No. 12/2002 - December 2002
Editor: Fran Bock
Pnina and Avram - The Story Continues
by Kelly Modlin
Once again I find myself with pen in hand. In the Belarus SIG Online Letter No 13/2000, I end my Postscript with the question "Where to from now?" This was a very big question, which kept us occupied practically from day to day.
Almost a year had passed since Avram and his wife Nina's visit. Three wonderful weeks spent together with us, here at our home in Israel. Three weeks trying to breach the Gap of 58 years of separation. One could say, almost a lifetime, two different worlds, cultures and languages. Two children - today grown up with children and grandchildren of their own - who were separated due to circumstances over which they had no control.
Left to right, Avram, Pnina, Nina, Kelly
Fate had it that after the War, Pnina would be repatriated to Poland, from Poland to France and in the year 1947 emigration to Eretz Yisrael - Palestine. As for Avram, on the other hand, fate had it that he was destined to remain in Russian Orphanages, growing up under the shadow of the "Hammer and Sickle".
With the departure of Avram and Nina we were left with a vacuum. Our only means of communication was (is) a monthly phone call. As we have a language problem, this phone call is rather complicated. Firstly we phone our friend Shaul and put him on hold, next dial Avram's number and as soon as he lifts up the receiver, Shaul is reconnected. Without this "Conference Phone Call", communicating with Avram would be out of the question. We soon came to realize that if we wished to continue the relationship and strengthen the ties between brother and sister, these monthly telephone calls aren't sufficient. It became obvious that the only solution to our dilemma would be taking ourselves off to Russia, visit Avram and get to know his family.
Our Trip to Belarus and Russia
We started making inquiries and seeking advice with the knowledge that we had a difficult task ahead of us. From the outset there were those who tried to discourage us from undertaking the trip, claiming that there are many obstacles such as language, food (kosher), security, etc., which would have to be overcome. However, our minds were made up and once decided, there was no turning back. Our main inspiration came from our very good friend Shaul Hollander, who encouraged us to go ahead with our plans. Shaul had been an Aliyah emissary for the Jewish Agency in Russia. His knowledge of the social and living conditions, mentality, language and how to make out in Russia is excellent.
If already traveling (and who knows when we would undertake such a trip again), why not include in our itinerary a visit to Pnina's Birthplace, Zabolot'ye - Belarus, as well. This idea came as a result of receiving her Birth Certificate, indicating the fact that Zabolot'ye is situated in the immediate vicinity of the town Khoyniki. One has to understand that the exact situation of the Village was a problem. The word "Zabolot'ye" in Russian means "The Other Side of the Bog". In Belarus and the Ukraine there is more than one place bearing that name. At this stage, I must state that we are forever grateful to Randy Daitch for all his help and mainly pinpointing Zabolot'ye on the map of Belarus. Incredibly, only when we visited the Village did we realize how accurate his estimation was.
However, we were faced with a dilemma and we had to make a decision. Zabolot'ye and Khoyniki are in the immediate vicinity of Chernobyl and were directly affected by the fallout of radioactive substances. At this stage we were in constant contact with Frank Swartz and David Fox, seeking guidance and advice. Frank and his wife Galina- living and breathing the air of Belarus, all their knowledge and most important, Frank's honesty and advice regarding the ecological situation in the Khoyniki area helped us to decide on our plans while in Belarus. David Fox was always there with prompt answers and advice to all our questions regarding one's requirements while traveling in Belarus. We don't have enough words of thanks and gratitude for all the help given to us by them prior to our departure. As for Frank, Galina and their daughter Sasha, I would like to get back to them later in my narration.
As the date of our departure drew near we were faced with a new and greater dilemma, which almost caused us to change our plans by excluding Belarus from our itinerary. This came about as a result of forest and peat bog fires raging in the contaminated regions of Belarus and Ukraine. These fires usually occur late in the spring and early summer, causing the re-contamination of the air with radioactive substances. With the exchange of extensive e-mail messages between Frank and myself, regarding the situation in Belarus, it was clearly explained by him that the possibility of contamination in the District of Minsk was very slight. We therefore decided to go ahead with our plans, however with one reservation: we decided against traveling to Zabolot'ye due to it's being in the immediate vicinity of Chernobyl. This decision was to be reversed after our arrival in Minsk- I'll deal with this later.
This decision to go ahead with the plans for our visit to Belarus and Russia, was the most important and fruitful one ever taken by us during all the years of trying to solve the problem of Pnina's identity. Although there is still much work to be done in order to complete the circle, it was a decision which was to change the whole of Pnina's life and identity. I only hope that by the next time I sit down to write and report on our progress I shall be able to say that we "Have Come Full Circle".
Prior to our departure for Minsk, it was completely clear to us that our trip had to be planned to the smallest detail and that there had to be an answer to every problem that might crop up on the way. First and foremost, being observant Jews, we had a dietary problem and therefore had to plan our menu from day to day. It was plain and simple, "What we took with us, that's what we ate". Our daily meals comprised a packet of dehydrated ingredients, based mainly on rice, noodles, beans etc., which when added to a cup or two of boiling water and left to cook for five minutes, made a tasty and satisfying meal. Such a packet was sufficient, in some cases for four helpings. Besides this, prior to our departure we purchased a substantial amount of polony and crackers. Virtually we were completely self-sufficient. In addition to produce previously mentioned, our inventory also included instant coffee, powdered milk, sugar, ketchup, mayonnaise, soup cubes etc. "You name it, we had it" - a traveling Mini Market. Our baggage, besides clothing, included cooking utensils, plates and cutlery, not forgetting toiletries, first aid equipment and our personal medication - a complete Dispensary. To such an extent we were advised to take with us surgical needles, as well as antibiotics, just in case the need would arise.
Traveling to East European Countries
It seems as though nothing has changed as far as traveling to Belarus and Russia are concerned. It all begins with the obtaining an entry Visa. At the outset it's required that you have a sponsor, an organization or individual who is prepared to invite you officially. Once you have such an invitation, you are required to pay rather a substantial amount of money in cash. What's more, if in dollars, all the bills have to be new ones. What a business. One consolation, the price of a Visa to Belarus doesn't vary according to the days spent in the Country.
As for Russia, that's another story. Besides having to be invited, as in Belarus, the price you pay for a Visa is based on the period of time spent in the Country. Health Insurance- it doesn't matter if you have taken out an Insurance Policy in your Country of origin before receiving a Russian Visa, a special Russian Health Insurance Policy is required. Obviously this costs money and like the Visa, is calculated according to the time you spent there. So one has to plan his stay in the Republic very carefully. There is no arriving before or departing after the dates stamped in your Visa. In other words, no overstaying your welcome. To add insult to injury, within two days after arrival you have to register, in our case some sort of tourist office. This registration costs you another $20. Plain and simple, your Passport isn' t stamped at the Airport on arrival, but not to worry - they give you two days in order to settle down and then you pay.
Entering Russia is very easy. We arrived on an internal flight, (so it seems), disembarked from the plane, collected our baggage and departed the Airport. As mentioned previously we had an address in Moscow where we had to register our arrival. When departing Russia, well, that's a different story. The everlasting queues, the questions, bureaucracy, just unbelievable. We returned to Israel via the USA, as we have two of ours sons living there. My Israeli Passport states that I was born in South. Africa. The questions and cross-examining, just because of my being born in South Africa was just degrading. I doubt as to whether we shall ever wish to visit the Russian Republic again.
