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Our first excursion out of Minsk took us just an hour north of the city but into what was once the Russian Empire’s Vilna Gubernia. We were following in reverse the life of Yiddish poet Moyshe Kulbak, who lived his last years in Minsk but who was born in the shtetl of Smorgon (Smarhon’) and studied for a time at the famous yeshive of Volozhin (Valozhyn).


Instead of a conventional tour, Helixers explored Smorgon and Volozhin using  maps from yizkor bikher — memorial volumes compiled by former residents following the destruction of World War II. By layering these hand-drawn maps over contemporary satellite images, we were able to experience how history has changed the social as well as geographical spaces of these towns.

My Grandpa once had some cousin or uncle,
A trainer of bears for shows in the big fairs,
By day he would sit and forge chains for his brown bear,
And at night they would dance as the night stars would twinkle.

His bony hands hung down to his knee, with a flat skull
That sat awry on his humpbacked torso,
Which he bore with his pelt and his sweat like a beast.

—Moyshe Kulbak

translated by Rob Adler Peckerar
;געהאַט האָט דער זיידע אַ קרוב אַ טרײַבער פון בערן
,אַ יִיד, װאָס פלעגט מאַכן קאָנצערט אויף די גרויסע ירידן
,דעם בער פלעגט דער קרוב בייַ-טאָג אויף די קייטן פאַרשמידן
.בייַ-נאַכט פלעגט ער טאַנצן מיט אים בייַ דעם שייַן פון די שטערן
מען האָט אים געגעבן דעם נאָמען עשׂרה דבריא׃
,די קנאָכיקע הענט ביז די קני, מיט אַ שאַרבן אַ גלאַטן
,אַן אַלטע פאַרשלומפּערטע קאָפּ אויף אַ גוף אַ האָרבאַטן
.און דאָס האָט געטראָגן מיט פֿעל און מיט שװייס, װי אַ חיה
משה קולבאַק—

In Smorgon, we headed to the place where one of the city’s most famous and unusual economic institutions once stood: an academy for the training of wild bears. There we read and discussed Moyshe Kulbak’s poem “Asore Dibraye,” about a violent Jewish bear trainer whose named literally means “The Ten Commandments.” On the outskirts of town, we passed a hamlet called Sutskava, from whence derives the surname of Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever, born in Smorgon in 1913.

  • bear-academy
  • discussing-asore
  • bear-pose
  • smorgon-plaque
  • volozhin-lane
  • to-krenitse
  • adam-and-horse
  • krenitse-top
  • singing-krenitse
  • har-bialik
  • outside-yeshive

Compared to Smorgon, there was more to see in Volozhin that still resembled the pre-war landscape drawn out on the yizkor-bukh map. Our itinerary led us to the Jewish cemetery, which, though overgrown, contained some well-preserved mausoleums of the town’s famous rabbis.

A video posted by Yiddishkayt (@yiddishkayt) on

A video posted by Yiddishkayt (@yiddishkayt) on

We followed a path to Har Bialik – the hill where the famous Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik wrote some of his first poems (in Yiddish) as a student at the Volozhin Yeshiva.

Nearby, at a place marked “krenitse” (meaning “source” or “spring” in both Yiddish and Belarusian), we came across just that: an ancient, holy well, and the perfect spot to sing Itsik Fefer’s folk song “Di krenitse“.

After hiking through the town (while eating the cherries, currents, and gooseberries weighing down the branches alongside the road), we entered the famed Yeshiva of Volozhin.

We ended our afternoon in Volozhin with a special visit to the still-standing Volozhin Yeshiva, which attracted generations of promising religious scholars from throughout the Pale of Settlement, including the poets Kulbak, Bialik, and Avraham Liessin. Entering the partially dilapidated building with a key acquired from the head rabbi of Belarus, we listened to Avrom Reyzen’s song “May-ko Mashme Lon?” (What Does it Tell Us?), and imagined the arduous, precarious lives of the boys who lived and studied there.

May ko mashme lon my life?
What does it teach me?
To decay, to wither in its youth,
To grow old before its time.
To eat “days” and swallow tears,
To sleep upon my hard fist,
To die here in “this world”
And to wait for the world to come…

?מאי-קא משמע-לן מייַן לעבן
— ?וואָס-זשע לאָזט עס מיר צו הערן
פוילן, וועלקן אין דער יוגנט
;פאַר דער צייַט פאַרעלטערט ווערן
,עסן „טעג“ און שלינגען טרערן
,שלאָפן אויפן פויסט דעם האַרטן
“טויטן דאָ דעם „עולם הזה
…און אויף עולם הבא וואַרטן