(No. 5/2003 - August 2003)
Editor: Fran Bock
My Family Trip to Belarus
by Jacob Arem
Friday, June 13, 2003
After landing at Minsk International Airport, our guides, Frank and Galina Swartz, greeted us. We started driving toward Minsk on a divided, 4-lane highway. We stopped at a World War Two memorial, marking the spot where 100,000 Nazis were encircled and killed. Europeans take pride in their memorials; in fact one man there drove 700 km from Moscow with his family to visit this memorial.
We drove through green farmland (which is still 90% state owned) and the occasional village. Minsk was almost completely destroyed during World War Two, so it was built in a Soviet style pattern with wide streets, wide sidewalks, parks, and lines of concrete apartment buildings. Like most major cities once in the Soviet Union, it has a trolley system, buses, and an expanding subway.
We stayed at the Orbita, a modern and clean hotel. After unpacking Irina, Mom, and I took a taxi to the Friday night services at a youth center. Irina helps run the center, headed by a rabbi from Brooklyn. About 15 kids trickled in, a high number considering that many kids were attending a Jewish camp that had started and that the director was absent. One of the kids there was a celebrity because he had been on Belorussian MTV.
Most of them knew enough English to ask questions and understand the answers, but, understandably, I had to speak slowly. No one there spoke Hebrew, but they could read it.
We prayed a shortened Kabbalat Shabbat, almost identical to the one at home. The mechiza was a folded up ping-pong table. We ate a dinner of tomatoes, cucumber, challah, bean and potato soup, potato salad, a double sandwich with mayonnaise and sardines on dark bread (apparently the Belorussians rely on mayonnaise in the way many Americans rely on ketchup), stuffed cabbage, and a brownie. After a little bit of singing in Hebrew, we left because it was late and we took a taxi back to our hotel.
Saturday, June 14, 2003
For breakfast we went to the restaurant dining room and ate blintzes (with mayonnaise), dark bread with jam, a hard-boiled egg, and tomatoes, cucumbers, and cheese. We decided to stop at a fruit stand on our way out of Minsk. The selection was very limited, so we went into a nearby supermarket.
Five years ago, Galina said a supermarket like the one we went to wouldn't exist. Recently, economic conditions have improved in Belarus. This supermarket had everything we needed: apples, oranges, and water. The tap water is questionable in Minsk (depending on who you ask and in which section of the city) and unpredictable elsewhere else in Belarus. At a stand we bought tissues, a map of Belarus, a map of Minsk, and we were on our way to Bobruisk.
Street in Bobruisk
On the way we asked our guide many questions. We asked why we had to pay so much money and go through so much trouble for our visas. Galina told us it is much worse on the other end. A Belorussian has to apply, pay a lot of money, and then wait two weeks . At the end of the two weeks, they have a face-to-face interview with an embassy employee. Eighty percent of all applicants, even for a tourist visa, are turned down, with no reason for the denial. No refunds are given, even if the visa is denied.
The first place we went to in Bobruisk was a synagogue. We sat in front of a Jewish community that had just finished their prayers. They were divided into men and women by a light curtain, but came together when they were finished.
Destroyed synagogue in Bobruisk
We told them why we were visiting and we asked them if they knew the towns or the people we were seeking. With Galina translating, we asked if anyone had heard of the Bezruckin family (this was my great-grandfather's surname.). One lady had heard of a Bezruckzo, but she didn't think she was Jewish. Galina will try to find her. Mom also asked if anyone knew of a town called Removitz. Mom had found the coordinates on Shtetl Seeker online, but a man there had heard of it and confirmed where it was. No one had heard of Deroshkavitz, where the tar factory that my great-great grandfather Gedalye Levin had built was supposed to be.
The community was mostly elderly, living alone, not uncommon in Belarus' Jewish community of 100,000 (although only a fraction of those are practicing.) People asked about Jews in America - about assimilation (we replied that half of all Jews marry non-Jews in America), about the effects of September 11th, the current intifada in Israel, and other topics.
