(No. 3/2005 - February 2005)
Editor: Fran Bock

We are pleased to present the illustrated travel journal of Howard Gilman, who spent several weeks during the Fall of 2004 visiting the ancestral towns of his grandparents.

While not all these villages are in Belarus, we felt strongly that the journal was a unified document and ought to be presented as a whole.

This article is copyrighted by Howard Gilman.

Reprinting or copying of this article is not allowed
without prior permission from the copyrightholders


A Visit to Four Villages

by Howard Gilman

I am fortunate to have known my four grandparents. I knew them well. They all emigrated to the United States in the first decade of the 20th century. Except for my maternal grandmother, who occasionally spoke about the beautiful mountains in the village she came from and the emperor Franz-Joseph who was good to the Jews, there was almost no discussion about the places that they came from. And I never questioned them about it. I can't remember exactly when I first wanted to visit these places. Certainly a "roots" exercise my elder daughter did in the 7th grade added to my desire, but for at least the last 25 years I've wanted to visit these villages.

But as my search for the villages neared completion, and as I started to actually plan for the trip, I began to have other thoughts. While I still wanted very much to see what they saw and walk where they walked, I half expected the visits to be a bit boring. I though I might walk around the villages, sit in cafe for a while and leave. I wasn't at all prepared for the emotional and intellectual experience that was to come.

What follows is, essentially, a diary of what I saw, what I felt and what I thought during my trip to eastern Europe to visit the villages of my grandparents. It consists of the notes I took each day, written up each evening in various hotel rooms.

Vilnius - 29 September 2004

Not much here. A pretty grim city ... maybe it's the weather which is overcast and a bit chilly. Maybe it's me since I hardly slept on the overnight flight to Helsinki, then had to change planes to get to Vilnius. Saw the ugliest cathedral I've ever seen ... at least 2 different styles, Greek columns (?), falling apart and on the top two huge religious statues out of all proportion to the rest of the structure. Dahlia (a friend) is from here and thinks highly of the place but I don't see it. Of course, I've only been here a couple of hours and in about 4-5 hours I' ll try to eat something and go to bed. There is a nice cobblestone street with shops and cafes where I'm sitting right now.

Had a pretty good meal at the hotel, a Holiday Inn would you believe. It will turn out to be the best meal I will have in eastern Europe. The black bread was really special. It reminded me of the pumpernickel I ate as a kid in Brooklyn. I can taste it even now.

30 September 2004

5:30 AM in the Vilnius railroad station. I walk into an information booth to ask about the train to Minsk. A 40ish woman with short blond hair and light blue tailored railroad uniform doesn't speak English. I hand her my ticket and before running off to find someone who does, exclaims "oy vay!" I crack up. Is she Jewish? Is "oy vay" a Lithuanian expression? Northern European? She certainly pronounced it like a Litvak.

The Belorussian countryside from the train: farms and woods; very flat; a good number of birch trees with skinny trunks. They remind me of the movies "War and Peace," "Dr. Zhivago" ... I do love traveling by train ... some fall colors too ... I wonder if they're maple trees?

Minsk is a prosperous looking city compared to Vilnius. To me, the architecture looks "Soviet modern," - massive and ugly but some of it is OK. 80% of the city was destroyed in WW II.

1 October 2004 -- Sam Gilman (nee Gelerovitch) [paternal grandfather]

Galina Swartz is my guide/interpreter. From Galina's Belarus encyclopedia:

  • Gorodeya is the name of a river as well as the town.
  • 1897 population of Gorodeya: 897
  • The town was under Polish control from 1919 to 1939.

Same sort of scenery as yesterday on the drive down to Gorodeya (southwest of Minsk): flat farmland, woods (sometime thick), birches and maples.

===> Partisans hid in these woods during WW II.

Walking through Gorodeya ... old small houses ... some maybe 100 years old--maybe not.

We met an old woman and asked directions to the Village Hall. The woman reminded me of my grandma Mary, wearing a babushka on her head. We told her why we were here and she promptly broke into tears. She knew many of the Jews who were executed outside the town in WW II.

===> In June, 1942, 1137 Jews were massacred in a field outside Gorodeya.

