No. 9/2000 - 6. April 2000
(This article originated as a letter which I sent to Jerry Touger in November 1998. Jerry lives in Massachusetts, USA. His grandfather and my great grandfather were brothers. Jerry has edited the letter to make it more suitable for a general readership.)
This is an account of the trip I took In the summer of 1998 to places in Belarus where our Tavger/Touger ancestors lived. There were three participants in the trip, Avraham Chesakov, Malkiel Sklar and myself. I will point out in advance that the trip and the search in the historical archive in Minsk did not add very much information on to what we already knew about the Tavger/Touger family history. But the strong impression that the visit left on me in these places was worth every effort on my part. The feeling that I did what I should have done at some time brings satisfaction. After all, not finding information is also information, and sometimes even more important.
I. Preliminary researchThe trip was preceded by a search in the historical archive of Belarus from July 15 to August 13, by my student, Malkiel Sklar. Malkiel Sklar is a historian, a responsible and devoted person and very suitable for this work.
The material kept in this archive goes up to 1917 and is organized into groups at three levels: all the material is first grouped into units called fond, fond are in turn organized into opis and opis into dailo. There is a catalog in the archive, which describes the contents of every fond. Of special interest is the famous reviskiye skaski, or revision list (which was copied, by the way, by the Mormons). It is essentially a population census from different years. Usually, there is a division between the census of Jews and non-Jews, which shortens one's work. The census describes the home as one unit: at the head is listed the central male of the home, below him his children, his grandchildren and others who are with him, and on the opposite page the women of the home. From such a census we can learn the names, the ages and the family relationship between the people.
In addition to reviskiye skaski, the archive has all different kinds of records, such as records on dates of birth, death and marriage, voters lists, lists of merchants and factory owners, police records, decisions of municipalities, commissions and organizations, requests for licenses for different purposes, and also requests for immigration. A lot of intuition is needed in order to find something in this variety of material. In addition, the small, styled, script handwriting of the Czar's clerks and the deteriorated condition of the papers do not help in the search.
My student, Malkiel Sklar, worked with great dedication every day from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (the hours of the archive), five days a week, for four weeks straight. He reviewed the entire reviskiye skaski of Borisov uyezd (Czarist Russia was divided into governmental units called gubernya's, gubernya's were subdivided into uyezd's and uyezd's into volost's. To focus on the Tavger/Touger family, we searched mainly in Borisov uyezd in Minsk gubernya. This material is concentrated in fond #333, opis #1 and #9. To our great amazement, despite the abundance of material extending over the 19th century and beyond, he found no Touger or Tavger. ( I asked him if he could estimate what percentage of the Jewish population from the years of the census is represented in the material available today, but we do not have this information.) He did find one family by the name of Tooger, which still needs checking to see if there is a connection to our family. The census of 1874, March 6, fond #333, opis #1, dailo #838 pg. 1230 lists the following: Tooger Lazar, the son of Zalman, age 20, his wife Tzirile, age 18 and his first cousin Movshe, the son of Berke, age 20. They lived in the farming community of Niyestanovich [We have since learned that Great and Little Nestanovichi are northwest of Zembin on a main road from Minsk to Lepel].
Records of birth and death for Borisov "uyezd" were not saved except for one file of a marriage census, fond #1608, opis #1, dailo #1, where again no Tougers were found. The lists of voters for Borisov "uyezd", for the 13th "Duma", from July 1912, pg. 24, did include a Chaim, son of Yankel Touger, living on Polotskaya St in Borisov. The list is arranged by types of real estate owners. He is categorized among people who owned private homes with no home taxes.
Malkiel checked also information on different gubernya's; because there were Tougers/Tavgers in Senno uyezd in Mogilev gubernya and possibly in Lepel uyezd in Vitebsk gubernya.
From Senno, birth records and reviskiye skaski of 1858 were kept but no Tougers were found. From Lepel there were kept different lists of home owners and merchants, but no Tougers were found. Three times the name Tager was found - all are listed in the town of Reshitz (today, in Latvia - Rezekne), and probably have no connection to our family. There, in Lepel uyezd", appearing as #868 on the list of voters for the fourth state "Duma", which was prepared on June 8, 1912, was Zalman, the son of Yevel Berka Touger [but we'd already obtained this information from Alexander Beider]. His assets were estimated there to be under 300 rubles.