One man, who was born in 1925, was a teacher of geography and history and also a poet. During the time we talked, he wrote a rhyming poem in Russian about Mom and me. Virtually everyone had stories. One man told of him losing his twin brother, then decades later joyfully reuniting with him. That same man asked us to locate a relative of his in Iowa. Another man complained that reparations paid by Germany went through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which is giving money to survivors in Israel and the United States but not in Eastern Europe. Someone there had siblings in Israel who went through the same concentration camp, had the same story, but they were getting money while he wasn't. They are aging and poorer, so are becoming bitter about that issue. I decided I would write a letter when I return home about his concerns.
We drove to a memorial called Kamenka, first on a highway, then on a dirt road. It was a place where 10,000 people, mostly Polish Jews, but many others too, were marched in columns and forced to dig two long pits. They were shot in the back of the head, and then buried. Only two people managed to escape alive; they were children pushed out of the line by their parents into the arms of the bystanders. It was a well-tended memorial with stones in Russian and Yiddish, flowers, wreaths, and two long hills of bodies. Not only was it sickening to see this memorial, but also to think that massacres like these happened over and over again, and that anyone could be crazy enough or hateful enough to do such a thing.
Then, we set out to find Removitz, where my great-grandmother Jenny Levin was born.. It took us a while, because there were not always signs. Along the road we asked people, and they were usually very helpful. When we got out, Faina, a very knowledgeable Bobruisk resident, asked some residents if they knew of a Levin family. The older ones all answered there was a Hasan Levin who owned a shop, but Hasan is not related to us. Jenny's family left around 1905, so someone would have to be over 100 to remember them. The oldest person we met was born in 1908.
Removitz is a town with a single street made of a mixture of asphalt, sand, and pebbles. The wooden houses with tin roofs consisted of one living room/dining room/bedroom and a kitchen. Outside there would be a bathhouse, an outhouse, a well (shared by one's neighbor), and a little barn with a place for firewood, a cow or a horse, a few chickens, and a dog. The houses were fairly far apart with gardens in between growing beans, potatoes, beets, tomatoes. A truck comes in once in a while for residents to buy sugar, flour, etc . It is populated almost entirely by elderly women. There were two men and one young girl from Bobruisk visiting their families. One of the men, pictured below, was getting water from the well for his mother.
In Jewish villages, Jews couldn't own land so houses were closer together. Removitz was mostly non-Jewish, but residents were so tolerant they didn't care if Jews owned land. Residents even observed each other's holidays: the Russian Orthodox would eat matza, etc. Many Belorussians were never fully Christianized, and are affiliated only for marriage and death.
Removitz, like small towns across the world, seemed to be a victim of a growing worldwide trend of urbanization. Not surprisingly, opportunities are limited in a place like Removitz, where virtually everyone is a subsistence farmer.
The residents told us that Removitz only had one Jewish house. That house is now gone (with another similar in style rebuilt in the same spot), and residents said it used to have a saloon in front. In my great grandmother's diary, it said she was born in Removitz in a house with a saloon. We figured it could only be this site. We were excited at this find, and took several pictures.
We drove back to Bobruisk and ate lunch. We had a mushroom, potato, and carrot salad, and salmon. It was a privately owned restaurant, again something Galina said wouldn't exist a few years ago.
We went on a tour of Bobruisk, once the center of Belorussian Jewry. Before the war, there were 46 synagogues. Thirty six were destroyed in the war, 9 have been converted to other uses, and one is still in use as a chabad synagogue. There are two other synagogues built after the war, one orthodox one (which we visited) and a reform one. We visited areas that used to be entirely Jewish, now with only a few Jewish families. One can tell if a Jew built a house because there are a few characteristic features. They have high basements because many Jews were merchants, so they needed a lot of storage space. They had windows with vertical bricks on top, and intricate designs underneath the roof.
We visited a Jewish cemetery, one of the few that survived the war. There were fences around each stone and often times pictures of the deceased. There were also several Holocaust memorials for different villages. Then we drove back to Minsk, which was our base for whole trip.
Sunday, June 15, 2003
We drove to Urechye, where my great grandfather Hymen Abraham Bezruchkin was born and his siblings, including Meyer Zalman Bezruchkin, all lived. My mother was named after Meyer Zalman; he and his family had all been killed by the Nazis.
