ONLINE NEWSLETTER
(No. 25/2004 - December 2004)
Editor: Fran Bock

Neville Yosef Lamdan is currently a research fellow at the Truman Institute and at the Center for the Study of Christianity, both at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Born in Scotland, he received his doctorate from Oxford University in 1965, and entered the British Foreign Office. He transferred to the Israeli Diplomatic Service in 1973 and went on to serve as Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva from 1994 to 1998 and at the Holy See from 2000 to 2003. He has authored a major work on Arab-Zionist relations before World War I as well as several studies on Jewish genealogy. Currently he is also involved in efforts to open an International Institute for Jewish Genealogy at the National and Hebrew University Library in Jerusalem.

We thank Dr.Lamdan for this valuable guide, based on very recent personal experience, to doing research in the National Historical Archives of Belarus..

This article is copyrighted by Neville Y. Lamdan.

Reprinting or copying of this article is not allowed
without prior permission from the copyrightholders
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A Guide to Research in the National Historical Archives of Belarus in Minsk

by Neville Lamdan, D. Phil.

A. Getting There

1. Visa

An entry visa for Belarus is mandatory. One can be obtained, from a Belarusian Embassy or Consulate, or through a travel agent doing business either with Belarus or the Belarusian Airlines, Belavia. The fee in Israel is $60 and it probably varies somewhat from country to country.

In Israel, allow for three to four weeks for the visa to arrive (although things may have speeded up since the re-opening of the Israeli Embassy in Minsk this fall).

If time does not permit acquiring a visa, you can get a "Travel Voucher" from a travel agent fairly quickly (3 - 4 days). You can then fly to Minsk and obtain your visa at the airport there. This procedure entails a degree of uncertainty and nuisance value - namely, the extra cost of purchasing the Travel Voucher ($45 in Israel) and possibly waiting four to five hours in the airport in Minsk, sometimes in the middle of the night, until the visa is issued (for the same fee as one would pay at home).

If you are thinking of a side-trip by car from Minsk to nearby Lithuania (Vilna), make sure you apply for a multiple entry visa. Otherwise, you will be allowed out of Belarus at the Lithuanian border but not allowed back in.

2. Health Insurance

Obligatory (and presumably advisable).

The visa application form asks if you have taken out health insurance for the duration of your stay and you are liable to be asked the same question on entry into Belarus and even in your hotel.

B. Hotel

Use "Google" to search for a hotel or go directly to http://www.hotels-minsk.com. A 3-star hotel should be adequate. I was told the price for a 2-star hotel is not a lot less but the quality is much inferior (I did not check this out). I was also told that you can arrange a modest B & B at someone's apartment but I have no idea how to go about that and can't imagine that it would be satisfactory.

I stayed at the "Yubileinaya Hotel" which is both central and within easy walking distance of the National Archives, the Synagogue and the Minsk Holocaust Memorial. It is a large, well-appointed, former Soviet-era place, with decent rooms, CNN (on request), bar, night-club with strippers, and enterprising "comfort ladies" who will contact you night by night through the house-phone, only too willing to relieve the tedium of your research.

When I followed through with the reservation instructions on the Net, I found myself dealing with a company located in Moscow, called "Nota Bene Travel Co. Ltd.", who offered me a single room at the Yubileinaya (with breakfast) for $60. As the Yubileinaya advertises the same from $50, I phoned the hotel direct (+ }{\f1 375-17-226-9024) and made the booking by fax. In the end, for reasons unknown, they charged me about $43 a night. I kept my mouth shut.

C. Food

This is something of a problem. In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, parts of Belarus were subjected to high levels of atomic radiation and until this day Israel and the US are reluctant to let their diplomats eat locally grown food products over extended periods of time. In theory, there should be no problem in eating local foods for a couple of weeks but you may prefer, as I did, to play it safe and stick to foreign products (eating in your hotel room - so ask for one with a fridge and bring an electrical gadget (220 volt) to boil water and heat things up).

