A Schedrin/Bobruisk Travelog
by Sheldon Benjamin, MD, Miriam Rosenblum, Malka Benjamin, and Raphael Benjamin
[Ed. note: this is excerpted from a much longer original document that covers the entire trip taken in June, 1996 by Sheldon Benjamin, Miriam Rosenblum, and their children Rafi (age 8) and Malka (age 11). The Oleg referred to is Oleg Perzashkevich, the Minsk researcher, who is an old friend of Sheldon’s.]
Part 1: SCHEDRIN, BELARUS
Having spent most of the afternoon in Streshin, we decided to pass on what would have been a difficult route to the tiny village of Kalinovka, where Zusya and Slava Riva rented a summer house. To her customers in the long-ago Kalinovka summers of her childhood she was Sorele Di Milkhike (Sorele the Milkmaid). The road to Kalinovka, actually a series of dirt roads crossing through fields and little villages, would have required a few hours round trip. Instead, we headed for Schedrin, the town in which Sheldon’s great grandfather Nesoneyl (a.k.a. Sonneh, Sholem) had died. This was also the town of origin of Sheldon’s Uncle Hirsh Refkin, who was known by the family only as "Uncle," the kindly husband of Tante Henya (known only as "Tante" to Sheldon growing up).
The sign demarcating the city limits of Schedrin. L. to R., Malka, Rafi, Sheldon, and Miriam.
In 1992, our attempt to cross from Paritch to Schedrin had been foiled since the one ferry crossing of the Berezina River that day had already occurred. This time, approaching from the southeast, no rivers needed to be crossed and we had no problem. Our proposed visit to Schedrin had been the reason Fania Palay of Bobruisk had decided to accompany us. Her mother had come from Schedrin. Every year on the first Sunday in July, Fania returns to Schedrin for a memorial meeting and reunion of the descendants of Schedrin Jews.
The road to Schedrin took us through Radusha, a long narrow town that had previously existed for us only in Bubbe’s stories. Driving down the long narrow boulevard the road becomes in Radusha, our van was totally engulfed in a herd of Holsteins being driven the other direction. Cows were milling on all sides of the van, making cow noises and moving slowly in grudging response to the switches of the stick broom wielded by the farmer. When, with some effort, we woke Rafi from the deep sleep he had fallen into, he stood, rubbed his eyes, and remained speechless, unsure if the sea of cows around our van was dream or reality.
Home of the old woman in Schedrin.
On pulling into Schedrin, we immediately found a woman who looked as if she had lived in Schedrin long enough to qualify as a potential informant. To her surprise we pulled the van alongside her. When she heard we were from America she asked if it was true there were Baptists in America. Here, she said, she was one of few. She had not lived in Schedrin as a girl but suggested we try another house nearby where an "old-timer" lived (funny, to us, she had seemed an old-timer). When we presented ourselves at the gate of this house, we were beckoned into the yard, and invited to come in. We were soon in the main room of the house addressing the wife of the man we had met in the garden. She recalled the Jewish community and said she had known many of its members well. The inside of the house contained surprising architectural details such as gaily painted plasterwork relief in the corners and center of the ceiling. There was the inevitable television, the carpets on the wall, and the great ceramic-covered plaster oven. She had no recollection of Sheldon’s grandfather or the Refkins though she remembered Fania’s mother. She could recall few details. A synagogue had once existed in the Golodetz compound on a hill near the tiny village. And the old man indicated a vacant lot on the southwest corner of the first cross street in Schedrin that he said had been the site of a pre-war synagogue.
Early Days of Schedrin
Schedrin is a village with a history unusual for the Pale of Settlement. In 1830 it was purchased in the name of the Lubavitcher Rebbe so that the famous Rabbis could have the right to the hereditary title of honorary citizen. In reality, it had been a group of Jewish colonists who purchased the land (apparently in his name). In 1865 a large estate on the edge of town (325 acres) was given by the Rebbe to Chaim Golodetz, one of his hasidim. The Golodetz family controlled the estate for 4 generations, with the hundreds of descendants of Chaim Golodetz all living in houses around the court of the elder Chaim. There were two other known family dynasties in the Pale who similarly owned land and had the entire extended family living on it as a community. They were the Seldovitch family of Berezin and the Hornstein family of Radomisl.
Schedrin, called "Schedrino" on some maps, was said to have been the site of an important battle during the Napoleonic invasion of Russia (more likely during his retreat). However, this fact is controversial. Oleg told us that such claims were made throughout Belarus but the archaeological proof is sometimes lacking. Of the villages we visited it was Schedrin that was once the most Jewish. In the 1897 census, the 4022 Jews of Schedrin comprised 95% of the population. About half of the 380 Jewish families that remained in 1930 lived on the kolkhoz (collective farm) Sotsialistishe Veg (The Socialist Way—it was named in Yiddish and was considered a Jewish farm).
