by Carolyn Kraus
On a warm and windy July morning, we were headed south on the Partisan Highway out of Minsk, Belarus. Marina, the friend of a Jewish Belarusian expatriate I knew back home in Detroit, was nervous at the wheel of the little twenty-year–old Soviet-built Moskveech she’d just learned to drive, its doors wired shut and a red fire extinguisher skittering around on the dashboard. The car was coughing out smoke as we passed a six-foot-high wooden obelisk topped with a red star that marked the Minsk city limit. Further on, the road bisected a factory district, then passed blocks of gray apartment complexes that had sprung up after the war on the outskirts of every Soviet city. Up ahead, a goatherd urged his flock along the highway beneath a sign proclaiming: “Pay your taxes. You’ll feel great!” Atop many of the telephone poles lining the road, storks’ nests were perched like giant straw hats.
Packed into the narrow back seat of the Moskveech were Lev, a sixty-year-old self-taught Belarusian filmmaker with intense black eyes and tufts of white hair ringing his shiny bald head, and Ina, a Belarus State University history teacher who was also curator of the one-room museum of Jewish History that occupied the corner of a basement near the center of Minsk. Jews now made up only 3%, of the city’s population, but given that Minsk had been nearly half Jewish before the war, the collection Ina had shown me the day before was alarmingly skimpy: a few dozen artifacts of Jewish life in Minsk that had survived—a treadle sewing machine, a matzo press resembling the wringer on an old washing machine, a lone prayer book rescued in 1944 from the smoldering ruins of the Minsk Ghetto, and a scattering of photographs including one of skulls spilling out from an upended gunny sack discovered at the site of a Holocaust slaughter.
Lev and Ina made an odd pair: the professor in her prim black skirt and bobbed grey hair; the filmmaker with his rumpled slacks and T-shirt, his solid row of gold-capped bottom teeth, and those two clownish puffs of white hair. Neither Ina nor Lev spoke any English, so for the most part, we spoke Russian, which I’d studied as a college exchange student in Moscow back in the Seventies. Marina translated what I couldn’t express or failed to understand.
These three would be my guides as I neared the end of a long, winding journey that had led me from my home in Detroit, where I’d raised two sons and worked as a teacher and journalist, to today’s destination, Blagovschina Forest on the outskirts of Minsk, in search of my father’s, my grandmother’s—and ultimately my own history. The impetus for this journey was my discovery, a decade after my father’s death, of documents in a box of his papers and letters– my first solid clues to the fate of his Austrian Jewish family.
But in truth, my journey to wrest my father’s history from the shadows had commenced long before I discovered the box of his papers. Growing up with a single mother scarcely out of her teens, I’d known my father only through his letters that arrived, sometimes daily, throughout my childhood. These letters revealed nothing personal about my father. Instead, they were entreaties that I renounce the materialism of my childhood world and pursue what he called “the Spiritual life.” My father’s letters were bitter diatribes against that slough of evil that comprised my young world—the schools, the churches, books; my mother, teachers, friends.
My father, Otto Kraus, had escaped to America in the Thirties, a few years before his widowed mother and the rest of his Viennese family were exterminated. He’d given his first name at Customs as Proteus, the Greek god of prophesy and sea change. As Proteus, my father had earned a doctorate in German literature at Berkeley and had taken a teaching job at a college in Florida. After the war, in what I imagine to have been a tumult of guilt and sorrow, my father tucked Proteus the Shape-Shifter away behind an initial and, as Otto P. Kraus, embraced the rigid, ascetic personal brand of Christianity that he would preach for the remainder of his life. Denouncing this earthly swamp of mortal error that seethes below a plane of pure ideas became his obsession, ultimately replacing even his class curricula and leading to dismissals from first one university, then another.
Defrocked as an academic, my father, by then past forty, had lit out for California with the fifteen-year-old girl who would become my mother. The younger sister of one of his students, the teenager had sat in on one of his classroom sermons and had listened intently. A few years later, I was born but before my second birthday, my father had wandered off to begin a new life, taking his message to the streets. I’d been in his presence only twice since I was a toddler.
Both times I’d gone looking for him in the Los Angeles neighborhood where he rented a room in someone else’s apartment, I’d come upon my father scavenging through the alley dumpsters and piling into his shopping cart the old sweaters, dog-eared magazines, and broken toasters that he would later haul to the Salvation Army. During each of these visits, my father had insisted that, despite the barrage of letters he’d sent me throughout my childhood, given my mother’s worldly ways, he likely wasn’t even my father.
When I’d tried to engage my father in conversation, he drifted off to that higher plane, and soon—launching into the same lecture I’d received as a child in his countless letters—he was speaking of the life of the Spirit, “This is your true father,” he’d concluded during my last visit, wagging a crooked index finger that, I noticed, matched my own. Soon, he was trundling his shopping cart back down the alley. With a hollowness in my heart, I watched him disappear–a small, dark figure in a cracked leather jacket and his head in a book.
Soon after my second visit to Los Angeles, my father died. “I want my body burned,” he’d stipulated in a will discovered after his death. “I want my ashes taken out with the trash.”
For years my father’s instructions had haunted me, and I’d sought in vain to uncover the source of his all-encompassing bitterness. My first real clue was a yellow cable I found in the box of his papers, informing my father that the money he’d sent for a visa to enable his mother’s escape from Nazi-occupied Vienna on a boat to Cuba was forfeit, since Cuba had just then declared war on Germany. The cable, dated December 22, 1941, might as well have been my grandmother’s death warrant. The Nazis were already rounding up Vienna’s Jews. Before finding his papers, I’d known almost nothing about my father’s life in Vienna and nothing whatever about my grandmother, not even her name.
Armed with the yellow cable and my grandparents’ marriage certificate, the fruit of patient research by an Austrian specialist at the Mormon archives in Salt Lake City, I’d set off in for Vienna, where I unearthed my grandmother’s property documents and, eventually, her 1942 deportation record. As I held the thick ledger in my hands, I stared at the one-line notation: “Berta Kraus, destination: Maly Trostinets.” I’d never heard of the place. Returning home, I could locate only a scant paragraph here and there in Holocaust histories describing events that had taken place at Maly Trostinets, named for a village outside Minsk in Belarus, then a Nazi-occupied state in the Soviet Union. Between 1941 and 1943, the surrounding woods had been the site of a slaughter that claimed more than 200,000 souls, including Partisans, Soviet soldiers, at least 60,000 Belorussian Jewish prisoners from the Minsk ghetto and–according to wildly varying estimates, between forty and eighty thousand foreign Jews transported east from the ghettos and concentrations camps of Germany, Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Only a handful survived to tell fragments of the story.
