(No. 3/2003 - August 2003)
Editor: Fran Bock

This article was first published in The Naples Daily News (Florida) on January 19, 2003, and is reprinted here with the permission of the publishers..

The Belarus SIG is grateful for the assistance of Nancy Evans, Editor of the Naples Daily News.

© This article is copyrighted by The Naples Daily News and its publishers.

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Centerpiece: A journey home

An immigrant's son, a vanished village

by Alan Scher Zagier

MINSK, Belarus — The burly Belarusian lies prone on his bed, an intravenous tube dangling from his bloated arm. A television blares the latest state-approved news, Soviet style, as he barks a command to his wife in the next room.

A portrait of Jack Zagier, who came to America after World War II Holocaust, in which his father and brother were killed. He died in 1975. Alan Scher Zagier/Staff

We share a last name — maybe more — but it's clear Mikhail Zager is in no mood for a possible long-lost family reunion with an American searching for his family's roots. He just wants us out of his apartment. Right away.

"Ne govorite im nichego," shouts Zager, a former Red Army soldier. "Don't tell them anything."

"They should go to the police and ask them for any telephone numbers. I don't know anyone, and I don't want to know anyone."

We leave, another promising lead turned stale. Nothing new for Minsk, a city full of dashed hopes and failed promises, a place the British writer Philip Marsden called a "trampled, luckless city."

A cold week in November in the ex-Communist state of Belarus isn't atop the travel itinerary of most sensible foreigners, and with good reason.

Twelve years after the Soviet Union's collapse, the country whose name translates as "white Russia" remains impoverished, its chances for reform snuffed out by a ruler known as Europe's last dictator, a place where political opponents disappear, journalists are imprisoned for criticizing the regime and religious groups cannot freely practice their faiths without first notifying the state.

Americans come here for two reasons: to meet prospective mail-order brides after window shopping on the Internet, or to explore the land their ancestors were driven from — and buried under — more than a half-century ago during World War II.

Thankfully, I managed to meet a mate through the more traditional route of face-to-face courtship, but this trip is no less essential. I come looking for a man known to me largely by name only, in search of traces of a family wrenched apart by both Hitler and Stalin, two murderous tyrants wrestling for a global land grab in which millions would perish.

His name was Jack Zagier — Yankl in the lilting Yiddish spoken by the Jews of Eastern Europe as their first language — a Holocaust survivor from Poland who lost his father to the Nazis, his one brother to the Russians and his hometown to history's rubble pile.

A snow-covered statue of Vladimir Lenin sits in a Lida public square. While Belarus gained its independence more than a decade ago following the Soviet Union's collapse, the Russian revolutionary leader remains an influential historical figure. Alan Scher Zagier/Staff

Exiled to Siberia with his mother, sister and brother, he survived the war and settled in Baltimore, Md., in the early 1950s, a 30-ish immigrant looking to start a new life in America while still fighting the demons of his old one.

Married in 1955 to the former Marian Lund, a woman 10 years his junior, he fathered three children, two boys and a girl, the first in 1956 and the last — me, the accident — in June 1967. Within months he would become crippled by a series of illnesses, both physical and mental, splitting from my mother in 1971. Four years later, struck by yet another heart attack, he was dead at age 55.

I was 8, too young to remember much more than the hushed whispers of my family in our kitchen the night he died.

That, in a nutshell, is the Zagier family history. Enough to fill an index card, and enough to satisfy the mind of a young man who long ago grew used to explaining, quite clinically, the absence of his father to curious playmates and well-intentioned teachers and coaches.

But time has a way of wresting open the neatly closed chapters of our past. So does fatherhood. With three children of my own, including an oldest named after his late grandfather, as is Jewish tradition, the autobiographical absence grew too large to ignore.

Aisa Saulkina, who moved to Lida as a child after the war, stoops to clean a memorial statue honoring the nearly 6,000 Jews executed by German soldiers and local residents on May 8, 1942, including the author's grandfather. The statue has been vandalized twice in the past year. Alan Scher Zagier/Staff

It's a journey with no end in sight, a trip that began in cyberspace one year ago, careened through the wreckage of Communism and Stalinism and veered alongside the failing memories of a dying generation of war survivors, unsung heroes who confronted unspeakable inhumanity with dignity and bravery.