In addition, Malkiel checked the lists of those people who emigrated out of the country via Vitebsk and Minsk and did not find anything.
Then, on the last day of his search, Malkiel ordered for review fond #299, opis #2, the "Gubernya" Government of Minsk and there he made a great find. In dailo #17824" there was a whole file, 29 pages long, dealing with the expulsion of Avraham Touger from the village of Chotuchovo. The file contained the decisions, as well as arguments and requests for the reversal of the decision from the side of Avraham Touger and from the villagers who wished him to remain in the village. In this document, the family name is written in different ways - sometimes Tovger, sometimes Touger and sometimes Tauger; this reinforces our already established knowledge that these are different forms of the same family name,
From this document, we learn much about Avraham Zalmanovich Touger. In 1912, he was 65 years old. His wife, Rivka, the daughter of Aizik, was then 55 years old. He was listed as a "meshanin" (citizen) of Krasnoluki and lived after the expulsion in Cholopenitchi. In the village of Chotuchovo, he worked as a miller in the flour mill for two years. Before this he lived in the village of Gankovka doing the same work. He passed tests given by the municipality of Borisov and was recognized as an expert in the mechanics of the flour mill. The flour mill in Chotuchovo was rented out by Pesach Goldstein who lived in Cholopenitchi. All the requests and objections, which continued until 1913, did not help Avraham; the expulsion decision was upheld. It was based on the 1882 law forbidding Jews to live in the villages. Despite the fact that in Avraham's request it was stated that the law did not include experts, like himself, his request was not honored. The village of Gankovka is located about 7 km. southwest of Cholopenitchi, and the village of Chotuchovo is about 4 km. south of Gankovka.
This is all Malkiel succeeded in finding, but he did not exhaust the archive's potential. There are different files on different subjects which might be worthwhile looking into (such as records on those recruited into the army, records on village affairs etc.) While in the Minsk archive, Malkiel met many nice people who wished to help him. One of them found him a list of all the addresses of the name Tauger/Touger/Tavger in Belarus. This did not, however, open up any fruitful new leads.
II. The trip beginsWe traveled for six days. On August 28-29, Friday and Shabbat, we stayed in Minsk. We used Friday to make the necessary preparations for the trip. We bought maps, including some very detailed ones (2 km per cm), and we hired a driver. We arranged to leave with him early Sunday morning.
On Friday, also, I visited Nachum Tauger, the only representative of our family in Minsk. Nachum is a very nice person, and his hospitality was very warm. I tried to take advantage of this opportunity to get any information he could provide about the family, and I taped all our conversations. He told me about his father, Mendel and his grandfather, Zalman; and he also showed me some pictures of his father, which look exactly the same as the picture of Herschel Touger's brother, that Jerry Touger sent me [Herschel or Harold Touger was the only one of Zalman's sons to emigrate to the US; Jerry Touger had received a copy of the picture from Harold's grandson]. Nachum had no doubt that his father was the brother of Herschel. Unfortunately, Nachum was only able to confirm what we already knew. To summarize: Nachum's grandfather, Zalman, lived in a small shtetl called Truchanovichi, which we visited a few days later, and from there moved to Orsha. He had three sons and three daughters. Two of the daughters moved to Leningrad before the World War II; Zalman went to be with them and died there from hunger at the time of the blockade. Herschel, as we knew, went to America at a young age. Mendel moved to Minsk around the year 1930. He worked as the director of a flour factory. The other children remained in Orsha. To our distress, we still do not know how to find the descendants of Zalman's daughters. Also the addresses of the descendants of Monya (Nachum's brother) are not known.
Nachum and his wife set a table in my honor full of all the best, and served the vodka with a generous hand, as is the custom in Russian hospitality. However, the only thing kosher that I could taste was the vodka. Out of a sincere desire to please my host, I allowed him to pour cup after cup. I emerged from his house in a very high mood, I then asked myself: what if I suddenly find a lot of relatives; how will I be able to consume so much alcohol from all the visits? And I answered that to discover relatives, I was willing to suffer even this.
