by Larry Gaum
I opened the letter from Israel and began to read:
This was the opportunity I had hoped and dreamt about for many years and it was now beginning to materialize. I had tried on several occasions to organize a trip to the old shtetlach of Belarus, but with the language and travel barriers, coupled with the stringent communist government rules, it was impossible. Now for the first time, it was possible to join up with former residents of these areas who spoke the language and were familiar with the country, their former homeland. They understood the people because at one time they were part of this distant land, so many years ago. I had to make preparations rapidly as the trip was only a few weeks away.
I immediately went into action and began to make numerous phone calls and inquiries. In a very short period of time I had three other persons who would accompany me on this voyage of which only dreams are made, my wife Hope, my uncle and aunt, Ellie and Helen Marshall. Visas from the Belarusian consulate in Washington had to be arranged, flights and hotel accommodations booked and reserved. After many phone calls, much preparation, and numerous changes, it was finally completed.
The idea of first generation Canadians visiting the birthplace of their parents and grandparents was indeed exciting. We would be completing a circle so to speak, one that began many years ago by our families, so many miles away. What would they say about our proposed trip if we could speak to them today? Would they be interested, pleased, or have any desire to accompany us on this exciting journey? We will never really know the answer, but as we left for this faraway land they would be with us, both in our hearts and in our minds.
July 4, 1994: The trip begins
At 5:30 p.m. we depart Toronto for Frankfurt, Germany, on Lufthansa Airlines. It is a pleasant flight of seven and one half hours. We watch a movie, eat and sleep, and then eat again. The meals are delicious and we begin to put on weight. The plane lands and we walk around the enormous airport as big as a city. Our flight to Minsk takes two and one half hours and finally we stand on Belarusian soil. It has been over eighty-four years since our families left the country of their birth. The customs officer sits in a small cubicle partially hidden by a large partition. He studies our passports and disappears from view. Fifteen minutes later he reappears, studies our faces and then disappears once more. When his head comes into view again he speaks in Belarusian and poor English. I don't understand but answer "Yes", as did Shaiya Latucha when confronted with a similiar situation many years before. My mind wanders for a brief moment and a thought occurs to me, what if they insist on writing my name down as Larry Latucha! My thoughts are interrupted by a heavily accented voice that shouts, "Go through please." I'm still Larry Gaum and we exit from the airport.
The van carries us, along with three other passengers, to the city of Minsk and Hotel Yubileinaya. We were told it was a three star hotel, but this was not the case as we soon discovered. It is a plain and simple place, rather shabby in certain sections and rather nondescript in others. The rooms are Spartan and although we have water, none of it is hot. Not even warm. The main window in the room is missing about four inches of glass all around the frame. I don't touch it for fear it will tumble out. All four of us are hungry and we proceed to the restaurant where we order delicious dark rye bread, much like Bernie Kokoska's from Whitney Pier. If the bread is this good then the rest of the food will be delicious, right? Wrong! The chicken soup tastes nothing like that of my grandmothers, Fratka and Riva. I don't remember being served pieces of chicken with the feathers still intact. I know the Belarusian word for potato and ask for "Bulba." The waitress doesn't understand. I use the German word "Kartoffel." "Ah yes," she says, "potato...We don't have any." However the price is right and we feed everyone for less than one dollar.
Interior of the Shul in Minsk
At 3:30 p.m., we go out for a walk around the city and find the only Synagogue in Minsk. It is a small house in very poor condition and in bad need of repair. It happens to be on the evening that young children from Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Poland are being prepared for a trip to Israel. There are several Jewish people present, including some volunteers from United States who teach the locals Hebrew and Yiddish.
Chiam, a jovial redhead, is our guide who speaks Yiddish and English. The twenty dollars that we put in the Pushka or donation box is considered a "fortune" by local standards. It is a mitzvah to do this and it will be appreciated for sure. Chiam also gets five dollars, and can't stop thanking us. This probably represents about a month's income for him.
At the Hotel Belarus we inquire about the tour from Israel and are told that they will arrive later this evening. At the reception desk two female clerks watch a pornographic movie on TV. My uncle and I blush as the scenes become more graphic but the ladies watch intently, oblivious to the surrounding Canadians. Can you picture that scene at the Sheridan Hotel in Toronto?