Virtual truths

"Was he born in Lida or was it Vilna?" my 72-year-old mother asks about my early research into her late, ex-husband's roots, time dimming her own memories of the man she lived with for 17 years. Lida, we were always told, was the Polish village where Jack Zagier (pronounced zay-guhr) was born on Sept. 30, 1920. Forty-five miles to the north was Vilna, also known as Vilnius, the present-day capital of Lithuania.

Maybe he went to law school in Vilna, a cousin suggested, recalling distant discussions about the nearby city, which like Lida was once a center of Eastern European Jewry.

With so much speculation and so few hard facts, I turned to the Internet to sort out the truth from the hyperbole.

A decade ago, before the near-simultaneous emergence of the Internet and the opening of previously shuttered Soviet societies, finding such genealogical information would have literally meant traveling halfway across the world. But now, with a few clicks of the keyboard, a vast trove of archival and autobiographical information would quickly emerge. Right?

Yet a search for Lida, Poland, on the Jewish Records Indexing Web site produces nothing. I'm stumped. There are 1.2 million records indexed from 200 Polish towns, from Biala Podlaska to Zychlin, 170 pages of surnames, but not a Zagier in sight. So I try another search engine, looking not just in Poland but across Eastern Europe through the ShtetlSeeker search engine at And there it is.

Lida. Coordinates 53 degrees 53 minutes north latitude and 25 degrees 18 minutes east longitude. Country: Belarus. Location, 92.2 miles west of Minsk.

A Cyrillic-language sign announces the entrance to Lida, Belarus, a city of about 100,000 located 92 miles west of Minsk and 45 miles south of Vilnius, Lithuania. Alan Scher Zagier/Staff

The first riddle is solved. Lida is in Belarus, not Poland. At the moment, anyway.

The city's history mirrors that of both Poland and Belarus, divided and conquered by a succession of rulers, changing hands from Lithuania in the 14th century to the Russian empire in the 18th century.

Then came German conquerors during World War I, an independent Belarusian National Republic in 1918, followed by three years of back-and-forth battles between Bolshevik revolutionaries and Poland.

Poland won, at least until Stalin and the Russians took over in 1939, followed by German occupation in 1941, Russian liberation in 1944 and then nearly 50 years of Communist control until the breakup of the Soviet Union a decade ago.

With Lida's geographic certainty established, I return to my Web search and discover Sefer Lida, Hebrew for the Book of Lida, a compilation of oral histories recorded by Lida Holocaust survivors in Israel and the United States.

Names recorded on the List of the Perished for Lida run for 40 pages, single-spaced. Fifty to 60 names on each page, and the list is incomplete. I turn to the last page and find a group of familiar entries:

ZAGER, Nachum

ZAGER, Eliahu

ZAGER, Chanah

ZAGER, Gelye


ZAGER, Monye

The name at the top of the page is familiar: Nachum, my father's father, the unknown grandfather who bequeathed a name to my older brother Norman, if not any memories. The other names are mysteries, relatives perhaps, but unfamiliar to me or anyone in my immediate family.

The differently spelled surname is not uncommon for European émigrés to America. Perhaps my father added the "i" to form Zagier from Zager (pronounced zah-guhr), in the process changing his last name's pronunciation to a more American-friendly version. Or maybe it was a simple transcription error on the part of someone else, with Zager a far more common spelling both in America and back in the Old Country.

A wedding photo of Jack and Marian Zagier from March 20, 1955. Alan Scher Zagier/Staff

In fits and starts I turn to the Web, each visit spawning another lead, another strand of information, morsels of knowledge scattered about like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

From the birth records for the Polish town of Bialystok I find an 1882 listing for Nochum Zagier, son of Berek. Like Lida, Bialystok is also located in what was then eastern Poland. Another strand.

A 1918 business directory for Slonim, a region also in eastern Poland, lists a Ch. B. Zagier working in the fabric industry in the town of Dereczyn. Could those initials stand for Chanah, one of the six documented victims in Sefer Lida? I ask my relatives, and again, no one knows.

The Internet's quick-strike capabilities should come as no surprise to me. Several years ago, while living in North Carolina, out of the blue I received an e-mail from a Sergio Zagier in Argentina. Never heard of the guy, but he had read one of my newspaper articles online and wondered if we were related. He recommended the memoirs of his late uncle, David Zagier, a now-deceased journalist who chronicled his life in the central Poland shtetl (village) of Botchki.

