for me, but somehow I think it was for Woody Allen.

I gave a short address in English after handing out a transcript in English and Russian, which, much to my surprise, generated several requests for my autograph. Quite an ego trip for an English teacher, but just another example of the generosity and graciousness of the Belarusians.

The pictures show us back in the audience with Rena having a good laugh about something and me speaking. The gentleman next to me is a film critic from a local publication.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Vitebsk and Chagall

We visited Vitebsk, a four hour drive, home to Marc Chagall and Yuri Pen, Chagall's first teacher, on a cold rainy day in April. Chagall's childhood and teenage home has been converted to a museum with a knowledgeable guide and several preserved artifacts. Yuri Pen founded a painting academy in this small city, an unlikely setting for such an array of talent.

Khorujai Street

The streets are full of surprises; the vivid warmth of a flower kiosk on a cold winter night; a lottery prize ceremony on a Spring day complete with a cowgirl hoedown and a samba with two half dead snakes.


Our landlady Zena and her husband Valentin, who, in spite of their dour expressions for the camera, laugh a lot and are charming, lovely and generous people. In spite of their meager ten word English vocabulary, our fifteen in Russian, and four or five shared German words, we managed to communicate quite well and shared a pleasant afternoon thanks partly to Rena's wonderful and creative pasta and Zena's magnificent home made cake.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Metro

Crowded, clean, safe and aesthetically graceful describes the Minsk subway system. Trains are frequent, every three minutes, and zip you uncomplicatedly through the city without adventure. At the end of each station a digital clock shows current time and the time elapsed since the last train left. It is cheap (25 cents a ride, 12 for pensioners and students) and relatively short, with two lines crossing and going to different parts of the city. It is augmented by suburban railroad lines and an amazingly comprehensive above ground system of busses, electric busses and trolleys that cover the entire city safely (if not always comfortably), cheaply and reliably.

English Classes

There is a great desire to learn English here and we have sporadic evening meeting groups in a variety of venues- corporate, civic and private and have met with mixed success for a variety of reasons, the major one probably being that people work hard here, often having two jobs and attending university for advanced degrees. These photos are from the Minsk Jewish Center.

Museum of the Great Patriotic War

World War II is still close for many Belarussians. 25% of the entire population of the country died during the war and much of the city was destroyed by the Nazis. During the celebration of the German surrender there is a huge city wide celebration and the old veterans, wearing their medals are honored.

The museum is an elaborate affair in the center of the city, with a striking exhibit of a full size German tank smashing through a wall mural of the Hitler- Stalin agreement. Many of the older people here still view the pact as a necessity at the time and I recently had a long discussion with a colleague about the results of dealing with the devil, which we still see from different perspectives.

The museum is impressive, loaded with weaponry and with two floors, awash with artifacts, devoted to the partisans. The hundreds of period photos are striking- German soldiers guarding hanged citizens in the steets while crowds stand by, underground press rooms, radio broadcasts in the woods, military actions.

One of my colleagues volunteered her daughter and a friend, two charming and multi talented girls who spoke wonderful English, to accompany us and explain things, a great help as all the explanations and captions were in Belarussian only.


I'm way behind on my posting, so we'll just put things up in a random order. We visited Vilnius for a quick weekend about a month ago. It is, of course a city rich with Jewish history, but we'll be exploring that part on a longer forthcoming trip.
The train ride, actually about two hours, is doubled by stops at two border checks (Belarusian and Lithuanian), although other than that the checks are pretty routine and the officials friendly.

We found an 'old town' with churches, restaurants amber and linen shops, narrow streets and a western European attitude. The churches were beautiful as well as full of history, the amber and linen were exquisite and a bargain and the restaurants and pubs were great fun. Trying out our primitive Russian skills here led to a discovery that in general things Russian, including the language aren't that popular here.

The trip back in a friend's car at night, with the Lithuanians just waving us through and the Belarussians, in their Belarussian way, making some arcane bureaucratic adventure out of the process while we waited outside the window in the cold, was spiced up by a mysterious beautiful blonde in a Mercedes who managed to breeze through and roar off, much to the disgust of the waiting truckdrivers. Truckers have it hard here. They have to wait for hours in long lines at both borders.

We were there on Palm Sunday, so the church on Cathedral square was both crowded and colorful. A side trip to the huge Acropolis Mall enabled us to get a couple of Prescription drugs that weren't available in Minsk, and to enjoy the ice cream, crowds and the huge ice skating rink in the mall.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Murder Sites

The trail of Jewish history in eastern Europe is a mixed one. Pogroms and random anti semitic murders during the centuries were a fact of life. The coming of the Soviets and their antipathy to religion in general squeezed most of the remaining vitality out of the Jewish religious community, which was already losing members due to changing values and emigration.

Nevertheless, there was a long history of a rich communal lifestyle full of tradition, and close family relations, with a joy and a love for life and learning.

The Nazis and their accomplices came along and decimated the remaining Jewish population with an unmatched vehemence and a lack of any discernible human feelings that defies belief. Many Belarussians stepped up to save their Jewish neighbors, some losing their lives in the process. The population of Belarus in general saw 25% of the population lost during the war years of 1941-1945, the villages and cities ravaged during a brutal occupation.

Driving through the Belarussian countryside, there are numerous monuments at murder sites where Jews were marched en masse into the forest and shot and buried in mass graves. There is an incredible sadness to being there at these spots, knowing the horror that occurred beneath your feet. There is also a feeling of appreciation for a country that remembers its own.

The photos are of two random sites we passed on our trip to Mir and Volozhin. 800 were murdered at one, 1600 at the other.

Jewish Cemeteries

In both Mir and Volozhin, we found Jewish cemeteries, generally neglected, but with some updates. Each has memorials to people murdered by the Nazis.