ONLINE NEWSLETTER
(No. 3/2006 - March 2006)
Editor: Fran Bock

We are pleased to present excerpts from the journal kept by Judd Rothstein during his September 2005  journey to ancestral shtetls in Belarus. It is unusual for one so young to embark on this sort of search, and we salute him. Many of Judd’s comments on his preparation for the trip will be of interest to anyone contemplating a similar journey.

 

Here, in his own words, is his introduction,:

 

“My name is Judd ‘YehudaRothstein, I am twenty-two years old and a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. I am currently taking time off studying in Israel. I will return to the United States in September and am looking for some work experience before attending law school in the fall of 2007. I can be contacted at jr483@msn.com

 

“This is a journal entry. Large portions of this journal are notes from conversations I had with various people in Belarus. I try to stick to the original wording and format of the information presented to me. Sometimes I may appear a bit repetitive but that is because the interviewee repeated their idea. There is not always a logical flow of ideas or events. Please see the addendum at the end for additional information not included in the bulk journal entry.”

 

© This article is copyrighted by Judd Rothstein.

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

 

A Journey to Belarus

by Judd Rothstein

 

Judd Rothstein and Zijana at JDC Center for Children at Risk, Kharkov, Ukraine (August 2005)

 

Why go to Belarus?

 

            I feel that in many ways my journey to Belarus, to the land of White Russia, was a century in the making. It seems natural to me that a land that nourished our ancestors for hundreds of years would some how call out to at least one of its descendents. This calling found me and it created a sense of curiosity and desire to re-explore a world that has almost vanished. Tolochin and Orsha were worlds that until very recently I could not adequately imagine nor could I possibly comprehend. Until I began to explore my lineage, the story of my family, I knew scattered and incomplete details about that world from which my great-grandparents came and what their motivations were for leaving 

 

I knew only the following: My great-grandfather, Yaakov “Jacob” Rutstein was born in the small village of Tolochin, on April 15th, 1878. From looking at maps I could tell that Tolochin straddles the main road from Minsk leading to one of Belarus largest towns, Orsha.  I knew that he was one of nearly a half dozen children born to Dov Ber and Riva Rutstein.  As a child I often heard stories about “Grandpa Jacob” and how he came to the United States in nineteen-hundred and six and within a decade made millions of dollars, going on to become the founder of dozens of Jewish institutions. As a child, Jacob took on mythological proportions and I mostly heard him referred to in the context of some Jewish institution or hospital or another of which he helped found. But in the stories of Jacob, also known as Jay R, he had no personality, no desires, no dreams, hopes or fears. He was just the millionaire immigrant ancestor, of which many of his children and grandchildren bore his name, including my father.

Bessie (daughter of Tzvi Hirsch) Poretsky Rutstein (1888-1947) and Jacob (son of Dov Behr)  Rutstein (1878-1946), New York, circa 1909. Both were children of Tolochin

 

I also knew two other pieces of information: First that Jacob had five children and they were Bertha, Dora, Nathan, Milton my grandfather, and Rita - all of whom went their separate ways in life. Like the vast majority of American families none of the descendents of Jacob are close to one another. Members of our small clan, especially of my generation, only meet at funerals, if at all.  The second fact was that my great-grandmother, Bessie or Basha Poretsky, was also born in Tolochin and was a daughter of a Rabbi and great Torah scholar – Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Poretsky.  Bessie’s voice, like many other woman’s voices and narratives throughout history were mostly lost.

 

 

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Poretzkyn (b.1857, d.1933) and wife Esther Dubrow Poretzkyn (b.1860, d. 1941) circa 1920.

 

 

It was with this scant information that I began my journey some six years ago. As a sophomore in high school I remember feeling that by discovering my family roots and learning about my ancestors I would somehow be paying homage to the people for whom I am a legacy. As a member of the internet generation I immediately began my search on the internet and found my way to www.jewishgen.org and joined the Belarus SIG mailing list as well as other groups on Jewishgen. I began to track down long lost relatives hoping that they could share their version of the family history in order formulate a holistic picture of events and personalities. The representation that I was eventually able to formulate is in a large part thanks to them.

 

Thanks to Jewishgen I found two long lost cousins, also children of Tolochin, one from the Poretsky side of the family and one from the Rutstein side of my family - both of whom have been invaluable in my research. I would like to thank my cousins Nancy Wexler (of the Rutstein family) for spending hours showing me around the New York City archives and to Gail Haymowitz (of the Poretzky family) for her loving support, guidance and direction. Her memoir of her journey to Tolochin can also be found on the Jewishgen website.  Through the sharing of information we were all able to fill the holes in one another’s research and understanding of events. Thank you.

Preparing for the journey

 

After beginning my research I was able to gather scores of disjointed facts, stories from various cousins and artifacts such as pictures and old Yiddish letters. All this information became critical as it helped me reconstruct the larger family puzzle. I decided that I wanted to visit the shtetls from which my family came.  I expressed the idea on the Belarus SIG and received many e-mails containing wonderful suggestions, tips and experiences from others that have or have considered making the journey. One of the most important e-mail correspondences was from Yuri Dorn, the Coordinator of Jewish Research Group and over the next year and half we corresponded about the possibility of my visit to Belarus.  Yuri was great to correspond with; his knowledge and resources are vast and even extends to knowledge of the individual Jewish families that remain in the various towns and villages!

 

However, for various reasons, it was not viable for me to simply pick myself up and travel to Belarus to see the shtetls my family came from. So when months later I was accepted as a member of a student delegation to the Ukraine I decided that after my mission I would take this opportunity to visit Russia and Belarus since I was already in the “neighborhood.” With several months warning I told Yuri the dates and he was able to reasonably secure me a letter of invitation to Belarus. The letter of invitation is necessary before any Belarusian embassy or consulate will grant someone a visa to enter Belarus. If it wasn’t for that letter I would have had to go through a travel company, many of which charge an additional fifty or sixty dollars just for the letter. After receiving the invitation letter I sent my passport, letter of invitation, and flight itinerary to the Embassy of Belarus in Washington, DC. After dealing with the embassies of three Eastern European Countries that summer I can tell you that my experience with the Embassy of Belarus was the easiest and (unlike Russia) the visa was reasonably priced and the staff was friendly (as Eastern-Europeans bureaucrats go).

 

I would like to point out that Yuri was even better able to help me with the logistics in Belarus because I knew what I wanted and he helped me fill in the details. For example, I didn’t want to hire a personal driver from Minsk to Orsha but rather to take the train. Why? First, because it’s cheaper but I also wanted to follow and live in the footsteps of my ancestors as much as possible and I was certain that when they left Belarus they didn’t jump in their car and drive to Minsk to catch the next flight to New York. I also knew that I didn’t need a guide as much as I needed a translator because I wanted to speak and interview as many people as possible in the shtetls I went to. Being specific, doing my homework, and having a game plan made things easier for everyone and helped me make the most of my time in Belarus. I would suggest that others do the same before traveling. Going to Belarus or anywhere else without a game plan can result in an inefficient use of time and resources.

 

            There are things that, in hindsight, I wish I had done but I didn’t actually do. I wish I had brought more small gifts such as general Americana and general medicine such as Tylenol or Advil. I also wish I had brought more cash and fewer travelers checks.  Additionally, and I have no real excuse for not doing this, I wish I had followed the advice of Marcia Loeb of California to write to the Mayor of Tolochin in advance. However, I didn’t leave myself enough time to have the letter translated into Russian and at the same time give the locals enough time to prepare. In an e-mail she sent to me on May 30th, 2004 Marcia Loeb writes, “Two years ago my brother and I visited Tolochin…It was an experience I will never forget! We wrote in advance (in Russian) to the Chairman of the town…we had a wonderful tour, and when we had finished, we were met on the steps by a delegation with flowers. In the delegation was the oldest Jewish citizen of the town…the mayor thanked us for coming and said, “Many people have left our little town, but you are the {only} ones who have ever come back.” Referring to a Jewish family that hosted them she writes, “The warmth and love that was bestowed upon us that day will say with us forever.” I wish I had followed her smart advice but despite not doing so I still had a tremendous adventure.