I reread the book, looking for clues, and write to David Zagier's two surviving children in Germany and England. Neither answers. Sergio and I vow to stay in touch.

More strands, still unconnected.

Jack Zagier holds his son Alan, the author, at a Baltimore birthday party in the late 1960s. At the center in the background is Jack Zagier's oldest son, Norman; in the center foreground is sister Rochelle. Alan Scher Zagier/Staff

After nine months of online research, off and on, I've nearly exhausted the review of Lida links when I notice a new entry, a 25-chapter autobiography posted by Dr. Frances Dworecki, who grew up in Lida before fleeing to Minsk before the war and eventually to New York City, where she became a successful internal medicine physician

I write the Web site manager and ask her to forward my e-mail address to Dworecki. Five minutes later, the phone rings.

The voice is heavy, thick with the Eastern European accent so familiar from my childhood. The bond among two strangers is immediate.

"I knew your father," Dworecki says. "Yankl Zagier. We went to school together. I remember him so well. I remember his smile."

The odds are infinitesimal. I put down the phone, stunned. A week later, I'm sitting in Dworecki's winter condo in Boca Raton, going through her Lida folder and looking for more details about her old friend, my father.

Still vibrant and independent at 82, she unfortunately offers few additional details about Jack Zagier, acknowledging that they traveled in different social circles. Her parents were doctors, my grandfather a flour merchant, she says, subtly emphasizing class distinctions while trying hard not to.

She suggests calling her younger sister, also a New Yorker who winters in Florida, and several other former Lida residents still alive in the New York area. I discuss an upcoming trip to Europe, with a side expedition to her birthplace. She doesn't share my enthusiasm for a trip she will never — would never — take.

"Lida is no more. When you go to see it, it will not be my town," Dworecki says. "Not your father's town. There is nothing there. No way. Just in name.

"Over there is ashes. You will not feel the souls of the city he grew up in."

It's late October. Tomorrow I leave for Europe.

Lida, now and then

The history books, both virtual and printed, recount this version of Lida in the 1920s and '30s, the Lida of Frances Dworecki and my father: An industrial town, population 20,000 to 25,000, one-third of whom were Jewish, perhaps as many as 45 percent.

There was a rubber boot factory (Poland's second largest, with 1,000 workers), a nail-casting plant, a train station, a chemical and paint factory, two breweries, five sawmills, five flour mills and a brick factory.

Eighteen Jewish teens from Lida's secondary school, known as a gymnasium, in a photo from 1935 or 1936. Jack Zagier is second from the right in the last row. Photo courtesy Jack Ahrens

With its strategic location near the Russian border, Lida had two military bases, one for a Polish infantry squad, the 77th Foot Soldiers, and the second for its air force, the 5th Fliers. Pilots trained at the town's airfield.

Pre-war Lida had at least five hotels, four movie theaters, three pharmacies, a weekly newspaper and two banks.

It was also a center of Jewish culture and life, with 12 synagogues, a Hebrew hospital and orphanage, three libraries, four Jewish schools, five dramatic troupes and three Jewish sports associations.

In 1921, Lida Jews owned 302 workshops. Of the town's 23 doctors, 18 were Jews.

Today, Lida's population has soared to 100,000, fueled by an exodus of Russians from the east. Only 110 — one-tenth of 1 percent — are Jewish, according to the most recent census figures. All came to Lida after 1945, their predecessors either slaughtered by the Nazis or forced to run to America, Canada, Israel, South Africa or elsewhere.

The old buildings — save two — are gone, destroyed either by German bombs or Soviet "urban renewal."

Left standing are a restored shell of a castle dating to the 14th century, when Lida was ruled by Lithuania, and the marble-floored secondary school my father graduated from in 1939, preserved by the Germans as their war-time headquarters.

The town's Jewish cemetery is long gone, its gravestones broken and stolen by Polish farmers after German occupation and then after the war by Soviet decree to build an artificial lake and, with the broken pieces, Communist-era apartments.

"We have not any Jews," said Aisa Saulkina, a 66-year-old woman who came to Lida as a child and now leads the town's remaining Jewish community.

