ONLINE NEWSLETTER Issue No. 3 - May 1999
© Copyright Dr. David L. Frey
"The Road to Beshincovichi"
by Dr. David L. Frey (PhD.)
How can I describe a journey that has no beginning, whose end has not yet occurred and whose path is so tangled and twisted that following it is akin to untangling a ball of wool wearing heavy gloves and a blindfold.
The village of Beshincovichi in Belarus had always been something of a myth in the Gilden family. It was the Holy Grail or perhaps Holy Kiddush Cup of our ancestors. And the more we retold the stories of our great-grandfather and great-grandmother, the more the legends seemed in need of some sort of proof. Was there ever a woman named Frumme Chana? Second wife of the Chassidic Rabbi of Beshincovichi? Was there ever such a man as her husband, Rabbi Avram Yisroal Gildensohn? And was he a disciple of Menachem Mendal of Vitebsk?
And where was this place, where the two rivers joined? Grandmother had told us of living there and of walking to shul in Beshincovichi, seeing a young man who smiled at her, but who lived on the other side of the river. So they smiled but never spoke. And grandmother knew her marriage to her step-brother had been arranged.
All we knew for certain was that Beshincovichi was still on current Belorussian maps, some 40 miles from Vitebsk. And that we had letters in Yiddish from there, written by Rabbi Avram Yisroel Gildensohn to his son Rev. Menachem Mendel Gildin in Buffalo, New York, home of the three families that descended from Frumme Chana’s Mother, Alta Bubba Clora Pitkin, - The Gildens, The Rivos and the Steinharts.
Many before me had tried to find this place and some indication that there had once been a flourishing Jewish community there, with little or no success. What chutzpah on my part to think that I would succeed where others had failed. But with the certainty of a "metumtam" and wisdom of Lear’s fool, I set out last September. Like a Knight of the round table, armed with a video camera, a tape recorder, a still camera and very little money, I left Melbourne, Australia and arrived in NYC to spent Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with my son.
Having already survived more Yom Tovim than I care to remember, I assumed this next one would be no different. But in New York City, in Battery Park, I listened to a young man, Rabbi Katz tell us that each soul has one special mitzvah to perform, but that since we don’t usually know which one is ours, its safest to do them all. Little did I suspect that he was speaking directly to me.
And I prayed, perhaps for the first time, to be allowed to find something, anything that would suggest, if not prove that the family stories were true. I went to the Belarus embassy in NYC and was given a Visa by a wonderful staff, who wished me well in my search. So I set off to Minsk via London and Frankfurt.
At this point it is important, no, essential to mention my "new" family in Belarus, without whom the rest of this story would never have happened. A cousin in Boston, who had previously been to Vitebsk, had gotten to know a man named Eugene in Boston who was born in Vitebsk and still had family there. And he wrote to them all to help me in my quest to verify the past. I was met by his cousin at the airport in Minsk and taken to the train to Vitebsk.
A word of warning to those who would go to Belarus to try and find lost family. Nobody speaks English! - not the train conductors, not the Police and certainly not the average person in the street. But if you try hard enough you will find that the people have a kindness and generosity of spirit that is quite remarkable, especially when you consider how difficult life is there now.
The train ride was overnight and the cars have sleeping sections like the trains I remembered from so long ago on the ride from Buffalo to NYC. Dinner can be purchased for about 30 cents and is cooked in a little kitchen in the dinning car. After dinner a woman came to the compartment and brought tea and coffee and gave us sheets and blankets.
I made my bed and lay down in the darkness to sleep. But sleep would not come. The train moved on through the night. It stopped at a few small towns. Lying in the darkness of my compartment, listening to voices speaking a language I could not understand, I wondered what it had felt like for the lost Jews of the holocaust being transported in the cattle cars of the Nazis. I knew it was not the same, but darkness contains the memory of the dead and the souls of those who perished.
I arrived in Vitebsk in the morning to be greeted by my "new" cousins and a young man who was studying English at the University. He was to become my ears and mouth for the next five days. After depositing my things at my cousin's apartment, we planned how we might find the village of my Great Grandfather, Rabbi Avram Yisroel Gildensohn.