The war ended, the Cold War froze, thawed, then froze again; the Soviet Union disintegrated; the Soviet state of Belorussia became the nation of Belarus. But the evil of Maly Trostinets has remained obscure, shrouded. Six decades later, the largest, most efficient Nazi extermination camp on former Soviet territory appears as little more than a footnote, though it ranks fourth among death camps in Europe in the number of Jewish lives it ended.
* * *
Later that summer, I returned to Vienna with a Belarusian visa, purchased a ticket to Minsk, and boarded a train, setting out on the same railroad tracks that more than sixty years earlier had carried my grandmother on an odyssey that ended in a forest trench near Minsk. Armed with my halting college Russian, I retraced my grandmother’s final journey, determined to confront that tragedy from which—in sorrow, guilt, helplessness or bitterness—my father had turned away. Doing so, I hoped to reclaim a shard of my own buried history.
“Why do you want to go there?” the round-faced young man sitting opposite me in the train compartment inquired in English when I told him I was headed for Belarus. He smiled, adding matter-of-factly, “In that place is only poverty and dirt.”
I shrugged. “I have friends,” I told him.
That was true in a way. Through my Russian neighbors back home, I’d contacted a local community of Belarusian Jews, several of them survivors of the Minsk Ghetto. These ex-patriots, in turn, had put me in touch with Marina, a forty-year-old Minsk resident who’d invited me to stay in her apartment. As a Jew in an anti-Semitic country, Marina had hoped to emigrate from Minsk to America after the breakup of the Soviet Union when emigration laws had relaxed. But when both of her parents had fallen ill, Marina postponed her trip in order to care for them. Meanwhile, the window of opportunity slammed shut. Emigration laws tightened. Immigration to America became next to impossible. Belarusians could enter the U.S. only by winning permission in a national lottery. Now Marina was likely stuck in Belarus for good.
My young compartment-mate stretched his hand out to me and introduced himself as Tomás. An affable Czech with blue eyes and straw-colored hair who worked for the Subway sandwich chain, Tomás was bound for Warsaw to break ground for a new franchise, after opening forty-two new Subways in Prague that summer.
I inquired whether Subways and Golden Arches had sprung up in Belarus, reportedly the most backward country in Eastern Europe.
“One under construction in the center of Minsk,” Tomás replied. “Already they have a McDonald’s.”
He pulled out his wallet, extracted a folded paper and waved it in the air. “This work permit. It takes me years.” He frowned. “I go four times, but I always fly out the same day. If I can catch a flight.” The small fleet of Belarusian-operated planes was substandard, he said. They weren’t permitted to land in many European airports.
“Too loud,” the Czech said. Besides, “Nothing happens in Minsk. Nothing. Economy–worst in Europe.” He shook an index finger in the air. “Money–worthless.” The red and blue rubles traded by the fistful were virtually play money. “No matter—it’s nothing to buy,” Tomás added. “They have a horrible dictator too, this Lukashenko. It’s like the worst days of Soviet Communism.”
A middle-aged man wearing a plaid tie and shiny brown shoes seated next to Tomás had been listening, shaking his head and smacking his lips noisily while using a jackknife to saw off hunks of a pungent salami wrapped in newspaper.
“They brought it all on themselves,” he broke in between mouthfuls. In flawless English, he introduced himself as a history professor from Warsaw.
“Wasn’t it a democratic election?” I asked the professor.
Brushing bits of salami from his moustache, he laughed. “Yes. Lukashenko won in a landslide. Belarus is a nation of followers. They’re too scared to be without Communism, so they elect this guy, Lukashenko—he used to be the boss of a chicken collective.” The professor lopped off several hunks of salami and offered them around. A brief nationalist movement had arisen in the early Nineties after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he told me. Belarusian was declared the national language, and the country set out on the road to a privatized economy.
“But they weren’t ready for the breakdown of the Soviet Union,” the professor said. “For them, independence was a catastrophe. They saw Lukashenko as their solution.” In 1994, elections were held, and Lukashenko received 80% of the vote on his promise to recreate a lost paradise. He would revive the old system, restore full employment, provide free health care, and officially reinstate the familiar Russian tongue.
“Idiots!” the professor said, shaking his head. “They were glad to return to Communism. There’s no elite in Belarus to form an idea-oriented leadership. The Jews, maybe. But there aren’t many now—the Nazis got most of them during the war and the rest fled. Any Jews still there want to get out.”
Beyond the country’s political and economic problems, Belarusians face a gruesome array of health hazards, the professor added with a look of disgust. Most of the radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl explosion blew downwind from Ukraine into Belarus, contaminating half the country’s soil, possibly for the next hundred years. “Much of the food and water is probably still unsafe,” he warned me.
As my fellow travelers continued their litany of Belarus’ woes, the train rattled eastward, past the low hills and mist-veiled forests of the Polish countryside. Against this graceful backdrop, it was hard to picture Poland’s neighbor to the east–backward, unlovely, and swept by the winds of Chernobyl. I envisioned Belarus as an island set adrift beneath a perpetually hovering raincloud.
As if reading my thoughts, the Czech stretched out both hands, palms up, his fingers spread in a gesture of futility. “Nothing there but ignorant people,” he said. “The people has disappeared in their minds. They are sheep. No national identity, no history.”
But, of course, Belarus does have a history, a tragic history of invasion, partition, and devastation that makes its current troubles appear not so much self-inflicted as the working out of some ancient curse. I’d caught glimpses of this past back in Detroit, while trying to flesh out a skeletal outline of events at Maly Trostinets. For four hundred years, Belarus was laid waste by a series of wars before being divided in 1919, the western part ceded to Poland, the eastern becoming the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. During the Second World War, the Germans leveled more than 600 Belorussian villages and killed a quarter of the Republic’s inhabitants. Not only did the Nazi army slaughter most of the Belorussian Jews, Hitler also designated the state of Belorussia as the site of a network of death camps–one vast, spreading graveyard for European Jews. Although the Nazi’s grand plan was never fully achieved, one such site had been established in the forest near Minsk: the mysterious Maly Trostinets.