The Jewish Cemetery
The monument to the destroyed Jewish community of Schedrin. The plaque with the Yiddish inscription has been torn off. The burial mounds of the mass grave extend next to this standard marker.
The old man took us to the site of the former Jewish cemetery, which also contains the mass grave of the Jews of Schedrin, murdered by the Einzatsgrupen in 1941. There was the standard government-erected marker to the slaughter, just like the marker at the site of the mass grave of the Jews of Streshin, only the Yiddish plaque had been torn down. Two long mounds, containing the remains of the Jewish community stretched perhaps 100 feet in either direction. In one of the mounds, Fania showed us a square hole, about 2 yards on a side, where someone in recent years had attempted to dig among the bones for gold.
An 1871 grave (family name missing) lying flat in Schedrin cemetery.
While we were staring at the horrific mounds, Malka cried out, "I found one." Sure enough, walking through the high grass she had found a Jewish tombstone which was still standing upright. She and Rafi quickly found another upright stone, and then two others lying flat in the field, one face up and one face down. One of the stones bore the Hebrew date corresponding to 1871 and the name Dov Ber. The others were difficult to decipher. Once again we said kaddish together. This time, however, we made haste, as we found ourselves in the midst of a swarm of moshkes, so thick they were coating our pantlegs, and flying into our mouths and ears. These were gnat-sized but bit something like mosquitos. In the growing darkness, pursued by clouds of moshkes, we ran to the van, dove in and slammed the doors to beat a hasty retreat back to Bobruisk. The huge black funnel clouds of moshkes suspended in the air along our route temporarily distracted us from processing our adventures with Fania and Boris.
Accomodations in Bobruisk
Back in Bobruisk we made a brief stop at the Jewish community office to unload medications and school supplies, took leave of Fania and Boris, and checked in to the Hotel Bobruisk. How we found this hotel is a story in itself, a story that reveals much about the terrible infrastructure problems faced daily by those attempting to do business in the former Soviet Union. Oleg Perzashkevich had informed us by email the week before our departure that there were no hotels in Bobruisk, and that he suggested we stay at a "European class" (translation: expensive) hotel that had been built in Zhlobin. But Sheldon was sure there was a hotel in Bobruisk, and this would be much more convenient given our schedule. It happens that Sheldon had purchased a 1991 Bobruisk phone book during his last trip in case it should ever come in handy for research purposes. With Bobruisk phone book in hand, Sheldon telephoned Oleg to inform him there were in fact two hotels in Bobruisk, one of them apparently just down the street from the Jewish community center building. Voila, the Hotel Bobruisk! But phone books are rare commodities in the CIS, and Oleg had to obtain from Boston the phone number for a hotel 3 hours from his own home. Such stories are not at all uncommon.
At the hotel Bobruisk, we rented 3 rooms, one for Oleg, one for Gennady (our driver), and the only lux (deluxe) room in the place for ourselves. And lux it was. There were two small adjoining rooms, one with a couch and one with twin beds, a small refrigerator, and a deluxe bathroom. We were not certain whether the broken wooden toilet seat, the absence of toilet paper, or the hot and cold water running from the rusty pipes were what made it deluxe but we were too hungry to contemplate this question. It was after 10 PM and we had had little more than black bread, pickles, and vodka since breakfast. But where to find food late on a Saturday night in Bobruisk? Oleg and Gennady agreed this could be a problem. The hotel desk clerk confirmed our suspicions but sent us to the one restaurant that might conceivably still be open (of the three or so in town). The Bobruisk Restaurant (what else?). On Saturday night, the Bobruisk Restaurant becomes the Bobruisk Disco. And there we were, with our children, at 11 PM, in the disco, colored lights flashing, dry-ice smoke swirling, and us trying to convince the surly Soviet-style waitress of the merits of bringing us vegetarian food. We began to suspect the sincerity of her promise to bring only vegetables when the tomato plates included sliced sausage. After a confrontation in which she indicated understanding our request, she returned with yet another meat dish. This time, when Oleg complained to her, her answer was, "Pochemu?" (why?). She proceeded to argue with us first as to what we had against meat and then as to why we should expect a restaurant to cater to our peculiar tastes. She ended up by saying that the kitchen was closed and she was finished with us. It wasn"t our first meal of bread and soda. In a small way, this event did serve to reinforce our growing feeling that Belarus remains a very Soviet place.
As we returned to our lux room at the Hotel Bobruisk we were struck with the same thought we had had our second day in Lithuania (the day we visited Shervint). It seemed we were accumulating a week of experiences during each day of this incredible journey.
Copyright. Used with permission of the author.
Content last updated Friday, July 31, 2015 at 04:03 PM Mountain Standard Time