Wednesday 12th July 2000, the date of our departure finally arrived. With mixed feelings and not knowing what lay ahead of us on our journey, we fastened our safety belts as the plane took off. We were on our way to our first stop, Minsk. Galina Swartz was at the Airport to receive us and from the Terminal we travelled directly to their apartment, which was to be home for the duration of our stay while in Minsk. We sat chatting into the early hours of the morning, learning all about the wonderful work being done by Frank, Galina and all their co-workers, and on the other hand explaining what we wished to achieve in regards to our research while in Belarus. It was most moving, hearing about the plight of the Belarusian people, which obviously includes the Jewish Community.
As mentioned previously, due to the Chernobyl catastrophe, we had decided to exclude Pnina's birthplace, Zabolot'ye, from our itinerary. As a result of this decision, we estimated that a week would be sufficient for research and a bit of sightseeing while in Minsk. In effect we only had five days, which could be considered as days of visiting Archives and institutions. Shabat and Sunday being days of rest could not be taken into account as working days. It didn't take Pnina and myself too long to realize how lucky we were by falling into the able hands of Frank, Galina and daughter Sasha. Their hospitality, the opening of their home and hearts to us, and not forgetting the help and advice, will always be appreciated and remembered by us. There always seems be enough place in their compact home for an additional person to lay down his or her head for the night. The walls just seem to expand. As I sit here and write I can just see Frank- forever busy - running off to a meeting or conference, working at his computer, sending and receiving e-mail messages, cooking their daily meal or conducting a conversation at the kitchen table. Forever thinking up new ideas as to how they can help the needy of Belarus. Galina and Sasha were always there at his side helping, translating, or seeing to the luggage of visitors, which had gone astray on its way to Minsk. Driving off to Grodno in order to meet and help people in their family search. Rushing back home to Minsk in order to wish us farewell and seeing that we get off well to the Airport on the next stage of our journey - Moscow. I just don't have enough words in order to express our appreciation and gratitude to Frank, Galina and Sasha for all that they did for us during our stay in Belarus.
With the aid of Galina and Sasha, we spent time in the various Archives of Minsk, with the hope of solving all or some of the objectives, which we had set ourselves. We made our way by tramway, bus, train and taxi from the ZAGS Archives of Minsk [Ed. note: ZAGS refers to Provincial Archives; see "Belarusian Archives and Other Resources, Online Newsletter No. 1/2002], to the Main Military Archives of Belarus - unfortunately with very little success. Here I would like to stress that whoever we spoke to or approached for aid was most helpful, kind and understanding. In general we came away with the feeling that the Belarusian people are very warm and good hearted and always ready to help.
While in Minsk we also visited the Jewish Communal and Cultural Center. Here most of the social, educational and religious activities take place. In this complex there is a kosher kitchen, which also sees to the needy, the offices of the East European Jewish Heritage Project (EEJHP), the organization of which Frank is the Executive Director. The Jewish Agencies offices and Ulpan Ivrit are also situated here. In addition to this, it is the seat of the Chief Rabbinate, i.e. the offices of the "Union of Religious Jewish Congregations in the Republic of Belarus", which unites and supplies all the religious needs of the Jewish Communities throughout the Republic. The building, which was a Shul, is bursting with Jewish activities, just like in "Days Gone By". What a wonderful and pleasant change since the decline of the Soviet Regime. I'm sure that if Stalin could see what has happened since the breakaway of Belarus from Mother Russia, he would turn over in his grave.
While visiting the Center, we had the opportunity of meeting people who, like Pnina and her family, had the same fate during the War: being evacuated to the interior of Russia; their fathers, husbands, and brothers being conscripted into the Army; and after the conclusion of the conflict remaining unaware as to the fate of their dear ones. The saddest part of all, when asking what became of their loved ones, the answer in many case was - "we don' t know", "my mother was too scared to enquire" . The reasons are pretty obvious.
We walked the streets of Minsk together with Galina and Sasha. One of the more important sites we visited was what was once the Jewish Ghetto of Minsk, the place where the Jews of Minsk and surrounding areas spent the last minutes of their lives before being annihilated at the hands of the Nazi butchers and their local accomplices. They went to their deaths with the smell of baking bread in their nostrils. In the vicinity there is a bakery, which was working full steam. We also visited was what was once the Jewish Cemetery, where today there is only a monument erected in memory of its inhabitants.
Being unsuccessful in our quest for information at the various Archives was a great disappointment to us. The thought of coming away empty handed was a fact that was just unacceptable to us. So once again the idea of visiting Zabolot'ye came to the fore. Once again we were faced with the dilemma of traveling to the areas contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster. One thing was clear to us: if we didn't travel now, who knows if or when such another opportunity would ever arise. This chance of visiting Zabolot'ye, Pnina's place of birth, where she spent the first years of her childhood and what this visit would mean to her, just could not be discarded. The mere thought of meeting residents of the village, who, perhaps were acquainted with her parents or members of her family could very possibly enlighten her about them. Seeing the house that she was born and lived in was something to be forever remembered. Also not forgetting the local ZAGS and other Archives situated in Khoyniki - maybe we could glean some information which could help us move another step forward in our search. When weighing up all the pros and cons of undertaking such a visit to these contaminated parts of Belarus, the weight of the pros caused the scale to incline towards undertaking the journey.
Time would tell that by traveling to Zabolot'ye and Khoyniki, we had taken the right decision. I call it fate. Stored away in the local Archives exists information which was previously unknown to us.
I reminded myself of some good advice given to me by David Fox way back before our departure. "Don't, under any circumstances hire a car and drive it by yourself. Better to hire a car together with a driver as, most people don't have insurance. If you drive yourself and are involved in an accident, that is not even your fault, it will be a big mess."
So we requested of Galina to go ahead and arrange a car and driver for us. The evening prior to our departure, we prepared for our journey to Zabolot'ye, the birthplace of Pnina and her brother Avram . Being fully aware that we could not eat the produce of the land or drink its water, we prepared food for two days, packed our kerosene burner, utensils - plates, cutlery, water etc. Before departing Galina asked the driver if the Transporter (Volkswagen) "is in good condition". The answer was a very prompt one: "Not to worry, there are no problems". The honest truth is, that it was very comfortable and sat on the road beautifully. As for the "No Problems", I 'll get back to that soon.
Monday 17 th July, 2000 at 5 a.m., together with Sasha as our guide and translator, we set forth from Minsk via Bobruisk, Rechitsa to Gomel and final destination Zabolot'ye and Khoyniki. The reason for departing Minsk at 5 a.m. was in order to arrive at Gomel at about 10 a.m. when the Archives open their doors. On the way, we had a coffee break at Bobruisk, as well as an opportunity to make a phone call. As planned we arrived a bit after ten at the Gomel ZAGS. Why the Gomel ZAGS? Today, Gomel is the oblast for Khoyniki, which is the raion for Zabolot'ye. We hoped to find information regarding the parents and Avram as Pnina's Birth Certificate was issued there. Unfortunately our visit to Gomel was unfruitful and as time was getting on, we decided to bypass Rechitsa, whose Archives are only a division of Gomel's and head straight on to Khoyniki.
