Travelogue Baranovichi - Mitch Kotler Retracing his family's migrations from the US (via Argentina) to Belarus
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I contacted Mitch Kotler because he had posted on JewishGen's Family Finder that he was interested in learning more about the Kotler family of Baranovichi. I knew that Lyakhovichi had a Kotler family that dated back to our earliest Russian government documents in 1816 and it seemed reasonable that local Kotlers had moved just the short distance to the new boom town of Baranovichi in the 1880s when so many Lyakhovichi families flocked to the town. Mitch's family had emigrated from Baranovichi to Argentina in the 1930s. We still don't know the answer to Mitch's ties (or not) to Lyakhovichi, but when I heard that he had personally traveled to Baranovichi, I was anxious to share his journey of discovery with you. - Deborah Glassman
BACK TO BARANOVICH by Mitch Kotler, copyright 2007 Photographs in the body of the article are by Mitch Kotler, copyright 2001
Travelogue Baranovichi You are Here!
Travelogue Baranovichi, page 2
CHAPTER 1 - INTRODUCTION
Ever since I was a little boy, I was concious of the fact that my family came from Poland. What was strange in my household was the fact that my maternal grandparents had a long history of emigration: from Poland to Argentina to the U.S.. For myself, growing up in New York City, no one expects anything different and no one's history can surprise anyone. If any New Yorker can trace his/her family roots back 100 years and still find traces of some presence in NYC, I would be amazed. In the Big Apple, unless you are of Northern-European descent, your roots don't usually trace back to the time of the colonies.
In my case, my grandparents were European, my parents South American, and I was born in the U.S. One tends to lose his/her sense of identity with such a mix. At home there was a mixture of Spanish, broken English, and occasional Yiddish when the parents didn't want me to understand. All was fine and dandy until I moved to South Florida, that haven where everyone's grandparents feel obligated to move to because it truly must be the promised land. Whereas in NYC, being Jewish is as commonplace as being Chinese in San Francisco, other 14-year olds in Miami Beach didn't exactly see it
this way. Yes, what an oddity I was amongst my Cuban classmates and other newly-arrived immigrants from Central America. "How can you speak Spanish and be Jewish at the same time?," I was once ignorantly asked. As usual, I didn't feel like getting into the explanation, however, I would often comfort myself by saying, "Hold on, what's all this fuss about Argentina? Hell, I'm a European just like those other idiots! Aren't we all?" As far as I can remember, my father would occasionally remind me that he was not born in Buenos Aires, like the majority of my family. He was from Baranovich, Poland. In fact, he still loves to tell the story of how he left Poland, along with his mother and older sister, in 1932, at the tender age of five. My grandfather was the first to leave and arranged their trip. In those days, many Jews from Poland were emigrating, even without the threat of war (yet surrounded by constant prejudice). Apparently, anti-semitism was rampant in those days, enough for people to say, "Enough of this. Let's just get out of here and leave Europe." Besides, life had never really been great for Jews in Europe and this was a chance to make a difference in the New World. Unfortunately, my grandparents could not get a visa for the U.S. - the quotas for Jews had been reached. Argentina, I hear, was the next best thing. An immigrant nation in it's own right, Argentina was full of prosperity and new jobs. Today there are over 250,000 Jews in Argentina. Imagine that, they speak Spanish and are Jewish at the same time!
The name Baranovich first reached my ears at age 7 and became a footnote in my own personal history. For the next 20 years, it remained just that: a place in Poland where my father was born, nothing more, nothing less. I considered myself American, but what is that? I surely wasn't Argentinian, since that was just one generation, an "accident" as I like to tease my parents. How about Polish? Hmm, let me think about this. All of my grandparents (both sides of the family) left Poland for Argentina in the 1930s. My mother was born in Buenos Aires, but my father was not. Perhaps I am Polish? Funny, I don't feel Polish!
