Friday, October 26, 2007

Memorial For “Nameless” Partisan

Oct. 26, 1941: Dispassionate SS officers parade a seventeen-year-old girl, a young man, and an older man through the streets of Minsk and hang them side by side at the gates of a yeast factory.

This was the first public execution of partisans in the German-occupied USSR during the Second World War.

The two men were accordingly identified and proclaimed heroes, while the teenage girl remained “unknown.”

Her picture can be seen in the Minsk Museum of the Great Patriotic War and in any Russian book about the partisan movement, but despite eyewitness testimonies, she steadfastly remains “ne ustanovlivena,” unidentified, in official sources, and even on her memorial plaque.

Despite conclusive historical sources which declare her unknown, many know her as Masha Bruskina, a Jewish resident of the Minsk ghetto who, in her tenure as a nurse, helped hospitalized Soviet personnel escape occupied Belarus to join the underground movement.

A dogged Minsk Jewish community refuses to forget their most famous partisan maiden. The yeast factory where the gallows stood still stands, and this year, a group of Jewish and non-Jewish survivors, veterans, and bystanders gathered to honor Masha’s name, and the two others who were hanged with her, Volodya Sherbateyivich and Kril Trus.

A classmate of Masha’s reminisced at the ceremony about how she and Masha studied for exams together and did their hair together. She will never forget Masha’s thick brown mane.

Photo 1: The plaque by the yeast factory where Masha was hanged reads “here on the 26th of October, 1941, the Fascists executed Soviet partisans K.E. Trus, V.E. Sherbateyivich, and a girl- surname unknown”
Photo 2: The Jewish Masha Bruskina is hanged with two other partisans, Kril Trus and Volodya Sherbateyivich. The sign around her neck reads in Russian and German: "We are partisans who shot at German soldiers."

Monday, October 8, 2007

Bubba-loshn: September’s Best Babushka

Yiddish language has had its ups and downs in Belarus. As the heart of the Pale of Settlement, Belarus was a hub of Yiddish language, theater, and culture. So commonplace was Yiddish in many Belarusian towns such as Bobruisk and Slutsk that it was even the lingua franca of many non-Jews dwelling in these overwhelmingly Jewish villages.

During the pre-WWII Soviet Period, the Yiddish language enjoyed a period of flowering.
By the 1930's there were more than 1,200 Yiddish schools and several teacher-training institutions, as well as departments of Jewish studies and chairs of Yiddish language and literature at the Universities of Moscow, Kiev and Minsk.
Yiddish, in fact, was so prolific that it was among the 4 official languages of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic displayed on the emblem of Belarus, the three others being Russian, Belarusian, and Polish. There were also Yiddish puppet theaters, drama societies, and daily Yiddish papers throughout the Belarusian Soviet Republic and throughout the Soviet Union.

Now, years after World War II and Stalin’s repression, the momoloshn is back in full force in this Mother Land. There are no Yiddish schools or newspapers, but already since the fall of the Soviet Union there has been a true renaissance of Yiddish. Few remain that can speak the language fluently, but hundreds of elderly Jews in Belarus are coming out of the closet as Yiddophiles.

The Minsk Jewish Campus now hosts two Yiddish language courses. One is Shmues, a Yiddish language and culture club organized by Hesed, the Joint Distribution Committee’s main welfare organization in Minsk. Hesed also has a Yiddish puppet theater, Yiddish choir, and even puts on an annual Yiddish-only Purimspiel.

The second is Momoloshn, a weekly lesson headed by one of the only Yiddish teachers in Belarus and this month’s Best Grandma, Valentina Pugachova, who puts her Babushka heart and soul into teaching Yiddish at the Minsk Society of Jewish Culture, also in the Minsk Jewish Campus.

Valentina’s first childhood memories are of her life in the Minsk ghetto. She, like most other Jewish Minsk residents has relatives who were murdered in the Yama pit in the center of Minsk. Despite the dangers, Valentina and her husband spoke to one another in Yiddish during the Soviet Union, determined not to forget their national language. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Valentina has had the pleasure of openly sharing her knowledge with her community every Tuesday night at 6:30pm with other less-knowledgeable Yiddish enthusiasts. Valentina is has two Yiddish-speaking grandchildren, one who lives in Minneapolis and one who lives in Chicago.
Top Photo: Valentina teaches the alef-beis. She keeps her students' attention with her warm smile and bright orange hair! Second Photo: a Yiddish and Russian sign from the "White-Russian Soviet Socialist Republic Government University," which still exists today.