Nearly 6,000 of Lida's Jews were rounded up and killed in mass graves on May 8, 1942, 11 months after German occupation and six months after the formation of a Jewish ghetto.

Among that group, presumably, was my grandfather, Nachum Zagier, imprisoned three years earlier following the Sept. 18, 1939, invasion by the Russian Red Army. His crime: capitalism, making Nachum a bourgeoisie property owner and oppressor of the proletariat.

From left, interpreter Yanussik Aleksandr and Lida residents Aisa Saulkina and her husband stand outside a fence erected to protect a World War II mass grave, one of three in Lida. The remains of 120 Holocaust victims, including 22 children, were discovered there just two years ago. Photo courtesy Jack Ahrens

When the Russians took over Lida — part of a non-aggression pact launched by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, a secret pact the German ruler would break in 1941 — Nachum's wife, Zlata, and their three children, Daniel, Sonya and Jack, were exiled to Siberia. It was the last they would see of the husband and father.

My pilgrimage to Lida and Belarus is hardly unique. In Minsk, the capital city where I encountered the bedridden ex-soldier and spent several days chasing unproductive leads, roughly 2,000 Jews from America and Israel visited the Jewish cultural center last year to research family genealogy, says Yuri Dorn, president of the country's Union of Religious Jewish Congregations.

Considering that Belarus as a whole only draws 47,000 tourists annually, Jewish genealogy has become a full-fledged economic force in a country where owning a car — or any private property for that matter — is still a dream for many residents.

Lida's Holocaust survivors living abroad and their families helped raise money for a memorial sculpture at one of the two mass graves on the outskirts of town. The artwork depicts three women, half-clothed as they prepare to enter the earthen pit. One is pregnant, another doubled over in agony.

If the memorial has caught the attention of locals, prompted any introspection or historical self-examination, it's hard to tell. Broken beer bottles litter the area, as well as a second, adjacent mass grave for children — some tossed in the air while their killers, drunk on vodka and power, aimed their rifles at the tiny targets. Vandals have twice toppled over parts of the statue in the past year.

At the larger of the two mass graves, a cross and bouquet of flowers marks the site where a young girl was raped and killed, Saulkina explained to me and Sasha, a Belarusian journalist working as my interpreter.

Map showing location of Lida, Belarus

At the memorial, I turn away from our small group to silently recite Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead, in memory of my grandfather and the other victims. The silence is soon interrupted by a group of schoolchildren on a field trip.

They keep their distance, gazing at the memorial, not unlike American teens forced to ponder modern art in stuffy museums while their minds buzz with the rap rants of Eminem. Respectfully quiet, but not terribly attentive. The Belarusian guide mumbles something about "Florida."

"You're a celebrity," Sasha tells me.

On a walk with Saulkina and her husband through the old Jewish section of Lida, we encounter Benko Zenon, 66, a Pole who was 6 years old when he witnessed the mass executions near his family's home on the outskirts of Lida.

Without emotion, he describes watching the earth move for several days after the bodies were buried. His disclosure, shared with Saulkina two years ago when she appeared on a local talk radio program, led to the discovery of a third mass grave.

"Why did you wait so long to tell?" I ask.

"I didn't wait," he replies. "I had told the authorities before. But no one cared."

Asked how life has changed in Lida from those childhood days, Zenon laughs grimly.

"The clever people were executed," he says. "The Jews were the light of society. Only the drunkards are left."

The May 8 killings are described in clinical precision in a 1966 Soviet war crimes report.

"The mass execution of Jews were always done the same way," reads the report. "The commandos enticed the Jews out using the excuse of an identity paper check. They forced their way into many living quarters and drove the Jews out. Who didn't come out immediately voluntarily, or who couldn't come out because of age, illness or fragility was shot out of hand on the spot by the cleansing squad.

The Jews, partly minimally dressed, had to line up in four columns by families on the streets around (the ghetto). Then the Jews were driven to the selection place. On the way there, many elderly or fragile Jews, who could not keep pace, were shot. . .

"At the edge of the execution trenches, the Jews had to line up perpendicularly in a long marching column. At the latest, the victims here saw what was to befall them. Some screamed and cried; most faced their fate with composure. The Jews were pulled forward to the trenches in groups of 40 to 50 from the marching column. Many of them were forced to undress completely. . .particularly good items of clothing had to be taken off and laid on blankets or canvas along with any objects of value. . .

