Talk about opening lines! This book catches your attention right away! I honestly recommend not reading many details about it before you begin – let the story surprise you as you join Edgar Mint’s unusual journey into adulthood.
As unusual as the story is, the main draw here is the writing, the skillful storytelling. I’m looking forward to reading other books by Udall, there were passages that caused me to pause for a minute and think about how they were written.
My only complaint is that book is too long, especially the middle part which seemed to go beyond what was needed to serve the story line.
Miracle lives seem to be a popular theme, but don’t pass up on writing like this.
Note – This is post number five and our final stop on our Heritage Trip to Belarus. Once again, we were dealing with the time period in which Dora lived, but since our relatives from here are from my husband’s side, this post is not strictly part of the “Dora posts” series.
Imagine you are a student in a small rural school, in a small, sleepy village. One day your teacher takes your class out for an unusual kind of “treasure hunt” around the village, a sort of “story in a suitcase”. At each stop along the way, you meet Basya (one of the older school girls played Basya, dressed up in the old style), supposedly a Jewish girl who once lived here, who tells you what once used to happen on this spot. The girl’s name was taken from a class photo. In the last years before the Nazi’s took over a few Jewish girls studied in the local school.
Imagine Basya explaining that Jews had different places to buy food because of the dietary laws. She would have used this photo to show that all the children were neighbors and could play together.
Now you must imagine how the walk around the village ends – with Basya revealing that only her spirit could remain in Volpa, since she perished along with all the other Jewish residents (only one survivor).
Can you imagine planning such a tour for the school children?! I was dumbfounded to learn of this project that the amazing history teacher Teresa Kudrik organized. Teachers can work magic, you know! Even more so to learn that Teresa had been on a course at Yad Va-Shem in Jerusalem!
In the Jewish section of the museum they used pictures from the Volkovysk Yizkor Book (Memorial Book), where Volpa is mentioned. This was the first place on the trip where we found the complete list of names of the former Jewish residents that perished. We did not encounter such a list in Antopol or in Volkovysk. It was also our first encounter with someone who was delighted (in fact, the first real smile we encountered on the trip!) to hear that Roni’s grandparents were from Volpa and was happy to receive copies of the few photos we have from those days, for the museum.
As a teacher, I was also very interested in the school itself. It was very modern looking and attractive. We got to see the fine computer lab and the biology lab. I was surprised to see chalk boards in use but Andrei explained that chalk is abundant in these parts. The classes are very small, the number of residents in such villages is dwindling.
We took a short walk around town before heading back to the cemetery. We had actually started with the cemetery, if you could call it that. We never would have found it on our own, it is so very easy to miss entirely. Andrei had coordinates. There’s barely anything to see, tall grass (with ticks!) and no fence. But at the museum we learned that a memorial marker had been erected there and so we returned to find it.
A memorable visit indeed!
Our guide, Andrei Burdenkov, prepared this video “Driving through Volpa”
Note – This is post number four following our Heritage Trip to Belarus. My husband’s father was Dora’s contemporary but naturally, this post is not strictly part of the “Dora posts” series.
Local legend has it that the name Volkovysk (or Vawkavysk) means Wolf’s Howl. Whether or not a young boy, who later became my husband’s father, ever lay in bed at night, listening to the wolves howl, is something we will never know. Like so many others who literally lost everyone and everything, who for years didn’t even have a picture or a simple memento to place on a shelf, he closed the door firmly on his pre-war life and did not speak of it.
We certainly didn’t hear any wolves from our hotel situated in the center of the city, and I believe there aren’t any to be heard even on the outskirts of the city nowadays. Winters are harsh in these parts and the windows are thick. Our guide explained that even back then people would nail on an extra window frame from inside the house for the cruel winter months. Sawdust would often be placed between the frames for extra insulation. Perhaps wolves couldn’t have been heard through all those layers of protection…
Volkovysk was a real battleground during World War 2 and large parts of the city were destroyed. We heard a lot about that part of local history at the local museum. 13,000 people lived there before the war, 7, 000 of them were Jews. 40 Jews returned after the war. The museum is dedicated to Military History and not to the general history of the place. They were able to tell us that the Jewish community had its own hospital, in addition to the school. There was a large fire back in 1909 that burned down the entire street where the synagogue was situated. The fire was so intense that the foundations cracked and the building collapsed. The only pictures of pre-war Jewish life they had were from the Yizkor book (community memorial book written by former residents after the war) which we are familiar with.
