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Travelogue Baranovichi - Mitch Kotler Retracing his family's migrations from the US (via Argentina) to Belarus

To view other pages in our Photos category, click the "Photos" button in the left hand column

BACK TO BARANOVICH, part two by Mitch Kotler, copyright 2007 Photographs in the body of the article are by Mitch Kotler, copyright 2001

Travelogue Baranovichi
Travelogue Baranovichi, page 2 You are Here!


While my first full day in-country was spent in Bobruisk, the next few were reserved for Minsk, a city transformed by war and reconstruction. It is true what the travel books say about Minsk, as few and far between of them as they seem to be. It is a city more Soviet than Moscow yet not so gray as one may imagine. Yes, there are lots of parks and wide avenues. One can only imagine what this place looked like only 50 years ago, after the ravages of war destroyed 90% of her structures. Although today very little remains of that period, the "newer" edifices, mainly the apartment buildings, or "blocks" as they are known in this part of the world, could be described as a typical scene in some American city. From a distance, these majestic towers symbolize everything grand and powerful that communism must have once offered the common man. I must say, I haven't seen such huge buildings since having lived in NYC. However, as with all things Russian, or Belarussian for that matter, a second glance is required to fully understand one's surroundings. As big as they are, the closer you get, the uglier they become. Rotten to the core, these massive structures haven't seen a caring hand since the day they were erected. In Belarus, as in many other Eastern countries, the common areas are neglected and, come hell or high water, no one seems to do anything about it. Although, I must admit, that the lawns surrounding the buildings are mowed regularly (thanks to government/military workers), the facades are stained and ugly, with no real attention paid to anything that may be broken. I had already secured an apartment with Frank via our email conversations and was assured that the apartment I'd have would be cozy. So far, from the outside, it didn't look too good. Sasha, Frank's daughter, took me to what would be my new home for the next ten days.

The inside of this monster was even worse, rather scary if you ask me. There is no security, i.e., no key or buzzer for one to enter from the ground floor. Instead, there was an old wooden door that just swung open and led me to the "lobby", if it could be called that. The "lobby" was completely unlit, except for the sunlight shining through the cracks around the door and one opaque window with broken glass. It didn't particularly smell bad nor was there garbage strewn about but it was such an eyesore, so ugly and neglected. Moving towards the elevator was even more "fun." Now, I consider myself non-ethnocentric, that is, I can accept and embrace what's different, however, in this case, I don't see how anyone could embrace such living conditions. Living in a slum is universally undesirable, isn't it? I imagine that only becoming desensitized over time to the neglect can one look the other way without a second thought. The elevator, big enough for about two people, was still functioning but one would have to dismiss any chance of a good safety inspection. Dimly lit but operable, we entered and hit the button for the 5th floor, or hit whatever was supposed to be the button. A few of the buttons had fallen off and for some people, reaching one's floor would require going to the floor above or below your destination and then taking the stairs from there. What a life. When we reached the 5th floor, there was another gateway to pass and this was the one with all the security I expected on the ground floor. Somehow, I imagine that the residents behind this door pooled their money together and bought something because security clearly was not included in original design of the building. We entered and proceeded to my apartment, one of just about 4 units on that side of the elevator. I tried to imagine if the ghettos of Harlem or Detroit could compare to this - the smell of the apartments, the holes in the walls, the filterless vents with god-knows what living inside of them, and walls that haven't seen a fresh coat of paint in probably 40 years. I literally closed my eyes till we approached my door. Once inside, I was relieved, and very, very surprised. It truly was a nice, small, and cozy little apartment! It's amazing what a little care and, of course, money can do. The place was nicer than my current residence and I live in California (another myth in itself). It was small but big enough for a couple. Even the ceilings were tiled while the walls and sofas were draped with fancy rugs, a Belarussian tradition, I believe. I learned that this furnished apartment belonged to a widow who made it available to me for the week, all for a cool US$60. What's more, it was located only minutes from the city center, by bus or taxi. It was perfect.

Although the main goal of my trip was to visit the birthplace of my father, the city of Baranovich, I could not ignore the historical value of Nesvish and Mir which were, more or less, on the way. With my gifted translator, Tatyana, and her trusty taxi driver/friend, Vitali, we set off on our 12-hour-plus journey into the "forgotten" flatlands southwest of Minsk. I say this because of my fascination with areas that are infrequently or never visited by tourists, especially Westerners. As we drove out of Minsk, the road was well-paved with very few vehicles. Peering out of the window of my hired taxi, Russian pop music going full blast, I reminded myself of the atrocities that took place on these lands. So many people died here less than 60 years ago, and for what? In the days of WWII, the German army barrelled through this part of former eastern Poland and killed Jews in any and all surrounding villages as they made their way to overtake Moscow. Besides the countless soldiers from both sides that died in battle, Jews were forced from their homes, gathered in fields, and shot. "There isn't one city or town that doesn't have a mass grave somewhere," I've been told. In contrast, today's seen was much different - as far as I could see there was nothing but green stretching for miles in every direction. I can't say this was any extraordinary beauty but it certainly was not the bleak picture that many travel books depicted in their depressing view of the country's landscape.

