Saturday, July 14, 2012

July 13, 2012 Slonim, Belarus

July 13  Grodno, Belarus

The hotel isn’t looking so good this morning.

The pool is actually one of those small wave pools…and the water was very cold and didn’t smell so good.

They offered the most unusual welcome vanity pack in the bathroom…

Perhaps they're way ahead on the STD and AIDS prevention front?

The room smelled.  Marci and I didn’t really want to agree with each other, but we did.  It smelled like urine.

Air conditioning didn’t work. 

Shayna’s bed doubled as Home Depot’s plywood dept.

Jakub’s air conditioner and refrigerator were so loud he had to pull the plugs to get to sleep.

Running around in the shower to get wet wouldn’t have been as much as a problem if the water temperature remained constant.  So, the scene was both running around to get wet….and dancing to avoid scalding hot water or ice cold…  

Add to that Belarus is one hour later than Poland…which means that our 9 am departure was actually an 8 am departure.  We are exhausted!  None of us slept well last night.

At breakfast in the hotel restaurant (which we learned is not a part of the hotel which is why you can’t charge anything to your room, nor use a credit card), you could have fried eggs or scrambled eggs.  I ordered scrambled; the girls order fried.  Three plates of scrambled eggs appeared.  

Jakub let them know “no pork” so when the plate of cheese arrived, it was covered with pork.  When he complained, they just pulled the pork off the cheese and gave it back.

You get the idea.  (oh, yah, I did ask the front desk if they could re-attach the toilet seat in Rebecca and Shayna’s bathroom).

With our guide, we headed out to Volkovysk, the birthplace of my great great grandfather Meir Levy Lev, born in 1848, as well as Slonim, home to the Levine Goldman branch from, we believe, the late 1700s.

A Righteous Gentile of our Generation

We pulled into Volkovysk about 10:30 am.  Our guide arranged for us a local guide, Valeria, who met us on a side street.  Surprisingly, he was wearing a baseball cap with the flag of Israel.  He was Russian speaking so our guide translated as he welcomed us.

He invited us behind his house where he’d pitched a large tent.  We walked in to find about a dozen people smiling widely at us.  Two of the older women carried bouquets of flowers while another had small books and a CD Rom disc.  As Marci and the girls entered, each was given a gift.

All the time, our guide’s daughter was taking picture after picture after picture.

We glanced around the tent to see that it had two flags on one side, Belarus and Israel.

They set up a series of benches to make a theater-style space.  With the camera snapping, our guide introduced us to one of the few remaining Jews in Volkovysk. 

Valeria, who had been given our family history information from our guide, reported to us that he had asked the remaining Jews about our family name to see if any of them remembered.  They had not (which isn’t surprising since the family left in the 1850s).  The older Jewish man, still, talked about Jewish life in town.

At that point, Valeria invited us to tour the Jewish sites of the town.  As we left the tent, we noticed a bumper sticker on his front door, “I love Israel” (in Hebrew).

On the fence in front of his house he had spray painted a blue Star of David.

We walked down the street, now with over a dozen people following.  We were feeling like celebrities.  It was an event!  He showed us the site of the ghetto, the site of two different yeshivot, and the synagogue building (which is now a theater).  Valeria knew everything about Jewish life in his town and was so eager and proud and excited to share it….the fact that we were Jews seemed especially meaningful to him.

We started taking pictures and videos as much as we could to capture this moment, both for us, for the blog, and for the Taube Center in Warsaw, which is collecting the Jewish histories of all these towns.

I video’ed Shayna in front of the synagogue, especially meaningful since her ancestor, her great great great grandfather, born in this town in 1853, became a rabbi.

We brought a photo of Rabbi Levy that Shayna referenced in the video shoot.  Afterwards, Valeria wanted it so he could do more research on our behalf.  Wow. 

Rebecca gave the friendship bracelet she was making to Valeria's daughter.

I asked our guide about an appropriate tip to give to him, and in what currency, to show our appreciation for his touring.  She told me that she had already asked him his fee and he refused to accept money for this.  Wow again.

As I was putting away the video equipment, our guide (who was listening to the shoot) told me that I was wrong….we weren’t in Volkovysk at all. But rather were in another town, Switzlich, a few kilometers away.  What? 

I guess my Russian street sign reading skills aren’t that good.

I told Shayna, Marci and Rebecca that this wasn’t our ancestral town at all…but another place that our guide wanted us to see.

As it often the case in life, there was a reason for all this….  The story here is not about our genealogy.

Valeria told us that he has a great interest in the Jews and in Jewish history.  He spent much of his youth hearing stories about Jewish life in his town and wanted to learn about it.  The Soviet influence, still quite prominent today, has erased those memories.

And then… walking back down the street….he stopped us and made an appeal.

There is a Jewish cemetery in town.  Over the decades, pieces of it have been taken away and turned into building sites for private homes and for a bus station and a garage.  Only a small piece remained and he was committed to preserving it. 

