(No. 2/2008 – September 2008)
Visit to Smolyany
I was in Minsk, Belarus on Monday, July 10, at the invitation of the Belarussian Jewish Community to attend the dedication of a Holocaust memorial at the site of the Minsk Ghetto, at the spot where some 100,000 Jews had been murdered by the Nazis. This was my third visit to the city, but the previous two had been short, and confined to meetings and events that I could not escape. They were also in winter, which further detracted from visiting this place. However, this time I knew I would be able to stay on in Belarus for an additional day, and with the help and assistance of my friends Vladimir and Galina, among the leaders of the Jewish community, I managed to pay a visit to the town of Smolyany. As most of you know, this is the place where the Baker Family came from, and so, with Jeff Adler's "family tree" in hand, I wanted to see firsthand if any traces could be found. But, I will leave no one in suspense. I couldn't find any. Still was a moving experience, and I want to share it with you through the accompanying pictures and a few comments.
It is a three-hour drive from Minsk, almost all of it along the main highway that runs from Brest to Moscow. The countryside is flat, and the view out the window is mostly of grass, farmland and the occasional grazing animal. We turned off the highway about ten miles before the city of Orsha, and from here it is only about five miles to Smolyany itself. The area is rather pretty, with forests and slightly rolling hills.
The center of town, which years ago might have been a real market square, is now only an open dirt area, with one store and a few people selling things from open air stands. In the background you can see the ruins of what must have been a large and very elegant baroque church. The few horse drawn carts we see in town are as common as automobiles.
We drive to the "city hall" a small building, which also serves as library and post office.
A plaque inside quotes the words of Lenin and has places (now blank) to display the photos of distinguished comrade citizens. My friend Vladimir returns from talking with the town administrator, but unfortunately the news is not very good. They have no records at all of prewar Smolyany, he tells us. Even the former Jewish cemetery, which ironically is situated across from where we are standing, can offer us no help. All of its tombstones were removed long ago, and today it is only a park of small trees.
But he does have the name of the town's last remaining Jew, and so we head off to find the home of Peter Efimivich Merson, He lives in a small, low roofed house, with firewood piled in the back and a few chickens running around the yard, much like the others you see. We talk with him for a bit. He is a little hard of hearing and looks older than his seventy-five years.
"Yes," he tells us, he remembers the name Baker. But, he was a young boy then. He survived the Nazis because he was evacuated to the East before they arrived, and few Jews remained when he returned as a young soldier. Was there a synagogue in Smolyany before the war? There were many, he says, all wooden. But, now there are none.
Before we leave, I slip him a ten-dollar bill. He tells me that he does very well on his disabled veterans' pension. I reply, that, if he wants, he can give me money. As we go, Vladimir says, "Zei Gesundt." "The same to you", Merson responds in Russian.
But, Vladimir is pleased to know about him and will inform the Jewish community in Orsha so that they can look in on him from time to time.
There is a teacher in Smolyany who is also the town's unofficial historian, and we seek him out next. Victor Olegovich Meshevich is not at home when we find his house, but before long he comes riding in on an old bicycle, with a hoe tied to the frame and a bunch of newly dug parsnips in his hand. Inside his house, he pulls out old scrapbooks of photos and newspaper clippings for my friend Vladimir to examine.
But, there is very little there from prewar times and virtually nothing about the community. He does find and presents to me the xerox of an article that appeared in a newspaper from Orsha in 1990. It briefly describes the events of 1942, noting that when the Nazis arrived in Smolyany on March 10, they quickly established a ghetto for the town's Jews. On April 4, the 800 who were being held were marched to the forest on the edge of town and shot. Before we leave, Meshevich takes down the family names and promises to contact us if he is able to find any information about the Bakers of Smolyany.
We had been told there is a memorial in the forest that marks the place where these Jews met their deaths. And so, as we drive out of town we stop, and walk into the forest. Thus far, I have relied on Vladimir or Galina to know where everything can be found, and I assume they will know where this is, too. They don't. But, fortunately as we are roaming the forest we come across a young boy of perhaps ten or eleven, who has been out picking blueberries. (He offers us some.) Yes, he knows where this memorial is and leads us to it. While we are walking, Galina asks him if he knows what happened here. Yes, he says, people were killed here. Does he know what people? Yes, he says, Jews were killed here. The memorial is surrounded by a painted blue fence, and it has the customary wording that one would find in the USSR. "Eight Hundred Soviet Citizens were murdered by the Fascists."
But, still it is a memorial, and even a ten-year old boy knows the truth.
Driving back to Minsk, Vladimir and Galina want to know what I think and how I feel. I tell them that while I am disappointed that there were no records, no tombstones, and thus no possibility to find anything, it was still a very moving experience, and I was very glad I could visit. My father's parents left this town over a hundred years ago, and it would be unlikely to imagine that there could be much remaining of their time. But, the dirt roads, the forest and even the horse drawn carts couldn't have been very different even when they lived here. So now, at least, I had a real feeling for Smolyany, which until now had only been a very vague and foreign name.
Perhaps, through these pictures and this brief account, I have been able to give you a feeling for the place, too.
Copyright © 2008 Belarus SIG and Rabbi Andrew Baker
Back to the index of the Belarus SIG Newsletters
Back to the Belarus SIG website