A Belarus Travelogue

by David Gordon

I visited Minsk in November 2001 as part of a longer trip that included a week in Moscow and one in St. Petersburg. I went to Minsk because it was well-located; it would be a convenient base for day trips to visit the shtetlach in which my grandparents were born. I spent several days doing so, visiting Smolevichi, Lapichi, and Borisov. In addition, I spent several days touring Minsk, both on my own and with a local guide. (I have left out last names except in the case of my family.) The travelogue below is excerpted from a much longer one that begins with Moscow and ends with St. Petersburg. Anyone with questions is welcome to write to me directly at tiganeasca at gmail.com.

David Gordon


I wanted to visit Belarus because three of my grandparents were born there. To prepare for the trip, I spent a lot of time finding out everything I could about the capital, Minsk, where I would stay. But it seemed worthwhile to learn a bit about the country, too. I already knew a little: Belarus used to be the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Before that, it was often called White Russia (bela, or byela, means "white" in Russian.) Today, it’s an independent country although it is also part of the Commonwealth of Independent States along with Russia, Ukraine, and eight other former Soviet republics. Belarus is about the size of the state of Kansas (or England and Scotland combined) with a population of about 10,500,000. It has the geographical misfortune to sit between Russia and Poland; combined with its unfortunate topography--plains and gently rolling hills—its location has made it one of Europe’s battlegrounds for over a thousand years. Belarus was devastated by the Russian-Polish wars (lasting from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries), by Napoleon’s invasion and subsequent retreat, as well as by World War I. And, when that war failed to settle Poland’s eastern boundary, Belarus was the center for the Soviet-Polish war of 1919-20. That conflict finally ended with the western part of the region ceded to Poland and the eastern part becoming the Byelorussian SSR.

I wanted to see what kind of life my grandparents lived. What kind of homes they built, what kind of institutions existed, and what kind of place they lived in. Jews from Belarus are generally considered "Litvaks" in the age-old conflict between Litvaks and Galitzianers. The dispute, such as it is, is primarily cultural, an informal social "one-upsmanship" extending to everything from the proper pronunciation of Yiddish to the ingredients in traditional dishes to the "right" way to pray.

Minsk was the logical base for me: it is the capital, by far the largest city in the country, and centrally located. I would find a guide and take a few day trips to look for roots and other evidence of Jewish life. Minsk is also home to the country’s largest Jewish community, estimated at about 20,000 out of total city population of 1,750,000. It is the center of Jewish life in Belarus; there is at least one active synagogue in addition to a Jewish day school and a Jewish People’s University (connected with the Belarus State University) that offers adult education classes at night. There are even three Jewish newspapers and the city is home to the National Jewish Cultural Center. (On the other hand, I should also point out that between 1989 and 1999, the Jewish population nationally declined from 112,000 to fewer than 28,000; all is not well.) 

For all its similarities, it is worth pointing out that Belarus is not Russia. The languages are, in fact, separate, though most people speak both. They are closely related, although Byelorussian has some "extra" letters. Byelorussian spellings tend to more closely reflect actual pronunciation although some words are, in fact, completely different. In my case, it mattered little. I can read the Cyrillic alphabet and, helpfully, it’s used in both languages. The biggest difference may be in the pronunciation of one letter: in Russian, it is "g" and in Byelorussian it is "h." Thus, the city is Grodno to the Russians but Hrodno to Byelorussians. My grandfather’s last name would have been Gurwitz to Russians but Horwitz to Byelorussians. Getting along in Belarus would be a challenge, despite the fact that I can read it and that I speak a little Russian . Fortunately, between my small vocabulary, my little Berlitz book, and my knack for pronunciation (and, I think, for charades), I managed without too many problems--even though English is spoken by very few people in Belarus.

My train arrived at 7:28 a.m. on a Monday morning. I had the great good fortune to be met by Frank and Galina, who had been recommended to me by a number of people. Together, they run a variety of projects devoted to providing humanitarian, medical, and educational assistance to the Jewish community. If the local community is even half as lucky as I was, they must be exceedingly well cared-for. Galina would be my guide. She is all the things a wonderful guide should be and also speaks nearly perfect English (with an English accent). Frank told me at one point that her prize for being the top English student in university was a trip to…Moscow! Not only is she a Jewish native of Minsk, she has escorted hundreds of people and has a great knowledge of local history. Even though she had never been to two of the three places I wanted to go, her knowledge inevitably turned out to be applicable and instructive.

The train station sits at one end of downtown and, as we drove to my hotel, I was impressed by the spaciousness of the city. This was particularly so after Moscow but would be true, I think, in any event. Minsk is, for better or worse, a great example of Soviet planning. Most of the city was leveled during World War II and only a few pre-war structures of any significance remain. The broad main boulevard, praspekt Franciska Skaryny (named after the first printer to print works in Old Slavonic and Byelorussian), is lined with immense structures of almost uniform lack of appeal. One gray façade sits next to another for most of the length of the boulevard. A saving grace are the broad pedestrian sidewalks at least triple (or more) the width of ordinary walkways. They not only make for much less crowded conditions, they also serve to reduce the scale of what surrounds them.

At one end of Skaryny, near the train station, lies Independence Square, an immense public space encircled by equally immense buildings (including the main government offices and two universities). The Government House sits behind a colossal statue of the gesturing Lenin, both dating from 1933. Each side of the pedestal beneath him is emblazoned with a frieze of the energetic proletariat. There are no skyscrapers--most buildings seemed no more than about fifteen stories--and one can even find parks scattered around downtown without looking too hard. My hotel, the Oktyabrskaya, is just north of the heart of downtown, two blocks away off praspekt Skaryny. Across the street, behind a large well-manicured lawn with plenty of evergreens, sits the relatively plain presidential residence and executive offices (it looks like any other uniform, government building anywhere). Beyond that, a real park! 