Our detour to Baranovich directed us to Nesvish, 100km southwest of Minsk and right off the Minsk-Brest highway. According to the Minsk in Your Pocket guide, the castle was once home to the Radzivill family, however, it is now a sanitorium for kolkhoz farmers. For a better explanation of what all this really means, I suggest doing a WWW search - there is information out there on these areas.

The sanitorium was not what I had expected in a sanitorium, if that makes any sense. The former castle was big but not that big, when in comparison to the castles of England or Germany. It did, though, have a moat and we walked across the bridge ( sorry, no drawbridge here) and entered the main courtyard where several people sat, enjoying the sun. There were no crazy people in straightjackets running around, as I had envisioned. To my surprise, the exterior of the castle was not in such bad shape, however, one can only imagine what the government could really salvage, renovate, or improve if they had such funds. After visiting Mir's castle, I would soon learn that there is hope.

Nesvish sanitorium

While doing research for my trip, I had learned that there was, of course, a well-known mass grave in Nesvish. In addition, a Jewish cemetary was also somewhere in town. Resorting to our usual off-the-cuff methods, we stopped people where ever we could, or rather whenever we could find them. Even if there were tourists in Belarus, they definitely not make Nesvish one of their stops off the tourist trail. As a matter of fact, there is no such thing as true tourism in Belarus so one should never expect crowds or queues at what would appear to be a tourist attraction or point of interest. The best one can expect to find is a local school or research group crowding the museum. The only execption to this observation may be, perhaps, at the Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in Minsk, where I saw the standard American and Japanese crowds. In contrast, Nesvish was just another cowtown. We asked several locals if they knew of a Jewish cemetary and someone directed us to a path through a pretty wooded area. Tatyana and I walked for about 10 minutes without seeing anything but trees and a lake so we asked the very next person we met on the trail. A man, looking a bit in his late fifties (it's hard to predict one's age when he or she has lived through such hard times) was very helpful, indeed. "There is a mass grave of Jews further on down the road," he explained as Tatyana translated. We seemed to have stopped the right person because this guy knew all about the atrocities that took place, probably at the time he was an infant. He recanted the story of how the Jews of Nesvish were marched into an open patch of grass in this tiny wooded area, executed, and buried. He then added that the bodies had later, most likely after the war, been relocated to a proper cemetary in outer Nesvish. The former mass grave would not be easy to miss as there was a famous dead tree and memorial stone where all this occurred. We were very grateful to this man for, as far as I know, there are no books or maps explaining how to find these places - everything fell together by word of mouth. And, as with all previous encounters with locals, he was very friendly. Did he know I was Jewish? You bet. Tatyana explained to him who I was and why I was there, as I'm sure he wondered why a foreigner would be roaming around in the woods of Nesvish. I think I'd be more nervous disclosing this information to a local somewhere in rural U.S.A.. This was not and would not be an issue for me in the week to come.

Nesvish site of mass grave

Tatyana was tired so I carried on alone for the final fifty or so yards. I marched along a narrow wooded path for a little while until it led me to a wide open patch of grass, like a bald spot in the middle of the forest. Just like this man described, it was all there, the dead tree and the memorial stone. There was not another soul in sight on this sunny afternoon. I took my photos and yelled at the top of my lungs, "Come and get me now, Nazi bastards!" Yes, their plan had failed and here was a Jew standing on the same soil where so many people had died, for nothing. My reaction at every execution site, every mass grave would be the same - "You bastards failed because I am here today. Come and get me now."

With Tatyana and Vitali as my "co-pilots", we took off for the cemetary where these people are said to be today. To say that we were in the middle of nowhere is an understatement - we were lost in Nesvish. Nobody in town knew of a Jewish cemetary - there was only ever one in town to begin with! It was decided the best thing to do was to go to the town's "only" cemetary and ask there, they would know. On this beautiful April day, it turned out that there was a Jewish section of the cemetary, not a Jewish cemetary on its own. We arrived and approached two old ladies who either worked there or were laying flowers for their loved ones. The first didn't know what we were talking about but the second one did. She pointed to the edge of the cemetary, saying that there was something there for the people who were killed in the war. Another 10 minutes of walking passed before we approached what was apparently a memorial, not to the Jews of Nesvish, but to the townspeople in general. This little piece of land could not be the burial grounds to the supposed thousands that died. There was no Jewish star on this tombstone/memorial for it did not mention Jews. Instead, the everpresent Soviet star, painted yellow against a field of white, let it be known that Russians (really Poles) died here in 1942. Yes, the Jews were Poles/Russians first, perhaps, so there is nothing inaccurate about this memorial. I do, disagree, that no mention of them being Jews is displayed for while they died as Poles or Russians, they were murdered for being Jewish. If they were extinguished solely for this reason, then they should have been acknowledged and identified as such as well. Yes, Nesvish pissed me off for the second time that day but I didn't shout out loud this time. Tatyana was next to me.