A Slight Deviation
As we drove along on our journey towards Pnina's place of birth, Zabolot'ye, we were taken in and enhanced by the beauty of the Belarusian countryside and scenery - ever so beautiful. Dense forests wherever you look, green fields, meandering rivers and streams, quaint country villages, everything so pastoral. BUT as we traveled eastwards, entering the areas contaminated by the tragedy of what is known as the Chernobyl Catastrophe, what met our eyes was in complete contradiction to what we had previously seen. There was a drastic change in the appearance of the forests - the trees, like wounded soldiers, were scalded with burns, their skin scorched like after a major battle Such were the trunks of the trees - burned and bare, with only a bit of foliage at the treetops. About 30 km from Khoyniki, I requested the driver to stop as I wished to photograph the trees. To do so, I got out of the car and the driver did likewise. In doing so he noticed that the engine was over heating, the reason being that the fan belt had completely disintegrated. After letting the engine cool down we tried to carry on slowly towards town. By inserting the key into the ignition and restarting the motor, we would drive on for a few kilometers until the radiator started boiling over again. Once again the driver would switch the motor off, shift into neutral and coast for a kilometer or two. We carried on like this for quite a distance until he realized that there was no point in continuing. Plain and simple, we were stuck. So, pulling up onto the side of the road, we all got out and waited for some good Samaritan to come along and save us from our plight. Luck was on our side and we didn't have to wait too long. A car pulled up and out came five laborers on their way home after work and offered to help us.
Remember? I previously mentioned that the Belarusian people are very kind and helpful - well here was a good example. Obviously all drivers in Belarus are their own mechanics, and after trying to solve the problem in the middle of nowhere, they came to the conclusion that perhaps the best would be to tow the Transporter into Khoyniki. Out came the ropes, one car was hooked up to the other and once again we were on our way. Here I must mention that, while milling around the car, we started to make inquiries such as: Are there any Jewish people in the town? Where are the local Archives and possibly a Jewish Cemetery situated? Not forgetting, how do we reach the Village of Zabolot'ye? They informed us that there is a Jewish man by the name of Volfson, who, they are sure would be prepared to help us. It was therefore decided to tow us as far as Volfson's place of work.
Iakov Yefimovich Volfson
Pnina with Iakov Yefimovich Volfson
He received us very warmly and agreed to help us. First, he saw to it that the Transporter was towed to a garage for repair, then we all got into his jeep and we were off to the ZAGS Archives of Khoyniki. As we were driving along on our way to the Archives, Volfson all of a sudden informed us "Now we are driving through Zabolot'ye", then "this is the street that the Jews lived in". We were completely amazed to see that the village is slap-bang in the middle of Khoyniki. During the years the town had grown, completely encircling the village. Zabolot'ye was exactly situated where Randy Daitch had explained in one of his e-mail messages to us - UNBELIEVABLE. We would very much have liked to stop there for a while, walk around, who knows? Perhaps we would even encounter some old-timers who had memories of the Mishures family. Unfortunately, as the day was getting on and we had to reach the ZAGS, all we could do was stop for a short while in order to take a few snap shots. Pnina was overcome with joy, just imagine passing through the place where she had spent the first few years of her life. Only time will tell, as to whether we shall ever return in order to accomplish all that we missed out on during our short stay in the town.
Although Pnina had already received a copy of her Birth Certificate through the ZAGS Archives of Gomel, we decided to make inquiries re Avram's birth and their parents' marriage certificates. To our disappointment, we were informed that the Archives do not contain birth documents for the year 1935. Also, regarding their parents, we were unsuccessful. Actually the Archivist wasn't too friendly and the fact that we had arrived rather late in the afternoon didn't help very much. However, as we had the copy of Pnina's Birth Certificate, which was issued in Gomel, the Archivist was prepared to produce the original for our viewing. After we had had a good look at it, she turned the page over. We were utterly surprised to see, that on the other side there was additional information, which was to answer a lot of unsolved questions regarding Pnina and Avram's parents. After requesting of Sasha to translate what was written on the underside of the document, we learned the following:
The most moving part of this discovery is the way their father signs his name, MISHURES, in Yiddish (Hebrew letters). As for Pnina, I think that, seeing the way her father signed his name, was the happiest moment of her life. The mere fact of seeing his signature and what's more in Hebrew lettering, for many days after, she just couldn't overcome her joy. I tried photographing the page but was met with a sharp "Nyet". We came away rather disappointed.
From the ZAGS Archives, we made our way to the local Military Office (Archives) of Khoyniki. In every town there is such an office dealing with military matters. After explaining the reason for our visit, we requested information in connection with their father's conscription into the military. Remember way back, in the documents received by Pnina from Orenburg, it states that the father "was sent to the Front". From somewhere in the building, the registration books containing the names of those who were conscripted in the year 1941 were produced. For the next two hours two lady employees scanned the lists, page by page. (No computers). As it was rather late, Iakov Yefimovich had to get back to his office in order to close up for the day. Before leaving, he gave them the phone number at his office with the request to please contact him if any information was found regarding their father's call-up to the Soviet Army. We had hardly returned to the office- a phone call - Bingo, they found something. So off we went once again to the Archives and awaiting us was a stamped and signed official document stating that:
It goes on to state place of residence, where issued, ref. number and page in book. Once again, the good will of the Archivists in being prepared to give of their time, sitting over all these lists looking for a name among the thousands who were called up during that period, was to show the good heartedness of the Belarusian people.
The Jewish Cemetery - Khoyniki
As the Transporter was still being seen to, and with a bit of time on our hands, we took ourselves off to the Old Jewish Cemetery, a five minute walk from Volfson's office. Or should I say, what was once a Jewish Cemetery - complete devastation. With the exception of a few scattered tombstones - just empty holes in the ground, weeds, empty beer cans and bottles. Litter all over. After the War, those who had returned to the town and had the financial means, removed and reburied their dear ones in the New Cemetery. Unfortunately not all could afford to do so. Among the stones remaining was a tombstone erected in memory of all the Jews who were butchered by the Nazi murderers and their local conspirators. It no longer stands proudly erect, but uprooted, broken, and discarded. Just to see this sight was completely heart breaking.
The inscription is as follows:
"Under this stone, in the field of eternity, over here, in the Valley of Woe your earth has been drenched with the eternal tears of Sons and Daughters, Brothers and Sisters and the entire community of Israel. Murdered by the Hitlerites in the town Khoyniki in the year 1942. May their souls repose in the Treasury of Souls. May G-d revenge their blood, the Holy Martyrs."
We came away from the Cemetery feeling very depressed, like being in a world in upheaval. The tombstones, those of which had remained, were uprooted and lying on their sides, with no one to set them right. Our experience, while at the Cemetery, was one of vandalism and emptiness, a World that had been, never to return. So symbolic of what had happened to European Jewry, complete communities uprooted and destroyed like the tombstones, leaving gaping wounds in the "Valleys of Woe" drenched with the blood of our brethren. Transferred to some unknown destination, the majority never to return. Those that did so, returned to total destruction and upheaval with very little hope for the future.
Where to from here?
