How do you convey a journey that spans your entire life?
I recently returned from a two-week trip to Europe with my younger daughter, Avi, and two of my grandchildren, Boaz and Isaac Munro. Among other places, we journeyed to the scenes of my youth in Belarus, many of which were marred by memories of the Holocaust.
We met in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, because it’s the closest city to the places that are a part of my history.
On Aug. 11, we traveled to my mother’s birthplace, more widely known as the site of the world famous yeshiva, Volozhin. The yeshiva building was still standing, refurbished and silent, and eerily devoid of the sounds of chanting yeshiva boys that wafted from its windows during my childhood visits there. The town looked different. Its square was no longer there; the town center featured a parking lot and stores. We climbed over fences and passed through tall grass to visit the local cemetery and memorial. We said Kaddish there, the first of many cemeteries and memorial visits on our journey where we recited that prayer.
Then, we headed to Rakov, where my family lived from 1928 to 1932, and where my twin sisters were born. There wasn’t much to recognize there except for a little memorial in a narrow alley between backyards. Kaddish again.
Finally, we visited Horodok (Gorodok), the place of my birth, and the place where our lives changed forever when the Nazis came.
I recognized many areas but was confused by others. Our guide, Irina, found some passers-by who led us to the oldest person in town — Franz. After Franz reoriented me, we found where my home once stood.
We also located the building that housed both my synagogue and school. Today, the brick building is a bank. I recognized the well in the center — the same spot the Nazis chose as the area for the selection. They directed able-bodied people to await transportation. The elderly, women and children were herded onto trucks and driven away. I remember eyewitnesses telling me that, on this spot, two parents refused to part with their children and were sent with them to an extermination site.
The house where I lived no longer exists. The nearby fire department and small shopping area were destroyed and burned by Jewish partisans at the end of the war. My childhood home also went up in flames. The Germans who occupied Jewish homes — Jews comprised 90 percent of the population before the war — were thrown out and collaborators were shot. My shtetl was rebuilt with small houses. It is more crowded and the trees are overgrown. It is as if my little shtetl has contracted unto itself.
As we drove around town in our van, I looked for familiar buildings, but the changes are drastic and I needed Franz, who joined us, to tell me what happened to this or that building.
When we returned to Minsk, none of us could believe how close we came to touching the past.
On Aug. 12, we rose early and headed for Krasne — the last ghetto in the area where the Nazis crammed thousands of Jews from surrounding towns without the most fundamental necessities of a human existence. Many able-bodied men, including me, were moved to this Krasne ghetto in the spring of 1942. By July of that year, the Nazis destroyed my hometown. Fortunately, my family was able to hide and joined me in Krasne.
I was put to work on building a railroad link leading from the warehouses that the Nazis erected to the main line supplying the eastern front. One German officer treated us humanely during this time. On his watch, we were able to smuggle some weapons in the ghetto.
Eventually, I escaped, and my weapons allowed me to join the resistance. With their help, I rescued my brother and sister. I also freed my mother — two days before the liquidation of the ghetto on March 19, 1943. She was the only mother to survive among the 300 families of my shtetl. My father stayed behind with my ill sister, and both perished with the other Jews of the Krasne ghetto.
Our guide, Irina, was determined to find someone with a firsthand account. By a series of connections, she located a Krasne resident known as a local historian. He invited us into his house, showed us his kitchen where a Jew in tattered clothes, came running in one day, crying and starving, devoured hot peas that this man’s mother, fearful and empathetic, had spooned into their former neighbor’s hands.
We spent several hours in his living room exchanging memories of those days. He had been a 6-year-old boy then, but he recalled watching from the window of his house on March 19, 1943, as the Jews were undressed, put on trucks and taken away to be shot. They yelled to the gentiles something like, “today they’re taking us, but tomorrow it will be you!”
Among those Jews being taken were my father and my sister. This was the closest I ever came to a witness to their story.
In this way Krasne was almost totally destroyed; Jews made up the overwhelming majority of the population. This man also described how a teenage boy told him the Jews were shot and their bodies jammed into a barn and set on fire. The barn burned to the ground, leaving a grisly two-story cube of charred bodies. Over the next few days, according to the teenager, Germans set the heap on fire a few more times and threw grenades into it, reducing it crudely to ash. Our host remembered the smell and the screams. This was the fate of my father, sister, teachers, neighbors and relatives.
We left the home with our host and followed the route taken by the doomed Jews, my father and sister among them, to the site of that barn. There, we found another memorial. Kaddish again. This is as close as I would ever come to the grave of my father, Yosef, the grave of my sister, Mucia.
Nearby, a boy drew water from a well.
These few days took me back to my childhood and youth. After Minsk we headed for Vilna and the Berlin for another week before returning home.
Friends of mine told me I was either crazy or brave to make this journey at the age of 89. I think I was both. But as I look back on it, it was one of the sanest things I’ve ever done in my life.
(Moshe Baran is the president of the Holocaust Survivors Association in Pittsburgh.)