Almost Like Returning Home

There is a pit in Minsk, Belarus, that is simply called the Pit, or “Yama” in transliteration. It was where 5,000 Jews from the Minsk Ghetto, among them my family members, were murdered by Nazis. During the time of the Soviet Union, KGB officers were stationed there to make sure no Jews stopped to mourn. The memorial, then, only mentioned the deaths of Soviet citizens at the hands of the brutal fascist regime.

My father and his family left Belarus in 1980 to immigrate to America. They brought what little they could with them, from suitcases to stories. And the Pit.

“Conclusion: the faster you get out, the better off you’re gonna be. True in 1989, still true today.”

“I agree, just get the F. out of there”

I am a 20-year-old son of Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union, and I had returned. Though some other Jews from the USSR were none too keen about it.

In Minsk, I was terrified and confused. What had I come to? What was I looking for? All I knew was that I had to see it, to see where my family was from and to see the state of the current Jewish community. I had to know for myself, instead of relying on stories that were close to, or over, 40 years old. I had to see the Pit.

But before all of that, on my bus from the airport, it struck me that Minsk looked like the Soviet movies I had grown up on. The forests looked like Minnesota and Wisconsin, and there were a lot of McDonalds and KFCs. But it wasn’t real. I fell asleep in my Airbnb in disbelief. For 20 years the city existed only in my head, and now I could point to a map and say “I’m here”.

The next day, the Pit. But first…

“For me, it’s very important they understand that geography and history are not separate,” the Chief Rabbi of Belarus, Grisha Abramovich, told me about those coming to Belarus to seek their roots.

The Center for Progressive Judaism in Minsk doesn’t exist. Jews had all left for Israel or America after the Soviet Union fell, and whatever small pockets remained were poorly educated about their tradition in a land where my great-grandfather was sent to Stalin’s gulag simply for having a Yiddish newspaper.

And yet, I had just spent some moments praying in the synagogue out of a Russian-Hebrew prayerbook, exhilarated at this dream of rebelling against the Soviet power with an open expression of Judaism, over 25 years too late. Am I just a rebel without a cause?

The Rabbi and I talked about many things, from how he engages Jewish youth and adults to the perception – my perception – that there is nothing left in Belarus for Jews. “Get rid of the cliches that ‘oh, they’re so tiny and vanishing, let’s work with those who will leave.’ No, well, a few tens of thousands remain,” he told me without pause. “‘Oh, they’re all pulling towards Judaism, if we just throw them a story about the Passover seder, every house will do a Passover seder,’ also no,” describing the post-Soviet mentality of American Jewry coming to save the remaining Jews of Eastern Europe.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Jewish life had been built, brick by brick, to no less than five or six available places to go for any given Shabbat in Minsk. In the Center for Progressive Judaism alone is a synagogue, a youth group, and a group for the deaf and blind. What Soviet Union? Where? Of course there is a Jewish community.

Rabbi Abramovich’s grandfather ran an illegal synagogue in a small town in Belarus, and his grandmother would take him to buy groceries in order to “rest” in front of the Pit for a few moments without bother from the KGB. Ah, that Soviet Union. My Soviet Union. I seem to have more in common with the older generation of Jews in Belarus than the younger one, with these Soviet stories. My great-grandfather, after surviving the gulag, would lead my family in the first seder of Pesach in secret. And always the Pit.

So I went. And it hurt, and it burned, and it was a small hole in a residential neighborhood near the river that splits Minsk.

I had returned. I had never been here before. This time no KGB. I have never seen the KGB in my life. “We survived,” I told the Pit. There is a series of statues descending next to the stairs, symbolizing the families killed. At the top, someone plays a violin. There was no music.

“It makes me sad to hear, when people visit and say ‘there aren’t any Jews here’ or ‘there’s no Jewish life here’. I want to tell you, god-willing everyone had this kind of Jewish life,” Elena Kulevnich, director of Hillel Minsk, said, launching into a detailed description of what Hillel does and the overall Jewish community.

Already the next day, I had found Hillel and was once again in exhilarated shock at its sheer existence. Walking in, I remarked to Kulevnich’s daughter that some people think there’s no Jewish life left in Belarus. She looked at me like I was an idiot and said “Just look around, of course there’s Jewish life here.”

I asked Kulevnich about that perception, that I couldn’t let go of, this dead horse I had to beat. “Maybe we don’t advertise enough,” she said. “We don’t have it as a goal to prove that there are Jews because…it’s normal. This is our life, the life of Jewish organizations of Belarus, that they exist.”

Never did I think it would impact the operation of Jewish organizations, but “sometimes this lack of advertising works against us, because we can’t find the resources for the realization of projects,” she said, explaining that “it’s very hard to get grants and funding because there definitely is this understanding that there is no Jewish life in Belarus.”

But, I asked, why stay? “The faster you get out, the better off you’re gonna be” is the attitude I grew up with from Jews who immigrated from the USSR to America. All or nothing, but the Jews had to leave, with no exception. What I didn’t say, was that I needed to know where I should stand.

Just the son of immigrants from the Soviet Union, with these stories of Belarus, what we left behind. Only I didn’t leave it behind, in fact, who am I in any of this. But the graves, the building my father grew up in, the Pit, they’re also mine. They are. And they are not in America, but here. Why stay?

“I’m here because my graves are here. I think that a person should remain where his graves are,” Kulevnich told me. “Everyone can’t leave, someone will remain. Who will gather all of these Jews for Shabbat?” I want to cry, it hurts. “Why, if I was born here, why should I leave the country in which I live, in which I have friends, where I have my house,” she said. I can still feel the pain of immigration from my parents, uprooted. “My graves are here and I want to look after them,” she spoke softly. And my graves?

What about this balance between the Holocaust and history in Belarus, and a now-thriving Jewish community? For me it was a painful cognitive dissonance. Kulevnich drove home her point. “Balance will only happen in the case that we will protect the memory. It’s not possible to protect memory from a distance,” she said, and I felt it tear my heart.

“When our students at M.E.G.A. [Jewish cemetery restoration project] are lifting up old Jewish cemeteries, that’s memory. We’re protecting that memory. When kids from Ukraine come to Belarus and in some Jewish town, in synagogue, are celebrating Shabbat, that is memory. That’s a memory they will take with them. They can touch it.”

And what do you want Jews outside of Belarus to know? “I want them to know that we are here. That we are always happy, that the Jewish community is always happy, when people come who have…right now it’s very fashionable to say ‘I have roots in Belarus’. So that they don’t just say that they have roots, but they felt it, felt that it’s a root. You can’t chop it off, you can’t burn away that tree.”

But why does it have to hurt so much? And who am I, that it should hurt? My last day in Belarus, I went to the Pit again. I talked to the Jews buried there, telling them about Israel, about the Center for Progressive Judaism in Minsk, about Hillel, about how we survived. I sat on the stairs, and sang what I could remember of some Russian and Hebrew songs. I sang Hatikvah. I messed it up. My eyes are still wet, weeks later.

From Belarus, to Ukraine, to see my mother’s city, Kharkiv. Under dirt and dust and worn out roads, brought on by war, political instability, and a poor economy, it’s still a beautiful city. And, inexplicably, just like Minsk, it seems familiar. Almost like home; almost like returning.