===> It is estimated that 30 - 40% of all Belarussians lost their lives in WW II. The prewar population of Belarus was about 10 million, over 1 million of whom were Jewish. Today the population is just getting back to 10 million and there are 100,000 Jews (I've also read 28,000 somewhere).

At the Village Hall we met Leonid Kackanovich, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the town ( a big deal) and now started an adventure. He and his deputy started phoning all the oldest residents of the town and we spent most of the remainder of the day visiting them in their homes (all 4 of us: the Chairman, his Deputy Galina Pavlovna Biriukova, Galina Swartz and myself). We asked them if they remembered the name Gelerovitch. Some said the name was familiar. Leonid, too, thought the name was familiar. Many of them literally broke down crying when discussing what happened to the Jews. We met:

  • a 77 year old seamstress who made wedding dresses. There were dresses hung all over her small house.

Seamstress' Home

  • A 91 year old man and his 60 year old daughter. The daughter remembers her mother saying that she bought a sewing machine (or was helped to buy a sewing machine) by a Gelerovitch in 1934. Could it have been Avram-Moshe, Sam's brother? Another branch of the family? They were tailors as well as farmers.

Home of the 91 year-old man. The white structure along the back wall is a Russian oven used to heat the house. Traditionally, the oldest and youngest slept in the space on top, the warmest place in the house.

  • another 90 year old woman.
  • a woman who, as an 18 year old, taught school in the village in 1941-2. Her students were all Jewish, she said, and she remembers as they were led to the pit outside of town and executed. She remembers one little girl waving to her as she was led away.
  • a 90 year old man who spied on the Germans for the Russians.

===> This is a country that seems fixated on WW II and especially the atrocities. And not just the old ... all ages, and Galina as well. There are monuments all over the place to the dead, the partisans, the heroes ...

We visited the memorial to the 1137 who died. It's very simple, actually a work-in-progress and very touching. There are 1137 large rocks leading up a gradual incline to the site of the pit at the top. The Jews spent a year digging the pit, 15 meters deep, not knowing what it was for. The whole operation was run, and the people were executed, by a special Lithuanian brigade. I was told that the earth moved for days after the executions. I think the horror of that statement will be with me for the rest of my life. Here the Lithuanians are viewed as worse than the Nazis regarding the Jews. They started killing them in Lithuania even before the Germans arrived.

Memorial to the 1137 Jews massacred outside Gorodeya

===> The western part of Belarus is Polish and Catholic. They speak Polish at home and to each other. Gorodeya is roughly on the dividing line. It is (and was) 50%/50%.

===> Leonid doesn't believe the population numbers in the encyclopedia. There are 5 or 6 different Gorodeyas: lower Gorodeya, hidden Gorodeya, mountain Gorodeya (even though the whole area is flat), ... The encyclopedia, he thinks, must have counted just the main place.

===> The town was evidently a bigger deal than I thought. The railroad came in the late 19th century (187?) and there are 4 tracks at the Gorodeya station. It was a distribution point for goods from all over. Today, there is a sugar refinery, a flax plant and other enterprises.

===> Leonid had many relatives who emigrated at about the same time as Sam and his sisters. He thinks the major reason for the emigration was a Tsarist edict that the eldest male would inherit all the property after the death of a parent, leaving nothing for the other siblings. Jews could own property in this area.

===> There is a "memory book" being compiled for the Nesvizh district of which Gorodeya is a part. It lists a Yoshka (Joseph) Gilerovitch and a family of 4 as victims of the Nazis. Could it be Avram-Moshe's offspring? It is possible. Another branch of the family?

We visited Mir, about 10 km from Gorodeya, where supposedly Sam attended a famous yeshiva for a time. The town has a castle (I don't know anything about its history) but because of the castle, the town has been the recipient of national and international funds. The yeshiva building and surrounding synagogues have been refurbished, at least from the outside. There were 3 synagogues surrounding the yeshiva, one for the wealthy which was very imposing, one for the poor which had no heat and a third for the middle class!

