So here we are in Minsk, a roving band of student-travelers from the Helix Project, journeying miles and years in search of our cultural roots. And as I’ve quickly discovered on our first stop in Belarus, a route of many twists and turns.
Belarus is itself a complicated country with a complex history. Our first day found us walking through its capital of Minsk, a sprawling city now sporting arenas, apartment complexes both built and in progress, and ever-present casinos on most corners. But this is also a city that less than a hundred years ago was home to a Jewish majority, and the cradle of a thriving Jewish and Yiddish culture. From 1921-1936, in post-Revolution Belarus, Yiddish was an official language. I want to write this again — Yiddish was an official state language! It was spoken in universities, in courts, on the streets, and in literature, theater and songs that are still resonant today. Yiddish poets were paid living wages by the state to work, to teach, and to create some of the most vibrant literature of the past century.
And so we walked through Minsk and traced the past lives of some of these Yiddish poets in this brief but important period. We stood at the spots where Moyshe Kulbak lived and worked, and then visited locations connected to the great Izi Kharik. We read their poems at these sites, and made tangible connections to their lives that were, for a time at least, full of recognition. We spoke of the auditoriums that were standing room only to hear their work, the outcry of students in Vilnius when Moyshe Kulbak announced he was returning to Minsk, the adulation of women who saw him on the street, and the love stories that lead to both the marriages of Kulbak and Kharik. For a short time, we found ourselves transported to a time when Yiddish poets were rock stars.
Like so much of our explorations here in Belarus, this story of a golden age has a tragic end. In 1937, Kulbak and Kharik were each arrested and charged, like so many of the Minsk Yiddish writers during one of Stalin’s great purges, as anti-Soviet spies. After show trials lasting minutes, each was sentenced to be executed. Within a short time of their trial, they were murdered by the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police, and buried in unmarked graves.[caption id="attachment_2599" align="alignright" width="199"] Memorial to Murdered Jews in Kurapty Memorial Complex[/caption]
And this is where our day in Minsk, which started in such glory, ended…with a visit to the Kurapaty Memorial Complex just outside of Minsk. It was here between 1937 and 1941 that thousands of Belarussian citizens were taken in buses, brutally murderd, and then buried in unmarked graves. Their numbers at this site are estimated as high as 250,000. Today it is a memorial field, dotted with thousands of wooden crosses marking the many sites where victims have been found. Our group walked through the field, where the memory of a lost world felt so palpable, in this terrible place, a list that includes Kulbak and likely Kharik too. And together we sat and read out loud a Kulbak poem and remembered the lives that were lived, and the work that lives on and remains so important to us today.
Ann Toback, Executive Director