The Jewish cemetery in Navagrudak where generations of Jews are buried.
With the Imam in his mosque in Navagrudak.
Tamara's museum and a Orthodox church.
Our hotel across the street from the museum.
An old woman and her house in Sunchik.
It is almost three weeks now since I have been in Belarus, and though I want to preserve those memories, I also want to return in my mind to Crimea and all that is happening in my life. So I will try to make this the last blog post on Belarus, though part of me feels I could write for days about that one week and all we saw and did there.
One of the delightful things that happened in Belarus was learning about the famous Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, who was born in Navagrudak and who lived much of his early life there before being exiled to Russia and eventually living in Rome and then Paris. Tamara credits his existence in Navagrudak as the reason the town was never the site of the pogroms that habitually terrorized Eastern Europe Jews. Though the fact is sometimes ignored in historical accounts of Mickiewicz’s life, Mickieswicz’s mother was a Jew, and he was always a proponent of the Jewish people, even going so far as to advocate Zionism in a speech he gave in Paris. He is very beloved in Navagrudak. There are several monuments to him, and his home in the center of town was reconstructed and turned into a museum of his life and work. Tamara talked about him so much, it made me want to get a copy of his famous epic poem Pan Tadeuscz in English and learn for myself about this man who, as Tamara put it, lived “on the cusp of his heart.”
Another interesting discovery of our trip that I never would have suspected is that there is a small Crimean Tatar community in Navagrudak. People are there not as a result of the deportation in 1944, but from an invitation hundreds of years ago to assist in fighting the Crusaders. Thus, though they call themselves Crimean Tatars and are Muslim, they are very disconnected from Crimea and the Crimean Tatar culture that I know here. They do not know the language, not even the simple greeting of “Salaam Alekim,” do not recognize any of the traditional crafts, music, and dress from Crimea. But there is a small mosque, and Tamara arranged for us to meet the elderly Imam, and we had a nice conversation with him. He was very proud of the mosque--which he had managed to restore after the Soviets had closed it down and turned it into private residences for many years. It was decorated with many lovely paintings and calligraphy (something you never see in the mosques here), and he was delighted to show it, welcoming us to wander around inside, despite our being “uncovered” women. Indeed, he even told us that women and men mix together in the mosque, which is absolutely unheard of in traditional mosques, but he said that there are so few men in the congregation—I think he said four—that it was a necessity if he wanted to keep the mosque surviving. It was a treat to make some kind of connection back to my life here, though it was not at all what I expected, especially when I greeted him with Salaam Alekim and he didn’t know what I was saying! But it gave me another insight into the Crimean Tatar people here and the amazing fact that they were able to hold on so tightly to their culture through the decades of Soviet persecution.
And finally, there was the discovery of a relative of Sylvia’s. Tamara had heard that the son of a deceased relative had moved back to town, so she went knocking on doors in the neighborhood where he was supposed to be living until she found Yasha, a second cousin of Sylvia’s—their grandfathers were brothers. Yasha was quite surprised to see us at the door, having no knowledge of Sylvia’s existence, but welcomed us in. We found that he doesn’t know much of the family history, as his mother was not Jewish and he has her name. Both of his parents were in the Red Army, and he was not raised Jewish. But still, he had many old photos and was a likeable and sweet guy, showing Sylvia how to cook kasha when he learned she was a vegan and having a hard time eating in Belarus. Even showed her where the key was to the house, and told her to come right in and use his kitchen any time! I think for Sylvia it meant a lot to know she had a relative there in Navagrudak, someone her and her family could possibly connect with in the future.
We spent our last evening in Navagrudak making one more trip out to Sunchik. Though we did not get what we went for—a look at a home of one of the Jewish families, possibly Sylvia’s father, because the home was no longer there--it did give us a lasting memory of that beautiful land, tragically scarred with deep memories, but still so full of life.
The next day we went into the capital of Minsk to spend the day talking with a possible relative of Sylvia’s (still unclear as to whether or she is a relative) and seeing the Holocaust memorials and Jewish museum in Minsk before catching the overnight train to Kyiv. The memorials there are particularly haunting—a line of unclothed people descending into a pit at the site of the mass slaughters; a broken table and chair at the site of the Jewish cemetery. Their creativity and beauty were a welcome relief in a land dominated by Soviet style utilitarian architecture and monuments.
We bought a few souvenirs—I got a birch basket to remind myself of the northern forests so like the ones I know in Minnesota—and headed to the train station and the trip back to Kyiv, and then to home—the United States and Crimea.
It was a great privilege that I was able to accompany Sylvia on this trip to discover her “roots,” to know more of the land and place her family came from. For me, it gave me an even deeper understanding of the people I live and work with and love—the Crimean Tatars with their own deeply tragic story, and the Ukrainian and Russian people who have such a complex and painful history. I think sometimes about why I am here, specifically why I am in the Peace Corps here. And I know it is not the traditional “two years of Peace Corps service trying to do some good somewhere in the world.” For me, I think it is more about understanding a different culture than the one I have known all my life, to become part of that culture on a deeper level than day to day functioning, to find a way to love across the barriers of language and history. And I think this trip to Belarus gave me one more tiny piece towards solving that puzzle of understanding. For that, I am very grateful to Sylvia, to my traveling companion Joan, and to the universe that gave me the opportunity to be part of this world.
Good bye for now from my beloved Crimea.