Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Kaddish on the Kindle

We left Vilnius early Saturday morning. Before our landlady picked us up, I did a video of our apartment with my recorder. My initial attempt upon our arrival got great pictures of the floor before I mastered the intricacies of talking and focusing at the same time. As we drove through the quiet streets I videoed our final ride through the streets of Vilnius on our way to the train station.

The train station is not well designed for rolling bags and we struggled to get our bags up the steps to the platform and onto the train. A handicapped person would have a very difficult time functioning in this part of Europe. The little books that I had purchased during our trip, thinking they weighed very little individually, collectively had added up and made my bag much more unwieldy. There was no area to store luggage except for overhead, so we were fortunate that the train was not full and we could store our bags in an empty seat. As we approached the nearby border, the border control officers came onto the train. We had assumed they were from Belarus, but shortly gathered that they were Lithuanian when we stopped again for the very official looking Belarus border control officers. This was a definite contrast to our entrance to Lithuania by bus when we had not even known when we crossed the border.

The train ride to Oshmyany was about two hours and we were met at the train by Bella and our driver Ilya. Our transcriber Sima was waiting for us in the car. Bella told us a little about her background. Her parents had spoken Yiddish around her as a child, but she grew up at a time when the Soviets restricted religious activity. In 1989 when she was working as a translator she had the opportunity to translate for a group of Israelis at a Seder. She heard them speaking Yiddish and realized that she understood it. She was very moved as it brought back memories of her childhood and she felt that this was “her community, her people.” That experience inspired her to learn more and she now is part of the Jewish community in Minsk.

Bella told us half jokingly that they have five Jews and three congregations. Her synagogue typically has about 50 people. The Orthodox synagogue has a kosher kitchen so people go there first to eat. The Reform synagogue has dancing on Shabbat so people then go there to dance. There is also a Chabad which has a minyan evey day. She told us there were also young people involved with the Jewish community in Minsk. Minsk has about 2 million people and the Jewish community is between 10,000-20,000. It depends very much on how people identify themselves as there is much intermarriage and identifying oneself as Jewish is not always easy. If you wanted to be married, you had no choice but to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish.

While we drove towards Dunilovichi, Bella informed us that we were in the Vitebst Oblast. The area has a natural chain of lakes which made me think of my home in Minnesota. We were startled to see a gathering of ostriches as we drove. Bella told us that it was an ostrich farm which had been one of the farming ventures in the area.

We passed a number of charming homes, many painted yellow as we had seen in Lithuania. Whenever we asked why there were so many yellow homes the amused response was that was the only color in the paint store. The homes were wooden and had a cottage feeling with decorative trim. There were colorfully painted fences along the road, many in a mixture of blue and yellow. As we approached Dunilovichi we saw signs in Russian and I was pleased that I could easily read them at a glance with my very basic grasp of Russian. When we found the sign before the entrance to the town I stood by it as we got the classic picture of me by my shtetl sign. We entered Dunilovichi and were immediately struck by its charm. A horse-drawn hay wagon went by and we reached for our cameras. Bella assured us we would see many of them in the area. We pulled into what appeared to be the center of town with a church and a park like area in front. Surrounding it were homes, many of them painted yellow, with beautiful gardens. In front of one of them was the horse drawn hay wagon with several men working with the hay. Next to it stood an old woman with a babushka. We went off to explore, but soon saw our guide approaching with a man who we learned was the mayor of Dunilovichi. He had come to greet us and take us to the memorial for the Jews who had been murdered by the Nazis. The mayor told us that on May 1st and May 9th the school children come to maintain the memorial site and bring flowers in tribute to the Jews who died there. He also mentioned that when they had fenced in the cemeteries, they also had fenced in the Jewish one to maintain the memory of the Jewish community which once lived there. The marker reported that 829 Jews were murdered at that site.

Our guide told us that Chaim Ruderman came back after the war. He had come from a large family of seven children. He found his brother’s body and brought it back to be buried in Dunilovichi. There was a monument built right after the war at the site of the mass murder, but Bella later told us that the grave site had been robbed by local people who were looking for gold teeth. They didn’t realize those had already been taken by the local police on behalf of the Nazis. The more recent monument resulted from the efforts of Ruderman to collect money from townspeople and other contributors.

