A Journey Back

Things are happening too fast to keep up: the emotional overload of all the tragedy, the logistics of filming and searching, my desire to write, the politics of the place. Suddenly reporters start popping up for interviews. I’ve fallen into a strange hemisphere, me swimming internally, treading and revealing, and outside, the Jewish community hoping for my support while the larger town tries to reconcile its history under secrets and concrete and communism.

I’m just now learning that when my family headed home from our trip 17 years ago, we left behind a trail. There were articles written, the family building was highlighted, then renovated, then made a historical landmark, my fathers life after the war was profiled in the paper.

This time it appears word has gotten out that the son of the son is back. As a result, I am met this morning by a young reporter Stas, who is writing a story for the Belorussion news website on my visit. We add Stas to our collective of Larissa and Slava, the film crew, Debra and Artur (the Belorussian Jack of all trades) from the UK charity The Together Plan, and me. We head out of Brest into the misting rain with a plan of retracing some of the discoveries of 17 years ago when we found the village where my father was hiding and the woman who hid him.

We start in Nowacada, 30 minutes outside of Brest. It’s a tiny farming village where my great grandfather Abram Jacubowski lived and ran a large farm.   It looks the same except today it is deserted, no one on the road or in the yards of the warped and tattered wooden houses.

We drive to the neighboring village of Pshenayi, where my father and grandparents spent two years hiding first in the foundation of a school and then in a barn of a farmer named Romenko. We find the school, rebuilt into a multi family house. I find the field where the old barn once stood. It too looks the same but the original storytellers are all gone, having died in the last decade.

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Stas wants to know about the poison. As it was told to me, the Romenko’s tried to poison my father and his parents when they ran out of money to pay for their hiding. My grandmother the pharmacist recognized the poison and told the Romenko’s that if they tried it again she would turn them all in, that their fates were tied. I tell Stas that I think they fed my family rotten potatoes to get them to leave. Stas offers that the Romenko’s would have not only been scared of the Nazis but also the threat of deportation or prison if the Red Army learned that they had received money for the hiding. He thinks it’s not impossible that they were trying to kill them with rat poison. I tell him I don’t think it’s important anymore.

In nearby Jabinka, Artur makes more calls and gets us an address for a Romenko. We find the address but nothing looks the same. Then I notice, anchoring the brand new metal fence, an old white stone post. I have my laptop and on it a copy of a ten-minute film I made years ago from the footage of our first trip. Using the film, I match the same white post.   This is the place but the trees are gone and the house is under construction. A neighbor tells us the old woman has died as has her son, who froze to death in the street after drinking.   The grandson now owns the house. The construction worker gives us his number. We call him and learn he lives in Brest.

That night we have a Shabbat dinner with 20 people from the Brest Jewish community in their basement center.   Four young girls sing and dance Shabbat songs and we have a Kabbalat Shabbat service that is moving and frustrating.  The invited group are all women and girls, except for two men. Regina, the head of the community, told me that there are 800 Jews in the town but there is no sense of this. When I ask where the other kids are I’m told they’ve moved to Israel. It’s all confusing in the way that so much of things are here.

After dinner, Artur picks up Vital Romenko the grandson. In his early 40’s, he has a gentle face and is smart and thoughtful. He is a successful web designer with clients in Russia and in the West. He knows almost nothing of his family’s intersection with mine. Like my father, his grandparents never spoke of the war. But he tells me since he has had children he too has become very interested in his family’s past. Vital tells me his grandfather was an officer in the Polish army and then a member of the partisans. His grandmother was 19 when they took my father in.   He tells me that before his grandmother died, she told him of hiding a family and that she had remorse for some of what happened. I tell him my version of the story including the poison, and that I just felt he should know what had been passed down to me.   I show Vital some of the images from the original film and he seems moved to see both his father and his grandmother.

I was unsure at the beginning of the day, why I was going back down this road I had traveled the first time. But sitting here in the dim light of the small Jewish center, finding connection with this man, the two of us children of the same story with many things strangely in common, I feel some sense of completion for the first time. Almost as if this was the place I was moving to all along, where memory and history intersect with purpose and the direction one is heading.   Vital and I exchange information and he leaves up the long stairs out of the basement and into the night.