After serving some time overseas in the U.S. Air Force, the international travel bug bit me. Having traveled to Argentina with my family many times, I was ready to take it one step further and see the rest of the world. Poland was always on the back of my mind but I couldn't pass up on Western Europe. Finally, in 1995, I was ready for Eastern Europe. To my surprise, I searched for Baranovich on the map and it was not in Poland anymore. Since I had an old map, I was staring down at Russia instead. "Hey Dad, did you know that your hometown is in Russia now?, " I asked. He had no clue and, to be honest, no interest. Culturally and mentally, he's an Argentinian, even after amost 40 years in the U.S. - he doesn't even speak Polish, although I wonder how many Jews in those days bothered to learn the language of the non-Jews in their country. For my father, this Poland is just a fact of his life that makes for nice chit-chat. In response to my question, he offered the anectdote of when he first arrived in Argentina and didn't speak Spanish very well. "All the kids would pick on me and call me a Polack," he'd explain. And that's it, from then on, he lost his Polish identity and became a Jewish minority in a predominantly Catholic country. So whether Baranovich belonged to Poland, Russia, or even Japan, I don't think it matters to him. But to me, I found this much more fascinating. Why did this happen, how could it happen? Even more confusing for my family was when I informed them that I was actually mistaken - Baranovich belonged to Byelorussia, not Russia. Now I started getting confused when Byelorussia turned into Belarussia and finally to Belarus. "OK, everyone, this time I got it. We're from Belarus, i.e.,White Russia!" I think the indifference on my father's part is due to the fact that he has virtually no memory of Poland/Belarus. In addition to this, no one had ever been back so there was nothing really to talk about. If anyone had any memories, they were not good ones, even in times of peace. My paternal grandparents died in Argentina in the mid-'80's - if I had only been interested in their past when they were alive, I could have gotten a clearer picture of what life was like and of some of the daily prejudices they had to deal with (not that there aren't any today.) I would make an excursion into "the past" - this adventure to Baranovich would be my own personal
mission to return to the land where my grandparents had once lived and suffered. After almost 69 years, I would be the first in my family to return.
My first attempt at Belarus occurred in 1995. After obtaining a visa in Warsaw, I hopped on the first train bound for Brest, the first stop after past the Polish border. I must say, I was the only backpacker-type on that train because NO ONE backpacks to Belarus! As a matter of fact, the train was full of babushkas doing whatever babushkas do when they commute from Warsaw to Terespol, the last stop in Poland. I heard everything was cheap so I didn't bring more than US$50 but I had credit cards and travelers checks. Oh boy, what a rude awakening I had. I won't even go into the ordeal I experienced from passport control on the train. For two hours, the train sat on the tracks on the border of Poland and Belarus, part of the routine inconvenience they impose on the passengers. Brest, my first destination, was the next stop, but it wouldn't be so easy for me that day. For the first time, my knowledge of English, Spanish, French, and bits of Italian, German, and Korean would not save me. Let me advise anyone traveling east of Poland - learn Russian! Even the basic phrases would have made my life easier. For not understanding the Russian customs guy, I payed the price by being ordered to the front of the train where I was placed with another "bad" foreigner. The other foreigner was an African who was being "returned" to Russia via Belarus. You see, he had entered Poland without a visa so he being sent back to where he came from. I figured that he spoke either English or French and I was right - English it was. He explained the whole situation of customs agents who treat all foreigners as spies. I finally, we reached Brest, and an English-speaking lady who worked at the train station met me. She explained to be me that although I had a visa for Belarus, I couldn't just show up in the country without accomodations and that is what I guess was the reason for all this fuss. Folks, this was 1995 and nothing has changed since. Once a spy, always a spy, I guess.... Well, to make a long story short, I learned about their three-tiered hotel rate system and ran out of cash real fast. The next morning I myself on a train headed back to Warsaw. Mission: Aborted. Baranovich would have to wait till next time.
