ONLINE NEWSLETTER
(No. 7/2006- June 2006)
Editor: Fran Bock

Those of us afflicted with the genealogy “bug” will find irresistible the story of Myrna Siegel’s two trips to her ancestral shtetl of Molchad. Her persistence, her passion and her growing expertise enabled her to locate a family treasure on her second journey. The moral of the story is, of course, Don’t Give Up!!!

We thank Myrna Siegel for sharing her story with us

 

This article is copyrighted by Myrna Siegel.

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

 

Lost and Found in Belarus

by Myrna Siegel

Most of my friends and family find it difficult to understand my passion and pursuit of family history. But they do occasionally admit that they too would like to know more about their ancestral family. When I told them that we would be making a return visit to our ancestral towns in Lithuania and Belarus, their reaction was almost unanimous, “You were there ten years ago, why do you want to return; what more can you learn?” They obviously do not share the feeling of intrigue and mystique that my ancestral shtetl Molchad holds for me.

For a moment let us turn the clock back ten years. In the summer of 1995, after visiting a friend who was near death, my husband Shael told me that after Yom Kippur he wanted to go to his grandfather’s birth town in Wizna, Poland. In previous years we had often spoken of taking a trip to our ancestral towns in Lithuania, Poland and Belarus, and realized that waiting for the perfect time was not an option. We hurriedly made our plans and left six weeks later. A message on Jewishgen supplied us with logistical help, including guides, who we fortunately were able to contact and confirm quickly. Yes, I had been involved with genealogy research for several years and had some information about our ancestral towns but when we got there I realized my knowledge was limited.

MYRNA AND SHAEL SIEGEL IN MOLCHAD, BELARUS

 

Molchad, Belarus is the ancestral town of both my parents, Dora Plofsky Brodsky and Sam Brodsky (Boretcky). Throughout the years I was told endearing stories of a town so far away from my home in Chicago. My mother spoke of the store her parents had where they sold various food items, and she and her family lived in the rear of the store. My grandmother Frieda was an exceptional cook and baker; my brother, sister and cousins still talk about her delicious “zemelach”. The priest who officiated in the church across the street from their store/home would always have my grandmother bake this delicious desert to serve when he had guests visiting him. My grandfather used to drive a horse and wagon to nearby Slonim twice a week to pick up merchandise for his store, frequently taking passengers with him. In 1911 when my mother was six years old she went to Slonim to attend school. She lived with her blind grandfather Shlomo Kovensky who was a Shammos in a schul and every morning would walk him there so he could prepare for the Shachris service.

MYRNA’S MOTHER DORA PLOFSKY’S SCHOOL PIN PRE-WORLD WAR I—SLONIM

 

When World War I broke out her father, Joseph Plofsky took her back to Molchad. She vividly remembered bridges in Slonim that were bombed and burning. In Molchad she would frequently go across the street to the large church to help care for the wounded soldiers. This is where my mother learned to speak several different languages.

CHURCH IN MOLCHAD

 

It was from my paternal great uncles Nate and Sam Brodsky that I heard so many stories about the family flour mill. They told me that my great great grandfather Meir Arieh Boretcky built three flour mills for his three sons, Yakov Yoseph, Itsele and Moshe Aaron. In my travels to Molchad and from speaking to survivors, I have only been able to establish that there were two flour mills thus making the following story more plausible. Family stories tell that after Meir Arieh died my great grandfather Yakov Yoseph had a disagreement with his brother Moshe Aaron over the inheritance of the flour mill. My great grandfather left Molchad and accepted a position in the Caucuses (Tiblisi) for one-half year, teaching the children of a wealthy land owner Hebrew and Talmud. In 1907 he, his second wife Tamara and three of their eight children left Russia for the U.S. to join the rest of their family in Chicago, IL. (More family stories relate that my great Grandfather had 20 children total with his two wives). My great uncles repeatedly told me that their father’s flour mill had a dated corner stone of 1866 with a symbol indicating that the building had fire insurance--the only building in Molchad to have this insurance. This fact is a very important part of the story I am now telling. In 1995 when we saw the flour mill there was in fact a corner stone with a date of 1866 on it and a funny symbol under the date. In Minsk we met an architect and asked her about that symbol. She immediately verified that it meant the building was insured, confirming what my uncles had told me.