The Oktyabrskaya is not an Intourist hotel. For reasons I never figured out, they are located a ten minute cab ride away from the city center, pretty much by themselves. My hotel was the former Communist Party hotel. This was where visiting officials and dignitaries stayed. And, though it didn’t occur to me before I came, that meant one thing: very few people there needed to speak English and none did. The English-speakers were in the out-of-the-way Intourist hotels. But after spending a week in Minsk, my guess is that there aren’t a lot of English speakers in Minsk, period. I found the slightly gloomy observation in my guidebook to be accurate: "There are no tourist information offices in the formal sense anywhere in Belarus…." No tourist information offices, no guidebooks, I couldn’t even find postcards to mail, much less souvenirs to buy. My own Lonely Planet guidebook which devoted over 700 pages to Russia and an additional 170 to Ukraine, covered everything there was to cover about the entire country of Belarus in exactly fifty pages! It’s simple, I suppose: except for Jews visiting the land of their ancestors, few tourists visit Belarus.

Jews began to show up in Belarus about five hundred years ago. Although they soon played an important role in commerce and a few actually became wealthy by the late eighteenth century, the vast majority of Jews were poor. Even so, their numbers grew. In the half-century between 1847 and 1897, their Jewish population tripled to over 750,000, making up nearly 15% of the region’s total population. Jews even constituted the majority in some of the big cities such as Minsk, Vitebsk, and Bobruisk, and fully three-fourths of the population in Pinsk.

Russian law regulated virtually every aspect of Jewish life. Although it prohibited them from farming, for example, Jews often engaged in occupations either directly or indirectly related to the land: they frequently dealt in timber (either logging or shipping or milling) from the abundant forests around them, as did my great-grandfather. An 1897 survey of Jewish occupations showed that the greatest number of people were involved in making clothes, something that could be done at home. Next most numerous were those engaged in the most historically Jewish occupation of all--trade. Jews were peddlers, too. But these jobs most often meant subsistence, not wealth. The widespread poverty throughout the Pale of Settlement (the name of the only Russian region open to Jewish residence) was often an inducement to emigrate to the Ukraine or southern Russia and, beginning in the 1880s, to the United States.

Hasidism was a new religious movement arising in the eighteenth century and even in my grandfather’s day, a century later, it was still considered revolutionary and religiously liberal. Its opponents, known as mitnagdim (the "Opposers"), were traditional Orthodox Jews. The two groups differed in their emphasis on book learning, the classic approach to Judaism. Hasidim viewed Judaism in a new light, stressing personal experience and even mysticism as alternative routes to God. They often changed ancient customs and introduced new or different rituals. Disagreements were fundamental, often vitriolic. Because the leader of the mitnagdim lived in Vilna (Vilnius) in Lithuania, it became the center of opposition to Hasidism. As a result, the mitnagdim and their traditional view of Orthodoxy were the dominant practice in the north and west of Belarus, including Minsk and Lapichi.  Even so, Lapichi had both a traditional and a Hasidic synagogue

Hasidism wasn’t the only new notion in Jewish thought. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Zionism--a political, not a religious, movement to establish a Jewish state--and various socialist movements began to spread. Some of these groups even established self-defense organizations to protect the Jews during the wave of pogroms that occurred throughout the region at the turn of the century.

During the first years of Soviet rule, Byelorussian Jews found themselves in an exceptional situation. Nationalist feeling was beginning to develop among the peasantry and the Byelorussian government tried to encourage it by reducing the use of Russian where possible. Thus, official policy had the interesting result of encouraging the use of Yiddish. For a while, the slogan "Workers of the World, Unite!" was even inscribed in Yiddish (in addition to Byelorussian, Russian, and Polish) on the emblem of the Byelorussian Republic! In the early Soviet state, Jewish cultural and social life actually flourished, a fact reflected in the population. As late as 1926, 407,000 Jews comprised over 8% of the population in Belarus. Many Jews continued to live in the biggest cities: they comprised over 40% of the population in Minsk, Gomel; and Bobruisk.

The growth of Soviet power obviously meant radical changes for the Jews. The Soviets abolished private trade and restricted the number of small artisans, forcing some Jewish emigration into Russia, especially to Moscow and Leningrad. By 1939, the number of Jews had decreased to 375,000. The history of Soviet rule and its effect on the Jews is much too complicated (for me, anyway) to summarize. Eventually, all non-Russian institutions faded and, toward the end of the 1930s, those remaining were liquidated even as Stalin began to purge Jewish intellectuals. In September 1939, the USSR annexed western Belarus with its several hundred thousand Jews. Soviet authorities immediately began to eliminate all signs of religion and crush the Zionist movement. Soviet efforts were interrupted at their height when, ignoring their highly publicized non-aggression pact, Nazi Germany invaded the USSR on June 22, 1941.

German tanks entered Minsk six days later. By mid-July, the Nazis controlled almost the entire Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Approximately 80,000 Jews lived in Minsk and by July 15, 1941, all were registered. Soon after, a notice required all Jews to move into the new eight-city-block "Jewish Quarter." The Nazis allotted one and half-square meters per person, not including children. The Germans also brought Jews into the ghetto from many of the towns around Minsk. Before long, as refugees from western Belarus, Poland, and even Jews from Germany, were moved in, the ghetto population climbed to 100,000. As with virtually all ghettos under Nazi control, conditions were abominable. With food and heat never assured, the Jews of the ghetto had few concerns beyond simple survival. The first major pogrom took place on November 7, 1941, resulting in the death of about 13,000 Jews. Each time a new "shipment" brought more, the existing population had to be reduced. Starvation and disease contributed to the ongoing pogroms and by October 1, 1943, only a few thousand Jews remained. On October 21, 1943, the Gestapo surrounded the ghetto one last time. All the Jews were loaded into trucks and taken to Maly Trostenets, a nearby extermination camp. The buildings were then dynamited, just in case someone remained in hiding.

Maly Trostenets is a name unknown in the West. We’ve heard of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Mauthausen, and Dachau. But after Auschwitz and Majdanek, this was the largest death camp in all of Europe and one of a tiny handful devoted solely to extermination. Maly Trostenets was a small village, the site of a collective farm, outside Minsk. Here and in the four death camps set up by the Germans in eastern Poland, almost every deportee was murdered on reaching the camp: not only the young and the old, but the able-bodied as well. Most of the victims were lined up in front of very long pits and shot to death. After the executions, the pits containing the victims were leveled by tractors. Unfortunately, despite my reading, I did not know of Maly Trostenets before I left, so I can’t report on what, if anything, still exists. Little is said to remain, since the Nazis attempted to obliterate all the evidence of their crimes as the Soviet Army approached. But I did have occasion to see other examples of Nazi "efficiency." Sadly, I saw them in Lapichi, the shtetl where my grandfather Harry was born in 1889.