Returning to Volfson's office from the Cemetery, we were taken by him to the garage where they were trying to repair the Transporter. "Garage" is not exactly the right definition, to be more explicit a "Grease Pit" . It didn't take me long to come to the conclusion that there was no chance that the "Mechanics" would succeed in repairing the car. The time was eight o'clock in the evening and here we were, still stuck without transport. Eventually it was decided to tow the car back to Minsk and the question remaining, how do we fit into this situation? Virtually we had three options: the first, returning to Minsk in the Transporter while being towed; second, finding some sort of accommodation in Khoyniki for the night; and third, returning to Minsk by train. It didn't take long to understand that, apparently, it is against the law to have passengers in a vehicle while it is being towed. All we needed was to be stopped by the Police and find ourselves spending the rest of the night in some musty Belarusian Police Station. Of the two remaining options, staying the night in Khoniki or returning to Minsk by train, we chose the second - train. We discovered that at that hour of the evening there wasn't any train connection between Khoyniki and Minsk. The only possibility left open to us was traveling to Kalinkavicy in order to catch the midnight train to Minsk. This meant about a two hour drive from Khoyniki. In order to get there in time, we had to take a chance by continuing with the tow as far as the Kalinkavicy station. After a very unpleasant train ride we arrived in Minsk at 6 a.m.
Summing up this episode of our trip to Zabolot'ye- Just Fate. Fate would have it, that I would request the driver to stop in order to take a few snap shots of the "wounded trees" , and this would lead to the driver discovering that the car had broken down. The laborers, on their way home from work stopping to help us, directing and towing us to the office of Iakov Yefimovich Volfson in Khoyniki. Our luck had it that Iakov Yefimovich knew his way about town, took us to the ZAGS and Military Archives, and saw to the towing and attempted repair of the Transporter. Without his help, it is very doubtful as to whether we could have discovered this very important information which appears on the underside of Pnina's Birth Certificate:
1. Their father and mother's birth dates.
2. The year that their father arrived in Zabolot'ye.
3. That he was a shoemaker working in an Artel (Co-Op).
4. And most moving of all, the way he signed his name, MISHURES, in Yiddish (Hebrew lettering).
5. Although we don' t know the mother's maiden name, the fact that she was born in Zabolot'ye is most important. Unfortunately, time was against us, we very much wished to spend some time in the Village of Zabolot'ye. Perhaps we could have met old timers who were acquainted with the MISHURES family.
On our return to Minsk, and based on what we had learned the previous day, we came to the conclusion that, due to the car breaking down, we had missed out on a lot of things that we would have liked to have done while in the area. We therefore toyed with the idea of returning to Zabolot'ye and district on the morrow, in order to carry on with our search. By returning we could have searched for the following information discovered by us while visiting the various Khoyniki Archives.
1. As Avram was born in 1935, it was obvious that the parents married in 1934 or early 1935. Their Marriage Certificate could possibly exist in one of the District Archives. Very possibly, the reason for the father's arrival in Zabolot' ye was a "Shidach"
2. As their mother was born 1908 in Zabolot' ye, it is possible her Birth Certificate exists in one of the District Archives.
3. We know that she was not in good health and, in addition to this, we are aware that a Hospital exists in the town. Very possibly she was a patient there at some stage or other, and maybe there is some evidence as such. Who knows, perhaps the children were even born there.
4. The father being a shoemaker and working in the local Artel - seeking information about the Artel and the workers in the local Archives.
5. The year 1941, Avram being six years old before the outbreak of War , he might have gone to school. If so there should be some evidence as such.
In the end we decided to not to undertake the trip back to Zabolot' ye. Such an undertaking required us returning the same night, as early the following morning we were due to start on the next step of our journey - to Russia . All we needed was hiring a car, which broke down on the way and being stuck once again - it was just too risky. Before I complete this chapter, I would like to return briefly to a letter which Avram wrote to Pnina. In the letter he mentions an elder brother by the name of Boris. Well today, six months after our return home and the discovery of Manya, Boris' wife, in other words Pnina and Avram's sister-in-law, we have more information regarding the family. I'll get back to Manya later in my narration.
Russia - Moscow
Eight o'clock Thursday morning, the 20th of July, the first stage of our adventure came to an end, with our departure for Moscow. As previously arranged, on our arrival we were met at the Airport and were taken to the home of Maria and Yitzchak, the parents of chaverim at our Kibbutz. Their home was to be our base during our stay in Russia. As mentioned previously, within two days after arrival, one has to register as a tourist and have his Passport stamped. So at the outset we decided to dispose of this formality of registering and together with Maria, we took ourselves off via the "Metro" to our destination - a tourist office in down town Moscow. For the price of $20 per person, we had the matter seen to.
While in Moscow, besides doing a bit of sight seeing we had two other objectives regarding our search. One concerned the seeking of information in connection with the father's military service and the other the evacuation and stay of the mother and children in Orsk until her death. I'll deal with each aspect separately.
Prior to our departure, we had consulted Avraham Cohen, the Director of the "Organization of Jewish Invalids", war veterans who fought in the Red Army against Nazism, whose offices are situated in Tel Aviv. Perhaps he could recommend somebody living in Moscow who would be prepared to help us in the matter of the father's military service. Our aim was to visit the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defence, situated in the town of Podolsk, a two hour drive just south of Moscow. This archive contains information relating to all those who served in the Red Army from the year 1941 to the present day. Once again, fate would have it that exactly on the day we arrived at Avraham's office, he had a visitor from Moscow by the name of Professor Aaron Zousman. We were introduced and after explaining the purpose of our visit to Podolsk, he agreed to assist us. The day after our arrival in Moscow, with the document obtained from the Khoyniki Military Archive confirming the father's call up to the Army, and in the company of Prof. Zousman, we proceeded to Podolsk. To what extent we succeeded, is still to be proven. The best we could do was to fill in forms requesting the information regarding his military service during the War. We were led to understand that, if he was an officer and if we knew his rank, the possibility of receiving information was good and wouldn't take too long because these files are computerized. On the other hand, if he was not an officer, checking the files would be problematic as there are about 20 million hand written names, all according to rank and in alphabetical order appearing in their Archives. So we shall just have to be patient, wait and hope for the best. Slightly disappointed we returned to Moscow.
Moscow: Russian Red Cross
Next we tried our luck at the offices of the Russian Red Cross, whose good services in the past had been instrumental in Pnina and Avram finding each other. All requests concerning the tracing of evacuees to the Eastern Areas of the USSR during the War, were and are dealt with by the Red Cross. Way back in the early 1950s and once again in 1957, Avram approached them seeking aid and information regarding his little sister Polina whom he had lost during the War. (See Avram MISHURES's letter to Pnina in "Pnina and Avram's Story" in June 2000 Belarus SIG Newsletter.) After we had received information from the Orenburg Archives about Pnina's childhood in various Russian orphanages, as well as learning that her father was at the Front, we also approached them. The result of all this correspondence had been the reunion of brother and sister. This time, the aim of our visit was to obtain information concerning the fate of their mother, who had died at the end of 1941 and is buried in the town of Orsk. We were given to understand that, due to all the upheaval and disorganization, documentation regarding refugees only began in 1942. So, once again, we came away empty handed. Pnina and Avram's identity was known to Ms. Michaelovna, the Archivist who produced their files for our observation. That same day, Monday 24th July, we had to depart for Orsk on the next stage of our journey. As we had to return to Moscow after visiting Avram and family, we packed our bags with sufficient food and clothing for the duration of our stay in Orsk and vicinity.
