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.
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.