FLOUR MILL’S CORNER STONE AS SEEN IN 1995

 

I had someone contact the mayor at that time saying that if the building was ever demolished I would be interested in getting the cornerstone. A year later I received a letter saying that the mill was being turned into a bathhouse and the stone was removed and in the mayor’s safe keeping for me to come and reclaim. I was told by a U.S. embassy representative in Minsk that it was unlikely that I would be able to take the stone out of the country. So, as much as I wanted the cornerstone, I decided that I should put the idea out of my mind. Although I had reconciled myself to the fact that I would not be able to get it, I still fantasized that the stone would one day be in my possession.

 

I dreamed that if and when I made a return trip it would be with a survivor from Molchad who would be able to point out the homes and places of Jewish interest. I so much wanted to walk the streets in hopes of recapturing what had once been there. Imagination can only take you so far and I needed someone to share their own personal first handed experiences of this once living Jewish community (80% of the population of Molchad before 1941 was Jewish). The few remaining survivors I have met with carry bitter memories of the Nazis marching into their beloved shtetl and the mass killings. They also have horrendous animosity against their non-Jewish neighbors who collaborated with the Nazis. When these survivors saw the video we took after our first trip, they told me that the only satisfaction they had is that the town, and its now inhabitants, have not moved into the 21st century and live the life of a typical Pale peasant. Ultimately I realized I would have to make my return trip unaccompanied by a survivor.

STREET SCENE MOLCHAD

 

It is now October 2004 and in the ensuing nine years I have spoken to several survivors and have gathered much more information. Before going to Belarus we spent four days in Vilnius, Lithuania. We wanted to see the changes in this vibrant city and also make a return visit to Shael’s ancestral town, Sirvintos.  This gave us the opportunity to spend time with our loveable, capable and caring guide of 1995, Regina Kopelovitch.. Her very capable driver Victor turned out to be a gem and the two days we spent with them were wonderful.

MYRNA WITH REGINA KOPELOVITCH AND DAHLIA MULEVICIENE IN KAUNUS, LITHUANIA ARCHIVES

 

All our travel arrangements for Belarus were made by Shtetl Shleppers and through Joanna at the Jewishgen office. The train ride from Vilnius to Minsk was about four hours. As we traveled through the heavily forested areas and vast open farmlands, I shuddered thinking what stories these trees and fields would tell if they could talk. I tried to imagine how many Jews ran, hid, were discovered and ultimately murdered by Nazis and their local collaborators during the Shoah.

 

At the Minsk train station we were met by our guide Galina, and her husband Frank Swarz. As we traveled the short distance to our hotel, we were amazed to see the bright street lights and new modern buildings as well as older ones that had been updated. In 1995 only every third or fourth street light was illuminated with a low wattage bulb. This certainly was not the same drab, depressing city we remembered. And the police road blocks that we encountered every 20 miles in 1995 were gone and the previous three hour drive to Molchad was now two hours.

 

Arriving in Molchad with a map from the Yizkor book and some additional information from a Molchad survivor, Martin Small, we easily found the flour mill of my great great grandfather. When we got out of the car we immediately saw that the corner stone had been removed from the flour mill foundation. My first reaction was that the ex-mayor had possession of it and I wanted to find it. This was the one known object remaining that connected a physical presence of my family to this shtetl.

FLOUR MILL BUILT BY MYRNA’S GREAT GREAT GRANDFATHER 1866

(Picture taken 1995-----look closely and you will see the corner stone)

In the small town square where shops owned by Jews once stood before the war, we saw several women sitting on a bench. Galina went to talk to them and one woman said she would take us to find a lady who lived in Molchad before the war.