Departure for Orsk
One of the things our good friend Shaul warned us to be aware of while in Russia was the schedule of departing and arriving internal flights. On occasion, for all sorts of unknown reasons the planes just don't take off at all, or the times of departure are changed without previous notice. After a two hour train and taxi ride, we arrived well ahead of boarding time at the Airport. Our bookings were for a direct flight to Orsk, which was due to depart at 19.30. The time of departure came and went, with the passengers, including us were milling around. The locals, like good citizens, showed no signs of panic. We don' t speak Russian, so we tried to find an English-speaking citizen who could explain to the delay. Eventually we were given to understand that the direct flight to Orsk had been cancelled and instead we were to embark on the Orenburg flight, which after the disembarkation of the Orenburg passengers would continue on to Orsk, a flight of less than 30 minutes. So, at long last at 20:30 we took off flying via Orenburg on our way to Orsk. Instead of arriving there at 21:30 as planned we disembarked at 01:00. Waiting to meet us at the Airport were Avram, his wife Nina, and an ex-student of his who speaks Hebrew. She studies in Israel and was home on summer vacation. After a journey of about 30 minutes we arrived at their apartment, very tired after our long day of traveling. In effect only about four hours of the day was spent in actual travel.
Something About Orsk
Orsk is situated in the Orenburg oblast (district), some 1500km South of Moscow. Its economy is based on heavy industry, with a population of 278,000 inhabitants made up of Russians, Tartars, Kazakhs and Ukrainians. Situated not far from the Kazakhstan border on the southern tip of the Ural Mountains, the town is very spread out with a distance of 25km from side to side. The presence of mining industries has resulted in the deteriorating of environmental conditions. With a high mortality and low growth rate, things don't look too bright. The summers are hot with temperature well in the thirties (Centigrade) and in the winter falling well below zero, sometimes as low as 30 degrees. The Ural River flows through the middle of the town and is the dividing point between Asia and Europe. This fact is emphasized by a sign, situated half way across the bridge, which spans the River.
Basically, before the outbreak of World War II, the population was mainly Asiatic. However this was changed as a result of the German invasion and the flow of refugees to the East. The refugees were made up of people like Pnina's family, mothers and children fleeing the onslaught of the invading forces in their race towards Moscow and a speedy victory. Proof of this is the fact that the German invasion of Belarus began June 22, 1941, their father was conscripted on July 7, and by the end of August, the Germans had completely overrun Belarus and cut deep into Mother Russia, itself. Their father had still managed to help them settle down in the cattle truck before the train pulled out of the station on its way to the East. On the other hand, there were the Ukrainian industrialists, among them many Jews, who were transferred to the Urals (including Orsk) together with their employees, machinery, and in fact complete factories. Obviously this was done in order to save all these vital installations from falling into the hands of the enemy, as well to exploit the natural resources of the Ural Mountains.
Thus, the town grew and took on its present day appearance. In the East, the Asiatic side where Avram lives, you can still find the old hovels and wooden houses of days gone by. Next to them are four and five-story blocks of residential housing complexes called Khrushov Buildings. Rows of long austerity-built pre-cast constructions. All these buildings have the same external appearance, with four entrances. Bare concrete stairs and landing are covered with a canopy, leading up to the entrance and on the landing a bench or two, where the daily parliamentary sessions take place. These buildings can be seen wherever you go. We saw them in Belarus and I believe that they exist in all the countries which once made up the USSR and its satellites.
Life in Orsk
Life in Orsk is no picnic, especially for the ordinary working class. Their daily bread is hard to come by. A professional, such as a teacher, brings home $20 at the end of the month, and as for pensioners, they have to make do with $10. The majority of people have a plot of ground known as "Agurot" where they grow vegetables, and have a few fruit trees such as apples, mulberries, etc. The mulberries and various other berries which they collect in the forests are turned into most tasty jams. In a lot of cases their diet is based on what is grown on the "Agurot" - "Borsht", a broth made up of potatoes and the various other vegetables which they grow. We saw people with buckets on their way to and from their plots in order to pick their crops. It reminded me of what we learned in school regarding the meat canning industries of Chicago: "Eat what you Can and Can what you Can' t". The same applies to those who rely on their "Agurot" for their daily meal. What you don't eat, you bottle and preserve for harder days, when the winter arrives with temperatures well below zero. It's virtually impossible going out then to collect vegetables, which don't grow in the winter months, and if available in the markets, are very expensive. Avram is a specialist in the preserving of cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, you name it, he has all the recipes. The kitchen is just full of bottles. People living on a pension just can't afford to buy vegetables and fruit, especially in the winter months. Some, like Avram's daughter Julia, have to travel over 60km in order to reach their plots. Unbelievable. It is plain and simple: "What you grow, that's what you eat".
It's hard to believe that a country like Russia, which sends Astronauts into outer space, is so backward when it comes to such simple things as the condition of public transportation, mechanical equipment for public works, etc. Everything is taken for granted and accepted as a fact. People ascend and descend by foot ten-story buildings in which the lifts (elevators) have been out of order for years. The entrance halls and staircases are unlit and unseen to, in some cases a shambles. The interior of the homes are well seen to, clean and well furnished. In a lot of homes the floors and walls are covered with carpets. The use of wallpaper is also very popular.
Avram and Family
We spent eight wonderful days with Avram and Niina, visiting and getting to know their family, which comprises two sons and a daughter, two grandsons and two granddaughters. His eldest son (Oleg) and family live in the town of Kuvandyk, some 80 kilometers NW of Orsk. His second son (Vova) lives in Orsk, just down the road. Their daughter, who is the youngest, lives in Orenburg (Shkalov), about 280 kilometers on the main highway to Moscow.
Vova (Vladimir), wife Gala, and daughter Anastasia live just down the road on the 6th floor of a nine-story building in a one room apartment, well furnished with two settees (which also serve as beds). The walls and floor are carpeted. The furniture is very similar to other homes we have seen in Russia and Israel, including TV, Video, a show/book case. As the elevator is out of order, their apartment can only be reached by foot. We arrived in the evening while it was still daylight. However, by the time we departed after our visit, darkness had already fallen and as the stairways were unlit - complete darkness.While descending the stairs, we were led by hand as though we were blind. All that Vova had in order to lead the way was a small hand torch which wasn' t very effective.
Our next undertaking was visiting the rest of Avram and Nina's children. Our first stop was in Kuvandyk, where eldest son Oleg, wife Vera and two grandsons, Stas (Stanislav) and Sanya (Alexander) reside. We travelled in Avram's car and after a pleasant ride through pastoral countryside we arrived at Kuvandyk, situated in the Ural Mountains. Oleg and family live in a very picturesque wooden house in the old quarter of the town, which gives a feeling of times gone by. It is a five-room house, the interior of which has been renovated and the outside re-painted. They are lucky that they have a vegetable patch, or Agurot, which is situated next to the house. Like in the good old days there is no internal plumbing or sanitation. Water is pumped from a Bore Hole and the toilet is an Out House. Instead of a bath or shower they have a Sauna. However, even with the lack of modern facilities, it is a very comfortable home. On arrival we were received most warmly and as it was early evening, the table was already laid and ready for a very good meal, which included meat. Obviously we had to refuse making our apologies and trying to explain our Dietary restrictions. Out came our utensils, plates, cutlery, daily portion plus Polony and crackers. Within ten minutes our meal was ready. Having a basic knowledge of English, we never had a problem communicating with Oleg and Vera. In fact, we were pleasantly surprised that their sons, Stas and Sanya, speak and understand English rather well.
