Friday, May 11, 2007

Victory Day in the Yama Pit

Victory Day, which occurs May 9th in the former Soviet bloc, celebrates the end of World War II, and specifically the capitulation of the German army to the Allied forces: the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France, the United States, and other Allied states. Although the German Instrument of Surrender document came into effect on May 8th, 1945 at 23:01 Central European Time, it was already May 9th in Eastern European countries due to the time difference.

The May 9th Victory Day is observed in most of the successor states of the Soviet Union, and is marked by ceremonial military parades and firework salutes at night. Specifically celebrated in the region is the Soviet defeat of the Nazi forces in Berlin, which is commemorated through a famous photograph of a soldier triumphantly waving the Soviet flag above the Reichstag.

Because the Nazi defeat also gives occasion for Jews to celebrate, Jews from all over Belarus, around 1,000 people ages 0-94 gathered at the Yama memorial in the Minsk city center to celebrate Victory Day. The Yama memorial is best known for having been the first erected in the Soviet Union to specifically mark that “Jews” were murdered here, not just “Soviet citizens.”

The Yama memorial, erected in the pit where the thousands of members of the Minsk ghetto were murdered, has become a traditional place of gathering for Jews since after WWII. Jews have gathered here for decades for major meetings and ceremonies, and Victory Day is no exception. This May 9th, the ceremony was led by the heads of the Jewish Veterans and Ghetto Survivors’ Association, and Chabad Rabbi Shneur Deitch led the large crowd in reciting the memorial kaddish prayer. Head of the Belarusian Jewish Community and sculptor of the Yama memorial, spoke about the importance of Israel for the survival of the Jewish people across the globe.

The ceremony ended with a long moment of silence, which was broken by the giggles of Jewish children playing tag and picking daffodils from the lush green Yama ditch.


Sarah said...

Erica, this is amazing...that memorial looks really cool and super powerful, that's SO interesting. you are having such a cool time in Minsk, and 6 months after you left, i realize that this truly was the best decission you've made!!! what an incredible experience - victory day sounds SO COOL!! you gotta bring me back some weird russian/belarussian stuff from this!! like, russian postcards and strange soviet things! i cant wait to hear more about this!!! you're awesome. much love from d.c., we miss you terribly!
:) sarah

Danny said...

I agree with Sarah. Very cool entry.

At least in Western Europe and the US, I've met a lot of Jews who complain about semi-citizenship, charges of dual loyalty, etc. Yet that complaint often comes from the same people who insist that Jewish suffering is not only different, but also historically unique (or at least worthy of recognition as somehow special). I don’t think that the two are necessarily contradictory, but the basic tension between national membership and sectarian exceptionalism is hard to shrug off.

In any case, I imagine that the tension is far easier to deal with when you're complaining about French Catholic or New England Protestant neighbors, rather than Belarusian ones. To my mind, the former haven’t experienced the sort of poverty and oppression that gentile citizens of Soviet states have, both during WWII and after. I grew up in a world where fighting WWII had been a good thing morally, economically, politically… where the only time I had to draw a difficult line between forms of Hitler suffering was between my ancestors and a gentile WWII vet, or an elderly Belgian or Brit I might meet.

Now you write that this was the first memorial to acknowledge distinctiveness in Jewish suffering, and seem to imply that the Jews celebrate V-E day in a different way than their gentile counterparts. I’ve read about the Yama ditch on this blog before (Yom HaShoah, most likely), and I probably will again before your year is up.

I guess what I’m saying here is that I can’t begin to imagine how Belarusian Jews navigate the muddle of national/ethnic/religious/political recollections that the job of remembering WWII involves. Any thoughts on how your new friends deal with the seeming dissonance of recalling the Holocaust on a V-E day that is, at least in comparison to what we see in the US and Western Europe, much more meaningful to their gentile neighbors? Does it seem more complicated to you, or am I just imagining things?

In any case, I know nothing about Eastern European Jewish history, and only marginally more about Eastern Europe in general. But it's fun to catch little glimpses in your writing.