 

            In addition, Shelly Dardashti of Tel-Aviv was able to direct me to a few key contacts within Belarus, one of them being Yuri Dorn. In turn, Yuri Dorn was able to give me many important details about the current state of Tolochin. In an email sent by Yuri Dorn on June 1st 2004, he states the following:

 

“At present 23 Jews live in Tolochin. Most of them are elderly people and live in mixed families. A functioning pre-war Jewish cemetery was preserved in the town. The location is to the left from the road from Tolochin to village Slobodka. Unfortunately, people began to make Christian burials at the cemetery. The building of a synagogue was not preserved – it was destroyed during the war. During the Holocaust in Tolochin 2000 Jews were murdered. The place of execution is situated out of the town, not far from the village Raitsy. All the Jews were killed within a day on March 13, 1942. In 1960s a memorial was erected at this place. The details of ghetto life and the facts of Jews execution one may find in the local museum at Pionerskaya ST., 4. The director is Pikulik Irina. The museum is located in the house that before the war belonged to a rich Jew, who was an owner of a blowing shop. I believe it will be useful to visit this museum. I also believe that meeting with people who can tell different facts about pre-war Jewish life in Tolochin probably will help you to gather necessary information.”

           

I also went to local US archives and looked up ship manifests from Ellis Island which sometimes contain former addresses but at the very least contain important clues that in my case blossomed once I arrived in Belarus. A lot of this can be done online and via snail mail. Also, as per the suggestions of the Jewishgen website, I brought old pictures, letters, and research documents which proved to be handy. I also familiarized myself on a basic level with the Cyrillic alphabet which later also proved to be useful and which is really easy to learn.

 

Minsk, Belarus

 

After spending several weeks in the Ukraine and Russia and witnessing the tremendous Jewish religious and cultural renaissance occurring in the Former Soviet Union, a renaissance of truly historical proportions, I promised myself that when I arrived in Belarus that I would come not just to seek out the dead but to learn and experience the living. Belarus is not just one big graveyard of the Jewish people. The Jewish people of Belarus still live! The descendants of our cousins who did not leave Belarus, those that remained behind are still there – in the tens of thousands – and they need us. This renaissance that I observed could not have taken place and can not continue to take place without the help of the world Jewish community. I implore those who honor and cherish the dead to give the same respect to the living. In Belarus, as in other places of the FSU, they need Jewish teachers, they need our love, our bodies, our knowledge, our donations – they just need us.  

 

            I arrived on Sunday evening in Minsk from Moscow, and Leonid, the driver, was waiting (with a sign with my name on it) to pick me up at the airport. Leonid was very friendly and helpful. All the logistics had been prepared by Yuri in advance and the driver took me back to the synagogue and religious community center where Yuri is the director and where I spent the night. The great thing about the spending time at the center was that I was able to experience first hand the renaissance of religious Jewish life occurring in Minsk. The center has educational classes on Judaism for both adults and children as well as a summer camp for local children. Months later, back in the United States, I met a girl named Yael or Tanya, a native of Minsk and a graduate of Yeshiva University and who is now a student at law school at the University of Michigan. She told me that she was first exposed to Judaism at the summer camps managed by the Religious Jewish Communities of Belarus.  She told me what an important role they have in reviving Jewish life.

 

Some of the regions in which the Union of Religious Jewish Congregations operates in Belarus..

 

At the center there are daily prayer services in the adjacent synagogue and the center was able to provide me with kosher food. Everyone I met there was friendly and curious and it was very meaningful to receive an aliyah during shachris while being in Minsk, Belarus! I also thought it symbolic that on the day I arrived the kehal happened to daven Hallel because of the yomim noarim. After shachris I was escorted around the building by one of the local Yeshiva students. This center houses the only Yeshiva in Minsk and the closest thing Minsk has to a kosher restaurant.  I also met a young man, just slightly older then myself from Israel. He had come to Minsk to volunteer for a year as part of a fellowship, a shlichut, in coordination with the Jewish Agency. I know from past experience that the Israeli government sends similar individuals to isolated Jewish communities around the world, including the United States. We spoke in Hebrew but he was also fluent in Russian. He told me that his job was to run religious programming for the children at this center and to organize the youth for Jewish oriented events. It is educational programs like these that in my opinion will save what is left of Byelorussian Jewry.

 

After breakfast, I finally met Yuri after having exchanged so many e-mails. He was friendly, compassionate yet always to the point of business – just how I like things. Yuri escorted me back to his office from the dining hall to fill me in on the rest of the details of the trip which he arranged on my behalf. His office was filled with photographs of great Belarusian Jewish leaders and Rabbis. It was through the pictures and maps on the wall that I first slowly became conscious of the fact that Byelorussian Jews were Litvaks and were strongly associated with the Lithuanian tradition.  I also learned a little bit about Yuri as an individual. Yuri is a businessman and travels back and forth between Cleveland, where his family is located, and Minsk. I could really intuit from being there how important the institution and its purpose were to him.  Yuri mentioned that he and other Byelorussian Jews are trying to have the original Minsk synagogue restored to the Jewish community. The state now possesses the synagogue which is now home the national theater. I presume that the state seized the property during the soviet era. Soon my translator, a Jewish university student, arrived. Yuri informed Dmitry that he was to briefly show me around Minsk in the morning before the one-o’clock train heading for Orsha arrived.

 

Dmitry, my translator and new friend, along with Leonid took me to two memorial sites for Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust.

 

Memorial sites to victims of the Holocaust in Minsk, Belarus.

If my memory serves me correctly the site of this memorial was one of the places where the Jewish population of Minsk was massacred by the Nazis when they invaded and destroyed Minsk in nineteen-hundred and forty-two. During the war this location was outside the city limits and the population was forcibly marched outside the city until they were forced into the above ravine before being slaughtered. The statues above are symbolic of that crime. Dmitry also informed me that most citizens of Minsk are not aware of this memorial site and that in general education about the holocaust is not a priority or on the agenda in Byelorussian society. It’s not something that they “care about.”

 

Dmitry and I were also taken to the local JDC building in Minsk. The JDC provides essential services all over Eastern Europe.  Like the other JDC buildings I saw in Ukraine and Russia this center provided medical attention to elderly Jews, family services and childcare as well as other forms of social support. It had computer labs for students and was a conference and meeting center for various local Jewish groups. It was also the local headquarters for the JDC and their operations in Belarus. The JDC is World Jewry’s best kept secret and really fulfills an important niche in Eastern-Europe. Additionally, as far as genealogists are concerned, the JDC building is also the location of the Jewish Museum in Minsk. The museum director is Dr. Inna Gerasimova and she is an expert on the history of Byelorussian Jewry. I just happened to meet her while I was talking amongst some of the elderly, asking them where they were from, gathering some details and exchanging formalities in Yiddish.

 

Inna was very excited to meet and speak with me and I gave her some information about my family history which she will add to her database. For researchers hoping to learn more about their family history or about a town or region she may be a good person to speak with. She has access to Yiddish papers and archives going back to the turn of the century. However, she does not speak English and one would only be able to communicate with her only in Russian, Hebrew or Yiddish. We spoke mostly in Hebrew with Dmitry helping me when either of our knowledge of Hebrew failed us.  She is currently working on various projects right now, including documenting Jewish participation in the general resistance\partisan movement and Jewish resistance to being murdered by the Nazis. She is trying to combat the myth that the Jews behaved passively during World War-Two and wants to publish a book for the general Byelorussian public but is unable to do so due to lack of funding. We decided that we would meet again on the late evening on Wednesday, the day before I left the country. She kept her word and days later we met in the evening and she gave me a personal tour around the museum and we arranged for an elderly Jew there to translate my Yiddish letters.

 

 

The American Joint Distribution Committee center in Minsk, Belarus.

Engaged in conversation with Dr. Inna Gerasimova, I foolishly lost track of the time on early Monday morning. Her knowledge about the region, her ability to tell me tidbits of information about what was contained in my family letters, some a century old, captivated me. Dmitry kindly pointed out that we better leave soon unless I was going to miss my one o’clock train to Orsha. Dmitry and I excused ourselves and promised to return another time. We quickly grabbed our things and Leonid who was waiting seemed a bit apprehensive constantly saying that we weren’t going to make the train and would have to catch the next one. I opened my wallet to get the money ready for the train when Dmitry pointed out that I had the wrong type of rubles. “Oy vey” was the only thought going through my mind. There was some conversation between the driver and Dmitry and it was suggested that we go find a place to change my dollars into Belarusian rubles and catch the next train. However, realizing that if we did that there was no way I could make my train; I insisted we try to make this one without having the proper currency. I was hoping (and I knew) in the back of my mind that somebody would take some of my US dollars.