For this reason, I schlepped a heavy case bulging with packaged food-stuffs to tide me over, only to find that I could have bought almost everything in the well-stocked super-market, filled with recognizable foreign products, just 200 yards from the hotel. Had I known, I would have done better simply to bring essentials (kosher items, if that's an issue) and buy the rest there. There are no limits on the importation of food into Belarus but there are weight restrictions on your luggage.

Drink bottled water only (foreign brands from the supermarket). Same goes for other liquids, like beer, Coke and (canned) milk.

The result of this regime is that you will forgo the wholesome hotel breakfast (which they will not deduct from the cost of your room). After two weeks of this "no fresh food" diet, I felt that I should have taken a daily tot of rum to prevent scurvy. The good news was that I lost weight.

At the same time, I was not a total fanatic about avoiding local food and now and then I allowed myself a snack or a meal out with a friend. A decent meal (including the tip, without wine) costs $20 or less. By the way, local bread is said to be baked in larded trays ... check it out if necessary.

D. General Security

I'd been warned in advance that Minsk was a dangerous place - "best to move around with a local in tow at all times", they e-mailed me from Minsk itself.

Frankly, I did not feel threatened on the streets of Minsk or anywhere else in Belarus for that matter - certainly no more threatened than, shall we say, in New York or Buenos Aires, and a lot less than in Johannesburg. I found people in the street paid no particular attention to me, dressed mostly in jeans and a sweater - and when I needed help or directions, they were happy to offer it, despite the fact that English is rare, even among young people.

At the same time Minsk, like any big city these days, is a place where you have to keep your "street smarts" about you. Don't go looking for trouble. Deposit your valuables, including plane tickets, in the safe at the hotel's reception desk. Keep your money and passport secure on your body. Don't flaunt your cameras , laptops and the like. Steer clear of young beer-drinkers who hang around street corners at night and generally be careful where you go after dark. And remember - certain Soviet mind-sets and behaviour patterns still linger on. That's about it.

As a form of re-assurance, I took a cellular phone and kept it with me against possible emergencies. They never happened but just having a mobile on me felt good. (Israelis, be warned: I hired a "Pelefon" at Ben Gurion Airport as I was leaving and almost died when I got the bill. There have got to be cheaper ways (a "roamer" card?).

Another point about moving around. During the day I walked by myself from place to place without thinking twice (mainly from the hotel to the Archives and back - about twenty minutes, through a park). Most evenings I spent in my hotel room, working over my material, reading and watching TV. When I went out, I took taxis (cheap) from the hotel, always checking that the meter was switched on.

By the way, if you arrive at the airport deep in the night, you are advised - or so I was told - not to take just any taxi (if you're lucky enough to find one in the wee hours). Better make arrangements through the hotel, or by any other means, to be picked up by a driver (at about $25 for the run into town).

E. Back-Up Security and General Support

It's a good idea to contact your Embassy, preferably in advance, and let them know of your arrival. You'll want to contact them, should anything go wrong (which it shouldn't), so keep their telephone numbers handy, just in case.

In the (temporary) absence of an Israeli Embassy, I contacted the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which runs a magnificent operation for Jews and others in Minsk. Their Head Office in Jerusalem linked me up by e-mail with their people in Minsk who, before and during my stay, were extraordinarily helpful and very ready to provide various small services, like putting me in touch with local drivers, finding out the times of synagogue services, etc. Since we are not talking about a mass movement, I imagine they'll be prepared to extend these courtesies to other researchers if approached through the JDC Head Office in your home country first.

Another alternative may have been to link up with Mr. Yuri Dorn, the Coordinator of Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus, who does genealogical research on commission. His email address is: belshtetl@yahoo.com. He sounds very friendly and competent but he was out of the country during my visit and so I never met him.

Yet another possibility may have been to contact the Jewish Agency people in Minsk but I didn't try them and have no idea how they may have reacted.