When we got there, we did the usual: we started asking questions of elderly or knowledgeable- looking people sitting outside their houses. The first person we asked happened to be a nephew of a 93-year-old resident named Phillip. We were directed to his house, just on the other side of the roundabout. We were amazed to learn that not only did he know Meyer Zalman, he was also quite a good friend of his. Out of the more than 5,000 people in Urechye pre-war, we had found one who had survived and who was Meyer Zalman's friend and co-worker! They worked together in the spirits plant (Meyer was in charge of the storage area, Phillip was in charge of security). Phillip was a partisan, as were half of able-bodied Belorussian men. He mostly lived in the forest, but he had seen the villagers, including Meyer Zalman and his family, being marched to the forest where they were shot.
Phillip played the accordion for us. He said he used to play at Jewish weddings, birthdays, and at Meyer's house in the evening. We recorded some of his playing.
He took us to the place where the synagogue used to be, then to Meyer's house. It was destroyed in the war, but rebuilt in a similar fashion. Then we went to the house of Mikhail, the last Jew remaining in Urechye. Before the war, there were about 2,700 ethnic Belorussians and 2,700 Jews, according to Phillip.
Mikhail remembered that in 1942, people who the Nazis thought wouldn't be helpful to them were marched to the forest and shot. Meyer Zalman and his family would be amongst the 625 families that shared this fate. In 1943 the remaining 93 Jewish families were buried alive. The ground moved for three days afterwards, but the Nazis heavily guarded the site. He remembers that the Hungarian Nazi units would make the villagers walk across fields to see if it was mined or not. Sometimes, whole villages would disperse in the forest and hide in holes or small cabins. For food, they would bring cows or chickens. I'm not sure how they hid a cow from the Nazis.
First, we visited the field where the 93 families were buried alive. There was a white and blue memorial on one part of the field, and cows were grazing on the other. Mikhail couldn't remember where the other memorial was, so we went to a nearby village and his relative found it for us. It was across the road from a factory and the trail was right in front of a big white "Urechye" sign. It was fairly far in the forest. There were two memorials, in front of two hills of bodies, now covered in grass. The Nazis told the Jews they were going to be resettled. People were suspicious but were afraid. When they began marching them into the forest some began running, but they were shot. The ones who continued walking were lined up in front of two pits, shot in the back of their head, and then more were lined up. That was how thousands of people died across Europe. Phillip remembers that one girl, about 12, survived the massacre because the Nazis thought she was dead when she wasn't. Phillip said she joined the partisans, and never returned to Urechye. I had a cousin Sheindyl who would have been over twelve, but she did survive the Urechye massacre and ran away to Ukraine. In all the chaos and anarchy it is possible that the age of the girl was not correct, so maybe the story was about Sheindyl.
We said thank you, then began going to Rukhov. In 1905 my great-great grandfather Gedalye Levin had built a tar factory nearby. It is amazing how friendly people are - you go up, ask them about a tar factory that has been gone for sixty years, and they happily begin to tell stories without even wondering why you want to know. It is a custom for each house to have a bench outside where people sit and talk. The pace of life is much slower than at home, or even in Minsk. We questioned four women sitting by a creek. They all knew about the tar plant - their fathers, uncles, or brothers worked there. Apparently it was in a field with mushrooms and berries, so local villagers would go there to pick them. If they go to that area, they still refer to it as "near the tar plant." The locals seem to remember the factory as if it was yesterday. One woman praised us for "coming to research our roots."
We then drove to Deroshkavitz, about 2 miles away. Outside Deroshkavitz there was an orchard with apple trees. Its population has dwindled from 120 before the war to 14 now. It had a lot of abandoned houses. The village was similar to Rukhov or Removitz - it looked like the set of Fiddler on the Roof - wooden houses on dirt roads with fields in between growing rye, potatoes, or vegetables in between. The sandy soil limits the variety of crops. The richest soil, in the south, will be radioactive for hundreds of years because of radiation from the Chernobyl.accident.
The men were "a little drunk" because it was a holiday called Trinity. One man was sober enough to take us to where the tar plant used to be, although it was completely overgrown without a trace. It was easy to see where the field surrounding the factory used to be because the trees are less than half the height of the ones around them. The road wasn't accessible by car and was basically a trail. The house was in that location until about 1950 when it was moved (?!) to Starie Dorogie by a woman who lived there. As bizarre as that may seem, it was actually cheaper to move a house than build a new one then, and this process is not unheard of in Belarus. The well and spring were also overgrown. The man who showed it to us actually planted those trees when he was younger. Galina confirmed that if one were to build a tar factory, this would be the ideal location. It was very close to a pine forest, necessary for the process, and near a spring. This was in the middle of a forest, 2 km from the main road. We later learned that someone took the tank and that villagers dismantled the encasing, brick by brick, to use in their village.