Transports from the ghettos and concentration camps of Europe began arriving in Maly Trostinets in 1942, the year noted on my grandmother’s deportation record. Meanwhile, during a series of pogroms and transports to the forest, the entire population of the Minsk Ghetto was liquidated. The genocide ended two years later, when the Soviet Army marched into Minsk.
About this landlocked country of ten million, the news was still bad. The government was dogged by allegations of money laundering, drug smuggling, and arms dealing to terrorist groups. Yet, in the U.S. the plight of Belarus was virtually unknown outside Belarusian immigrant circles. If Americans knew anything at all about the place, it was probably that Lee Harvey Oswald had defected to Minsk and married a Belorussian before returning to the U.S. to assassinate President Kennedy.
* * *
Arriving in Minsk, I slowly came to realize that the name Maly Trostinets, so unfamiliar to the rest of the world, was also virtually unknown in Minsk beyond the city’s tiny Jewish community. Neither did it show up on the area map I purchased at a kiosk in the train station.
“I’m not surprised. No one knows about it,” Marina told me later when I spread out the map on her kitchen table. She, herself, could not locate the place, she said, observing that Maly Trostinets does not appear in Belarusian history books.
A soft-spoken woman with anxious black eyes and curly black hair, Marina had met me at the train station. As we drove off in the Moskveech that had belonged to her father, we shifted back and forth between languages until it was clear that her English was better than my Russian.
Each time the tiny car sputtered, lurched, and stalled, Marina’s face would redden. Her eyes would brim with tears.
“I’m not used to driving,” she whispered, as we turned onto Skorina Ulitza, the city’s main street. At first glance, Minsk wasn’t the shabby place I’d been led to expect by my compartment-mates on the train to Warsaw. What I saw through the fissured car window were Fifties-era cinderblock buildings in a clean, though gloomy-looking city, its streets all but deserted at four in the afternoon. In another respect, though, my companions’ predictions proved accurate. Minsk was a time trip back to the USSR, beginning with the scale of everything. Skorina Street was seven lanes wide and lined with hulking grey office buildings, the holdover State-run department store monopolies known by the acronyms GUM and DUM (pronounced “doom” and “goom”), and signs plastered with patriotic messages. One billboard extolled Soviet World War Two heroes. Another pictured President Lukashenko with his shiny head and bushy moustache.
So, Belarus has simply exchanged one bald-headed icon for another, I reflected, recalling my student days three decades back among the streets and squares of the Soviet Union with their ubiquitous statues and portraits of Lenin. But no, Lenin was here too, towering thirty feet tall above the courtyard of “The President’s Palace,” as the executive headquarters was known. Other post-Soviet states might scrap their iron curtain artifacts, but in Belarus, Marina told me, gigantic Lenins still brood over every town and village.
“Do you like it?” Marina kept asking, her dark eyes begging for reassurance. I insisted I did like it. Eighty-percent of its buildings destroyed during the war, Minsk had reemerged as an orderly modern city. But like Marina herself, with her apologies and her pleas for approval, the place felt abandoned. Marina parked the car before a wedding-cake-shaped “Stalin Gothic” building. Cradling my arm, she conducted me to a sundial enshrined in the center of a marble fountain in the building’s courtyard.
“Here you can see the distance to everywhere,” she said.
Etched around the sundial’s face were arrows pointing toward the major cities of the old USSR and indicating their distance from this deserted sidewalk in central Minsk: “Kiev, 573 km,” “Moscow 700 km. The implication that the former Empire constituted the world made the city feel even more lost. Back home when I’d told people I was headed for Belarus, their eyes would go blank.
“Belarus?” they’d say. “Where’s that?”
“Is that a country?
“Is it in Russia?”
* * *
Further on, Marina stopped the car to show me Minsk’s only Holocaust memorial where it stood at the edge of a ravine surrounded by maple, chestnut and linden trees. This was the site of a particularly ghastly pogrom known as “Yama,” or “the pit” that was carried out in March of 1942. Replaying Babi Yar, the infamous massacre of Ukrainian Jews that had taken place only six months earlier, the Nazis rounded up 5,000 Jews from the Minsk Ghetto, marched them to the edge of this ravine, ordered them to remove their ragged clothes, then shot them or shoved them over the drop to be buried alive as bulldozers filled up the valley.
Had my grandmother been among those murdered at Yama, I wondered. A fenced-off section of the Ghetto had been reserved for a portion of foreign Jews who were not killed immediately. “It was very terrible for these foreign Jews,” a Belarusian survivor named Galina had told me back in Detroit. They didn’t know Russian. They couldn’t speak to the guards. They couldn’t speak to anyone.” The foreign Jews would stand, mute and starving, arms extended through the barbed wire that separated them from the larger Ghetto. “They held out watches, rings, handkerchiefs, shawls. They tried to exchange anything for food.” One woman put gold earrings in Galina’s hand. “She didn’t realize that we, too, had no food.” In winter, Galina had seen the bodies of foreign Jews beyond the barbed wire, frozen and stacked like lumber. “Some of them killed themselves,” she remembered. “After a while, we started thinking it was better to be a Russian Jew.”
As I thought of that scene from the past, I made out the pale ghost of a swastika on the black marble menorah commemorating the Yama bloodbath. Vandals, probably members of Belarus’ flourishing neo-Nazi movement, had spray-painted it here only last month, Marina said. Elsewhere on the monument, they had scrawled: “Holocaust Now,” and “Death to Jews.”
Incidents of neo-Nazi vandalism had increased in recent years, Marina told me. Earlier, a 30-liter can of white paint had been splattered over the same memorial. Leaflets accusing Jews of crimes against Christianity had called for retribution. Anti-Semitic graffiti had shown up all over the city. At Jewish cemeteries throughout Belarus, memorial wreaths were often torched and headstones upended or shattered.
