Thoughts After Our Trip
I set up this website because I wanted to share the bittersweet beauty of our trip with friends and family, both those I know now and those I have yet to meet. The trip was the culmination of about 10 years of research into my family's origins in northern Eastern Europe; I finally feel like there is closure to my investigation (some might call obsession).
I would love to hear from you about how learning of my journey affected you. You can contact me here.
Occasionally over the course of our 20-year relationship Susan had mentioned a book that a teacher had read aloud to her fourth grade class, about a girl who was deported to Siberia. (The school was on a U.S. Army base located on the grounds of the Dachau concentration camp where her father was stationed and she lived for three years, but that's another story.) Since we had heard so many stories about the Siberian exile over the course of our trip I decided to borrow the book, The Endless Steppe: Growing up in Siberia by Esther Hautzig, from the library. What a book! Although written 20 years after her five-year exile, the book's detailed accounting makes the experience feel very real. It turns out that Esther was an upper class Jewish girl from Vilna and the exile to extremely harsh conditions actually saved her, her parents and grandmother from being killed during the Holocaust. I highly recommend it.
The author’s bio said that Esther eventually made her way to NYC, finished high school, attended Hunter College, got married and had two children, worked in the publishing industry, authored several children’s books, and loved spending time at the country house she and her husband maintained in upstate New York, which reminded her of the area around Vilna.
I felt very much at home with much of the terrain we traversed on our trip. It reminded me of parts of Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York State. I pondered whether that’s a result of having grown up in the North East, or whether there was a sense of familiarity passed down through the generations at the molecular level.
I am frequently skeptical of biological explanations but my son Oscar, with whom I share no biological connection, rekindled the issue as we drove through Belarus. He was wondering what the trip actually meant to him as my non-bio son. He questioned whether these were his ancestral homelands. Family traits, dynamics, traditions and trauma are passed down through generations – how might they be grounded in the body? Whatever research might someday tell us about this question, I prefer now to see a sense of identity as what one chooses to be. This trip reinforced my self-perception as a descendent of North-eastern European Jews; if my son chooses not to understand his family heritage that way, that’s his choice—and both are true.
The other book that I read upon our return was Barbara Epstein's The Minsk Ghetto, 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism. Epstein did remarkable archival work and conducted dozens of oral histories with Ghetto survivors. Of the large ghettos in Poland, Belarus and Lithuania (Warsaw, Vilna, Kovno and Łodz), Minsk was the only one in which prisoners decided to escape to the forests to join the partisans as their major form of resistance. This was due in part to the Minsk Ghetto being surrounded only by barbed wire rather than an actual wall, and its relative proximity to the forests. However, those conditions alone are not sufficient to explain their unique response to impending genocide. Belarus’ position as a Soviet republic for 20 years had allowed Jews and non-Jews the opportunity to work together politically, and resulted in many young people growing up in a society that espoused tolerance for national minorities. This was not to say there was no anti-Semitism in Belarus, but aspects of the Soviet state did encourage acceptance of others among those already so inclined. In any case, it was these strong ties that prompted the non-Jewish local population to assist those fleeing the Ghetto to reach the forests, help that was not available in other countries. Epstein’s argument goes into much greater detail, and the book is well worth the read.
I feel so grateful that I was able to make this trip with the support of so many people – Susan, Oscar, friends, family, our guides and translators. In a much deeper way than before, I feel connected to the land, history, and people—both Jewish and goy, of the parts of Poland, Belarus and Lithuania from which my ancestors came.