Life and Death: A Tour of Minsk and Its Surroundings

Our first day in Minsk began with our morning poem (a daily Helix tradition) and then we embarked on a walking tour of the city. As we started out, we learned that the factory across the street from our hotel was the historic factory that features in Moyshe Kulbak’s Zelmenyaners. This late 1920s Kulbak novel, which was originally serialized in the Soviet Yiddish press, is about a Minsk Jewish family living through the radical social transformations brought on by the Russian revolutions. We drove around town listening to our local tour guide, Lucy, talk about this factory building and the history of the city, while our travel leader, Robby, narrated the history of the Jewish sites we passing. For our first stop, we got out of the bus at Lenin Square, a big open, and more or less empty square in the heart of the city.

Gregg Drinkwater on Lenin Square

We drove on to the Svislach River and the center of town before heading to the Komarovsky market for lunch at a fantastic, bustling, huge cafeteria-style place in the city center that served Russian and Belorussian food by the ton.

Clare Fester and Rob Adler Peckerar by the Svislach River near Niamiga, central Minsk

After lunch, as everyone fell into a food coma on the bus, we drove out to Kurapaty, a vernacular memorial (meaning that locals initiated the project) to those killed in the Soviet Great Terror of 1937-1941. It was a haunting site. The bus stop “Kurapaty” stood at the entrance to a beautiful forest, whose landscape was adorned by handmade memorial crosses.

Kurapaty bus stop with Helixers entering the forest in the background

Some crosses were blank; others had the names of people whom the Soviet secret police killed in the massive wave of blood letting. (Now you know why I had not enjoyed my interrogation by its post-Soviet successor in St. Petersburg.)

Michas Charot, famous Belarusian writer killed by the NKVD (Soviet secret police) in 1937

Our muses for the day had been Izi Kharik, a person whom I know a lot about as he played a central role in my first book on Yiddish culture in the Soviet 1920s, and Moyshe (or as the tour leader Robby Adler Peckerar says ‘Meyshe’) Kulbak, who would become one of the trip’s key characters whose life we would follow. We began with his death in the forest of Kurapaty as we read one of his poems deep in the forest.

New memorial in the four official languages of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic: Belarusian, Russian, Polish, and Yiddish

Only near the end of our visit to the forest did I notice a plaque denoting the site as an official Belarusian national memorial place. When we entered the forest I noticed two young kids who, after leaving the site line from the highway, unfurled a Belarusian national flag, white, then red, then white, rather than the current red and green national flag of Belarus. The other one was the flag of the Belarusian National Republic, a short lived experiment in sovereignty crushed by the Polish, then Soviet, then Polish militaries. Those carrying that flag are nationalists, and they were the ones who originally marked Kurapaty as a site of the Soviet Great Terror, much to the chagrin of the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko. But that was in the 1990s when the site still had an aura of opposition about it and people could get arrested for even being there, let alone flying that flag. But this is 2019, and rather than arresting people memorializing the dead (and getting high), the state has made the site a national memorial with inventory numbers marking each and every cross.

Our tour guide Lucy showing the inventory number on a Kurapaty cross

After the Soviet killing site, we then moved to the primary Minsk memorial for the Nazi-fascist killing of the city’s Jews during World War II, the oldest such memorial in the country, dating to 1946-7. If we read a Kulbak poem at the site of his death deep in the forest, we instead read the text on the memorial in both Yiddish and Russian. I couldn’t help but wonder why we hadn’t read a poem by someone killed in the Minsk ghetto, which might have made that experience more poignant. Or perhaps the fact that we encountered an Israeli tour group already at the Holocaust memorial site made this experience feel less than that which we had had at Kurapaty just 30 minutes earlier.

Organized by local survivors of the war, this “Yama” memorial is one of the oldest in the former Soviet Union. Although permission was granted by the local authorities, the local Jewish community raised its own funds to build the memorial. Minsk Jews through the Soviet period came to the Yama on the date when the final ghetto liquidation took place to commemorate their dead up. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Israel began getting involved in memorializing Holocaust sites across the post Soviet states. At the Minsk yama, a second memorial was put up in the early 2000s. This post Soviet memorial was in Hebrew and Belarusian, a sign of both how Hebrew has replaced Yiddish as the global Ashkenazi Jewish lingua franca and reflects the era of nationalism, since both Hebrew and Belarusian are the national languages of states founded in the 20th century.

Israeli tour group at the Yama memorial in Minsk
Close up of the memorial. The text in Russian and Yiddish reads, “A bright memory for eternity to the 5000 Jews killed at the hands of the evil enemies of humanity, the fascist German executioners.

That night after returning to our hotel, we had a three hour dinner at the hotel restaurant and crashed after a very long day when most of the participants were jet lagged, and I was exhausted with what I had experienced.

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