By Shalom Pollack
Well, I am at home again. I spent the last two weeks traveling — by plane, train, bus, and foot. I visited four countries: Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
The original and main purpose of my trip was to visit the places from which my grandparents came and left as teenagers just after the First World War and the Communist takeover.
Their parents understood that it was time to save as many of the family as they could. It was illegal to cross the border from what was the USSR to Poland and then on to a ship in Danzig port. Money for bribing border guards and other functionaries across a number of borders, lording over their little fiefdom, was one of the main expenses in what was a very costly operation. The guide who would smuggle them to their destination was a major expense. Poor families used all their assets to save a member of the family from what was a bad situation clearly getting worse. No one could imagine how much worse it was to get in a few years.
My bubby left with her younger sister. The bumpy and dangerous wagon ride from her one-room, dirt-floor house in the tiny village of Svislich to the city of Bobruisk took a full day. (I did it in an hour by car).
She remembers how her father (her mother died when she was a child) kept waving long after the train pulled out of the station, knowing that this would be their last moment together.
In 1941, the beautiful Svislitch River ran red with the blood of those left behind. Belarus as a country (it wasn’t really a country but had its own language and complex history) suffered greatly in the war. Twenty-five percent of its population was killed — military and civilian. Of course, the almost one million Jews did not stand a chance. I was encouraged to learn that the Belarus population did not collaborate with the Nazis nearly as much as their neighbors in Ukraine and the Baltic countries.
My brother and I made this emotional pilgrimage to our “roots.” Our guide took us to many places in this beautiful country. However, below the beauty, wherever you go is the blood of a million Jews and a Jewish civilization that came to an abrupt and terrible end. Old Jewish cemeteries are now overgrown, with an occasional headstone peeping up from the weeds. Hebrew letters cut in stone attesting to a Jew who lived and died in this foreign land that was to be the last stop for an entire civilization. Monuments with words engraved that can never tell the story of what was.
In Soviet times, most of the monuments did not mention that masses of Jews were butchered in any particular spot. Rather, “Soviet” citizens were victims of “Fascists” in the “great patriotic war.” No Holocaust. Even in their grisly deaths, the Jews were discriminated against and forcefully forgotten.
I prayed at the Chabad center. I was to experience something there that would repeat itself in the next three countries. First, Chabad is doing holy work. If not for them, the pitiful remnants of the once-vibrant Jewish community would have nowhere to go to feel Jewish. There is a school, and Jewish (often not fully, halachic Jewish) children attend. I had to wonder about this community. Surely, each person has his or her own story and one cannot judge. But clearly, there is no future for Jews in this former mass graveyard of the Jewish people.
What were they planning? Wherever I traveled, I felt the ghosts of great Jewish communities hover over the blood-drenched landscapes and alleys. In each of the four cities and Chabad centers were what seemed to me the same small group of elderly Russian-speaking men clinging to Chabad and each other. These were the sad last witnesses to a life long gone. I wondered why they would not leave these places of horrible memory and trauma. Again, one cannot judge individuals, but as a phenomenon, it is truly pathetic.
Another pathetic phenomenon I encountered were young Israelis seeking their fortune or an easier life in these foreign lands. Clearly, these young Jews were not members of the Bnai Akiva youth movement. These are some of the products of a very secular Israeli education system and popular culture that scoffs at “too much” Jewish identity. The sad results are found in any country that offers possible material gain or the illusion, which is often the case, even in lands that murdered their people. They don’t connect the dots. They were not taught to. Can one judge them?
Chabad is out there in the wilderness helping the tatters of Jewish remains, while I hurried back to the one place Jews can truly call home and not a temporary abode, no matter how comfortable it may seem at any given time.
Diasporas never last forever.
G-d bless Israel. Am Yisrael Chai!
Shalom Pollack is a veteran tour guide, passionate about sharing his observations and thoughts. Visit ShalomPollackTours.com to learn more.