On early Sunday morning, we set out on our way. After just over an hour we reached Borisov, a city of several hundred thousand people, very neglected. The Berezina River divides the city into two parts. The western part is newer; there at the beginning of the century a town called Novo Borisov was established. The eastern part - historical Borisov - is older, and it seems that not much has changed since our grandfathers lived there -- many one-story, wooden houses, wooden fences, fruit trees and vegetables in the gardens close to the houses.
I had obtained some addresses received from my relative Alexander Rosenbloom (former leader of the Borisov Jewish community, now living in Israel). Through these people, I found Rachel Batushka (nee Tavger), daughter of Meir (or Mayer) Tavger, who was another brother of my great grandfather. She, her husband, her daughter and her mother live together in the same house, which belonged to her father before the war. Meir Tavger was killed in the war when Rachel was a baby, and she doesn't know much about her father. Also, her mother doesn't have much to tell about her husband's family. However they were very happy with my surprise visit, and even told with great interest of the letter that their niece in St. Petersburg, Ella Pak, had received from Jerry Touger in the US, along with a family tree of the Tavger family. [Jerry had found her listed by her maiden name E.E. Tavger as the author of a mathematics paper, and had made contact with her through her co-author.]
In Borisov, they don't know anyone from the Tavger family. All the relatives they know live in Sverdlovsk and in Leningrad (and now most of them have moved to Germany) and they are known to us as well. Rachel's brother, Yefim, Ella Pak's father, lives in Kaliningrad. He came there at the beginning of the 1950's to be accepted for studies at the college, and followed my father Bentzion Tavger in teaching there. I checked also the Borisov telephone book and found only one Tavger (who I did not succeed in reaching).
Later we traveled to the cemetery. In Borisov there are two Jewish cemeteries, one in the newer part of the city Burials started there little before WWII (so people say) and have already stopped. The second is in the older part of the city. There burials have continued to the present day. We went to Genadi Krasnik, the person in charge of the cemetery, and he brought us to this cemetery. From my relative, Alexander Rosenbloom, I had heard that there had also been a third cemetery, which had been moved in 1930 to the cemetery we were visiting.
The cemetery is quite large. There are two types of burial. The older style of burial goes back to the beginning of the 19th century, spreading from one end of the cemetery towards the other. The modern style of burial was begun at the other end, but is now overflowing into the area of older graves, especially the more recent of them. The older style is more or less uniform. A stone tablet stands erect, rounded on top; the text is humble and standard without praises and descriptions. For the men it is often written "The Righteous and Honest Man", and for women "The Humble Woman". (During the time of the Talmud, it wasn't the custom to make gravestones at all. Later on, stone tablets were erected without inscriptions. Afterwards simple inscriptions were introduced, etc. etc. until it became the custom to erect beautiful gravestones with extensive inscriptions of praise. Probably, with the passing of generations, man has lost something, and this necessitates the long text to fill in what is missing in him.)
A fact, which I hadn't realized before, and which totally impedes the search for gravestones of relatives, is that on the older gravestones it wasn't the custom to write the family name, only "so and so the son of so and so" and the date of death. Only at the beginning of the twentieth century do newer gravestones appear every now and then which begin to note the family name.
But now comes the second fact, to which I have alluded before, that the newer graves were placed over the older graves (and especially over the more recent of the older graves, where it had become the custom to write the family name on the gravestone. This eliminates any chance of finding any information on the older graves. I actually checked all the gravestones in the cemetery. I found different family names and even marked down part of them but the family name Tavger I did not find. From Genadi Krasnik I also received a list of the newer graves, which was written in Russian, but again I did not find the family name.
The condition of the cemetery has deteriorated. Despite that the entire area is fenced off, there are here and there gaps in the fencing made by passersby who wish to take shortcuts. The older graves are bending over from age, and some of them have been pushed down deliberately by acts of vandalism. Grass grows over the entire area, and cows graze there. Only the part of the newer graves is tended fairly well.