Once the main cemetery in Minsk, the property was later nationalized.  Families  had the opportunity to move the markers before it was turned into a park.  In  recent times, gravestones have been "magically" reappearing on the site where  the cemetery once stood.  No explanations, no apologies.


The Choral Synagogue was long the major synagogue in Minsk.  After the  Soviet government closed it, the building became home to the State Yiddish Theater.

Praspekt Skaryny is the main street through downtown Minsk.

This naturally occurring depression became the final resting place for many of  Minsk’s Jewish community which was marched into the pit and murdered.

The Dauman Street Synagogue is the only remaining active synagogue in Minsk.


Locating Lapichi is not difficult. It can be found at latitude 53°26’, longitude 28°33’ within the Pogorel’skaya volost’ of the Igumen uezd in the Minsk gubernia. But that kind of geographic detail tells us little.

There are may be as many as 1,500 people in Lapichi today though that estimate, from a villager we met, seems high. Like hundreds of similar villages throughout Belarus, Lapichi is a poor place located in the middle of a great plain. It sits roughly halfway between Minsk and Bobruisk, a city about 150 miles further southeast. Once, it is said, Lapichi was on the main road to Bobruisk but that ended long ago when the new road was built. The highway leading southeast out of Minsk passes through unremarkable scenery. At one time, the entire region would seem to have been forested. In fact, more than a third of the country is still pushchy, large uninterrupted tracts of forests. In this part of the country, firs and pine trees are plentiful, with occasional plots of birch and alder. Indeed, the huge stands of forested land together with small hills and lakes are testimony--even to a rank amateur like me--to the fact that this region was formed by glaciers. The highest point in the entire country is only some 1,100 feet. Occasionally a monument or memorial to some event or person from the Great Patriotic War interrupts the gentle hills, but little else.

And, speaking of the Great Patriotic War--the name by which all Russians know World War Two--a digression is in order. My visit prompted a far better understanding and appreciation for Russia’s (and Belarus’s) role in the war. We in the United States make a great fuss about the American contribution to winning the war; I don’t mean to denigrate it in the least (especially since my father fought in it). But the United States lost fewer than 300,000 killed and it was fought thousands of miles away. More than 21,000,000 Russians died, fully one-third of them civilians. Twenty-one million. And it was fought right there. On their territory. Their homes, their towns, and their villages. No American city was besieged for 900 days, over the course of more than one bitter winter, reducing residents to eating rats. Occasionally, we see pictures of little old Russian men and women marking dressing for formal portraits with their uniforms on, their chests filled with rainbow colored medals. I used to laugh at these funny pictures. No more. Having been there, having seen the battlefields, even just briefly, brings home the cost of that war in a way little else can. You cannot go anywhere in Russia or Belarus without seeing monuments, markers, and actual evidence of the war: embankments in the earth where guns or tanks were placed or, in the case of Lapichi, the trench in the middle of the forest where that the Jews were forced to dig before they were murdered. The forest is still there. And, sixty years later, so is the trench. And the gun emplacements. "Chilling" isn’t really the right word. I guess "impressive" is. You cannot help but be impressed by what the war cost these people, this country.

Driving through forested land, past the Svisloch River (pronounced SVIS-lutch), a side road leads north. It looks just like every side road that has appeared before: a good road more probably from minimal use than from upkeep. A few miles down the road, the farmland breaks long enough to disclose a distant village. After another mile or so, the road passes a few homes and then splits. Continuing straight leads to a few more homes, more farmland and, eventually, the next village. A small spur, however, curves gently to the right and leads into the village of Lapichi. Immediately to the right of this small spur is a large empty lot. Although it’s empty, something is happening here, for the fence is in good repair and there is evidence of activity. In fact, the village has finally decided (or is finally able) to rebuild the Russian Orthodox church that was destroyed sixty years ago. During the war, partisans fighting in the forest a few miles behind the church were able to determine that a single German soldier was barricaded in the church, directing German artillery. The partisans mortared the church, destroying it completely. I’m grateful for their accuracy. If their shells had overshot the church only slightly, they would have destroyed ulitsa Grozdianskaya 13, the home across the street where Moses Aaron Horwitz and Chaya Ruchl Drazin raised seven children, including my grandfather Gershon (to become Harry once in the United States).

Moses Aaron--or, as he was known in the official voting records for 1905, Moshe Shimonovich (his father’s name was Shimon)--was born in Smolevichi in 1859, a village a few dozen miles northeast of Minsk. He was a small man. In 1907, he would swear to the following in his Declaration of Intention to become a naturalized American citizen: 5’6", 138 pounds, black hair, and brown eyes. The court clerk deemed his complexion "dark." Little remains from before the war in Smolevichi except for a small Jewish cemetery…abandoned and ignored in a small stand of fir trees. At least half of the gravestones are fallen, many are overgrown, and yet it is precisely the complete absence of care (or vandalism) that makes it such a poignant place.

No Jewish cemetery survives in Lapichi. Pavel and Boris, two of the villagers we met while in Lapichi, said that the Germans destroyed it. Unlike hundreds, if not thousands, of other villages on the Eastern Front, the Germans paid particular attention to the shtetl of Lapichi. Unlike hundreds, if not thousands, of other villages on the Eastern Front, the Germans did not delegate mass murder in Lapichi; they did it themselves. Sometime in the spring of 1944, they ordered the Jews of Lapichi out of their homes and marched them into the forest a few kilometers down the road. At gunpoint, the Jews were ordered to dig a long, narrow trench. More than six decades later, the trench survives. Passing seasons for the greater part of a century have seen grass grow, leaves pile up, and snow fall. But the trench is clear for anyone who knows where to find it.