"Next time" finally arrived in 2001. Ten years after the "independence" of Belarus, I heard that Minsk today was, in some ways, more Soviet than even Moscow. I started my research about 3 months before leaving and let me tell you, don't go looking in a bookstore for books on Belarus. The best I could find was "Let's Go Eastern Europe" which has recently added Belarus into it's list of places to go. Sadly enough, there are less than 10 pages devoted to the subject. Instead, I turned to the internet and discovered that this new frontier had everything I needed. I found and a purchased "Minsk in Your Pocket" and browsed endless other websites related to my trip. I also built a small network of other interested people, thanks to www.JewishGen.com. A complete list of websites and information can be found at the end of this paper.
One particular website, eejhp.tripod.ca, proved to be indispensable and an essential place for me to start my trip on the right track. It is the home of the East European Jewish Heritage Project, run by Frank Swartz, an American expatriate living in Minsk with his Belarussian wife, Galina. Frank and Galina assisted me in obtaining my visa, accomodations, transportation, and much more. Having someone who spoke my language already in Belarus made the whole trip much, much easier. I had nothing to worry about except not missing my flights!
CHAPTER 2 - ARRIVAL
Arriving in Minsk, I was surprised to find the airport rather impressive, at least from the inside and at least for being situated in a country like Belarus. Ugly on the outside, but nicely furnished in marble on the inside, it was air-conditioned, clean, and was not what I had envisioned at all. All was fine until I learned that the airlines, not the Belarussian carrier, lost my luggage. If I had to chooose a country where my luggage would get lost, I'd rather it occur in a place that is known for it's organization and customer service. Well, my luggage did get lost enroute to Minsk, in Frankfurt to be exact. Unfortunately, I had to depend on the personnel in the Minsk airport to help me find it! I instantly envisioned a language-barriered ordeal at the airport, searching for my luggage, explaining to customs why I'm even there, etc, yet to my surprise, the experience was quite the opposite. This would be the beginning of a ten-day adventure in which I would learn not to believe everything I had read. I heard horror stories about Belarus, about its police force, telephone service, etc. It turned out that I only had to wait on line to be helped, and not a very long one at all. There was a party of about six Italians ahead of me who were in the same boat as I was and I heard them speaking some English to the airline agent. "Hmm, they speak English here in at the airport, that's great," I said to myself. So far, it had not been what I had expected at all. In fact, the agent was very helpful and even a bit on the humble side. My only worry was that Frank, who was waiting for me in the terminal, would not see me and think that I had missed my flight for some reason. I could not exit the baggage terminal and come back to the Lufthansa agent, so I was just stuck there until it was my turn in line. After one hour, I filled out all the lost-luggage forms and exited the terminal. There was Frank holding a sign with my last name and I sighed with relief. From his experience, luggage gets lost all the time so he usually hangs around till everyone has exited. He was with his daughter Sasha, who spoke fluent English, and off we were.
We exited the airport and walked up to a white van where I met Frank's driver, Vlad. As we exited the deserted airport (there was virtually no traffic at all) I was again mildly surprised. Enroute to the city center, the highway was not what I had envisioned the night before back in Oakland. The roads where not plagued with potholes, signs were not broken or faded, and the cars that were on the road were not all Soviet-made rejects. In fact, we rode on a smooth 2-lane road with very few cars in sight till we got close to Minsk. In addition, there was lots of greenery to be seen from every angle. For a short moment we had a Lexus SUV in front of us! Not what I expected!
We pulled up to Frank's apartment where I was greeted by his wife and mother-in-law. Belarussian apartments are small but truly solid. I remember the walls and floor looking like solid concrete - no neighbor's loud party could penetrate these massive slabs of rock. Ever knock on the wall of an apartment or house in the U.S.? You hands don't hurt and you can feel that you're not knocking on 100% solid concrete. Do this in Belarus and you'll hurt your hand! I must say that by western standards, the conditions were a bit "different" to say the least, but that's Belarus. Life is not easy and a lot of things we take for granted in the West are part of your normal everyday life in the East. Their tiny bathroom served as both bathroom, shower room, and laundry room. The kitchen was another tight squeeze as well as one would have to pull out a little table, which was normally positioned against the wall to allow for more space, to sit down and eat. I could not imagine a family of 3 or 4 living in an apartment this size but people do. In the old days when Communism ruled, the government decided who got what size apartment but I'm not clear on what the provisions would be if one had a large family. Perhaps large families don't exist for those very reasons.