So what can one find from the 1920’s after such destruction?
Well, the river is still there. We believe my father-in-law grew up in a house that also served as a shop and we surmised the general location with old maps we had (many thanks to the many people who helped us obtain a copy of an old map, more on that in another post…).
If we thought that the cemetery we had seen in Antopol was destroyed, the one here is barely discernible (though more so then the next one to come…). We never would have found this field strewn with stones, a few barely recognizable as headstones without our trusty guide. This one structure in the center is the lone sentinel who, unfortunately, does not speak.
The memorial we did find was erected by a killing field, which is located inside a Christian Cemetery.
It’s a strange feeling. It was a gorgeous spring day around us but there were lots of dark shadows too…
Here’s a video our guide, Andrei Burdenkov took of the streets of Volkovysk.
(Note – For explanations about the “Who were you, Dora?” series, click here.)
If this were the United States, there would have been billboards along the road to Antopol advertising it as the village where you can get the authentic early 20th century “Shteitel” life experience, today. A horse and cart (with a ticket booth!) would have been waiting by the sign to take you on the ultimate village tour. Merchants on carts would have been a common sight on the Brest-Antopol road in those days, but I can’t help but wonder how commonplace it was for them to pick up a little girl from Brest running away from home to the village, as my grandmother frequently did.
We walked around with an enterprising local woman (with our guide smoothly translating) who has her own little set tour of the place. Only 800 people, perhaps less, live here today. Not many young folks at all. Once there were several thousand residents, 80% of them Jewish. The woman points at a neighbor passing by and calls out – he lives in a house where Jews once lived. The man replied “I haven’t found anything valuable so I’m not sure about that”.
The local guide pointed out where the synagogues once stood and the school but I was much more interested in taking in the remnants of how life was, rather than where things once stood. Others have documented that better than I.
The marketplace was once vibrant and bustling. Several times a month the locals from the region would come to trade. As relatives have mentioned, the village was known for its cucumbers.
Seeing the remains of the cemetery was heartbreaking. So little left and in such bad shape. At the time we didn’t know that the other ones we would visit were in much worse condition. Someone had donated a fence for this one.
The local guide completed the tour with a visit to a little museum with household goods. She was very amused by my ignorance of old methods of ironing. I didn’t tell her that my grandmother preferred to fold the shirts and then sit on them!
There was no list (even just of surnames!) of former, pre war residents of Antopol, nor was the local guide familiar with any names. Archives again! Considering the fact that my grandmother had uncles, aunts and cousins from both her mother and father’s side in the village, and married a local boy (big mistake, by the way – but that’s another story) I must have been related to a huge amount of residents there…
(Note – For explanations about the “Who were you, Dora?” series, click here.)
Since Dora’s letter’s all had Brest-on-the-Bug written by the dates, I immediatly assumed that the river we saw shortly after beginning to walk around the city of Brest was the BUG. It was not. It was the Mukhavetz River. In fact, when Dora mentioned not having the opportunity to bathe in the river in a letter, or my grandmother used to say that the Gefilte fish they made was only from Carp (and not a mix) because that’s what they had in the river, they may have been referring to the Mukhavetz. Though, in their day the city was under Polish rule and the Bug river was not on the border, so they may have spent more time there than later day residents. Notice my use of the word “may“? In the first few hours I learned the basic rule for a Heritage traveller, especially in relation to the big cities (which have changed dramatically since the war, much more than the villages)- never jump to conclusions. The trip is another part of the ongoing research process.