Bronnaya Gora

There was one reason more than any other that brought me back to Belorusse, Bronnaya Gora. On my first trip in ‘98, it was barely mentioned. But when I returned to the US and started looking closely at the history of the Jews of Brest, the name became unavoidable. In the almost two decades since that first visit, it has become a kind of beacon. On October 15th, 1942, the Nazis began loading the 20,000 Jews left in the Brest Ghetto onto boxcars. The trains traveled roughly 60 miles and in the forest near the tiny village of Bronnaya Gora all of them were shot to death in open pits. Over the following year, it became one of the largest mass graves in Belorusse, with the bodies of 50,000 Jews.

I was agitated on the drive this morning. I didn’t want to be around anyone. I didn’t want to talk and I didn’t want a camera crew. The route there was invisible, off the freeway, down a long dirt road, across an array of train tracks then splintered down one of three narrow dirt roads that trail into the forest from where the first dirt road ends. There are no markers along the way, no sign posts, no arrows at any of the intersections to tell us where to go. The route comes almost as folklore as Artur, the man responsible for driving and translating and making everything work, makes a series of phone calls to locals who lay it out for him at every turn.

Around us now, white-barked birch trees are exploding with yellow leaves as we drive the last mile toward the site. Growing up in Colorado, there was nowhere that I was happier than in grove of aspen trees. And here they are, surrounding us everywhere, in their last great moment before winter, and the beauty is confusing.

Deep in the woods, we stop at a small stone memorial. An older woman waits there. She has walked from the village. She is a teacher, gentle and understanding of this moment. She starts to tell us about this place but I can’t hear her or the translation exactly because from behind her in the forest where the open pits were, the sound of continuous gun shots echo through the trees. I think it must be a quarry, someone banging stones. Or a dream because how could there be gunshots here, now, at this moment, in this consistent drum beat. And then they are gone and a train becomes audible behind me approaching and then a twisted howling, maybe a wounded animal, and I’m overwhelmed by the soundtrack. I move away from the group, out past the memorial, into the wet woods, toward the overgrown pits, and find a place under the dying yellow canopy and fall hopelessly into sorrow.

Words can be a map, sometimes a road that takes you away, sometimes it brings you back. Here they are insignificant. I find the piece of paper I stuffed in my pocket and read the names of my ancestors that died in this place under the same damp canvas of color and sound.

In Brest – 10/21/2015

In the 1950’s the Soviets reconstructed the town of Brest.  The Germans had marched into Brest when they occupied eastward and marched back through on their retreat.  There was significant damage done in both directions.    Brest had always been a stepchild city caught between Russia and Europe and as a result it has been part of Poland, Lithuania, Belorussia, and Russia.

As part of the post war makeover,  the Soviets built a football stadium on top of the old Jewish Cemetery erasing it from view forever.   When I was in Brest 17 years ago, I remember standing outside the large open stadium trying to understand what had been buried and how something like that happens.  There was not a trace of the cemetery or the Jewish lives that were once honored in this place, anywhere.  The grass was flat and deep green, a black rubber running track around it, a clubhouse, lights and a parking lot.

In 2004, a citizen of Brest found a stone in the road with Hebrew writing on it, in front of his house on a narrow lane.  He asked his priest about it who then referred the man to Arkady Blahker, the head of the Jewish community at the time (and our guide 17 years ago).  Arkady had the stone removed and discovered that it was a matzovot, a Jewish headstone from the cemetery.  He then started overturning other stones in the road and discovered the route was lined with them.   Over the past 11 years,  on an almost daily basis pieces of Jewish headstones (including many fully intact), have been surfacing in Brest having been used as roads and building materials, by both the Soviets and by the citizens.

In the scarcity of the years right after the war, its easy to imagine, as this huge plot of land was being covered in cement for the stadium, that there was a free for all to grab these sacred stone for everyones own use.

After leaving my family’s pharmacy, we went to see where the 2000 plus pieces of stone are stored.  The Brest Fortress, is a massive fort built by the Russian empire in 1842.  In 1941, the fortress came under attack by the Germans, in the start of Operation Barbarossa.   Today,  the fortress is this incredible Soviet World War II memorial to the resistance of the German Invasion.   In a remote and dilapidated corner of the large wall circling the fort,  there are large vaulted chambers lined in red brick and open to the outside like entrances to a gothic church.   The approach is dirt and forgotten and it leads us to a makeshift fence that has been put up by the Jewish Community to seal off the base of two of the cavernous openings.  Our guide, Regina, Arakady’s daughter and the current head of the community, unlocked a door in the fence and let us in to the chambers. Lining the torn and beaten walls of the space runs a maze of stones stacked waist to shoulder height and etched with the jagged hebrew descriptions of Jewish life in Brest dating back to the 1830’s.  It is immediately overwhelming in its tragedy and displacement: these statements to lost lives lying on their sides on top of each other, waiting to be reclaimed, and read, and translated and understood, but by whom.