Nesvish cemetery memorial to those who died in WWII

Mir is situated north of the Minsk-Brest highway, not too far from Nesvish. It is unique in that it is, to my knowledge, the only castle in Belarus. Built in the 16th century, Mir Castle was built by Duke Ilinich, then transferred its ownership to Dukes Radziwils in 1568. Luckily, the castle survived WWII and is presently being restored, thanks to an international organization whose main purpose is to save castles around the world. The website at says it is UNESCO, however, I thought I saw a different name on a plaque when I was there. Just as in Nesvish, there were no crowds, no buses, or no lines at the entrance. I paid my entrance fee, which was about the equivalent to US$0.25. Entering the main courtyard, we found our way to one of the castles corner towers. As we crawled through a dark and narrow spiraling stairway, we arrived at nicely renovated rooms containing wonderful medievel artifacts. Thanks to the international funds responsible for this renovation, most displays were in both Belarussian (or it may have been Russian) and English. For a moment I felt like I was in a museum in Germany or England because everything was so clean and the displays were so professional. After some time in the exhibit rooms, we carefully made our way down from the tower and back onto the courtyard. Mind you, this isn't a huge castle, but it is certainly big enough for one family if one did, indeed, live here. There were hardly any "museum" employees in sight on this Thursday afternoon but there was one giant crane in the center of the courtyard which conforted me to know that work was being done - somebody cared about this place enough to save it from ruin.

As in Nesvish, I had done my homework and knew that there had been a ;sizeable Jewish community in this town not too long ago. This was really just a small town, one that happened to have a castle in it. There wasn't even a main street with shops and people walking about - it really was a village. As before, we resorted to the most basic method for getting information - talking to people on the streets. We searched for the oldest person on the road and hit the jackpot. An old lady, probably in her early 80s gave us directions to the former synagogue which was, amazingly, still intact. As with everyone, we explained to people who we (I) were and why we (I) were here. It turned out that she had spent her whole life in Mir and was a witness to the Nazis' horrendous crimes. She recalled how people were innocently pulled from their homes and slaughtered - some may have been killed in their homes. "There is blood in every one of those houses," she recounted vividly and with much sadness in her voice. As I watched a little boy ride his bike down the dirt road I wondered to myself if he would ever know what took place in this town, if anyone died right there in his parents' house. According to this lady, nobody really realizes that his or her home might have once been owned by a Jew or that anyhone was forced from his or her home and murdered because of their religion.

In the middle of a quiet residential street, we found the syngagoue, surrounded by a fence, but it looked more like schoolhouse, perhaps a yeshiva. It looked abandoned but not totally in shambles, at least on the exterior. As with most buildings, the Soviet star was encased on the facade, but this may have been added in the years after the war. I had some doubt that this had been, indeed, a synagougue, until Vitale saved the day by making a great discovery. By the way, this Lithuanian taxi driver deserves an award, a plaque, something because his keen eye found a nice Holocaust memorial. Around the corner from where we were lay a nicely kept memorial to the Jews of Mir. If you go there, it is not visible from the road because it is in a sunken grassy area, alighned with trees and shrubs. I doubt I would have noticed it from the road even if I were staring right at it. Tatanya stayed behind as Vitale and I made our way towards a long cement strip with a triangular pillar at the end of it. The cement strip had hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stones imbedded in it. I really could have used my translator's help at this time but someway, somehow, Vitale made his message clear to me: Each stone represented a Mir Jew who perished in the Holocaust. At the pillar, were engraved writings in Russian (or was it Belarussian) and Hebrew. Although Mir is situated in what was once Poland, there were no Polish enscribings. Thanks to Vitale, another memorial was discovered for the next traveler.

Mir memorial                                                 Memorial close-up

former synagogue of Mir

Novogrudok is the town that grandmother was born in 1901 - she found her way to Baranovich years later. Novogrudok was bigger, much bigger than Mir or Nesvish and this was evident as we pulled into the main part of town. Remember, the fact that I can say it had a "main part of town" says a lot! We knew the routine very well by now, stopping folks on the street and asking, "Can you give me directions to the is the synagogue?" This time we asked a younger lady, probably in her mid-thirties. I bet she never got stopped for directions in life! In a rather matter-of-factly and friendly way, she pointed across the street to a big white building. The only problem with this was that she was pointing at the town church! Oh well, synagogue, church, they're all the same. At least she didn't look at us funny when we asked her and, better yet, she knew that a synagogue was a house of worship. We drove around some more and stopped for some water, telling ourselves that we'd ask the first person we'd see. Now, in the U.S., a young male with a cleanly shaven head and donning a nose ring, would be the last person to ask. In Belarus it must mean that he's trying to fit in and there's nothing to be afraid of! We contemplated whether or not he would be a good choice but in the end, we just asked him. As it turned out, he was actually very helpful, giving us detailed directions to our destination, although I was beginning to doubt him after his instructions led us a few miles out of town! We ended up in a residential area (as most of Novogrudok is anyway) in front of a large, yellow, wooden schoolhouse-looking structure. "This is not a synagogue," I explained to Vitali and Tatyana, "this can't be." Next to the "synagogue" was a house and its two residents were out in the front, doing some gardening and cleaning. They really didn't pay much attention to us, this odd-looking group of strangers staring at the "house" next door. I proceeded walked up to it in my apparent disbelief and, as I expected, there was no indication that this was a synagogue - this didn't look like a house of worship in any religion! Since the front door was locked we simply asked the next-door couple out on their lawn. To my surprise, they claimed that it was a synagogue, but only after we used the word "synagogue" in our question to them. I was beginning to think that the word "church" was simply synonymous with "synagogue" in Belarus, for this was the second time someone did not make that distinction between the two. I took a few steps back to take a picture of it anyway, just to have something to debate about later on, when lo and behold I realized what it was. We were looking at a mosque! It was not your traditional mosque in that there was no dome but at the very top was the crescent moon associated with Islam. We learned later on that there were some Turkish immigrants in that town and this was their house of worship. Tired of our wild goose chase, I was growing weary of this hopeless search for a synagogue in Novogrodek. In a wonderful turn of events, these neighbors were more than helpful in our search for they called another neighbor and for 15 minutes Tatyana and Vitali discussed where the synagogue could actually be situated. Finally, the neighbors' friend jumped in his car and asked us to follow him - he knew a Jewish guy in town and perhaps that would lead us to our destination. I figured this was an even better option because the only reason I wanted to find a synagogue in this forgotten part of Belarus was to find other Jews and tell them that my grandmother was born here exactly 100 years ago (if they even cared). It was all beginning to fall into place.

Boris Krotin

We were led to a small building, that seemed to double as a factory of some sort, when we were greeted by a man who was about to get in his car. This man was Boris Krotin, one of the very few Jews in town under the age of 80. The neighbor explained to him who I was and without any hesitation, he invited us into the building. It turned out that Boris runs a successful fish-packing and plastics factory. He makes the containers and sells pickled fish products, such as herring, abroad. A considerable amount of his sales is in Israel as he travels there often for business, although he only speaks Russian. "In Israel", he said, "there are so many immigrants there that one can get around just speaking Russian." The three of us, Tatyana, Vitale, and myself entered his office and for about 15 minutes conversed (in Russian, of course) all about my background and his successful business. I don't recall whether or not Boris was born in Novogrudok but he did say that he built his business there, which is not a bad accomplishment in Belarus. Looking about 60 years of age, I was told that he was more like in his late forties so I can only imagine that a hard life must have aged him. He employs 100 people in his factory, both in the plastics and the fish pickling sectors, each one earning close to $100/month. Let us not forget that although such a salary is by no means ridiculous, it is considered to be the monthly minimum wage. If two people live together and combine their salaries, they certainly can survive in Belarus.

We were soon greeted with some wonderful fruits of his labor - pickled herring and whitefish. Then came the bottles of champagne! Here I was, sitting in a stranger's office, feasting on the same type of food that my grandmother used to serve me, taking place in the middle of nowhere - Belarus! This could not have been plan or arranged in any way as just shear luck and being in the right place at the right time allowed this to occur. Of course, without Boris's hospitality, we would have been on our way within a few minutes of meeting him. Instead, we ate, laughed, and exchanged a few words of Yiddish that we both knew. Although not a religious person, he was must have been known as the Jewish guy in town or else we wouldn't have been brought to him. According to him, none of his employees were Jewish and that didn't seem to matter to them. "Is there any religious persecution?," I asked. "Not at all," he replied. "They don't know nor care what being Jewish is; it has neither a positive nor negative connotation."

We spent nearly three hours with Boris. It was close to 8PM, the sun was beginning to set, so we decided it was best that we be on our way. I still had one more destination to cover that day, the town of Iwie, birthplace of my grandfather over one hundred years ago, so it was imperative that we get moving. As we drove away, I thought to myself how lucky we were to have met here today. So, to those reading this, remember this: Somewhere in a small town in Belarus, a Jew is running a prosperous business. Who would have thought this would be possible today?

Novogrudok roadside memorial                     unknown ruins
webmaster's note - I may have ruined the sense of scale, the ruins are huge and impressive but the picture was too large for sitting side by side with the memorial as in Mitch's original.

