JewishGen - Belarus SIG

No. 15/2000 - 6. August 2000

Elsebeth Paikin

The editorial staff:
Mario Kampel - Lori Miller


Finding our Family's Mill in Belarus

by David M. Fox

and a postscript by David's cousin, Mort Reichek

When I was in Belarus last summer (1999) , I had one specific wish: To locate and visit the mill that all through my childhood was a part of the family lore....

And we succeeded thanks to our wonderful guide and translator, Galina Swartz! We did find the old flour mill that my great-great grandfather operated in the late 1800's and early 1900's.

The first clue to the location was the result of the 1903 Minsk Gubernia Russian Business Directory transliteration project headed by Tom Gartman. With the name of the location (Kolodivo), Galina found two shtetls with similar names (Kolodezhi and Kolodino).

We went to the first one and talked to all the old people in the shtetl. Everyone was helpful and friendly. Although no Jews currently lived in the town, which was formerly part of a noble's estate, they recalled the names of Jewish families that lived there before the Nazis rounded up all the Jews and many of the Belorusians and executed them in a nearby forest. The people broke down crying as they described what happened to their neighbors. Many fled to the east on foot and others went into the forest to fight as partisans.

The villagers remembered the name of the Jew who operated the mill in 1926. This was long after my great-great-grandfather emigrated to the US in 1909. It appears that there was a history of Jews leasing the mill from the noble who owned the estate in the area including all the nearby shtetls.

We were given directions to the mill a few kilometers away. There we found a mill, but it was definitely not the old mill we were looking for!

We talked to an old man living in the only house near the new mill and he pointed out a nearby old wooden building which he said was the former old mill, that my great-great-grandfather leased. Apparently the river had changed it's course and the old mill was situated on a dry riverbank.

The thrill of standing looking at this old building and knowing that my great great-grandparents worked there is impossible to adequately describe.

Across the dirt path from the old mill now used as a storage building, was an old abandoned house that is pictured below. We can only speculate that this was the family home of my great great-grandfather, the miller, and his family because of itís proximity to the mill. As with most mills, they were not located in towns or shtetls, but on the outskirts near a river or stream

Almost nine months after my visit to the mill, I received a report from a researcher I had hired to review records in the National Historic Archive of Belarus (Minsk). In his report he indicated that my great grandfather and grandmother along with some of their children were living in Igumen Uzeyd (district) on the estate of Puditsy.

The puzzle was solved!

We took lots of photos and video and I took a few small pieces of wood from the mill's exterior as well as some stones from the dry river bank to bring home.

In order to be certain that we had found the right mill, we went to the second shtetl with the similar name. It was about a 20 minute drive. Again we questioned the oldest residents about the existence of a nearby mill. They indicated that there had never been a mill near that shtetl and described the closest mill as being the one we first visited.

I now felt convinced that we had located the mill that had been described in family stories as being at a cross roads and not really in a shtetl not too far from Puchovichi.

The miller's house

The miller's house

The old mill

The old mill

The old mill

The old mill

A postscript to my cousin,
David Fox's reports on his trip to Belarus.

by Mort Reichek

The story below was first posted as a message in the Belarus SIG Dicsussion Group. It is re-printed here with the permission of Mort Reichek.

Moshe Aharon Tsivin

Bashe Gurevich Tsivin

The flour mill that David Fox located was operated by my great-grandfather (David's great-great-grandfather), Moshe Aharon Tsivin. I am his namesake. My maternal grandmother, with whom I lived as a boy, was one of Moshe Aharon's three daughters. She enjoyed telling me tales about the mill, revealing a Jewish lifestyle in 19th century Czarist Russia that differed markedly from the shtetl life that most Jews experienced.

Since Jews were barred from owning land, Moshe Aharon could only lease the land on which he operated his mill. My grandmother always spoke respectfully of the "graf" [~ the title: count] who owned the land. The family lived a very isolated existence, shut off from most fellow Jews and surrounded by the peasants who worked the neighboring land.

My great-grandfather had five sons in addition to his three daughters. Tutors were hired to live with the family to educate the children at home. The education extended to the daughters, for my grandmother was an extremely literate woman, fluent in Hebrew and Russian, as well as Yiddish. (When I studied Hebrew as a modern language in a New York City public high school, I can now confess, she was thrilled to do much of my homework.)

