Back in the USSR, Where a Chilling Past Meets an Awkward Present

An Israeli delegation's visit to the birthplace of Shimon Peres digs up old ghosts.

I had lingered for a bit near the blonde hair dyes in the pharmacy before coming here. It had grown into an obsession -- my hair was too dark for a trip to Russia, if I could only made it a bit lighter, redder, something, I'd be safer.

My parents reminded me, after I informed them of my upcoming travels, in pointed text messages and Sabbath table remarks, that I look unmistakably Jewish. "They will figure you out the second you arrive there, you will stick out in the street. They can look in your eye and see it." I was repeatedly warned that I was naive, American, I knew nothing of the darkness they had left behind.

I promised to try my best to fit in, to improve my Russian, to walk quickly, not to smile as much, whatever it means to be a real Russian -- to which they shook their heads, trying to fathom why their daughter would choose to play this very game they had left thirty years ago.  And so, weeks before leaving New York for a trip to Belarus and Russia, I began watching Russian drama shows, listening to the radio, reading Chekhov's short stories aloud, practicing my vowels and consonants hoping that not even a trained ear could hear the faint Jew.

"You're overreacting," one of my colleagues points out as we pass a vibrant Eastern European countryside, dense forests of white birch trees and endless meadows. We have just landed in warm sunny Minsk, a city which is immaculately clean, its architecture -- most of which was rebuilt after the war -- uniform, ascetic, perfectly Soviet.

And the people, too, are carefully uniform: generally friendly and proper. Often referred to as Europe's last remaining dictatorship, the Republic of Belarus has a dystopian feeling to it, a time-warp of engineered streets, state-controlled economy and media, Lenin's face on buses and children on national television singing about a future of eternal sunshine.

The past day or so I've been traveling as part of a delegation of mostly Israeli academics, leaders, politicians, journalists, and philanthropists, arranged by Limmud FSU, a non-profit devoted to strengthening Jewish identity among Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Our group is loud, spirited, energetic, we passionately debate the Syrian conflict over breakfast and sing Yiddish songs over dinner. It's an amusing sight in a country where few foreigners enter and where delegations from Outside require "additional special security." And it's almost liberating: I never thought I'd be strolling the streets of Eastern Europe while chatting in Hebrew, and I laugh when I wonder what my ancestors would have thought of the sight.

Our first day's itinerary is a series of villages and ceremonies: at each stop, the locals hear of visitors coming, and the entire town shows up at whatever rural road junction we've come to -- the girls come out shyly in thin summer dresses, older women don their Sunday-best dresses and heels, colorful head scarves for the elderly. Tractors slow down as they pass.

They watch us, in our Western clothing and white teeth, as we spend the afternoon in Vishnyeva, celebrating Shimon Peres' upcoming 90th birthday in his childhood hometown. Villagers greet us in traditional costume, performing songs and dances, offering customary festive bread with salt. There's something awkward about it -- we stand facing each other in two groups, Jew and Belorussian, but I suppose that's how things are, here in the former Soviet Union: awkward.

A large crowd of villagers gathers as we approach the home that Peres grew up in, a shingled small house identical to the others that dot the Belorussian countryside, painted in vibrant colors, lace curtains, a green picket fence, a rooster occasionally crowing, an old woman fetching water from the well nearby. The rosiness of the image is momentary; the poverty here is quiet but inescapable.

"The dying request of Peres' grandfather, Rabbi Tzvi Meltzer, to never forget one's Judaism, inspired me to come here with Limmud FSU," Chaim Chesler, founder and chairman of Limmud FSU, tells me. "Shimon Peres exceeded his grandfather's expectations; for us at Limmud FSU he's a role model, and we try to revive the Jewish life as it existed before the Holocaust in Eastern Europe." 

Dr. Tsvia Walden, daughter of Shimon Peres, later tells the story of her great-grandfather and namesake Rabbi Meltzer, the Vishnyeva rabbi who wrapped himself in a tallit, held a Torah scroll, and wept as he led his community to the shooting grounds the Germans had ordered them to report to.

During the ceremony, as we stand by the local well, an elderly man appears and stands to the side with guarded eyes. Someone points him out as a former classmate of Peres.

When I ask him if he remembers Shimon Perski, he quickly denies it.

I try again: "Did you study with him in school?"

The old man is silent for a long time, and then finally says, "Yes, we were together in the Polish school in third grade, I'm a year younger than Shimek, I was born in 1924."

I'm not sure which statement is true, if any -- we watch each other for a moment, and then he points to our delegation. "What are these Jews doing here?"

I explain that Shimon Perski grew up to become the president of Israel, a Nobel laureate even, and that we are celebrating his 90th birthday at his childhood home. The old man isn't listening -- these Russian words that tumble out of my mouth, they're foreign to him.

I sigh and ask him about the history of the village.

"There were many Jews who lived here before the war," he says.

"What happened to them?" I ask.

He shrugs and turns to walk away. "I don't know. I don't remember." And then: "Are you a zhidovka?" he says, evoking the old anti-Semitic slur.

I feel myself grow white. My parents had been right. "Ya evreika," I say firmly. I'm Jewish.

He grimaces and then looks me in the eye. "I could see it immediately."

Batya Dori
Batya Dori