We spent the night in Kuvandyk and the following day we went on to Orenburg to visit Julia, her husband Jenya and daughter Katya (Katyusha). As Avram's car isn't in very good condition, the journey was undertaken in Oleg's car, which is more reliable. Our visit took place at the home of Jenya's parents, Galina and Sasha. This was because, like Vova, Julia and her husband live on the top floor of a ten story building. The same old story - the elevator is out of order (it seems permanently). Upon entering their apartment we were most warmly received and after the customary introductions were proudly informed by Galina that "I am Jewish". In other words, plain and simple, so is her son - Julia's husband Jenya. Obviously we were pleasantly surprised. The young couple would very much like to come on a visit as tourists to Israel in order to "Scout out the Land" . Before departing I wrote our name and address on an envelope, for future use in case their plans become a reality. In order to receive an Israeli tourist visa, a sponsor is required.
While in Orenburg we spent some time at the local ZAGS Archives hoping to find some mention of Chana (Pnina's mother) and the children - their arrival, stay in the District and Chana's passing. Once again we came away disappointed. What we did find was a lot of information about people from the Ukraine who arrived in the Urals from the year 1942. The information was very concise and informative, but no mention of people who had arrived in 1941. This confirmed what we had learned from the Red Cross Archivist in Moscow. According to her, only from the year 1942 was information accumulated concerning displaced persons and refugees fleeing the German onslaught. So once again we had reached a dead end.
Avram's Identity Dilemma
At this stage of my narration, please let me return to Avram's letter to Pnina referred to earlier, and which appeared in the July 2000 article. Here is part of his letter:
The reason for changing his name is pretty obvious: just imagine his son Vladimir Alexandrovich being called Vladimir Avramovich. I don't need to say any more.
So Avram grew up hiding his true identity, a true Russian. Even his wife and children were not aware of the fact that he had been born Jewish.
Once again back to his letter:
Can you just imagine his dilemma when notified by the Red Cross that his sister, living in Israel, was looking for him? All these years Avram had concealed his true identity from those with whom he came in contact, including his family. His whole outlook on life, growing up as an orphan, being educated by the State, receiving a roof over his head, medication, you name it, the State and the system saw to his needs all his life. The results: "I' m a Russian" . Also knowing that if his true identity was discovered he would be discriminated against, gave him even more reason to emphasize being Russian. Then, along comes his sister Pnina and brother-in-law Kelly, proud Jews from the Holy Land, upsetting his apple cart. What a dilemma. How do you break the news to your family, especially since you concealed your true identity from your own children? Even during the duration of our visit, he tried to hide the fact of his being Jewish. However, somehow the truth had to come out. Prior to our departure for Russia he had requested that while being with them, we not call him Avram but Alexander.
It was difficult to comprehend, after all that had happened, the discovery, his visit and the fact that his sister lives in Israel, all his efforts still trying to hide his true identity. Perhaps, by hiding his so- called secret from his children, he was trying to protect them from the hardships of being Jewish in the USSR. As a child he had experienced the weight of such a burden. Obviously, officially in Russia, there isn't any Anti-Semitism. It is even against the law. However, the Jews know differently. Deep down in the soul of the Russian people this hatred for the Chosen People exists. This nonexistence of Anti-Semitism in Russia is explained by Avram as follows: "I fought with the boys in the Orphanages (the reason is obvious) and only by the might of my fists was I able to survive". If you could see his arms and fists, it would be very clear to all as to what he meant. This being Russian, even to the present day has grown deep down into Avram's being. Today, even with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he still tries to hide his true identity. From the time that we discovered Avram, the receiving of his letter and his mentioning the changing of his name, we could not grasp or understand the depth of fear of being recognized as a Jew. We were also given to understand from conversations with him, that today there are still thousands of "Jewish Born" people like Avram, uprooted from their homes while fleeing the onslaught of the German Army's advance into Russia, "Children with Missing Identities". Some are completely unaware of the fact that they were born Jewish, and others, like Avram, discarded their identities in order to survive. All this came about as a result of the harsh realities of life under the steel arm of the Soviet Regime. People just don't go around advertising in public or even in private life. Let's hope that things will change.
Only after our encounter with Elizavetta Adamovna AURDMAN, Director of the ZAGS Archives of Orsk, did we fully come to understand Avram's dilemma. We first met her on Wednesday July 26, when Avram, Pnina and myself were shown in to a very spacious and well furnished office. Behind the desk sat a very smartly dressed lady. Avram did the talking and explaining. Being without an interpreter, we obviously had no idea what was being said, so I asked her in Yiddish if she by any chance spoke German. German is taught as a second language in many schools in that part of Russia as a result of the settlement of Germans known as "Volga Deutch" in the time of the Czars. Her answer was "Nyet" - NO. On departing her office, I left her our name and address in Israel, so that she could send us any pertinent information she might come across. We also explained that one of our main goals was to discover information regarding the fate of Avram and Pnina's mother. Just as we were leaving her office empty handed, she told us to return on Friday July 28, when she might have some information for us.
When we returned, for some unknown reason, perhaps intuition, I asked her once again if she spoke German. It all came pouring out: her roots are in Cologne Germany and, more important, are Jewish. If I had known how to read Russian, I would have been able to read a plaque on the wall of her office and discovered her true identity from the outset. If Avram was aware of her being Jewish, he said nothing. She, on the other hand, needed two days to decide whether to disclose her real identity. Of one thing I' m sure: in her identity papers, under the heading "Nationality", the answer is "Russian" and not "Ivraskaya" (Jewess).
The above narration is just one of many examples emphasizing Avram's identity problem and the degree to which he had tried to hide it from his family. When his daughter, Julia, discovered the document relating to his father's conscription, Avram waved his hand and told her it was of no importance. She asked me in English to whom the document referred. I answered without hesitation: "Your grandfather."
During the time that we spent together with Avram and his children, they constantly questioned him about his roots and our interest in visiting all these Archives. I'm sure that by the time we left, there was no doubt in their minds as to Avram's past and identity. Today almost a year has passed since our visit and as I write these words, I can proudly say that there is a complete change in Avram's outlook regarding his past.
Now, whenever he has the opportunity, Avram informs people of his real identity. In a lot of cases the answer that he gets is: "So am I" - Amazing.
Chana Mishures - Pnina and Avram's Mother
As Pnina and Avram's mother passed away not long after their arrival in Orsk during the winter of 1941, one of our main objectives was to try and find where she was laid to rest. We were also interested in discovering the fate of the children as a result of this tragedy. Before departing the ZAGS Archives, we enquired about the old Jewish Cemetery. Once again, I must return to the letter which Avram had written to Pnina:
In various conversations with Avram during his visit, he had described the houses, people and conditions under which they lived during those few months in Orsk before the passing of their mother. Two to three critical months, which were to shape their fate and lives for the next 58 years of separation. While in Orsk we traveled around the old residential neighborhoods looking for such Hovels as he described. Such was the Moslem neighborhood through which we traveled on our way to the Jewish section of the Moslem Cemetery. Many Hovels were to be seen as we drove along the streets, if they can be called as such, and to this very day are occupied by citizens of Orsk. The neighborhood and the Cemetery completely complement each other when comparing what Avram had written in his letter and what we experienced in reality.