We had stopped Boris to ask for his help in finding the house. In Chicago, he would look like a homeless person. Grizzled with several days’ worth of unshaven beard, he was of average height and indeterminate age, though he must have been at least in his 60s. His clothes looked as if he’d slept in them for weeks. He was willing to answer our questions, though he told us that the last person in Lapichi who had a good memory of life before the war had died a few months earlier. His stories came from what his parents told him. He volunteered to take us to the trench in the forest. We all climbed into our van and drove five minutes to where the road enters the forest. The firs stand quite tall, but slender--the age of the forest is difficult to discern, although it has been here for at least a century. As we walked, he told the story of how the Nazis rounded up the Lapichi Jews. How they were marched here and ordered to dig a trench. No more than a few feet wide, yet hundreds of feet long. They murdered the Jews after they finished digging the trench. The Soviet government installed a small memorial stone nearby which, like countless others, attests to the murder of "brave, patriotic Soviet citizens."

Almost seventy-five years after he left Lapichi as a child, my grandfather’s younger brother Abe wrote a memoir of growing up in Lapichi at the turn of the century. Included in his absorbing stories are two diagrams. The first is a map of the entire village; the second a floor plan of his house. The village map is sometimes quite accurate. It is often correct in the details but misplaces larger things--like the location of the Svisloch River. But one reason the Horwitz house can be found nearly a century after the family left for America, is that Abe pinpointed its location precisely: across the street from the Orthodox Church, probably the most important building in any Russian village. Our initial difficulty in finding the house wasn’t the fault of Abe’s map. Who could foresee that the Orthodox Church would be a vacant lot?

As we wandered about the village, Galina offered some architectural clues. Jewish homes in the Pale, she said, were characterized by certain details of construction. For example, they often had foundations that rose above ground level and they always had three windows facing the street. Ornament was also important: they usually sported decorative elements at the roofline and even shutters for the windows. One other custom, not unique to the Jews, ensured the longevity of homes in the area: old or decrepit homes were often knocked down with the specific intention of rebuilding them on the same "footprint." Given the cost of building materials, reconstruction usually duplicated what had gone before. So if a Jewish house were later occupied by non-Jews and happened to be knocked down, it would usually be rebuilt so that it nearly or completely resembled the original structure. Knowing that the house was across the street from the Orthodox Church, we began by looking for the church. The church would lead us to the house. Though Lapichi may have been heavily Jewish (an 1897 census reported that 736 out of 750 residents were Jews), it was also large enough to warrant an Orthodox Church for the peasants in the surrounding countryside.

Neil and Ruth Cowan have pointed out (in Our Parents’ Lives: The Americanization of Eastern European Jews) that "Many American descendants of Eastern European Jews have the impression that ‘in the old country’ most of their ancestors were poor. Thus it comes as something of a surprise to learn that as poor as the Jews may have been, many of them employed servants--Christian servants--who were, by definition, even poorer." I have never heard that my great-grandparents had any servants; my point is simply that, poor as they may have been, poverty was a relative thing, even in the poorest villages. Abe provided a vivid description of a Russian peasant’s home at the turn of the century:

"My mother had need to visit a peasant on a business matter one afternoon and took me along. It was my first trip to the peasant country. We passed a goodly number of peasant farms and their log cabins with their thatched roofs sloping to about eight to ten feet from the ground. The walls were made of round logs sealed with moss in between and in the front at the foundation there was usually a low earthen embankment forming an outdoor shelf to sit on…. When we entered the one-room cabin we were graciously greeted by the owner who spoke in Russian to my mother for some time, giving me an opportunity to fully explore my surroundings. The place was spotless and everything was in perfect order. On the right was a good sized loom…. On the opposite side of the room was a bed and hanging above it somewhat toward the head of the bed was a basket holding an infant in swaddling clothes. Further along towards the back of the room was a table and chairs. The walls were decorated with ikons in strategic places with good effect." 

I had brought Abe’s map of the village with me. As we puzzled over the map, we stopped another villager, Pavel. A big man in his 50s, he was intrigued with the notion that an American would come all this way to find the home of a grandparent. His fascination with the American and a desire to help led him into our van. Along with Boris, Galina, and Vlad (our driver) he pored over the map, trying to place the house. Once Galina explained that the key was the location of the Orthodox Church, the answer was clear. "The church was here, but…." It was merely a matter of walking across the street and looking carefully at the few houses there. As it turned out, Pavel lived next door to my grandfather’s house. He told us that his father had bought their house from a Jewish family in 1926. He was too young to remember the neighbors well, although he recalled that they were Jewish. Then he lamented the disappearance of the Jews: life was more interesting, livelier, in Lapichi when the Jews were there. 

My great-grandparents’ house was easily the smallest and plainest, sitting behind a simple wooden fence. The main clapboards must once have been a mustard color, now quite faded. In Abe’s day, the home would have been constructed of logs, chinked with moss against the cold. (In fact, bright colors seem the norm; many of the houses we passed were either brightly colored or showed signs that they had been, once.) Three windows faced the street, just as Galina had predicted, and the corner beams were once trimmed in blue. The clapboards both under and above the windows were set vertically and painted a reddish-brown. Above a metal rainguard, the gables were set with unfinished vertical boards. The roof is corrugated metal.

While we waited out front, another passerby (this one an official in the local agricultural cooperative) went around to the back door (actually, the only door) and knocked until he got us in. The couple who lives there now, in their 20s, are tenants--and had they the look of being unceremoniously awakened. They were prevailed upon to allow us in and they encouraged me to take as many photographs as I wished. Since my grandfather Harry and his brothers and sisters were born in this house, I would love to say that it is a cozy, inviting, rustic place. It isn’t. The only word that came to mind then and seems appropriate still, is shabby. Part of my impression, no doubt, is due to the general mess and clutter of the present tenants. But the fact remains that it is small--even with an extra room or two added on, it seems impossibly small for a family of nine. Even assuming that my great-grandmother kept an immaculate home, nothing can change its rude construction or poverty of the village. Even a beautifully kept, clean and inviting home can be drastically inadequate. And when modern "conveniences" such as electricity and running water are taken out, the true nature of what life must have been like in that home in that shtetl in that part of Russia a century ago begins to become evident.

This is an outbuilding which apparently once served as a barn (among other things) for my grandfather’s family.  It appears to be the original building not only  because of its decrepit condition but because, if you look carefully, you will see that  it is constructed of logs and has not been rebuilt.

