FSU Seminar
2016

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. 


Ponary Diary: A Bystander's Account

At Ponary

By Erica Goldman

How do you commemorate the massacre of as many as 100,000 people in one spot? How do you mark the site where they were ruthlessly murdered and barely remembered?

On Tuesday, Feb. 16, we arrived at Ponary, a neighborhood of Vilnius about six miles southwest of the city center, now known as Paneriai. The sun was setting. The weather was cold, breathless, as we were. It was hard to talk as we wandered the grounds, difficult to understand the killing fields, impossible to fully comprehend these pits where Nazi death squads shot their Jewish and Polish victims.

We were glad to be there, to pay tribute, to stand witness, but we were not glad. We created a small ceremony and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish, but we were not comforted.

We were able, momentarily, to submerge our feelings in an intellectual appraisal of the memorial and its plaques: is it appropriate to list the name of those who donated their resources so it could stand? Does it somehow cheapen the gift, detract from the solemnity, or does it act as a positive signal for others to stand up and contribute, help the lost-to-life be somewhat less lost-to-history?

The debate petered out, our feelings re-emerged. It is impossible not to imagine oneself as victim at Ponary, impossible not to compare the discomfort one feels at standing around in the forest as night falls and the temperature drops, to the way it must have felt to be there, then. To have attempted to escape through that forest, to be hunted down among its trees. We imagined. We shivered, sometimes from exterior conditions.

We read aloud from Kazimierz Sakowicz’s diary, the daily journaling of a local resident, a disinterested bystander:

July 11, 1941

Quite nice weather, warm, white clouds, windy, some shots from the forest. Probably exercises, because in the forest there is an ammunition dump on the way to the village of Nowosiolki. It’s about 4 p.m.; the shots last an hour or two. On the Grodzienka I discover that many Jews have been “transported” to the forest. And suddenly they shoot them.

How do you commemorate the massacre of as many as 100,000 people in one spot? How do you mark the site where they were ruthlessly murdered and barely remembered? We did our best to commemorate, to mark, to remember.