Arriving at the Cemetery, and with the aid of the Moslem caretaker, we made our way to the Jewish Section. It was no easy task, fighting our way through weeds and grass growing above our heads. The day was very hot and there was no shortage of insects and mosquitoes. The graves which we encountered at first were those of people who were laid to rest after the completion of the War. We explained to our guide that we were interested in graves from the period 1941 -1942. In order to reach this section of the Cemetery, which I'm sure has never been disturbed by the footsteps of real live people for many, many years, we had to force our way through undergrowth, which became much more dense and difficult to traverse as we advanced. Not like the previous section, here there were pictures of the deceased. We eventually came across graves with Hebrew names and the dates from1942 inscribed on them.
Although unsuccessful in our search for their mother's grave, we came away convinced that she was buried somewhere in that discarded and overgrown Jewish section of the Moslem Cemetery. We singled out a grave with a stone from which the inscription had been removed or never existed, and adopted it as her last resting place. Clearing the weeds and rubble around the grave I intoned the Kaddish. We decided that the date of our visit, the 25th day in the month of Tamuz, would be the day of her Yizkor. As I sit here now writing and thinking about her death it seems all so clear as to why we never found any grave or tombstone. A sick lady with two small children fleeing the onslaught of the Nazi invaders, arrives after a tedious and dangerous journey in a strange Moslem town, unknown to her, thousands of kilometers away from home - a completely strange world. After their arrival they are accommodated in sort of Hovel with mud walls and floors. No food, medicines and inadequate clothing in order to meet the needs of the severe winters of the Southern Urals. Not long after arriving she departs this cruel world, is buried who knows where, possibly in an unmarked grave, never to be visited, until our arrival. Once again I'm compelled to go back to Avram's letter:
We came away with mixed feelings and very sad. Avram and Pnina were greatly moved. For them, I think, a chapter in their lives has been resolved.
In addition to the search for their mother during the last few days of our stay in Orsk, we also paid a visit to our friend Nelya Friedman, who was the Jewish Agencies Coordinator in Orsk when we discovered Avram. She was very instrumental in aiding the Agencies' emissaries from Samara during their original visits to Avram. As a result of her good will we were able to keep up an e-mail correspondence with him, including the sending and receiving of photographs and documents. Like most of the Jews living in the area, her roots are in the Ukraine. Her grandfather was an industrialist and together with his factory was resettled in the Urals as a result of the German invasion.
July 31, 2000: Well, the time had arrived for us to pack our bags, say our goodbyes to Avram, Nina and their world way down in the Urals, and return to Moscow. This time our flight was a direct one, leaving and arriving according to schedule. We were privileged to experience flying aboard a plane which was being navigated like in the good old days of WWII. This machine was without radar, I think, and instead, the navigator lay in the belly of the plane, guiding the pilot physically. As you can see we reached our destination - Moscow - safely.
On our return to Moscow we embarked on the midnight train to St.Petersburg for a few days - in order to see the other side of Russia, or what once had been Imperial Russia. Seeing all these majestic buildings, palaces, fabulous works of art and gardens, all this splendor, in comparison to the present situation of Russia today was very difficult to digest. Our aim wasn't just visiting St.Petersburg for the purpose of sightseeing, but also to seek information pertaining to Red Army soldiers who were wounded during the War. In the Spring 2000 issue of Avotaynu there was an article written by V.N.Rikhlyakov on "Special Features of 20th Cent. Resources For Genealogical Research in Russia". We received information that he could be contacted at the Russian Genealogical Society situated at the Russian State Library in St.Petersburg. Unfortunately the results were negative. A very helpful worker at the Library suggested we write a personal letter directly to Mr. Vladimir Petrovich Kozlov, Director of the Federal Archive Service of the Russian Federation in Moscow. On returning home we dutifully did so, but to this day have received no reply. Although our genealogical efforts in St.Petersburg were unsuccessful, we spent three wonderful days touring this most beautiful city. Every building is a monument and among all the wonderful buildings is the Great Shul of St.Petersburg, which at the moment is under reconstruction.
Kelly and Pnina under Chupa, St. Petersburg
Our Eyes to the West
Once again we boarded the midnight train to Moscow, where we spent our last weekend with Maria and Yitzchak before "Setting our eyes to the West" in order to spend some time with two of our sons who presently live and work in the USA. With mixed feelings, the loss of ten kilo in weight and not knowing when and if we shall ever return, we boarded the jet for the New World. Just as we set foot aboard the plane, it was like stepping into a different world, a world that we had left behind three weeks previously and were now only too pleased to return to. The background music, familiar language and newspapers, was just like simply feeling at home. Not for a moment, with all the difficulties and hardships that we encountered, do we regret the undertaking of our trip. This undertaking was to take us to the land of Pnina's forebears and the present land of her lost-and-found brother, MISHURES Avram Isaak-Mojshevich. All is well that ends well.
Summing This All Up
After weighing all the pros and cons of our not to too easy undertaking, Pnina and I came to one very simple conclusion: by disregarding the dangers caused by the Chernobyl disaster and going ahead with our original plan of traveling to Zabolot'ye and Khoyniki, we discovered many facts about Pnina's family that otherwise would have remained a mystery to this very day, perhaps never to be solved. This conclusion was reached as a result of all the information gathered from the ZAGS and Military Archives of Khoyniki. Unfortunately if we would have had more time at our disposal possibly we could have gleaned even more information. Who knows, perhaps, we shall just have to go back some time in the future in order to finish the job.
If we hadn't seen the underside of the original copy of Pnina's birth certificate, we still would not know the year of her father's birth and his arrival in Zabolot'ye, his profession, and the year of her mother's birth. The most moving thing that appears in the Birth Certificate is the way he signed his name in Yiddish (Hebrew lettering). Possibly this goes to show that this roots were in a Shtetl or a town with a large Jewish population. Next of importance is the document from the Khoyniki Military Archive confirming that the father was conscripted into the Russian Army on 07.07.1941. All this might not have come about if I hadn't asked the driver to stop in order to photograph the trees, if the car had not had engine problems and if the laborers hadn't stopped to help us tow the Transporter to Volfson's office -- and last but not least, his willingness to help us. All this was to be our Fate on that particular day.
On the other hand, if the car hadn't broken down and all went as planned, we would have had time to walk the streets of Zabolot'ye and perhaps meet old-timers who were acquainted with Pnina's family, especially her mother, who was born there . Such a revelation as discovering her mother's maiden name could open an additional field of research. Maybe we might have met an Army Veteran who had been conscripted or served with her father. There should be some information regarding his employment in the shoemaker's Artel or the house that they lived in. There is a hospital in the town where members of the family may have been treated. Possibly the children were even born there.
Post-Script: The Discovery of Pnina's Sister-in-Law
Well, as you can see from the subject we have advanced one step further in our efforts to solve the complete problem of Pnina's identity.
"We had an older brother by the name of Boris." Thus had Avram written in his letter to Pnina after we had found him. REMEMBER?
Well, we found his wife, very much alive and living in the town of Bat Yam. UNBELIEVABLE.
It all happened as follows:
Recently I placed a "search for relatives" ad in an Israeli local Russian language newspaper, Vesti, in the section known as the "Flee Market". My ad included all the information which we had accumulated over the years about Pnina, Avram and their parents. We made no mention of their big brother Boris, because we didn't know enough about him.. It seemed logical that he belonged to the mother's side of the family. With a 14 year age difference between father (age 40) and mother (age 26) at their marriage in 1934, it is virtually impossible that seven years later -1941- they could have a son already in a military uniform. Avram only knew him as Boris, with no surname. All this was to change with our finding and meeting his wife, Manya, who revealed his true identity to us.