In Deroshkavitz, as in many villages, everyone said our visit will be news for months. The Deroshkavitz population is virtually entirely over 65, with, well, no new families moving in. As spouses die residents usually leave the town and move in with their children. If they are particularly connected with the town, they might live alone.
Vlad drove us back to Minsk in our white Ford. We saw about 7 rainbows in less than half an hour. Rainbows are not as unusual in Belarus as in our part of the United States.
Monday, June 16, 2003
We got stuck in the first traffic jam yet. Minsk has mostly very wide streets and such an efficient public transit system that there isn't much traffic for a city of 2 million, but they were doing construction here.
We drove to Slutsk, a city south of Minsk. The Jewish community in Slutsk has dwindled from 14,000 before the war (2/3 of the population at the time) to a present 200 families, of whom only 50 say they are Jewish. Slutsk was 90% destroyed during the war, and afterwards rebuilt with high apartment buildings, transforming it (for better or for worse) from a small Jewish shtetl to a fairly major city. Before the war, it had about ten synagogues and four Jewish schools. Almost every Jew who was in Slutsk the day the Nazis came died, either in the ghetto, in massacres, or in extermination camps. No cemeteries are left because the Nazis would force relatives of the deceased to dig up the gravestone and carry it, either to build a house or to dump in the Sluch River. Most Slutsk Jews who survived left during the war. After, very few returned because their houses, families, and lives were all destroyed. They immigrated the first chance they had to Israel, the United States, Australia, and even Germany.
We talked to Raisa, who was neighbors to Esther, Sheindyl, Raya, and Eliana (or Yena) Bezruchkin, probably third cousins to my great-grandfather. Those Bezruchkins lived in Slutsk for generations, were fairly well to do, educated, and were "noble aristocrats" according to Raisa. They spoke Yiddish at home and sent their children to prestigious places like Moscow to study. This was the only Bezruchkin family living in Slutsk, as far as we know.
In 1926, their houses caught on fire and burned. New, nicer houses were built along the river for them. We visited the site of these houses (which were destroyed in the war). Raisa lived four houses away from the Bezruchkins.
Raisa, born in the 1920's, survived the war because she happened to be visiting Starie Dorogie with her father the day the Nazis invaded Slutsk. No one thought the Nazis could advance so fast. It was only their sixth day in Belarus, and they had invaded a significant part of the territory. In fact, they were advancing at a rate of about 100 km a day. Raisa and her dad took the next train to Uzbekistan and stayed there for the next three years. When asked if she had any pictures, and she replied, "We didn't even bring clothes!" Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were popular places for Europeans escaping the Nazis because they were part of the Soviet Union, easily accessible by train, and had a relatively warm climate (good if the refugees didn't bring a lot of clothes). She's not sure what happened to the Bezruchkins. She thinks Yena moved to Ukraine and she hopes to find her.
We ate at a cafe in Slutsk. We got fish with cucumber and tomato and really good bread.
We started driving toward Starie Dorogie, meaning old road in Russian. When we stopped to take a picture of the sign welcoming us, we heard a cuckoo bird! Belarus has some of the most extensive protected forests and wildlife in Europe. Around 1/3 of the country is forested, a well-kept secret!
We drove into the town of Starie Dorogie and stopped to talk to two elderly women. We asked about where the Levin family moved into in 1914, when they were evicted from the factory because of a Russian law forcing all Jews to return to their place of birth. They didn' t know about that or about the house moved in the 1950's, but they said there was a village of Starie Dorogie about a mile away. There, we talked to a man who said he didn't know of a house moved or a house inhabited by a Levin family, who would have been there from 1914 to at least 1926 or 1939 at the latest. The man in the village of Starie Dorogie directed us to a Jewish cemetery.
We visited a Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of the town. After the war, a family could request a gravestone to be moved to the new Jewish cemetery. Since there would have been no Levins related to us in Starie Dorogie, their grave stones were not moved, so we didn't see them.