At the Orsha train station. From Orsha to Minsk

We arrived at the mini train station and Dmitry tried to negotiate with one of the cashiers to accept US dollars but she refused. Seeing the train pull into the station we started running towards the train with our bags bouncing over our shoulders. I was hoping that I could pay the more expensive fee by paying on the train like they have in the United States. I asked Dmitry and he confirmed that there was such an option in Belarus. We successfully got on the train successfully and put our bags down and waited for the conductor. Many different thoughts were going through my head. Part of me wished I had taken Yuri up on his initial suggestion of a private car from Minsk to Orsha. Or at the very least I was thinking maybe I should have taken the first class train instead of the “regular” train. Looking around the train compartments reminded me of some of the run down New Jersey transit cars. There were people scattered at different ends of the cabin each looking out into the abyss with angry looks on their face. I didn’t feel scared or threatened by these looks because they were directed inward. However, I was just curious and confused. Why were people so angry?

 

            I asked Dmitry why and I don’t think I shall ever forget his answer. He told me that “people work really really hard and they receive nothing in return…people are poor and they are trying to figure out where their next meal will come from.” As he spoke the train conductor stumbled past us, “You see” he said, “look at her! She is drunk.” He proceeded to tell me how someone like his mother, a university educated women, works two jobs just to make ends meet. Yet this uneducated, drunken conductor and his mother make the same salary. When I asked him about the political situation or why things were the way they were he hushed me up. It was not something he wanted to talk about and I gathered that was because we were in a public place. I realized I had committed a significant fauxpas. In an unrelated topic of discussion, Dmitry also mentioned that because people are so poor, out of compassion the conductors don’t always check everyone’s ticket.

 

Throughout the early parts of the train ride various conductors walked through the cabin until one finally stopped to ask us for our tickets.  Dmitry explained to her that we only had dollars and not Byelorussian rubles. She said that we would have to ask some of the other passengers to exchange the money for us. Dmitry uncomfortably went to a few of the passengers and asked them if they were willing but nobody would touch the dollars because they thought they were counterfeit or that we were running some sort of scam. The conductor said she would come back later in the journey to collect our fare. I instinctively knew that the exchange between us was a charade. I knew that in the end we would pay off the conductor to accept our dollars and that she would accept what was essentially a bribe. Echoing my thoughts Dmitry told me that the only reason she didn’t accept the money initially was because she thought that we were members of the secret police, the KGB. I sensed that she was thinking something along those lines from the way she looked at us, trying to size us up and our story. In the end, hours later, she did accept our dollars. In fact, her friend came in on the deal with her. They first spoke amongst themselves as to what would be an appropriate “deal.” The conductor then told Dmitry that she wanted five dollars. My largest bill was ten dollars and so I just gave that to her. They looked at each other and they looked at us stunned as it was twice what they requested. They then quickly left the cabin all giddy with their booty and they didn’t even give us any tickets. After they left, I asked Dmitry how much ten dollars was in terms of buying power and in proportion to daily wages. He told me that ten dollars was about two days worth of wages. It probably wasn’t the most intelligent thing to do by putting myself in that situation but it sure was an interesting experience.

An artificial lake in the Minsk City Center

At some point during the first half of the day it came up in conversation that Dimitry did not know Hebrew and so I offered to teach him. And so it was that on the train ride from Minsk to Orsha, from the 21st century to the 18th, that Dmitry and I sat together and learned the language of yore. We spent a large proportion of the train ride using my notebook as a means of learning the Hebrew alphabet. Every time we would take a break and look up from our notebook and peek outside the train window we were even more enveloped in rural territory. Minsk is a nice and charming city which seems to be developing nicely but for every mile outside the limits of Minsk that one travels, one travels to less and less developed territory. The more outside of Minsk someone is, the less and less industry there is, the less and less phones polls, and the less modern are the buildings. After spending some time talking, and learning Hebrew, we both peered out the train windows slowly traveling to a different time and place.

Orsha, Belarus

 

            We arrived in the early evening into the city center of Orsha after having crossed the Orsha River.

 

The Orsha River at the turn of the 20th century

The train station was one of the only buildings that was not destroyed by the Germans in both World Wars and is a glimpse to the official architecture that existed during the turn of the century.

Near the Orsha train station at the turn of the 20th century.

 

Waiting at the train station was IlyaYehudaHalfey and Misha “Michael” Ginsberg who took me to the home of one of the members of the Jewish community of Orsha - Lazar and Tamara Tavger. I placed my things down in their home and we then went to one of the local markets where we purchased, soviet style, some fruits, vegetables, milk and other miscellaneous stuff that I could find to suit my dietary needs. We then went back to their home and sat together, talking, while eating dinner. Lazar and Tamara were generous enough to open up their home to other members of the local Jewish community in Belarus and allow them to use the home as a “community center” where people can conduct some sort of religious services and to gather socially.

IlyaYehudaHalfey and Misha “Michael” Ginsberg at the Orsha train- station.

Ilya related some of the oral history he had received from his grandfather about how life once was in Orsha. Orsha was once a very small town but over time grew to be a major center of Jewish life. Orsha was a well traveled transportation center with major connecting points for trade and commerce. All this contributed to Orsha being a cultural center. In nineteen twenty-four the railroad reached it peak of development which improved the life of the town. There were Jewish schools and people from nearby towns would come to study at them. Orsha was the “place to be” and was mostly Jewish. Orsha remained a vibrant Jewish center until it was destroyed by the Nazis in the Holocaust. Ilya related that he had a strong Jewish upbringing and that he never heard a word of Russian until the age of fourteen because he lived with his grandparents whom only spoke Yiddish. He eventually learned Russian in school where he often got in trouble because he would write in Yiddish. Only recently did he start to relearn the religion that he said was taken from him.

 

The home of Lazar and Tamara Tavger and the Religious center in Orsha, Belarus.

At some point in the evening we went to the home of a certain Boris, one of oldest members of the Jewish community in Orsha (1). I told him who I was and why I had come from the United States and that I was related to various families that had lived in Orsha before the war. He recognized the surname name of one those families, the Epsteins. From talking with him and with other members of the Jewish community I am of the impression that the Epstein family was a large clan or tribe amongst the Jewish community in the region and that the vast majority of them have moved to Israel in the last fifteen years.

 

Boris and I at his home in Orsha, Belarus.

Boris spoke of life in the city before the Second World War. Orsha was a center of Jewish culture and contained two Jewish theaters and a tremendous amount of Jews. There were four primary synagogues. The founder of the Lubavitch Chasidic movement Shenur Zalman of Liady lived not more then thirty kilometers from the city. Thus there was some Chasidic influence on the city. Boris says that before the wars people decided on which synagogue they would attend based on class and or their professions.  Boris says there were three children in his family and the family worked in the tiles business. His family “was taken to war fighting” and his father was in the army.

Before the Russian Revolution Jews had the worst of jobs, working for the lowest wages and in the most demeaning positions. Boris recalls that his mother and father would go to synagogue but they didn’t pray at synagogue they “just went to go.” However, everyone celebrated all the holidays and it was a big to do in town as everyone came together.  Boris recalls that before the Second World War Jewish and non-Jewish kids played together and that anti-Semitism was minimal. His mother didn’t work and his father worked with roof tiles and metals. After the war there was a great demand for someone proficient in metal and roof making. Thus business was good for someone like his father.  Boris’s father worked with the highest quality metals including those that are used in a kitchen such as metals for cooking and for pots. Boris grandparents worked in a small (home) factory which was a family business. Children were all working full time by the age of sixteen. All or most of the shops in Orsha were owned by Jews and Jews dominated the metal working industry and manufacturing. The Jews of Orsha were the primary advocates of culture and arts in the town. 

 

The great pogroms of nineteen fourteen, which occurred before the revolution, were mostly concentrated in the small towns around Orsha. There were big pogroms in all the small shtetls, such as Tolochin, and there was fear that the pogroms would spread from village to village. There were cases in which Jews protected their property, and organized themselves into self defense groups. Boris posits that things were easier for Jews in the smaller towns than in the larger ones such as Orsha as many of the smaller contained mostly Jews. Boris recalls a story that he heard of when some of the local peasants got drunk and started harassing and attacking Jews. One of the strong Jews, a gibbur, came out {presumably to defend himself or other Jews} and killed one of the non-Jews by punching him. Subsequently, in fear of retaliation towards this gibbur, the entire Jewish community united and gathered money from all the Jewish members of the town until there was enough money to send this gibbur to America.

During the cold war it was forbidden for Jews to practice their religion. However, members of the community still wanted to observe the Jewish holidays especially Passover. Many others were still afraid because if they were caught celebrating Judaism the police would arrest them and take them away. Boris and his brother, who now lives in Israel, risked their lives to bake matzot during this time period. Boris and his brother would secretly bake matzot while someone watched out for police, spies, or if anyone suspicious may be approaching his home.