We then went to the cemetery which was on a hill across from a Christian cemetery. It had a fence around it and was covered with tall grass that made it very difficult to walk through. I knew Jewish cemeteries were often overgrown as there was no one to tend them, but had not fully appreciated what that was like. It was beautiful and moody and felt like a mournful and mysterious place.

I had previously received a spreadsheet of the tombstones and the cemetery plan from a prior visitor, but even with that it would have been impossible to find the tombstones I had identified without a transcriber. Nothing was laid out in orderly rows and there were no markers to identify sections. Fortunately I had brought my laptop with the computer listing and photographs of each tombstone. On it I had highlighted the tombstones in which I was interested as well as the surrounding ones which would help to locate them. I handed my laptop to Sima, our transcriber. I was happy to hear that he worked as a computer programmer figuring he would be comfortable working with the computer as a resource. He went around laptop in hand and felt the lettering on the tombstones in order to read it as in many cases it was no longer very visible.

The first tombstone that we saw was Schneyder. It was a large tombstone with a lot of writing and in a very central location. Bella said he must have been an important man to have such a large tombstone. I knew others who shared my family name and had Schneiders in their family so I decided to try a tombstone rubbing of it. I brought out my interfacing, oil pastels, gloves and tape. My scissors were packed away, but Bella assured me they had a knife we could use. When they offered me a butter knife, I decided to unearth my scissors and was glad I had come prepared. They had brought a brush and shaving cream (which helps highlight the lettering), but had never seen anyone do a tombstone rubbing before. While Sima continued to look for my tombstones, I got to work on the Schneyder tombstone. As it was a flat tombstone, I obtained a good image of it.

Meanwhile Sima had found another tombstone in which I was interested, the great-great grandfather of the Singers. The Singers in the US are third cousins to me and I’ve linked up with them in the States. Nachum, son of Benjamin, had a son Benjamin Zinger who had married Eska, daughter of our shared great-great grandfather Pesach Mordechai. If you are interested in following the relationships refer to the early blog titled “Discoveries” which details how I’ve identified these relationships from cross referencing tombstones, immigration records and naming patterns. I again tried a tombstone rubbing, but met with poorer results. I was learning that unless a tombstone surface is smooth and relatively free of lichen, it results in a bumpy and often unreadable rubbing. I am beginning to think about how I will paint my impressions of our trip and the suggestion of letters, but ultimately unreadable surface, will find its way into my artwork. The snatches of Yiddish lettering in Vilnius together with the suggestion of Hebrew lettering on tombstones speaks to the vanishing Jewish community and hints at what once was a significant presence. From that vantage point, even a semi-readable rubbing may prove useful as I try to capture our experiences in artwork.

Sima had located the tombstone of Eska Zinger, sister to my great-grandfather and I noted with satisfaction that it was a flat tombstone which should result in a good rubbing. Then I noticed a large pile of sand in one corner. It was a huge anthill and ants were crawling over the tombstone. Ruefully I put away my rubbing materials and photographed it instead. Smushed ants where not going to result in a good image.

I got a good rubbing of one of the Rayhel tombstones. I don’t know how those Rayhel’s relate to the Raichels of my family, but was pleased to get a rubbing with my grandmother’s family name written on the tombstone. When I would pull each rubbing away, it would stick for a moment into the crevices of the tombstone and that point of connection felt very eerie to me. The hands that touched that tombstone were family members and the tombstone had likely gone untouched for 65 years until my visit.

At this point I heard a call from Sima who had found the tombstone of my great-great grandfather, Pesach Mordechai. I ran back to our car to get my Kindle to which I had transferred the Kaddish. I had earlier read the Kaddish at the gravesite for the Jews who were massacred in Dunilovichi. Now I would read it at the grave of my great-great grandfather who died in 1904. I doubt he ever imagined that his great-great granddaughter would be at his grave site 105 years later and I’m quite certain he never visualized me reading the Kaddish from my Kindle. The tombstone was up towards the top of the hill, a rather treacherous place to walk to through the thick grass. At the very top I spied the tombstone of the last Jew of Dunilovichi who died in 1950 and whose tombstone is in Russian rather than Hebrew.