He told us that he had already gone to the local authorities to have the cemetery declared a sacred place to prevent its demolition and use as a building site.  The authorities told him that…(yes…you guessed it)….since he wasn’t Jewish, he had no standing to make a claim for the cemetery.  Even more (and worse), the authorities told him that the Jews don’t care about the cemetery and therefore, there’s no need to keep it.  The city wants to grant title to the cemetery land to the garage for expansion.

At this point, Valeria told us that what he wanted from us was a letter to the local authorities telling them that Jewish people do care about the cemetery.  He then told us that he had nine other friends (just loving that it makes a minyan) who had volunteered to preserve the cemetery.  He wanted us to be sure to include that fact in our letter so he will have more influence with the local authorities.  He asked us if we had a website or some other way to communicate to Jews.  I told him that I would write a letter.  Each of you are invited to write as well…let us know if you are interested and we’ll get you the address.  I’ll be making a special appeal to our rabbi friends…  This is, as Rabbi Lezak would say, holy work.

We got back into the van and drove to the cemetery.  Sure enough, it’s a tiny plot of land located in the corner of a garage complex.  In the middle sits an electronic transformer.  Valeria explained that about 15 years ago, a friend of his had gathered the fallen headstones (from the larger area of the cemetery now used for housing), placed them together in the space that remains, and built a fence around it so that it would appear, at least, to be something separate, different, and distinct from the houses and garages around it.

Look closely for Shayna on the far right.  The weeds are taller than she is.

He asked if I could translate some names on the headstones.  He took notes so that he could research their stories.

Shayna and I filmed more in the cemetery.  As we left, I said thank you.  He replied “todah” (Thank you in Hebrew).  Wow again. 

Now its getting even more interesting.  I had our guide translate to him how meaningful it was for us to be there.  He replied in these words, “Baruch ata adonai.” (Hebrew for “praise you God,” (which is the beginning of most Jewish prayers)).

Marci and I chatted quietly.  What was going to be a $10 or $20 tip for leading our tour changed into our desire to give him a $50 bill to support his work for Jewish memory.  As he hopped out of the van to leave us, I gave chase.  I called our guide out to translate…  “We want to support your work, to give you money to buy the tools or whatever you need to preserve Jewish heritage.  We want you to know that Jewish people care about this and appreciate the work that you do.”  After the translation, he replied, “Todah Rabah.  Ani Sameach” (Hebrew: Thank you very much.  I am happy).  I told him we were happy too.  He gave me a giant bear hug and waved and waved and waved to us as we drove away.

Marc and Valeria

And as it turns out, his motivation for all this interest and research was the discovery that somewhere in his wife’s past, there is Jewish ancestry.  This is HIS family history roots tour.

And now you know….the rest of the story.

Then, we drove to Volkovysk!  Very little of Jewish life remained…  No synagogue and only a few headstones in a larger cemetery. 

We went to the local museum (we are getting the idea that every little town in Belarus has its own museum). 

On the theme of images of Jews, Shayna noticed that there was a picture mounted on the wall of the cashier’s office….

The museum director walked us around, telling us the history of this community’s Jews. 

After the tour, the director invited us to her office to show us a special book sent to them by an American Jew with family roots in Slonim.  It turned out to be a Yizkor, or memorial, book, written in the post-war years, in Yiddish, telling the history of the town.  Yizkor books exist for hundreds of towns in eastern Europe (and if you are interested, JFCS’ Holocaust Library (formerly the Holocaust Center of Northern California Holocaust Library) has one of the largest collections.

The director was hoping we might find information on relatives.  Since my family left by 1900, we didn’t find anything.

We drove around the town, with our guide and the museum director pointing out places of Jewish interest. 

For lunch, we went into a local hotel restaurant that looked more like a cafeteria.  Each table was already set, though, including all the food.  Some tables had people eating while others just sat empty, with the food waiting to be eaten. 

A very mean looking woman came out from the back and communicated in a way that even this non-Russian speaking tourist could understand: there’ll be no lunch here today.

Turns out it was a State-owned restaurant and we were not permitted to eat there.

Instead, we found a pizzeria and enjoyed a wonderful lunch.

Quiz question #1: How much did lunch cost?
Hint: We ordered 4 medium two-topping pizzas, a chicken dish, three bottles of mineral water, two sodas, a greek salad, a plate of vegetables, and a plate of potatoes?
Answer: 200,400 Belarussian Crowns
Answer in US dollars: 24

Belarus is looking even better…

(Earlier we asked about the cost of laundry at the hotel.  The woman at the front desk said “just give it to me.”  Not a good answer so I asked for a price.  $6 for whatever you can fit in the bag…  Two bags and $12 later, we learned that its actually free to do laundry, with the expectation that you’ll leave a tip. Now I get it.  She was telling me how much to tip.) 