Although it now houses village offices, the original building (covered by the new facade and new roof) was the Ashkenazic shul a century ago (there was also a Hasidic shul in Lapichi).  I could not find any evidence betraying the fact that this was ever a synagogue.

ul. Grozdianskaya 13, the home where my grandfather was born in 1889.

This is the entire kitchen in the rebuilt home of my grandfather.  Notice the onions hanging next to the "oven," just as they would have over a century ago.

A Little History

The same year that my great-grandparents married, 1880, Russia’s Minister of the Interior, Count Nikolai Ignatiev, sent a memorandum to Czar Alexander III discussing recent pogroms and suggesting new laws that might help.

"The principal source of this movement [the recent pogroms], which is so incompatible with the temper of the Russian people, lies in circumstances which are of an exclusively economic nature. For the last twenty years the Jews have gradually managed to capture not only commerce and industry but they have also succeeded in acquiring, by means of purchase and lease, a large amount of landed property. Owing to their clannishness and solidarity, they have…directed their efforts…towards the exploitation of the original inhabitants, primarily of the poorest classes of the population…. Having taken energetic means to suppress the previous disorders and mob rule and to shield the Jews against violence, the Government recognizes that it is justified in adopting, without delay, no less energetic measures to remove the present abnormal relations that exist between the original inhabitants and the Jews, and to shield the Russian population against this harmful Jewish activity…."

Alexander II--the father of that czar--had been, if not a friend to the Jews, clearly a progressive ruler. He had relaxed many restrictions applicable to them and initiated a period of toleration. Sadly, his assassination in 1880 allowed Ignatiev to declare his policies a failure. Even as the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires were eliminating their restrictions on Jews, the Russian government enacted a series of "temporary" measures which became law on May 3, 1882, including:

"1. That Jews are henceforth prohibited from settling outside towns and villages, except where Jewish settlements may already exist.
2. That all contracts of purchase or tenancy concluded with Jews are provisionally suspended.
3. That Jews are prohibited from transacting business on Sundays and holidays when the business establishments of Christians are closed."

These "May Laws," which remained in place until 1917, shattered the economic foundation of tens of thousands of Jewish families. Later amendments would impose even tighter restrictions on Jewish life. Decree after decree through the remainder of the decade narrowed Jewish rights and privileges. But as extensive as the original May Laws were, even more remarkable is that Ignatiev was able to salvage only a handful of measures from a far more comprehensive and much more severe draft. So far-reaching were his proposals that they encountered opposition from every single member of the Czar’s Committee of Ministers. Objections ranged from the purely economic (ill-treatment of Jews would harm foreign investment and foreign loans) to the humanitarian, "…even if they are Jews." Most fascinating of all was the response of the Finance Ministry:

"Everyone must be defended from illegal attacks. Today they hound and rob the Jews. Tomorrow, they will go after the so-called kulaks [wealthy peasants] who, morally speaking, are also Jews, except that they are of the Orthodox faith. Then will come the merchants’ and landowners’ turn. In other words, if the authorities stand by passively, we can expect the development in the near future of the most terrible socialism."

The new Czar, Alexander III, paid lip service to Jewish rights: "The Government is firmly resolved to punish inexorably all outrages against the persons and property of the Jews, seeing that the latter are under the protection of the laws, which are equally binding upon all His Majesty’s subjects. The governors and other authorities are, therefore, commanded on their personal responsibility to take timely measures for the prevention, or as the case may be, immediate suppression of outrages against Jews." He had commented to one of his generals, however: "It delights me to the very depths of my soul when they beat up the Jews, but we cannot permit it." His ostensible devotion to equal rights notwithstanding, there were some seventy times more pogroms in the first eight months of his reign (April-December 1881) than had taken place in the first eighty years of the century! In 1894, Alexander’s son Nicholas II--the last of the Romanovs--became Czar. Nicholas was every bit the anti-Semite his father had been. He firmly believed in the myth of the worldwide Jewish conspiracy and refused to approve a unanimous resolution of his ministers removing a long list of laws discriminating against Jews. Even so, his overthrow by the Bolsheviks hardly meant an easy time for Russian Jews.

Grandpa’s House

We entered my grandfather’s house through the back door into a porch that is apparently put to a variety of uses. The door is in a corner of the house and the outside walls enclosing this porch have large windows; looking around, the room is unheated and must be kept closed off in the winter. According to Abe’s diagram, this corner had been his parent’s bedroom. His diagram, however, showed a back door in the middle of the back wall leading to the kitchen. Walking straight ahead now leads directly into a tiny hallway (which would have been a part of the master bedroom a hundred years ago). Beyond that, a large bedroom/sitting room (perhaps 12 by 15 feet). When my great-grandparents lived there, Abe labeled it a parlor, "…its wide windows on the left looking out toward the flower garden and the square beyond, its hardwood floors highly polished to perfection. A massive high mirror ranging from the floor almost to the ceiling occupied the corner angle of this spacious room."

It could still serve that role. On the far wall (the front of the house) are a few windows. To the left is now a large makeshift curtain, closing off whatever lay beyond. (Given the size of the room and what little I could make out, that space did not appear to be terribly large.) Abe’s drawing indicated that this was a family room which apparently also doubled as the dining room. In his youth, 

"our house opened to the family area, which was furnished with a few chairs and a settee on the left side opposite the entry to the General Store…. Further ahead, on the right, was a large sofa fronting a large rectangular dining room table, the end of which held the ubiquitous shining brass samovar always in readiness to serve hot tea to all comers….

Next to the dining room table was a window looking out to the back yard. This window was double-paned with a space of about four inches between the panes which was lined on the bottom with green moss to keep out the winter cold…."

If, upon entering the house, you turn left instead of walking straight into the bedroom, you would be in the kitchen. It was in the same place a century ago. It is about six feet wide and twelve feet long. On the right side as you enter, the lower wall is covered in light green ceramic tile, installed no doubt to disperse the heat from the open oven that is built into that wall. The oven is, in reality, no more than a shelf, three feet wide by eighteen inches high. There is no oven door. Things have changed somewhat, but not entirely:

"The kitchen entry was thru a corridor formed by the wall of the bedroom on the right and a brick wall of the long kitchen oven opposite it. The oven had a wide shelf cut out in it to form a warm bed when the oven was fired-up which was pretty much all the time. Under the oven was a large open space where the chickens were kept in the winter. The kitchen had a dirt floor and contained the drinking water pump."

The floor is no longer dirt and the pump is no longer in the house. (And I didn’t see any chickens.) I think it is safe to assume that my great-grandmother was a more meticulous housekeeper than the present tenants, however. Today, the wall separating the kitchen from the bedroom in front of it is covered with the same tile in the bedroom and a bed sits along the common wall. The oven is centrally located to provide as much heat as possible. In the middle of the kitchen is a small table and chairs; beyond that, a dresser sits against the wall. Along the back wall are two small tables covered with oilcloth and two small white stools. Pots and pans, teakettles, dishes, all the ordinary kitchen paraphernalia lay scattered about. There was a three-foot-long string of onions hanging next to the stove. And packed into every conceivable spot are the possessions, everything from kitchen utensils to clothing. There is not an inch of wasted space.

Abe drew a "General Store" on the far side of the house. It seems that when the house was knocked down (or destroyed) and rebuilt, the store portion was left off. Indeed, whoever rebuilt it may not have had need for any such store. Where Abe showed a small porch and front door, nothing remains but an empty front yard. The front façade presents only three evenly spaced windows. For all its poverty, though, the home appears to be typical of most homes in Lapichi. Some are larger, some smaller (though few seemed much smaller than this one). Some had larger yards, some did not. But all were rudely built and well-worn (at least from the outside).

After nosing into most of the corners of the house and taking a complete roll of pictures, I thought we should leave the residents alone and so came over to thank them for allowing us in. Galina translated for me and then I tried to give the young woman some American currency by way of tangible thanks. Her boyfriend/husband was sitting a few feet away. All the while she was declining the money, he sat quietly shaking his head "yes." I insisted. She ignored him completely but eventually accepted quite graciously. I also offered tips to Boris (who accepted wordlessly) and Pavel (who seemed truly horrified at first--though whether he was acting or was, in fact, offended, I couldn’t tell. In any event, he accepted the money as well.).

Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog wrote Life is with People, The Culture of the Shtetl, in 1952. It is still a standard in academic anthropology. Writing about Jewish homes in the Pale, they said: 

"…the house is viewed as a temporary shell. ‘My shtetl’ is the people who live in it, not the place or the buildings or the street. ‘My home’ is the family and the family activities, not the walls or the yard or the broken-down fence….

[E]ssentially, the house remains a temporary dwelling, inhabited for a brief moment of history. It is not part of the family entity, to be cherished and tended. Doctrine teaches that only the mind and the spirit endure--’life is a hallway to heaven’--and even the least soulful Jews of the shtetl, through force of circumstance if not of conviction, treat their physical dwelling places in accordance with this teaching.

A long history of exile and eviction strengthens the tendency to regard the dwelling place as a husk…. [A]t any moment the fatal decree may strike, and they may be tossed from the homestead into the deep dust of the road. Daily activities are pursued as if today’s condition would continue forever; but the setting which they are placed is slighted as if it would be snatched away tomorrow."

Following the road into the center of Lapichi, past the empty lot of the Orthodox church, lies a building on the right-hand side that Abe labeled the "Ashkenazic shul." Remarkably enough, it survives. Pavel told us that the village had simply put on a new brick facing, installed a new corrugated roof and a simple fence. It nevertheless takes a powerful imagination to reconstruct the synagogue when looking at today’s non-descript shell.

"The synagogue…was a large, tall rectangular building with many high windows, flanked outside on the right by a wooden staircase leading up to the women’s gallery on the floor above, which looked down on the main synagogue occupied by the men. [Such a separation of the sexes was common, and still is, in orthodox synagogues.] The main entrance facing the street led into a wide long foyer ending at a direct entry to our classroom, which also opened inside on the left to the worship area. As one entered the worship area there stood on the left a long cavernous brick fireplace with long thick twisted steel rods along it to manipulate the wooden logs which fed it to heat the synagogue. The women’s gallery was entirely shut off from the floor below except for three huge open arches for visibility…. All of the benches in the synagogue faced the Ark toward the east except the last row which necessarily faced a passageway and the other rows. This last row included the most worthy or learned members, the Rabbi, our family and others."

Anyone not knowing the original purpose of the building would be unable to guess that it had ever had any other purpose than town offices. Walking in the bright blue front door, you stand in a small pine-paneled space. There is a door to the left, a door to the right, and a door straight ahead. All three were locked; I never found out what was behind the doors.

Abe drew a cemetery next to the synagogue, alongside a small stream. Whatever was once there is gone. Whether it remains there but underground or was ripped out and destroyed is impossible to know from a short visit; the space now appears to be nothing more than a small, empty field. No markers of any sort give the least clue that anything else was ever there. So too with most of the other structures that existed when Abe was a child. The timber mill that his father owned burned down, the feldsher’s (paramedic’s) home is gone, as is the Hasidic shul, the rabbi’s house, and even the post office.

Someone with too much time on his (or her) hands once counted 3,000 streams and 4,000 lakes in Belarus. The streams and lakes are good for many things, one of the more important of which has long been the timber industry. Things were not much different a century ago. Abe wrote that "a big barn…dominated the back yard on the right." The building that is there today is almost certainly the same one that was there when Abe was a child. The wood shows the age of a century of winters and summers and it tilts alarmingly toward oblivion. Perhaps the giveaway, though, is that it is built of logs. In Abe’s day, the cow and horse were kept inside and he would watch his sister Shema milk the cow. Beyond the barn were a couple acres planted with potatos. "Jews were not allowed to own farms and this field was presumed to be an extension of our backyard to legalize it."

"Beyond this field at some distance away there was a gristmill, which father operated, to which farmers from far and wide brought their grain to be processed. I visited this mill only once and what I saw held me spellbound, for suddenly I was in a different world. Two huge round upper and lower millstones were being rotated by huge wide rubber belts suspended over grooved cast iron pulleys. Each millstone was chiseled out with furrows radiating from the center, which widened away from one another as they reached the periphery and they rotated against each other as the grain was being poured through an opening in the upper stone…. Outside the mill the peasants awaiting their turn sat in a circle around a lively wood fire enjoying their lunch which consisted of three or four inch pork cubes held over the fire by pointed sticks while the drippings were being caught on large slices of bread held underneath."

Early in the new century, two tragedies played a major role in the family decision to leave Lapichi forever. The first was an accident at the mill. Abe reported that his father lost his left hand up to the wrist, something that can be inferred but never seen in later family photographs. Then, some time later, the mill itself burned. As Abe watched over his younger brother Alec, he "could see from the window the flames shooting skyward engulfing the whole wooden structure." Unable or unwilling to rebuild, Moses Aaron tried logging for a time after the destruction of the mill.

"The logs were branded and shipped on the Swishle [Svisloch] River to its destination. The Swishle was a mighty river about half a mile wide, I would say, flowing outside our village at the edge of a lofty pine forest. These logs were tied together to make wide rafts which were floated down the river by experienced boatmen who lived on them for weeks at a time."

The work must have been too hard or paid too poorly because not long after, my great-grandparents decided to leave. Abe recalled a discussion that must have been replayed thousands of times throughout the Pale of Settlement:

"I remember a stormy session which took place one evening in the parlor. My parents stood over an opened drawer of a high-boy sorting out bills ‘paid’ and ‘unpaid’ and sharp words were spoken between them with an air of desperation. I felt then, as young as I was, that things had gone badly, namely that the receipts had fallen short of the expected amount that would make the venture profitable." 

There is a family story about my great-grandfather’s partner taking off with all the money; or, maybe Abe was right and the new venture simply wasn’t profitable enough. Whatever the reason, my great-grandfather decided that he would join his younger brother Gershon who had emigrated to the United States in 1886. So, sometime in the spring of 1906, he left Lapichi for good. He was 49 years old. He traveled, probably by wagon, to Minsk or Bobruisk and thence by train to the port of Hamburg (according to him; the ship’s passenger manifest states that he embarked from Courhaven), the busiest embarkation point in northern Europe, and on June 4, 1906, he boarded the S.S. Deutschland alone.


My grandfather Harry from Lapichi married my grandmother Molly. She was born in 1899 in Borisov, a town northeast of Minsk. Unfortunately, there were no memoirs in her family and by the time I was old enough to be interested in family history, her only remaining sister and brother had both died. She came to the United States at the age of fourteen but by the time I thought to ask, she no longer remembered much about the town. So I visited Borisov and its large Jewish cemetery without a house or other landmarks to find.

Borisov’s claim to fame, as near as I can tell, is that this Napoleon crossed the Berezina River near here on his retreat from Moscow in 1812. Hemmed on both sides, Napoleon must have fought quite a retreat. No one seems to agree on numbers except that tens of thousands, Russian and French, died. (In fact, my grandmother used to tell a family story about this retreat. Given his tolerant treatment of Jews in France, Napoleon was welcomed by Jews during his passage through Russia. According to my family tale, two leading Jews from Borisov went to pay their respects on his retreat--a Benenson and a Gebalovitch. The full impact of the story comes when you learn that my grandmother’s maiden name was Gebalovitch and her mother’s maiden name was Benenson. No wonder it’s a family story! The only difficulty is that it seems that every Jewish family tells the same story; the only difference is the names of the distinguished Jews.) 

If Borisov is famous for any other reason, I don’t know what it is. Even the Internet, which contains some of the most arcane and esoteric information imaginable, offers only a bare minimum about the city. Today, Borisov is home to 160,000 people (of whom some 650 are Jewish) but it seems much more like an overgrown village than a city. In 1926, the population was only around 8,000. There is no downtown as we might imagine it; only one badly rutted street with a handful of stores. A number of buildings that once served the Jewish community (including several synagogues) remain standing, although they have been converted to a variety of uses, including a children’s sports club and a regional transit union. Galina has been here many times and so was able to show me most (if not all) of the city that was of interest to me.

We visited the old Jewish part of town and spent some time in the Jewish cemetery. The cemetery occupies several acres consisting of two fairly clearly distinct areas. Upon entering, a small plaque memorializes the local Jews purged by Stalin in the late 1930s. Immediately behind this is the densely packed modern part of the cemetery with perhaps as many as one thousand graves. Many gravestones here are in the modern Russian style--photographs of the deceased appear on the stones and each plot is individually fenced. The plots are jammed together, making the simple act of walking through them difficult. Beyond it stretches a much larger overgrown field where the older stones are. Haphazardly spaced and often isolated from each other, many of these are tottering from age or neglect. Some are legible, many are not. A well-worn footpath cuts through this portion of the cemetery and for the most part it seems abandoned and forgotten; the field is overgrown and no one appears to have cared for the older markers in decades, if not longer.

As with those in many other communities, the 1,200 remaining Jews of Borisov were herded into a ghetto before being taken away to be murdered on October 20, 1941. The memorial to the Jews of Borisov is not in the ghetto or even in the city itself. Instead, the memorial is in the ravine where the Jews were taken. From the passing highway, you see what first seems to be yet another war monument. This memorial is a white obelisk perched atop a square base with brass plaques identifying the site. Trees reach to the edge of the highway and seem to enclose you as you walk deeper into the forest. A flight of stairs brings you down to a long dirt path, fenced on either side. At the end of the path stands a gate between two columns, the whole topped by an enormous metal Star of David. In front of you, a long narrow depression in the earth. And trees. You are at the base of the ravine, completely surrounded by forest. The feeling is at once eerie and peaceful.

I have read disturbing articles describing the rise of anti-Semitism, particularly including vandalism, throughout Belarus. Jewish community buildings and cemeteries alike have been defaced, although I didn’t find any reports of attacks on individuals. Most disturbing is the lack of reaction of local authorities. Even if the incidents are investigated--a rare enough occurrence--little is done by way of punishment or to prevent (or at least discourage) further acts. Though I do not question that this is happening, I also have to say that I saw no evidence of vandalism or even anti-Semitism in either Russia or Belarus. The only thing I saw in Borisov, and at worst it strikes me as disregard, is the path I mentioned which appears to lead to some housing. While I was visiting the cemetery, I saw people use the path but no one stopped. That the shortcut might invite vandalism is, I suppose, possible. That it seems to be no more than a simple shortcut also seems possible.