We went back into the town and drove to the main government building, complete with a statue of Lenin in front. One woman was very friendly and helped us. She called the people to search the records of any houses being moved in the 1950s. It turned out that about a dozen houses were moved at that time. We don' t know the name of the person who moved the house, which makes it a lot harder. They asked us to call them back the following day, and we said we would. We drove back to Minsk, on paved but bumpy roads.
We took the Metro three stations and walked through a very nice section of Minsk that looked less Soviet and more European. At a department store we bought a very nice vase for only $6, a wooden plate for the wall, and a wooden jewelry box.
Tuesday, June 17, 2003
Vlad drove us to Maliy Trostenetz, an extermination camp near Minsk. There was a rail line bringing Jews and political prisoners from Austria, Belarus, Germany, and Ukraine. The Nazis said it was a work camp, but in fact it was a death camp. Depending on who you ask, 200,000-800,000 people died there. At first they were put in mass graves, seven to twenty people per square meter. As time went on, the Nazis decided it was more efficient to cremate them and spread their ashes across the fields. That is why estimates vary, because we don't know how many people were cremated. After the war, when experts came to assess the site, they estimated that 800,000 people had died there. When they were making the memorial, the government said only people recorded as being killed there could be counted in the final number on the memorial. That number was around 200,000.
When the Nazis needed wood or other materials for the camp, they would force villagers to cut trees for them, practically enslaving people in nearby villages. When it appeared obvious that the Allies would win, the Nazis burned the entire camp, along with the people. Only about ten managed to survive the flames.
We drove to Khatyn, what used to be a village about forty minutes from Minsk. It is a huge memorial commemorating the devastating destruction in Belarus. The government's official statistics had held that one in four, or 2.3 million Belorussians died in World War Two, including 800,000 Jews. However, KGB documents were recently uncovered that found that in fact one in three Belorussians died from 1941-1945 in Belarus, or about 3.3 million people. Khatyn was a village where, like in hundreds of other villages, the Nazis would find the largest building in town, usually a warehouse, cram all the people in, and burn the building. They would guard it to make sure no one escaped. There were two diagonal black slabs where this warehouse was. There were concrete slabs marking the foundations of the houses and concrete bell towers where the chimneys were. The bells would ring every minute. There was a statue of a man, the only man from Khatyn who survived. I don't know how he survived. Then, there were boxes of ashes from the 186 villages burned in the war but not rebuilt afterwards. Further away there were the names of the 433 villages burned but rebuilt, shaped into trees. There was also a wall listing all the ghettos and how many people died there. It was appalling to see the list - most numbers were in the tens of thousands. I was pleased that the memorial was kept up so well. In fact, we saw people sweeping leaves off the grass with a broom.
On the drive back to Minsk, we stopped at a gingerbread house-like picnic area. That is when I realized there was a big fingerprint on the digital camera I was using. I'll see how many pictures I ruined. Then I thought to myself, I have no right to complain about a fingerprint when I am passing places where thousands of people were shot. Trips like these makes one appreciate what one has: running water, a stable government, and the fact that there hasn't been a war in Philadelphia for hundreds of years.
We paid 10 cents for a metro token and rode to the Minsk ghetto. It is one of the few areas of Minsk that survived the war. The Nazis purposely operated a bread factory right in the ghetto, where 100,000 people were starving. We could smell the tempting bread, from the factory that is still operating.
We ate lunch in a synagogue that was converted to a regular restaurant and a beer brewery. The balcony was still there and we think the bathroom door was the Rabbi's door. It was awkward, that they were serving pork and brewing beer in a synagogue.
Then we walked into an Internet cafe with phones and called the Starie Dorogie office to see if they found the house. They didn't find the house but knew of an old woman who might remember something. They asked us to call back the next day.
We took the metro to the museum of the Great Patriotic War (WWII). There they had a very extensive collection of photographs, uniforms, equipment, signs, maps, and other relevant objects. They had an exhibit on the partisans. Most of the 374,000 partisans in Belarus lived in holes in the forest or sometimes in cabins.
We went to the opera house, an undecorated pre-war building. It survived because the Nazis used the building as a warehouse and for stables. We bought tickets for the ballet, and then walked along the river in Minsk to see the memorial of the Afghan war (the first one, 1970s-80s). We also saw a neighborhood that wasn't destroyed in the war. It had cobblestone streets and picturesque houses. Before the war, one side of the river was for the wealthy and one side was for the poor.
