ONLINE NEWSLETTER (No. 1/2015–January 2015)

This article is about a trip that Yechezkel Schatz made to Minsk, Belarus

This article is copyrighted by Yechezkel Schatz

Reprinting or copying of this article is not allowed without prior permission from the copyrightholders

My visit to the Minsk archives

by Yechezkel Schatz

Last year’s trip to the Chernigov archives uncovered plenty of information about my grandfather and his family. As is always the case in family research, all this information raised new questions and made me curious to take my research one generation back, that is, to find out more about my grandfather’s father. So about a year after my trip to Chernigov, I set off to the National Historical Archives of Belarus in Minsk, to do research on my great grandfather. Here is the story of my trip to Minsk…

What we knew and the questions we had

My paternal grandfather, Yaakov Moshe (Morris) Schatz, was born in Priluky (about 150 kilometers east of Kiev, now in Ukraine) in 1890, and he immigrated to the USA in 1913. Until recently we knew very little about his parents, but several documents that I discovered at the Chernigov archives provided us with the following important bits of information about his parents:

There are, in fact, two places named Mogilev -- one is Mahilyow about 200 kilometers east of Minsk, Belarus, and the other is Mohyliv-Podil's'kyi in southern Ukraine, along the border with Moldavia. Both had large Jewish communities, and both are listed in Miriam Weiner’s invaluable website, Routes to Roots. My brother Yaakov and I decided to first take a gamble on the Belarusian Mogilov, for the following reasons:

So here were the objectives that I set for myself this time -- questions to be answered and information that I’d like to discover:

General travel logistics - planning versus reality

Having gone through the process of preparing for a similar trip just recently (that is, to a Ukrainian archive one year ago), the preparations this time were quite straightforward, and mostly similar to last time. That isn’t to say that I didn’t encounter certain snags and mishaps during my week of traveling, although (luckily!) nothing too serious that I can’t laugh about now… So for those of you who care to learn from my experience, I include here details that might help you avoid a few pitfalls.

Note that this section discusses general travel preparations and, where relevant, goes on to describe the eventual outcome of events. For a discussion of research-related preparations, see “Research-related preparations and coordination with the archive.”

My preparations for the trip to Minsk included planning and organizing the following aspects of my trip:

Logistical area


Belarusian entry visa

There has been much talk about a new agreement between Israel and Belarus that would obviate the need for a visa to enter Belarus. Recent newspaper articles were happy to announce that visas would no longer be required as of September 2014. Well, luckily my travel agent and I thought to double-check the matter. We were told that implementation of the new agreement was postponed to April 2015. The visa cost about 500 shekel.


In general, flights from Israel to Eastern Europe are not expensive. You can fly to the Minsk airport (with or without a stopover, depending on your choice of airline), and then take a bus from the airport into Minsk (about one hour’s drive). Alternatively, you can fly to Vilnius, Lithuania (to which you can find especially cheap flights), and then take a fast train (about 2.5 hours) to the Minsk central train station. After arriving at the bus station or train station (both are downtown, nearby to each other), you can take the metro to your apartment or hotel.

I flew in through Vilnius. I flew out of Israel on Sunday morning and was in Vilnius in the early afternoon. I then took a train from the Vilnius airport into town, walked around for a couple of hours, visited and joined prayer services at the beautiful Choral Synagogue, and then boarded an evening train to Minsk.

Based on my experience, I’d recommend buying the ticket for the fast train to Minsk at least a day in advance, online. I went to buy my ticket as soon as I arrived at the central train station in Vilnius (before walking around town), several hours before it was scheduled to leave the station, and got a real scare when I was told that the train is full and they can’t sell me a ticket. After discussing my options with them for a few minutes (in my stilted Russian; and they were horrible options…), they suddenly (?!) discovered that they still had one ticket that had been reserved but wasn’t being used, and I heaved a sigh of relief. They didn’t charge me extra for the ticket, and to this day I have no idea what that incident was all about…

I flew back home with a different airline, from the Minsk airport directly to Israel. I headed out on Thursday of the same week in the late afternoon, after a full day at the archive, and was in Israel before midnight.


I found an inexpensive one-room apartment through the airbnb website (for about $40 US per night). The apartment was extremely nice, just a couple of minutes from Komarovka Market, and only about 20 minutes walking distance from the archive, in Savyetski Rayon (the name of a municipal area in Minsk).

So the apartment was fabulous, but I still have a few words of wisdom:

Remember to always double-check the address of the apartment that you rent. The address for my apartment had a 1-digit typo at the website, which made it quite hard to find... To make matters worse, I didn’t have a phone to call the landlord (I was planning to buy a local SIM card first thing in the morning).