Sitting outside at a bistro close to our hotel, we enjoy beer, ice cream, candy and watch the locals parade by. The women are beautiful with lovely complexions, light blond hair and dressed like models. They are typical Slavic peoples and are truly handsome. They wear clothing that would suit the fashions of any large city in North America. The clothing costs them a fortune and we are told that it is purchased on the black market. In the hotel restaurant we again feast on the rye bread, drink vodka and dance. Imagine, doing a rhumba in Minsk! The cost is staggering: 750,000 zeicheks, (less than $5). It is time to retire as the tour bus awaits us early in the morning.
We are up at 7 a.m. for breakfast. Instead of orange juice they serve us Fanta orange pop. The bottled water has a terrible smell and tastes very salty. But the bread is still like Bernie's and we fill up on it. A taxi takes us to Hotel Belarus where we board the bus for a three hour tour of Minsk. During the war the city was completely destroyed by the Nazis. The buildings we see were built by the Russians after 1945. They are large and all look very much the same. Our guide is a young teacher who does not speak English but the people in the tour understand her Russian. The tour leader Kopel Kolponitzky and his wife Chava translate for us as best as they can.
A visit to the memorial for the Jews who died in Minsk is a stirring moment. The obelisk is built in the exact spot where five thousand Jews were slaughtered. The steep hill directly behind is about twenty-five-feet high and underneath lie the remains of the people.
Memorial in Minsk
The bus then heads out of Minsk in a southerly direction, to our first destination, the town of Luninets.
As the bus enters Luninets I can see many of the original houses, some being over one hundred years old. It is as if one is going back in time, to another century. The hotel is by no means luxurious, and we soon realize that the one in Minsk is a palace in comparison. The room is very small, there is no water, and the bathroom looks like Maggie McNeil's outhouse in Reserve Mines, Cape Breton. The linen on the bed appears to be clean, pressed and starched but Hope sleeps with her clothes on and one eye opened. At 7 p.m. the bus leaves the hotel to take the tour to a small village north of Lachva. To accommodate our party they detour a few miles to go to the Shtetl of Krasna Volya. The impact of being in the birthplace of my maternal grandmother Riva Morafchick is a feeling difficult to describe. It is as if I am in a dream, can this really be happening? My uncle Ellie, Riva's youngest child and I stand in the center of the town square and look without speaking, my video camera whirring non-stop. The thoughts that fill my head are like an explosion, my eyes strain to capture every single moment. Where did she live, where was her house? How many times did she walk in this square? I see an old gate not far away, rusted and broken. Was this here when she shopped for herself and her father Aaron? So many questions, so little time. The tour is anxious to leave and reluctantly we get back on the bus, but are determined to make a special trip back before we leave Belarus. The bus continues to a small school several miles away, where we are greeted by the President of Luninets District Council of Deputies and other officials. A local chorus sings a welcome of Belarusian songs that go on for many hours. We see beautiful arts and crafts made by the children of the village. The tables are filled with all types of homemade foods, but I still don't see any cabbage Borscht. There is vodka in abundance, and every few minutes someone makes a toast. More vodka, more "Nastrovyas." Speeches are given by both the Belarusians and the Jewish guests. There is a genuine feeling of sincerity and care shown by the local people and a true sympathy for the tragedy that befell the Jewish inhabitants during the war. There is dancing, singing and more speeches. Hope is the belle of the ball, dancing every dance with the local Belarusians. The hour is now late and we are driven back to the hotel.
I awake at 6:30 a.m. to the sound of people hustling and bustling about. I am reminded of the times that I slept at my grandmother Fratka's house in Whitney Pier and seem to hear again the same sounds emanating from the front of her store. Once again I hear the voices and Slavic language that was so commonplace along Victoria Road. The clicking of women's heels on the sidewalk is loud and distinct, hurrying to get somewhere. We walk to the center of the town and enter the small farmers' market. There are a few stalls that sell flowers, vegetables and fruit. Strange as it may seem, the most abundant fruit is a banana which they import from South America. The merchandise is sparse, as they do not have much to sell. With their newfound democracy and private enterprise after many years of communist rule, the Belarusians do not know how to handle this freedom, nor do they know how it works. If there is money to spend (which is rare) there is very little to buy. The black market exists in every town and city, big or small. Many of the women have very fashionable clothes and when asked where they purchase them they answer, "black market," in whispers.
The railway station built 1905
Across the small street from the farmers' market is the railway station, built in 1905. The original railway junction, built in 1888, changed Luninets from a small village to an important town and served as an important connection between Pinsk, Homel, Brest, Lwov, Warsaw and Vilna. The trains also worked to the advantage of the Nazis during the war in which they shipped many Jews from one area to another and finally to the death camps. In Luninets, Kozhanhorodok, and Lachva, they did not have the luxury of a train ride. They were rounded up and marched from the villages to an area outside and methodically murdered. Beneath the memorials of these tiny shtetlach lie the remains of thousands of innocent people. Included among them are the names of Gam, Latucha and Morafchick. As I stare spellbound at this old building, I try to picture Riva Morafchick and her nephew Hymie waiting for the train on this very same platform in 1910, to take them to a far distant land they had never seen. Where did Shaiya Latucha stand when he held his ticket to a new life and a new future? How long did Fratka Gaum and her two small sons, Menasha and Boruch Bendit, wait patiently in this station until she bundled them aboard to begin a long journey that lasted almost two weeks? The noise of the trains and people are deafening. Was this the cacophony of sounds that met them when they arrived outside the station on horse and wagon from their villages? I am inclined to believe it is, as nothing appears to have changed in all of these years.
Finding the river Cna
The tour bus leaves at 9:30 a.m. and departs Luninets for the shtetl of Kozhanhorodok. What will I see, what do I expect to find in this tiny hamlet where my family lived for so many years?
How accurate is the map I carry with me of this small rural place that my father Menasha Lazar knew for only three years of his life?
The grandchild at the river Cna:
The bus turns off the main highway and begins to head south, passing through the village of Drebsk. It crosses the railway tracks that I recognize from aerial photographs and old maps.
The bus driver then stops abruptly and calls out in Russian. I don't understand what he is saying but one word is perfectly clear that makes my heart beat faster, "Kozhanhorodok, Kozhanhorodok." I immediately get up from my seat and quickly step down from the bus. I engage my video camera and begin to look around at the sights that greet me. An old house in the distance, unpainted and weather beaten, with a horse in the yard slowly munching grass. A wagon filled with hay quickly passes by spilling some of its contents at my feet. I turn in the opposite direction to see another older house, a bit brighter with colourful flowers in one of the windows. "What street is that?" I ask of someone standing by. "The road to Lachva," she replies. "And there?" I continue. "That one leads to Drebsk," she answers. I look at my map, and confirm that everything appears to be in its proper place.
I look for the many synagogues that existed here at the turn of the century, but to no avail, they are gone. Even the great "Kalte Shul" has vanished, as if it had never existed. I look for familiar landmarks to establish my bearings.
Then I remember an old photo of the town square (marketplace) that contained the Russian Orthodox church. Surely the Nazis did not destroy this structure. I ask the Mayor of Lachva if it still exists. He points with his finger and I turn in a southerly direction to see the familiar tall spires and cupolas of this ancient house of worship. Under communist rule it has remained unused for almost eighty years. Yes, it is the same church that my family saw every day as they lived in this tiny shtetl. It did not change at all. I close my eyes and picture the past as I stand in the old market place. I feel the heat of the sun pouring down as the smell of the hay and clover fills my nostrils. There are tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat as I think of my grandparents Shaiya and Fratka and my father and uncle, Maurice and Benny. What kind of a day was it when they lived in this very same place so many years ago? When they left Kozhanhorodok for the last time, did they ever imagine that someone in their family would one day come to visit? At one time the entire village was filled with the names, Latucha and Gam (Gaum). As I stand here today not one member exists.
I take the road to Lachva and pass by old houses that are one hundred years old or more. I see "Bubbas" (old women, grandmothers) walking slowly but with what appears to be a definite destination. We engage them in conversation, and they are friendly and obliging. Some talk about knowing the former Jewish inhabitants. Sometimes names are mentioned, other times they appear vague. "Yes, I knew a Latucha who lived over there," one said pointing to an empty lot. The house of Latucha and the inhabitants are no longer present. From a religious shtetl that contained four houses of worship, which included one of the most famous shuls of Eastern Europe, there is no Jewish presence here today. Memories, shadows and visions. That is all that is left of a once vibrant Jewish community.
My mind wanders again and I am speaking to my grandparents Shaiya and Fratka who have learned of our trip. "What," they laugh, "you went back to Byelorussia to visit? You travelled all that distance to see a place that we left to make a better life for ourselves and our family? What for, Why? But you saw Kozhanhorodok? Did you really? Tell us, ...what did our little shtetl look like?"
