By Abby Kobrovsky, NAGID 360 Alumna
When my father invited me to accompany him on a trip to our ancestral home in Eastern Europe, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I am lucky to have a father with immense knowledge of and appreciation for our genealogy, but I have not taken much advantage of that benefit in my life. I viewed this trip as a chance to rectify that lapse, to see with my own eyes what my father reported from his previous trips to the area, to grow my personal connection to my ancestors, and to experience the beauty of countries previously foreign to me. I am happy to report that the trip surpassed all of my expectations.
Our family lived in Lithuania and Belarus over 100 years ago. In some ways, visiting the villages where my ancestors once lived felt like stepping back in time. In other ways, their absence was hauntingly rooted in the present. In Belarus, for example, we visited four different villages where my great-great-great grandfather once lived. He left each town in succession, hoping to outpace the fervent anti-Semitism that was quickly spreading. Luckily, he made it to America well before the Holocaust, but, of course, many relatives and loved ones were left behind. Those who remained in Belarus, sadly, did not survive the circumstances of their time and place.
In every village we visited in Belarus, the story was nearly tragically identical: a thriving Jewish community once existed here, but now all that remained was a synagogue now directed to a different purpose. There was no Jewish cemetery to speak of, the gravestones having long ago been dismantled by the Soviets to use as building material. While this story was indeed tragic and devastating each and every time it was repeated, we were careful to not place blame on and make assumptions about the villagers that currently lived in the communities. From our conversations with these villagers, it was obvious that each had their own horrific and devastating experience to share about WWII and what followed. Our conversations reminded me that everyone is seeking happiness and security for themselves and their loved ones and that life can be tragically unfair in how it distributes those benefits.
Now that I am back home, I respond differently to learning about Jewish history, particularly the terrifying and tragic period around WWII. Where I once turned away from personal accounts, finding them too depressing to face, I am now drawn to such accounts with a sense of curiosity and a desire to bear witness. With each account I read or hear, I absorb the truth of others experiences of the Holocaust and further develop my understanding of the fragility of prosperity and peace in this world. I now have a much deeper appreciation for how lucky I am to live in America, during this particular period of time. There is no war on our land, I do not have to worry about the wellbeing of a loved one at the hands of another’s military, and I have the autonomy to spend my time how I choose. I now see the preciousness of this freedom and have an immense desire to convey that to others. I wish everyone could experience the trip with my father as I did, to go to these countries turned upside down by WWII and then the Soviet Union, to speak to those villagers who want the best for their families, to witness the best of humanity and see the remnants of the worst of humanity.
It was a great privilege to share these experiences with my father and I hope never to forget the lessons I learned.