Restored yeshiva building in Mir

===> A word about the stereotype of the "communist functionary." To most westerners they're supposed to be cold, humorless, bordering on cruel. Leonid Kackanovich is warm, generous and full of humor. Chairman of the Executive Committee is a pretty big deal in that place, yet he took the whole day off to accompany us on all those visits. He knew the people well, even knew which chairs the old people liked to sit on. His Deputy, Galina, although younger than I, acted like my mother. It was raining for much of the day and she kept trying to cover me with her umbrella.

At lunch after too many vodka toasts. From left, myself, Galina Swartz, Leonid Kackanovich and Galina Pavlovna Biriukova.

2 October 2004 -- Mary (Miriam) Gilman (nee Winick) [paternal grandmother]

The ride down to Obchin (due south of Minsk): similar topography as yesterday ... flat, fields and woods of birch and maple. As we get further south, large collective farms, some industry and mining.

Obchin seems really isolated. In fact, it was not known as a place where there were Jews to any of the researchers that I communicated with. The Village Hall was closed, it being Saturday. We met an elderly woman, a former teacher who became our unofficial guide for the next couple of hours.

Old houses in Obchin... 100 years old?

We met a very old man who said he used to remember a lot but had forgotten almost everything.

We then went to the home of a relative of the former teacher, a man whose wife who was quite a bit older than he. We were joined by a neighbor. They had no memory of the surname Winick. The older woman (81) recounted how the Jews ("all" her friends were Jews) were led away into the local forest, executed and thrown into the pit. She cried; everyone cried. Someone mentioned that many (most) of the Jews of Obchin moved to Luban during the "Sovietization" (1920s) because the larger town provided more opportunity.

Home of the man and his wife (far right) along with a relative and a friend.

===> The Winick family's association with the Lubaner Umgegand Society (neighborhood of Luban) was the main reason we were able to identify Obchin as the home of Mary.

===> All of the older women I've met, both here and in Gorodeya, dress as they must have 100 years ago; colorful woolen skirts and babushkas on their heads, just like grandma Mary. I do remember her always wearing a babushka.

===> This trip, to a large degree, has turned into an examination, a remembrance, of WW II and the Holocaust. I should have foreseen that. When trying to touch a culture a 100 years old and when that culture was ended so abruptly 60 years ago, you have to deal with what ended it. And to the old people we've been speaking to, these events had such an indelible effect on their lives that just the mention of Jews starts them going.

We went to Luban, now a town of some 12,000, to a small museum. The museum was closed (Saturday) but the director lived right down the street and she opened it for us. There was a Luban "Remembrance Book" in the museum and we looked for Winicks but didn't find any. (I believe that all of Mary's siblings emigrated to the US around the time she did.)

We went to the area in the center of the town, that was set up as a Jewish ghetto and surrounded by barbed wire when the Nazis occupied it. The museum director mentioned that over 50% of the population of Luban prior to WW II was Jewish. There are no Jews living here now. Across the street was a preserved, refurbished synagogue. Again, the imposing structure was for the wealthy and behind it, the more modest structure, was for the poor.

Rich and poor synagogues in Luban

===> Perhaps some of us tend to romanticize shtetl life a bit. This business of rich and poor synagogues is distressing. Based upon my sample of 2, it seems to be prevalent in the larger towns. One could say that in the US today there are, based on where one lives, rich and poor synagogues that have different membership fees, different ticket prices for the holidays, etc. But somehow having them right next to each other like this seems to be a gratuitous reminder of economic class.

We visited a memorial at the site of Luban's execution pit. They've positively identified over 800 Jews who were executed and buried at the site in December, 1942 but there had to be more. The pre-WW II population of Luban was about 3500 and 50% were Jewish. Some Jews may have escaped to join the partisans who were beginning to gain in size at about this time, but the numbers in the pit have to be larger.

Minsk -- 3 October 2004

We visited the Jewish ghetto area of Minsk. The area was set up by the Nazis after occupying the city. Prior to WW II, Jews were integrated into all areas of Minsk. Visited the site of the main execution pits, lots of memorials and the site of a Jewish cemetery. In 1943, it was reported back to Berlin that Minsk was Juden-free.

Memorial at the site of the main execution pit in Minsk

Kiev -- 4 October 2004

In the old quarter of Kiev, at the top of a hill, are two beautiful church complexes facing each other about 1/4 mile apart: St. Michael's Monastery and St. Sophia. St. Michael's was destroyed in WWII and what one sees is a rebuilt version. St. Sophia was largely undamaged in the war.