We walked along the main streets, buying books, postcards, and taking pictures. Then we went to Yama, a pit now surrounded by apartment buildings. The Nazis forced the victims to dig the pit. Then they shot 5,000 Jews on that spot. They were buried after one bullet, whether they were dead or alive. As in Urechye, residents remember the ground moving for days. There is a line of trees, one tree for each "righteous gentile" who risked his or her life, sometimes dying, to try to save the people still alive in the pit.
Then we visited a memorial marking where a Jewish cemetery used to be. On the same spot, 933 Jews from Hamburg, Germany, were brought on trains leaving from Bremen and were killed. We don' know why the Nazis bothered to bring Jews from all over Europe to kill in the east. Of the probably hundreds of graves there before the war, there were maybe a dozen left, only three of which we could read. I picked out three names: Shalom Bar Yitzhak Roseau (or Rosen), Aaron ben Ya'akov, and (Illegible) Tomkin. The Nazis tried to wipe out every sign of Jewish existence in Belarus, and everywhere else outside Prague. As Mom said, and I agreed, it seems a victory against the Nazis and against Hitler when we find out something about our relatives killed, and even a victory simply for us to be able to visit Belarus.
Wednesday, June 18, 2003
First, we went to the City Children's Hospital #1, specializing in neurological disorders. In a meeting with the Deputy Head Doctor of the hospital, we learned about the hospital and then he took us on a tour. They treat a lot of CP, defective metabolism, and meningitis patients, who can stay anywhere from a few hours to several weeks. Hospitals in Minsk are very specialized - one is devoted solely to urinary tract problems. He said there has been an increase in blood and thyroid cancers, although this was worse for the 5 years after the Chernobyl disaster. It is hard to say though, because little data was collected before the accident to compare with.
The hospital moved to this location two years ago, so it got a huge amount of government funding. It bought sophisticated machines like Milta, which combines magnets with lasers to heal some sort of disorder and underwater massagers. We also saw some different healing techniques such as acupuncture, electrical currents, mountain wax, and medical dirt. However, there is not always enough money for ongoing needs. We brought gloves, medicine, and thermometers to donate.
We went with Galina to a huge rectangular white building with arched windows. It is used as a food market, and there were gigantic piles of canned foods, chocolates, huge rows of animal fat, meat, fish, seafood, vegetables, eggs, and more.
We stepped outside, and we had hardly gone ten feet before we were in a huge open-air market with arched glass roofs. It had a huge selection of fruit, vegetables, nuts, potatoes, and pickled everything.
Market in Minsk
Mom, Galina, and I continued walking through Minsk for a lunch/dinner place (it was around 4 pm by now). On Victory Square, which is actually a roundabout with trees and a memorial in the middle, we found a nice restaurant. I got salad and fish, which still had a head, but they took the eyes out. We took the metro one stop, changed lines, and then took it four more stops back to our hotel. It was rush hour, so the metro was pretty crowded. It is very reliable; it stops every 2-3 minutes during the day and seemed to me about as safe as New York or any other place.
We rested for a little bit then Ina, an English teacher and friend of Galina, came to pick us up in her Skoda, a Czech car, to take us to a ballet called Passions, or Rogneda.
The inside of the opera house was made out of marble, had a big chandelier, and gold designs on the balconies and around the stage. It cost only $3.50 for some of the best seats. The cheapest ones are about $1, compared to $40 or $50 at the brand new Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. The Belorussian ballet was modern, about ten years old. It was very good.
Thursday, June 19, 2003
Sasha (Galina's daughter) was our guide again today. We walked and rode on the metro through big sections of Minsk. There is a lot of construction in some areas because the city is replacing the asphalt sidewalks with reddish and grayish brick ones.
Minsk probably has thousands of vendors. To keep them off the street, there are areas the city designates where they can go. Some of these areas are around the stadium and the skating rink when they aren't being used.
Then we walked to my favorite store, the chocolate store! Apparently Belorussian chocolate is famous, but I haven't seen it at home. It was a pretty big store, filled with all sorts of truffles and candies. We bought some for ourselves and some to give to Phillip tomorrow. We returned to the Internet café to call the woman in Starie Dorogie. This has taken longer than we all expected. There were no records of the house being moved, they said, and the old woman doesn't really remember the Levin family.