At the cemetery, we met Garry Zarchin, chairman of the Jewish community there, who came with his aunt, Mrs. Podnos. We know that we had relatives by this name. Also, Zarchin's wife's maiden name is Fiddelholtz, which is my grandmother's maiden name. But our meeting did not bear any fruit.
We decided to shorten our stay in Borisov and to continue to Zembin. - Zembin is a small village located 24 kilometers northwest of Borisov, which at one time was almost totally Jewish. Today, not one Jew is left in this village and only the place where the Jews were shot to death (on the list of those killed in the Ghetto Borisov were numerous names from Zembin) and the cemetery at the corner of the village are witness to the former residents of the town. The cemetery is very uncared for. It is so overgrown with greenery that it is very difficult even to see any graves. On one gravestone, however, I found a very clear inscription, which I copied: "Here lies a righteous man, Rav Moshe Aron, the son of Avraham Shifrin, died the 18th of Elul in the year (5)657, TNZB"H". Maybe this can interest the Shifrin family from Zembin. Malkiel tried to photograph many of the gravestones which were readable both in Borisov and in Zembin, and in other places that we visited as well.
Afterwards we traveled to Pleshenitzi, which is located 30 kilometers west of Zembin. There we found only a monument in memory of the 70 Jews, which was built at the place of their murder (noted there is the Kugel family).
We returned to Zembin and then turned to the village, Brodovka - my grandfather's birthplace. The driver decided to drive a shorter way, even though the road was not paved and passed through the forest. By this route, we passed from village to village, coming closer to Brodovka. The surroundings were pastoral -- fields, haystacks, cows and geese. From time to time there was a little drizzle, and we saw a rainbow. The farmers whom we asked for directions to Brodovka warned us that the route we were following was not passable, but we kept going. The way branched off in the forest and the road became muddier; here and there were huge puddles. We sank into one of them. For three hours we worked to extricate the car from the mud. The forest supplied us with the material, sticks and branches, which we used for padding underneath the car. I was impressed by both the calmness, and the energy of our driver, who shoveled great volumes of dirt with a spade and raised the car tens of times with a jack. We pushed with all our might - competing with the darkness, which was approaching, and could have left us stuck in the forest for the entire night. A farmer passing by on his bicycle stopped to help us. Obviously experienced at this, he worked better than we. I was impressed by how honestly he did not withhold any effort from strangers. No sound of criticism or advice was heard from him (probably, the simple life in the forest teaches the people to help each other readily). But even he broke down after hours of work, cursed, and continued on his way. When we offered him payment for his efforts, he started running as if from danger. We finally succeeded in getting the car extricated from the mud, and from now on we were very suspicious of any route which seemed questionable to us. Many things can be learned on the way to Grandfather's birthplace ...
We decided to return to Minsk, even though we were graciously invited by our relatives in Borisov. I was reluctant to come to them so wet and dirty, Afterwards, on the phone, Rachel Tavger, from Borisov, expressed her sorrow that we did not come to them, especially since we were in such a state. With this, the first day of our trip ended.
III. The second dayThe next day we left early in the morning, again heading towards Borisov. We traveled past Borisov to Brodovka, this time choosing a better route (but still not on a paved road - as there is none). We met an old lady about 80 years old who remembered the sole Jewish family who lived in the village. She remembered their names and the place where their house stood, and when I showed her a picture of my grandfather's father, she said: "That's him".
Afterwards, we traveled to Chotuchovo - from here Avraham Touger, the miller whom we had learned about in the Minsk archive), was expelled. The mill does not exist anymore. One man showed us where it once stood. We traveled on and came to Cholopenitchi - a town with less than 10,000 people, located about 60 kilometers northeast of Borisov. Once, most of the townspeople were Jewish (in 1897, 1340 people, but in 1923, 981 people). Today, there is not even one Jew. The only remembrance left is the cemetery, which hardly looks like one but looks like a pasture with some gravestones sticking out here and there. One old man from the village showed it to us, all the while mumbling curses on the Nazis.
