Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Today we felt unburdened for the first time in weeks. We have been immersed in Holocaust history, hearing stories and visiting sites that evoke a wide range of emotions. This was one of the first days we breathed fresh air without the weight of history on our shoulders. We walked more freely and realized that we know our way around the city. There is a familiarity to it. As we wander through the city we find classmates and recognize places we’ve visited. We have less than a week left in this program and are already thinking how strange it will feel to leave our new routines and the camaraderie that has developed with our friends.

In addition to our friends we also recognize certain characters around town, Michael, the wandering Russian panhandler, the two lanky bleached blonde hookers and the young flower girl. In addition we have become regulars at several cafes to the point where the waiters know our order without any communication. Recently two of us were frequenting our favorite spot and the waiter came up and said, “Red wine, cappuccino” and then looked puzzled because “Fanta” hadn’t arrived yet. We enjoy trying new restaurants, sampling new foods and sharing our discoveries with our friends. They in turn introduce us to their favorites.

Despite the heaviness of these past weeks we have had some lighter moments in our classes. Our teacher has introduced us to several Yiddish songs. The most recent one is titled “Rent” (Dira Gelt). As we reread it, we realize that it sounds rather heavy, but it captures typical Jewish humor which makes light of a serious situation and has a lilting melody. The 1912 song translates to “Rent, my God, we have to pay the rent! The landlord comes with his cane: If we don’t pay the rent, he takes away our beds. The janitor comes and doffs his hat: If we don’t pay the rent, he hangs out an eviction notice. Why should we pay you rent, when the stove is broken and we have nothing to cook on?”

In addition to songs, we have read Goldahairela (Goldilocks) in Yiddish and learned such entertaining words as a schnei-mensche which is a snowman. We’ve continued the saga of Berela and Sarala and been introduced to Manny, Benny and Denny. These 1947 scenarios never fail to bring a smile to our face. As we’ve learned vocabulary we’ve stumbled across familiar words such as shlep (en), nosh (en), shmooz (en), tchokes and noodnik. For Fran the familiarity of the words conjures up warm memories of her family sitting around the kitchen table conversing with each other in Yiddish. While I grew up with less exposure to Yiddish, I too have some flashback moments when a familiar word takes me by surprise and triggers a memory.

In addition to the more serious content, our guides often offer us little gems. When we went to Kaunas, our guide told us of the “gefilte fish line” between Lithuanian and Polish Jews. Lithuanians like it salty and Poles like it sweet. She proceeded to tell us her recipe for preparing it using pike or carp and then adding onions, matzo meal, sliced carrots and red beets to the pot.

After three weeks we have learned a lot, but are still struggling to integrate the mechanics of this language. We by no means have achieved proficiency, but have a good grounding on which to build.

In getting to know our classmates better we have learned that everyone has come here for a different reason. Many are working on doctoral degrees with varying areas of focus such as research, literature and history. Others of us have more personal objectives such as artwork or creative writing, At the same time we are all finding that it expands our cultural awareness and for those of us who are Jewish, it brings us closer to our heritage. The one common element is that everyone here is a learner.

As our day ended we visited the train station to purchase our tickets for the next leg of our journey, our trip to my family shtetls in Belarus. The staff at the Institute wrote out our request in Lithuanian to assure we would get the correct tickets to Oshmyony, a small town west of Minsk and close to the shtetls. All went well except for the fact that we arrived after 6:00 PM, too late to purchase the required travel insurance to enter Belarus.
Despite having travel insurance from the States, Belarus requires its own insurance prior to letting anyone into the country. We were told by our guide that she knew of someone who didn’t have the insurance who was ejected from the train. We plan another trek to the train station later this week as being evicted from the train is an adventure we hope not to experience.

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