Coming Home to Chagall in Lyozna and Vitebsk

The singing began in a courtyard of a building, opposite the city’s Lenin statue, that once was the place of Marc Chagall’s home in Lyozna. Singing is an integral part of Yiddishkayt’s Helix program. At first I didn’t understand its power, but as we move from city to city and see the effect our voices have on us as well as on all of those around us, I am now regularly moved by the place of music in education. Of course as one who has taught languages, I recognize music’s power to learn languages. But on this project, for the first time, I see its role in fostering knowledge, community and empathy with those singing together, as we need to listen, but also in the spontaneous audiences of our voices.

Master singers from the Lyozna School of the Arts
Helix on Stage at the School of the Arts
Lyozna Lenin

Our impromptu concert at the “Lyonza School of the Arts” intrigued those inside the building enough to come out and join our group. Not long after our first chorus, the head of the school, along with a member of the Lyonza City Council, invited us inside to sing with two master music students specializing in Belarussian music. She had intended to teach us a few songs, but little did she know that Rob had not only taught Helixers three Belarussian songs but also that he himself knew them well enough to sing the male lead. I’m consistently in awe of his passion for local cultures, especially those of, as he likes to say “minority nationalisms.” I feel like now I understand why he never learned Russian, even though he could have easily.  Since language politics and the politics of languages are central themes of the Helix approach to a multicultural past, it makes sense why Rob’s approach to languages and cultures echoes the Belarussian activist’s suggestion that to be a proper Belarussian nationalist (which means of a downtrodden people, who lack power even though in 2015 they have a nation-state) one needs to know Yiddish.   While I learned Russian and German as short cuts to communicate with many people precisely because of Russian’s and German’s imperial power, Rob learned Yiddish, some Belarussian, and Ukrainian precisely because of their historic lack of power.  Following this philosophy, Helixers only learned songs in Yiddish and Belarussian, even though all of our day to day communication took place in Russian. I recognize that this seems counterintuitive in an independent Belarus, but post-Communist Belarus, unlike Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia, has an ambivalent relationship with Belarussian.  All public signage is in the language but nearly all schools in the country operate in Russian.


After our sing fest with Lyozna’s music students, the head of the city council invited us to see the town’s new memorial to its murdered Jews. As with Uzda and the cemetery, everyone was ambivalent but felt the need to be polite and accepted her invitation. It was the first time we had visited an actual ravine on this adventure. Ravines occupy a large place in the abstract imagination of the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union, more so even than forests or other local places where mass killings took place during the war, so much so that the word “ravine” (yar) came to serve as a metonym for mass murder during and after the war. What surprised me wasn’t the somber turn the day took as the city council person described how the Germans and local collaborators killed the town’s Jews. (I should probably add that when we were in the theater making this decision I had been serving as translator for the group as Lucy attended to other matters. So it was me, not the city council member, who, when querying the group about where she wanted to take us, uttered the words “the place where Jews were lined up and shot.”)  My surprise came in what I had expected would be that rare breed of Holocaust memorial driven by local initiative in a town with few to no Jews, like we saw in Uzda.  Post-Communist memorials in places like Belarus are usually instigated with global Jewish initiative and financial support and rely on local institutions primarily for permission. This was indeed a local project, but it wasn’t a Holocaust memorial, since it named all the victims of the town as the objects of our memory practice.
It echoed the Soviet convention of commemorating “peaceful Soviet citizens,” rather having some indication that Jews were disproportionately targeted. I understand the motivation but I was nonetheless disappointed at the erasure of Jews, both physically and commemoratively.

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In fact, we had only reached Lyozna after a long day of traveling from Mogilev to Vitebsk. In between we stopped at a cemetery buried in the forest near Shklov, the one our bus driver desperately searched out the day before.

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In addition, Helix visited a cemetery in Orsha, and had our obligatory song fest at an old mill, also in Orsha, a flax and linen capital of Belarus. (Like every other city we visited, Orsha too had its ‘love bridge.’) If singing usually brings joy, this time we sang the Miller’s Tears. Go listen to it. It did not make the group happy.

This made the spontaneous show of life and local engagement in Lyozna around song all the sweeter. In fact nearly all of my interactions with locals have been warm and positive, even the transaction I just had with Rob in acquiring 900 (sic!) airmail postcard stamps at the Vitebsk central post office. The postal worker laughed when I said the number. “No joke,” I said as she spent the next 30 minutes putting together a delightful variety of stamps that included images of trucks and tractors of Belarus, local flowers, and some ubiquitous war commemoration stamps. She tried to sell us some with rifles on them, but we decided it wasn’t appropriate for a Yiddishkayt postcard to have a gun on it. So if any of you are involved with Yiddishkayt, you will be getting a postcard handled with love and passion, which might encourage you to give generously.

Licking 900 stamps for Yiddishkayt postcards

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I sit and write this from a cafe near the hotel–two parts people watching, one part writing as I reflect on what tomorrow, our last day, in Belarus will bring. (And it has to be our last day, because our visa expires at midnight tomorrow night.) Today in addition to my adventures at the post office, we saw Vitebsk, its mammoth Great Patriotic War memorial as well is several sites dedicated to the life and work of Marc Chagall and Vitebsk’s art traditions more generally. Not a bad thing to celebrate.

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