From here we turned to Krasnoluki, 15 kilometers further north (in 1897 the majority of the town was Jewish, 519 out of 787 people. The archive had told us that Avraham Touger, the miller, was registered in this village). Here was a similar picture. A young man on a horse showed us the cemetery, of which there is almost nothing left, and the place where all the Jews of the town were shot to death. The place where the Jews were murdered is found at the edge of the village in the forest. The rider galloped ahead on his horse, and we traveled behind him. Afterwards the man got off the horse, tied it to a tree and began to enter the woods. From between the trees we could see a red fence that closed off the area. In the center was erected a black monument, describing in general what happened at this place in the year 1942. There is no mention of the Jews, as was the custom under Communist rule - here were killed "citizens of the Soviet Union"! At the site, two signs stuck into the ground designated two sides. One said, "here lie buried women and children" and the other, "here lie buried men". The "man on the horse" told us that once a year they come and drink (vodka) next to each sign in memory of those killed. Recalling what he had been told by of his father-in-law, who was a witness to the act, he described how the Germans took the Jews from the village to this place. Several times he repeated that he did not understand why the Jews showed no resistance to the six murderers (only) who took them to their death. At the end we gave him money for half a liter of vodka (this is an accepted practice in Russia; also, one doesn't say "half a liter of vodka" but just "half a liter"), and we traveled to Lepel, 36 kilometers to the north.
Cleaning a gravestone in the Lepel cemetery (c 100 Kb)
Lepel is a town of less than 50,000 people, located half way from Minsk to Vitebsk. In 1897, there lived here 3379 Jews, and towards 1923 their number lessened to 1678 people. Today 38 old Jewish people are left. We met with two of them. In the town there is a big Jewish cemetery, located in the woods on the edge of the lake. It is said that a third of it was flooded when a dam was built on the river and the lake expanded. The cemetery is not fenced off, and the older part is very uncared for. The cars which travel next to the edge of the lake are riding right on the gravestones. The newer graves take up a small part of the area. We asked the two old Jews to prepare for us a detailed map and list of the cemetery. As I write these lines, the results of their work are already in my hands. It was done in a very organized and dedicated manner.
From there we turned to Chashniki, 25 kilometers to the west. There lived here 3480 Jews, in 1897, and 1923 their number lessened to 1874 people. The town is about the same size as Lepel, but is divided into several parts. The cemetery is located outside of the town, and was not easy to find. We had to proceed there by foot through planted fields and high, wet grass. To pass through grass like this is like going into a cold pond with clothes on, but enthusiasm and concentration on the goal took away any uncomfortable feelings we had. The cemetery in Chashniki is a square area surrounded by trees. In the open area, there are no longer any gravestones. Only on the sides of the area, underneath the high trees, does one see a few gravestones here and there. There is also one row of relatively newer graves, inscribed in Russian. It could be that there is another cemetery in Chashniki, but we did not meet any Jews, and we had no way of checking out this matter. I have an article by Romanovsky, a Jerusalem historian, which gives a first hand account of the murdering of Chashniki's Jews during the war years. The article gives the place of the murder as the village of Trilesino, in the north of Chashniki. But as there were only a few hours of daylight left, we decided to continue on to Truchanovichi, a destination, important to the Touger family, because Zalman, father of Herschel, who was overseer of the estate of a Count Komarovsky here.
Truchanovichi [not listed in the ShtetlSeeker] is located 15 kilometers to the east of Chashniki, en route to Senno. More precisely, one must travel 12 kilometers towards Senno and then turn right and travel another 3 kilometers. Herschel son of Zalman passed this way at the age of eight by horse and buggy! Even today, I did not see any other means of traveling. There are many places in Belarus called by this name, but this is the Truchanovichi where Count Komarovsky had his estate. It was located for us by Professor Akalovitch. He brought Malkiel a Polish geographic encyclopedia from 1892, which mentions the estate, and tells that it was transferred to the ownership of Komarovsky. in the second half of the nineteenth century.
We came to Truchanovichi, a small village, unsuccessful and very neglected, perhaps the most uncared for of all the towns and villages which I saw on my trip, though all are far from modernization, a distance of several hundred years. The roads are filled with mud. The wooden houses are bent over with age. The roofs are covered with a thick mildew. We were referred to an old man, 90 years old, who knows more than anyone about the place.