GALINA SCHWARZ TALKING WITH WOMEN

 

Our new found friend, Ludmila Golonsko, escorted us throughout the town, the cemetery, the mass grave, and the synagogue, spending over two hours with us. She was born 1924 in the Ukraine and spent the war in a labor camp in Austria. After the war she married a man from Molchad and moved there. She took us to the house of a 91 year old woman who told us that her father had owned the house and rented it to Jews to be used as a Tarbut School. That story was not believable and when we returned home Martin Small verified that this building had in fact been the school but of course was owned by the Jews. A man riding a bicycle stopped to talk to us. It was the same man we met in 1995, Lev Tolkatch. I had a copy of the picture we took of him then and he was surprised to see it. He rode off after a few minutes and we continued our walk with our “resident guide” When we got to the Jewish cemetery we saw a few tomb stones, weathered by time and overgrown underbrush. None of them appeared to have been desecrated. Very few grave stones remain standing upright. The only perfectly legible stone, standing upright, was that of a family member ---- Chaya, unmarried daughter of Itsele Boretcky---- the brother of my great grandfather.

MOLCHAD JEWISH CEMETERY

I took some stones from the Jewish cemetery and we now turned to walk down a sandy road toward the mass grave in the forest. This must have been the path the Jews took as they marched to their deaths. As we walked we could see the spires of the church over our shoulder and realized this was probably the last view of Molchad the poor souls had prior to their execution.

 

On the main road across from the gentile cemetery was one lone house and a man on a bicycle stepped out. He joined us as we walked together for a short distance into the woods, stopping in front of two memorial stones that stand in front of the mass grave, containing 3,600 bodies. Using funds donated by the Molchad survivor group, a second stone was put up in 1993 by Rachmiel Bar, a Molchad survivor who now lives in Israel. Engraved in Hebrew it says: “In this place are buried the Jewish citizens of Maitchet and its surroundings who were killed and destroyed by the Nazis and their collaborators... On the first day of MenachemAv 5702 - 15 July 1942...May their memory be blessed”.

MASS GRAVE IN MOLCHAD WOODS CONTAINING 3,600 BODIES

 

Lev described (much too vividly for my comfort) how the Nazis stood on a bluff a short distance away and kept shooting at the people as they approached the open pit. Our “local resident guide” said she was told that the women walked quietly and told the children that this was God’s will. When the Nazis came to Molchad they killed the young men first because they were afraid they would rebel and fight back. Then they killed the women, children and elderly men. With tears in my eyes I placed two stones I had taken from the Jewish cemetery on the memorial stones at the mass grave, and Shael recited Kaddish.

 

We walked back to the town going from one house to another hoping to find someone who possibly remembered the Jews who had lived there. Most everyone we met said they came there after the war, possibly not wanting to admit that they remembered anyone or anything. The former synagogue is now a collective farm office. The door was open and we walked in and up the stairs. It appeared that the rooms on the upper floor were offices and we did see a few people working. We did not see any thing that indicated that this building had been a synagogue. There was a door on the first floor but it was locked. When I returned home Martin Small told me that the synagogue was actually below ground. Another survivor described the beautiful biblical paintings on the ceiling of the synagogue. Our “resident guide” told us that the top part of the building was blown off during the war and rebuilt. When she moved to Molchad after the war she remembers children playing near this building with chips that were painted different colors. There had been 3 synagogues in this area and only one building remains today.

FORMER MOLCHAD SYNAGOGUE REMADE

 

We were invited into our new found friend Ludmila’s house for tea and something to eat. She insisted we come in but we convinced her that we did not have enough time. Her front porch was filled with apples and she gleefully filled a large bag saying that I should take these apples from my ancestral town. We thanked her, said our good-byes and continued on to the town hall hoping to find the mayor. The offices were empty except for one office where a lady was sitting at her desk. She told us that the mayor and the rest of the staff were at their farms gathering crops since it was harvesting time. We explained to the secretary that we were looking for the corner stone from the mill and she immediately called the homes of the former mayor and his secretary. There was no answer at either home.

