Fragmented Diary of a second trip to eastern Europe

Wednesday, 25th July, 2018 – Vitebsk – 2nd day.

Yesterday we slept in a hotel in Minsk – the “Belarus”. There we visited the UNESCO- recognized war memorial and museum of the “Great Patriotic war”.  It is one of the biggest war museums in the world complete with displays of tanks, planes, weapons large and small, uniforms of all kinds, endless pictures of war heroes,  medals of all kinds, train carriages and tracks, posters of the Soviet  anti-Fascist propaganda campaign,  partisan huts, printing presses. I focused on these last items in the section on partisan warfare against the Germans. When we went in I spoke to one of the ladies in information to request a search for my dad in the data bank and archives.This was a  disappointment as I was told when we left three hours later that they found nothing in the archives about him. On the other hand, dad’s commander Fyodor Markov did appear among the wall photos of “heroes of the Soviet Union”. Hanging in one display case there was a long brown winter coat with a fur collar – parachuted into the forests to help the partisans survive the extreme winter conditions. This made a profound impression on me as I had discovered just such a coat in our garage as an adolescent in Melbourne, complete with a bullet hole on one side  and deep, deep pockets and had been told it was dad’s coat from the war. I wore it proudly for many years, the pockets were very useful for carrying books I was reading, notebooks and other stuff.

Belarussians are fair and blue-eyed, with exceptions but not so tall. Many are stocky. Almost none speak English.  It is very green here, and wet and humid.

Nervousness. Tension. Slavic faces walking past, birds chirping. Grey, grey skies, drizzle (its summer!), ah, and now some sunshine…

Joe Kamens is in abeyance, waiting …waiting in the Mossad office in Tel Aviv, near Hayarkon street.

And I?   I am not able to write anything at all…

Tomorrow we will visit Disna, my father’s shtetleh.

I am numb. I don’t feel my feelings… am not even aware of what they are.

I am dripping sweat after a hot shower, having  spent the evening after supper talking to our Berussian cousin, Evgenia, mapping out our common ancestors, registering family genealogical information in this notebook, and with Debbie’s encouragement entering the information into the internet gen. site.

oh, and a sketch- a water colour painting I did of a bird I spotted in the Vitebsk old city watched waddling  across the cobble stones while waiting for everyone to come out of a tourist souvenir  shop…I ruined it trying to add and subtract shadow and shade – turned it into a grey smudge – like my family past – a dark grey smudge.

So much tragedy! So much sadness…

So I learned that my murdered grandfather was one of 11 children born  to Shlomo Yehuda and Haya Esther Greineman. There were two boys – grandfather Yehiel and brother Zima (or Zama)., and nine girls, of whom I only have the names of six:, Basia, Fania (also called “Faygeleh”), Faya  (lived and died  in Vitebsk), Hanna (Moscow) , Belka (Leningrad) and Zalka (disappeared).

My dad Boris was one of 9 children of whom only two , his brother Fima and himself  survived as partisans. The rest – Grandmother Shula, and their children Binyamin, Sonia, Zlata, Mendel, Devorah, Gedaliah and Avraham were all murdered by the Nazis. I grew up knowing of only one cousin on my father’s side  – my cousin, Suzanne (Shulamit) daughter of uncle Fima.

But now I have learned that four of the nine girls, my grandfather’s sisters, survived the war in Russia. The reconnection with this branch of the family came only after the “iron curtain” came down. Some of them – Rosa and Vladimir -migrated to freedom in Israel and my dad, still alive then, helped them start out in their new country. Then through them we met Evgenia, (daughter of another of my Dad’s first cousins , Betty, daughter of Fania) our guide in Vitebsk, who came on aliya as well but my Dad had passed away before knowing about them. There is a whole branch of the family still living in Leningrad- now St.. Petersberg!

We visited the Jewish cemetery in Vitebsk where two of my Dad’s aunts are buried.

