To Baranovich and BackBy Eial Dujovny
In December of 1997, six months before completing a Master's degree in International Environmental Policy, I was offered a job I could not refuse - program manager with the European Union for Coastal Conservation Baltic Office in Klaipeda, Lithuania. This position, which involved international travel and applied environmental principles in a part of the world that I had long studied, was the chance of a lifetime. Yet at the same time, I could not shake the apprehension and ambivalence I felt about moving to a country that has had, at least in this century, such a terrible record with regards to its Jewish population.
For most Jews, just the mention of the word Lithuania conjured up dark images of collaboration with the Nazis. And even though my family did not originate from the area that now comprises the independent republic of Lithuania, the memories of cruelty suffered by my maternal grandparents - archetypal Litvaks and Holocaust survivors - constantly reverberated in my head.
Not surprisingly, my parents were adamantly opposed what they interpreted as a manifestation of my shortsighted and irrational behavior. They naturally wanted me to finish my studies and distrusted my Lithuanian employers. They were convinced that this would most likely be a waste of time and money, but grudgingly accepted that I had already made up my mind. Before I left they seemed to have had a change of heart and actually even helped me make my travel arrangements.
Looking back today, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems clear that even before I departed for Eastern Europe, it must have dawned on my parents that my capriciousness afforded them the perfect opportunity to visit our ancestral home. Perhaps, as they later suggested, it was my great-uncle (my grandfather's brother) who planted the idea in their minds when he suggested that he would try to visit me in Lithuania. Then again, perhaps they were just as curious as I was to see what I would encounter over there.
Only my grandmother, Genya (Golda) Tunkel nee Novik, who lives alone in Israel and has not returned to Europe since the war, could not in any way reconcile herself to the thought of my being in that part of the world. "Eial, tell me, have you fallen on your head? What have you lost there?" she repeatedly demanded of me, "What exactly have you left behind there?" I realized that all I could do was listen politely. It was obvious that I would not change her mind.
It was not hard to understand my grandmother's anxiety and fears. While my great-uncle had managed to escape the war with a Sugihara visa in 1941, she had lived under the Nazi occupation for almost four years. Frozen in time and pining for a lost world, not only had she lost her entire family, but an entire way of life. I felt that somehow my trip threatened her, yet I felt it was important for me to confront the past, on my own terms, without being a hostage of history.
Both of my maternal grandparents were born in Baranovich in the years after World War I. This "city of goats", as its name translated, grew up almost overnight due to its strategic location on the North-South and East-West railroad lines. After changing hands several times during the "Great War" the city abruptly found itself a part of the Nowogrudek province of a revived Poland.
It was during this period of exponential growth that Baranovichi (as the Russians called it) or Baranowicze (as the Poles called it) gained its reputation as a boomtown, attracting many young and enterprising Jews. Among those who were caught up in the promise of this new town was my great - grandfather Shraga (Feivel) Tunkel, an orphan who moved there sometime at the turn of the century from his birthplace Pinsk. It was my intention to be the first descendant to stand in that city since my family escaped to Israel in 1945.
In April 1998, after living in Lithuania for four months, my parents called to say that they had decided to pay me a visit in May. Ostensibly planned to celebrate my birthday, they also announced their intention to continue from Klaipeda to Belarus, where Baranovich is presently located. Since I had not yet visited the city, I looked forward to their arrival and planned to make this pilgrimage together with them. Unfortunately the Belarussian authorities had other plans.
Those of you who remember travel in the Soviet Union will find that not much has changed since communist times. In fact, one could argue that in light of the harsh economic realities and widespread government corruption, the social fabric of many of the Soviet successor states is still unraveling. While Poland and the Baltic States, tirelessly distance themselves from the recent past and encourage Western investment and tourism, Belarus has become nostalgic for the glorious Soviet past. While neither Poland nor the Baltic States require visas for American tourists, the Republic of Belarus, much like its larger neighbor and partner in the Russian Federation, has inherited the Soviet visa system that dates back to Czarist times. Rooted in traditional Slavic xenophobia, it is still necessary for all tourists entering the country to be invited by someone.
Since most people (especially Jews whose families perished in the Holocaust) do not have relatives in Belarus, this basically necessitates an invitation from a hotel where you will be staying or a travel agency that will be responsible for you while you are in the country. Moreover, to obtain a visa it is necessary to list all the cities on your itinerary and to register at a police station within three days of entry. Those who do not closely follow these procedures risk a shakedown at the border when it comes time to leave.
