Photo: Sergei Grits, AP

FSU Seminar

Vilnius, Lithuania and
Minsk, Belarus

The Hornstein-BGI FSU Seminar is an immersive, transformative learning opportunity for students in their second year of study.

It is carried out in partnership with the Brandeis Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry and made possible in part with support from the Genesis Philanthropy Group.

A fence runs through Belarus and Lithuania photo by Sergei Grits, AP

Russia, Lithuania, or Belarus? 
 Space & Place in Jewish Life

By Alyssa Bogdanow

Prior to emigrating to the United States, my great-grandmother Moma lived in a tiny shtetl called Belitsa. Today, when you type Belitsa into Google Maps, the website redirects you to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The town, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist after the Holocaust, but at one time, it occupied a space about 150km from both Vilnius and Minsk. We likely flew over it during our 25-minute airplane journey between the two cities. 

The question of what country Moma was from occupies a central place in our family. As family lore goes, some days she would say she was from Belarus, other days she would say she was from Lithuania. Sometimes she was from Russia. 

Although I never met her, my dad cared deeply about ensuring that my two brothers and I knew about Moma, with whom he had been particularly close. Invariably, many of the stories he told us about her involved our musing on the topic of shifting political landscapes.

“Those borders—they kept switching! One day she was part of one country, the next she was part of another,” he would remark. “Russia, Lithuania, Belarus – who knows where she was really from?”

Over time, the subject of changing borders became somewhat of a joke in my nuclear family. As adolescents are wont to do, my brothers and I took endless amusement in poking fun at these aspects of my dad’s story-telling. To us, growing up in Lexington, Massachusetts—a town that has occupied essentially the same geographic area since the mid-1600s—it seemed quite farfetched to imagine that our great-grandmother didn’t know what country she lived in. We never quite grew out of it, either. Even now, in our twenties and thirties, we still make jokes about the absurdity of it all. 

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that the issues of space, place, and borders became a central theme for me on the FSU Seminar to Vilnius and Minsk. Everywhere we went, it seemed that questions concerning these topics arose. In Vilnius, I grappled with how the Ponary massacres took place only a few miles from the center of town, about how the city now memorializes centuries of rich Jewish life through scattered physical plaques, nestled among fancy clothing stores and hip bars.

What role does space and place have in enabling the destruction of Jewish life? 

In Minsk, I thought about how Jewish life survived during the Soviet era through meetings in public spaces: plazas, parks, and the like. I thought about how today, both Chabad and the Reform community in Minsk have beautiful new synagogues, equipped with the latest technologies.

What role does space and place have in building Jewish life?

In the ensuing decades since my great-grandmother emigrated, the confusion surrounding borders has not subsided. But today, the issue is not impermanent and overly permeable borders.

Rather, it is quite the opposite. The political border is so strongly constructed that the two cities, only a half-hour away from one another by plane, have few similarities and few relationships. The political border between Vilnius and Minsk disallows any real engagement between their respective populations. When we told a young Lithuanian that we were headed to Minsk after leaving Vilnius, she laughed, said she had never been there, and that she had no plans to go. In Minsk, a similar sentiment emerged regarding Vilnius. The community looks either to Russia or to Israel for guidance and support; it does not seem to relate to Vilnius or the European lands behind Lithuania.

What role does space and place have in building strong Jewish relationships?

Although I don't have all the answers to these complicated questions, I'm quite grateful for the opportunity to have started to explore them during my time in Vilnius and Minsk. It's hard to imagine what exactly Moma would think about her great grand-daughter exploring the Jewish history and community in Lithuania and Belarus, but I have no doubt that she would be thrilled by the fact that her legacy permeated throughout my time on the trip.