I carefully made my way through the tall grass bracing myself against the slant of the hill. Sima and I were the only ones there as it was quite challenging to get to that point. There I recited the Kaddish as Sima chimed in with "amens." I then did one last gravestone rubbing, not a very clear one, but an amazing record of my visit to my great-great grandfather’s tombstone. I carried my rubbings like precious documents back to the car and we embarked on the next leg of our journey, a visit to an elderly man in Dunilovichi to hear his recollections of the Jewish community.

When we got to the home of the 90 year old man we learned that his daughter and granddaughter were visiting. They were doing some work on the interior of the home so they brought out chairs so we could sit in the yard and talk. The home was the ubiquitous peeling yellow paint with the lower portion painted a blue green. The man sat in a yellow wooden chair and wore a sweater that matched the blue green of the home. Fran and I are both avid photographers and we caught each other’s eye to acknowledge the beauty of the image. The man had a long gaunt face and his eyes were clouded over. His hands grasped his knees or gestured actively as he spoke to our guide who in turn translated for us. His daughter and granddaughter stood nearby, interested in what he was saying.

He told us that when he couldn’t sleep he used to write down the names of former Jewish residents that he remembered, thinking someday someone would come to town and want them. Nobody came for many years, but a few years ago someone named Yankel came to Dunilovichi and spoke with him and now we were there. We asked him if he had the list of names, but he told us when no one came his wife threw it away. I asked him if he remembered my family names, but he didn’t. Names he recalled were Gutman, Katz, Ruderman, Zuckerman, Mindel, Fishel, Barkin, Trotsky and Shapiro. Many were names that I recognized from the cemetery. He recalled that Trotsky was an attorney and Schneider rented two lakes from a landlord and was a fisherman. He also remembered there being 1500 Jews in the town. He told us that he was first in the partisans when the war broke out and in 1944 was taken into the regular army. He and his wife, a dentist, were both partisans. We asked if there were Jews in the partisans and he replied that there were not many. (Note: they often had separate units as it was dangerous for them to be a part of non-Jewish partisan brigades).

We asked him what he recalled about what happened to the Jewish community during the war. He told us that they organized a ghetto in Glebokie and took some people to Dunilovichi. Some people tried to escape and were captured and brought to Dunilovichi. There was a ghetto on the outskirts of Dunilovichi, but it was only there for about a year.

Prior to the war the Jews lived in the center of town and there were 17 Jewish shops. They were artisans, tailors and shoemakers. Many were wholesalers. They bought raw materials, grain, wool and flax from the peasants. He recalled that they took good care about everything. People trusted them because they gave a good product for good money. He also noted that they gave credit while the Poles did not. His recollection was that the Jews and the Christians lived well together, something we have heard from others and which makes us question whether history is rewritten in memory as that is not always what the historical record indicates. We later talked with our guide about how people saved “their Jews”, the ones they knew well.

There were three synagogues in town. He described the Orthodox Jews, gesturing to indicate the peyese (long ringlets in front of their ears) and the tefflin (little boxes covered with leather with prayers inside) they wore when they prayed. He recalled the holiday of Sukkot and the sukkot buildings of the Jews.

He told us that both Dunilovichi and Glebokie were famous for raising pigs. Before the war the Germans purchased pigs, ducks and geese from there. He recalled that they only purchased white male pigs. Fran and I exchanged bemused glances. The man told us that he made his living producing sausage and they were the best in the world.

At this juncture the old man’s wife came out steadying herself with a cane. We had assumed, given his advanced age, that she had already died, so were surprised to see this old woman emerge from the home. She joined him and Fran asked what the secret to a long happy marriage was. He replied that he didn’t drink or smoke and he always worked.

We spoke briefly with his daughter and granddaughter and learned that his granddaughter’s husband had gotten a green card to live in Chicago. His other granddaughter had married a Jew and lived in Israel. We chuckled at how global the world has become even affecting this small shtetl in Belarus.

He graciously kissed our hands as we said goodby and departed for Glebokie. Glebokie was a bigger town, but not nearly as charming as Dunilovichi. My great-grandmother had been born there and I had the names of her parents.