F. Money

Credit cards are accepted at large establishments (hotels, good restaurants) but for most other purposes (Research Assistant, drivers, sundry purchases) you will need cash. I took dollars and exchanged them for Belarusian rubles at the hotel or a post office for what seemed to be a standard rate.

G. Working in the Archives

Not easy from a number of points of view, mainly because of the enormity of the record collections and the inadequacies of the catalogues, both in the Archives and on-line.

1. Preparations in Advance

a. Ascertaining the files you need - Scour the literature methodically over time, noting every conceivable reference and lead and, in parallel, use every on-line resource available. Through the Belarus SIG's homepage you can find lists of files in the Archives (in varying degrees of detail) and, most importantly, try Miriam Weiner's Routes to Roots "Archives Database":

http://www.rtrfoundation.org/archdta.html

b. Letter to the Archive Director - Send a letter to the Director a couple of months in advance, introduce yourself and describe the nature of your research. If some official group, university or the like is backing your work, say so. Give precise dates of your proposed arrival and departure and inquire whether the Archives will be open throughout that period (see below). Finally, enclose a list of files you wish to examine during your visit and indicate which of them you want to receive on day one.

The name and address is: Dr. Alla K. Golubovich, Director, National Historical Archives of Belarus, 55, Kropotkina Str., Minsk, 220002, Republic of Belarus.

Telephone: + 375-17-268-6522/3; Fax: + 375-17-268-6520;

E-mail: niab@solo.by or niab@belsonet.by

URL: http://archives.gov.by/EArh/E_naz_ist.htm .

c. Research Assistant - Unless you read 19th Century handwritten Russian documents well, you'll want to find a Research Assistant ahead of time. I can recommend - privately - two first-class assistants, who speak fluent English. I suggest that you agree on his/her salary in advance and also settle on exactly which days you will need his/her services (including weekends, if you are planning field-trips to you ancestral towns and villages).

In 2001, I paid $20 a day (roughly eight hours) for a research assistant's services, while this year I paid $40 - which was said to be cheap at the price since the going-rate is now more like $50 a day (and still on the rise).

d. Gifts - Stock up with some modest presents which will come in handy. I gave one to the Library Director when I met her on the first day (a box of fancy teas); to the Reading Room Librarian, who is key to your success, on my second day (Israeli halvah), and to my Research Assistant at the end of our two weeks of work together (Dead Sea cosmetics). These were well received.

2. Formalities of the Archives

a. Opening Hours - The Archives are open to the public from 8.45 am. to 5.00 pm. (without a break). You can maximize you working hours by taking something light with you to eat for lunch and grabbing a coffee at a coffee shop nearby.

b. "White Days" - The Archives are closed to the public on the last Friday and first Monday of every month to allow the staff to catch up with administrative tasks. My visit fell over both these days - but all was not lost (see below).

c. Holidays - The Archives close for unexpected holidays and repairs. As indicated above, in your letter to the Director enquire whether the Archives will be open throughout your stay (and have your Research Assistant double check).

d. The Director - On arrival, make a point of paying a courtesy call on Dr. Golubovich. She is friendly and attended an IAJGS Conference a few years ago. Seek her advice on your research (through your Research Assistant, as she does not speak English). She will understand that you've come a long way and want to make the most of your time. You may tactfully request that she give instructions to her staff to keep the files flowing and also, as a special favour, let you work during the "White Days". (Dr. Golubovich graciously acceded to both these requests in my case.)

e. Research Fee - On your first day, you will be required to register and pay a small research fee (less than $10 to the best of my memory). As the Archives do not accept payment direct, go to the small post-office just up the road and be done with this chore very quickly.