The above is the  matzah machine that Boris and his brother used to make matazot secretly during the Soviet Era. The matza machine is now located in the Jewish Museum in Minsk and is under the care of Dr. Inna Gerasimova

The two pictures above represent the location where Boris and his brother baked matzot in secret

After we left Boris’s home, we didn’t really do anything else that evening. We did briefly visit the cemetery but we decided to leave a more comprehensive visit for the morning. I was told that it isn’t safe to travel, even for Byelorussians, around Orsha in the evening. So instead Dmitry and I spent the evening indoors, read, learned some more Hebrew and got to know one another.

 

I woke up early the next morning, the sixth of September, just towards the end of sunrise. There was this misty, cool and fresh feeling to the air which I haven’t experienced before. There was no heating in the home and I had only my covers to keep me warm from the chilly Byelorussian night. Waking up in such a home and walking out into the backyard with an open field, breathing the fresh air and heading towards the outhouse was a very surreal experience. It allowed me to place myself in the shoes of those that left this land a century ago, it triggered my imagination and it made me intimately aware of the living conditions in which they likely lived. During the night when I went to use the restroom there were no lights. I had to use my palm pilot light to direct me to where I need to go. I think it’s hard for people in our society to imagine not having light at night and the kind of feelings that brings. I am so glad that I didn’t stay in the local hotel.   

Top: A washing station, a place for winter wood storage and perhaps what is a workhouse. Bottom: The inside and outside of the outhouse that we used

I understand from discussions with people that indoor plumbing is still rare. In the last few decades people have begun running pipes from the main water network to their property in order to have running water. Prior to that time people had their own private wells that they used for water. Presumably one would use this running water from a well or from the pipes outside their homes to cook and to draw a bath. The yard also contained a large backyard, a fallow field and what looked like some fruit trees. I got the impression that the backyard of the home was more or less representative of other homes in the area. However, I would say that this property seemed to be on the larger side.

Left: A stand filled with what looks like squash near the garden in the backyard. To the right was a large field which appears to be fallow

After eating breakfast, we walked to the local cemetery which wasn’t very far from where I was staying. The cemetery is located on a top of a hill which has historically made it very difficult to bury people during the winter months when there was heavy snow. I was told that the Byelorussian government, beginning from Soviet times all way through the present, has had a bad habit of building on top of and or destroying Jewish cemeteries. The Orsha cemetery is one of the select Jewish cemeteries that haven’t been built upon or destroyed. That is because over the years the cemetery has become a mixed cemetery with both Jews and non-Jews being buried there. Destroying the cemetery would create tremendous opposition amongst the non-Jewish members of the city. However, originally the cemetery was only Jewish.   

A Randomly chosen grave site in the Orsha Jewish cemetery. The tomb stone reads “An old man, simple and straight {with G-d} – Chaim Yitzchok the son of Tzion PATZARSKI

I took some random photographs of grave sites because I knew they would be of some interest to some other researchers. Most of the tombstones that date before the second war have been destroyed by man and nature but mostly by man. However, there are a handful of tombstones that weren’t destroyed by the Nazis or by local vandals that date before the revolution. Most of these tombstones are faded and it’s very hard to make what is written on them. One can see the remains of many tombstones that jut out of the ground several inches.

Two Jewish gravesites, one partially destroyed, which date from before the Russian Revolution.

Towards the back of the cemetery there is tall grass that has since grown on top of many of the grave sites. There are tombstones buried amongst the thick shrubs. In some of the newer sections of the cemetery one can see the introduction of non-Jewish burial sites. On the outskirts of the cemetery there are some shepherds and shepherdesses who graze their cattle. I wouldn’t be surprised if occasionally some of their flock wandered off and entered the cemetery to graze. There seems to be no clear designation of the grazing area of where the cemetery begins or ends. This is mostly true in the most northeastern part of the cemetery.

A shepherdess along with her flock grazing on the border of the Orsha Jewish cemetery

A memorial to victims of the Nazi-Fascists at the back of the Orsha cemetery. This memorial, like many others in Belarus, does not mention that the primary victims of the Nazis were Jews. Some locals feel that Belarus has not done enough to educate its population about the unique Jewish experience in the tragedy of the Nazi Holocaust

Belarus and indeed much of Eastern Europe are filled with things that may appear unusual to many Westerners. However, one thing which reminded me that I was in Eastern Europe, just in case I forgot, is the following story which I was told in reference to the below grave. Orsha is known as a center of organized crime and several years ago one of the major mob bosses was assassinated. Though he was not Jewish he was buried in the Jewish cemetery in the following grave plot.

Grave site of a former Orsha mob boss in the Jewish cemetery of Orsha.

However, after he was buried there, people would come to his grave site and desecrate his tombstone. Sometimes they would unbury his grave and leave his body out in the open. So in order to prevent this, the family built a booth directly across from his grave. The booth is capable of housing a full time security guard in order to protect the grave site of this mob boss from vandals.

The security booth which is home to a security officer hired to protect the grave site of one of Orsha’s former mob bosses.

After we finished visiting the cemetery we went to the JDC offices in Orsha. What was special about this JDC center was that it seemed that it had both a strong institutional framework, strong social bonds and at the same time managed to create the feeling that this was a second home for many of its constituents. It had a very homey feeling to it. The Union of religious Communities in Minsk also had this feeling.

 

Inside there was a small crowd of people trying on clothing. The JDC had recently sent a shipment of mostly new clothing to the local members of the community and people were happily trying some of them on, some suggesting clothing to their friends and replacing some of their old tattered clothing. One of the people that I met at the center was said to be very knowledgeable about the history of Jews in Orsha. His name was Boris “Baruch” Reitsen. Boris and I went outside to the backyard where I interviewed him. We would have spoken longer but we needed enough time to drive out to Tolochin.

Boris told me that the town of Dubrovna, north east of Orsha, was a large Chasidic capital and that part of his family was from that town. He told me that his grandfather paved roads for a living. His father worked in Dubrovna in one of the early factories that came to the region. As a child he recalls hearing that there were pogroms and that they occurred frequently until the nineteen-thirties. He said there was a beautiful stone tree monument\tomb stone in the cemetery which dates to the time of one of the early pogroms from the time of the revolution. During the pogroms some of the non-Jews would help certain Jewish families by hiding them. However, they were often tattled on by other non-Jewish families and those Jews hidden would then be discovered and subsequently killed. I believe that this is the tomb stone of which Boris was referring.

A monument or tombstone located in the Orsha Jewish cemetery possibly dating to the time of one of the great pogroms from the beginning of the 20th century

If I recall correctly, the above monument is in memory of an entire family (or all the children of a family) that perished in these pogroms. If you focus in on the above photograph you can see the names of various people of one family; all appear to have been murdered in the pogroms. It was these pogroms from the turn of the century through the revolution that contributed to Jewish emigration to the West.

 

Boris conveyed how during the days leading up the revolution people were disappointed and disenfranchised with the Russian Empire especially the Jews. In the Jewish community there was a large gap between rich and poor. Sometimes the poor Jews would steal or raid from rich Jews. The poor Jews were angry and alienated from the Jewish establishment and were not satisfied with their lot. Boris believes that often poor Jews would complain to poor non-Jews about their own rich Jews. Boris thinks that could have influenced some of the poor non-Jews to engage in raids on Jews as a whole. However, unlike the non-Jews, Jews would never murder or commit violence against one another. Boris says that there were “middle class” Jews but that really just meant making enough to have the most “basic of necessities.” I should interject that “middle class” in Orsha standards would probably be considered way below the poverty line in the United States. I posit that middle class in places like Orsha at the turn of the century meant that the family was not starving and maybe had a few rubles saved up for emergencies.

 

Boris told me that his uncles were in the Russian army and that his Aunts went to study in Minsk. One of his aunts eventually died in the (German?) bombings of Minsk. Boris told me that he never went to cheder or to any Jewish school but that two of his brothers did before the war (2).

Boris Reitsen at the JDC center in Orsha, Belarus.

During the Second World War, Boris and his family left Orsha and fled to Siberia. When he returned to Orsha the town was absolutely destroyed by the fascists (Nazis). He lived in a barn until he was able to rebuild his life. The remaining Jews worked very hard to improve their lot but they could not get ahead because they were Jews. This was true especially when it came to university. As a result many Jews changed their nationalities on their passport and their surnames so that they could get ahead in life. That is why today official estimates of the Jewish populations in Belarus are much lower than the actual Jewish population. Physical conditions did improve slightly after the war with the massive introduction of electricity. Cars also started to appear in the region and running water replaced the personal wells which most people used.