When my grandmother married, her husband joined the family at the mill. But there apparently was a quota on the number of Jews who could live in the area. A Jewish informer eventually notified the authorities of my grandfather's presence. He was imprisoned, but was released after his father-in-law bribed the police. Bankrolled by his father-in-law, he and his wife and children made their way to Rotterdam, Holland, and from there to the U.S.

Moshe Aharon's sons had already left the mill. Three had preceded my grandparents to the U.S., where they dropped the "tsah-dee" from the family name and called themselves Sivin. Another son had become a dentist in Gomel and the eldest was serving in the Czarist army for some 20 years. The latter two also came to America eventually. I can recall, as a child, sitting on the old soldier's lap as he told me stories in Yiddish about fighting "the Turks" in the "Kafcaz." He had participated in the Russian wars against the Muslims in the Caucasus -- a region that is very much in the news today.

Shortly before World War I began, Moshe Aharon's wife died, leaving him alone at the mill. He then belatedly followed his children to the U.S., where he lived with my grandmother until his own death. Sadly, he has no male descendants bearing the Tsivin (or Sivin) name.

The background of the paternal side of my family differed markedly from my mother's. My maternal grandmother, even though she was highly literate, was also very much a woman with rural tastes and values. She was the quintessential "housefrau" with few if any contacts outside her family and the lady members of her shul. She was exceedingly religious. But the males in her family apparently lacked her intense piety. Pictures of her father and husband, for example, show them with their heads uncovered. In the only photo I have of my maternal grandfather, he even appears without a beard. On his arrival in America, he went to work as a sewing-machine operator in a men's clothing shop owned by his brothers-in-law. Like most Belarussian or Litvak Jews, the family members were "mitnagdim" -- Orthodox Jews opposed to the Hasidim with a more rational, less emotional approach to their religion.

In contrast, my father's family was Hasidic. I have no photographs of them in Europe. The earliest picture I have of my father was taken when he was well into his twenties and was taken after he had left his parents' household in the U.S. The only photo I have of my paternal grandfather was taken surreptitiously by his sons when he needed a passport to move to Palestine some 30 years after his arrival here. In my paternal grandfather's strict view, picture-taking violated the Commandments.

My paternal grandmother was born in Grodno, which is also in Belarus. However, her parents, unlike most other Litvaks, were Hasidim, affiliated with the Alexander Hasidic sect. She never met her husband until the day of their wedding. My paternal grandfather was a highly regarded Talmudic scholar and a Gerer Hasid. Arranging a marriage for their daughter to a man with my paternal grandfather's religious credentials was regarded as a social coup. The newlyweds settled in the groom's home town, Ostrava, a shtetl in Lomza gubernya in what is now northeastern Poland, beyond traditional Litvak territory.

Fortunately, my grandfather had a pragmatic, older brother who recognized that Talmudic scholarship was insufficient for the support of a family. He was a wealthy businessman who staked my grandfather and his bride to a venture producing vegetable oil. - (When asked what my family did in Europe, I've jokingly boasted about their being in the "oil business," without mentioning the vegetables.)

My paternal grandmother was a talented businesswoman. Virtually alone, she successfully ran the vegetable-oil business. Meanwhile, my grandfather spent his days in the local Hasidic "shtibl," which was a combination synagogue and study-house. When my paternal grandparents migrated to the U.S. at the turn of the century, this occupational pattern was repeated. My grandmother was the breadwinner -- this time operating a dairy store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

My grandfather had little to do with the business. His primary endeavor was to organize and lead what I've always figured was probably one of the earliest Hasidic shtiblach in America, "Beth Hasidim de Poland", at 16 Montgomery Street.

My father attended a yeshiva rather than public school. His father would not tolerate his sons attending school with female students and teachers. In his free hours, my father helped his mother in the dairy store. Frequently, when she was short of milk, eggs, or other dairy products, she would send my father to obtain them from a rival dairy store several blocks away from her own store.

Over the years, the rival diary-store proprietor became fond of my father. When my father was about 16 or 17, the rival storekeeper tried to match my father with his own daughter. My grandfather strongly objected to such an arrangement. The reason: The other storekeeper did not observe the Sabbath. Moreover, he even smoked cigars in public on the Sabbath. The rival storekeeper's name, incidentally, was Breakstone.

This was still another demonstration of my grandfather's lack of business acumen!

Copyright © 1999 Belarus SIG, David M. Fox & Mort Reichek

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