We went to his house. From the pitiful house, an old man came out, leaning on a cane, wearing a "caskett" on his head and long boots which came up to his knees. The suspense built up inside me, I felt that this was an historical moment. I tried not to miss any word that this old man spoke, not to forget to ask anything it might be possible to ask. We turned on the tape-recorder. The old man told us that he remembered Count Komarovsky well. He described how he looked and told of his wife. He also told how he would pass in his carriage through the streets of the village, and all the children would come out to accompany the carriage, standing at attention, and his wife would distribute sweets while riding. He also told that the grandson of the Count came several years ago from Warsaw to visit in the village. The name of the Count (Pan in Polish) Komarovsky was Ivan, the son of Victor. He had two sons Kasik (Kasimir) and Victor. The grandson , named Marek, who visited the village was Victor's son, The old man did not remember that there was a Jewish overseer on the farm, and he claimed that the name of the only Jew who lived in the village with his family was Hilka. Suspense and astonishment spread all over me. The old man and his wife, during the whole conversation, seemed to connect me with the family of Pan Komarovsky. From time to time, they expressed amazement at how much I looked like him. But my heart was with other people entirely - a Jewish family - Zalman and his family. The disappointment and confusion gnawed at my heart ...
Afterwards the old man started to explain and point out where the Count's lodging was. It became clear that actually there were two small villages, separated by the river. The village where the old man lived was called Velikiye Truchanovichi (Great Truchanovichi) and the village on the other side of the river was called Maliye Truchanovichi (Little Truchanovichi) or Zariyeche (Over the River) - that was where Pan Komarovsky lived. We sat the old man in the car and drove there. The way became more and more muddy. We remembered what had happened the day before, so we stopped the car and continued by foot to where the old man had pointed.
On the other side of the river stood several lone houses set far apart from one other. It was hard to tell where to look for the foundations of the lodging. The old man also left the car and with vigor he scrambled with his stick to the direction desired, while calling to someone named Volodiye. A lady who came out of the house starting sending him in the other direction, meanwhile asking me why I came again to the village since I had been here already. I realized that they probably have a fear of visits like these, which might herald the returning of property and land on which they are living to the descendants of Komarovsky. They are reluctant to admit that they are settled on his land, and will deny it. In their eyes, this naive old man who enthusiastically preserves the memory of the admired Pan does them a disservice. He even told me a legend about a treasure of gold coins which is supposedly under the floor of the house of the Pan).
We went in the other direction now, to where the shouting lady had pointed. There, already, stood several smiling villagers, the kind of smile that hides something behind it. They all pointed to one of them - Volodiye, and said that his house, according to them, stands exactly in the same place where the house of the Count had been. I allayed their suspicions by explaining that I had no connection with Komarovsky, and that I only was looking for information about a Jew named Zalman who had lived in this place. These villagers had to make a sharp turn in their thinking, and then they remembered that there was a lady in the village, who was 70 years old, whose mother worked as a maid in the house of Komarovsky, and who remembered a great deal. They said that they themselves were not old-timers in the village.
Malkiel drove the old man back to his house, and I went with Avraham to old lady's house. As we came close to the house, we saw the face of a woman at the window. She came out and so, afterwards, did her husband. When we explained what our visit was about and what we were looking for, they invited us into the house. I sat and conversed with her, while her husband sat on the side and listened. At one point, he went out to let in the cow who had just come back from the pasture. My friend Avraham, was busy taking pictures. She impressed us as a relatively intelligent woman, in comparison to the villagers we had met. She even knew of the expression "genealogy tree".
From the conversation it became clear, that it was true that there lived in the village a Jew by the name of Zalman, but she claimed that he was not an overseer at the Count Komarovsky but a miller. Because he was rich, he was a good friend of Komarovsky. "The rich befriend the rich", she said. She also could tell us that Zalman's wife was a good-hearted woman who would take pity on her hungry brother and secretly give him cakes, which she sold. She also told us about his sons Mendel and Motta. Mendel is the father of Nachum, whom I visited in Minsk. Motta is the father of Avraham who recently emigrated from Orsha to Israel. About Herschel who went to America, she did not know.