That night as I settled onto the red velveteen couch in the book-lined vestibule that served as a living and dining room in Marina’s sixth-floor apartment on Kommunistchiki Ulitza (Communist Street), I spotted a globe of the world atop a bookcase. I stretched up and traced the route I’d taken here from Vienna, my finger inching east through Warsaw, then on to the Polish border. But a chunk of colored cardboard had worn off the globe. Belarus was missing. I replaced the globe on the bookcase and scanned the titles of volumes crammed into bowed shelves. There were collected works by Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, and dozens of scientific tomes whose titles I couldn’t translate. Later, as we sat at a table pulled up to the velveteen couch eating dumplings and spiced mushrooms, Marina mentioned that her mother had been a radiation specialist at the National Institute of Energy. She’d worked on the cleanup of Chernobyl shortly after the reactor blew up in 1986, then on and off for years until she fell ill with the cancer that had already spread throughout her body. Marina herself had worked in “the zone’ for several weeks during 1987.
Recently she’d suffered a bout of breast cancer. Her father had died of thyroid cancer the previous year. No one could prove that Chernobyl was the cause of her family’s afflictions but, Marina told me, “Most of the people who worked there are dead.”
The next morning Marina and I rode a bus downtown to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War of Belarus, where Marina’s friend, Natasha, worked as a guide. Natasha knew the location of Maly Trostinets and had agreed to accompany me there. As we walked up the museum steps, Marina again took my arm. “I want to tell you something,” she said in her gentle voice. “Natasha is Belarusian.”
I didn’t understand. Wasn’t Marina Belarusian too?
“My country–yes. My nationality–I am Jewish,” Marina explained. “Natasha is Belarusian.” This was a distinction frequently drawn during my stay in Minsk. Marina wasn’t religious. After generations of Communism, few Jews are. But ethnic divisions are carefully preserved. Until recently, Belarusian passports had been stamped with the bearer’s “nationality.” The stamp on Marina’s passport had shattered her dream of attending medical school in the Eighties, and she’d found work as an engineer–a meaningless title, she told me, for her job was entirely clerical.
“Natasha is old friend,” Marina said. “As children, we were in school together.” But, as a Belarusian, Natasha might not understand my preoccupation with the Jewish victims of Nazi crimes. A quarter of the nation had perished during the war, Marina reminded me. Like most Belarusians, Natasha felt that Jews warranted no special place in a hierarchy of suffering. Over and over during my stay, I’d hear people make such statements with no evident malice or irony. “The War” is the dominant historical theme in Belarus, not the Jewish genocide that had taken place in the country’s midst.
Natasha was a slight, pale woman with thin lips and a severe expression, which turned into a smile when she spotted Marina. We would take a taxi out to Maly Trostinets that afternoon while Marina was at work, Natasha announced in English. We would visit the monument–erected out there in the Sixties, that stood on a hill above an eternal flame. “It’s a lovely place,” she added to my surprise.
The taxi driver shook his head when we asked to be driven to Maly Trostinets.
“Ne zniyou,” he said. I don’t know.
But Natasha gave directions, and soon we were headed south of the city on my first of two trips down the Partisan Highway. As my eyes scanned the fields of purple buckwheat and yellow cornflowers along the road, I wondered: Was this the route along which my grandmother had once been marched or driven?
Probably so, Natasha said. The old Mogolov Road, renamed Partisanski Prospect after the war, was the only route past Maly Trostinets. A few kilometers out of Minsk, Natasha directed the driver to turn off the highway and wait for us by a marshy field at the foot of a hill.
Natasha and I followed a rutted goat path up the hill past a splintered signpost that spelled out “M. Trostinets” in Cyrillic letters. From a distance, the pre-war wooden houses of Maly Trostinets, with their vanished paint and sagging ridgelines, had looked abandoned, but as we approached the village, I spotted chickens skittering around the yards and leafy vegetables in the gardens. A pregnant goat lazed in the road. Here and there old people sat on porches or leaned on garden hoes. At two in the afternoon the younger generations were at school or at work, a world away in the concrete city a few kilometers up the highway.
“Was this the site of the killings?”
“Nyet,” Natasha replied. No, the name “Maly Trostinets” had come to refer to the mass slaughters that took place, not in the village itself but in several nearby locations.
I asked some elderly villagers if they recalled the German camp or the convoys of human cargo passing by on the highway sixty years back, but most said they’d moved here after the war. One man with white hair bristling from underneath a faded blue baseball cap said his wife had lived here all her life. During the German Occupation, she had told him, villagers often heard screams in the night. But that was all he knew, and now his wife was dead. No one else could tell us anything.
As we walked back down the hill toward our waiting taxi, I was startled by an ominous, loud clattering–like the rattle of a machine gun. When I turned to Natasha in alarm, she laughed and pointed toward a stand of wiry brown reeds where a white stork stood, its head thrown back, breast feather puffed up, mandibles clacking.
“This bird brings good luck,” Natasha said.
With the state of things in Belarus, I thought as the stork flapped its black-fringed wings and glided away, luck was the most its people could hope for. But I kept this to myself. Natasha plucked some reeds and held them out to me. These were the hollow “trostniki” for which the village was named, she told me, adding, “This is the plant of the Bible. The baby Moses was found among trostniki.”
Back on the highway, our taxi passed stretches of birch and pine forest and fields carpeted with dandelions and feathery Queen Anne’s Lace. Had my grandmother died on this road, I wondered. At sixty-eight, she might well have been among those too old or sick to walk, who were crammed into gas vans known in the Ghetto as “dushagubki,” or soul killers. Survivors remembered watching from behind the barbed wire as they passed–black metal boxes on wheels marked with the letters “MAN,” the name of a German truck manufacturer. Their tailpipes were rigged to spew asphyxiating fumes back up into the box.
Had this been Berta’s fate? Or had she already died before reaching Minsk, suffocated in an airless freight car along the way? Or perhaps my grandmother had been among the multitudes shot at the edge of the long forest trenches discovered after the Nazis’ retreat. I still hadn’t seen those trenches.
“Where are the graves?”
As if in reply, Natasha instructed the cab driver to turn off the road, and we entered a clearing. At the foot of steps leading up a grassy hill to a monument sat a stone cauldron the size of a truck tire.
“The eternal flame,” Natasha explained. But the cauldron held only sand.
