by Carolyn Kraus
She uncovers secrets, and memories.
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.