She also told of Mendel coming to the village after the war, to visit his friend, Fiodor the blacksmith. After the visit, the police came to Fiodor and warned him not to associate with Mendel, because he was an undesirable person from a communist point of view. This fit well with what Nachum, his son, told us -- that his father had had problems with the government because his father, Zalman, had been associated with a landowner. She also said that she could show us the remaining foundations of the flour mill, at the end of the village, but she didn't recommend going there because of the mud.
The information which we got from this visit somewhat contradicted what was already known to us through family tradition from two independent sources - Martin (Herschel's or Harold's son) in America and Avraham from Orsha. I know no way of explaining this contradiction. On the other hand, some of the information we had was supported. We found an occupation - milling - that was shared by other representatives of the Tavger family. Recall the expulsion of Avraham, the son of Zalman Touger, from the flour mill in Chotuchovo. Also, Mendel, the son of Zalman, was the manager of a flour factory -- this is the "communist form" of the miller of former times (His son, Nachum, agreed with me on this point).
The hour was already late, and it had begun to get dark. We left the village and turned towards Senno which is located 27 kilometers to the west. We passed Senno in the dark. It is also a town important to the Jewish past. There lived here 2471 Jews in 1897, and in 1923 the number was 2160 people. I don't know to what extent it is connected to the Tavger/Touger family. In any case, in the dark, there was no opportunity to form an impression, and we continued on to Vitebsk. We drove about 60 kilometers to the northwest direction in near total darkness (the villagers go to sleep with the sun, and the houses and lights in the villages on the roadside give almost no light) until we arrived in Vitebsk. In Vitebsk, we spent the night in a hotel - the hot shower and soft bedding were a good answer to this cold, wet and tiring day.
IV. The third day
The third day of our trip we dedicated to Vitebsk. Vitebsk is a county town, with about 300,000 people. It has an active Jewish community - a Joint office which distributes to the needy, a synagogue and a large cemetery. A subject of local pride today by the citizens of the town, in general, and its Jews in particular, is the painter, Marc Chagall. There is a museum standing in the town in his memory, and many articles and research papers on him and his family have been written recently in the local papers and magazines. We met with people of the community. One person especially helped us - a very nice man, Arkadi Shulman - who in a volunteer capacity publishes a local Jewish magazine called "Mishpacha" (family). His magazine is substantially devoted to stories of the Jewish family, and "of course" about Chagall. You can merit honor, at least there in Vitebsk, if you can succeed in proving any family connection to Marc Chagall. It may be that we have a "slight chance", because Chagall's mother had been a Chernin, and we are related to the Chernin family through our grandmother. When I spoke about this to Alexander Rosenbloom, from Borisov, who is related to us through the Chernin family, his eyes shed tears from emotion. Enough now of joking, and on to something more serious - the cemetery.
The cemetery in Vitebsk in very large, pretty well cared for, and surrounded by a high fence. Only in one spot is there a big gap, and a path divides the cemetery in two. Those who live in the area take shortcuts through there. Shulman said in distress that there is not much they can do about this. The burials here are almost all in the new style (in Russian) with only a few old gravestones scattered among the new ones.
The idea occurred to us of hiring someone to make a list of all those buried in the cemetery - it is a great database for all those interested in genealogy. We also got hold of a local telephone directory, which can help in searching for relatives. Tavger/Touger was not listed here.
Towards the end of the day, we galloped back to Minsk, and my friend Avraham rushed to meet with his relatives. Despite all this, I could not pass up a visit in the village of Optchuga, the birthplace of my grandmother's mother, Laya Chernin. Therefore, after Bishenkovichi, we turned southward to Chashniki and Lukomil; beyond them the road passes Optchuga. Optchuga is a small village which had a population of 272 Jews in 1923. Today, the only remembrance of the Jews who lived there, is a memorial to those who died in the holocaust, located on top of a hill in the woods. There is probably a cemetery as well, but time didn't permit us to look into it. Continuing southward, we connected with the Moscow/Minsk highway, and at the end of the third day, we arrived in Minsk.
