NEWSLETTER (No. 9/2005
– September 2005) Editor:Fran Bock
In August 2005, Sheldon Cohen embarked on a visit to his
ancestral homes in Belarus, as well
as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Russia.Like so many others whose ancestors
emigrated from these places, he saw beautiful as well as wrenching sites,
experienced many emotions and took many vivid photographs.
thank him for permitting usto publish his report and photos
of this memorabletrip.
We departed Atlanta,
GA, on the afternoon of Tuesday, August 2nd , arriving in Minsk,
Belarus at on the following day with a short
stop in Frankfurt.
We were met at the airport as
prearranged, and taken to Hotel Minsk,
our residence for the next few days.The hotel was great by Belarus
After checking in and getting
acclimated, we were met at our hotel by our host Yuri Dorn, who is affiliated with the Union of Religious Jewish
Congregations in the Republic of Belarus,
the Jewish Revival Charitable Mission, the Jewish
Heritage Research Group of the Republic
of Belarus.He is also the Co-chairman of the Committee
for the Preservation of the Memory of Holocaust Victims in the Republic
We were joined by
translator/guide Bella Velikovskiai, and Oleg Kosov, of the Jewish Heritage
Research Group of the Republic of Belarus,
who provided a car for our visit.
Our first visit was to the
Minsk Archives to view some of the birth, marriage and death listings for my
ancestors who resided in the area around the city of Mogilev.
It was prearranged that specific volumes would be available for our review,
but in fact, many were incorrectly gathered and the logistics of getting the
correct ones proved too difficult so we cut the visit short.
We went next to the Jewish
Community Center (Minsk Jewish Campus) where we toured the large modern
facility and observed the Jewish renewal programs and displays of wonderful
artwork prepared by its clients.The
director, who was very enthusiastic about what they do here, took us around
and at one point insisted that we take a piece of artwork for a
remembrance.The facility is funded by
the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany,
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, ORT and the Jewish
Federations of Atlanta, Philadelphia
We made a short visit to the Museum
of Jewish History where we saw a
large collection of photographs and objects covering the periods before and
during the war.
We ended the day with a great
dinner at Yuri’s home with his wife Irina and
The next morning we toured Minsk
with Bella and Oleg, concentrating on the ghetto area and other Jewish
aspects of the city.We paused at the
Minsk Jewish Ghetto Memorial known as Yama – the pit where 5,000 were murdered on 3/4/42.Along the stairs into the pit is a haunting
procession of larger than life black abstract figures of victims being led to
We next rode the Metro, which
we like to do when in foreign countries.It was grand and sheathed in marble, a hint as to what they will be
like as we progress to Moscow.This was followed by lunch at the Synagogue
where we had soup, salad, baked fish with pasta and dessert, along with the
several members of the needy Jewish community who come there for lunch
Following lunch we drove to the
Museum of Everyday Life and Architecture of the Republic of Belarus located
in the tiny village of Strochitsa along the river Ptich about 12 km from Minsk,
for a glimpse into early life in the region.Here we saw a large collection of 19th Century wooden
structures from around Belarus.Many were furnished and decorated to depict
a specific holiday with appropriate foods on the table.
Next on the agenda was Khatyn, a
hamlet 60 km from Minsk which was
burned with all of its inhabitants in a 1943 Nazi reprisal.The site is now a sobering memorial
centered around a sculpture of YuzifKaminsky, the only survivor.Other aspects include the Graveyard of
Villages which commemorates the Nazi destruction of 185 other Belorusian villages.Concrete posts simulating trees of life commemorate an additional 433
destroyed but rebuilt villages.A
memory wall lists the Nazi concentration camps in Belarus
as well as some of their victims.The
utter silence of the site is broken only by intermittent sounding of single
bells located around the complex.This
was a truly moving experience.
During an early morning drive
from Minsk we stopped at the MalyTrostinets
Memorial Complex located on the site of a former concentration camp.No camp elements remain, but there are
three modest memorial sites to visit.
We then continued on to Mogilev,
the birthplace of my parents and earlier generations.My parents, the last of the family to
leave, emigrated to the US
in 1923 in the midst of a revolution, but long before WW II.
It was Friday,
a popular day for weddings and the MunicipalWeddingPalace
was in full swing.Decorated cars with
wedding parties were waiting in long lines.After exiting the building there are photos
to be taken on the steps before driving off to parties.
We met up with Alexander Litin
and his associate Ida Shenderovich, who are experts on the Jewish history
of the city.We visited the areas of
where Jews historically lived.While
very little remains, through pictures and spot observations we got a good
idea of how things were before the war.We searched the Jewish Cemetery, which is overgrown and in poor
condition, for traces of my family but found none.Many stones were fallen, some face down,
and many required rubbing with a wire brush to decipher the inscriptions.
at the Hotel KIM and took some
time the next morning to explore new Mogilev.We searched high and low for Kvas, a popular beverage of fermented rye bread.After finding it at the department store we
took a kvas break on the spot.It is a taste that one must acquire –
oh well, we tried it.
After leaving Mogilev we stopped in the nearby
village of Selets,
the birthplace of my grandfather.We
talked to locals about their recollection of Jewish families in the
village.They directed us to an
“old man” who could be found sitting on a bench in his yard on
the next street, whom they thought would remember.It turns out that this old looking man was
not that old – younger than some of us, and recalled nothing.We chatted and took some pictures with him
and departed for Minsk.
