by Susan Turnbull
I celebrated Israel’s 60th Birthday in Baku, Azerbaijan.
That sentence alone is an incredible one. Who, sixty years ago would have imagined that a U.S. Democratic Party official would be in Azerbaijan for a conference on Democracy? Who, sixty years ago, would have imagined that a party hosted by an Israeli Ambassador in a majority Muslim country formerly part of the Soviet Union would be seen as a natural, festive occasion by the nation’s diplomatic corps and government officials?
Who could every have pictured a choir of Jewish children singing the national anthems of both Azerbaijan and Israel on a stage surrounded by both nation’s flags before a crowd of several hundred people – most of whom were not Jewish?
I can assure you, sitting in my Sunday school classrooms as a child almost fifty years ago, this would have only be a dream, but it was what I stood and watched last month in Baku, Azerbaijan.
The Azeri Jews whom I met with over a long day of touring the small 100% Jewish village of Krysnia Sloboda with the Guba District Director (read Governor) showed me a world seldom scene nor ever expected by most of our world. These “mountain Jews” have lived in harmony with their neighbors for more than a century. The two active synagogues that I visited with them were both as familiar as any one would see anywhere else across the world with familiar symbols and artifacts, yet the multiple hands made local carpets on the floors and posters on the walls told a different story.
The older men were charming me as we walked through the Jewish school and little village. They were so proud of their community and so happy to see an American. But most of all, they wanted me to know that they were o.k. They were proud Azeris and proud Jews and saw no conflict in being both. They were part of the community, safe and secure in their practice of Judaism and safe in their standing in Azerbaijan.
These were the Jews who stayed behind. While they told me of family members in New Jersey, Brooklyn and Israel, they showed me in their actions their own sense of community and contentment.
And they showed me the recently uncovered mass grave in their small village where their ancestors laid together with the bones of their non-Jewish neighbors, killed by a genocide in 1918 – a time when Israel was merely a twinkle in people’s eyes and a future genocide of the magnitude of the Shoah was unthinkable.
It was probably the most stunning sight I had ever witnessed. It was more stunning by the fact that after laying flowers and two small stones next to the open “archaeological site” I was greeted by four TV cameras and ten reporters asking for an immediate comment on what I had just seen.
I had seen horror. I had seen something unthinkable. I had seen something we can never forget. I had seen history. And, as my tradition has taught me, I left two small stones behind showing that I had been there. I will not forget, and I will continue to tell their story.
While my friend and I were shaken to our core, the local villagers looked at this open grave as proof. Proof that evil still exists, that the struggles in Azerbaijan are national struggles not tied simply to them as Jews.
I, however, pictured the thousands of mass graves throughout Europe. I recoiled at the thought that some mass graves in Ukraine likely contain my aunts, uncles and cousins, the victims of another genocide during a war that changed the destiny of the world.
The village Jews gave me incredible hope and gave me much strength. They, like my cousins in Israel, have seen much death and destruction, yet they persevere. They have hopes and dreams for their children and grandchildren. They have a sustaining faith.
When we were together later the same day in Baku at a jubilant reception I had been joined by two young university students who were representing the local Hillel. It was an incredible juxtaposition. These students were intent on the future. They were intent on building their local Hillel and talked to me about their extensive programming – classes, social events, services, celebrations. They were as comfortable in their own skin as any young people I have met anywhere. They, too, showed their confidence in their position as Azeris and as Jews.
After our time at the reception we went to see two local synagogues – the “mountain Jews” synagogue and the Ashkenazi synagogue. Again, it was an incredibly familiar feel, this time even more so than in the small village. From the donor plaques on the walls to the silver candlesticks sitting in preparation for Shabbat, I felt at home.
It was at this synagogue where I felt an emotional pull that was like none other that day. An older man just couldn’t stop smiling at me and I couldn’t stop looking at him. A very short man in his seventies, he reminded me of my late father. I wanted to take his picture to show my family, but was embarrassed so started taking pictures of the entire group. He smiled and my heart smiled back.
The older men were ready for minyan, I needed to go back to my hotel to pack for my return home later that night. We walked into the street, the smiling Hillel students hugged me good-bye. What a day. History, celebration, the future. My incredible adventure.
Susan Turnbull currently serves as the Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee.