Belarus SIG Newsletter

Issue No. 1 - November 1998

REACQUAINTANCE - A journey to Senno, Belarus

Previously posted in the Belarus SIG Discussion Group 19. September 1998.

by Elliot Lepler

This spring the Leplers in America rediscovered family in Eastern Europe who had been lost to us for the past 60 years. For 10 days in May, Marcia and I journeyed with our new-found cousins back to Belarus and Saint Petersburg, Russia, a trip which became one of the most emotional experiences of my life.

Senno: Entrance to the town

My Russian cousins, my wife Marcia and I at the Senno entry

My Grandfather left Senno in Belarus in 1912 to avoid serving in the Tsaríst armed forces. He kissed his family goodbye and traveled eventually to America, never to see his parents again.

He corresponded with his family in the "old country" until Stalin made it unhealthy to receive mail from America. In World War II the Nazis overran all of Belarus.

As a young person I asked about life in Europe and about my family there. Like many other immigrants my grandparents did not like to talk much about the difficult lives they had escaped from. I was told that all of my relatives had been wiped out in the Holocaust. Off and on over the years I wondered if there were any of my kin still alive, and even thought of trying to find them, but my interest was not as strong as that of one of my cousins.

She listed our name on a Jewish Genealogy Website. This spring we were very surprised when she received an email from a Vladimir Lepler. He and a number of his family emigrated from St. Petersburg to Denver in 1996. They seemed to be related as they knew much that corroborated what we knew about the Lepler ancestors. Then they sent us a scanned photo of my great-grandfather. The photo was an exact duplicate of the picture that has hung on my wall for the past 30 years! Vladimir is a grandson of my grandfather's brother, a second cousin.

We heard that Vladimir's wife and son, Svetlana and Alex, were going to be in St. Petersburg in May so we decided to go visit them. They were most anxious to get to know us and offered for us to stay with them in their apartment. We accepted, but we also wanted to visit Belarus to see Senno and Lepel, the city for which we are named. In the course of conversation with Svetlana we learned that we also have a cousin in Minsk who was also interested in meeting us.

So we began our trip flying into Minsk where our cousins met us at the airport. First introductions were a bit formal but the relationships warmed quickly. We were given a tour of Minsk for a few days and then set out on a pilgrimage through the Belarussian countryside. We went to Lepel first and found the old Jewish quarter. Nobody there knew of the Leplers. Our Russian cousins had told us that all the Jewish Leplers in the former Soviet Union are descended from an Abram Lepler who was born there about 1800. There were only a few Jews left in Lepel and we did not spend much time there.

We drove then an hour or so to Senno, a town of about 11,000 current population. We knew some Leplers died there at the hands of the Nazis, but there seemed to be no record of them at City Hall.

But one of the officials suggested we speak with a 90 year-old man, who was referred to as a "walking encyclopedia." Within 10 minutes his son arrived to take us to his house.

My heart leapt as the old man answered in Russian "Absolutno!" to the question whether he remembered Leplers. He then mentioned an uncle and several cousins by name. He did not remember my grandfather, since he was 4 years old when he had left. His son then proceeded to lead us to the street the Leplers lived on. He did not know which house on this dirt path was theirs, but it did not matter since the Nazis had burned the village to the ground.

Senno: In his house
In the old man's house
View of Senno
A view of Senno
A walk in Senno
A walk in Senno

The son then took us to the site of the Senno ghetto and from there a short walk to a memorial at the burial place of the 800 who were exterminated on New Year's Eve, 1941. Although the names were not engraved on the monument, I felt touched by the Holocaust at that moment to a depth I had never felt.

Not far from the mass grave was the old Jewish cemetery. It was not cared for and bushes and trees grew among the decaying stones. But Hebrew markings remained clear on some. My great-grandfather was lying there and I felt a deep sense of order coming back from America to retouch the past.

We then left Senno and traveled to Vitebsk and on to St. Petersburg by overnight train for a week's stay. During that time we talked late into the night about life on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Leplers did well on both continents. Three Leplers went to jail in Europe, for political crimes. But they prospered in jail! The stories entertained me and filled in a void that I did not realize until then was so important to me.

Our relatives in Russia had never set foot in a synagogue. They have little understanding of Jewish culture. They are very careful to keep their Jewish identity quiet. We hope to share with them Jewish life in America. Maybe next year some will partake in our Seder. I feel as though a new avenue in my life has been opened.

I write this for you in hopes that some of you can have a similar wondrous experience. The former Soviet Union is much more open now. The Internet is a new tool you can use in place of tedious searches through old records. I know a number of Kol Emeth members have found relatives through the Internet and I would encourage all of you to do so.

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