"Then the victims were driven to the edge of the trench, later into the trench itself, or pushed in, and shot by an execution squad of about 100 men, composed of a majority of Lithuanians or Latvians.

"The participants drank alcohol during pauses. Witnesses reported that a trench had been excavated to the left for children, and that infants were inhumanly (sic) torn from their pleading parents, then partly smashed together by the head or thrown in the air and shot."

After the carnage ended, the executioners retired to dinner, where they were treated to additional rations in honor of the occasion. The drinking continued in the canteen past midnight. Surviving Jews were forced to load any unburied bodies onto one-horse carts for later disposal.

A search team has identified the remains of 120 victims at Lida's third mass grave, including 22 children. Saulkina is working with local authorities to get the necessary approval to convert the burial ground — now surrounded by a fence but otherwise unmarked — into a memorial similar to the other two in the city.

First she had to convince the property's owner, who even after the discovery wanted to continue with his plans to build a gas station and auto repair shop on the premises. He demanded compensation, and when Saulkina said she had no money, he told her to sell her apartment.

Saulkina took the battle to her local government and the courts and won. Now she's up against a national government that to this day won't acknowledge the religion or ethnicity of the victims, whether Jewish or gypsy in what it calls the Great Patriotic War but the rest of the world knows as World War II.

Knowing that those officials can't read Hebrew, Saulkina vows to inscribe the dedication in Hebrew as well as Russian, defying the Belarusian bureaucrats. "In memory of the victims of fascism, the Jews of Vilnius and Lida."

She recounts that first visit to the third mass grave, finding a red and blue ball, a child's locket of hair, a tiny shirt emblazoned with an elephant.

"I am bulldog," she says proudly in broken English, holding up a folder with plans for the memorial. "I am bulldog."

On Friday nights, the eve of the Hebrew Sabbath, one or two dozen of Lida's few remaining Jews gather for a brief worship ceremony in a nondescript room in the city's House of Culture building. They meet in secret, fearful of drawing attention.

"We don't publicize it as a meeting of Jews," Saulkina tells me. "The official purpose of the meeting is for a cultural society."

If they were to make their presence known, the long arm of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko would almost certainly respond.

Ruling the country with an iron grip increasingly reminiscent of his Soviet predecessors, Lukashenko has earned international scorn for his methods of stifling internal dissent, from jailing critical journalists to making it illegal for religious groups of fewer than 20 members to worship together — a prohibition that effectively prevents the country's Jews from fulfilling the tenets of Shabbat, the Friday night holiday many choose to observe in their homes.

Unlike its more reform-minded neighbor Russia, Belarus' secret police squad continues to proudly cling to the KGB name. The government is suspected of selling arms to Iraq, and Lukashenko recently expelled international observers from the Office of Security and Cooperation in Europe, accusing the monitoring group of spying for the United States.

A secret worship

On a bitterly cold Friday night in November, a cluster of teens idle outside Lida's cultural building. Inside, a restaurant blares Russian Top 40 songs while the Jews of Lida gather quietly down the hall.

With the exception of two teens, each of the two dozen worshippers seems to be between 50 and 70 years old. The makeshift worship room is adorned with the symbols of Shabbat, from the egg-enriched challah bread to the cups of wine and glowing candles.

I sit at the head table, a rare visitor to the unannounced weekly gathering. Translator by my side, I describe what brought me here, and ask anyone who might have known my father to speak up. No one does.

After the service, I ask Saulkina why she stays in Lida, why she doesn't join her 39-year-old son, who two years ago moved with his wife and small child to Brooklyn, N.Y. Her reply reveals a loyalty, a devotion to the Holocaust victims who can't speak for themselves.

"I feel I'm needed here," she says. "I have friends here. My parents' graves are here, and (those) of my friends. I have to look after the graves."

I wonder aloud who will keep the flickering flame alive, what will happen in 20 years when Saulkina and her peers are gone, whether the legacy of Jewish Lida will burn out for good. It's a question Saulkina asks herself often.

"The young ones go to America, they go to Israel," she says. "Or they stay here (in mixed marriages) and don't say they're Jewish."