 

Galina gave the current mayor’s secretary her cell phone number and asked her to call us in Baranovichi if she was able to get any additional information for us about the corner stone. The next day we spent visiting the nearby towns of Baranovichi and Slonim where some of my ancestors had lived.

BARANOVICHI YESHIVA, NOW SPORTS CLUB

Thanks to a Slonim survivor, Zvi Shefat, who told me which buildings of Jewish interest were still standing, our visit there was far more meaningful than our previous visit in 1995. Galina was persistent and kept calling the secretary in Molchad. About 3:00 P.M Galina’s phone rang and beaming she exclaimed that we had to leave Slonim and return to Molchad -------- the stone had been found

MARKET PLACE ON SITE OF FORMER JEWISH CEMETERY ALONGSIDE 17TH CENTURY GREAT SYNAGOGUE

 

The current mayor’s secretary was waiting for us and excitedly took us to the home of the former mayor who was unfortunately ill and in the hospital. His wife came out and led us on a path behind her house. There alongside the barn she pointed to a huge boulder covered with underbrush.

LARGE BOULDER ALONGSIDE BARN

 

Shael immediately said that this was not the corner stone, that we had seen in 1995 which was just a little larger then a few bricks. Also there was no date or insurance symbol to be seen. But the mayor’s wife insisted it was in fact the corner stone and said that the markings were on the under side of the boulder. We estimated that it was several feet in diameter and weighed about 700 pounds. How were we to turn this huge thing over? The secretary said her husband would be able to do that and ran home to get him. A short while later they came carrying two large steel bars. He handed one to our driver Christian and motioned for Shael to push.

 

After much strenuous effort the three managed to flip the boulder over. No markings could be seen. The former mayor’s wife ran back to the house and returned with a bucket of water and a stiff brush. In just a minute or two, after pouring water and scraping the mud off the boulder the date of 1866 and the insurance symbol were clearly visible. Shael acknowledged he was wrong and after Galina translated his words to the others everyone had a hearty laugh, claiming that this was the first time they ever heard a man admit he was wrong.

SCRUBBING DIRT OFF THE BOULDER

 

I suggested they place the boulder in front of the town hall with a memorial plaque saying it was from the flour mill built by Meir Arieh Boretcky in 1866. It should also acknowledge that the Jews once comprised 80% of the population of Molchad. We returned to Minsk that evening excited about our two days experience but disappointed that we were not returning home with the corner stone. We left Belarus the next day.

 

Peering out the plane window with a glass of wine in my hand, I was hoping to get a last glimpse of Molchad. The rolling hills and heavily wooded forests made singling out Molchad impossible. The villages appeared as small dots-----all so similar. I could not help but think of how different my parents’ exodus from Molchad was some 90 years earlier. I also thought of the poor Jews who remained in this area and of their fate during the Shoah. The unfortunate souls who were hideously murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators and thrown into mass graves July, 1942. And of those who fortunately escaped death but endured such extreme hardships in order to survive.

 

Although I did not return home with the corner stone, I learned that even with the passage of time there are discoveries that sometimes take repeat visits to unlock. And if I am ever given the opportunity to return to Molchad with a survivor or a member of my family, it would not take me long to pack!

 

I admit I did not come home empty handed. In addition to the stones I placed at the mass grave site there, I brought additional stones from the Jewish cemetery back home. Together with my brother Sidney and sister Madeline we buried a few stones at the graves of my grandparents and parents in Chicago, Illinois thus bringing back a part of their birthplace to them.

MYRNA WITH BROTHER SID BRODSKY AND SISTER MADELINE SHIFFMAN PLACING STONES FROM MOLCHAD AT THE GRAVES OF THEIR PARENTS SAM AND DORA BRODSKY

 

Copyright 2006 Belarus SIG and Myrna Siegel

Back to the index of the Belarus SIG Newsletters

Back to the Belarus SIG website