At first, a few people from the town of Khoyniki responded to our appeal for information. Unfortunately, besides words of encouragement and interest in our search, not one of them possessed any helpful information. Then, about three weeks later on a Thursday evening, we got a phone call. On the other side of the line, a female voice introduced herself as Olga, who said she usually doesn't purchase the Vesti, but for some unknown reason bought a copy that particular day. If you like, call it Fate.
The conversation went something like this: "My aunt Manya, who is 79 years old, was married to a certain Boris MISHURES and they lived in the town of Khoyniki. His father's name was "Michel" (Yiddish) and he was married to a woman called Chana, a sickly person." Olga went on to explain that this was his second wife, and that they had two small children, a boy, whose name she doesn't remember, and girl, whose name was Perle. Boris was the offspring of his previous marriage and the name of his mother was unknown to her. "Michel" was a shoemaker and worked in an Artel. She also said that they had a cow, which their father milked in the morning and shared the milk with all of them. Just a small reminder, Avram in his letter to Pnina had also mentioned the fact that they had a cow. Avram also spoke about their mother being ill and that they had a servant who used to take care of them. The part about someone taking care of them was correct, only she wasn't a servant. In the morning before going to work, the father would dress the children and take them to Manya, who cared for them until his return. This was something that we learnt from Manya, who, incidentally, settled in Israel after the Chernobyl catastrophe.
Pnina with her sister-in-law, Manya (left)
Boris and Manya married about a year and a half before the German invasion. Before being conscripted into the Army, he served in the Police, possibly the reason for Avram's remembering him in some sort of uniform. After the war, Manya returned to Khoyniki and was informed that there was no information as to the fate of Boris. For all she knew, he might still be alive. In those days, during the peak of the Communist Regime, nobody would dare to ask too many questions.
After much questioning on our part and based on the answers received, there was no doubt in our minds as to the relationship between Pnina and Manya - Sisters-in-law. Whatever Avram wrote in his letter or told us during our conversations with him, Manya repeated practically word for word. So we took ourselves off to the town of Bat Yam in order to acquaint ourselves with them and obviously in order to find out more about Pnina's family.
Our very good friend , Shaul Hollander, who was an Aliyah Shaliach (Emissary) for the Jewish Agency, and speaks excellent Russian, accompanied us. Can you imagine, for the first time in her life Pnina met somebody who knew her parents personally and could describe to her what they and Boris looked like, how they lived and what became of them. It was very difficult taking all this in. The questions asked were many, the answers were slow in coming and some unanswerable due to Manya's age. All this was simply unbelievable.
Unfortunately, we still have a few unanswered questions, such as the maiden name of Pnina's mother, the previous residence of her father and Boris, the units in which they served, dates of birth and marriage, etc. We set up a Conference Phone Call with Pnina in Shluchot, Manya in BatYam and Avram in Orsk, Russia. Although we didn't understand what was being said, it was most touching and exciting. Who knows what our next discovery will bring us? Perhaps, even Boris or some other member of the family.
What We Have Learned About Boris
What we have learned about Boris is that after his marriage to Manya he was transferred to the Mordovskaya SSR (Mordovia Republic). Manya was due to join him as soon as he found suitable living accommodation, which never became a reality due to the outbreak of the war. At some point he was conscripted into the Army. When Manya returned to Khoyniki after the war, she was informed by the Military Authorities that he was missing and his fate unknown.
According to Manya, she and Boris were both, more or less, the same age. Therefore, Boris must have been born between 1919 and 1921. If he arrived in Zabolot'ye with his father in 1934, he surely must have gone to school in Khoyniki. Therefore, we could make inquiries at the Archive of the local or district Educational Authority. Since he served in the Police (NKVD), he might have signed up in Khoyniki and somewhere there should be information concerning this matter. The same applies to his transfer to Mordovskaya Republic and his Army Service.
To this very day Manya has never remarried, perhaps hoping that one-day Boris might just show up. All is possible after the stories one reads in the press, sees on the T.V. and hears from others. Who can tell what the future holds for us in our searching. Perhaps one day we will find Boris alive and well.
Every time we visit Manya, we come away with some new information. As a result, certain basic facts have changed and require re-evaluation and research. Most important of all is the fate of Pnina and Avram's mother, Chana.
With the speedy advance of the German Army into Belarus, the evacuation of the Khoyniki civilian population took place during August 1941. Four trains, each containing 25 cattle trucks, transported them to safety. Apparently Manya, Chana and the children traveled on the fourth train, which was attacked from the air. Before departing, their father, already in uniform, came to the station to bid them farewell and help them settle down as comfortably as possible on their long and tedious journey to the East. This was not just an overnight journey to some pleasure resort but one lasting well over a month, stopping every so often for various reasons such as refueling, for the passengers to stretch their legs or even acquire food. When I think of it, a sick and frail mother with two small children undertaking such a journey into the unknown- what can I say, just sheer courage. Luck had it that Manya was there to help. According to a testimony existing at Yad Vashem, all the Jews who were not evacuated and remained in the town of Khoyniki and its immediate vicinity were murdered at the beginning of 1942 by the Germans and their local conspirators. The testimony also states that the town remained practically undamaged by the war.
Until now we were led to believe that at the end of this tedious journey, Chana and the children were settled in the town of Orsk. However, according to Manya, that is not the case. Manya was sent to a Kolchoz by the name of Beljaevka, while Chana and the children were sent to the town of Khalilovo - both in the Orenburg District. One day on returning from work, she heard that Chana Mishures had passed away and that the children had been sent to an Orphanage in the town of Orsk. The rest is known - the separation of Avram and Pnina that was to last 58 years. The irony of all this is that Avram lived and worked in Khalilovo for over 20 years and what's more, he lived in the near vicinity of the cemetery.
Armed with this new information, Avram went to the local Archive of Khalilovo but unfortunately he arrived there just as the Archivist was leaving for her annual vacation. However, he managed to learn that the Archives have information regarding the arrival of Chana and the children towards the end of 1941. At the moment it is unclear exactly what the information contains. It is Avram' s intention to go back there as soon as the Archivist returns. In order to receive information regarding Chana's death, he inquired at the ZAGS, which is in the town of Gaj. Here, too, the Archivist was on vacation when Avram inquired, but during our last telephone conversation, Avram informed us that he had received a letter and copy of his mother's Death Certificate. It states as follows:
As I sit here and put these few lines to pen, I cannot help pondering what a tragic and sad death Chana Lejbovna had. A sick and weak woman undertaking a tedious journey with two small children, fleeing to safety from the speedy onslaught of the German Army -- as I said, just sheer courage. To think of the hardships of the journey, arriving safely in Khalilovo only to die two months later after so much suffering. What a sad and tragic end. I hope that, in the near future Avram will return to Khalilovo in order to visit the local Cemetery. Who knows, perhaps the next time I sit down to write, we may have advanced yet another step in our search, that is the finding of Chana Lejbovna's grave. If so, once again we shall just have to take ourselves off to Russia in order to pay tribute to a brave lady, Pnina's mother, Chana Lejbovna MISHURES.
Kelly Modlin, Kibbutz Shluchot
Copyright © 2002 Belarus SIG and Kelly Modlin
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