A journey into imagination

by Bett Demby

After a visit to Belarus (March 2012) Bett was inspired to write the following piece:

BettDembyinBelarus2012In my imagination, and then somehow in reality, we are travelling through the Belarusian landscape, mile after mile of empty and featureless snow covered fields and woodland. No animals, no people, no road signs. Then suddenly a cross by the roadside, a war memorial, and then a ramshackle collection of tumbledown weather-beaten houses, some as brown and earthy as the elements, others painted defiantly pastel shades, paint peeling. It’s hard to tell which are the homes and which are the barns, each look equally insubstantial, insufficient protection for the fierce Russian winters. Completely out of place in this time and century.

Now we have left behind for a while the seemingly endless flatlands and come into the city. Here is our first glance of Minsk. A grand and graceful city, wide boulevards laid out in straight lines, traditional European style, buildings of classical, elegant proportion on every side. Neon lights dazzle. It looks comforting, familiar, only the signs and the strange lettering confuse.

We are like Alice gazing through the Looking Glass, it looks familiar, but it isn’t, we are far from home, what we think we see is a façade. Look more closely though and we see so much more.

Belarus has turned out to be everything that I imagined and everything I didn’t. For me, like Alice, it has been a journey both through the Looking Glass and into Wonderland. Six days of learning and discovery, reflection and laughter, companionship and new friendship.

We had begun a Jewish journey into a country once rich in traditional Jewish heritage and culture, and one now left with just the smallest remnant of that living breathing history of a whole people. A country that once had hundreds of synagogues, all swept away with no right of restitution. The memorials facing the bitter Siberian winds stand sentinel to the memory of the heroic. The people who fought back and wouldn’t let themselves be taken without a fight, and those who didn’t. The spark that remains may be small, but it is still there and won’t fade away. It feels so sad, but it also feels like one small candle flickering in the window on a dark night.

During our short time here we have met with so many members of this small community. Talking to them, haltingly at first, sometimes with the help of our translators, and at other times with some of us practising our fledgling language skills. We feel unbelievably welcome; it makes you want to do so much more. To do something.

Listening to Hilda sing and conduct a singing workshop in Yiddish with the community was a pleasure I never expected to move me in the way that it did. Seeing faces lit from within while listening to her voice, clearly spirited away to the lost worlds of their childhoods with parents and grandparents alive in their memories once more. As it was incredible and magical for Hilda, it surely was for all of us who experienced it too.

I feel acutely aware of constant contrasts. In the statue outside the home of Marc Chagall the outstretched arm of the artist supports his violin, balancing upon that is the whole town of Vitebsk. His whole world encompassed in his embrace and immortalised with the brush represented as the bow of his violin. There is something indescribably joyful about the whole structure. Like the house itself, small and cluttered, furnished with a selection of reproduced items to give a feel for how the Chagall family would have lived, it nevertheless exudes warmth, the ghost of some presence once very much alive in these streets. A memory that’s there but just beyond recall, familiar but just out of reach. 

Then in contrast we are in the memorial village of Khatyn. Snowflakes are swirling and the light is brittle, last hours of daylight. We cannot fail to feel the gravity of the tragedy that overtook this place. The chiming bells that randomly ring out from the towers of the empty houses are both eerie and otherworldly. We are bombarded with statistics of the dead. It is a place where even the shock we feel at the numbers we see is intensified as we learn that even those are fewer and lower than in actuality. But like other places of remembrance, there is a feeling of peace here now, no sense of that violence, just quiet, sky and trees stretching far away.

Six days is a long time and somehow too short as well. There was so much more to fit in, the Jewish Museum, Purim spiel, the Artist’s studio, walking tours of Minsk, Polotsk and Vitebsk. Of course there is the other stuff too, equally important, the eating, the drinking, the laughing, the getting to know you, the jokes. Believe me if you haven’t heard a good Jewish joke translated line by line into Russian and the uproarious response to the punch line, then you just haven’t lived!

My final thoughts on a week, and a journey that I would truly only encourage other people to try for themselves?

The Belarusian flag is bordered with their traditional red and white woven braid. It is used heavily on all the souvenirs we see and the aprons of the dolls dressed in National Costume, on tablecloths and napkins. Since coming home my head has been crammed full, full of images, thoughts, memories, ideas, uncertainties, resolutions. But I keep coming back to the image of the red braided border and how if I undid all of the strands that make it up, each single thread would represent something of value that we learned, experienced and assimilated. Kabbalat Shabbat with the whole of the community, all of us as one - one strand. Watching the expressions on peoples’ faces around the room and the held breath as Hilda sang to them in Yiddish  - one strand. Visiting Khatyn in approaching dusk listening to the resonating unearthly chimes of the memorial bells amid flurries of snowflakes - one strand. Watching the prematurely lined face of Vladimir Shappo infused with enthusiasm and pleasure at having us there in his incredible art studio wanting to hear about his life and work - one strand. Sitting later with him round a table in a wood panelled room, sharing vodka and latkes and hearing him tell dirty jokes in Russian with increasing volume and hilarity - one strand. Being in touching distance somehow, but not quite, of our living history, glimpses of our past - one strand. Sensing the opportunity for something new, something awakening - one strand. And so it goes, and it's true that all together the whole concept, like the braided border, is really complicated, but looked as single strands it's completely different. It’s approachable, each bit means something special.

So till the next time……..Dosvidanya x