Exploring the Present through Memory Maps: Volozhin and Smorgon

In an oversized bus that Clare Fester and Robby Adler-Peckerar procured for Helix, we arrived at the Nanosy Complex, a postmodern, post-Soviet reconstruction of a “traditional” Belarusian village on the beautiful banks of Lake Narach. The village was the brainchild of a very wealthy Russian who enjoyed hunting, fishing, and recreating “authentic” Belarusian villages.

This capped off a day of exploration in Volozhin and Smorgon. The tour leaders had consulted the “memory map” found in each town’s yizkor book. Yizkor books are Jewish forms of portable memory, compiled by global fraternal organizations (landsmanshaftn), whose members come from a single town in Eastern Europe, to commemorate both their homes and the people who lived in them. Most of these books have “memory maps” constructed from what those still alive at the time of the book’s production remembered about their town—the location of the bathhouse, the synagogue, and the cemetery (always the cemetery), standard features of Jewish communities. But each city also had its own unique features on the map distinguishing a particular town, whether that be a local Jewish leader’s house or a particularly famous yeshiva, a school for advanced Jewish learning, as the yizkor book from Volozhin identified.

Helixers on Mt. Bialik
Inside the Volozhin Yeshiva
Descending Mt. Bialik

The tour leaders knew about the famous Volozhin yeshiva, the Harvard of yeshivas in the heyday of the institution of the yeshiva from the time of Nicholas I’s reign (1825-1855) to World War I. But they identified a few unexpected markers on the map—a hill identified as “Bialikbarg,” named for the Hebrew national poet Hayim Nachman Bialik. Bialik studied at the yeshiva and stories have it that he would climb this nearby “mountain” (Belarus’s highest peak is 1000 feet, so we would likely call it a hill) and read secular literature as he rebelled from his religious education. It is presumed that these lone moments gazing out over the valley between the yeshiva and the hill inspired him to begin writing his own literature. There was also a “krenitse,” a well or source of water from which all people in the village came to draw the water, as they believed water from this specific spot had healing properties.

In 2015, when I last participated in the Helix program, we did this same journey, first starting the yeshiva, then climbing the hill and then finally to the well. At the well, I saw an older man filling up jugs of water from the well, suggesting that it was still in use as a source. For our group, it served as inspiration to sing Di krenitse, “The Well.”

Drawing water from the krenitse

From Volozhin, the group went to Smorgon, where the tour leaders planned a scavenger hunt based on a “memory map” from the town’s yizkor book. Clare and Robby broke the whole group into clusters of four people to asked us to find as many places on the memory map as we could. Suddenly I felt a fun, competitive edge take hold, at least in our group, as we wanted to “win.’’ Honestly we didn’t know what winning meant—finding the locations on the memory map, which bore little resemblance to the contemporary surroundings, but we were determined to do it.

Smorgon’s Bathhouse (Banya)
What we thought was the only Tarbut school
The four of us on our scavenger hunt
A matsevah from the Jewish cemetery of Smorgon

We took silly photos in front of a contemporary bathhouse, which was close to where the memory map suggested the historic Jewish bathhouse would be, and then we went in search of the historic Jewish school and cemetery. As we opened a green gate surrounding a school with quizzical looks on our faces, a woman approached and asked what we were looking for. I said a school. “Which school? There are seven in Smorgon,” she said.

Then I showed her our memory map and told her that we were looking for a Jewish school that no longer exists. “I don’t know where the school was, but are you interested in seeing a remnant of the Jewish cemetery?” I hadn’t even mentioned our search for a the historic Jewish cemetery, but this administrator at the school read our collective minds, and she led us to a lilac bush, 8 feet high. As she parted the branches, a matsevah (Jewish headstone) revealed itself to us.

Then, like magic, she disappeared, leaving us to contemplate what had just taken place. Here upon the grounds of a school, a cemetery hidden deep within the lilac bush was hiding in plain site. To be more specific, a local teacher who knew its whereabouts had taken us to this concealed place. Who knows if her students know about this buried treasure, so important to us and clearly to the woman who showed it to us. One of us tried to read the Hebrew on the tombstone, worn with age, dilapidated, and half buried by the roots of the lilac bush. We said a spontaneous Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, and with this find, we clearly had “won” the scavenger hunt. Not even the tour leaders who have been doing the Smorgon scavenger hunt for several years knew about its existence. We proudly passed around our photographs of the tombstone and led the group back to where we came from. That day, we all learned a deeper lesson about how following the traces on the memory map in today’s Smorgon allowed us to engage with locals who helped us find what we were seeking.

And then after unloading our belongings at the Nanosy Complex and having a beautiful dinner, we engaged in an evening of raucous karaoke, drinking, and steaming in the sauna, where we introduced the group to the Soviet, Russian pop star Alla Pugachova.

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