f. Ordering Files - Normally, files are brought up from one to three days after being ordered at the Archives, depending on their location. Hence the need to submit your wish list with your introductory letter a couple of months in advance - and to indicate which files you would like to be put at your disposal immediately on arrival. Even if so pre-ordered, you will have to fill in call-slips for your files after the first day and they will only be brought to you the day after they are requested. It's a good idea, therefore, to keep submitting call-slips for files two to three days in advance to ensure that you won't be stuck with idling-time. Officially, you are allowed to receive only 10 files a day, but the Director can waive this restriction (essential, because you can very easily pull ten duds and be left with nothing to do for the rest of the day). Only relinquish files after you are sure that you have completely finished with them. You can only call them up again after two months, so if you think you may want to re-examine a specific file, ask for it to be held on reserve for you. After you have handed back a file, the Librarian or one of her assistants will check that every numbered page is still there. Theoretically, you cannot leave the Archives until this task is done but I was never detained.

g. Laptops - Can be used (220 volts, so bring a transformer, if need be).

h. Digital Cameras - Cannot be used to photograph material, as far as I could tell. Perhaps permission could be sought in advance.

i. Xeroxes - Xerox copies of documents can be made on request. The pricing system is complicated and expensive, based on the number of individual documents ordered and not on the number of pages (in other words, a one-page document may cost as much as a five-page one). In my case the price averaged out at roughly $4 a page (so I skimped and am now sorry that I did). You have to pay for your Xeroxes before the order is executed - so off you go again to the friendly post office nearby. If you want to take your copies away with you (advisable), order them at least a couple of days before departure.

H. The Files

This is, after all, what it is all about. The Archives house millions of files, many of them centuries old, and the difficulties in dealing with them are formidable - mainly because the catalogues are inadequate and the series "runs" are incomplete. The truth is that locating/identifying a file is often a case of pure "hit or miss".

As Jewish genealogists with roots in present-day Belarus, our time- frame in the Archives is pretty much prescribed - roughly from the 3rd Partition of Poland in 1795 (when all of our target area fell to Czarist Russia) until the outbreak of World War I in 1914 (thereafter almost all Belarusian historical material is housed elsewhere).

Files of potential interest can be divided into two broad categories: census-type files, mainly in the 333/9 series ("Revisions" and "Supplementary Revisions"); and the rest - meaning "Metric" books and files dealing with the organized Jewish community (the "Kahal"); army recruits and military affairs; property owners; tax-payers; voters in local/municipal and Duma elections; passport applications; police files; and possibly court documents. In addition, there are a host of other files you may wish to view depending, for example, on your family's occupations (tavern owners, mill-owners, industrialists, etc.) or, more generally, on their dependency on certain noblemen and land-gentry (" Magnate" files).

Almost all these files are hand-written in Russian (varying degrees of legibility), except perhaps for a decade or so after 1795, when Polish and bi-lingual Russian-Polish files are to be found. In the case of records relating Jews, documents in Yiddish pop up (the oath of allegiance for voters in local elections is quaint) and occasionally something may be written in Hebrew (mostly in the "Metric" books, if you can find them). Signatures of Jews, who did not always know how to write in Russian, are regularly in Yiddish (duly witnessed by a recognized Jewish official).

Now your problems begin:

1. Catalogues

The catalogues in the Archives come in two forms - hand written cards, which are painful to work through, or the "Opis" (inventory volumes) for any given "Fond" (Series). These also tend to be hand-written and suffer from two major drawbacks. First, there may be thousands of "Delos" (Files) in a given series and there is no obvious logic in their order, except perhaps by years (and that not always). For example, if you look at the Opis volume for Fond 308 (Military Conscription in the Minsk Gubernya: 1879-1917), you are confronted with 6777 files, listed annually, covering a multitude of military topics not limited to the draft. Thus to look for, shall we say, Jewish recruits from a specific shtetl in a specific year (or any year), is like looking for a needle in a haystack. This observation applies across the board.

The Reading Room Librarian told me that some people employ researchers simply to wade through the Opis volumes in the hope of locating relevant files. That may, in fact, be a sensible way of going about things but it costs money and the researcher has to know exactly what you are looking for. Not easy or altogether practical.