Sergei Borovski, 17, sits at the end of a long banquet table used at the Friday night service. Affable but disinterested, he doesn't seem like an obvious candidate to follow in Saulkina's path. But when asked whether he too plans to leave Lida, his answer surprises me, revealing a depth of connection to his birthplace that offers a faint glimmer of hope.

"This is the motherland," he says. "I don't want to go anywhere else."

Questions and answers

With so little of my father's Lida left standing in Belarus, the journey leads me back home. On the return flight to Florida by way of Frankfurt and Washington, I'm already making plans to visit New York, where at least four close friends of my father live, including two sisters who lived alongside the Zagier family in Siberia.

At 81, born just one year after my father, Jack Ahrens offers the most ample material to date for the missing pages of our family's history. Surviving the Nazi ghetto in Lvov, Ukraine, he hid in a sympathetic Pole's basement along with 10 other Jews before joining the Polish partisans. By 1948, he was on scholarship at the University of Illinois, from which he'd earn an electrical engineering degree.

Ahrens — who changed his last name from Aronczyk "to make my children's lives easier" — pulls out several weathered photo albums in his well-kept apartment in Queens.

The oldest picture is from 1936. It shows my father, then 16, along with 17 other boys from their secondary school, known as a gymnasium. Like the other boys, Yankl Zagier wears a dress coat, part of the prescribed uniform, his dark features making him stand out among his paler classmates.

Of the 18 students pictured, all but four were killed in the war.

Before 1939, life in Lida was altogether normal, he tells me. Boys and girls traveled in packs. Poker was popular, as was pingpong. In the winter, children would sled down the hills surrounding Lida's castle and ice skate on the frozen sheets inside. Like most other Jewish teens, my father belonged to a Zionist youth group, Ahrens says, the more moderate of two such collectives in Lida that advocated for land acquisition rather than force to achieve a Jewish state.

My father's brother, Daniel, on the other hand, was two years older and more strident in his beliefs. That perspective came with a price, I would soon learn.

"He was too outspoken," Ahrens says. "He actively expressed his thoughts when he should have stayed quiet."

Ahrens retrieves another photo of a couple and their young daughter, the adults bound in overcoats, the small girl wearing a puffy white coat and a white hat. She looks about 3.

The woman is Ahrens' aunt Chanah; the man her husband Eliahu. Their daughter is named Gelye.

The first names sound familiar. I look through my files and find the List of the Perished for Lida:

ZAGER, Eliahu

ZAGER, Chanah

ZAGER, Gelye

Eliahu was my father's uncle, Ahrens explains, and Gelye, born in 1938, his first cousin. Confronted by a German in the ghetto, Eliahu brokered for his life by offering to lead the Nazi to a buried pot of money hidden by his parents. Once they found the spot where the money was buried, the German shot and killed Eliahu and Chanah Zagier on the spot, Ahrens says. Gelye ran away but she too was later gunned down.

The strands begin to stick together.

Separated by war, my father and Ahrens stayed in touch after coming to America, a time when my father, Jack; his sister, Sonya, and their mother, Zlata, relocated to Baltimore, where he worked as a pajama cutter and then a coat maker on the London Fog assembly line. We pour through more photo albums, of Ahrens' 1951 wedding and then of his son's bar mitzvah in 1969.

Like the few family photos my mother kept, the difference in my father's appearance is striking. Lean and tall in those early years in America, with brooding dark eyes, he in no way resembles the man I would briefly come to know as a child, too ill to hold a job, the sharp gaze in his eyes replaced by a look of weary resignation.

I ask my father's old friend what accounted for this transformation, whether the weight of war and a shattered family minus its patriarch finally caught up with Jack Zagier. The question seems to catch Ahrens off guard.

"There's too much to tell," he says.

For Abe Turow, a Brooklyn man who served as my father's commanding officer in the Red Army, the opposite is true. There isn't nearly enough.

Considering that until a week before my December visit to New York I had no idea my father was a Russian soldier, anything I'm able to glean from Turow can only add to the growing collection of answers.

Yet the interview is difficult, as he spends most of our time describing a legal challenge he's embroiled in with the Russian government, repeatedly asking for my assurance to not divulge the details.

This much I'm able to elicit: following their forced removal from Lida in 1939, my father and his three remaining relatives spent most of the next five years in Abakan, a Siberian city 2,600 miles east of Moscow near the borders of both Mongolia and China.

