Tamara, our guide and kindred spirit, at her desk in the museum
Showing Joan and Sylvia the names of Sylvia's parents in the list of Bielski Jewish Partisans
The central plaza in Navagrudak with the Israelite building on the left
The location of Sunchek where Sylvia's father lived
We arrived in Belarus worn out from two overnights on the train, a hot day in Kiev, and of course, Joan injuring herself in the Kiev train station. But when we finally got to our hotel in Navagrudak and went across the street to the Regional History Museum to meet our contact/host/translator Tamara Vershitskaya, what a delightful surprise we had. Tamara is vibrant woman, full of energy and passion about the history of Navagrudak and the fate of the Jewish community. We were with her the whole week, and she unfailingly honored all our requests and peculiarities, and never seemed to tire of providing information, encouragement, interpretation, and joy. By the end of the week we truly recognized how fortunate we were that a kindred spirit (as we came to call her) happen to exist in a small town in Belarus and that because of her, Navagrudak had a very accessible history (Tamara is director of the museum in Navagrudak). The museum and our hotel across from it (which was a small building with only a few guest rooms and seemed to be in the midst of a major remodeling) were located just off the town center of a large cobble stoned plaza. We found out later that most of the buildings were destroyed during the war, but that two adjoining large brick houses remained, one of which was owned by Israelites, which meant someone in Sylvia’s family, though not her father.
Our first encounter through Tamara, was a man from Germany, researching the graves of German soldiers buried in the region. And on the last day of our visit, we also met another German, who was researching the activities of the last German commander of the region. How interesting that our visit to unearth information about Sylvia’s family was bookended by our encounters with Germans, both of whom were involved in researching the German history of World War II. I noted that Martin Holler, the young man that we met at the end and who I found especially interesting as his specialty was Romas (gypsies) and the Holocaust, always referred to the Germany of the wartime as Nazis, whereas we tended to just say “Germans.” It made me think how I would feel to always hear “Americans” when a horrific part of our history was discussed. And it made me resolve to try and use the word Nazis in the future.
We had a brief lunch at one of four restaurants in town, this one owned by a successful Jewish businessman (we found out later that at least one of the other restaurants is state owned) and then took a walk to the ruins of a castle, the history of which I seem to have forgotten, except that it was destroyed by Swedes in the 1700’s. What I do remember that it is located on a high hill which turns out to be the second highest point in Belarus (Belarus is a very flat country) and provided beautiful views of the rolling farm land, forests, and the town of Navagrudak.
The next morning we met with Tamara at her book lined office in the museum and went on a brief tour of her museum. I have been to a few museums in Ukraine and have never been too impressed with them—outdated and uninteresting displays, poor lighting, and no place to sit down. Tamara’s museum was so different—the displays looked fresh and well done and had a natural logic to them as you went through the museum. And in each room, there was a padded bench in the middle of the room to rest and contemplate the information (Joan found this particularly helpful as she needed to stay off her bad ankle as much as possible). It clearly reflected Tamara’s enthusiasm for the history of the region and talent for museum work.
After the museum tour, we headed out to meet with a man in his 80’s named Anatolia, who had lived in Sunchek and knew Sylvia’s father and his family. Though the beginning conversation was slow and awkward, as it dawned on him who Sylvia was, he was overcome with tears many times as the painful memories of the war came slowly bubbling to the surface. Though he couldn’t tell us many details, just the fact that he knew her father and his family, that he had lived in the same community, meant so much to Sylvia. It was hard to sit there as he cried and tried to tell the stories, and it made me realize how much pain people, especially old people, live with in this part of the world. And I couldn’t help but wonder if we were doing the right thing, asking questions that clearly brought forth such hurtful memories. But that question was answered when he told about Sylvia’s cousins escaping into the forest, and Sylvia told him that they had survived, that they were living today. The look of disbelief and then overwhelming joy on his face made me realize that Sylvia’s presence had given him a great gift, that at least one of his unthinkable memories could turn into something wonderful. And just meeting Sylvia also gave him that gift, as he had no idea what had happened to her father after the war, and here was his daughter, 60 years later, sitting in front of him.
After talking with him for an hour or so, we all piled into the car (we were driven around the whole time by a hired car and driver who sometimes got totally annoyed with Tamara but she just ignored him and continued to tell him what to do) and went out to Sunchek, where a few families, including Anatolia and Sylvia’s father, lived before the war. Anatolia couldn’t really remember exactly where her father lived, but I think just being there on the land was important to Sylvia-- to see what a beautiful, peaceful place it was and imagine her father working at his grain mill and raising his four children. On the way back to Navagrudak (after leaving Anatolia in Sunchek to have “50 grams of vodka” with his nephew who lived in one of the few houses still standing), we stopped at a nearby spring fed small lake, where almost for sure, Sylvia’s father went swimming. Sylvia and I got in and immersed ourselves in the cold, clear water, as he must have done many times on hot summer days in a different world long ago.