It may be of interest to indicate here that on my first serious visit to the Archives in 2001, I concentrated on the Revision Files and so was able to build up my Family Tree. But there is a limit to how much you can learn from these male-oriented censuses and for that reason on my second visit (this year), I worked widely with other series and, to an extent, was able to round the family story out with finds of a more "human interest" nature.

Another deficiency of the catalogues is related to what might be called "truth in advertising". This means that while the description of a file in the catalogue or the Opis might sound very promising, its actual contents may well fall far short of expectations.

2. Gaps in the Series

More often than not, the Fonds are incomplete, meaning that files may either be listed and don't exist or, more commonly, the missing files are simply unaccounted for. The gaps are unpredictable and often significant (for instance, in the all-important 1874 "Family Lists" and "Lists of Jewish Males" in Fond 330/I. There is nothing you can do about this, except groan.

And then, in this connection, there is another, lesser frustration, which you can encounter in any archive. On occasion, you will be informed that a file is "unavailable" - for one of several reasons: it has been broken up and its contents have been placed in other files (so go find them!); it is too fragile to be handled; it is being repaired and restored; or it is being used by someone else. All valid reasons but a nuisance when it happens half-a-dozen times with a limited number of files requested from Fond 333/9.

3. Holdings of Files

A warning: some of the files you need may not be held in Minsk but may, in fact, be located in another branch of the National Archives elsewhere. Help!

Let me illustrate the problem through my own family. My folk lived in a fairly compact area which, for the bulk of the 18th Century, was part of the Polish Powiat of Nieswiez. When the whole region finally fell to Czarist Russia in 1795, it was re-organized administratively and the majority of my family found themselves in the Slutsk and Novogrudok Uyezds (districts) of the Minsk Gubernya (Governate). But more administrative changes took place in subsequent years and half of my family found themselves in the Slonim Uyezd of the Grodno Gubernya. The records for those people are now in the National Archives in Grodno where, they say, the atmosphere is a lot less congenial to researchers.

Therefore before launching yourself at Minsk, you should perhaps make certain, through the Director or through your Research Assistant, that all the records you want are actually held there.

I. Inventory of Files

An annotated inventory of the over 250 files which I examined during my 2001 and 2004 research trips to the Archives in Minsk will soon be posted in the appropriate section of the Belarus SIG's Homepage.

J. Visits to Towns and Villages

No research trip to Minsk can be complete without making some time to visit your ancestral towns ("shtetlach") and villages. I used my weekends for this purpose, taking along my Research Assistant as translator and general mentor on Belarusian history, customs and ways of living.

It was the JDC people who found me a car and driver, again ahead of time. He charged $50 for a nine to ten hour work-day (including gas for about 300 kilometers a round-trip, sometimes over dirt roads, plus a lot of patience for unscheduled diversions and endless photograph stops). I reckoned I'd got a bargain, so I provided our picnic lunch (the team loved Israeli salami) and threw in $10 tip to the driver for each day's outing, which was greatly appreciated.

Even if you give the driver advance notice of the route as you should, it's a good idea to bring along a detailed road map (my guy did not) or even some "Mapquest" sketch maps (from the Web) for the more obscure villages.

K. Costs

An expedition of this kind does not come cheap. All in all, the in-country costs for my two weeks in Belarus came to about $1,660:

Hotel (14 nights @ $43 a night)....................... $ 600

Research Assistant (13 days @ $40 a day)...... $ 520

Driver (3 days @ $60 a day) .......................... $ 180

Xerox copies (20) .......................................... $ 80

Miscellaneous incidentals .................................$ 280

TOTAL........................................... ...............$1,660.

Add to this sum outlays made at home: flights, visa, health insurance, food supplies, gifts, cellular phone, etc. - and you are very quickly looking at $2,500 (and perhaps more if you are flying in from the States).

So was it worth it? The answer is a resounding "Yes" .

Copyright 2004 Belarus SIG and Neville Lamdan

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