Belarus. Novogrudok, Grodno oblast, on a warm Autumn Tuesday. It’s a beautiful day as we get out of the car and I want to drop to my knees to kiss terra firma. We’ve just driven 145km from Minsk. Naturally we set off late, over an hour late, but Boris the Charioteer cut the deficit to a handful of minutes. I was the front seat passenger and I was very, very scared.
(You can read more about Boris the Charioteer on the pages of this blog ‘Nigel Roberts: To Belarus and Beyond’ nigelroberts23.wordpress.com)
I’m travelling with good friends The Together Plan (a British charity) for the unveiling of a new monument to the Jews from the Novogrudok Ghetto murdered by the Nazis in four punitive operations between August 1942 and September 1943.
First we visit the tiny but moving museum housed in a former barracks on the site of the ghetto. The small rooms contain artefacts and information boards displaying sepia photographs of the families imprisoned here. Lives brutalised, lost, but not forgotten. In 1943 the prisoners dug a tunnel, 70 x 70cm and 250m long. Over 100 got out before the escape was discovered. Those who were still crawling through were gunned down as they fled. Four of the escapees are still alive. The tunnel entrance is in the corner of the museum and later we walk the line of it, though we are unable to see where the prisoners broke earth to flee. The exit from the tunnel is now in a private garden. It took four months of back-breaking toil to dig out the escape route and we walk it, very slowly, in less than two minutes.
People begin to arrive for the unveiling ceremony in twos and threes. Local folk, schoolchildren, council officials, the chargé d’affaires from the US Embassy and his staff. Survivors from the Minsk ghetto arrive by bus. A few dozen attendees swell to many hundreds. There aren’t enough chairs. A solemn and solitary violin is playing as the ceremony begins. It’s a beautiful, bright sunny day with a strong breeze that carries an edge. Autumn will soon be here. Winter is waiting, not far behind.A camera drone buzzes only metres above the crowd as five guys in lavishly ornate dinner jackets and open-necked shirts step up to sing Hava Nagila in Hebrew, a Capella. There are speeches, mournful songs and a deeply affecting recital from a young woman with a huge yellow star on the breast of her old and worn overcoat. She carries a battered suitcase. With help and support, the Minsk Ghetto survivors walk slowly to the memorial to remove its cover.
And now the sun gleams on the enchanting statue of a young girl, Michle Sosnovsky, dressed in costume to celebrate the Jewish festival of Purim. On a day like today in 1943, she and a young friend disguised themselves to escape from the ghetto but they were recognised and denounced by a neighbour. They were arrested, taken to the police station and shot.
The story of how Michle was chosen for the memorial is extraordinary. A battered old photograph album from the 1930s contains her picture. That album belongs to a British Jewish family with ancestral roots in Novogrudok, and they have now established a link by friendship between Michle and old family connections. The statue replicates her photograph. Two generations of the British family are guests of honour at today’s ceremony. It’s a tale of tragedy, redemption and ultimately an affirmation of life and survival.We share Soviet champagne and a buffet with the Minsk survivors before we are driven to another memorial, in a deep depression at the side of the road marking the spot chosen by the Nazis for mass murder. Then we visit a beautiful lake a little way down the road. It’s where the battalion of Estonian police who committed the atrocities went to wash the blood from their hands and clothes. The Nazis enjoyed enlisting others to help with the dirty work. Not that the Estonians needed too much encouragement, it seems.
74 years on, memories have not dimmed and the visceral pain remains. But little Michle has at last returned home.
Footnote: Jeannette Josse (the British connection to Michle Sosnovsky) has self-published a wonderful book of photographs telling the family story and explaining the extraordinary course of events leading to the founding of the new memorial. Sepia images from the pre-war family album have been incorporated into modern photographs and the effect is hugely poignant. Further details are available from Jeannette direct firstname.lastname@example.org