Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Trip Preparations: Planning My Travel to Belarus

“Did you hear about the tourist promotion where first prize is a week in Belarus and second prize is two weeks?”

Belarus is not on most people’s list of must see places, but for a family historian with roots in Belarus, it definitely made my list. Over twenty years ago I did an oral history with my aunt in which she told me that my grandmother’s family came from Vilna (now Vilnius). Immigration records revealed that the shtetl they were from was Dunilovichi, now in Belarus, while the province was Vilna. I went to the JewishGen Communities Database to get a better sense of the geography and learned that it was 81 miles away from today’s Vilnius and about an equal distance from Minsk.

When I contacted others who had traveled in that region, I was advised that getting a visa from Belarus was neither simple nor inexpensive. An on-line search seemed to prove that out. It sounded as if I had to stay in a Belarus hotel or use a Belarus travel agency to get the voucher which was required before getting a visa. This multiple step process required payments at every stage. In any case, it didn’t seem to support a day trip from Vilnius.

It was quite a struggle to get much clarification. My email to a travel agency in Vilnius went unanswered. I then contacted a researcher who had been recommended to me to assist in doing a day trip from Vilnius. Despite these efforts, I wasn’t able to get any guidance on how to get the visa without staying overnight in Belarus. When I don’t get a clear response, I’m never quite sure if it is due to a language or cultural barrier. I often had to press to get answers as to what something would cost and I wondered if I was inadvertently offending someone with my question. I would hasten to add that I encountered others who addressed my questions very directly and that tended to influence who I worked with.

I believe there is a way to get a visa in Vilnius, but without any clear information I wasn’t willing to take that chance so I turned to plan B, staying overnight in Minsk. In my Internet searching I stumbled across an organization called the Jewish Heritage Research Group of Belarus. I e-mailed Yuri Dorn and was delighted to receive clear information in response.

Yuri advised me that I could do a one day trip with an overnight stay in Minsk. They would meet us at the train and take us to both Dunilovichi and Glebokie (where my great-grandmother was born). He recommended hotels in different price ranges and indicated that they could book the hotel as well. I had already used a service that was very responsive, but heeded his recommendations on hotels. The service that I used (see link at end of blog) was able to locate rooms even though the usual on-line booking services indicated they were full. I also learned from Yuri that to enter the country I would need to purchase a minimum of 5,000 Euros of traveler health insurance coverage at the train station regardless of whether I’ve purchased travel insurance separately.

While I had hoped to do a day trip during the time I was in Vilna, I now decided to tag a day onto the end of my trip. We would take a 6:30 AM train to Minsk, spend the day at the shtetls, stay overnight in Minsk and fly out the next morning to Tallinn. While our original plan of driving from Vilnius had sounded simpler, I began to think the train might be preferable to driving when I read about several hour delays at the border for automobiles entering Belarus. By contrast, the train stops at the border for 15 minutes.

Yuri advised me that there are old Jewish cemeteries existing in Dunilovichi & Glebokie. Both cemeteries are fenced, which helped them to stay in fairly good condition. In addition to the cemeteries there are Holocaust memorials and streets with original pre-war houses in both places. We can also meet with elderly residents, who were born before WWII.

I received the voucher from JHRG with instructions on what to send to the embassy and what copy to bring with me. I debated sending the application directly to the embassy in DC or NY to get my visa, but decided to use a firm when I failed to reach anyone at the embassy by e-mail or by phone. I had visions of my passport falling into a black hole with no way of locating it and decided the $45 fee might be money well spent. Yuri’s words of advice were “Don't be surprised with Belorussian business etiquette.” Obviously some cultural issues I will need to learn to accommodate.

With all expenses it cost $230 to get a visa for a one day trip and that doesn’t include the actual expenses of a guide, transportation and hotel. While this day in Belarus has become rather costly, I think I would always regret if I failed to visit the shtetls when I was so close. My decision to travel there has already unlocked a number of resources that have led to some exciting breakthroughs in my research.

Coming Up….A Discovery

Links for services that are referenced in this blog follow:

Jewish Gen Communities Database
Jewish Heritage Research Group
Visa service
Hotel booking service

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