Disna:  We came in across a river on a barge, drove past a bombed red brick ruin of what had been the Jewish hospital there. We visited a local museum, then the sites of the murders. I place a stone, lit a candle, and said a prayer. The locals – with one exception – were not very friendly or helpful. We did not feel welcome. I wrote nothing then…

27th October – Friday Tuv BeAv! (the “festival” of love)

We returned last night by train from Disna, via Polatz, to the same hotel – the “Belarus” in Minsk.

I am now on the train to Vilnius.

Trees, surrounded by multitudes of trees, birch forests. It was between such trees that my Dad and his compatriots fought the Germans and some how survived the elements – the freezing cold, hunger, the wolves, the damp and mud of spring , the insects.

29th July:

After two and a half days in Vilna.

Lithuanians are tall. More like Germans or Scandinavians than the Belarussians.

Denial, denial ,denial.

It is as if the Jewish presence here was something ancient and not recent history! As if no one specific, neither German nor Lithuanian had murdered the Jews here. They were just massacred by a “force of nature”, or an anonymous party.

The signs on places connected with the fate of the ghetto are in Lithuanian, and Yiddish, not in English, Hebrew, German, i.e. it is only local history, not something to be shared with foreign tourists. And who reads Yiddish any more? The dead Jews, the 250,000 Jews who made up more than half the population of the city in 1941.

Regina is very intense. A good guide but very demanding of our time and energy. Informative but overwhelming.

30th July, 2018 – Warsaw

Tu BeAv came and went. Khan Al Akhmar on trial again this Wednesday.

Three drunks in Warsaw tonight. One wore a Polska shirt – blood red – and accosted a woman, a blonde young lady.

Jagna, our gracious host and guide, is a brave woman. She yelled at him to stop, to leave the woman alone.

Another drunk got on the bus carrying a bottle – beer. He took a couple of swigs, then got off again, just before Jagna managed to complain about him to the driver.

A third drunk was asleep on the bench of a bus stop as we passed by.

Poland today.

And the few remaining Jews are thinking of leaving again. There is another – government – tolerated, or even encouraged! – round of antisemitic rhetoric, and violent incidents here and there.

Three drunks in Warsaw,

Three stars end Shabbat,

Three angels warn Abraham,

Three patriarchs of the people.

Three parts to my U.S.- made IDF rifle

Three parts of a god,

Greeted by three kings,

Forever dying on a cross.

No peace in the Holy Land

And many mass graves there in Russia, and here in Poland,

Filled with rotting flesh and bones,

Family, ancestors, many others,

Broken tablets and gravestones,

And for we Jews, no peace 

No peace, no peace…

I picked up a piece of a red brick from the Warsaw ghetto, from my mother’s street Nisca. As a souvenir. I learned here in the “Polin” museum and from Jagna, our guide that it was one of the poorest streets in Warsaw, and one of the last to be emptied of its Jews brought to the Umshlagplatz nearby to be trained to Treblinka.

. The command post  of the uprising – Mila 18 – was just around the corner.


6th August, 2018,  Berlin, Monday

Coming here to spend time with my daughter, Nehama and family, with grandkids, Yonatan and Noa was the best contra to the heavy week spent visiting Holocaust sites. Praying – dovening  – in the big Orthodox shule here, especially the prayer for the State of Israel/Tefilat Hamedina/ was very moving, emotionally powerful. The Hazan and choir were melodramatic but the circumstances were such that I had to hold back tears as I listened to them.

Remembering Disna – we prayed there on the mound, the memorial to the 3700 Jews massacred there on June 14th.

I didn’t cry there then in Disna. I lit a memorial candle, but shed no tears. I recited El Maleh Rachamim (G-d Full of Mercy), painfully aware as I recited them of the irony of the words and I did not weep. I couldn’t. I stayed dry, but don’t understand why…

but here in Berlin surrounded by a vibrant, alive Jewish community, here I could… and did.





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