We went to the Museum of Natural History and saw old things, from the 1200's and even earlier. We also saw stuffed animals (animals that were stuffed), including a cuckoo bird. Then we took a bus to the Botanical Gardens. There was a line to get in because the ticket person had a break. In the middle of dense apartment buildings there are the Botanical Gardens, a large park, some of it landscaped, most of it a forest with trails and benches. It's amazing, if you were to be plopped down in the middle of it you would have no idea you were in a city. It took us a while, but we found a pond with ducks and swans. We also saw people gathering hay. We walked around for a while, and then took the metro to a department store and Sasha left to go to a meeting. Sasha, Galina and Frank were going to the British Ambassador's office to find funding for their projects, which include education, health protection, and historic restoration plans.
Minsk Botanical Gardens
Friday, June 20, 2003
We drove back to Urechye to meet with Phillip. Phillip said he knew Meyer Zalman from at least 1924 until 1942. He remembers Meyer Zalman as a serious, religious, friendly, and honest person. First, Meyer Zalman was a merchant. Jews couldn' t own land (meant to put them at a disadvantage) so they learned a different trade (which put them at an advantage). Phillip said a Jew would find a man selling say, eggs, bargain with him, and then sell the eggs to someone else for the original price. Phillip said several times that they were very honest and would never steal. Apparently, Stalin began taxing merchants in 1926, so Meyer Zalman got a second job as a storage and distribution man at the spirit factory, which is still operating (but in a different building in Urechye). Phillip was a security guard at the plant starting in 1925. We learned that Urechye got electricity around 1927.
Phillip didn't go to Meyer Zalman's wedding, but he remembers in other weddings that they had a chupah, chairs, and tables, and often times a violin. He said they usually served chicken and that the bride would often wear an off-white dress.
We asked Phillip about Jewish burials. He said that the Jewish cemetery was very nice "with a two-meter-high fence." He said Jews never used coffins and would break a clay pot to put it over their head. Now in the United States it is a law that one must use a coffin, so Jews use the simplest wooden ones. The clay pot is to make sure the eyes and the mouth don't open, for fear that dirt may get in and make the body impure.
We asked about the houses. He said it was a Jewish custom to have several rooms in a house, and a Belorussian custom to have one or two rooms. The Belorussians have since adopted the Jewish custom. He also said Jewish houses had steeper roofs to prevent leaks. Phillip said Urechye has about 5,000 residents, about the same as pre-war. The low birth rate is balanced out by immigration, mostly from Russia, where life is very hard. In fact, according to the CIA, Belarus (as a percentage of the population) accepts more immigrants than Denmark, Greece, or Norway and, percentage wise, more people come to Belarus than leave Mexico, Puerto Rico, or Haiti each year
Phillip took us to a Jewish cemetery where most likely my great-great-grandparents and my great-great-great-grandparents, and other relatives, were all buried. After the war, Stalin ordered all the graves bulldozed, so they are all in mounds in the ground. The cemetery is pretty bumpy, with hills of bodies and gravestones. It is forbidden to dig in a Jewish cemetery, so the graves will probably stay underground for a long time. There were maybe two dozen post war graves there. The cemetery is 1/2 to 1 1/2 miles southeast of Urechye on the road to Luban. It has pine trees and is in front of a red brick water tower.
We drove for two miles on a dirt road along a creek to Rukhov, and then drove some more to a village called Glyadovichi, near Deroshkavitz. That was where an old woman might know about the house built by Gedalye Levin that was moved. However, her son told us she was deaf. So we turned around, and questioned a group of elderly women sitting on a bench. They sent us down the road to a man that was about 80 years old. He sent us a few houses down, but there was no one there. Walking out of that house, we thought it was hopeless. I said to Mom that I had wanted to go to the government offices in Starie Dorogie in the first place because I felt we hadn' t tried, but now that we had, it was OK to go back to Minsk. However, the old man sent us to a different house in the other direction. There was a woman there whose grandfather worked at the tar factory. Her mother came in and said what other people had said, that a "tall blond woman" lived in it, but didn't know her name. After giving us coffee, she sent us to Valentina in Starie Dorogie. Valentina didn't remember, so she sent us to a Jewish couple down the street. The woman there didn't know but she thought her husband might. Her husband, Nikolay, was about 80 years old and was in a garage repairing his bike. We drove to the garage, and he told us that a Lap-sky had bought the factory. We drove back to his apartment and Galina called a Lap-sky. The Lap-sky didn't know, but said she thought the name was Lesh-sky. The first Lesh-sky we called exclaimed, "My family owned the tar plant!" We didn't hesitate and rushed to her house.