Man playing the bandura, a traditional Ukrainian instrument, in courtyard at St. Sophia

To the left of St. Michael's there is a 5 or 6 panel informational display in Ukrainian and English documenting Stalin's forced relocation and starvation of Ukrainian peasants in 1932-33 that killed millions. One of the panels of the display quotes a 1933 Italian Consul to somewhere or other. The quote complains that the world press which agonizes about the"so-called" German atrocities toward Jews has done little reporting of the slaughter of the Ukrainians. It goes on to quote a "Jew", an official in the communist party, saying that they are about to change the ethnographic map of Ukraine. I'm not normally one who sees anti-Semitism behind every corner, but this has to be one of the most outrageous examples of gratuitous anti-Semitic slander I've ever seen. The subject was the Soviets' slaughter of the Ukrainians. Surely there is enough evidence to support that horrible act without using the anti-Semitic remarks of an Italian fascist. I assume that the display must have been sponsored by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

6 October 2004 -- David Kropitzer [maternal grandfather]

Zoya Danilovitch is my guide/interpreter.

  • The pre-WW II population of Chernivtsi (where I'm staying) was 112,000, over 50% Jewish.

  • Today there are about 5000 Jews in all of Bukowina, the province of which Chernivtsi is a part.

On the way out of Chernivtsi we saw the area of the Jewish ghetto where the Jews were rounded up by the Nazis prior to deportation. The ride to Potok Zloty, which is to the northwest, starts out with flat farmland, no woods, no mountains. The villages we pass through are to a large degree rebuilt and refurbished. Many new houses are being built. They are built in stages and take a long while. Building will reach a certain stage and then stop while more money is accumulated. The soil looks black, very fertile to my eyes.

The Dneister River

As we get closer to Potok Zloty, we enter lovely wooded areas. We cross the Dneister river, a beautiful river surrounded by hills. We're a bit lost. We go for miles and miles on "dirt" roads, some of which seem as if they haven't ever been paved. At times we go off the road and drive on a farmer's path which is smoother.

===> Potok Zloty was part of the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia at the time David lived here.

We enter the town and visit with:

  • the mayor

  • the ex-mayor

  • a 93 year old man who remembered the Jews being led away in WWII but not much else. The surnames Kropitzer or Sporn (cousin Leo's mother's maiden name) didn't mean anything to him. He only remembered the first names of the Jews. He talked about how the Jewish area in the center of town was bombed by the Nazis and destroyed by fire.

93 year-old man in Potok Zloty

  • 2 elderly Marias (Mashas). Neither of them knew the names Kropitzer or Sporn. One of them told me about a Jewish woman, born in 1920, who escaped the slaughter because she was in the army, who is still alive and lives in Moscow. I have her address in case we want to contact her. She very well might remember the Kropitzer brothers who didn't emigrate and perished.

  • the ex-director of the local school who took us on a multi-hour tour of the town.

  • an old man on a bicycle who took us on a tour of the Jewish cemetery. He lived right next door.

The current center of the town is a lovely little park, really almost a small woods, but it used to contain the main street of the town where the Jews lived. They also lived on several streets running off the center. There were two fires in the 1930s which destroyed the center (the Jewish area) of the town. (The old man's memory of the Nazi bombs causing a fire and destroying the center of town is probably incorrect. He probably remembers the fires and the Nazi bombs and thinks they happened at the same time). As we walked through the park we were shown the foundations of the houses (probably Jewish houses) that used to be there.

Current center of town. Before fires in the 1930s the area contained Jewish houses.

A couple of blocks away from the park we were shown three houses that were at least 100 years old. They've clearly been refurbished (perhaps many times) but the basic structure is unchanged and it did strike me that David most probably saw them nearly every day while he lived here.

100 year-old refurbished houses in Potok Zloty

===> According to the ex-director of the school, the prewar population of Potok Zloty was about 2400 and over 50% was Jewish. The current population is about 2800 which includes 30 Poles. It seems strange that Polish was the lingua franca 100 years ago and now there are only 30 Poles. Zoya thinks that the Poles, typically being religious, migrated away during Soviet times. There is a Catholic church in the town, newly refurbished, which has about 100 worshippers.