In practice, when you check in to your hotel room, the reception desk is supposed to take your passport and register you with the police. If you really are staying with someone, usually they will go to the police and run the paperwork through for you. There are many nuances to this procedure and anyone planning a trip would do well to check the latest travel literature (such as the online Minsk in Your Pocket - other online books also available on that website) or the many travel agencies specializing in Eastern European travel. In order to avoid problems, it is essential to plan ahead and to be ready to spend some time and money when requesting a visa.
Against the advice of the travel books, I decided that it would be easier to obtain a Belarussian visa in Lithuania. Before leaving for Lithuania I needed to renew my US passport and was pressed for time. Once I was in Lithuania I was either traveling on business or constantly needed my passport for identification purposes (e.g. changing money, paying bills, entering government ministries, etc.). At any rate, as I soon discovered, it is possible to obtain a Belarussian visa through a Lithuanian travel agent if you are willing to pay the sometimes exorbitant prices. Alternatively, it is possible to stand in line for three days at the Belarussian embassy in Vilnius. In either case, you still need to go through the aforementioned rigmarole. I urge all those planning a visit to Belarus to obtain their visas in the West.
Luckily for my parents, they had already organized this through the embassy in Washington and came to Lithuania with their papers in order. My parents contacted a travel agent in the States who specialized in Belarussian visas and even managed to convince the embassy to waive the hotel requirement because they did not plan to stay overnight. I don't really know how they obtained this exception, but I am guessing that somehow managed to guilt the Belarussians into accepting this. Once in Lithuania, she tried her best to urge the Belarussian embassies in Vilnius and Riga to expedite my visa process, but her pleas fell on deaf ears.
I set about finding a guide for my parents, since it became painfully clear that it was too complicated for me to enter Belarus on such short notice. A local Lithuanian travel agent offered a Russian speaking guide with a Belarussian visa and his own automobile to drive them to Baranovich and back in a day for $200. The driver, Rimantas, did not speak any English, but since he drove through Belarus at least twice a month, he was familiar with the country and its customs. He was in the business of shuttling automobiles from Germany to the Moscow resale markets.
The Klaipeda Jewish community was also kind enough to put me in touch with a woman who had family living in Baranovich. Through this woman's sister, I obtained the telephone number of the Baranovich Jewish Community. When I called the community, I spoke with an extremely friendly woman who seemed quite excited by the prospect of meeting someone whose roots were in Baranovich. She offered to book a room for my parents in the best hotel, but I declined this offer and we agreed instead that they would arrange for a Jewish guide to escort my parents around town.
And so, on one of those endless Lithuanian summer days punctuated by only three hours of darkness, Rimantas came to pick up my parents at two in the morning for their whirlwind tour. The birds were already chirping with drunken oblivion, seemingly unaware that they had been cheated out of several hours of sleep. My parents loaded into the back seat of the vehicle - a new, gray BMW - and set about making themselves comfortable. I could tell that Rimantas was obviously nervous about the whole thing. Belarus, Americans, Israelis, Jews, twilight and 24 hours of travel seemed somehow to test his sense of reality. I gave him the telephone number and address of the Jewish community in Baranovich, he put on a brave face, and they disappeared around a corner.
There are three border crossings from Lithuania into Belarus - Medininkai, Salcininkai and Lavoriskes. All three are located not far from Vilnius, but we were told that only Medininkai allows third nationals through. Rimantas, who has crossed the border several hundred times, hoped to run into some of his buddies who would expedite the tedious process. Since it is not that uncommon for truck drivers to spend up to a week at the border waiting for permission to cross, the five hours my parents waited seems truly swift by comparison. Once in Belarus, it was a relatively short ride around Minsk and to Baranovich. At around One p.m. my parents drove into what was until half a century ago my grandparent's home.
When they arrived at the Jewish community (actually an office in a large hotel) they were warmly greeted and offered some food. As promised, the community anticipated their arrival and even procured a Jewish guide for them. While there are still several hundred Jews living in Baranovich, the vast majority of them emigrated from Russia after the war. In fact, according to the community only three Jews born in Baranovich still lived in the city.
Their guide, Reuven ben David Turetzky, a retired carpenter, is one of those survivors. Born in Baranovich before the war, he was a child in his early teens when the Germans invaded what was then Poland. With the early morning bombing that signaled the start of the war, Reuven jumped on his bicycle and rode for weeks in the direction of the retreating Russian army - leaving his family and friends behind to their bitter fate.
