Summering in the Eastern Bloc

We waved goodbye from the other side of the security checkpoint, looking at two faces framed in the doorway, at once so familiar and so strange. The grandmother stood across the long room with her son. The bright colors of her head wrap shone under the eerie flickering of the fluorescent lights at Minsk National Airport. Her eyes welled up, tears lapping at her eyelids. After a final wave, we passed around a corner and they were gone.

My mother and I bid farewell to Belarus and the relatives who had hosted us for three weeks, on the cold, damp morning of Aug. 21, 2011, ending a trip that had shaped up to truly be a once in a lifetime experience.

Three weeks before, on the sunny afternoon of Aug. 1 my mother leaned over and whispered as our flight touched down in Minsk, “Gregory, we’re in a communist country now.” Mixed feelings of excitement and consternation welled up in my stomach as we cleared the customs checkpoint. Any second we would come face-to-face with my grandmother’s cousin, Vera Sviridenko, and her son Vasya for the first time, the reality of a trip nearly eight months in the making was about to sink in — my first time traveling abroad.

We rounded the corner and stepped out a door; as we looked out onto the sea of strangers I saw a shorter woman, dressed in country garb. I knew instantly, this had to be Vera. “Слава Богу, thank God!” she said, and kissed us on each cheek.

The journey to Vera’s house in the country village, Mankovichy, was a blur. I was exhausted from the past 20 hours of transit, and I struggled to keep up in conversation. Vera and Vasya knew no English. My two years of Russian classes all jumbled in my mind. I sat in the passenger seat tongue-tied, feeling dumb and trying my best to talk to my new hosts.

My days in Mankovichy flowed with the slow pace of the local river, Horyn. Vera and her husband, Nikolai, live in a little brick country home, typical of the area. The keep a large garden and raise chickens, pigs and one dairy cow. I spent most of my time talking to Vera and Nikolai, listening to their stories of the old days.

“We hid in a church,” said Vera after breakfast on our fourth day, describing the devastation Hitler’s soldiers caused in the area. “They took all the Jews, and there used to be a lot of Jews here, and sent them to the forest. The soldiers forced them to dig a pit in a clearing and shot them. When I was a little girl there was a large mound where the bodies lay … The Germans found us and took us to the train tracks. There were boxcars waiting, but at the last minute an officer took us aside and said we were to work as servants in a house in Germany.”

I sat in amazement as her story unfolded. As the war ended she walked back to Belarus with her family. Their house, brand new before the war, was gone.

In the following three weeks I met Vera’s four sons, her daughter and all her grandchildren. A picture formed in my mind of a part of my family that, until now, only existed in the shadows of my imagination as untold story and a rumor of my grandmother’s memories.

As we finished our lunch of chicken, pickled mushrooms (gathered from the forest), black rye bread and homemade cheesed on our tenth day, Vera looked at my mother, and then at me.

“I tell you these things, these stories, because I do not want you to forget,” she said. “I don’t want you to lose your Belarusian roots.”

In the months before my trip I embarked on a rather misguided attempt to absorb and understand as much information as I could on Belarusian history and culture, chiefly by reading English translations of the works of Belarus’ greatest national poet, Yanka Kupala.

“Deep in Belarus, set amid wasteland and marsh, / Where a river flows, noisily swirling, / A memorial of days fled and vanished long-past / Dreams, a gravemound, grass-grown, sempiternal,” reads his poem “The Gravemound.”

On that cloudy, windblown first of August, after four hours on the highway, we pulled onto a small road and entered Mankovichy. Asphalt gave way to dirt. The sun was setting, throwing a red blanket over the clouds. I could see shadows rising to cover the tall trees in the forest lining the town outskirts. As we slowed and pulled into the Vera’s driveway I asked her what her street was called.

“Yanka Kupala,” she said. I smiled, looked at the light shining through the lace curtains of Vera’s living room and wondered what long slumbering dreams would awaken for me.