Iwie was too far away from Novogrudok, probably a good half hour's drive, to make it in time before sunset. By the time we arrived it was really getting dark and I realized that most likely we would not have Novogrudok-like experience there. Iwie is really, really small. So far, none of the other places I had visited were this tiny but this was truly a village, not even a town. There was only enough time for one picture by the village entrance, next to a big sign reading "IWIE" in Belarussian. We proceeded to drive through the village and were out of there in approximately one minute. It was now time to go "home", back to Minsk. Tomorrow would be a big day, the main reason for my trip this far east of the Atlantic: Baranovich.

Vitale was not available to go to Belarus so I employed Vlad to do the driving. Unlike Vitale, Vlad works exclusively for Frank but is always willing to fill in any free time with chauffering responsibilities. This time, we had a white minivan to do the job and set off for Baranovich. Before leaving, we arranged to meet with Grigory Doreshev, the local Jewish leader/tour guide/representative. Frank Swartz had arranged for us to meet with Grigory and stay overnight with a Jewish family. It was Friday and I would spend the weekend there.

The route to Baranovich was the same as the one we took the previous day, except this time we would not deviate to any small towns. I must say that I grew excited the closer we approached what I call "the forgotten city of my ancestors." I say "forgotten" because ever since I was a little kid my father would mention this weird-sounding place in "Poland." Mentioning it as an afterthought was as far as it got - there was not much nostalgia in the tone of my father's childhood anectdotes. Even today, I keep hearing about that "cow by our house on 22 Vilenska St.," however, he never had more to elaborate on after the retelling of this little ditty. My journey into the unknown was finally coming to an end and after roughly ten years of on and off interest, I would be stepping foot in Baranovich.

We arrived around noon and I vividly recall us having lunch in the town's best eatery - a no-frills Italian restaurant called Zio Pepe. We all ordered pizza and although Vlad had never had Italian food, he was willing to try. Unfortunately, his first venture into international culinary delights was not a pleasant one - his pizza wasn't very good. But where else can three people have lunch, including beers for all, for a grand total US$5? We finished our meals and headed outside for a walk on this nice May day. As it turned out, we were on Lenina St., one of the town's main streets and only one block away from my father's old street, Vilenska. It's hard to describe a "typical" street scene in Baranovich with just one or two days' experience in the area. To refute all previous perceptions about life in the region, everything was not all gray or depressing. Some of the women dressed in a much sexier fashion that in the U.S. while the men were rather conservative in their attire. I do recall that no one really paid much attention to me as I strolled down the street, which I found a bit odd since I did not look or dress like a local. In my mind, I did not stick out like a sore thumb at all, which was fine by me.

We hopped back in the van and drove off to Grigory Doreshev's apartment as he was expecting us. Grigory is a man somewhere in his late sixties or early seventies and quite a live wire. We were brought into the living room of this small and simple living quarter where I noticed the walls were covered with many different posters of Israel and Jerusalem. I really relied on Tatanya now 100% for translation, although Grigory did try a little Yiddush on me which I understood and attempted to answer back. It was an interesting time and place for me as all my life I was told that there were no Jews left in Baranovich and here I was listening to Yiddush and glancing at Stars of David on the walls. We were treated very nicely and introduced to a few other Jewish people in the apartment who were there before us. These folks are supposedly somewhat active in the community, however, I wonder how much one can do in his or her "golden years" in a country as depressing as Belarus. Of the remaining Jews in town, almost all are elderly (some well into their eighties.) Anyone else either doesn't care or doesn't know that they are Jewish, or part Jewish. The one good bit of information was that there is virtually no anti-semitism in Baranovich (perhaps because there is no one to play the scapegoat anymore.) The biggest problem is lack of money for all.

With the remaining daylight hours at our disposal, we took Grigory in our van while he played tour guide. The first stop was to an area where thousands of Czech Jews, mainly intellectuals, arrived by train and were slaughtered. There is a giant monument on this site and it is a recommended stop for anyone planning on visiting Baranovich. Next, we visited a Jewish cemetary, well-known for having its tombstones stolen by the locals after the war. The story goes that after the war, supplies for rebuilding were scarce and the tombstones would make perfect foundations for new houses. Today, the cemetary itself is in a nice location, not hidden away from public view or way out of town. When we arrived, the gates were locked but Grigory, as old as he looks, was able to jump the metal barricades and get inside. I, of course, follow suite. In the rear, there is a fairly new and well-kept mausoleum, inscribed in Hebrew (or perhaps Yiddush) and Russian (or perhaps Belarussian). There is also a small monument, which does have English on it, donated by Baranovicher Jews who now live in Israel. Aside from needed a good mowing, the cemetary wasn't in such bad shape and the fact that there was a lock on the main gate made me think that someone is taking care of the place. Grigory explained that almost all of the upkeep is on a voluntary basis. Anyone wishing to make a donation to preserve this chapter of Jewish life in Baranovich, please contact Frank Swartz at