I started photographing them furiously, for the sad beauty of the light falling across jagged broken stone edges beside the beautiful geometry of the Hebrew, and with the idea, or maybe more the need,  to bring the images out and have them translated, to read them aloud, to know whose gravestone was this, when were they born, what did they do here in their life.  But like so much of tracking Jewish life in this part of the world, very soon it becomes overwhelming in the size and scope of the necessity and the destruction.

We lit a yahrtzeit candle and recited kaddish as a group then left quietly and drove away.   A couple blocks away,  Regina had the van stop.   She got out first and waved for us to follow her into a construction site.  This was the old Warburg Colony, built in 1922 by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee,  to house Jewish orphans and homeless after World War I.  The twelve houses have all been torn down (except for one lone dying wood and metal skeleton.  In their place,  new concrete structures are in various stages of building.   Near an open pit that has just been formed with a foundation, Regina showed us the edges of headstones still buried that had been uncovered by the construction.   She then pointed to an orphan of a tree standing alone in the midst of the chaos of construction.   I moved toward it to see and there lying in the overgrown weeds,  were a group of in tact headstones waiting to join the rest of them in the Fort.

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Entering Brest – 10/21/2015

My father is quite possibly the last living Jew from this town.  When you enter Brest there is no evidence of that time, or that old world. The buildings are mostly from the soviet era, blocks of off white and brown and pink and pale yellow.  The old synagogue has been wrapped in an oval and turned into the cinema.  Buildings are under renovation, people are busy moving about even in the rain.

We go first to see my father’s house,  and my grandmothers pharmacy. They are housed in the same four story grand dame of a building, that my grandfather Solomon designed and built in 1925.  We are met there by Regina, the only daughter of Arkady, the man who guided us here 17 years ago.   Regina is as happy to see me as I am to see her.  We embrace as old friends even though we met only briefly on the first trip.  But there was too much shared then between our families, at a time when there was almost no Jewish community here and no Jewish connection for she and her father.   For us, back then, Arkady was like an angel moving us through a winding dream.

We enter the pharmacy and it is immediately abuzz when they learn that the founder’s grandson is here.   Seven or eight women in white lab coats mill about, giggling and staring as they summon the head of the pharmacy.  We all sit and have coffee and vodka filled chocolate. We all take pictures, them of me, me of them, we of each other.  They show me the plaque and book that honors both my grandparents and the great historical significance of the building and the pharmacy.   I tell them some things they don’t know about my grandmother.  It is all very sweet and touching for me.  I think of my grandfather Solomon, a man I never knew, but who I am named after.  So much of this search for me has been about him, about getting over the hurdle of the war and its large veil, back to a time and place and person that I sense I have a deeper connection with.  The writings about him called him an architect and I know from my father that he was also a civil engineer.  And that make perfect sense.

After our party in the pharmacy, I wander upstairs and we interrupt the life of a young couple and their baby, to see into their flat which was my fathers bedroom.  I am suddenly overcome by the weight of finding something tangible that I can see and touch and stand in with my father. So much of our history together has been elusive.  I want to stay there, to ask everyone to leave, to hold this feeling for a little longer.  But the whirlwind, that has been growing steadier and stronger since I landed in Belorussia, wont allow it and we are off.

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On route to Brest Litovsk 10-21-15

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For as long as I remember I have been mesmerized by this history and have tried to touch it, understand the un-understandable. As a young boy, I wrote fiction stories about hiding and World War Two. I asked my father endless questions and always got the same silence, the not nows, the I don’t want to talk about it. And so I just filled in the gaps, with stories, and dreams and art work and writing and film.   So this is familiar turf for me in some ways and yet, as always, when I walk this pot-holed road, my steps are unsure.