By 1944, when Germany's quest to take over Europe with an eastern assault failed, the Russian Red Army mobilized as many able-bodied men as possible, including Jews and Poles exiled five years earlier. Among that group was my father, who was sent to the 388th Siberian Division under Turow, a Jew, who by virtue of his prior scientific achievements had earned the rank of lieutenant.

After one particularly good effort at unloading a barge, the fighting unit was rewarded with a feast, including ham and ample amounts of vodka. Several Jews in the division got drunk, including my father. Their inhibitions loosened, they sang "Hatikvah" (The Hope), a Hebrew song that would later become Israel's national anthem. Its lyrics, translated in English:

As the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the east, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope — the 2,000-year-old hope — will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem

The next day, Turow was summoned by his superior, who asked what the Jewish soldiers were singing. The Russian commander turned to Turow.

"Arrest Zagier," the commander said.

But a half-hour earlier, Zagier had been sent as part of a split battalion toward the front lines in Berlin. The Soviet commander looked at Turow with scorn.

"The hell with him," the commander said. "The dog will be killed in the army."

Whether my father knew about that narrow escape from harm, if not death, is unknown. Turow said he saw Jack Zagier just once after the war, a random encounter on a Brooklyn street corner. Esther Grundfest, a fellow Lida survivor who with her sister was also exiled to Abakan and now lives in New York, said that my father regularly visited Turow after the war.

Another time, the Jews of Abakan gathered to celebrate Passover, the holiday commemorating the Biblical exodus from Egypt and the bonds of slavery, Grundfest recalled. With no unleavened bread to eat, they instead substituted potatoes.

With my father and others taking turns to recite the Seder, the holiday liturgy, the group kept watch for any Russian authorities who would squelch any sign of religious expression. Their faith only grew stronger, Grundfest said.

"This was a Seder to remember," she said. "The more they deprived us, the more Jewish we became."

Compared to others' circumstances, life in Siberia wasn't too difficult for my family, Grundfest said. Both Jack and Daniel worked so their sister, Sonya, didn't have to. They had plenty of meat and bread, luxury items in a cold, barren land where life revolved around subsistence.

"When people were starving, they had everything," she said.

Turow, too, tells me that my father had an "easy" life in Siberia. Yet I wonder how life can be so easy, knowing as a 19-year-old that your father has been imprisoned, then shot to death 3,000 miles away. Or that your older brother, Daniel, listening to government propaganda on the radio while toiling in Abakan, spoke against Mother Russia, earning the title of vrogda rona — enemy of the state.

Daniel violated the central credo of survival in Siberia, Grundfest says.

"Once you're in Russia under the Iron Curtain you shut up. You don't say anything," she says.

Grundfest and her sister saw my uncle Daniel one last time after that incident, at the Abakan train station. In the custody of Soviet police, he opened his coat, which was covered in blood.

"Save me," he said in Yiddish. "They're going to kill me."

My father was "a good soul," according to Grundfest. A kind man, generous and popular. That's what they all tell me.

"Who did not know Jack Zagier?" she asked. "Everybody. He was famous. Famous for his looks."

The words haunt me. I did not know Jack Zagier.

Neither, it seems now, did my mother. Nor did my older brother and sister, who were 18 and 15, respectively, when he died.

The Jack Zagier we knew, especially toward the end of his life, was beaten and battered, worn down by survivor's guilt, maybe, or the strain of trying to acclimate to a new culture and a strange society, and certainly by a succession of ailments once I was born, from multiple heart attacks to a nervous breakdown.

The Jack Zagier I discovered — the confident 16-year-old staring back from a cracked black-and-white photo, the brave soldier who sung his people's anthem with pride, a strong, kind and generous man — bears little resemblance to the man I knew briefly. Yet the seemingly contradictory portrayals make for a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

A whole to replace the holes.

As for Lida, the city my father's surviving friends warned lacked any soul, the heartbeat remains, with courageous historians such as Aisa Saulkina honoring what has become the mantra of modern Jews trying to understand the horrors of the Holocaust, and prevent another one:

Never forget.

The endless nature of genealogy research means there always will be more roots to trace, more questions to ask. But for now, it's time to set aside the search, to come to peace.

Daddy, may God rest your soul.

Copyright © 2003 Belarus SIG and The Naples Daily News

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