Shayna and I needed to film in this town so we set up in the main square, near the site of the synagogue.

We started filming until we got to the point where Shayna says where we are.  We forgot where we were… Or at least we forgot how on earth to pronounce Volkovysk.  It was funny.  We went back to the van and asked our guide an embarrassing tourist question: where are we?

We drove next to Slonim, the ancestral home of Marci’s grandmother Beatrice Goldman Levine.  We went first to Slonim’s local history museum where the director gave us a tour of the exhibits, telling us especially about its Jewish history.  The story was all too familiar; large Jewish population until World War II, establishment of a ghetto, the murder of all the community’s Jews.  On exhibit, they had a kippah, a tallit katan, both thumbtacked to the wall.  Ouch. 

We headed next for a walk throughout the town, as the museum director pointed out former Jewish homes (including the very building used for the museum).

Then, she took us to the site of the ghetto and told us how Slonim’s Jews were killed.  (In each town, the museum directors gave us tours, then joined us in the van to narrate a city tour.  Every time I asked about tipping and was refused).

Next, we headed to the Great Synagogue building, constructed originally in 1642 and still standing!

Yet, it’s in terrible shape….falling apart actually.  The director explained that when city officials came to her and her staff asking what the priorities should be for renovation of historic city buildings, the staff all agreed that it should be the synagogue, since it was both beautiful and had the potential to attract tourists.  

The Synagogue building was completely surrounded by a construction fence so Shayna and I were scoping out a high point on the hill overlooking the building to film.  Then, we saw on the side of the synagogue building a locked gate that opened just enough, it seemed, to squeeze through.  Can we make it?

Our guide suggested we walk around the building first…  Turns out the flea market runs up against the synagogue and the gate to the flea market was not locked.  Jakub opened the gate, we walked in, to be met by the security man charged with protecting the area when the flea market was closed (as it was when we arrived).  Our guide told him our story.  He reached into his pocket, pulled out a key, and told us to follow him. Nice!

He opened another door that got us to the opposite side of the synagogue building and Shayna and I then scoped out the best spot to film…and….then….we looked down, underground actually, to see a hole, an opening that seemed to lead to the basement of the synagogue. 

Doing my best impression of MacGyver becoming a Jewish historian, I climbed down through the hole to realize……

I wasn’t in the basement of the synagogue.  I was standing in the middle of the synagogue.  HUGE….  GORGEOUS…..with the BIMAH still standing in the middle and the aron ha’kadosh ,showing off the ten commandments in Hebrew.

I called out to Shayna to get down here!

The rest followed, with each of our chins dropping as they got through the hole.

Even Jakub and our guide were in awe by the place.  We all just walked around for a few moments to capture it.   Our guide explained that since synagogues were not permitted to be taller than the churches, Jews often dug below ground so that they could get a tall synagogue without violating the code.  This wasn’t an entrance to the basement.  It was the only way…right now at least…to get access to the shul itself.

Each of us snapped pictures galore, ran the video cams (on the iphone as well as the regular camcorder).  After we caught our breath, I told Shayna that we’d found the perfect spot to film.

Our guide asked us to send her the photos since she said she may never get another opportunity like that to see the inside of the synagogue.

Standing in front of the aron ha’kodesh, Shayna went on camera and told the story of how her great grandmother’s family journeyed from Slonim, Belarus to Leeds, England and eventually to L.A. and now Marin.

She reflected on the knowledge that since this building was created in 1642 and was the town’s Great Synagogue, that she was standing in the same place where her ancestors prayed.  And since her ancestor was a Bible teacher, we are confident he would have prayed!

As it turns out, one of Marci’s relatives collected an oral history of a great great uncle who wrote about the decision to leave Slonim for Leeds, England.  Shayna pulled it out and, on camera, read the words of this ancestor who once lived in that town….as he was detailing his decision to leave.

Belarus is looking better each hour!

Shayna returning to the market square, holding a photo from her family history archives of the same square a century ago..

It was nearly a two hour drive back to Grodno.  While we thought we’d get back by 6 pm, it was 9:30 pm before we returned.  The hope for letting the girls (and us) spend the evening in the hotel, quietly relaxing, evaporated into 20 minutes of down time before we walked back to the main pedestrian street for dinner at 10:30 pm (and it was still light out!). 

We had two requirements for a restaurant: they had to take a credit card (we learned that only about half of them do) and we needed a menu in either Polish or English (since we didn’t have our guide to translate the Russian).  Restaurant after restaurant….  Beer hall after beer hall..  Turns out there’s only one restaurant for American tourists…the same place as last night.  In fact, they gave us the same table and same waiter.  We were so good at ordering tonight, we feel like locals.

While tomorrow will be the harrowing border crossing again, we told the girls that they can sleep until the last possible minute (defined as just before the hotel ends serving breakfast).

What a day. Good night

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