The rain is driving hard outside, swirling in wind, as we fly down the highway to Brest. Along side us suddenly I noticed the lush white barked trees of the forest and I am drawn inside by the cold damp dark of it. The forest is endless, here as it is in my imagination. I used to have dreams as a kid of being chased in the woods, and always I was looking back over my shoulder begging my sisters to keep up, to stay with me, waiting and pulling and longing, sure we had to stay together, in order to stay alive. It was strange to wake from these dreams in suburban Denver, with a station wagon and a brand new Buick Riviera parked in the drive way, a batman lunch box waiting for me at the bottom of the steps, a walk to school with the normal kids in the neighborhood, the Scotts and Anns and Johns and Janets. Who was I, this boy who came from a barn, from the woods, from a shtetl two generations back. On my mothers side, there was her Russian past adding to the scenery. My great grandfather leaving an anti-semitic town and finding a home in Philly to bring his wife and three girls into: their new life as immigrants. The birth of my mom, a first generation angel, a prized student, a brilliant young pianist, an only child, bearing all the dreams of her parents on her tiny back.

And yet her story has always taken a back seat, stayed in the two dimensionality of photos in a picture book. It never animated my dreams, never catapulted me sprinting through the dark.   This paternal story has so often crept into all the crevices, brought me coming back again to the edge of the unthinkable and my stepping into it is and has been my way of not being destroyed by it. I would rather run into the dark forest to know what is there than stand outside waiting for what might come. It’s a childs wonder at what lurks under the bed. But I would always shine the flashlight and look in order to fall asleep. And so here I am, looking again. But this time, I know there is something there, waiting.

Arrived in Minsk 10/20/15

Arrived in Minsk. A shiny new airport. Not what I expected. The customs guard looked at my passport through a magnifying glass then looked at me. She was blond, late thirties, and she motioned for me to take off my glasses. I did. And she stared at me for 15 to 20 seconds, then stared almost as long at my picture on the passport. It was strange, oddly intimate and then bureaucratic, questioning and then it was over.

I met Debra and Artur outside. They are my escorts in a way for the next few days. They run a UK based charity that is helping small jewish communities become self sustaining in their growth and survival. We went to eat latkes and mushroom soup and to get acquainted. Then we met Frida, an 80 year old (her birthday is today) force of nature and one of 86 living survivors of the Minsk ghetto. She was beautiful and kind, and she too gazed into my face for very long time, but she was seeing all of me, looking for my connection to her. And it was there for me right away, she was my grandmother, and she was the other survivors I have met. She nodded and smiled and told a piece of her story, of the gruesome story of the Minsk jews crammed into an inhumane ghetto.  I could hear in her voice, the purpose she had found in the telling to anyone that would really listen.

Blogging is strange. I’m used to writing for myself, to figure things out on the page, to discover what it is I’m experiencing. But adding the notion of a reader into the middle, is stifling, giving my mind something else to think about, an additional editor as if I need anymore.   Just a little disclaimer I guess.

Warsaw – 10/20/15

On my way to the airport in Warsaw, I had a fascinating conversation with my driver Sylvester. A 55 yea- old Pole who has lived his entire life in Warsaw.  He shared with me two sides of his family’s history.  On his mother’s side, he had a grandmother who was sent to Auschwitz and survived. Her last name was Schwartzberger and she was born a Jew and married a Catholic, and still ended up in a concentration camp.   An Uncle on the same side of the family was also sent to Auschwitz because he was a Socialist.  On his father’s side,  the men were all Polish Army veterans and loyal poles, proud and aloof.   Sylvester’s life seemed to have been heavily rooted in the struggles on his mother’s family.  This man in his mid fifties was on his own search, having spent time in the past couple years, at the Jewish Archives in Warsaw trying to trace his own roots. It was such a surprising and emotional experience for me to be sharing stories of histories that are at once ours and not ours, with someone I would have thought I had little to nothing in common with.  We both feel our past and yet find it so elusive.  We traded cards and I vowed to connect with him the next time I’m in Warsaw. And as I said it, I felt sure that I would be back to dig deeper into the three dimensionality of this history and complexity.

Sitting at my gate waiting for my flight to Minsk, I’m feeling a strange connection to Poland. This is nothing like my guarded feelings of 30 years ago under the cold and austere soviet cloud, with questions of culpability running in my head every time I passed  an elder person.   (I had just watched Claude Lanzmann’s nine hour documentary Shoah (1985) that highlighted so forcefully the Anti-Semetism and Nazi sympathies of the Polish people)

I did not expect this as is so often the case when digging beyond ones ideas and heading into the vast unknown of ones past. The landscape today is grey and gloomy, rain on the horizon.  But the city shines from the old town to the modern airport.  The people are lighter too.  Yes, the city has changed and most certainly so have I.