Dora’s last letter, from August 25, 1940, had an address on it, and the address is in Russian. Which means that the street name has remained the same. But the street has been rebuilt, the numbers reassigned, so we went to see where their apartment with a cellar may have stood. But then again, by 1940, Dora and her father were the only two of the former nine family members who once lived together in Brest. This is before they were moved to the Ghetto but they may have had strangers added to their apartment or themselves moved to this address by this time. So this may not have been the location of my grandmother’s childhood home. The only thing Dora writes is that her father is working in a State Working Place. Ominous sounding. Especially as we knew what his occupation was before. All previous letters were written on the letter head of her father’s workshop, Pracownia Kotlarska which also had an address. A Polish street name but our guide knew the name it had been changed to.
When we stopped trying to locate specific things from the letters (we looked at her possible school site as well), we began appreciating how our guide, Andrei, was able to point out the finer details that have remained from the past. Dora would have moved around the town on foot. But the streets in Brest were not cobblestones, they looked like this
Obviously, life isn’t a Hollywood movie where you find the ancestral city home still standing and a letter with unknown pictures tucked into the window frame. Especially in a place which was such a battleground. On a heritage trip it is important to understand the greater context in which the events we are interested in took place. Our visit to Brest ended with a tour of the Brest fortress. After hearing about the battle there one ceases to wonder why they would erect a giant statue called “Thirst” beside the GIANT statue called Courage.
(Note – For explanations about the “Who were you, Dora?” series, click here.)
Alice began her exciting and enlightening adventures in Wonderland by falling down a rabbit hole. A hole belonging to a rabbit very concerned with the time, to be precise.
I also began our Heritage Journey back in time with a fall. I miscalculated the number of steps when disembarking (at one a.m!) at Brest Train Station (Belarus) and tumbled onto the platform.
While Alice’s white rabbit proved to be a rather elusive guide to Wonderland, thankfully our guide Andrei Burdenkov never left our side. Because we actually were in two versions of Wonderland – present day Belarus and Early 20th Century Russia/Poland/Russia (today – Belarus, it changed hands a lot). We needed the guide to understand the first and to be able to see what remains of the second. You really need to know where to look, especially to see the finer details.
We don’t speak a word of Russian nor can we read the Cyrillic alphabet. During our entire four days in the two cities we were researching (Brest and Volkovysk) and the two villages (Antopol and Volpa) I think we only saw three signs in English (and actually one was in a national nature reserve). Not only don’t almost all the hotel receptionists and waiters we encountered speak any English, the concept of customer service in state run-places seems very shaky. Most staff members won’t smile and some make you feel that you should be grateful they are giving you the time of day! But it isn’t just the language barrier. When we entered a small supermarket (small, but bigger than a min-market) we couldn’t understand what we had done to elicit an angry tone and finger being shaken at us. Roni had chosen 3 bananas from the fruit section and walked over to join me in the baked goods section (Andrei was over in the milk section). It turned out there are four cashiers scattered around the small supermarket and you must pay for the goods in each section before moving on to the next section! The idea never occured to us. This is not the case in the large supermarket we later saw, by the way. Being a vegetarian (that’s Roni) in Belarus is quite a challenge. Meat, in some form or other, seems to be included in almost every single dish. Andrei patiently translated menus and negotiated with waiters to find solutions.
On the other hand, people we met were very friendly (with Andrei supplying simultaneous translation, of course!). These encounters and conversations added greatly to visualising what life was like during the pre-war years of the 20th century. We even had an amazing meeting with a school teacher who came up with a novel way to teach the children about their village’s former residents who perished. I’ll be describing what we found and did not find in much more detail in the next posts.
In the villages it was easier to get a sense of what life was like once. You can find houses that remain forlornly untouched. In the cities it is much harder. Technology helped compare old maps to new ones and we found many of the relevant locations despite changes. Sadly, some of the remnants of the graveyards don’t look like anything more than a field strewed with a handful of larger stones. One wouldn’t give them a second glance if you didn’t know what to look for. In some places the graveyards no longer exist at all. Heartbreaking.