The tour enters the memorial to the Jewish martyrs. We walk through a tall forest (bobrunya) and enter a clearing that is filled with sunlight streaming down on all who enter. The granite and concrete on the memorial sparkles as tiny shadows from the tall evergreens sway back and forth. We all stand in silence as Isser Kruglin and the other elders recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. Beneath the heavy stones, concrete and granite, lie the bones of the Jews of Kozhanhorodok. Men, women and children who died, not because they were soldiers fighting in a war, not because they were criminals who committed some heinous crime, but because they were Jews. Was it a warm sunny day like today when their cries could be heard for miles around? Did the sun sparkle when their blood soaked the ground in this forest area? Did the shadows dance back and forth when their bodies were covered with earth, or was it a dark and dreary day that rained tears from heaven? As we depart from the forest, I am reminded that no Jews exist in Kozhanhorodok today, except the ones who have come back to witness times gone by, probably for the last time.
The tour is given a warm welcome again by the local officials, which include the Mayor of Lachva, Nicolai Telpuk and Peter Andrevitch Skorobat'ko, a Deputy of the Republic of Belarus and President of the Luninets Council of Deputies. It is hard to believe that the descendants of Shaiya and Fratka, Riva and Arya Leib, are the guests of these government officials. At the turn of the century, who would have imagined this event ever taking place. The officials and the local people are friendly and genuinely show a profound respect for the descendants and former residents of Kozhanhorodok, Krasna Volya, Lachva and Luninets. Earlier in the day, my uncle and I were presented with gifts of beautiful ceramic made in Belarus, to honour the children of former residents of the local areas. We now celebrate, eat, drink and dance until late in the night. Vodka flows with abundance and there are more speeches and still more toasts.
We are now taken to Lachva, a small town approximately ten miles east of Kozhanhorodok, and slightly larger. We are witness to the memorial for the former Jewish inhabitants and to the remnants of the Lachva ghetto. We see the place where our relative Yankel Moraff had his place of business. Stories abound about the Nazi roundup and the killings. Kopel Kolponitzky, our guide and a former resident of Lachva, tells how he escaped on this terrible day. He joins the partisans, and survives in the forests and the marshes, fighting the enemy at every opportunity. He hears for the first time the story of his brotherís death. As his brother lies wounded in the street, his fiance refuses to leave his side. The doctor in Lachva approaches the weak and dying boy to render whatever assistance he can. A Nazi soldier confronts the doctor and tells him not to touch the Jew. He is reminded that he must treat only German soldiers. The doctor defiantly tells him that he will not treat any Germans, soldiers or otherwise. The soldier then methodically raises his rifle and proceeds to shoot all three, as if they were animals in a cage. The local Belarusians now learn too late that the Germans are not their liberators who will free them from their Russian captors. Far from it. As soon as they finish with the Jews the plan is to exterminate at least eighty percent of the non-Jews of Belarus. The die had been cast long ago and their fate was now sealed.
The bus stops by the ancient Lachva cemetery, where many headstones are over two hundred years old. It is neglected now and the grass has grown around the broken, barely visible stones. Some of the Hebrew writing can still be made out but most markers are deteriorated beyond recognition. It is here that my great-grandfather Aaron Morafchick lies. My uncle Ellie steps forward and in memory of all the Morafchick family, begins to recite "Yisgadal Víyiskadash Sh'me Rabbo," the ancient prayer for the departed.
We meet for the first time cousins Luba Falkovitch and Roman Latucha, who are related on my grandfather Shaiya Gaum's (Latucha) side. Roman invites us to his apartment where we are introduced to his wife Raisa and other members of his family. We are served lovely food, probably the best since our arrival in Belarus. Again we toast many toasts with the ever present vodka. Roman is now retired and is planning to move to Israel. He and his wife are gracious hosts and it is such a pleasure to see and be with family that are part of the Latucha Tree. Roman is related through his father, Ber Leib Latucha, who was a first cousin to my grandfather Shaiya. Luba's maternal grandfather, Boruch Gershon Latucha, is also Shaiya's first cousin. With reluctance we say goodbye, promising to meet again someday, somewhere.
At the hotel, I am met with another surprise and discovery. I meet a member of our tour by the name of Shlomo El'Piner. As it turns out, he is related to my grandmother Fratka Gaum on her mother's side. Up to this point I had no information on Sheindel El'Piner's family. Shlomo fills me in on many details which I am able to add to the Gaum family Tree.