A black marble column atop the hill commemorated “More than 200,000 victims of Nazi crimes–Partisans and soldiers of the Soviet Army and local inhabitants.”
No mention of Jews.
“They were local inhabitants too,” Natasha said sharply.
As I opened my mouth to protest, the clanging of a bell distracted me. A cow was tethered to a nearby pine alongside a meandering path through the woods.
“The graves were here?” I asked, gazing into the distance where a flock of goats was grazing along the path.
“Nyet. Nyet.” Natasha shook her head. “This monument is not in the right place.” The actual site of the mass graves was “a filthy place a few kilometers down the road.” Scrunching up her nose, she refused to take me there.
That evening back at Marina’s apartment in Minsk, Lev, the filmmaker with the wild Einstein hair, showed me the right place. When I again smoothed out my wrinkled map on Marina’s table, Lev’s finger stabbed at the blue mapmaker’s stamp that recorded the city’s population, latitude, and other vital statistics.
“That’s where it is,” he said. “You think the placement of the stamp there is a coincidence? No.” He turned to me, his bushy eyebrows raised. “They hide the graves, the disgrace.”
Several years back, Lev had gone to the site of the graves and filmed a documentary about Maly Trostinets. But the documentary had never been shown. State-controlled television refused to air it.
When I asked him why, Lev sighed heavily. Up went the eyebrows. He would give me a guided tour of the spot beneath the mapmaker’s stamp. “You will not believe it,” he said in Russian, slamming his palm down with a thump on the wobbly kitchen table. “With your own eyes, you will see.” Then, promising to return on Friday, he marched out the door of the apartment. Marina turned to me with the bewildered look she frequently wore. Lev’s combat boots sounded on the stairs.
* * *
On the warm, blustery morning of Lev’s guided tour, I was again headed down the Partisan Highway, the same road Natasha and I had taken two days earlier. Marina was driving, with Lev in the back seat. Ina the historian made up the fourth in our group crowded into the little Moskveech.
I would finally see the mass burial site known as Maly Trostinets, Lev assured me—the place where my grandmother lay buried. The place Hitler had designated as the first of what was to have been a network of mass dumps for the human trash of Europe. But, Lev added, in the same mysterious tone he’d affected in Marina’s kitchen, it wouldn’t be what I expected. Again, he declined to elaborate, merely repeating what he’d told me that night: “With your own eyes, you will see it.”
Like virtually every Belarusian Jew, Lev had more than a professional interest in the site of the documentary I would view only later. Although he himself had survived the war and the Jewish genocide by fleeing with his mother and sister to Kazakhstan, Lev’s aunts, uncles and grandmother had been prisoners of the Minsk Ghetto, as had Marina’s and Ina’s extended families. Their remains doubtless lay with my grandmother’s in the depths of Blagovschina Forest, which was the basis of our unspoken kinship.
We passed the path to the village of Maly Trostinets, where the old man had told Natasha and me of screams in the night. Before us, beyond a field of dandelions, a fleet of canvas-covered trucks disappeared as they headed into a dip in the road, then reappeared as they climbed up the other side.
“Turn around. Look,” Lev barked as the Moskveech topped the hill and headed into the dip. Peering out the car’s rear window, I saw only the sloping road. “Because of this hill, a boy survived,” Lev said, as the Moskveech emerged from the dip and the dandelion field reappeared. Then Lev told the only tale I’d ever hear of escape by a prisoner bound for the killing ground at Maly Trostinets.
“Two brothers were in the back of a truck. One little boy and his brother,” he began. “The truck was carrying them to Blagovschina. The older boy knew they would be killed. The truck reached the top of that hill.” Lev glanced back over his shoulder. “The big boy lifted up his brother. He heaved the little boy into the field by the roadside, just as the truck started down the hill.” The soldiers in the truck’s cab had seen nothing. The boy was found by Ghetto escapees hiding in the forest. Lev could attach no name to this story he’d heard while gathering material for his film, but if it was true, that dip in the road had provided the little boy his miracle.
The horrors of the Minsk Ghetto had been kept alive by a few thousand survivors. I’d even heard a tale of escape from the tangle of corpses in the Yama pit. But silence surrounded the gruesome events in the forest. There was only this wisp of a story. In the absence of human memories to draw on for his film, Lev had combined scenes from the present-day landscape with a voice-over narration pieced together from interviews with villagers and from a handful of uncirculated documents. These papers had been discovered by Ina’s university colleague in the Belarus National Archives in 1995, a year after Russia had turned over the records of the former Soviet State to the new nation of Belarus. But when Belarus’ state-controlled television stations had refused to air Lev’s documentary, the silence surrounding the forest killings settled back in.
This silence puzzled me. Maly Trostinets had been a Nazi crime, not a Russian one. The Soviet state that had sometimes collaborated in Nazi crimes against Jews no longer existed. I studied the web of splattered insect corpses on the windshield, wondering: Why would the government of Belarus be reluctant to expose the sins of another country, another era? Why would they deny the physical reality recorded in Lev’s documentary. Why had the film been banned?
Three reasons,” Ina began in her professorial voice. “First, this film is about Jews. Soviets hated and feared Jews. Soviet hatred of Jews was the same as Nazis’, and this anti-Semitism persists today in Belarus in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways.” By “subtle” anti-Semitism, Ina meant, for example, the kind of discrimination that had ended Marina’s dream of attending medical school in the Eighties. “Not-so-subtle” examples included the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and the ominous graffiti smeared across the marker at Yama.
“You saw the memorial–the swastikas,” Ina said. “No one was punished. The authorities ignore such things. They maintain the illusion that nothing bad happened. Lukashenko has declared that he admires Nazi order and that we can learn from Hitler.”
Not until the archival material turned up in the mid-Nineties had government officials conceded to Minsk’s tiny Jewish community that Maly Trostinets had been a mass murder primarily of Jews. “It is time to tell the truth,” Ina’s colleague had written after viewing the archival documents. “Most of the victims were prisoners of the Minsk Ghetto, along with foreign Jews from the many countries of Central and Eastern Europe.”
