From Lukashenko’s Belarus to the EU: Polotsk, Breslau, Daugavpils, and Lithuanian Shtetls

We have been crossing borders for the past three days, since my last posting. As I wrote this we are on the road from Daugavpils (the name in Latvian, Dvinsk in Russian, Dineburg in Yiddish) to Vilnius (known as Vilna in Yiddish and Wilno in Polish) and are crossing the Latvian/Lithuanian border. Both states have been part of the EU (known here as the Schengen zone, although the Schengen zone and the EU are not identical) since the 1990s, which means this border divides one set of state laws from another but not that they check documents of people coming to or from either country. For those of us with passports from the U.S., Australia, or Canada, crossing the border doesn’t involve direct interaction with state officials. That was not the case crossing the border from Belarus to Latvia.

Lenin Statue of Polotsk
Polotsk Blueberry Festival
Celebrating Blueberries in Song
Jenny Romaine and Her Yiddish Puppetry Over Lunch in Breslau, which was once more than 80% Jewish.
The bizarre Breslau boat church
David and Rob illegally taking pictures at the Belarus-Latvian border

We crossed the border after a glorious hour swimming in Breslau, home to Belarus’s largest lake, and a morning in Polotsk, most importantly known as home to the monument to the letter Ў (pronounced a bit like eewww, as in gross) and when we were there to the annual celebration of blueberries.  Over lunch, we heard an amazing presentation from Jenny Romaine, one of the actors in our group, who does Yiddish theater and puppetry.

Following the delight of swimming on a warm summer day, our Belarussian tour guide Lucy left our group leaving me and a bus driver to bring our group across the border.  We then sat at the exit from Belarus and the entrance to the EU for 3 hours. Our driver and I thought we might use the privilege of our passports to go quickly through the border. After disembarking, collecting all of our bags, going through an X-ray machine at customs, reboarding the bus, we finally got our passports back and were on our way to Daugavpils.

Spontaneous morning tour with Shmuel of Daugavpils’ Jewish community. He had the community’s keys.
The radical Jewish traveler with Shimon Redlich, who was also visiting Daugavpils. A bit star struck on my part.
Plaque marking Shlomo Mikhoels birthplace in Dvinsk/Daugavpils
A “gay” Latvian bus
Daugavpils is known for its fantastic architecture. Our tour guide Regina marveled over this example of intricate brickwork.
Giant green snail in front of the Rothko Center located in the city’s fortress.
Rothko Center
Shmuel, the 95 year old Dvinsker, with members of Helix, including the Radical Jewish Traveler.
Rob engrossed in conversation with Shmuel.

The city was home to two important figures who framed our visit. The first was Isaac Shteynberg, leader of the Jewish territorialist movement, about which Adam L. Rovner has recently written. We had a fascinating conversation about power, the state, and territorialism versus Zionism. In the afternoon, we went to the Rothko Center, since he was born and raised there. Several folks had revelations about the power of modern art, which surprised folks who were surprised to discover the power of modern art in a relatively provincial Latvian city.

In the morning while we were learning about Shteynberg, we heard the town’s Jewish history from a local resident named Yosef Rotshko. Along the way I had a chance encounter with an amazing mentor of mine, Shimon Redlich, pictured with me in one of the photos. In the evening, we met a 95 year old local Dvinsker named Shmuel, who told us his life story of flight to the east during the war and subsequent incarceration in a Soviet gulag in Yiddish.

Bridge to the island in Zarasai where the Jewish cemeter is located. Hauntingly beautiful.
Doing a rubbing of a gravestone. We also frequently brought flour with us to put onto the stone to reveal the inscriptions that had been worn away with time. In rain, however, flour proved useless.
Mindl leading the group through a reading of poetry at the cemetery.
Singing in the rain on the walk across the bridge.
At the oak tree in honor of Perkunas.
Dioramas inside the church explaining the pagan history of the tree. #syncretism
Ossuary buried beneath the church
Graves buried in the church
Due to its holiness, the 1500 year old oak tree receives special treatment in the form of props holding it up.
Grave in Zarasai
Grave in Zarasai
Grave in Zarasai

Today, after crossing the border we stopped in Zarasai (Ezherene / Ezres in Yiddish) and once upon a tsarist time, it was called Novoaleksandrovsk, on the occasion of the birth of Nicholas I’s new child, Alexander. It had been raining and misting all day, lending a solemn mood to our entry into Lieutava, the land of rains. In town we found the Jewish cemetery on an island in the middle of a lake where we encountered death, of course, as we examined old gravestones from the 19th century. But Jewish cemeteries are known as houses of life, although the primary way we experienced life was in the form of giant mosquitos who welcomed us with their fierce bites. We sang Mayn Rue Plats (my resting place) at the cemetery as we made our way back to the bus as we continued our journey into the land of rains with one more stop at a pagan pilgrimage site at Stelmuzhe, home to a 1500 oak tree that was reframed as a Christian pilgrimage site with local church built on the site.  We paid homage in pagan fashion…with singing…and continued on our way to Vilnius.

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