(No. 2/2009– October 2009)
Back to Belarus: The Star on the Door
by Kathy Shenkin Seal
from the Ohio Jewish Chronicle
Since I rarely set foot in a synagogue and don’t even believe in God, it’s difficult to explain to friends why I identify so strongly as a Jew. Most are befuddled, if not aghast.
“Your brothers weren’t bar mitzvahed?”
“Your mother took you shopping on the High Holy Days?”
So, imagine my surprise this summer when I visited Ivia, the shtetl where my grandmother was born, and what moved me most was something I spotted in a pile of synagogue rubble.
That moment occurred in Belarus, a former Soviet republic still under Soviet-style rule. My grandparents Bella and Abraham Chertak came to Philadelphia 125 years ago, fleeing Cossacks who drank vodka laced with pepper, riding their horses through the town, setting fire to the Jews’ houses, and raping girls and women. Abraham, a flax trader, became a struggling grocer. As I grew up, his five daughters – including three childless great aunts – loved me and my siblings unreservedly, showering us with their strudel and vanilla wafers edged with brown, and, yes, generous Christmas presents. Now my grandmother and aunts no longer walk in Rittenhouse Square. Perhaps it was missing these five women that sent me, this summer, to those streets bloodied by the Cossacks.
Those marauders may be gone, but on the way to Ivia my husband, Jim, and I experienced a lesser form of terror. An official, in a string bean green uniform and visored cap, twice as large as the circumference of his head, entered our train compartment as we crossed into Belarus from Lithuania. Frowning and pursing his eyebrows, this twenty-something customs agent barked at us: “Health insurance!”
Jim and I dutifully pulled from our wallets our flimsy cardboard Health Net Elect Open Access cards. The young man shook his head. “Plastic card!” he said. Puzzled, we briefly considered showing him our YMCA membership cards. Then, suppressing thoughts of the bomb that had wounded dozens of outdoor concertgoers ten days before in the Belarus capital of Minsk, we marshaled arguments: Our guide, Bella Velikovskya, awaited us at Belarus! We promise not to get sick!”
But the uncomprehending and unsympathetic young man forced us off the train and on to another one headed back to Lithuania. At the first stop, another official pushed us off to buy the health insurance. But since the next train to Belarus wouldn’t come for several hours, Jim and I sneaked back onto the Vilnius train. We would go to Ivia another day.
Before that train could start up, however, a thickset lady customs official with short blonde hair appeared, yapping a mile a minute in Byelorussian and pulling us off the train. “Friend,” she said. “she come. Insurance.” Inside the station a ticket agent handed me her cell phone. “Shalom,” I heard. It was our guide Bella .
Tracking us down in that station was typical for Bella, whose favorite English word was “managed” – as in, “They managed to escape” and “I managed to make a living.” Twenty-five thousand Jews remain in Belarus, she told us, and they all have to “manage” regularly. Two hours later, her driver arrived and took us to Belarus and Bella. Except for riding in a Dodge Caravan, I felt hurtled back to the 19 th century: Approaching us was a horse drawn cart, its curved wooden body slats arched like the ribs of a whale. A stork ambled by the side of the road. Farm outbuildings of faded gray timbers slanted toward each other, resembling a western ghost town.
Finally, Ivia: Zhanna Shabanovich, from the town’s ideology department, appeared to show us the former shtetl, where before World War II Ivia’s 3000 Jews made up 78 % of the population and owned 160 shops. The town’s houses looked decrepit; their exterior wood walls rotting. Some had no running water. No children played, no older people gossiped on benches. Ivia had an air of quiet emptiness, as though it had no soul. Perhaps that’s what happens after you murder all the Jews, as the Nazis had in 1942, when they slaughtered 2,524 Jews from Ivia, and two neighboring towns, in nearby woods.
But the synagogue, painted a bright blue, one of three in Ivia’s Jewish heyday, still stood, although now as a sports club under renovation. In its main room, bare except for scattered boards and plaster buckets, the light flooding through its 14 large arched Romanesque windows filled me with an ache of beauty. I realized that my great-grandmother, Bella, who was religious, surely worshipped here, and probably Abraham, too.
Outside, the construction supervisor led us to a pile of dirt and chipped slivers of brick, a slim door askew on top.
“There’s a Jewish star on the door, but it is covered with a metal sheet,” explained Zhanna. Jim pried up the metal plate, revealing a large wooden Star of David, painted a dusky blue. I felt a pang of connection with my family and felt as though the town had dumped them in the trash.
“This makes me so sad,” I cried. “You can’t throw this away!”
“I promise I will take care of the door,” said Zhanna, a pale-skinned blonde woman whose father is the imam at the Ivia mosque. She seemed both ashamed and sincere.
“When I go back home, I’ll write an article about this synagogue and the door,” I blurted out. “Maybe people will send you money to preserve it!”
“Everyone promises money, but no one sends it,” muttered the construction chief. That remark gave me pause – was I being had?
Back home, I emailed a friend from my high school days. Randy, whose work has taken him back and forth to Russia for many years, thought the door discovery had been staged.
I remain agnostic about the door – not from logic, but because I want to believe that I found a link to my family. And because it helps me tell a story that explains why I identify so strongly as a Jew.
Copyright © 2009 Belarus SIG and Kathy Shenkin Seal
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