Yesterday, Helix went to Slutsk and Uzda, the former a shtetl known for its weavers, the latter, the hometown of the Hebrew writer, Dvora Baron. It was a powerful day of engaging locals, who helped us animate the ghosts of the past. I generally try to learn the names of people I encounter on my journeys, but there were many of them, ranging from the women selling us bright orange silk flowers to Uzda’s local town historian, who helped us find the Jewish cemetery where we read Yiddish poetry by writers from the area.
On a lighter note, there is a love bridge in Slutsk with locks on a bridge echoing the one in Paris that the mayor just ordered removed. I ended up seeing these love bridges in most Belarussian cities. Also in Slutsk, which was the sash capital of eastern Europe in its pre-capitalist heyday, we played a traditional Belarussian game of fertility involving tying up your “partner” with a sash and claiming him or her as your own. We did so on the local town square underneath Lenin’s watchful gaze, which is found in nearly every city and town of any size in Belarus.
Uzda is home to a local Tatar Muslim community which has its own cemetery in town. Like traditional Jewish graves which use Hebrew, the Tatar Muslim ones use Arabic and Tatar. There was one joint headstone marking the graves of a Muslim Tatar man married to a Jewish woman. Because she married the Muslim they were buried in the Muslim cemetery. In its heyday, the Jewish population of Uzda before WWII was as high as 70%, a relatively common statistic for cities throughout Belarus, some as high as nearly 100%. Although World War II and the Holocaust did its best to render these once multicultural landscapes mono-cultural, most of Belarus is still ethnically diverse. In 2015, Uzda’s population, for example, is made up of Belarussians, Armenians, a Russian or two, a few Poles, and a few Tatars. There seem to be no openly identifying Jews in Uzda.
And while there were no visible traces in Slutsk of its vibrant Jewish life, in Uzda a local historian wearing camouflage helped us find the local Jewish cemetery in Uzda and guided us to the Tatar cemetery. Helix prides itself on exploring the region’s multicultural, multilingual past, not its destruction during the Holocaust, as most organized tours for or about Jews do. However, most locals who meet up with tour groups pride themselves on knowing how their town’s Jews were murdered, and generally know these stories in gory detail. They assume that visiting groups are there to hear these stories, and this time, we let him tell us his World War II story. In fact, the Jewish cemetery in Uzda had two memorials to World War II: 1) the municipal memorial that lists Jews, gypsies (sic), fallen soldiers and those of other nationalities murdered by the German fascist occupiers and a postwar Jewish memorial in Yiddish and Russian with a text to the murdered Jews, not unlike the Yama memorial in Minsk, also established in 1946.
As we drove back to Minsk, we sang a rousing chorus of Slutsk, Mayn Slutsk (Slutsk, My Slutsk), one of the many Yiddish songs our group learned as a way of bringing to life the voices from the past and of bringing joy to a group that had much on its mind. For me, I found the experience of using song a powerful and effective way of building group identity and of engaging the public, especially when we sang Yiddish songs in town squares, thus attracting interest from passersby.