===> A Polish language history of Potok Zloty shows a total prewar population of 6600 and 2600 Poles! The population difference might be due to different definitions of the town, like Gorodeya, but there were clearly many Poles still living there. Where did they go?

===> There are walnut trees all over the place. "Lunch" consisted of walnuts, grapes and peaches from the ex-mayor's front yard. (I also have a chestnut from Gorodeya and ate an apple from Obchin).

===> During WWII the Jews were marched 12 km to the Dneister river, shot and pushed into the river.

Contrary to the views of the many people I communicated with prior to my trip, there is a 'castle', or rather the ruins of a fortress and small palace, about 50 meters from the center of the town. To my eye it is perhaps 20-25% still standing. We were taken on a tour of the site. Here is the history I was able to get from the ex-director of the local school: There was originally a wooden fort on the site built by the Turks. In the early 17th century, a wealthy Polish nobleman named Potoski built the fortress. The walls were (are) very thick, 3 m in places. There is a domicile, or palace, inside and there was a moat around it. The Turks captured and destroyed the place in the late (mid?) 17 th century. At some time later, the Poles regained the site.

Remains of the outside wall of the castle, and of the palace inside the walls

===> I have 2 books (one is actually a pamphlet) of the history of Potok Zloty, one in Ukrainian and the other in Polish. I'm not sure what I'll do with them but the Polish one has some pictures (photos, I think) of what the town must have looked like when David lived there.

===> Did I. B. Singer come from Bucac, the nearby district town? The ex-director seems to think so. To my knowledge, before emigrating, he lived in Warsaw and also split his time among several shtetls. But Bucac is a long way from Warsaw.

The Jewish cemetery has about 30-40 stones. Some are still standing, many are pushed over and tilted. The story I got (from the old man) was that in 1956 a KGB official ordered the cemetery destroyed and the gravestones used for construction. (My own view is that this may not have been an anti-Semitic act but rather just a pragmatic act of an atheistic Marxist. There were no Jews here, the cemetery was not being "used" and one might as well get some use out of the stones). There is a pile of stones in one part of the cemetery where some returned the stones when, apparently, they realized what they were. I looked at the Hebrew lettering on some of the stones but couldn't discern Kropitzer or Sporn. But clearly some of my ancestors must be buried here.

The Jewish cemetery in Potok Zloty

7 October 2004 -- Sarah Kropitzer (nee Ispass) [maternal grandmother]

Seljatyn (Seletin) is to the southwest of Cherivtsi. It was foggy in the early morning. As the fog started to lift, we took a detour to the town of Ispass. My family has no known connection to this town other than the name but I thought it might be interesting to look at it. As we approached Ispass, the fog lifted revealing the foothills of the Carpathian mountains in the distance. Ispass is famous for its crafts, particularly its Easter eggs. It's a pleasant village in the middle of farmland with some largish (2 to 3 stories) buildings.

===> Seljatyn and Chernivtsi were part of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bukowina when Sarah lived there. The Bukowina Jews were sent to camps in Transnistria (Ed. note: "across the Dneister") during the war. Cousin Lotti and her mother Gusta were probably sent there. The Romanians volunteered to administer these camps, thinking they would get Bukowina if the Germans won the war.

===> Many Ukrainians spoke Yiddish, according to Zoya. Her mother-in-law worked for a Jewish family and spoke Yiddish fluently.

Driving toward Seljatyn on dirt roads, climbing up and up through deep forests of beech and pine on switch backs. Beautiful scenery ... as beautiful as anything I've seen. We go on this way for 40 km. After a while we start going down.

As we approach Seljatyn, we see some farming on the hillsides, lots of dairy cows. All of sudden I remembered Sarah telling me about drinking warm milk fresh from a cow and how delicious it was. This place is really gorgeous. It reminds me of pictures of Alpine valleys although, of course, there are no snow capped mountains surrounding the view. The Carpathians are only about 6000 feet above sea level.

