Bearing Witness in Belarus

My grandmother, like Jewish grandmothers everywhere, was known for her kugle, which she called “sour” because it didn’t have cinnamon or sugar (God forbid). She made her own blintzes, too, which were sweet, as they should be. Her recipes were handed down to her by her mother Rebecca, with whom she immigrated to Milwaukee four years after Rebecca’s husband Chaim had set sail, bought two horses and started a burlap bag business in Milwaukee’s Jewish ghetto.

(Pictured above: Rebecca and Chaim Siegel)

The Siegels came from Kopyl, Minsk, a small town of some five thousand souls in which Jews made up 60% of the population, the majority of whom were murdered in one February day in 1942. These Jews of Belarus died at the hands of Nazis and others who forced Jews to dig their own graves and then murdered them brutally, usually in the span of twenty-four hours. And this was a pattern repeated in the nearly 200 Jewish communities in Belarus. Most estimates state that nearly 90% of the one million Jews living in Belarusian territory during the war were murdered. When you stand above these sites you begin to understand why the Yale historian Timothy Snyder refers to these as the “Bloodlands.”

Like some American Jews, I wasn’t told any of this as a kid. My grandparents and parents were devoted more to the American “project” than the Jewish one. My grandmother made it out in 1903 and never really looked back. But as I matured and decided to re-dig the wells of the Jewish past, I set out to learn more.

(Site of the Jewish mass murder in Kopyl, Minsk)

Finally, in the summer of 2016 I traveled to Minsk and to Kopyl, to see the family homeland, to pay tribute to the memory of the thriving Jewish life in Belarus, to say Kaddish at gravesides and perhaps most important, to bear witness. I met Belarusians whose grandparents families would have witnessed or even taken part in the destruction of my grandparents’ families and came away convinced that it ought to be the birthright of every Jew, if she or he is able, to return to these lands where our people lived for centuries — if only to testify to our endurance and survival. One of our guides was a schoolteacher because she said, she felt duty bound to teach children about the war and the lives that were lost. Another guide felt equally duty bound to narrate a lost past because as she put it, to deny the past is to deny reality as it is meant to be understood.

Waiters in restaurants; bartenders; store clerks; cab drivers — each were mystified by this sudden appearance of the Jews ( I had traveled with my colleague Leonard Petlakh, himself a refugee from Minsk in the 1980s, and my cousin Dave.) We told people we were the Sons of Minsk. A nerdy, intellectual, non-violent version of the Avengers, perhaps.

(Sons of Minsk)

In the marketplace outside of one town we bought blintzes from a food cart; we ate latkes and sour cream for breakfast each day. We never did find a sour kugle. But we were unquestionably immersed in our own soul food, our own hard-earned memory and a chromosomal connection to the past in appetite, body type, and outlook. On the roads between towns as we drove from cemetery to cemetery, pears and peaches and apples hung from trees; corn grew tall from the fertile earth; rain came and went. This was the Breadbasket of Belarus. No wonder my great-grandfather chose Milwaukee in 1899. It reminded him of Minsk.

(Latkes)

But of course, there was an eerie, indescribable pallor that hung over each day. The awareness of the enormity of the loss of life was an inescapable weight. It exhausted us each day. To contemplate the generations of the writers, the poets, the doctors and lawyers; the journalists and farmers and shopkeepers and shoemakers; the rabbis, the nurses, the Zionists and the dreamers; the socialists, the communists, the capitalists and the non-ideological mass, merely eeking out a living and yearning for a slice of the sacred, if elusive, peaceful life. All gone.

Precisely because of this powerful confrontation with a painful past, I decided to go back. I needed to go back and felt duty-bound as a Jew.

I’ll be in Minsk from July 26 to August 3 to visit seniors, raise memorials for lost communities and do a small bar mitzvah.

The Joint Distribution Committee in Minsk continues to provide critical humanitarian assistance to an aging population of poor Jews in the capital and the countryside. The JDCs center is a hive of activity and its remarkable director, Natalia Maletz, is as devoted and generous as a saint. There is a Reform rabbi in Minsk named Grisha Abramovich, a kind and soulful man who serves small Jewish enclaves, mostly elderly, throughout the country. This coming Saturday I will officiate at his son’s bar mitzvah. To think of my own ancestors reading Torah on this soil for generations and helping a young person to raise himself up to our sacred text is an honor unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

And then on Sunday and Monday next week, I will travel again with Leonard along with Joni and Cary Kletter and Michael and Diane Lazarus, families who have made part of their own sacred mission the memorialization of Belarusian Jewry. Together, these families have raised nearly ninety memorials in the towns and shtetls where Jews once lived. The modest marble and granite edifices are the standard bearers of Jewish memory in towns where there are no longer any Jews.


(Memorial to the murdered Jews of Kopyl)

We will dedicate memorials in Byhov and Sapezhinka on Sunday and then again in Svisloch and Porozovo on Monday. We will be joined by the towns’ mayors and priests and in some instances by American and Israeli diplomats. We will remember the souls of lives lost with Kaddish. We will testify. Perhaps some of you will join me on this trip again next year or in the future.

It’s a hard trip but it’s a meaningful trip and I can guarantee you that it will root you in your history in new ways that will open up vistas of insight and understanding.

And as I found among others back in 2016, it’s likely some of you have relatives or ancestors of your own that came from Belarus. If you know the town, let me know and I’ll make sure to stop there next week and say Kaddish for your family. We are all each other’s emissary for doing these mitzvot, connecting with the past, and building lives of meaning now, today. And if you want to support this ongoing work in memory of a loved one, you can give to us at JCP and we will dedicate those funds to the ongoing educational work of knowing our past and building a meaningful and deeply rooted Jewish future.

I look forward to sharing this journey with you when I return. In the meantime, please enjoy the rest of your summer. Here’s to a wonderful adventure together this Fall at JCP.


Andy Bachman is JCP’s Executive Director.