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Thirty Years Ago – 10/19/15

Thirty years  ago I came to this city for the first time. I was traveling with my Uncle Davy Ramati, an author and a filmmaker.  At the time, I was right out of college and living in Switzerland teaching skiing.  My uncle who was born in Poland was living with in Montreux.  He was traveling to Poland trying to arrange financing on a film he had written, that would ultimately be called “And the Violin stopped playing”.  My Uncle had not been back to Poland since the war and my aunt was worried about him traveling alone.  Crossing borders 30 years ago, first into Czechoslovakia and then Poland, was intense.  Border guards with machine guns mounted our train in the middle of the night to demand passports and visas.  I could see the fear in my uncle’s face as it was far too reminiscent of moments of his youth when he was crossing borders trying to flea eastern Europe and get to Palastine.

Warsaw was grey and cold on that trip. It was February. But once in the old city,  my Uncle, an incredible romantic, fell skipping down the memory path of his twenties courting young woman and being a man about town.  Now in his 70’s, he wanted me to relive those memories and so at every restaurant and bar he tried to hook me up with the waitresses.   He was a sweet and diligent wingman but in the end I fear I let him down. I was anxious being in Poland back then. The currency was blocked, the Soviets were a big presence and I could still feel the residue of anti-semitism, in the faces of the elderly who were alive and witnesses during the war.

Now they are all gone.   The elderly Poles living today were children during the war. The city is modern and clean and alive and there is a lightness that I didn’t experience.  It’s deceiving in its vitality.   The stains have been washed away and memories have faded, but as I walk the street, I am aware that the paths of this city and of this life are never exactly what they seem

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As A Filmmaker – 10/18/15

As a filmmaker, I don’t always know the story I’m telling even as I’m trying to tell it.  So it is today, as I fly into the night out of Dulles Airport.  A stop in Warsaw tomorrow and then on to Belorusse, to the city of my father’s childhood, Brest Litovsk.  As we take off, I feel a sudden wave of sadness.  Its been welling up on the edges of everything, as the questions have been running around my head these past days.  Why am I going?  What is the purpose of this trip?  On one level, it is to shoot the next chapter of this exploratory film, about my relationship with my father and to the tragedy that engulfed a whole side of my family.  On another level, I’m going to see how I can help the few Jews of this now sterile, Sovietized city, once so vibrant with Jewish life, build a memorial to replace the desecrated and erased old Jewish Cemetery.   But on a deeper more personal level, I’m going to visit the one place I missed on my first trip to Brest 17 years ago.   60 miles from the town, in the forest of Bronnaya Gora, over three days in October 1942, the Nazis murdered the more than 20,000 of the Jews of Brest, shooting them in open pits. Among the murdered were 76 of my family members including my father’s aunts, uncles, and grandparents.   There, I’m sure, lies the heart of this bottomless sadness and I feel the need now to stand there, stare into the darkness and speak their names out loud.

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Sacred Names – an exploratory documentary

10/17/15

Three years ago while traveling in Israel, I visited Yad Vashem, the world’s foremost Holocaust museum and research center. I wanted to spend some time at a place that has always been important to me as the son of a Holocaust survivor.

After touring the museum, I settled into a research area filled with computer terminals to search the database of names of the victims of the Holocaust.   I was looking for my relatives that had lived and died in my father’s hometown of Brest-Litovsk, Poland (now Belorusse). My intention was to read the names and bring them into my memory.

As I came to the end of the list of 66 Grynberg’s that had perished in this town, I was halted by the last name on the list: Yakov Grynberg, my father. When I clicked on the link to his name it read: Jakub Grynberg was born in 1931. He was a child. During the war he was in Brest Litovsk, Poland. Jakub was murdered in the Shoah.

I approached a clerk working behind a desk and told her that I had found a mistake in the archive, that my father survived the Holocaust.   She nodded and handed me a form to fill out to correct the mistake. A few months later, my father, now in his early 80’s, asked me to travel with him to Israel, to help him attend a conference. I agreed but asked in return that he come to Yad Vashem to correct the database in person.   The questions and emotions were still unnerving from that moment and I sensed a door opening into a new film and further exploration into my personal relationship with my father and his Holocaust roots.  In June of 2012, we flew to Israel and I began shooting this film.