 

Like before the war, people after the war were afraid to announce that they were Jews and lived their Jewish lives discretely. Like before the war there was lots of bickering and fighting in the Jewish community, “two Jews, three opinions” Boris said chuckling.   People were afraid to celebrate their Jewish identity in Orsha though many of them continued to observe Jewish holidays, mitzvoth and other rites. Boris stated that everyone was proud of the secret baking of matzah which occurred during the Soviet era.

Dmitry standing outside what I have dubbed the ‘shtetle mobile’. We used this car to drive around Orsha and from Orsha to Tolochin.

 

Tolochin, Mogilev Guberniya, Belarus

The coat of arms of Tolochin located in the town center

On the way to Tolochin, Ilya Halfey began relating the stories he knew about Tolochin. According to Ilya, during the “early” pogroms people would run away from the village and hide in the forests. During the First World War most of the pogroms were committed by Polish and Czechoslovakians. Pogroms up until 1917 were mostly committed by the Polish. Jews were often harassed and it wasn’t uncommon that a Jew with a beard or payis would be attacked and have his beard and payis cut off. Ilya’s great-grandfather had his beard cut off by the Polish and Ilya recalls how humiliating that was for him. During the First World War, most of the pogroms against the Jews were committed by various Slavic groups – not by Germans. 

 

I had also heard many stories about the pogroms and about life in Tolochin from my various relatives. My cousin Ruth Poretsky Hershkowitz recalls her father, Aaron (Harry) Poretsky (1890-1972) speaking about some of his early memories. Aaron spoke of the time as a child when he was playing with his friends in the fields. When he returned to town he saw the synagogue had been attacked and burned to the ground. It was this experience which encouraged him to become a Zionist. Historically, when the Cossacks attacked the Jews, the Poretsky boys would hide the girls in barrels of apples and potatoes to hide them from the Russian soldiers. They then put the potatoes and apples on top of the girls in order to protect them. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Poretskyn had a sister named Basha who was married to Joseph Epstein that lived in Orsha. Basha had a friendly Christian neighbor which would hide her and her family during the pogroms. From the perspective of many Jews there were pogroms occurring all the time. In eighteen ninety-seven, a few years before the great migrations, there were about fifteen hundred Jews in Tolochin.

 

By the First World War, all the sons of Tzvi Hirsch Poretsky, my great-great grandfather, had already left Tolochin and were working in the United States. The Poretsky boys had left behind their three youngest sisters. During the First World War the Germans had come to Tolochin and treated the population relatively well. However, with the end of the First World War, and the eruption of the Russian revolution the situation deteriorated and the locals started raping and pillaging Jewish targets in Tolochin and in nearby villages. During the revolution the Poretsky girls hid behind a long carpet that was hanging on the wall to avoid being raped in the ensuing pogroms. Then the Poretsky girls were forced to move from house to house and village to village in order to escape the raids and attacks.  Simultaneously, in the United States, the Poretsky brothers frantically searched for their sisters but had difficulty finding them. They asked the American Red Cross to intervene and eventually the girls were found. The Red Cross eventually found the three girls and the brother’s brought them and their parents to America on first class tickets.

In Tolochin, Tzvi Hirsch and Esther ran a local inn which people stopped at while traveling. They also owned a seltzer machine from which the family made most of its money. The family had some sort of small farm with animals which needed to be released during a pogrom when the barn was set afire. Rabbi Poretsky also worked as a wheat broker. When Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Poretsky arrived in the United States he brought a whole box filled with rubbles with him.  He was convinced that the Czar would return to power and that the money would become valuable. According to Dr. Sylvia Sussman people would come to ask him advice on Halachic issues as he received rabbinical ordination (smicha). He was an avid writer and continued that activity for the Yiddish TUG newspaper upon his arrival in the United States.

 

According to Ilya, Tolochin was once famous for its kosher meat and beef. It was good tasting and very cheap. Many Jews, including his grandmother traveled to Tolochin from Orsha to purchase meat. Young Yeshiva Bachurim would first travel to Orsha and then go over to study in Yeshivas like Mir, Volozhin and in Vilna.  Education was greatly desired amongst the Jews in the region and only some could read or write “but all knew how to count money. If someone had a family of ten children there would usually be at least one that could read and write.”  Ilya continued to impart stories to me as we trekked through the countryside on our way to Tolochin.

 

A field outside of Tolochin and Kokhanova

The road from Orsha to Tolochin is unbelievable. Imagine that you are in Belarus, in the beautiful hilly country side. There are wide meadows filled with beautiful flowers and dirt roads. As you travel down one of these dirt roads, you see Belarusian peasants tending to their flocks, and using oxen to plow their fields. Occasionally, you see a horse and carriage pull past you in the opposite direction. You approach a small village, a shtetl, the one your ancestors came from a century ago. In fact, the region has barely changed.  

A highway sign indicating the direction towards Tolochin.

Upon arriving in Tolochin we went to pick up Tamara Abramovna Kahovich whom was somehow a relative of the Lipshitz family where we were going to have lunch. We also drove through the center of town and what I observed reminded me of Gail Haymowitz’s description of people in Minsk, “All over the first impression is of people walking everywhere carrying fabric shopping bags.  No matter if they are young or old, male or female all carry these bags.”

Two Byelorussians traveling with a horse and “carriage” near the outskirts of Tolochin

 

We finally arrived at the home of the Lipshitz family. I don’t have the words to describe the warmth, and the hospitality which was showered upon me by this family. They didn’t have much but the little they had they offered entirely to me. Their generosity towards a complete stranger made me realize that despite our material abundance in the United States we have not learned to be as generous as we could be.

Two of the last Jews of Tolochin, Belarus: Mr. Leonid and Mrs. (Tamara?) Lifshitz

Leonid Lifshitz was born in nineteen twenty-eight in Tolochin, Belarus. He is the son of Bracha Furhman and Yishiya Lifshitz. Leonid’s grandfather was Eydola “Adolph” Lifshitz.  According to Leonid, his family has lived in Tolochin for centuries but today he is the only one left. There are only a few Jewish families left in Tolochin “everyone else went away” and nobody left speaks Yiddish or Hebrew. Leonid’s family, like many others, was extremely poor before the war. There were some rich people in Tolochin and they were mostly merchants. Poor people were those that did engaged in an occupation like fixing shoes “or even worst working in forms of manual labor.”

 

Leonid went to work at the age of twelve in the fields and in the transportation of bread. “Nobody thanked me, I worked really hard and nobody thanked me and I got nothing in return – nothing.” People would call Leonid ‘Zhid’ which is a derogatory word for a Jew. They would say the famous Russian maxim, “bey Zhidov spacie Racieu” which means “Beat (up the) Zhids, and save Russia.” For several minutes Leonid complained that his entire life he has worked hard but has received nothing in return. He had two surgeries and has constant pain in his stomach. At this point in the conversation every started talking at once and had a different opinions of how life really was (3).

Leonid went to cheder for three years. There was only one school in town but it was eventually closed because of socialism. According to Leonid there were four synagogues in Tolochin. People would pray in the synagogue and wrap themselves in Teffilin. As a child he would pray Shachris, Mincha and Maariv. Everyone went to shul on Rosh Hashana and everyone tried to kiss the Torah.

The police station in the village of Tolochin. This building was once the location of the town cheder, where Jewsh children were educated. I am under the impression that this cheder and building was the same one used by the Jewish community prior to World War One and the Russian Revolution. That means this building may very well be the building where my great-grandfather attended cheder as a child.

Leonid had relatives who fled to America. In order to leave the country they needed a special guide to bring them to the border because Jews would never travel by themselves as they were not allowed to leave the country. Those that left were those that had some money, the really poor Jews could not leave. When someone wanted to leave they would first get to the border and then they would have the special guide lead them through the dangerous forest towards Polish territory. Once in Poland they would try to get to a port city such as Libau. They never had the problem of leaving behind possessions because most Jews had nothing to take. Most Jews ran away and the really sick and really poor were not able to leave.

An old home in Tolochin.

Leonid emphasizes how everyone in Tolochin was really poor. He recalls how his grandparents, the patriarchs of his family, had only dirty and worn-out clothing. Everyone thought about where their next piece of bread would come. Yet in a certain extent it was good to be Jewish because Jewish people always helped one another.