My intention before arriving in town was to purchase a Baranovich street map so I could find all the streets I needed to find for my research. This was impossible to do in Minsk and I was advised to do this in Baranovich. After one full day in town, we still couldn't find a current street guide - all I had was a pre-WWII map that I found via contacts over the internet, and that was in Yiddish! Imagine trying to get around town with that old thing! "Excuse me sir, I'm looking for Vilenska St., have you ever heard of it? It used to exist sometime around 1933!" It's like a Dutch guy arriving in New York City expecting to find the streets of New Amsterdam! Any hopes of finding a street map in a bookstore or gasoline station were wiped away from my earlier experience in Bobruisk, so operated via the townspeople (which always works well anyway.) One of the items on my agenda was Baranovich's sole historical museum. Small but rich in information, the town's only museum provided a wealth of data regarding Baranovich's past. Turn-of-the-century photos, WWII maps, and other artifacts were the main attraction of one of the rooms dedicated to life in Baranovich up until 1945. I'm also very happy to report that there was even a special section dedicated to The Holocaust, something quite difficult to deny even in this virtually Jewish-less town. After taking pictures of everything in site, Tatyana and I met with the museum curator who was a very kind man and even spoke some English. He was probably the only guy in town with access to records of old-Baranovich, the town my grandparents and cousins remember before many of the street names were changed. With help from his assistant, they pulled out an old street guide from the museum's archives. Together, we stepped back in time, back to pre-1945 Baranovich, and, like building a puzzle, I could see what streets had changed since the War. While the name "Vilenska" had changed to "Lenina" as late as 1960, other names had simply moved to the other side of town altogether. For example if you look for street "A", you might find that the name does still exist yet for a different physical street, perhaps now known as street "B". It would have been much easier if the names of the streets had simply changed because at least one would be able to simply cross-reference the old with the new, however, this wasn't the case. Perhaps the old names sounded too Polish as virtually every street was renamed after the war (those that survived the war's carnage.) The street guide at the museum was actually very impressive as it listed the last names of the households for each address on a given street. Browsing down a particular street, anyone with half a brain could realize how Jewish this town was. Names like Epstein, Shapiro, and Abraham painted a picture of a now-forgotten vibrant Jewish life. Unfortunately, 22 Vilenska, my "father's street", was not in the book, nor were any of the other addresses that were given to me, such as the one from my cousin who, as a 14-year old girl, remembers life on Pilsudskiego St. In an effort to not bore my museum helpers to death, I rushed through some photo-taking to show the world that this information does exist - you just have to fly to Belarus to get it. For those tracking down your family history, this is a highly-recommended visit. In addition, I must say that the curator of this museum went above and beyond the call of duty in his effort for this American Jew. You see, he was off on this Sunday afternoon but made a special trip to the museum as he was the only one with access to the old streep maps. I can think of many other places where this would have not taken place.

The remaining part of day was dedicated to my personal mission of locating former residences and other Baranovich points of interest. Arriving on Lenina St., it became evident that the whole west side of the street had been destroyed in the war. The city's main park now covers the land that my father roamed as a little boy. Back then, who would think that the future would bring ruin and despair for those neighbors who believed in Poland as theirs forever. Nevertheless, I took some photos of Grigory standing on the spot that would have been my father's place of residence nearly 70 years ago. Next, we proceeded to my grandparents' earliest known residence, perhaps before my father's birth, as I discovered this address on my grandfather's Polish passport. Located only a few blocks away from Lenina St., it was quite different scene. This was not a bustling zone of cars and pedestrians at all - in fact, the road wasn't even paved! Driving over the bumpy mounds of dirt, we found the exact address of my grandparents' house (yes, it was a house.) Still standing and looking quite habitable, we knocked on the door but there was no answer. Tatyana and I walked towards the backyard and found an old man reading a paper. She approached him and translated, "Sir, my grandparents used to live here before they emigrated to Argentina in 1932." Astounded at we heard, he was quite interested to meet us and called his sister who was working in the garden. The story goes that the two, both in their eighties, moved to Baranovich after the war. They recall "the town burning" and "nothing left standing." He expressed remorse for the Jews of the town and how those who weren't taken away by the Nazis died during the bombings. After relocating in 1947, this man built a new house, the one at the current location, and has lived there ever since. So, in the end, this was not the original house where my grandparents lived but it was the same location and that was good enough for me. He did recall the old name of the street and when it had changed as well as all the other street name changes that had changed and that I had learned about in the museum earlier that day - my research had now become confirmed by a man who was there and saw it all. We exchanged stories, took pictures (much to their delight), gave them a donation, and hugged eachother goodbye. Imagine never having contact with a person from the West and then one day this relic from the past comes knocking on your door (me) - it was truly a great experience for me as I hope it was for them too.