Today Mr. Turetzky occasionally makes some money describing the few Jewish sites to the errant traveler. He only speaks Russian and Yiddish, yet my parents who speak neither language managed, they claim, through sign language and patience, to understand the gist of his tour. He was obviously excited to meet the children of former neighbors and was visibly moved when he realized that he was familiar with my mother's family. Before the war, he knew "Yankel" Tunkel - my great-uncle, who was an outspoken Betar activist in the town. He was delighted to hear that not only had Yankel survived but that during the war he had actually made it to Israel, where he lives to this day.
My mother gave Mr. Turetzky her parents' pre-war addresses and even though the street names have repeatedly changed in this century, he had no problem deciphering my grandfather's address. My grandfather, after all, had come from a well-to-do family that could afford a house right in the center.
His father, he would always point out, was, "Not only a shopowner." Rather, he was rich enough to afford to support three salaried employees in his beauty parlor. More importantly, his real passion was fire fighting and he was best remembered as the head of the volunteer fire fighters.
From there, Mr. Turetzky led them on foot to a local museum, where he ducked in long enough to look at an old map of the city in order to decipher the street name of my grandmother's home. The entire group piled into the car and drove some fifteen minutes to the outskirts of town before they reached their destination.
She greeted my parents and suggested that they take a walk around her yard, but at no point invited them in to take a peek. All she would say was that the large oven (pechka) that my grandmother described as a center piece of the house was already gone when they moved in.
After leaving my grandmother's childhood home, Mr. Turetzky invited the group to his house to meet his wife and to partake in a cup of tea and biscuits. He showed my parents around his house - the house that belonged to his parents and in which he was born. As their daughter has long since relocated to her husband's village, he will certainly be the last Turetzky in Baranovich. My mother reminisced with Mr. Turetzky about all the Baranovichers that they knew and he shared some of his woodworks with them before they headed out again.
Their first stop was the old Jewish cemetery. Or more precisely, the site of the old Jewish cemetery. Aside from a marker that was placed there several years ago and one tombstone that Mr. Turetzky had stumbled across one day, the small, gated expanse bears few reminders of the Jewish presence in the city. During the war, this cemetery was also the site of a mass murder by the German Einsatzkommando. As he related the story, Mr. Turetzky, overcome by emotion, broke down in tears. According to my great uncle, several of our family members were murdered and interred there as well.
The second stop was the main killing fields, which are located in a forest on the outskirts of the city, not far from a bridge that is known as the "zelyony most" or the green bridge. My parent's are unsure whether Mr. Turetzky knew a shortcut or whether the road to the site actually involves driving across what appeared to be barren fields. For those interested in going, it would probably be wise to have the services of a guide. This is the site where most of Baranovich's Jews perished. Most of my mother's family, aside from her parents who escaped from the Baranovich ghetto and survived in the partisans, were murdered at that secluded spot.
After the demise of the Soviet Union and the independence of Belarus a marker was placed on that spot with the help of a Baronovich survivor and decorated partisan commander, Moshe Zalmanovich. Mr. Zalmanovich, who is retired and lives in Israel, travels often to Baranovich, in part, because his wife Wanda still has family in the city. The two met during the war when her family risked their lives to save him. After the war, Wanda chose to follow him to Israel, where she has lived for the past 40 years as a convert. When the memorial was desecrated several years ago by anti-Semites, Mr. Zalmanovich helped pay for its renovation out of his own pocket.
As it was already getting late, my parent's drove Mr. Turetzky home and bade him farewell. Rimantas, who wanted to avoid a repetition of the interminable wait they had endured in the morning, chose to return to Lithuania by the Salcininkai route. While it still took some two hours, the Lithuanians proved themselves far more efficient and organized than the Belarussians. At about one in the morning they arrived back in Klaipeda.
This journey, which took over 50 years for my family to complete, will continue to resonate in our minds for many years to come. Baranovich, a city that had reached almost mythic proportions in our hearts, was in reality a rather run-down third-world backwater. The vibrant Jewish life - the struggles between "Maskilim" and "Masoratim" or "Bundists" and "Zionists" that had existed when the Tunkels and Noviks called this place home were long ago quelled by the sound of machine guns firing. Few vestiges remain of that world - a random marker, a solitary house, and a few elderly witnesses of what once was our home.
I never did make it to Baranovich. Despite the mishaps and intransigent bureaucracy, I had to ask myself if perhaps there was a part of me that feared going there. Yet as I listened to my parents' stories, I realized that their journey had answered my grandmother's question - "What have you left behind there?" By visiting and seeing this place with their own eyes - as it is today - they had left behind a world of the past.
Copyright © 1999 Belarus SIG and Eial Dujovny (both text and photos)
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