IV. The fourth day and beyond
On the fourth day we drove to a different part of Belarus - Molodechno, Vileka and Iliya. This is the northwestern part, close to the Lithuanian border. After WWI, it was transferred to the new Poland. This area is connected to the family of my friend, Avraham Chesekov. His relatives from Minsk volunteered to drive us around for the entire day, so we did not need our hired driver anymore. In Molodechno, there is an archive of the area, where one can request a search for one's relatives. They have a list of voters for the Polish Saim. Although there wasn't much point in requesting a search for the Tavger family here, I did so anyhow, and after some time, I received an answer in the negative.
In Vileka there is a Jewish cemetery surrounded by a fence. Some of the older graves remain. I wrote down all the family names that I could read there. Someone made some cement fillings for the gravestones in a totally different style (the gravestones instead of standing were lying). But here too, the hand of vandalism reached. Here and there vodka bottles were left over from drunken nighttime parties. At the entrance to the cemetery is a general monument in memory of those killed in the holocaust. Outside the fenced off area, at the bottom of the hill and below, are scattered a large number of gravestones. Probably the cemetery was once much larger. Next to the cemetery was a non-Jewish lady who was in charge of watching the place; this is what her father did, and this is what she does. There is someone in Vilna who keeps in touch with her and is responsible for the care of the cemetery.
The lady brought us to a Jewish women, almost the only one in the town, a smart and intelligent woman. We met her digging in her garden, but this did not keep her from remembering even the smallest of details, telephone numbers and addresses of people. My friend Avraham asked her numerous questions about his family, and as always I asked if she had ever heard of the Tavger family. To my surprise, she answered in the positive. It became clear that she had known in her youth (today she is 70 years old)the sisters of Chaim Touger who lives in Herzliya, in Israel. He and his family did not live in Vileka but in Krivitchi, about 50 kilometers to the northeast. Each time Mrs. Chodos produced a new detail of information, all those standing around jumped with admiration. This knowledgeable woman even brought us to an army quarters building whose walls were constructed of gravestones from the Jewish cemetery. She had found this out by chance when some of the plaster crumbled from the wall and the Hebrew letters showed through.
Afterwards, we visited at the home of the partisan, Safonov. He had received from Yad Vashem a certificate for the "Non-Jewish Righteous of the World" for saving Jews. I must say truthfully that I never met before a non-Jew who saved Jews, and when I stood next to him, I was deeply moved. When he asked me to translate for him what was written on the certificate and on the medallion, I read and translated with tears in my eyes and my voice trembling.
We drove with him to Iliya, about 40 kilometers from Vileka. There we saw a monument to the martyrs of Iliya with the names of those killed. The monument was erected through the efforts of someone who was saved by Safonov and now lives in Israel - his name is Degani. Safonov is responsible for the monument. Afterwards, we found the cemetery. On the flat, open plain, far from the road, a sight which appears strange among the surrounding farms is suddenly seen - many gravestones standing straight. The cemetery is not fenced off, but fortunately is kept in fairly good condition. Again I copied all the names which I could read from the gravestones.
We returned Safonov to Vileka. When we parted, I felt I couldn't just say good-bye simply to a "Non-Jewish Righteous of the World" who had saved Jews. I dared to hug him with all of my heart and thanked him in the name of all the children of Israel.
Towards evening we returned to Minsk, and here ended our trip to the land where our fathers lived. I returned home with my thoughts in turmoil about care for the neglected cemeteries. It is impossible to leave things in their present state. What must those villagers, whom I met everywhere, think about us, those smart Jews, filled with incentive and means!? How have they left their fathers who are buried in the land they lived in!? I see their houses and their eyes staring at us, the Jews, and I am filled with shame for my nation. But the burning enthusiasm I felt then has already managed to be cooled by the pragmatic words of people who reacted to my ideas. There is a need for a huge monetary investment, they said, and also a need for organization. Who can undertake all this? And so I returned in the meantime to the course of everyday life.
Copyright © 1999 Belarus SIG and Rav Eliyahu Tavger
PLEASE NOTE: The PDF-files for download of this article is unfortunately not yet available due to some technical problems.
Back to the index of the Belarus SIG Newsletters
Back to the Belarus SIG website