But in our search for “life”, even spending time outdoors, getting to know the landscape was an important part of the experience. Our ancestors grew up in this flat country with wide open spaces, endless skies, marsh lands, rivers, storks nesting on poles, lots of trees and really cold weather, that makes it is hard to grow things.
It is so well written that I was utterly mesmerised. I found it physically difficult to tear myself away from the book.
It’s not that the type of characters or the setting are familiar to me – life in Nigeria during a military coup and fanatically religious Catholicism – but the writing is so skillful that I felt I was observing everything happening very closely, standing close enough to see, hear and feel.
Another case of “Thank a Librarian” who put it out on a RECOMMEDED shelf!
It’s the standard thing you encounter in every teacher training course or teaching manual (and a quick Google search):
“When students (particularly teenagers!) get angry and hurl insults at the teacher, DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY, it’s not about YOU. The students are bringing in things from outside the classroom, issues related to their home life, their relationship (or lack of) with their peers, their academic struggles and much more. So taking it personally is a huge mistake. The insults roughly fall into two main categories – insults regarding the teacher’s appearance or insults regarding the teacher’s professional abilities.
Supposedly only an inexperienced teacher (or an unprofessional one) gets insulted. This is the cause of all the teacher’s troubles, and what is obstructing a calm and cool response.
At an in-service teacher’s training session I attended at school today, the instructor took a refreshingly different approach, one that rings true and makes more sense to me.
In a nutshell, the instructor explained that feeling insulted is an automatic and instinctive human reaction, a survival strategy which indicates the person must protect himself /herself.
Therefore, it is utter nonsense to tell a teacher not to take insults personally. We’re human beings, that’s what makes us caring teachers. Students crave empathy, to be really and truly seen, that requires emotions.
Actually, the instructor claimed, teachers who can respond appropriately and in a constructive manner to a student’s outburst are those that RECOGNIZE their feelings and have given thought to how he/she reacts to such feelings and what works to enable them to regain their equilibrium. Teacher’s aren’t robots! I believe Palmer discussed this in “The Courage to Teach” but I read that a long time ago and don’t encounter such an attitude in my reality.
Interestingly, the instructor noted that research has shown that what really gets under most teachers’ skin are insults relating to how good they are at their profession and not barbs targeted at personal appearance…
I would add that what hurts more than anything a student could say is when a staff member whom you turn to for support and understanding replies:
“You took that personally? What?! You should know better by now”!
Wow, what a skillful writer who can really pack a punch!
The author is “only” describing two couples (two brothers and their wives) spending an evening out in a fancy restaurant, but a whole lifetime and a tense plot pops up cleverly between the minuscule food portions such upscale restaurants have a reputation of serving.
Believe me, it’s best not to know more in advance. Let the author present the story in his way.
Interesting side note the author makes in the book – what do people the world over really read about Holland and famous Dutch people? There are the famous painters and there was Anna Frank (and some other heroic stories I might add). Don’t forget “Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates” ! But I really can’t recall reading anything else that takes place in the Netherlands.
The only thing I resent is one of the comments on the front cover of the book. It IS a thought-provoking book but I most certainly do not identify in any way with the characters.
My lovely colleague pointed out yesterday that some of our Deaf and hard of hearing students may have a problem in the upcoming exam with the word “most” since we’ve been reviewing superlatives for the last few weeks. In their reading passage, the word is used when describing the results of a survey, as in “Most of the young people said that…”.
The topic of teenagers who post pictures of themselves in an alternative reality, works beautifully for my purposes.
I chose a different video than the one Magda used as I thought it was less suitable for my class, especially as the characters clearly seem to be talking. What they are saying doesn’t matter, but with my students I prefer videos where it is clear that you don’t need to hear the audio.
Today I started using the following worksheet in class. All sentences include the word “most” but are related to the video.