Our next stop took us to the home of Mrs. Turetsky, a native Baranovicher Jew and a true survivor in every sense of the word. His name had been floating around in cyberspace for a while, for those internet researchers striving for the smallest morsel of data regarding Baranovich. It was not certain whether or not he was still alive but if anyone deserved a visit or a donation, he was the one to contact. With the help of cyberfriend Eial Dujovny, I now had his home phone number so I called my cousin Sara in Boynton Beach, Florida. Another native Baranovicher, Sara Malachowska was born circa 1927 and lived a normal life until the advent of WWII with the Nazi invasion of Poland. By the time she was 14, she belonged to the Jewish resistance movement and managed to survive in the thick Polish forests for several years until after the end of the War. She then found her way to Brooklyn, New York by way of France and Israel. While in Israel she met Buchenwald concentration camp survivor Benjamin Bender and were soon married. In 1995, Ben wrote "Glimpses Through Holocaust and Liberation" (you can buy it at Amazon) recounting his and his wife's life experiences through this terrible period in history. From reading this book I realized that, indeed, my cousins were not shy or reclusive regarding their personal tragedies - my cousin Sara has been a great source of information as her memory is still vivid now as it was when she was a mere schoolgirl on Sadova Street. Sara even thought she new Turetsky as a neighborhood kid, but could this be the same guy? Fluent in English, Yiddush, Hebrew, Russian, and Polish, Sara was the one who could help me with the apparent language barrier and missing information and was very willing to make that phone call for me to find out. She called Mr. Turetsky and although there was no answer, I did have a backup number, the one to his son in Israel. To our dismay, we learned that he had passed away only a few years earlier but his wife was still there, now in her late eighties. We called but there was no answer (probably because she couldn't hear the phone ring). This was not going to be an obstacle so, now in Baranovich, we made another "house call." Actually, Grigory knew Mrs. Turetsky as there aren't many Jewish natives/survivors still living in town so we didn't even have to look at a map to find her. Living in a rather roomy house, we were greeted at the door and invited in. It was quite evident that she was in a very emotional state as I doubt she ever received a visitor from the West. She and Grigory spoke Yiddush and I chimed in (as best I could) with an occasional English-to-Russian translation from Tatyana. It is sad to say that this person is one of the very few living witnesses of the terror that plagued the town 60 years ago. Weak yet euphoric, Mrs. Turetsky looked too overwhelmed so we decided that staying there too long was probably not good for her state of mind. After a few photos and a donation, we were off.

If Baranovich could have a suburb, it would be Novy Mush. Located a few miles out of town, my research comrade, Eial Dujovny, had asked me to locate a cemetary and take a few photos for him. At first, it was like finding a needle in a haystack as we were truly in farm country, Belarus. Dirt roads, little or no signs, and lots of farm animals surrounded us as we bounced our way down the road looking for the "holy grail." We must had stopped and asked 3 or 4 passersby but we were finally led to our destination. Our "Jewish cemetary" was actually another memorial, way off the beaten path. I don't recall any mention of this spot on any website so perhaps you have it here for the first time. For the life of me, I could not direct anyone to it for the reasons mentioned above, but if you plan to look for it, word of mouth and directions from the locals seems to work well in Belarus.

The two-hour drive back to Minsk was filled with a sense of accomplishment. What seemed for so long as "Mission: Impossible" was now all in the past. Throughout my adventure, I felt apprehensive only twice about pulling out the old camera and taking some shots of the former Soviet Union. The first time was in the Bobruisk train station, as previously explained. The second and final time was, of all places, at McDonald's!

The whole McDonald's story is as follows: We arrived in the capital around 11 P.M., tired and hungry. We pulled into one of the few drive-thru McDonald's in town just to say, yes, American fast-food has also infultrated the once-forbidden land of Belarus (and because nothing else was open!). As a gag, I leaned out of the van's passenger window to take a picture of the drive-thru menu, in all its Russian glory. As soon as I whipped out my camera, I was stopped by the attendant at the window! "You cannot take pictures here," Tatyana translated for the geek in the paper hat. It didn't make sense to her or Vlad either, but I withdrew for obvious fear of having my camera confisgated and my whole trip ruined. So far I took pictures of government buildings, war memorials, and strangers on the street, but McDonald's, a symbol of the end of the Cold War, perhaps of the prevailing American capitalism in the East, was off-limits. I wish I knew the answer to that one.