 

 In nineteen thirty-five and nineteen thirty-six when Leonid was a young boy there was a devastating famine in the region. The Byelorussian people were brought to their knees because of the famine. Leonid remembers people dying in the streets, even more people died in the famine than in the pogroms. People ate dead bodies while the Russian government sent bread to Germany. The government sent bread to Germany up until the German sneak attack in nineteen forty-one. 

 

During the war Leonid’s uncle was killed by the Nazis. When the Nazi’s entered Tolochin they told all the Jews to move to a central location. Then they divided Jews and non-Jews and lined up all the Jews and gypsies into a straight line. The Nazis told all the Jews to step forward. However, Leonid’s uncle looked Georgian and he didn’t step forward. A Russian neighbor then asked one of the German soldiers why his neighbor, Leonid’s uncle, had not stepped forward. Discovering his uncles’ Jewish identity the Nazis subsequently shot his uncle. In the ghetto many were shot, killed, and raped by their neighbors. The phenomena of non-Jewish neighbors turning on their Jewish neighbors occurred everywhere. The remaining Jews, nearly two-thousand were then taken to the ghetto in Kohanisk. While many Jews were shot in the town most were brought by carriage to Raitsy. The Nazis used Crimean’s to assist them. In Raitsy the Nazis stripped the remaining Jews of their clothing and marched them to what would be their common grave on the outskirts of town.

The road used on the Nazi death march. This road leads towards the mass grave near Raitsy

Leonid walked to Borisov where his uncle had a horse. They then rode through the forest observing the tanks, the bombings, soldiers killing people. They rode on horseback as far as the town of Kogan. At some point Leonid boarded a train heading east. On the train ride he heard a man talking about how he wanted to kill all the Jews and communists and couldn’t wait to do it. At that moment a bullet coming from outside the train went through the window into this mans head and his brains exploded all over the place (4). After spending the rest of the war in the east Leonid returned to Tolochin in nineteen forty-six only to face famine and hardship in rebuilding his life.

 

When Leonid was a child and he had difficultly seeing and his mother would always tell him to go to Epstein who was the eye doctor.  Before the war Tolochin was a classic shtetl but after the war it became a town. As a child he heard lots of stories about strong and big Jews that saved the day. Leonid had a relative that picked up a horse on his shoulders.  Nearly sixty percent of the town was Jewish and it seemed as if Jews were everywhere. His mother would always cook before Shabbas. They were very poor growing up but they had their best food on Shabbas even though there wasn’t much food. When people got together they always spoke about wanting to marry off this guy with this girl and this girl with that guy. There were three or four synagogues in Tolochin and all believed in G-d before the war. Unlike in Orsha, people just went to the closest synagogue. There was a huge wood industry and all products related to wood such as carriages and home building. A lot of people made their income through something related to lumber. His Lifshitz’s were carriage drivers*.

 

I learned that the Lipshitz family knew some members of the Rutstein clan that lived in Tolochin. It turns out these Rutstein are distant cousins of mine whom never left town. The last of the Rutstein clan eventually moved out of Tolochin and now reside in Beersheva, Israel. Later that day I found a tombstone with my surname at the Tolochin cemetery.

 

Afterwards, we left the Lifshitz home and Leonid accompanied us to the location where the Jewish population of Tolochin was murdered by the Nazis.  We drove outside of town towards the mass grave in order to pay our respects to the dead. A large mound jutted out of what was surrounded by flat earth.

Leonid at the mass grave where the Jews of Tolochin were massacred

While it may not be clear from the photographs below the area where the Jews were executed was near family homes that existed at the time of the Second World War. It would have been impossible for anyone not to have noticed the Jews marching through the area. The ensuing gun shots would have been heard very loudly and clearly by the locals. 

Ilya removed his prayer book and began to recite some prayers while Leonid walked around the area of the mass grave, his face completely white. Before we left I told everyone that I wanted to say the kaddish. Ilya protested that we had no minyan but I felt that it was the appropriate thing to do. It was likely that nobody had ever said kaddish over the dead of Tolochin and any kaddish, even one without a minyan, was better than no kaddish at all. After what was a moving kaddish for all, we left the site. As we were leaving we were approached by a woman who came out of a nearby house. She said that she recalled the screams of the dying Jews. Her mother and father told her that she had seen the Jews climbing on top of one another trying to escape the death pit, gasping for air. I won’t write what my thoughts and feelings were.

 

From there we traveled to the Jewish cemetery of Tolochin. Leonid visits the cemetery frequently and maintains the cemetery using his personal funds. Once in the cemetery, Leonid went off by himself to repair some of the tombstone. I began to comb the cemetery for familiar names hoping to find the grave site of a relative or an ancestor.

Near the entrance to the Jewish cemetery of Tolochin

Most of the visible graves date from after the nineteen-thirties and those are the ones which Leonid mostly tends. There is a whole section of the cemetery with tall grasses, broken tombstones which over the decades have turned into dense fields. I fought my way through the fields and did find some old graves. I also found many graves encircled by fences surrounded by trees and tall grasses.

A grave surrounded by a fence. At the center of the grave a young tree grows on top of the burial site

There are literally a handful of graves which date prior to the revolution. After fighting my way through the deep shrubs I encountered a well preserved tombstone which belongs to Issak (Isser?) Moisivitch Merles who was one of the wealthiest Jews of the town and whose home is now the current location of the museum of Tolochin. The Nazis tried to destroy his tombstone but weren’t successful. There is a bullet hole in the top left hand corner from a Nazi vandal.

However, one of the most notable moments for me was finding the grave site of a distant cousin of mine named Nachum Rutstein. This is where my knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet paid off and I was able to recognize my surname. I tried to clear some of the shrubs away which surrounded his grave but there was little I could do. I found a near by tomb which was worn and I could not read the name inscribed in it despite tracing the inscription with the black magic marker I brought.

The grave site of my cousin, Nachum Rutstein in the Tolochin Jewish cemetery

We couldn’t spend more time in the cemetery, as we needed to get to the museum of Tolochin before it closed. So with lots more to explore, we left and headed towards the center of town to visit the home of Issar Moisivitch. As I was leaving, I noticed a grave that was separate from all the others. I thought that perhaps this individual had committed suicide or wasn’t Jewish. Ilya said, possibly joking, that he was buried separately because he was a Polish Jew. Leonid said that he thought that they had died during a difficult winter and they weren’t able to bring his body to the center of the cemetery to be buried.

 

The separate grave mentioned above..

Leonid Lifshitz leaving the Tolochin Jewish cemetery after locking the gates. Many of the grasses and fields in the background grow on top of old graves

After we left the cemetery we dropped off Leonid at his home and drove to the center of town to visit the museum. The museum is located within what was once the home of one of the wealthiest Jews in town, Isser Merles. At the museum we paid the entrance fee and a guide took us around the entire museum explaining the exhibits. Tolochin was once seventy percent Jewish and founded by Jews but there is not so much as a footnote in the museum about displaying what was once Jewish life. At the end of the tour I mentioned to the guide who I was and why I had come to Tolochin. The guide quickly went into the other room and brought out the director of the museum. The director introduced herself as Irina Pikulik and I told her why I came to Tolochin. I relayed to her the deep sense of curiosity, interest, and nostalgia that many Jews have towards Tolochin. I told her that I too was a child of Tolochin and I wanted to know why there was no mention of the Jewish presence in the town. She told me that she wanted to have an exhibit about the Jewish presence in the town but that she didn’t have any information. Irina said that if she had information and material she would surely put something together. I then took the kippah off my head and gave it to her, telling that this could be the first thing to exhibit about Jewish life. I told her that I would send her Judaica and I would try to get others to donate objects. She also began telling me a bit about the Jewish history of the town. Jews were said to have founded the town, which is named after a nearby river.  At one point Jews were over seventy percent and there were several waves of Jewish immigration to the West. She informed me that Issak Moisivitch Merles was a rich glass blower, founder of a factory and that the home museum is in his home (5). Before I left she gave me a gift, a thick book about Tolochin and some of its martyrs. 

The Museum of Tolochin and the former home of Isser Merles of Tolochin

Once I left the museum Dmitry and the others expressed their skepticism concerning the offer of the director to create an exhibit on the historical Jewish presence in Tolochin. The same sentiment was later expressed by other Jews in Minsk. However, I really do believe her and I feel that her interest about Jews and her commitment to creating an exhibit if given the material were sincere. I have since sent her some old, Judaica with little expense to myself and I would encourage others to get in touch with me about doing the same. The museum is located on Pionerskaya Street, #4 in Tolochin, Belarus.