My cousin called the Highschool in Beshincovichi and asked if we could come tomorrow to ask a few questions.
"Yes, of course"
I did not know that I had been described as a "Distinguished Professor from Australia".
At dinner that night food kept miraculously arriving on my plate until I thought I would burst. And wine. And Vodka. I slept well.
When we arrived next morning at the Highschool the entire staff of the school was assembled and a luncheon was served. I was an honoured guest. In this tiny village of 8,000, with hardly any budget for books or materials, a feast had been laid out. To do less, I was told, would have brought shame on the school.
Yes there had been Jews living in Beshincovichi, but there were none now. They were all killed in 1944 by the Nazis. And yes there was a synagogue but no one was sure where or what had happened to it. Then someone suggested that a call should be made to Professor Frumkin. He was the oldest living person in Beshincovichi and had been a journalist. Surely he would remember. We left the school after a great many handshakes and numerous bows. It was as if a major dignitary was leaving the White House.
We found Professor Frumkin at home with his wife. He was older than Moses, wearing thick glasses that came on and off as he alternated between reading and talking. My cousins explained that we wanted to know something about the Jews of Beshincovichi in general and specifically about Rabbi Gildensohn and his family. We handed him the original passports of the Rabbi's son and his wife, as well as an early family history I had put together in 1980. With it we gave him some assorted pictures that had been sent from Beshincovichi, which had accompanied letters usually telling how hard life was after the revolution and asking for money.
The Professor read through each of the documents with care, occasionally saying one of the names aloud with a question mark after each one. He told us that there had been a large and vibrant Jewish community in Beshincovichi, but that none of the names were familiar to him. The he began to look at the pictures we had handed him. On the back of one was written the name, "Mordichi Shapira".
"Yes, he was part of the Soviet Government after the revolution" and he got out a book of members of the Soviet Government of Beshincovichi, and quickly found the name. The picture we had given him was the son in law of the Rabbi. Now at least one piece of evidence had emerged. The Professor seemed to remember that a large part of the Jewish Community lived near the local Hospital, which was about a 15-minute walk from the city centre, set in the woods.
We quickly drove to the hospital and after a bit of searching found a Doctor on the premises. At first he seemed to be unable to shed any light on our search. But after we told him of the story of the "two rivers" he said that he didn't know if Jews had lived there but that there was a village at the end of a dirt track just behind the Hospital. The track led to a small wood suspension bridge, which went over a little river that ran into the Divina River. The Divina River is one of the major rivers of Belarus and flows from Vitebsk and past Beshincovichi.
The suspension bridge
Click on photo to see an enlarged copy
The old couple
Click on photos to see an enlarged copy
We drove as far as we could and then walked, perhaps ran until we came to the suspension bridge he had spoken of. We crossed the suspension bridge, which swayed with every step. On the other side the dirt path continued for a few hundred yards and then became the centre path in a village of some 40 houses. My cousins began to knock on each of the houses until finally an old farmer and his wife came out. We repeated the story of what we were looking for, and as if it were the most natural question in the world, the old man began to relate that "of course Jews had lived there". And that the Jews and the non Jews had lived in harmony until one day in 1944 when the Nazis came to the village and took all the Jews away, and he never saw them again. He even pointed to a field a few hundred yards from his house, and told us that there had been a small prayer house that the Jews used. Now a potato field, the place he pointed to was exactly where the two rivers joined. The name of the village was H'melnik. So that was where we came from.
I told my cousins to ask if there was a cemetery nearby, but the farmer said that while he thought there might be, he really didn't know. We wanted to leave as it was getting late, but our new friend insisted that we come in and see his house, and share some coffee, cheese and bread. We went in and they took out the good dishes and brought out enough food to feed an army division.
"All home made! My goats, and bread baked in our wood stove."
