We are knocking on doors. Babushkas answer many of them, wearing scarves wrapped around cotton-white heads, thick socks and sandals on feet. We, or actually, our translators, ask them how long they’ve lived here, who they know.
Do they know of a Christian woman living on the street 70 years ago who hid six Jews in her cellar for 630 days and nights?
A couple of women shake their heads like we’re all insane. “Nyet.”
But then one tells us, hidden halfway behind her wooden door, that she was 6 years old during the war and has been in the same house since she was born. She remembers, she says, the police looking for a woman who looked Jewish. Everyone in the street knew that one of the neighbors was hiding Jews, she says, but they told the police that the woman was Russian. They were protecting the neighbor and the Jews. One of the Jews living in the cellar on top of stacks of hay for 630 days and nights was my grandmother. She was 11 when she moved in.
The woman living on the street now says she thinks the house where the Jews were hiding was number 38 or 40. So we look down the road and find the houses, which have been rebuilt. We knock on a neighbor’s door. Zofia Fiodorchenko, who hid my grandmother, lived at number 40, he says. She lived there until the 1980s, had a daughter and two sons. She died a few years ago; she’d already sold her house by then. Nevertheless, we knock on that door. No one answers.
We think we find my grandmother’s house. But when she sees a photo we email her she doesn’t recognize the building.
We drive around Pinsk, a town of 130,000 and it’s much bigger than the villages we saw during our four-hour car ride over from Minsk. Our guide shows us a playground. “This used to be one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries of the 16th century,” he says. I see the swing sets and imagine the children playing there today. The cemetery survived the war, only to be destroyed by the Soviets in the 1960s.
Walking in the quiet old town center, I look around wondering if any of the older women might remember being 10 or 11 years old and having had a Jewish best friend before the war, a neighbor. Would she remember the girl’s mother being forced out of her house with her sick son, to go to Siberia? Does she remember her mother agreeing to store a few of the family’s valuables – perhaps clothing and photographs – so they might come get these things after the war? Might she remember the girl knocking on her door months after the Germans had taken control of the town?
It was nighttime, dark. Maybe she remembers making eye contact with the girl for a second through a window by the door? I wonder if she realized the flurry of excitement my grandmother felt for a split second, thinking that maybe she’d get her coat back, the coat her father had bought her a year ago, and that her friend was now wearing. Does she remember her mother handing the girl a sandwich as she opened the door just a crack, then shooing her friend away? I wonder how long the girl kept that coat.
Our hotel is quite modern. There’s a disco ball enhancing the restaurant’s purple decor and we can watch Russian music videos during breakfast and sing karaoke at night. Unfortunately for us, central heat is only turned on in October and it’s an unusually cold September in Belorussia. We warm up with potatoes, chocolate and vodka. We eat the best potatoes we’ve ever had. I consume more vodka I’ve ever had in one sitting. We are warm.
We go to Pinsk’s historical museum depicting a town where before 1941, 77% of the population was Jewish. There are photos of cathedrals, rooms with prehistoric artifacts and costumes, medieval memorabilia, displays of local animals. There are no photos of synagogues. There are no samples of Jewish artifacts. There is one room devoted to World War II. One small display shows a couple of photos and a map of the Pinsk ghetto. Our guide tells us that her grandfather, not a Jew, fought in the war as a partisan and his hand was mangled. Her grandmother, she told us, was waiting for him after the war, and they married.
At night we walk from our hotel to one of the two surviving synagogues (there used to be 41 in Pinsk before the war). It’s Simchat Torah and the Chassidic synagogue soon fills up. We are surprised to see young people, lots of children. Many speak Hebrew; a few speak English. The kids run around excited, dancing, throwing candy in the air, at each other. Simchat Torah, says the rabbi, “is the happiest day of the year.”
We leave the synagogue. Once we close the gate the singing, clapping and laughter disappears. In the street there’s no sign of a community celebrating, just dark and quiet.