CHAPTER 3 - BOBRUISK
While waiting for my luggage to be delivered from the airport, I decided I wouldn't waste a minute so off I went to Bobruisk with my American friend, Andrew. Andrew works for the U.S. Embassy in Yekaterinburg, Russia, a world away from even Moscow. We had been talking about meeting up in Belarus for some time since his family was also from Belarus. When he got assigned to Yekaterinburg, I knew the day would come soon.
We met in front of the new main train station in Minsk, which is really very, very nice. Unfortunately, our train to Bobruisk departed from the old main station, directly adjacent to the new station, which seems to be very much in use. Thanks to his Russian fluency, we were able to purchase tickets in a jiffy and be on our way. The train ride would last 2.5 hours even though the distance to our destination would make one think that 1 hour would be plenty of time to complete such a journey. The trains in Belarus are plain and slow, no matter what class one chooses to ride in. It's no surprise that 1st Class in Belarus could be some other country's 5th class, if there were such a thing.
There's not a whole lot to say about Bobruisk other than it's a small town that once had very many Jews. I sometimes wonder if people there even know what a Jew is. As we walked through the desolate streets, I could picture a vibrant Jewish community here only 70 years ago. We had no information about the town except for the address of the "synagogue", which is actually run out of someones apartment. Since we arrived rather unexpectedly, no one was home so wandered through the town instead. As a challenge (or perhaps a joke), we entered several bookstores looking for a city map. One answer we got was, "We sold it a while back." It turned out that they sold it and that was it, they never replenished their stock. Whether this was due to a lack of demand or not, we'll never know, but this response did seem typically "Russian." We proceded down the streets, took our pictures of Lenin's statue (he's everywhere), some buildings, parks, and little kids pushing a baby carriage.
Unaccompanied children on a Bobruisk street
We proceeded to the train station to catch our "cattle car" back to Minsk. Now, train stations are typically interesting places regarding the various human characters that can be found in them, especially in the East. As we walked through the narrow hallway, there was the ticket booth to our left, and some teenager selling newspapers and magazines to our right. Nothing fancy, mind you, just a fold-up table with the items spread across the top. Some of the magazines were pornographic, which didn't surprise me a bit.
Going forward, we exited the hall and entered the track area. The front of the station was neatly painted and the name "Bobruisk" was nicely displayed across the top. "What a lovely picture this would make," Andrew thought. Not so fast, cowboy! As soon as he whipped out his camera the
young boy selling magazines came running out and warned us not to do so because this was a military building. Military building?! For pete's sake, this was a little train station in the middle of bumf**k Belarus so what secrets could two obvious tourists "steal" from taking a picture of the train station's facade? Instead of arguing, we complied yet contemplated taking a shot from the train as we'd pull away from the station. A few minutes later, a man dressed in camouflage did appear from the hallway so perhaps that kid was, indeed, looking out for us as there were some military personnel in the area. After all, we wouldn't want our film confiscated and lose our photos, not to mention all the hassle that would go along with that sort of scenario. The "army" guy then walked back into the train station and disappeared for a few minutes at which time our "friend" came back to give us "the green light" to take some photos. He explained that the army guy was going to be occupied for a little while so now was the time to take photos. The kid WAS on our side! Andrew took his picture and we proceeded back to the tracks to wait for our train. About 10 minutes later the army guy popped his head out of the little train station corridor and it all made sense when we saw that he had his porno mag under his arm. "This would make for a perfect movie script," I thought to myself. Finally, our train pulled in and we started our 2 1/2 hour journey back to Minsk.
Travelogue Baranovichi You are Here!
Travelogue Baranovichi, page 2