Bella told us that during the war the Judenrat was established in July 1941 and then the ghetto was created. In December 1941, 110 Jews were killed in the forest. In April 1942 another 800 were killed outside of town. In July 1942, 2500 Jews were killed in the forest and a month later the ghetto was set on fire and 5000 died. Of those who joined the partisans, 100 survived. Grim statistics, but consistent with what we have seen all through this region. I will never look at a forest without having this connection in my mind.

In Glebokie we went to the memorial in the forest where the 2500 Jews were killed. In both Dunilovichi and Glebokie the memorials clearly stated that the victims were Jewish, something we have not always seen in Lithuania.

We also stopped at the old Jewish cemetery which was fenced and overlooked a river. When we arrived there we tried the gate and found it locked. Tall spikes were on top of the fence, so we considered how to enter. We walked around its perimeter and found an area with a deeper impression under the fence. I was able to successfully slip under it and the young man who was our transcriber managed to climb over. I had been told there were about 50 tombstones which I thought I could easily photograph, but I soon discovered that there were more than 300. Those at the back of the cemetery near the water were frequently impossible to read, but quite beautiful with the reds, yellows and greens of the lichen and worn stones. Queen Anne’s lace cast beautiful shadows against the tombstones. Ravens flocked around the cemetery, perching on gravestones and giving the cemetery a very eerie feeling.

A portion of the cemetery was mowed and while we were there, a local businessman who is contracted to maintain the cemetery, arrived to check on his employee. The maintenance man got up from his resting place under a tree and began to trim the long grass in the back portion. We later learned that a group of German Jews as well as non-Jews pays to have the cemetery maintained. In the middle was a Star of David formation with smaller tombstones among the garden within it.

Sima told me that he saw only two surnames, everything else was patronymics (father’s first name). I was busily photographing any tombstone with semi-decipherable lettering as I hoped to build Shtetlinks (web sites for specific shtetls) for Jewishgen.com upon my return. While I had the given names of my great-great grandparents, the likelihood of finding them amongst the many tombstones seemed slim. In Dunilovichi, I knew of a related family which helped me to locate my great-great grandfather by his patronymic and the other family’s surname. I also had the good fortune to have a spreadsheet of the tombstones to analyze prior to my visit. With no such tool in Glebokie, I opted for capturing what I could and trying to make sense of it later. The tombstones in the front of the cemetery appeared to have white paint in the lettering which while it made them less charming, certainly helped to make them more legible.

I later learned from Fran that while I was busy photographing, Bella had noted that usually the cemetery key is left with a nearby home. She had asked at one house and they pointed her to the home where it was kept. They had then had the luxury of entering via the front gate. Fran also had the experience of using the woman’s facilities where she discovered an outhouse. It reminded us that much has remained unchanged from my great-grandmother's time.

When we departed the cemetery we located a few buildings that included former Jewish homes and a former prayer house and then began an unsuccessful search for a restaurant. Apparently most people in Belarus don’t eat out so nothing was open. We then began our two hour drive back to Minsk where we were spending the night prior to flying out to Tallinn, Estonia the following morning.

Minsk was an experience unto itself. We were exhausted and hungry when we arrived. Our guide pointed out the old part of the city and we planned to walk there. Upon checking in at the hotel, there was an ominous pause by the woman at the front desk, kind of like when the doctor says, ‘Hmmm”. Apparently the reservation which we had made months before and prepaid, hadn’t been made or couldn’t be located. Fortunately they had a room which we paid for directly and then were promised a refund from the firm which was to have booked it.

We went out to locate some food and soon found that the hotel was in a strip of casinos. The restaurant within our hotel turned into a strip club at night. None of the restaurants took visa cards and although we had hoped to avoid converting money for one evening we soon found we had no choice. We later found that Belarussian Rubles were only worth half their value when converted in Estonia, assuming they were even accepted.

We found a small café down the strip from our hotel where we ate and decided to return to our room to relax from a demanding day.

There had been so much build up to this trip, it felt strange to have it completed. I was very glad that Fran had accompanied me as she gathered information and photographs while I was focused on gravestone rubbings and photographing tombstones. Her skills as a therapist also made her very good at asking questions of other people when I was a feeling too overwhelmed to formulate any. Seeing the town where my grandmother was born and lived in her youth was fascinating to me and being able to go back four generations to stand at my great-great grandfather’s tombstone was a very special part of this journey.

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