Discoveries continue to be our blessing and we are told that a short distance from the hotel there is a house that was once
owned by Yossel Jatlovitsky (Jatlow), the husband of Riva Morafchick's sister Pearl. We walk a few feet to see this old
structure and photograph it. It is a thrill to see and feel the presence of some tangible evidence of our family.
On the previous visit I did not have the opportunity to see the River Cna and the two bridges under which it flowed. The driver finds it without any trouble and I am able to identify both bridges, which unfortunately are not the original wooden ones, but metal replacements. However, they are in the same place and I see that one is situated where the river flows into the shtetl while the other sits above the Cna as it exits and flows away in a northerly direction. It appears to be a narrow body of water and may have been wider and deeper years ago. However, one would expect the water levels to be down at this time of year. The River Cna and the two bridges again served as distinct and definite landmarks that I recognized and I was able to correctly identify their exact location on my map.
Hope and Helen had discovered on our first visit, a lady from Kozhanhorodok who made beautiful throw rugs by hand. We all visit her house, a small,neat and clean dwelling close to the market place (Town Square). The interior is bright and cheerful and contains many of her handmade crafts. We purchase three rugs ($13.00 U.S.) that are beautiful, an interweaving of many colours and patterns. She shows her appreciation by giving us two handmade stacking Russian dolls free of charge. We are happy to have had an opportunity to acquire something of value that represents craftsmanship from Belarus, and it reminds me of the wonderful knitting and crocheting my Grandmother Fratka did in her lifetime. No doubt a carryover of a skill she learned as a young girl living in Kozhanhorodok.
The taxi now drives away and heads out of our little shtetl, along the road to Drebsk. As we cross the familiar railway tracks I look behind as Kozhanhorodok fades from view. I say good-bye as my family did so many years ago, when they left their home for a new life in a new country.
We head for Krasna Volya and stop on the main road leading into the village where we see several older women gathered. They call over an elderly man who appears to be the senior of the community. He remembers the Morafchick family and refers to them by name. "Yes," he says as Luba translates, "I remember Shlomo, Chiam and Yankel." We do not prompt him or give him any help, as we want to see how authentic his recollection of events are. His accounts are not only accurate but he supplies newer information that is wonderful to hear. He tells us the story of Yankel Dovid (Jack) Moraff, brother of Hymie, and of the tragic death of his wife and young son in Lachva. Jack had escaped at the time and is told the terrible news after the Nazis leave the village. He goes to the house of a friend and in cries of anguish, tells them he wishes he had died with them as well. He never returns to Lachva, but joins the partisans and after the war goes to Canada. As the man relates the story we see tears in his eyes. We have all heard portions of this story before, but now as we listen in absolute silence, the reality sets in, as we stand in the place where it actually happened.
As we depart Krasna Volya, a name I was familiar with even as a young boy, I feel that I have performed a great mitzvah and my heart is filled with a mixture of joy and sadness. My uncle Ellie, who has savoured every second of this visit to his motherís birthplace, says that it has been a most fulfilling experience for him, one he would never trade for anything. "It is as if Mamma has come to life for me again, if only for a fleeting moment," he says, as we leave Riva Morafchick's shtetl and memories behind.
In the evening we attend a banquet to celebrate the Fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Lachva from the Nazis. We are given a letter of greeting from the President of the Luninets District Council of Deputies, Peter Andrevitch Skorobat'ko, to Senator Jack Marshall, son of Riva Morafchick Marshall, as a good will gesture from one country to another. The dignitaries have gone out of their way, and made a special effort to make us feel at home. They especially want us to know how they feel about their relationship with the former Jews and Jewish descendants of the shtetlach of Belarus. We have the same feeling for them and only wish our parents and grandparents could be here to witness these wonderful events.
We now leave Belarus and the Shtetlach of Kozhanhorodok, Krasna Volya, Lachva and Luninets behind, as our family members did so long ago. We depart however, with a tremendous amount of satisfaction and happiness. Things seem to be changing for the better in this ancient land of our forefathers, and we wish the people of this newly acquired Republic a tremendous amount of mazel.
A shop in Lachva - with not much to sell
Will we visit again?...Perhaps, but who knows when. Will our children have any desire to see the birthplace of the Latucha, Gaum (Gam), and Morafchick families? Maybe...if only to witness memories of their roots.
"Do Svidaniya, Shalom and Goodbye."
Dr. Larry Gaum
Copyright © 1999 Belarus SIG and Dr. Larry Gaum
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