Aside from a day-trip to Vilnius (Lithuania), my remaining days in country were spent in Minsk and Khatyn, the latter being the biggest memorial to WWII victims in the country. Khatyn is another must-see destination for all visitors to Belarus, but you need a car or tour bus to get there, which prompted me to skip it, however, fate would intervene. My last day in Minsk was meant to be spent walking, walking, and more walking. First stop: The Minsk synagogue, not far from the city center. It was here that I was befriended by four people, two visiting Israelis, their translator, and their driver. Noga Paz is an Israeli currently on assignment in Minsk, or the Zochnuk (as it is called in Hebrew) on behalf of the Israeli government. She was showing newly arrived Safra Shifra around who was visiting Belarus for the first time. Born in Jerusalem, Safra had lived for 3 years in Los Angeles so there was no language barrier to deal with as her English was perfect (and Noga was not too bad herself!). The Belarussian translator (whose name escapes me but I believe it was Olga), was not born a Jew, yet was extremely knowledgeable and enthusiatic regarding Jewish history in Belarus. She even spoke Hebrew! As we later discovered, one of her grandparents was Jewish and she somehow felt this an important aspect of her life. She spoke no English but Noga and Safra provided the details for me. The driver was a young Jewish guy in his twenties, a native of Minsk and helping out the synagogue by acting as chauffer for the day. Together, we walked through the old Minsk ghetto, visited well-marked mass graves, and explored other sites of Jewish interest. The former ghetto, located behind Minsk's largest department store, barely showed any signs of its gruesome past. Surrounded by freshly painted buildings and yuppie-ish restaurants that obviously cater to the few upper-class and foreigners, we roamed the streets while Olga explained points of interest in excellent detail. For example, approaching an old wooden door frame, she pointed out how this had once been the entrance to a Jewish household. Upon getting a closer look we realized how easy it was to miss this obvious artifact - the silhouette of a mezzuzah visibley made its presence on the decrepit old wood. Somehow, this proof of a "former civilization" still survived, through the war, the chipped paint, and the constant beating from the sun. Quite frankly, aside from Olga's narration, there wasn't a whole lot of history left to talk about in the former ghetto - there's not much there that is left. We all retreated for a lunch break at a very nice brewery/restaurant and dined in style, right in the heart of Minsk. After lunch, Olga left us to go back to her main job, in the synagogue. The remaining four of us took off for the Khatyn Memorial, about 50km north on the Vitebsk highway and that's how I made it to Khatyn after all!

On March 22, 1943, the Nazis plundered the tiny village of Khatyn, burning alive 149 people, including 75 children, as well as destroying 26 izbas. Today, if there had to be one place in Belarus that remotely assembles a tourist attraction, this would be it. When I say "tourist attraction" I am referring to its importance as a learning experience, a place of historical significance. Ample and freshly-painted parking spaces surround the site, an otherwise typical scene at any major western-style road stop, but not very common in the former Eastern Bloc. Upon entering the Khatyn Memorial, one cannot ignore the giant statue of a grief-stricken villager bearing his son in his arms; this eerie image perfectly set the tone for what we were about to witness.

The memorial actually consists of many smaller memorials, each one devoted to a particular city or town in Belarus that lost one of its own, Jew and non-Jew. As we walked through the immaculately kept site, Noga taught me a little bit of history: One in every four Belarussians lost his/her life during WWII. Today, an eternal flame burns between three silver birch trees, remembering this tragedy and symbolizing the "one out of 4" that perished. Electronic bells chime in unison every minute where each farmstead once stood.

Not very far away from us was a group of military men who appeared to be on some kind of gardening duty. It made me think - this memorial was not constructed for tourists because there simply aren't any here or anywhere in the country. On the contrary, this was put here with government money, taxes perhaps, for all to see and learn from. Tatyana later told me that it definitely was a major school trip site, much like one would visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.. Finally, with soldiers working in plain sight, I could only imagine that this Belarussian government does care about this human tragedy.

The day had finally come to say goodbye. Vlad and Tatyana took me to the airport and we bid farewell. The airport was desolate as ever - my flight must have been one of the few leaving that day. Would I ever be back? Would I ever be able to convince someone interested in tracing their family roots to take that long flight to the "Old World" and set foot a few years back in time? Perhaps, after reading this story, I hope it will.

( Note by Lyakhovichi webmaster - phone numbers and emails of individuals have been removed by the webmaster. Also Links change, and most in the list that might not work today can be replaced by others found on the web.

Below are some of the links that proved to be essential for preparing for my trip (in no particular order):,+,+Belarus

The Jewish Agency for Israel (in Belarus)
Noga Paz
Pardidamskiy Avenue, 6A
+375(17) 206-5686 fax?
+375(17) 210-1762 office

Uzheni Travel Agency
Alexandra Lobko
+375(17) 220-9898 tel
+375(17) 211-2607 tel/fax

Safra Shifra (address and phone removed)

Tatyana Andrushkina (address and phone removed)

East European Jewish Heritage Project
Franklin J. Swartz
13b Dauman St.
Minsk, 220002 BELARUS
tel/fax: +375 17 234 5612/234 33 60

Leor Plastics
Boris Kotin, General Director
38a, Sverdlova Str.
Novogrudok, 231400 BELARUS
(private phone removed)

Grigory Doroshev
Lenina 20, Apt. 24
Baranovich BELARUS
(private phone removed)
+375 (1634) 455811 office

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Lyakhovichi to Baranovichi Connections

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