April 27, nearly a month ago, was the last day of our road trip through the west of Belarus. With detours left and right of the Brest-Minsk highway we visited the towns of Nyasvizh, Garadeya, Mir, Turets, Stowbtsy, Novy Sverzhan, Rubezhevichy and Dzerzhinsk (formerly Koydanava). One place stands out: Mir with its synagogues and other former Jewish institutions in the town center.
Again, it was a day, which gave us a lot to process. It was mainly Juliana’s initiative to visit the many mass grave sites and I’m grateful to her. What determines a place to become a site of mass killing? Sometimes there is a valley or ravine, sometimes a forest. Sometimes it’s just a field, which is now located in a residential area. There is no pattern. What differs from place to place is how it is commemorated. We found recently erected memorials in Nyasvizh, an old one in Mir, a plaque in Yiddish in Dzerzhinsk and an impressive new memorial in Garadeya – designed by Leanid Levin.
Out of the many places we visited on our way back to Minsk, I would like to highlight two. Mir and Nova Sverzhan.
Mir is somehow like a miracle. All is still there: the Great Synagogue, two more synagogues, a former yeshiva – a school for advanced religious studies – and a cheder – a Jewish elementary school.
A plaque at the wall of the yeshiva reads like that:
The famous Mir Yeshiva, founded in 1815, was located in this building until 1939. Over five hundred students studied within these walls. Theywere citizens of European counties, the United States, Australia, and South Africa, The Mir Yeshiva was known as the “Mother of all Yeshivos”. Most of the leaders and teachers of the generation before World War II studied here. Today, the spiritual heirs of those great generations of the Mir Yeshiva continue in their footsteps. The Mir Yeshiva today is the largest traditional Jewish institution of higher learning in the world with main branches in Jerusalem and New York.
This is probably exaggerated, as the yeshiva in Valozhyn (https://vanishedworld.blog/2019/05/01/between-minsk-and-ashmyany/) claims the same importance. Nevertheless, it reflects the meaning of the town for the Jewish world. The synagogues and all other Jewish institutions serve different purposes today. They are a hotel, a restaurant, a shop – but they are there, well preserved, and tell their story to those who would like to listen.
Novy Sverzhan is the opposite. It took us a while to find the local Jewish cemetery. It is situated in a forest out of town. The place is lost. All tombstones have toppled and big holes have been dug by people looking for valuables. It’s a men-made disaster and it’s hard to imagine how this can be made undone.
In the evening we returned to Minsk. Our journey had come to an end. We spent the following day mainly with sleeping – and talking about what we saw on this extraordinary journey into the past and present.
Is there something left to say? Oh yes! Belarusians, you won my heart. I would like to return one day!
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