The house was rough made, probably much like what the Jews had lived in 50 years before, except that there was electricity. There was no running water and the toilet was an outdoor affair. I asked if I could take a picture of our new friends. He said yes, but asked me wait a minute and went into the other room. Shortly he came back wearing an ancient suit coat on which were a number of medals and ribbons.
"This I got for fighting the Nazis, and this for fighting the Poles and this for serving in the home guard of the Soviet Union."
After promising him that I would send them a copy of the picture, we said our goodbyes and made our way back to the car. On the odd chance that the Nazis might not have destroyed the cemetery or that there might be a few remnants, we began to drive down every little dirt track that led off the main road. On each we asked someone who looked local if there was a cemetery nearby. Negative!
It was becoming very late in the afternoon and that night was Erev Simchat Torah. I wanted to return to Vitebsk, to go to the little shul which I had visited the day before. But there was one more dirt track. We started to drive down it but saw nothing. We started to turn back, when we saw a man on a cart being pulled by a horse. We stopped and my cousins asked him the now familiar question, "Is there a cemetery near here?" I was sitting in the car but I could see the man point into the forest. When my cousin came back to the car, he told me that the man had said that there was one where he had pointed.
I was sceptical and thought that the man had probably not understood us. Nevertheless, video camera in hand I got out of the car and began to walk into the forest. At first I saw nothing. Surely the man had been mistaken.
Then, the forest opened up, and there it was! For me it was a moment to rival the parting of the Red Sea.
The cemetery in Berenovichi
Click on photos to see an enlarged copy
A thousand gravestones overgrown with striplings and weeds. Some had fallen down. Most small and rough. Some few large. All carved out on a single flat surface and all in Hebrew. Trembling with fear or reverence we approached the nearest one. I wiped away the years of accumulated dirt and read the writing.
"Shner Zalman, Son of Aron Zvi, died 13 of Kislav, 1869"
"Reb David Loeb, 5th of Tavas, 1906"
"Zvi Hersch, Ben Avraham, died Yom Kippur 1862"
I pondered "Zvi Hersch? Zvi Hersch?" My Uncle Jay in Buffalo? The eldest son of Menachem Mendal, son of Rabbi Avraham? His name was Zvi Hersch! Could my Uncle have been named after this man?
What does one do when confronted by a reality so powerful that it beggars belief? As a Jew there was only one answer. I took my coat and pulled it over my head and began to recite the Kaddish. Tears ran down my face as the import of this discovery became clear. This was the cemetery of my Great Grand father, Rabbi Avram Yisroel Gildensohn, of his village, the cemetery that no one had found. The stories were real! Proof of the existence of one more tiny shtetl destroyed by the Nazis.
I looked back at my cousins, my Belorussian cousins, who had never been in a synagogue, never spoken a word of Hebrew or Yiddish, never prayed to the Rebon Shel Olam and all were in tears. They slowly came towards me and I fell into their arms and we cried together.
We began to clear as many gravestones as possible, taking picture after picture, as the light began to fade. "Joseph Ha Cohan, Rivka, daughter of Joseph, Judith Engel-A modest Woman-1866, Elka Leah-daughter of Isaac". That was my mother's name, named after the Rabbi's first wife! Maybe! Who knows?
No more film, no more time, we left Beshincovichi and returned to Vitebsk.
That night I went to the shul and davined with the 30 or so Jews who make up the last congregation in the city. It was Simchat Torah. We danced with the Torahs after which the leader of the congregation asked me to lead the prayers. Somehow, in memory I did. As we sang the Alenu and recited mourners Kaddish, images of Rabbi Avraham, Frume Chana, of my Grandfather's shul, of my family, all swirled in my head. Surely this could be no accident. Surely there is "a tide in the affairs of men!"
My ticket could not be changed, so I had to leave next day for Minsk and then to Israel. A day later, standing in front of the Wall, if you'll forgive the chutzpah, I brought with me my Great Grandfather, Frumme Chana, Alta Bubba Clora, all those who were buried in that cemetery, all those who had lived in Beshincovichi. And with them and for them I recited the words of the Shema. They are my past and my sons are their future. And all of us are one. Amen.