 

We then walked into the center of town which is located a few meters from the museum. As we were walking through the nearby park we bumped into Mrs. Lifshitz, Tamara and another Jew from Tolochin named Luba Blechner. We sat down at some nearby benches and spoke about the history of Jewish Tolochin, their current life challenges and those that have left this little town. I realized that this little Jewish reunion could be one of its last as it was likely that the Jewish presence in Tolochin would disappear within the next decade. It made me realize that the window to the past is closing quickly and that all those that wish to make the journey need to make it now. There is little time left. We all said our goodbyes and exchanged contact information.

 

 

Front: Mrs. Lifshitz, Luba Blechner, Tamara. Back: Ilya, Yehuda, Dmitry in the Tolochin Park.

 

On our way back to Orsha we drove through the town of Kochanova where my great-great grandfather Dov Behr Rutstein moved to from Tolochin. While Tolochin is a full fledged town, Kochanova is small village in the form of a single road with a dozen or two houses. When I asked if there were any Jews in Kochanova I received different answers from different people. However, I believe there is a mixed Jewish woman that still lives in Kochanova and I felt like my guides did not want me to meet her.

 

The highway sign for Kochanova.

 

I posit that my great-great grandfather may have moved from Tolochin to Kochanova in his old age because it would have been cheaper to live in Kochanova than in Tolochin and that such an action may have been necessary after his entire family emigrated. Kochanova may have had a poorer population than of Tolochin and Orsha.

 

The road through Kochanova..

 

After leaving Tolochin we drove back to Orsha and spent the night. Early the next morning Dmitry and I returned to Minsk via the express train. I toured Minsk and that evening I met with a democracy activist that I had been corresponding with via the internet. She was brave, passionate and dedicated to bringing about democratic changes in order to improve her country. She informed me of the recent election frauds and how the government had fooled the United Nations monitoring teams. She told me about how her university committed election fraud and how she and other students quietly protested. Unlike many other young, talented and educated students her age, she has no plans to emigrate to the West but plans to stay and fight to improve Belarus. She wants Belarus to “join the rest of Europe.” She told me she was embarrassed by her government’s violations of human rights, its lack of freedom of speech. She wants the United States government to pressure her government to initiate democratic reforms. She also spoke about the mentality which is created by the lack of freedom. Too many people are content with the status quo and have no desire to become activists for freedom. For all the suffering, bitterness and tragedy which at times seems to consume Belarus she is bright star in the night. My hope for a better future for Belarus resides in outstanding individuals like herself. My thoughts and prayers remain with her.

 

Thinking about her words I began to understand a driving force behind Jewish emigration to the West in the last century. In fact I believe that this may be one of the fundamental driving forces behind many migrations of the twentieth century, freedom. Jews and non-Jews in Belarus are not free. If one does not live in a genuinely free society one cannot maximize their own existence. The words of Leonid rang through my head, “I worked really hard, nobody thanked me, and I got nothing in return – nothing.” Dmitry said it even better when we were on the train, “people work really really hard and they receive nothing in return…people are poor and they are trying to figure out where their next meal will come from.” People throughout Belarus work extremely hard and achieve nothing in return except basic survival. This creates a culture of apathy and despair. Why work so hard if I will receive nothing in return?

 

I believe that one of the most important human needs is the feeling of personal satisfaction. Satisfaction comes from the things in our lives in which we take pride and define our own sense of what is best in us. Satisfaction often comes from an accomplishment, a situation, a project that we may have taken responsibility for and which we achieved success. Other elements affect our deep and lasting satisfactions such as the degree of effort we put into something. If I work really hard in university I will have good grades. If I study for my LSAT’s I will do well on them. However, what happens when individuals put in tremendous effort and get nothing in return? What happens when an entire society does not see the fruits of its labours? What does the ambitious individual do in order maximize their personal satisfaction and potential? Some stay in order to change their environment while most others decide to emigrate.

 

Putting these ideas together, I am restating a principle of Aristotle. Satisfaction in life comes from exercising our abilities and thereby realizing our potential. The more complex and demanding the exercise of our realized capacities are, the greater the satisfaction. Opportunities to exercise our realized capacities depend on freedom. In a communist or totalitarian state our ability to maximize our satisfaction and potential is stifled. We cannot take responsibility for our destinies because our destinies are not our own but that of our rulers. Without controlling our destinies we cannot truly reach our potential as human beings. Places such as the United States allow us to reach our potential as human beings if we choose. This is what I believe was a factor in the emigration of millions to the shores of the United States. In the words of Irving Berlin, also a son of Tolochin, “God bless America from sea to shining sea.”

 

The Byelorussians KGB headquarters in Minsk, Belarus

 

The next morning I woke up before dawn. Waiting for Leonid to drive me to the airport, I read a description of my great-grandfather Yaakov Rutstein written by my grandfather Milton Rothstein. Milton wrote;

 

“In the beginning my father was a great “maven”, a genius who far

 exceeded his father’s business prowess. At the age of six he was

 taken to the (Tolochin?) market (farmers and commodities) he dealt with the

Russian peasant buying various things, horse hair (bristles), produce,

 furs and pelts. At the end of the day he earned more then my

 grandfather who was a giant of a man called “Dov Behr” in Hebrew

or Yiddish? He was over 6’4 weighing 270 pounds with powerful

 muscles. He was a “gibbur” and was reputed to have killed many

Cossacks who had massacred poor defenseless Jews in pogroms.

 Yankov went to Heder (school) until the age of twelve. During his

school days he was engaged in many activities such as waldsacher

{lumber merchant in Yiddish}. He could estimate the output of

an orchard for trade and anticipated accompanying his father to

market.  He was hired by a German company to export seafood

 from Russia as General Manager. He accumulated quite a fortune

which later was deposited in London, where he ran away from the

 Russian army during the Russo-Sino (Japanese) war. He was

 stricken with rheumatic fever in route to the U.S.  After months of

 hospitalization and using up all his money he landed in N.Y.

 practically penniless…”

 

My thoughts turned to my great-grandparents. After experiencing Tolochin, a place that has barely changed, my imagination took me back to the small shtetl of yore. I realized that exactly a hundred years earlier in the summer of nineteen hundred and five my great-grand father Yaakov Rutstein left his small village in search for a better life. There most have been a certain naiveté to him a young country boy leaving to America in order to maximize his potential. I can imagine him packing some dense whole wheat loafs and heading towards the train station with only small backpack. I could imagine the journey to Libau, Poland. Maybe he spent a day or two in each city he passed through. Maybe he stayed with distant cousins in each. Getting on the boat to America, even the non superstitious or non-religious Jew would have said a prayer before leaving to America.  I am sure that Yaakov was no exception.

 

Dov Behr and Riva Shpitzgluz Rutstein of Tolochin, Belarus. These are my great-great grandparents.  Photo: Tolochin, Belarus; circa 1910.

 

The Tolochin train station.

 

My cousin Jimmy Kaplan (from the Rutstein clan) once wrote, “I was talking with my wife last night, after reading her some selections from Milton’s story, and we contemplated what it must have been like to come over here from Russia under conditions that are so foreign to us. It must have taken enormous determination and vision to want to travel so far to start a new life. This past year, we were able to see a touring production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF which starred Theodore Bikel. Despite his age (over 80!) he is still full of enormous energy and power…When I think of all the villagers leaving at the end, it’s not hard to imagine a young Jacob being one of them, whose family sent him to America with their highest hopes. "

 

 

 Addendum

 

 

History of Jewish life.

 

The Assistant Director of the Religious Communities of Belarus describes life in the Orsha-Tolochin region prior to the revolution.

 

Orsha was founded in 1067 and the first Jewish presence in the city is recorded in the sixteenth century. Historically Orsha was a very small town but by the turn of the century that began to change and the city grew drastically. It was the largest city in the region and a rail road center.  By the mid 19th century there was a revolution in manufacturing especially in the lumber industry which originated in Siberia. 1890 there was electricity in Orsha and today it has evolved to a city of nearly a 110, 000 people.

 

Yiddish was once one of the four official languages of Belarus. Most people, including Jews were illiterate but when boys were five years old they were taught some of the basics of the Torah in cheder. Religion was taught in the home first and then children picked up the rest in cheder and then in some cases went on to Yeshiva. Girls were taught at home and there were special professional schools for girls. No girls went to Yeshiva.  There was a Lubavitch presence in Orsha as the Lubavitch city of Lyady was nearby. Historically Belarus was part of the Kingdom of Lithuania and thus most of the population adhered to the Lithuanian tradition however there was a small Lubavitch presence. The Orsha and Tolochin regions were stuck in the middle of two great spheres of influence that of the Litvaks and Chasidic yet most were Litvaks but there were some poor Jews that were attracted to Chasidim (6).