The documents also testified that the foreign Jews transported to Belarus in 1941 through 1943 had shared my grandmother’s fate. Nearly all met their deaths at Maly Trostinets. Out of perhaps 80,000 Jews imprisoned in the Minsk Ghetto, “Only several thousands of Belorussian Jews survived,” one report concluded, “and only a few dozen foreign Jews survived.” But the documents concerning Jewish deaths at Maly Trostinets had never circulated in Belarus, and the film Lev made, based on these documents, had been squelched.
“Anti-Semitism,” Ina said. “But this is only one reason Lev’s film cannot be shown.” She cleared her throat. “Second reason,” Ina resumed in her efficient tone. “People aren’t familiar with what happened at Maly Trostinets. It was hushed up.” In Belarusian history, the Jewish Genocide doesn’t exist.” The Soviet government blocked access to information and failed to raise the matter during the post-war Nuremburg trials.
Here was another piece of the story that made no sense to me. What motive could the Soviets have for protecting the Nazis who had betrayed their trust, occupied their land, and slaughtered millions of their citizens? Why hadn’t the Soviets raised the issue of Maly Trostinets at Nuremburg? Why had they protected a Nazi secret?
“Understand,” Lev replied, leaning forward from the back seat, “this was not just a Nazi secret.” He paused and turned to Ina, who was polishing her glasses with a handkerchief.
“The official number of people killed at Maly Trostinets is 206,500,” she said.
“Yes.” I’d heard that figure before, seen roughly that claim earlier in the week, chiseled into the monument looming above the dead eternal flame. Though Jews weren’t specifically mentioned in the inscription, this number presumably included most inhabitants of the Minsk ghetto, as well as Soviet soldiers, Partisans, and all the foreign Jews.
But according to documents unearthed in the National Archives, Lev explained, human remains in the forest told a far different story. A sheaf of reports dated July 14, 1943, just two weeks after the Occupation ended, described the uncovering of thirty-four mass graves concealed with pine boughs—some of these graves fifty meters long. After measuring the graves’ grisly contents, the investigators concluded that the remains of 476,000 people were buried in the forest around Maly Trostinets, vastly more victims than could be accounted for by the ghetto dead, the transport records, and the estimates of others the Germans had killed in the forest.
“That’s more than twice the official figures,” Lev said, stabbing his index finger in the air. “But the Soviet government prohibited the publicizing of this information.”
“But these were German crimes,” I repeated. “Why would the Soviets want to hide them?”
“Because,” Lev said, “this number also includes victims of the Soviet Secret Service of the Thirties.”
For years before the war, the territory alongside the highway on which we were traveling had been guarded by secret police, later known as the KGB. While making his film, Lev had interviewed elderly citizens of the nearby village, who remembered hearing frequent gunshots in the night during those years. Around the gravesites, Lev had found dozens of cartridges from pre-war Soviet weapons.
Ina nodded. “ Stalin’s police had used Maly Trostinets as a killing place in the forest, where the bodies were easily hidden. This was part of the mass extermination of the intelligentsia whom the Soviets were so afraid of. “
“You see,” Lev said, “the Nazis came to a place already well-prepared for killing Jews. Stalin’s police were at Maly Trostinets before the war and killed a lot of people. The revelation of Nazi crimes would have unveiled Soviet crimes as well. So, at Nuremberg they didn’t broach the subject.”
Whether or not the 1944 estimates were accurate, I thought, if Blagovschina Forest had been a dumping ground for the bodies of political dissidents well before the Nazis arrived, the Soviets had a powerful motive for sealing their files on Maly Trostinets.
Lev nodded. “All during Soviet Power, no one spoke of Maly Trostinets.”
“The Soviet era is over,” I protested. “Belarus isn’t responsible for Soviet crimes, but still, this silence persists. Why?”
I turned to Ina. “You referred to three reasons why Lev’s film was banned.” I’d only heard two. First, the documentary would be unwelcome in an anti-Semitic country. Second, the long history of official erasure had kept Maly Trostinets out of the cultural memory.
“The third reason?” I asked.
“Yes, there is something else.” Another reason the documentary cannot be shown. Another reason why Maly Trostinets remains a cipher, even in post-Soviet Belarus. Ina glanced at Lev.
“As you’ll see,” he said, “the location of the graves would be an enormous embarrassment.”
Eleven kilometers southeast of the city, we reached the section of Blagovschina hidden beneath the blue stamp on my map. We turned left at an opening in the woods and followed another convoy of trucks with canvas-covered beds, like those we’d noticed out on the Partisan Highway. As, raising clouds of dust, the trucks lumbered along a rutted dirt road through the forest, I heard the faint rumbling of heavy machinery.
Enveloped in dust, the little Moskveech rattled along, past an empty sentry box with a sign reading “Warning! No Trespassing” in red foot-high Cyrillic letters, and into the cool dimness of the forest.
I felt a surge of nausea as the thick, pungent stench hit. My hands went up over my ears as the grating and clanking grew louder.
“Shut your window,” Lev barked, and I wound the handle tight, muting the noise and reducing the stink, just before we emerged from the forest into a vast clearing where we beheld entire mountain ranges of garbage and trash. Ahead, the trucks turned left to labor up a steep path toward the crest of the nearest trash mountain.
Here was my answer. The third reason why the Belarus government still protects the secrets of Maly Trostinets. The Holocaust killing field is now the Minsk city dump.
We breathed in the thick airless vapor and stared in silence as the convoy of trucks crept up the steep incline, then tipped the city’s rotten cabbage and rusted fenders and broken chairs and dead cats onto the graves of Maly Trostinets. Somewhere deep beneath those heaps of trash, along with the bones and ashes of those quarter-, maybe half-million other souls, lay my grandmother Berta’s remains.
We parked near the foot of the nearest garbage heap. Marina stifled a sob. “All those people,” she whispered.
I’d anticipated that I’d grieve too when I first saw the site of my grandmother’s murder, but I only felt numb. The scene through the rolled-up car window felt unreal, like an abstract painting: jagged lines, grids, fractured geometric shapes, mixed with splotches and smeary curves. Muted whites, grays and browns accented here and there by glints of light and blotches of darker hues; the psychedelic swirl of an oil slick on a puddle. Splatters and webby lines of blue around the base of one slope created a mottled effect, like a canvas by Jackson Pollack. A tangle of wire spilled over a ravine. Here and there, vapor rose from the earth and drifted like smoke.
