Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Belarus #3

The memorial marking the site of the second and third mass slaughters of the Navagrudak Jews.
The memorial and burial site of the first slaughter of the Navagrudak Jews, most likely where Sylvia's family were killed.
A dugout in the partisans camp.
Entrance to the tunnel tne inmates dug and fled to freedom.
Barracks in the work camp of last remaining Jews in Navagrudak.
We spent four more days in Navagrudak--with a brief visit to the nearby small city of Baranovich where Sylvia’s mother was from--exploring the history of Jewish life, devastation, and resistance that were part of the history of Sylvia’s family. We met with another individual who lived in Sunchik, knew Sylvia’s father and family, and told us the story of how his children were taken: how they were out playing and saw the Nazis coming and ran and hid under the beds in the neighbor’s house but were dragged out by the soldiers and taken to their deaths. And how Sylvia’s father was seen a bit later riding calmly down the road on a horse, pretending to be a peasant, escaping the horror of what had happened at his farmstead.
It was so very hard to listen to this story and other eyewitness stories of the mass slaughter of the Jews of the town--people who were the storytellers’ friends, neighbors, shopkeepers. And once again, as I have so many times over the years, I wonder who we are as human beings that we can commit such atrocities, and what it does to the psychic of the people who survived. And what is passed on to the children of those survivors. But that is Sylvia’s story, not mine, and I will leave it for her to tell.
We visited many memorial sites in Navagrudak and the nearby countryside, at least some of them the result of a survivor of the Navagrudak Jewish community who now lives in England and has returned to Navagrudak many times, working with the museum that Tamara is head of to make sure that the tragic events of those times were not forgotten. And it was not only the Jews that suffered. Tamara told us that one out of every three Belarusians died in the war, as it became a battlefront between the Nazis and the Russians and entire villages were exterminated, accused of harboring Russian partisans. Today one drives the peaceful countryside and forgets that this was a place of terror and unspeakable horrors, that the rolling farmlands and dense forests and lovely lakes hide the evidence of what had happened there. But, of course, those events will always be in the hearts of the people who occupy this beautiful land, and they come rising to the surface, unwanted perhaps, but uncontainable, as the stories of the war come tumbling out.
And also thanks to the people such as Tamara who are determined that this history will not be forgotten or buried away out of sight, there are memorials marking the most tragic sites. Driving a single-track, overgrown road deep into the forest, we find the monument marking the first slaughter of the Jews and the large rectangle “grave site” where thousands of bodies lay buried. Later we visit a stone monument alongside a busy road, marking the site of the second and third mass slaughters, this time at a location in plain view, as the Nazis became more arrogant in their killing. Day lilies were flowering, the tall green grass waving in the wind, the distant wheat fields golden in the sunlight—could it be that so many people—men, women, and children, yes, children—were murdered at this very spot? How hard to reconcile these two visions, what I see before my eyes and what I know to have happened here.
We also went to the site of a tremendous act of resistance on the part of the remaining Jews of Navagrudak. Confined to a single building, living on top of one another in a dark and airless barracks, they managed to dig a tunnel over 250 meters long, hiding the dirt from the tunnel in the walls of the barracks, and on one night, 170 escaped and made their way into the forest where they hid for the remainder of the war.
And we saw the remains in the forest of the living structures of the Russian partisan groups—the Jewish partisan camp was destroyed after the war—which gave us a sense of what life was like hiding in the forests. The living structures were little more than small rooms dug into a hill side with reinforced log walls and camouflaged roofs and entrances. I think of Sylvia’s parents and what they lived through. How hard life must have been for them, especially in the winter, huddling in those cold and cramped quarters with little to eat and filled with the memories of the deaths of all those so dear to them. I try to image myself in their shoes and can’t. I can only bear witness to the fact that this happened here, that this is part of human history, and part of my history too through my friendship with Sylvia.

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