 

The pogroms triggered the massive wave of Jewish emigration to the West but poverty also played a lesser role. Jews went to America illegally. Jews said everything and did everything they could do buy tickets. They formed special committees and hired Russians to help them escape Russia. There were two ways to leave Belarus. Jews went both legally and illegally. In the later case there were natural barriers to pass and the government would actively hunt those who tried to escape and many died trying to leave Russia. Sometimes the government actively encouraged Jews to leave and then all a Jew needed was money. Many Jews would sell everything they own and only then would they have enough money to file application for a passport to leave the country.

 

During the First World War the Germans were very polite to the Jews. During World War Two many Jews expected the same thing. Most Byelorussians were indifferent to the Nazi persecution of the Jews and many actively assisted them. In Dubrovna, where his family is from, the town population actively assisted the Nazis in removing the Jewish population. Dubrovna was a small shtetl just like Tolochin.

 

In soviet times there were quotas against Jews in higher education. Stalin died on Purim which many Byelorussian Jews felt was symbolic.

 

Various Photographs

 

Random Jewish grave site in the Orsha Cemetery..

 

A photograph of a man who may have been Adolph “EydolaLipshitz of Tolochin and the grandfather of Leonid Lipshitz.

 

 

A home being built on the outskirts of Tolochin.

 

A memorial for the Jews of Tolochin at the site of the mass grave near the village of Raitsy.

 

Other personalities:

 

Bertha (Breina)  Poretzkyn (1900-1983)

 

 

 

Bertha was the youngest sister of Basha Poretzky (daughter of Tzvi Hirsch) my great-grandmother. According to Professor Zvi Gitelman, Bertha is dressed in a Russian peasant dress and is playing a native guitar. This photo, circa 1915, illustrates the extent of her russification in contrast to some of her other siblings. All of the eight Poretsky children reacted to the tumultuous ideological climate in different ways. Some became Zionists, Socialists, and Capitalists while others remained traditionalists.

 

 

Zalman Kalatin - The Last “Rabbi” of Tolochin

 

 

The Last “Rabbi” of Tolochin, Zalman Kalatin.

 

According to Ilya Halfey, Zalman Kalatin was the last spiritual leader of Tolochin. In 1960, Zalman had a “golden” fifty year wedding anniversary in Tolochin. Ilya remembers people playing the violin and dancing. Everything was kosher about the wedding including the food and chuppah. Ilya remembers people praying, wearing teffilin and tallaisim. When Judaism was not permitted during the soviet era the Jews prayed secretly in the rabbis house even thought it was illegal. There was no room in the house because so many people wanted to pray so they put the children outside. Ilya remembers trying to untie the knots on the tallaism as a child. Jews worked in the market and in making clothing. Lots of Jews worked in the lumber industry.

 

Mrs. (Tamara?) Lifshitz

 

Mrs. Lifshitz was born in the village of Uchala\Ucvalah which is in the Minsk region. In 1941 the Germans took over her village. They gathered all the Jews into five houses and eighty Jews were killed the first day. For one year the Jewish inhabitants of the town were together in five houses. On March 1st, 1942 the Nazis issued an order to shoot the Jewish people living in these homes. Only 10 people escaped the shootings and she was one of them.

 

She eventually found herself walking alone in the forest (for three months?) with another girl named Bella (Kroyck). She remembers being hungry and eating grass in order to survive. Throughout telling her story she was crying and Dmitry, my translator, was having trouble understanding some of the details. On July 8th they were found by the partisans and they took her and she joined the resistance. In the resistance she worked in the kitchen. She would defend the kitchen with her gun. She was only eleven years old.

 

Sometimes she would take her gun and shoot things and eat them and sometimes she didn’t eat at all. Sometimes they would attack Germans and kill them and she would retrieve their guns and food. She was doing all this at the age of eleven. She spent nearly four years with the partisans. At the end of the war she found herself in a village near Tolochin called Slavc and it was there that the partisans connected with the soviet army. She was not drafted into the army because she was so young but instead was sent to an orphanage. At 16 she started working at a cement factory and excelled at her work. She received many medals. Mrs. Lipshitz was so proud of her medals that she ran to her room to show me them. She eventually came to settle in Tolochin because she had an aunt who lived there.

 

Mrs. Lipshitz with her medals.

 

Tamara Abramovna Kahovich

 

 Before the war, most of Tolochin was farm land. Her father was the director of the farms owned by Abraham Kravashay who owned three farms. Most of the houses that exist now were farmland before the war. There was a local farm named “Karkali” which was a Jewish name and so during the soviet era they changed it to Victory farm but it has since ben changed back. It was easier and cheaper to live in the outskirts of town when they lived in Tolochin it was harder and more expensive. Her (grand?)mother’s surname was Furmann and her father was Mendel and he worked in “metalwork.” Her grandmother, Basya Furhman, was involved in local conflict resolution. Because of her grandmother’s local stature, her mother was taken in by a Russian family and saved. Her mother had watched the Nazis kill her brother and grandmother. The neighbors’ agreed to hide her mother in their house. Eventually the Russians came and they were evacuated and the family only came back after 1946. Tamara was born in 1944.

 

Tamara was somehow related to the Lipshitz family. I believe this is how: There where two Furhman sisters. One was Basyia and the other was Bracha.  Basiya granddaughter was Tamara. Bracha Furhman married into the Lipshitz family and was the mother of Leonid.

 

Basya and Bracha Furhman of Tolochin, Belarus.

 

Luba Blechner Blackman

 

I met Luba randomly in the center of Tolochin. Her father was Benyamin and was a roofmaker. She had a brother that went to the USA before the war. She was six when the war started, and was evacuated to Tashkent.

 

Misha Ginsberg

 

Misha was born in 1946 in Belarus. His father drove a carriage for a living and his mother was a housewife. His father also worked as a shoemaker and was illiterate. Misha has three older sisters one of which is in Germany. Misha went to school at the age of eight, which is considered late, because his family had no money. During World War II his father went off to the war while his mother went to Ural with the children. Because his father was illiterate he could not send letters to his family because he couldn’t write or read and as a result the family never knew if he was safe. After the war Misha’s father worked as a chimney cleaner.   His mother was from Mogilev but his fathers’ family has lived in Orsha for many generations. His mother, from the Ganetska family, was from a rich family which moved to Orsha from Mogiliew.

 

Misha had an uncle that married Russian women and had five children. The uncle went to the Russian and the kids went to another village to hide. Someone ratted them to the authorities and subsequently the children were taken and killed. After the war some wanted revenge for the killings and subsequently killed the tattler.

 

 

Link to more photographs of my trip to Belarus: http://share.shutterfly.com/action/welcome?sid=8AZuWblm2YuHig

 

Footnotes

1. I must mention that some of my notes were damaged and that I am not able to one-hundred percent confirm whether the following autobiographical statements contained in the immediate following interview are that of this same Boris that secretly baked matzah in his home or of the other Boris I interview later in this piece. However, I am about eighty-percent certain that the Boris I interview later is Boris Reitsen and that I never wrote down the surname of the Boris mentioned in the immediate following interview the one who secretly baked matzos. I have two different dates of births for the two different Boris’s one is 1937 and the other is 1930.

2. In the Orsha Jewish school his brothers learned Yiddish as a language and that’s mostly what made it Jewish.

 

3. “14, 15, 16,17 – then ghetto during the war.”

 

4. ] He had a brother that lived from 1925-1943 whom died in the war.

*See below for other interviews conducted at the Lifshitz home.

5. Irina Pikulik referred to him as “Issak Merles” while his tombstone read “Yisrael Merles.” I think that I may have misheard or miswrote his name when speaking to the director. She likely meant to say, “Isser Merles.”

6. I met a man in Orsha who was anti-Chabad. He didn’t know the Aleph-Bet, but he knew that he was a Litvak. He was proud and resented the Chabad encroachment in what was historically Litvak territory.

 

   A lot of people complained about the Chabad presence in Orsha. The most common complain was the Rabbi lives in a luxurious apartment and doesn’t share his wealth with the people and wont provides service to members who are not part of his community.

Copyright © 2006 Belarus SIG and Judd Rothstein

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