Return to Minsk
After our return to Minsk and
a leisurely stroll down Skoryny
Street, to see some shops and a department
store, we headed to Yuri Dorn’s dacha in the village
for dinner, a fitting end to our visit to Belarus
We arrived in Vilnius by
train from Minsk mid
morning.We were met at the train by Regina Kopilevich,
our guide and her driver, and after dropping our bags off at the hotel, proceeded
to see the Jewish aspects of the city.
we visited the Center for Tolerance, the Jewish Cemetery, the Jewish State
Museum of Lithuania, the TaharitHakodesh Synagogue (which is closed due to disagreement
among the Jewish population as to what type of shul
it is to be), the medieval Jewish Quarter and the Ghettos.Regina
pointed out the location of the ghetto enclosure walls and gates as we
We then drove 10 km outside the
city to the Jewish Memorial at Ponar (“Ponary”, Panieri Woods Death Camp) dedicated to the 70,000 Jews
and 100,000 Soviet citizens who were murdered and burnt here by the Nazis and
their collaborators between 1941 and 1944.The site consists of a series of pits, which where originally planned
for construction of tanks for storage of fuel for the war effort, but used
instead for the disposal of corpses which were later exhumed and burned to
dispose of the evidence.
That evening we joined our
group for a tour of the Baltic countries which after a few days in Vilnius
was to take us by coach to Riga, Latvia,
and then to St. Petersburg where
we are to join a river cruise to Moscow.
While on an excursion to Trakai, residence of
the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, we visited a 14th Century castle and
saw the Karaite Synagogue.
After a morning tour of the old
city and a survey of beautifully restored Art Nouveau buildings with our tour
group, we met with AleksandrFeigmanis,
who guided us through the Jewish aspects of Riga.We visited the Jewish Quarter, site of the
Riga Ghetto, the Pietav Synagogue as well as the
Memorial at the ruins of the Big Choral Synagogue.
After a stop at the Jews in LatviaMuseum, with its vast collection
of photographs and memorabilia, we visited two memorial sites outside of Riga.First was the RumbalaKilling Fields Memorial, site of killings of thousands of Jews
from the Riga Ghetto, where grassed burial mounds are demarcated by granite
curbs and numerous creative memorials and sculptures have been erected. We then visited the Salaspils Memorial
concentration camp site about 20 km from Riga.The principal purpose of the camp was for
transportation of victims to larger Nazi camps.Large scale structures, the walkway
described as “the Way of Suffering” and sculptures with titles
such as “the Unbroken”, “Humiliated”,“Mother”, and
very emotional tone to the site.
Back in Riga,
we attended an evening organ concert of Bach, Mozart and Mendelsohn
at the grand Dome Cathedral.
During a lull in group tour sightseeing, we managed sneak off to see the
temporary location of the only synagogue in the city.We met the Rabbi, put a few dollars into
the collection box, and saw the plans for an impressive new facility.
St. Petersburg, Russia
Upon arrival in St.
Petersburg we boarded the M.S. Litvinov, our home for the next 15
days.We stayed in port for four
nights before departing for Moscow
and stops in between.During all of
our free time, we went around town privately with AndreyVereschagin.In addition to the usual tourist sites not
covered by the cruise excursions, we were taken to the RussianMuseum to see an extensive
exhibit of Marc Chagall work.
While at Pushkin
to see the CatherinePalace
we made a stop at the nearby Jewish Holocaust Victims Monument including a
work by Jewish sculptor VadimSidur
entitled “The Formula of Sorrow”, comprised of abstract letters
“J” and “D” denoting the word Jude.
We visited the beautifully
restored Grand Choral Synagogue built in 1870 in the Moorish style.We observed a seat plaque with our Kagan family
name on it.There was a separate
wedding chapel with a golden chuppa.
We were privileged to be able to
see a ballet performance at the legendary Mariinsky
Theater, which is normally dark during the month of August.The Boris Eifman
Russian traveling company performed Minkus’
Petersburg we traveled east along the NevaRiver into LakeLagoda,
Europe’s largest lake, then along the SvirRiver,
stopping at SvirStroy, a
quaint riverside village.While
ashore, we were graciously invited into several villager homes for pastries,
caviar, herring, vodka, etc., with the expectation of a few Rubles in return.
Continuing along the SvirRiver
Europe’s second largest lake, we made a stop at KizhiIsland, the site of an open air
museum of 18th century wooden buildings.
Sailing from LakeOnega through the Volga-Baltic
Waterway, traversing 7 locks, we arrived at Goritsy (Kirillov),
a typical farming village and site of a major monastery.
Additional stops were made at
the Golden Ring cities of Yaroslavl,Kostrama and Uglich before
traveling the MoscowCanal
We stayed in port aboard ship
for three nights before moving to the Hotel
National, overlooking Red Square and the Kremlin,for a few extra
nights.As in St.
Petersburg, we went around town privately with AndreyVereschagin, during all
of our free time, using the Metro whenever possible.In addition to the usual tourist sites not
covered by the cruise excursions, we were taken to house museums of AleksandrSkrabin, Boris
Pasternak, Lev Tolstoy, and Maxim Gorky.
The underground Metro stations
are unlike any in the world, with extensive carved marble wall surfaces,
chandeliers, mosaics, and murals, with no two stations alike.
We visited the KitayGorod
section, the Jewish area of the city, where the Choral Synagogue and the
Chassidic Synagogue are located.We
saw the site of the former Jewish Chamber Theater and a monument to SholomAleichem.Traveling a short distance from the city
center we visited the Victory Memorial (Memorial Hill) which included a
memorial synagogue and HolocaustMuseum.