Suddenly, the air was full of shrieks and vibrating wings as a flock of gulls appeared overhead.
Ina peered up at the birds, shading her eyes from the late morning sun. “Surrealischeski!” she cried.
“Hitchcock,” shouted Lev, the filmmaker.
The gulls had shattered my protective shell of abstraction. As they rose in a mass and receded behind another trash mountain, the scene grew more real, more solid, my impressions specific. My stomach churned as I stared at brown liquid seeping from festering pools on the ground. Rot and dust and the sulfurous vapor of methane hung in the air. Coils of smoke rising from fires scattered over the mountains added the acrid odor of burning paper and wood to the sting of soot seeping through the car’s cracked windows. Identifiable objects came into focus: twisted fenders and mufflers scattered over the clearing, a rag snagged on a piece of metal, rippling in the wind like a tattered flag.
Gradually, the people emerged. Of course, they’d been there all along, standing ankle-deep in muck near the base of the mountain—bent women in ratty headscarves and ill-fitting dresses, men in baggy trousers, one with a shirt tied over his nose and mouth like an outlaw. Further up, other clusters of scavengers sifted through the avalanche of trash. The pronged maw of a steam shovel scooped up thick sludge. A bulldozer knocked around tires, oil drums, and unidentifiable large objects.
Lev leaned forward from the back seat and called to Marina, who’d closed her eyes and was holding her head in her hands. He gestured toward the path the trucks had taken up the mountain. Hands trembling on the wheel, Marina aimed the Moskveech toward the path, and we plowed our way up on a carpet of trash.
“Koshmar,” Marina whispered, “nightmare.”
I doubted the car would make it up the steep grade, but I kept my mouth shut. Lev was aiming for the full effect, directing the scene he’d wanted the world to witness, the memory he’d tried to snatch back from oblivion.
Marina shifted gears. The Moskveech rattled and wheezed and, miraculously, kept climbing.
A dozen yards from the summit, a tire sank into the mud. The engine stalled. Lev draped his camera strap around his neck, unhooked the door’s makeshift wire fastener, and leapt out.
“Follow me,” he hollered theatrically as he sprinted the remaining yards up the mountain. Turning up the collar of my shirt in a hopeless attempt to cover my nose and mouth, I stepped from the car into a welter of foul-smelling feathers and took off behind Lev, nearly tripping over the rusted springs of a mattress. Marina was soon at my side, pressing the hem of her flowered blouse to her nose, while Ina kept guard at the car like a getaway driver. We stirred up black columns of flies that settled again like soot as we passed. Here and there, gulls and yellow-billed starlings feasted on scraps of food, mixed with splintered wooden slats and leaves and paper—the whole mess strewn with ashes and chicken feathers.
The wind picked up, scouring the outer layer of trash on the summit, where machines, like mindless gladiators, kept scraping and dragging and smashing. Our presence was ignored. The ecosystem of the dump toiled on—fire and methane, machinery and scavengers—all oblivious to the invaders scaling the hill and the little car stalled on the path.
When Marina and I caught up with Lev, he was standing at the edge of a cliff paved thick with bird droppings. The cliff overlooked a half-dozen more trash mountains. Lev was peering through a veil of blowing paper and plastic bags toward the city spread out in the distance, its wedding-cake buildings shimmering in the heat.
On the outskirts of Minsk, beyond the apartment blocks, the countryside stretched to the horizon, a peaceful mosaic of deep blues and greens. With the hand that held his camera, Lev made a sweeping gesture. “The graves are all over this place.” The forest around and beneath the dump was riddled with burial trenches. During his filming, he’d discovered vast caved-in gullies nearby in the forest that grave robbers had ransacked for treasure. He’d found scraps of clothing, combs, toothbrushes, and many bullet casings. Once he’d unearthed a boot with a cache of coins, provision for a future, stitched into the insole.
“How long has the dump been here?” I asked in Russian.
“After the war,” Lev said. He raised his camera, snapped a photo of the vista. “Right after the war they made this dump.”
“But why? Why exactly here? Right over the graves?”
Lev’s bushy eyebrows shot up. He shook his head. “This site wasn’t chosen at random,” he said. “Remember, this was an area the Soviets wanted to keep quiet about.” It was the site of many political assassinations. Locating a dump here after the war was part of the cover-up, part of the scheme to keep people out. Just after the war, the forest had been isolated, supposedly as part of a military project. It had been surrounded with barbed wire and posted with signs that ordered, “Stop. No Trespassing. They Shoot Here.”
“That gave the impression that the place was a military shooting range,” Lev said. “But no, it was already a dump. They didn’t want people nosing around here.”
I recalled the memorial a few miles up the road, the marble column on the hill I’d visited with Natasha.
“Is that why they set up that monument so far from the graves?” I asked Lev. “They didn’t want people coming here?”
“Da, da,” he said, nodding vehemently. “The monument was erected in a place that’s got nothing to do with the killings.”
The three of us stood gazing over the city, the sun warming our backs, until Lev pointed down the slope, where a man was trudging across the path near the car, rooting out objects and dropping them into his sack. Lev jogged toward the man and called out a greeting. Marina and I tagged along close behind. As the man glanced up with expressionless red-rimmed eyes, my heart raced. The spirits of the place felt suddenly close by. Without a word the old man sloshed on across the mountain in his yellow rain cap and oversize boots.
“He’s deaf,” Lev said offhandedly. “I don’t think he heard me.”
As I watched the old man’s figure receding, his yellow cap blurring into the rubble, I thought of my father, Proteus, the old shape-shifter, and my final glimpse of him vanishing down the alley pushing his cartload of relics. Although Proteus could not have known of this place, he must have understood what had befallen his mother after his failed rescue attempt. Perhaps his efforts to save my grandmother had been half-hearted. Maybe he’d waited too long. When the agent’s yellow cable arrived in 1941, Proteus must have felt himself his own mother’s murderer. Was this the image in the mirror that he fled? The unbearable knowledge that drove him from one protean incarnation to another and ultimately turned him away from the world?
“I want my body burned,” his will had read. “I want my ashes taken out with the trash.”