We talked for a very long time. The woman's grandfather had bought the factory from Gedalye Levin in 1914. We learned that the place where the tar factory was is called Suchaya Peil because there is a legend that an old church sunk into the ground there. Stanislava described the tank in the tar factory as taller than the trees. The tar was used to waterproof boats. We asked her how many employees there were. She said she didn' t know, but that there were permanent and seasonal ones. Some would work only in the summer to dig up tree stumps. They would then use the tree stumps collected in the summer as they needed them.
We heard the sad reason why the family had left. One of Stanislava's aunts was named Marylya. On the day of Marylya's wedding, she went to fill the lamp with more kerosene, but forgot to turn the flame down first. She was burned and rushed to the hospital, and died. That was around 1936. The family couldn't stand living there and moved away in 1937. In 1938, the factory was nationalized and one of the workers moved the house to Starie Dorogie.
Here is an excerpt from my great-grandmother's diary that described Stanislava's family. One of the babies was Stanislava's father.
"We had one family living near us employed by my father (Gedalye). They had 5 children newborn ones (that was about 1907-10). I used to love to take care of them and chew bread and sugar for the baby ... In spring 1914 we were ordered to move out of our farm because we were not born there...My father signed it over to one of the landowners. He was nice to us."
At the time, Starie Dorogie was much smaller than today. Electricity came around 1936. There is a park on the site of where the major Jewish neighborhood was. In Czarist times, a very good gravel road was built. There were about 1200 Jews and 400 Belorussians.
We were getting ready to leave Stanislava's house when the phone rang. It was Valentina, one of the first people in this long chain. She had remembered where the house moved from the tar factory was!
We drove to the house, which was mostly covered in bricks. The residents were a young couple with two young children. They were very surprised to find out the house was built in 1905, and not in 1938. The man who moved the house, Timofey, is the grandfather of the mother there, Elena. Elena told us that after the factory and everything on the property was nationalized in 1938, the state decided it didn't need it, so one of the workers, Timofey, took it apart and reassembled it in Starie Dorogie. She described it as a very good quality, big house. In fact, Gedaliyah Levin built such a big house that it was split up into a twin house. The side we didn' t visit had been brick for a while, and was so recreated that it had a second floor and would have been unrecognizable. She said it didn't require a lot of insulation, because it was built so well . However, not surprisingly, the foundations began to rot after 98 years, so, like many of their neighbors, they were covering the house with bricks and replacing the windows with larger windows. The part we visited was still under construction; in fact there were still piles of bricks waiting to be cemented together sitting on the ground. However, we saw many original walls, doorframes, windows, and even the traditional Russian oven. The ceiling, roof, and floor were not the originals. Elena, her sister, and three of her aunts were all born in that house.
One year ago the section of the house Elena lived in would have looked like it did in 1905 from the outside. They showed us some pictures of it. However, we considered ourselves lucky that at least part of it wasn't covered. They gave us a little piece of wood that they had taken off when they enlarged a window.
We were all incredulous that we had found the house. Just to think that my great-great grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great aunts, all of Stanislava's family, and others all lived in that house, baked food in that oven, and leaned against those very walls when they were tired.
They were very hospitable, and after showing us around invited us to come back.
The spirits of the Belorussian people are high and they love their country. One man that we met had the opportunity to emigrate to America because his sister lives in New York, but opted to stay. He knew he would be more comfortable and that life was better in the United States, but he said he was born in Belarus, he defended Belarus, and that he will die in Belarus.
By the time we left we also felt a very strong attachment to the country that my great-grandparents had left about 80 years ago. We couldn't wait to get home to tell everybody what we had found about our family, and also to tell all about this amazing country.
Copyright © 2003 Belarus SIG and the Arem family
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