Belarus SIG Newsletter

Issue No. 2 - February 1999

BACK TO BELARUS

A woman’s quest for her roots takes some surprising turns

By Natalie Rothstein

This article originally appeared in the Fall 1998 issue of The Reporter, the magazine of Women's American ORT.

It was a journey to the past as well as a journey home to a place I had never been. I had come to Belarus in search of my roots, though I knew there was little chance of finding them. Pogroms, emigration and then the Holocaust had nearly obliterated the Jewish population of Eastern Europe. Nine out of every 10 Jews were murdered during World War II; in many places, what remains today are a handful of people, plaques and monuments of stone, remnants of a once-vital community.

Yet there I was, Wolf Frumkin’s American granddaughter, returning to the village in old Russia, to the home he left behind more than 100 years ago. This is the "old country." Except for the occasional television antenna on the roof of a peasant home, this small village of Korzangorodok, 50 miles east of Pinsk, looks like a place that time forgot.

A house in Korzangorodok (c 30 Kb)

A house in Korzangorodok

Korzangorodok is dirt roads, wooden houses and horse-drawn wagons. It is a white church topped with yellow onion domes. It is a village of 3,000 people whose dark, rough clothing and black rubber boots reveal a provincial setting.

Orthodox church in Korzangorodok (c 30 Kb)

Orthodox church in Korzangorodok

The trip to Korzangorodok began with a three-hour drive south from the capital, Minsk. But the genesis of this journey started long ago. The tracing of my family tree had developed from a casual hobby into a serious search. I had spent countless hours exploring records and archives. I became proficient in the ways of microfilm and microfiche. I scoured census and naturalization records and old city directories. In the 1900 U.S. census I found my mother listed as an infant, the newest member of the Frumkin household. But I am still trying to find the name of the ship and the port of entry that brought my ancestors to the New World.

The most important source of family history is, alas, no longer available to me: my family. My mother, one of 10 children, is gone, as are all her siblings. I am chastened and saddened by stories untold, tales unknown, links in a long chain, missing.

Upon our arrival in Korzangorodok, my husband and I met up with our guide, Oleg, an energetic and vigorous young man, a teacher. I had asked him to help us find the oldest citizens in town, the people with the longest memories. At the Town Hall, Oleg darted inside, returning shortly with the mayor in tow. He was about 45, and eagerly volunteered to join us. His 76-year-old mother would surely want to talk to us, he said, but first he insisted on a little tour. We stood in a near-empty field, staring at a picket fence around a small one-story wooden house; a simple, ordinary scene endlessly repeated throughout the village. This spot, said the mayor, is the former site of the synagogue and the Jewish school.

Next he led us to a large, recessed area of overgrown bush, surrounded by earthen embankments. This had been the Jewish cemetery. Here, Wolf’s parents, my great-grandparents Hillel and Bessie, most surely are buried. Yet there are no markers, no tombstones — centuries-old family headstones were carted away during the war to be used as paving stones — just long grass and brambles on a deserted patch of land.

Destroyed Jewish cemetery (c 30 Kb)

Destroyed Jewish cemetery in Korzangorodok

Family documents have long established Korzangorodok as my ancestral village. And now, Oleg’s resourcefulness had turned up corroborating records in the archives in Minsk. Titled "Family History of Korzangorodok, Jewish community of Pinsk District in Minsk Province," dated 1905, the records indicate, said Oleg, that "there were many Frumkins then in Korzangorodok."

The records show that in 1905 my great-grandfather Hillel was still living; his sons Mendel and Morris were there, too. Though I had known that my grandfather Wolf had two brothers, the archives also record a sister, Devorah. So it seems that my mother had an aunt of whose existence — and fate — we know nothing.

My research taught me that Korzangorodok was a Jewish community dating from the 16th century, and that the Jewish population in 1897, a few years after my grandparents left, was 1,597 — 48 percent. It was a shtetl, a small village with a strong Jewish presence.

Today, it is still a village but no longer a shtetl. No Jews live here; the wooden synagogue that once stood at the center of the village is gone; the school and the cemetery are also gone, leaving silent echoes for me to hear.

We learned how the end came during our visit with the mayor’s mother. Invited into her home, we were ushered into the kitchen where her husband sat alone at the table, eating his mid-day meal, neither acknowledging us nor participating in our discussion.

A village woman  (c 30 Kb)

A village woman

A long dark skirt, heavy sweater, stockings and the term "babushka" defined the tiny, elderly woman. The mother of nine children, clearly unused to guests, she fluttered about her kitchen, offering us chairs, a drink, fried eggs.

Through our guide, Oleg, the mayor’s mother spoke of events that took place more than half a century ago as if they had occurred only yesterday.

"The central part of the shtetl was all Jewish," she said. "They were merchants and traders; there were many stores here. The war began the first of September, 1939. The Germans came here in 1941 after their invasion. First they made a ghetto, then, in 1942, they shot everybody. At once. In one moment. We were very afraid because these were our neighbors. The Nazis made a ditch and then another ditch. We thought, after the Jews, we will be next. ..."

No one spoke. It was the kind of silence in which all you hear is the sound of your own heart beating. A few weak rays of the late afternoon sun slanted through the single window and I stared at the particles of dust dancing fitfully in the air.

I asked our hostess about my family; did she remember any Frumkins? Or Eisenstadts — my grandmother’s family?

No, she did not recognize those names, but she reached out and opened a little drawer in the kitchen table from which she pulled out a piece of paper.It was a list. When she started to read we were stunned. All these years — was it possible? — she had kept the list in a kitchen drawer. She had not put it away with important papers; she had not destroyed it; she had kept it in a place close by, where she ate her daily meals, where, her husband at that moment, his fork scraping at the metal dish, continued eating his solitary meal.

The list was an inventory of her former Jewish neighbors. We listened with ineffable sadness to a roster of those who had been executed: Saperstein, Kusicovich, Latinsky, Isaacs. ... These are some of the 937 Jews of Korzangorodok whose names are marked at a memorial site in town.

Memorial to the 937 Jewish citizens of Korzangorodok murdered by the Nazis (c 36 Kb)

Memorial to the 937 Jewish citizens of Korzangorodok murdered by the Nazis

At the site, heavy black chains isolate a stretch of wooded glen. Within, a stone monument bears the names of the dead. The silence is disquieting, eerie. I try to read the names. Oleg helps me search for Frumkins, for Eisenstadts. But they are not listed. Some of my family, we know, did escape annihilation while others perished in the war; where and when, we don’t know.

I know I have cousins who survived; today they live in Moscow and Israel. They were lucky. Those like my grandparents, who fled the terror and oppression of an earlier time, were even more fortunate. They are among the more than two million Jews who swarmed to the Goldene Medina, the Golden Land, America, creating the Great Migration of 1880 to 1914.

The search for a better life is what drove Wolf Frumkin out of Korzangorodok sometime around 1889. He and my grandmother Jennie were already married eight years and had three children. With only enough money for a single passage, Wolf left for America alone. Five years later, in 1894, his family, Jennie and the children, joined him in America, in Boston. My grandmother lived until 1951 but my grandfather died in 1936 when I was only 2.

My journey to old Russia, to the land of my family, strengthened my connections to them. As my grandfather had gone seeking a new life when he left Korzangorodok in 1889, I went seeking his old life — by extension, my own — when I returned to that same village in 1994.

For each of us, it was a journey home.

Natalie Rothstein is a freelance writer in Brookline, Mass.


Copyright © 1999
Natalie Rothstein (text and photos),
"The Reporter, the magazine of Women's American ORT" and
Belarus SIG


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