Shrieks filled the air, disrupting my reverie. A fresh cloud of gulls dove and receded, dove and receded, their sharp cries adding an eerie counterpoint to the low-pitched rumbling of machinery.
Lev had wandered away from Marina and me. He was snapping pictures–a box tumbling by, the clean-picked skeleton of an animal– a cat perhaps or small dog, a drift of feathers, a cart-wheeling newspaper. He scooped up a dirt-filled jar from the rubbish, shook out the dirt, and trudged back toward the summit, stooping now and then to ferret out some small fragment and drop it into the jar.
The earth was slick underfoot, and Marina slipped as we clambered down the mountain to meet Lev. I took her hand, helped her up. Her hand was cold, trembling.
“I feel it through my shoes,” she murmured. Her soft voice trailed off. I felt it too. Numbness was gone, replaced by what I can only call an aching homesickness. We were standing on the horrors of history, leaning against one another in silence. There were no words for it.
Suddenly a shout rang out, and a thick, uniformed figure appeared from behind some barrels. The guardian of the dump. What had taken him so long? A nightstick dangled from the man’s belt. Sunlight glinted off a badge on his navy blue shirt. Dark glasses masked his eyes. The man shouted again and hurried toward Lev, one hand hovering above his hip like a cowboy about to quick-draw.
A few yards from Lev, the guard stopped and shouted again.
Lev glared back, eyebrows arched sardonically.
The guard stepped forward, white-knuckled fists hovering above his hips, but Lev stood rooted to his spot, looking like a giant glittery-eyed bird with his beaky nose, his tufts of white hair flapping in the wind.
With one hand the guard reached for his nightstick and flourished it, lunging forward and grabbing the strap of Lev’s camera with the other hand.
Still clutching the jar and his camera, trying to free the strap, Lev lowered his head like a bull and butted the guard. Marina and I hung back a few yards. I glanced down the slope, gauging the distance to the car.
The guard slammed Lev on the shoulder with his stick, but Lev wouldn’t let go of his camera.
From down the path came the sound of an engine starting up. Ina had started the car, and managed to turn it around. She was backing up toward us.
Hearing glass shattering, I turned to see Lev, still clutching his camera and strap in one hand. His other hand was empty. Near the guard’s feet, shards of Lev’s jar of relics were scattered along with its contents–fragments of newspaper, a length of green ribbon, a twisted spoon. The guard’s beefy face twisted with rage.
“Run to the car,” Lev shouted, unnecessarily. Marina and I were already running, with Lev close behind, snapping pictures as he ran.
Once we were all in the car, Ina coasted down the path toward the foot of the mountain, the red fire extinguisher bouncing around on the dashboard, the wipers flapping, scraping grime from the windshield. Gasping, Lev laughed like a madman. Suddenly, we were all laughing hysterically, though at what I wasn’t sure. Lev pointed at the guard, who stood on the crest of the mountain, waving his stick like a Keystone Cop.
“What does he imagine he’s guarding?” Lev wondered between snorts of laughter. “What does he think he’s guarding with his ridiculous uniform?”
Shoulders shaking with laughter, Lev worked the wires to secure the broken passenger door. “What the hell does he think he’s guarding?” he repeated. “He probably doesn’t even know!”
We laughed all the way to the foot of the mountain, where Ina stopped the car. We all fell silent then, and turned back for one final look.
“Koshmar,” Marina whispered from the back seat. “Nightmare.”
“History,” corrected Ina, the historian.
As we reached the clearing and headed back toward the road, a fresh wave of gulls wheeled overhead. I turned to watch their winged shadows flickering over the mountain of trash. I still heard their cries, growing fainter and fainter, as the Moskveech bumped along past the guardhouse with its looming “Stop. No Trespassing” sign, and on through a half-mile of sunlight-laced forest.
As we turned back onto the Partisan Highway, Marina tapped my shoulder and pointed to the cloudless sky. A stork was gliding toward us, silently, white head and neck extended, black tail feathers spread, its long legs trailing like streamers. Ina stopped the car, and we watched the stork as it coasted down to a giant nest at the top of a telephone pole, folding forward like a hinge as it landed.
“This bird is our national symbol,” Marina reminded me. “We say it brings happiness.”
I smiled. “Does it bring babies too?”
“Yes, we also have this story,” Ina said. “There are many legends about the stork, all happy ones. The stork is the bird of hope. And, perhaps because they return to the same nest each year, there’s a legend that storks brought to mankind the gift of memory.”
Hearing this, Lev again burst out in laughter.
“Memory,” he muttered. Then, shaking his head, he added bitterly, “Our national bird.”
I considered Lev’s comment as I watched the stork settling onto its enormous nest. I’d come in search of my own history to a place where there were no historical records. I’d sought a memory in a land where the campaign to vanquish memory had been waged for over six decades. Before retreating from Russia in 1943, the Nazis had torched all their records, then dug up their victims’ bodies and burned them as well to destroy the evidence. For the next half-century, the Soviets had carried on that campaign, blotting out even the memory of those erasures. When the Soviet Empire disintegrated, Belarus had been cast adrift, like that piece of colored cardboard missing from Marina’s globe where her country should be. Now its leader clutched the helm of State with a rusty iron fist and protected the secrets of two dead empires. My journey to wrest a memory from the shadows had led me to this land where nobody remembered.
To conjure my grandmother into memory required something unshifting—a place, an image, a solid fact, yet the site of her murder had also been banished, buried beneath mountains of trash, then further obscured by the official blue stamp on the city map. My father, too, had rejected the past, even cast off his name, renaming himself after the shape-shifter of Greek mythology. To Proteus, memory had also become the enemy.
As we returned to the road and headed back toward Minsk, I watched the stork though the car’s rear window until it was out of sight. I pictured my grandmother, Berta, as she may have looked as a young woman—her eyes maybe green, like mine. Maybe full of hope. But all I know of her story is that it concluded somewhere beneath those mountains of relics, layer upon layer of relics, flung away to rot or to burn or to blow, feather-light, in the wind.
Carolyn Kraus is a professor of Journalism and Screen Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Her essays have appeared in Partisan Review, The Antioch Review, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. She has written as “Our Far-Flung Correspondent” for The New Yorker, and as an op-ed contributor to The New York Times.