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. 

Ponary Massacre Memorial

What Memorializing Reveals
 About Collective Memory

By Rachel Eisen

One of the themes that followed us throughout our FSU travels was the concept of collective memory. History, even as an academic discipline, is more than just facts. It is the social and contextual realities of life, it is causes and effects. How people interact with their own history can reveal a lot about a populace and a place.

We discovered that the history of a place and its collective memory are deeply intertwined—especially when it comes to Jewish history and the Holocaust. As we learned, Lithuanian Jews were all but wiped out during the Holocaust. An astounding 95% of Lithuanian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, most by killing squads in the forests. They were left in mass graves and their bodies were often burnt.

And while we were shown reconstructions of hiding places for Jews and were guided by Iga, whose grandmother is recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile, the majority of those who were complicit in the act of killing Jews were Lithuanians themselves. Unlike Nazi collaborators in other countries, whose roles in the genocide of Jews may have been more indirect, Lithuanian collaborators were the actual killers.

We visited Ponary, now called Paneriai, and a mass grave and killing field memorial in the forest. It was eerily silent. Aside from a few memorial candles burning, we were the only ones there.

Ponary Massacre Memorial

In contrast, one of the first places we visited upon our arrival in Minsk, Belarus, was the studio of a Jewish architect who, together with her father, is responsible for designing many of the Holocaust memorials in the country. In fact, she is working on another memorial now, soon to be constructed. This monument attempts to recreate the feeling of horror of walking toward the killing field. It makes use of creative, upside-down sculptures to represent the tumultuous uprooting of life.

Belarus as a whole was utterly destroyed during World War II, or as it is known there, the Great Patriotic War. The country was ravaged and the people, including its non-Jewish citizens, were brutally killed as the Nazis attempted to invade the Soviet Union. Unlike in Vilna, where the remains of the old city are still visible in the classical European winding roads and architecture, Minsk was absolutely wrecked.

For Lithuanians, it seems that there has been no coming to terms with the past and the history of the war. It is not apparent that Lithuanians have, as a whole, acknowledged and accepted their roles in the killing of their fellow Jewish citizens. On the other hand, while the Holocaust is not an enormous part of the Belarussian narrative of the Great Patriotic War, the war and its wake of destruction plays a much larger role in their collective memory. For Belarusians, anything, including economic downturn and insecurity, is better than war. That is why they still memorialize and continue to memorialize the war and its victims, including the Jewish victims.