We started our morning after a short night’s sleep with a Belarusian breakfast before heading to the Brest fortress, a site of Belarusian resistance. It’s literally on the Polish border, and we learned on our visit how within 2 days of the war it was considered part of Poland. However, Belarus is known for its partisans and fierce resistance. We went inside the military museum detailing the history of the fortress and its role in the war before heading outside to see a few other monuments, like one depicting a soldier risking his life for water. I was struck at first by how desolate the site was. The space was so vast, but here — and many places we’ve been so far — it seemed so empty, like we were the only people really there. Then, I thought I heard music from the Orthodox Church used as the Soviet Club for the military men at Brest during WWII, which the Belarusians call “The Great Patriotic War.” We went inside, and although I’m Jewish, I can appreciate a good church; both Poland and Belarus seem to be full of them. After our visit, we headed to the Main Street of Brest, which is also where many of the Jews lived in the ghetto and owned shops. The old synagogue was encircled by a movie theater that the Soviets built, and the only part we could see was an exposed wall in the basement. As I saw then and later today, many Belarusians are unaware of the loaded history of the country because it’s literally buried underground.
We got back on the bus for the hour-long ride to lunch at an authentic Belarusian bed and breakfast. We sat at long picnic tables and ate family style for the first time this trip, sharing plates of bread, meat, potatoes, pancakes, bean crepes, mushrooms, green beans and cheese. All of the food I’ve had so far has been good, but this was exceptional.
By the time we left, it was already 4 P.M., but we still had a whole part of our itinerary left: the visit to Bronnaya Gora, a village where 54,000 Jews were brought by train and truck and shot — the Holocaust by bullets that Fr. Desbois has worked so tirelessly to uncover. It is the largest killing site in the Soviet Union. Like Auschwitz, the location does not seem particularly busy, but the sheer number of train tracks passing through the isolated village built for the transport of Jews signals a mass grave nearby. We got off the bus because the road was too difficult to drive on and walked to the clearing where the railroad actually ends and an unfathomable number of Jews were forced to strip naked, run to a pit full of Jewish corpses, and were shot in the back of the head.
As I type these words, what stands out the most is the concept of “unfathomable.” As much as I try to remind myself that I am Jewish, that my great grandfather is from Minsk, that I could have been taking the death march at Auschwitz or running, stripped of my clothes and my dignity, to my death, I am not overwhelmed with emotion. I am frustrated by this. But I am also aware that I am standing in a field with some cut down trees, a single railroad track, and two power lines overhead. There is nothing acutely Belarusian about this location, nothing to remind me that there are 54,000 Jewish bodies underneath my feet. As my friend Alex said, it is ordinary; if we didn’t know any better, we could think we were in America.
For me, it is the people who evoke emotion. That’s why interviewing the two witnesses was one of the more poignant experiences of the trip. For one, this is Fr. Desbois in his element. The questions he asked, the repetition of common witness story lines I’ve learned in class, and the rapid Russian to French to English translations reminded me that the man at the forefront of this has visited over a thousand sites like this. He said he was proud or glad we students decided to spend our spring break like this, but I am proud and glad he has decided to spend his life like this. I certainly don’t have the stamina for this work.
Secondly, it is one thing to read or hear second-hand what happened in these places. It is another to hear from an eyewitness about the events that occurred. The man with gold teeth and the man in the fatigues, while not Jewish and who cannot help me truly empathize with the Jewish narrative, put a face to the atrocities. They humanize the grass, the posts, the last tie in the train track. The second eyewitness led us to another smaller grave that the women were forced to dig that supposedly is the site of 3,000 Jewish bodies. I was standing near the back and couldn’t hear very much, but the boy Dylan standing next to me speaks Russian; I was watching his facial expressions while our translator Hannah and the witness conversed. At one point, Dylan inhaled sharply and I just had to know what was said. “He said the children and babies screamed the loudest.” In this moment, as with so many others on the trip, I realized how much the Holocaust truly affects us all. How did the witness remember this small detail 70 years later? The trauma the Jews often remember in silence has also afflicted other members of the community.
Since we left much later than planned, Fr. Desbois apologized on the way to a rest stop. “You will be late to the hotel, but we are 70 years late for these witnesses.” There is not much I can say to that, except that the phrase “better late than never” has never rung more true.