On top of that, I had told the landlord that I would be there around 10 PM, and only as I was frantically looking for the place at the wrong address did I suddenly realize that the time was 11 PM, not 10 PM -- I hadn’t realized that I would be entering a different time zone upon crossing the border from Lithuania into Belarus… Luckily the building at the wrong address had a doorwoman, and, after some coaxing, she used her phone and got the correct address for me.

Extracurricular activities

I planned for four intense days at the archive, but luckily also planned a few ideas for extracurricular activities. I ended up having some downtime even during those hours that I had planned to be sitting in the reading room at the archive (more about that later), and my evenings were free too.

So I got to take a few long walks, visited one of the synagogues, and enjoyed strolling through the market. Minsk seemed to me a classic Soviet city -- clean and orderly, easy to navigate and safe to wander, with wide, spacious roads and a nice assortment of public gardens with huge, pathos-filled sculptures. And, in November, also quite cold and drab, and kind of boring…

But best of all, I went to the opera Nabucco, by Verdi, at the beautiful opera house. The opera was not only dirt cheap, but was also an amazing production, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Minsk also has a permanent circus, but I left that activity for next time…

Research-related preparations and coordination with the archive

One of the very first things that my brother Yaakov and I did after I returned from Chernigov last year with the newly discovered information that our great grandfather was from Mogilov was to check what documents are available for Mogilov and where they are stored. A quick search through the Routes to Roots website revealed that most of the documents from Mogilov are stored at the National Historical Archives of Belarus in Minsk.

As my plans for the trip to Minsk began to materialize, I contacted the archive, first by email and then by phone. In my email I stated my objectives and notified them of the approximate dates of my arrival. I also wrote that I’d be following up with a phone call to finalize the date of my visit and to hear more about their policies and requirements.

I made sure to call the archive more than a month before my planned trip, as I remembered that the Chernigov archives expect you to register at least a month in advance, and thought that perhaps the Minsk archives follow the same policy. A Russian-speaking friend at the office helped me with this phone call, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that various bureaucratic policies that I encountered in Ukraine are not practiced in Belarus (but fear not, other policies take their place… See Table 1).

I continued staying in touch with the archive through a couple more emails and an additional follow-up phone call. In one of my emails I included a neat table that lists all the documents that exist for Mogilov at the Minsk archive, as reported by the Routes to Roots website, and I even indicated which fond/opis/delo combinations are my top priority. This turned out to be a very wise move, because in the final follow-up call that I had with the archive, the archivist that we spoke to told us excitedly that they had prepared the first set of books for my first day at the archive.

The next important matter to attend to was finding someone local to accompany me to the archive. This person, who would be expected to speak Russian and some English, would help me communicate with the personnel at the archive and would also help me browse through the files and decipher the Russian cursive. I contacted a good friend of the family who is originally from Minsk, and she suggested her mother, Irina, who lives in Minsk. So I got in touch with Irina by email and we exchanged contact information and made up to meet at the archive on Monday morning.

Conducting the research at the archive

On Monday morning, Irina and I met at the entrance to the archive. Irina brought along her friend Dina for extra help, and I explained to them what I’d be looking for. I had anticipated a lot of paperwork on my first day at the archive, but this was not the case. In fact, the website of the National Historical Archives of Belarus in Minsk seems to indicate that although the archive is open on Monday, the reading room opens only on Tuesday -- this is not true, and not only was the reading room open on Monday, but I also had my first set of books waiting for me (which, as I explained above, the archivists prepared for me based on the lists that I had sent them by email). So Monday was not wasted at all.

We quickly got acclimated and started browsing through the first set of books. Within 20 minutes or so, Dina had already discovered our most important finding -- a census record from the household of my 2nd great grandfather, in which my great grandfather Eliyahu appears, and from which I learned the names of Eliyahu’s immediate family -- mother, father, grandfathers, brothers, and a married cousin who was living with them. For the next few days we were continuously finding lots of census records and vital records for a whole clan of Schatz families; but more about that in “Findings and accomplishments.”

The women working at the archive were very nice. They were helpful and courteous and always willing to answer questions. My Russian was good enough for the really simple questions (sometimes with the help of Google Translate), and I relied on Irina for the tougher questions.

Over the course of the next few days, Irina and Dina joined me for only about 2 or 3 hours each day, and for the rest of the time I managed on my own. I quickly realized that I have no problem identifying my name in Russian cursive; the string of letters that forms my surname simply jumps out of the page and catches my eye. (In fact, if you woke me up in the middle of the night and showed me my last name in Russian cursive -- then spelled Шацъ, nowadays spelled Шац -- I’d recognize it instantaneously.) Besides that, although the census records are only in Russian, almost all vital records are in both Russian and Hebrew (which I obviously have no problem reading). So I simply got used to accumulating my tougher questions and saving them for when Irina was around and could help me communicate with the archivists.

