04 August 2016

Son of Minsk

There are moments in life we return to over and over again; and one of them for me is my grandfather's funeral.  A freezing cold February day in Milwaukee; mourning for my fallen hero; my father's revealed vulnerability; my grandmother's Russian hysteria.

And then, in the enveloping just-this-side-of-suffocating warmth of their apartment, the Shiva.  Loud voices, Jewish food, laughter and tears.

At ten years old these moments were seared into my soul, branding me like a servant to memory and binding me to a lifetime of finding meaning among the dead, tracing lines, like gravestone rubbings, impressionist revelations, exposing previously indiscernible truths.

It would be wrong to say I don't know why I decided to go to Minsk this summer, to the small town of Kopyl where my grandmother was born, to stand on blood soaked ground, wet with fertility, softened though not quite not nearly cleansed by Belarusian rains.  Many even suggested motivations, like, "to find your roots" or "to bear witness."

Yeah.  Maybe.  I mean, sure.

But I wasn't quite prepared for the deeply paradoxical, or I might even say radically and insanity-inducing contradictory nature of the experience of standing above a pit where 2965 Jews of Kopyl were forced to dig their own grave and then fall, one by one, into the indignity and ignominy of mass death.  Murdered by Nazis.  This is an almost grotesquely familiar trope, particularly so for American Jews educated in the years following the Holocaust.  After all, who is not familiar with the classic Hebrew school curricula of Jewish identity education rooted in the remembrance of those murders, linking the post-war generation forever to the commandment, heard at Sinai, "Never Again."  We the children and grandchildren of the generation that knew the Second World War first hand were brought into this world to testify, to carry names forward, to rebuild a decimated people, to establish a homeland, and eventually, sadly, cynically, to even distance ourselves from this history of suffering and seek, as some have argued, a more joyous and celebratory relationship to "our" Judaism.

So it was almost as if I was watching myself as I stood in front of that pit.  Self-conscious, even dangerously aware of the very moment of remembering so that after all these years of waiting and anticipating this visit, there was no authenticity but only a kind of vertical kitsch.  I stood tall, the American grandson, come home.

The sun burned my neck.  I heard birds singing.  I felt a light breeze pick up and thought for a moment I heard voices.  Our guide for the day, Valentina, a native of Kopyl, broke the silence and said, "My father was five years old and watched, from that street corner over there, as Nazis lined up the Jews and killed them.  He told me that I must never forget.  And so I teach people about what happened here."

I was a young boy when we laid my grandfather down, after he lived a long, heroic life as a doctor in Milwaukee.  His beloved, my grandmother, was the hysterical one, the depressed one, the suicidal one, for much of her life, characteristics that were, in a rather inaccurate and macabre manner, attributed to her "dark Russian mentality."  Her moods were shrouded in silence.  As loquacious as my father, her son, could be, there were few theories in circulation about why Grandma's family was so small; why so few of her relatives joined her in Milwaukee at the turn of the century; or, perhaps straight to the point, why Jewishness barely held in our family for much of the 50s, 60s and 70s.  Even in the relative safety of America, there was this sense of having to escape, to hide, to push away the brutal machinery devastation.

I memorized certain facts.  She was born in 1899 and soon after her father left Kopyl for America, settling in Milwaukee.  She followed with her mother three years later.  Four younger brothers were born in Wisconsin.  Three brothers left as soon as they were men.  Grandma and one brother stayed.  But growing up, I met no one else from Kopyl.  And Kopyl was never spoken about.  And I simply assumed, over these many decades, that this was, as Dad put it, a typical immigrant story.  You move on, you forget the past.

In the American melting pot, certain parts of certain stories are elided, omitted, erased.

But someone, somewhere recorded.

In a small building in Kopyl that once held a Jewish owned workshop and tavern, I was shown a book which listed, name by name, all of the 2965 Jews who were killed during that infamously brutal wave of destruction.  And there, plain to see, were the names of 28 members of my grandmother's extended family.  28 names.  An absolutely staggering number.  Incomprehensible, really.  If my life were a movie, I thought, looking at the names, I'd be smothered in a torrential rain of bodies and limbs and voices and names, falling down upon from above, because the 28 became 56 and the 56 became 300 and in a flaming instant everything changed.

It wasn't one funeral or two funerals from my rooted youth but a spontaneous set of hundreds, thousands, millions.  It wasn't one blood soaked ditch but it was a vast spread of earth, "bloodlands," as the historian Timothy Snyder so concisely described them.

And there I stood, with 28 names and millions of deaths and a sun-soaked landscape and chirping birds, and synagogues now hardware stores and well-intended purveyors of historical memory and poor, pathetic villagers looking out from their own economic misery at the descendants of Jews who have come to bear witness.

I mean this in all sincerity and humility:  It was one of the greatest moments of my life.  When things all came together.  Memory, death, silence, suffering, indignation, rupture, beauty, knowledge, difference, friendship, and, impossibly, or so it seemed, continuity.

I understood my grandmother's loss, an unbearable guilt that she carried with her for much of her life.  That tore at her incessantly, and must have wounded her sons, who, in turn, lived complicated lives of their own, never really able to convey quite clearly to their own children the meaning of love and loss, of life and its griefs.

But at my grandfather's funeral, back in 1973, my grandma fed me.  Not with words but with love and food.  She fed me kugel and blintzes, she hugged and squeezed me through her grief and up against her ample breast, she smothered me with kisses.  She let me know who I was.

A Son of Minsk, as it were.  Who one day found his way home.  This puzzle, more than 40 years in the solving, is an example of what can be revealed when we look into grave, when we stand shoulders square to the past, when evil winds blow past our ears to reveal, ever so quietly, the truths that offer a promise to the future.


Old First said...

Thanks for writing this, beloved, thanks for the window into your experience that day standing among the chirping birds and in your grandmother's bosom. The story is never over. We don't tell it so much as it tells us.

Catherine Lloyd Burns said...

Oh, Man. What a piece. Thank you.