I’m on an airplane to Belarus and I find myself a bit teary. Not quite sure why, but it just feels like I’m feeling the sadness of my family for having been such a long time away. A return to this place is assuredly bittersweet in the hearts of my people. My grandmother Sonia Breinin Seymour left Belarus with her family in 1923 at the age of 15. As far as I know, it has been 95 years since they or any of their descendants have set foot in Belarus. Until now at least. In about an hour and a half, I’ll be the first of the Breinin’s and their descendants to again venture onto Belarusian soil. I can’t be certain why no one has ever returned, but their wholesale lack of return perhaps lends clues unto itself.
To be honest, I feel some body-centric anxiety right now, starting below the sternum and all through my midsection. It has a flavor of trepidation, and a voice that seems to be saying: “Why would you ever want to go back there?” My overarching sense is that the place was a source of unease (perhaps an understatement) to my family who were glad and relieved to be getting out of there.
This desire to understand where I come from feels, at least in the moment, like a desire for a more visceral knowing and understanding. By “visceral knowing,” I mean an understanding which doesn’t really incorporate so much of a mental understanding. It’s more of a full-bodied experiential understanding, as if my body itself wants to know the place and the experience of my people. I can’t foretell the extent to which that knowing will come, but I’ve learned that sometimes being in a location where life has taken place, whether my own or someone else’s, can be very informing and impactful. The neural intelligence in the body seems to understand place and the energies and histories which it contains much better than the mind. Place does matter in life, not so much in a latitude/longitude kind of way, but more in the way that it interweaves with time and contains histories which have impacted those formed within its tapestry. I have a desire to understand my grandmother and beyond her, “my people.” To know them, at least to me, seems to require a knowing of the place and time within which they were forged.
As many of you may already know, I went to Khotyn, Ukraine in 2009 to visit the birthplace of my grandmother Sonia’s husband, my grandfather Moise (Maurice) Zeldman (Seymour), and ended up taking a few trips there in total. Those trips deeply impacted me and I wrote extensively about them here. Those journeys into my past truly helped me to understand my grandfather and the struggles that he and his family underwent in that more visceral knowing kind of way. Beyond the knowing of family, roots and history, I suppose the deepest personal reason I seek out a deeper family/historical understanding is actually to know myself in a more complete and meaningful way. As much as we may like to see ourselves as being individuated from our families, their internalized struggles and joys somehow seem to become part of us. Knowledge gleaned from an understanding of our history may not necessarily impact the specifics of our daily lives, but a more complete embodiment of self knowing can ensue which brings a much deeper and richer experience to our sense of our own lives. The value of that depth of experience has its parallel in love, I suppose. When we come to really know someone in a deeper more visceral way and not just in a surface intellectual or attraction kind of way, the depth of that love and connection becomes infinitely more felt and meaningful.
An additional benefit of embarking on a journey such as this is that it puts one in the frame of mind of learning as much as possible about the environmental/political factors which were occurring at an earlier time and place in one’s family history. These factors undoubtedly impacted their lives and ultimately we can gain a better understanding of who they were and why perhaps they became who they became. One more gift is that in researching, we can come in touch with extended family members we may or may not have ever met and learn more about our family history from their understandings and recollections.
And so this journey begins. It is one I’ve thought many times about undertaking since visiting Ukraine and exploring my family history there. I enjoy traveling to off-the-beaten path places as well and Belarus certainly qualifies. I’ve landed now in Minsk where I’ve settled in and am taking a lay of the land. From here I’ll move on to my grandmother’s family’s town of Vitebsk. I can still hear her voice saying “Vitebsk,” nearly in one syllable, in her unmistakably and forever endeared to me Russian accent. I realize that as I, her Tedichka, imagine her voice again that I miss her. It seems this trip is also my way of bringing her closer once again.