Here are a few challenges that I had and would urge you to learn from:

Table 1 Comparison of policies between the archives that I visited in Chernigov and Minsk




Coordinating the visit and registering for a seat in the reading room

At least a month in advance.

Visitors from abroad do not need to register and are welcome to call and notify that they plan to come. No specific amount of time in advance is required.

Proving that you are related to the objects of your research

I was asked to bring documents that tie me to the ancestors whom I am researching, but was never asked to present them…

I was asked to bring documents that tie me to the ancestors whom I am researching, but was never asked to present them…

Bringing along a local person as an interpreter and to help with the research

You must provide a notarized letter in which you grant authorization to the local person.

You are allowed to bring one or two people, as long as the reading room isn’t too crowded and you can work quietly.

No authorization issues.

Time for your ordered books/folders to arrive

60 to 90 minutes

This means that the first thing that you should do every morning is find the books/folders that you want to browse through that day and quickly place your order.

24 hours

This means that the first thing that you should do every morning is find the books/folders that you plan to browse through on the next day and quickly place your order for the next day.

Maximum number of documents per day

1000 pages

5 books (for a foreign visitor)

Note that local researchers are limited to 5 books for a 2-week period.

Obtaining copies of documents:

Taking pictures yourself

Strictly prohibited

Strictly prohibited

Price of a scan

About: 40 Hryvnia / 20 shekel / $5 US

About: 14000 Belarusian Ruble / 5 shekel / $1.25 US

Time for the scan to be ready

A day or two

Preparation of the bill (to be paid at the bank) takes a day or two. The actual scans take many more days.

Be prepared to have your local contact email the scans to you. You might need to leave money to pay for scans.

Findings and accomplishments

Our gamble on the northern Mogilov proved right within less than an hour from the beginning of my first day at the Minsk archive. The census record that we found -- an 1879 supplement to the 1858 revision list -- listed all members of my 2nd great grandfather’s household. My great grandfather Eliyahu was the youngest of 5 brothers, and this information opens up possibilities for connecting with my third cousins. In addition, a married first cousin lived with them -- potential for fourth cousins to me.

In addition to this census record, I also found census records for several other Schatz families in Mogilov from the same time period. Searches through books of vital records were just as fruitful, and I found altogether about 40 records for various members of the Schatz clan. I later found additional records in the JewishGen Belarus database. Over the following weeks I spent some time analyzing all the records and putting together family trees. My current theory is that the Schatz family in Mogilov dates back at least two more generations (prior to my great grandfather Eliyahu) and stemmed from two brothers -- David and Eliyahu Schatz -- who were born at the very end of the 18th century. This means that my great grandfather had many 2nd cousins in Mogilov -- potential for finding fifth cousins to me.

My general impression was that the Schatz family was a large, well-known, and distinguished family in Mogilov and its surrounding villages. Schatz family members appeared not only in records for their own births, weddings, and deaths, but also as official witnesses in a very large number of births and weddings of other members of the Mogilov Jewish community. In addition, Schatz daughters were commonly identified by their maiden name even after they were married.

Although we already have several leads on fifth cousins (just a phone call away…), it seems that connecting with my third cousins will be harder than connecting with my fourth or fifth cousins. There simply was a lot less information about my great grandfather’s brothers and their descendants, as compared to all the information about his second cousins and their descendants. This is probably due to the fact that my great grandfather’s immediate family lived in a village named Tetavka (if I deciphered the name correctly; I have not yet managed to find this place), and not in downtown Mogilov. Besides that, perhaps some of the brothers moved away, just as my great grandfather did.

One very interesting finding was that my great grandfather Eliyahu’s mother, Dina, passed away when Eliyahu was about 16 years old. His father Moshe then remarried about 4 months later. At the risk of spinning a yarn, I would guess that there’s a definite connection between the sudden appearance of a stepmother in teenaged Eliyahu’s life, his subsequent draft into the Czar’s army and, later, his move to Priluky, where he married my great grandmother Risja.

I searched also for my great grandmother Risja’s roots at the Minsk archive, but did not find any Shepsenvol families in any of the books that I browsed through. I was told that the Maladzyechna area was, at that time, part of the Vilnius Gubernia (Governorate), and all documents are stored in the Lithuanian State Historical Archives. So perhaps I see another trip to Vilnius in my future…