This is taken from inside the cemetery in Borisov.  There is a newer portion toward the front where one enters.  After passing through that section, there is a very large field with gravestones scattered throughout.  The farther back one goes, the older the stones.

Meanwhile, back in Minsk…

Between day trips, I explored Minsk. In the process, I learned that a week is plenty of time to see everything in Minsk…twice. As I mentioned above, the Great Patriotic War is everywhere in Russia and Belarus. One of the most interesting sights in Minsk is, in fact, a museum devoted solely to that subject. The museum was only three blocks from my hotel, so one morning I set off to visit. Unfortunately, I wasn’t completely certain which of two buildings housed the museum. But I know what the Russian word for museum is and so dedicated myself to finding it on a sign. Lo and behold, one of the first signs I saw said "Museum" and then some other words. I entered the building and was immediately surprised to see handwritten signs with the word "museum" and arrows pointing in a certain direction. I followed these handwritten signs and eventually ended up on the third floor of a building that has clearly seen better days. The building, except for the museum, actually appeared to be empty. But on the third floor was a soldier in camouflage and a young woman sitting at a table with tickets. I asked, "Is this the museum?" "Yes." The sign announced the admission price, I paid, and walked into the first room. Along the left wall were wax figures of Soviet leaders starting with Lenin and ending with Putin. Odd, I thought. But why not? Then, after spending as much time as seemed appropriate to look at wax figures I turned to see what was along the next wall: Elvis. Sophia Loren. Freddie Mercury (who?). I had managed to discover a visiting exhibition from a well-known waxworks in St. Petersburg that was traveling to the "provinces." 

The Byelorussian State Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War is a three-story building devoted solely to the experience of Belarus in World War II. Twenty-seven exhibition halls are crammed with everything from spent shells to artillery to uniforms. Battle flags, personal possessions, even dioramas. Every aspect of the military conflict is covered, often in minute detail. Particular attention is paid to the partisans who fought a guerilla war against the Germans. Even the death camp at Maly Trostenets is covered. The last six halls recognize the twelve Soviet "hero-cities," a designation the Soviet government awarded to these cities in recognition of the extraordinary sacrifice and valor of their citizens. (These cities are also recognized by a series of memorials along the Kremlin in Moscow. St. Petersburg proudly displays its honor in huge letters along Nevsky Prospekt.) The museum’s displays culminate on the third floor with a long gallery. The gallery passes through completely unadorned spaces, eventually leading to a large room, empty except for its centerpiece. In front of a stained glass mosaic, suffused in red light, a huge bust of Lenin is perched on a pedestal. Anywhere else, the presentation would be "over the top," so melodramatic as to be laughable. And although it teeters dangerously close here, the cumulative impact of the museum is so strong that even the tribute to Lenin seems appropriate.

I visited one other museum in Minsk that I found equally impressive, the National Art Museum. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the outside: although the building is "appropriately" neoclassical with a wonderful façade, it is located on a grubby side street and seems to have been bypassed when money was handed out for landscaping or even yard maintenance. Everything changes once you enter the museum, however. The gallery is not large--just two floors--the central atrium of which is devoted to a temporary exhibition on the first floor and to ancient icons on the second. But the main collection includes wonderful works by some of the best artists that Russia (and Belarus) ever produced, including Repin, Serov, Chagall, and Malevich. The collections seem a bit uneven (the Nazis made off with chunks of the collection during the war) but they make up in breadth what they lack in depth. Among the objects on display are ancient wooden sculptures, church utensils, graphic art, decorative and folk crafts, and even Central Asian bronzes. There is little Western art but the Russian collections are well worth the visit.

I had one wonderful local contact during my stay. In my spare time, I teach several courses at a local law school in Chicago. One of those courses is a basic introduction to U.S. commercial law offered only to foreign lawyers. The students, who must already be lawyers in their home countries, come here to spend a year learning about American law. In any event, the first time I taught this course, I had a student from Minsk. Back then, Ivan encouraged me to visit. Now I had finally arrived and we managed to get together twice, once for dinner and an evening at a local jazz club and once for the opera. He took me to see La Traviata at the national opera. The evening was an eye-opener on several levels: the orchestra was excellent and many of the performers outstanding. Even more interesting to me was the audience. At the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (and, indeed, at most orchestras around the country), the average age of the audience must be in its 50s. There are certainly students and younger people, but the proportions were very different in Minsk. I went on a Thursday evening and, unlike in the United States, people were dressed casually; I saw few who seemed to be "trussed up" for the event. And the hall (a very attractive place, the equal of most I have been in) was full. This is, no doubt, partly a factor of price. Ivan assured me that tickets were very reasonable (and cheap compared to the United States).

My time in Belarus at an end, I took another night train, this time to St. Petersburg. First class again. And another wonderful trip. The train stopped far more often on this trip but the accommodations were even nicer than before--something I would not have thought possible. The cars seemed brand-new and the compartment boasted a television. Again, I had the compartment to myself and was able to lie down, relax, and sleep for at least a portion of the trip. No stop at the border, no passport check, no customs intrusions at 3:00 a.m. I arrived in St. Petersburg early in the morning…but that’s another travelogue.

Memories and lessons for a lifetime

For nearly two decades I have tried to assemble family trees for both sides of my family. The work has helped me to learn a little of how I became who I am. In the course of my paper travels, I have learned many things, both about people I know and people I never knew. Yet all the research, all the study, and all the facts never taught me the one thing that I am most interested in: why did my grandparents come to the United States?

These visits gave me a glimpse into another world. From the poverty of the villages to their intangible riches, from Moscow’s and Petersburg’s old buildings to the imprint of Tsarist and Communist rule, from extraordinary architecture to remarkable food. Even after visiting Lapichi and Borisov and Minsk and getting a new--albeit oblique--view of what their lives must have been like, I am no closer to understanding why my grandparents came. But I am closer to understanding the price they must have paid to leave.

This is the abandoned Jewish cemetery in Smolevichi where my great-grandfather Moses Aaron Horwitz was born in 1859.