Scenery on the drive to Seljatyn

We've crossed the Cheremosh river several times during the descent. (Cheremosh is also the name of my hotel in Chernivtsi.) As we enter the town we see a stone fortress-like structure, half built or half destroyed. We learn later that this was an"Austrian" (Catholic) church that was being built when a workman was killed. Religious practice at the time dictated that the work had to be stopped. How long ago? No one seems to be sure ... 100 - 200 years ago.

We met:

  • the mayor, a lovely woman in one of the nicest offices I've seen. Spacious, wood, rustic, light with hanging plants and live flowers. The mayor took down the names I was looking for, Ispass and Scharf, and my address and promised to get back to me with the results of the investigation (Scharf is the name of my cousins Ann Berkowitz' and Manny Scharf's father who also came from Seljatyn.

  • Yuri, a history teacher and "village hall" guide who gave us a tour of the town.

  • an 83 year old man who didn't recall the name Ispass or Scharf, also adding that Ispass is name he would remember because of the town.

  • a 78 year old woman who also didn't recall the names but recalled the Jews being led away to the camps. They were carrying what they could and the Nazis cut their pillows and feather quilts and feathers were flying all over.

===> It struck me as crazy that the Nazis would bother coming up to this remote place just to round up a few more Jews. Zoya responded that the Nazis were nothing if not efficient.

===> The current population of the town is 2300. The prewar population was 5000 of which 3000 were Jews. The major economic activities are (and were) logging and farming ...and cattle breeding. (The logging activity is prevalent. To my unschooled eye there seems to be the beginnings of a threat to the beauty of the area.)

===> Hutsul is the name of the indigenous people of the area. Myth has it that they are very wise. It is also the name of a local breed of horse.

The Hutsul horse

We walked through the town, passing many likely Jewish houses some of which were over 100 years old. The Jews lived in the main part of town, usually owning businesses. The Ukrainians lived away from the center up the hills. The beauty of this place is really striking whichever way you turn. The Cheremosh river runs through the center of the town. At this point and at this time of year, it's really just a fast moving stream.

Old house in Seljatyn

Old Jewish house on the main street

We passed something call a "Greek Catholic" church, which was an effort by the Catholic church in Austro-Hungarian times to spread Catholicism among Orthodox believers.

At the end of the town was the Jewish cemetery. It was a fairly large place with perhaps as many as 200 stones (my estimate), most still standing, some leaning. It was fenced. I was astounded to see, right near the gate at the front, three monuments to Sontag ... Chaim, Mendel and Seide Sonntag. The Sontag's were Sarah's cousins. Nathan, Isaac, Sadie and Sydney (the son) used to come to my apartment on Friday nights to play Continental (a card game). The Sontags must have come from Seljatyn as well. The stones had lots of Hebrew writing (perhaps Yiddish?) but the names were in the Latin alphabet which would have been used in Austro-Hungarian times and really until the area was added to Ukraine (the Soviet Union) in 1940. There were no dates on the stones. I searched the cemetery for Ispass or Scharf (in Hebrew or the Latin alphabet) but didn't find anything.

Jewish cemetery in Seljatyn

Headstone of Mendel Sontag, almonst certainly a relative

For the first time on the trip I wish I had something better than the disposable cameras I've been using. I'm not sure I did justice to the scenery.

7 October 2004 -- Chernivsti

I visited (from the outside only) the Archbishop's residence, a complex of buildings in a U shape. It was built in the 19th century (186?-188?). The buildings which include two churches, a library and a residence are made of brick but ornamented with towers and turrets. The tile roofs are done in the style of Ukrainian folk art. To my eyes, a unique style and rather nice.

We also visited the main square. We saw a theater, a Jewish center and a bank (Austrian Savings bank). All the buildings are quite nice and built in the first decade of the 20th century which was the cultural, intellectual, and economic peak for Bukowina -- for Jews as well. It makes me wonder why my ancestors emigrated at that time.

I think a final word may be in order regarding the "history" I acquired during the trip. In many cases I explicitly noted the individual who provided the information but in the other instances my sources were my guides/interpreters. Both women are intelligent and well-educated beyond their obvious linguistic skills. But they undoubtedly view their countries' history through their own personal, national and cultural prejudices, as do we all.

Copyright 2005 Belarus SIG and Howard Gilman

Back to the index of the Belarus SIG Newsletters

Back to the Belarus SIG website