Sy Pearlman is one of
the few American genealogists we know who has visited Nesvizh.
Here is a travel report he wrote about his extended trip in 1995.
Nesvizh was only a brief,stop on a long trip. Nonetheless, the story is fascinating.......
My wife and I have kept a car in Europe for the last ten years. Each time we take a vacation we go where the car is, take our trip and then leave the car with either a friend, relative or stranger. So in the course of those years, we've driven from northern Scandinavia to Egypt, Israel, Syria and Jordan. always in our own car. In 1995, our car was in Helsinki, staying with a cousin of a friend. We decided the next trip would be to Russia and west. From a cousin in Israel we knew we had relatives in St. Petersburg and Minsk, near where my mother was born, and we wanted to go to Bialystok, where my father's ancestors were supposedly from.
So, in late summer of 1995, we car-ferried over to Estonia, visited Tallinn, then drove through Latvia, including a stop in Riga. We never travel with reservations, but we always manage to find places to stay. In Tallinn, the tourist office gave us the names of some people who wanted to rent rooms. We picked one and stayed in a lovely home in a suburb on the Baltic. In Riga, it was a new hotel, with a lovely double room for $50 a day. We don't know of any relatives in Estonia or Latvia, so it was just a sightseeing trip through those two countries. The countrysides were pretty, the cities somewhat dilapidated. The core of Tallinn and Riga, where most tourists spend their time, is in much better shape. Tallinn's old town is beautiful and Riga's busy streets are very interesting. Riga also has a produce, meat, dairy and fish market that is outstanding; it occupies four or five airplane-like hangars.
The drive from Latvia back through Estonia to St. Petersburg was uneventful. We overnighted in Tartu, a university town in Estonia, then drove to the border with Russia. We bought car insurance there because Western insurance is not valid for Russia. There was a cursory check of our belongings, but nothing extraordinary.
In St. Petersburg, we rented an apartment through an agency we had found in New York. The apartment was on Nevsky Prospect, the city's Fifth Avenue. Since my brother and his wife joined us for the St. Petersburg-Minsk part of the trip, we got a newly furnished three-bedroom apartment, with all conveniences including tv, vcr, toaster and microwave. The price, $100 a day for all. My relatives, who were my grandmother's brother's grandchildren, are in their 70's. They had all come originally from the Minsk area. Our visit with them was wonderful, and lots of photographs were shown around during a long afternoon of conversation. One of my cousins was an English teacher so that helped greatly. I speak German and Yiddish and know some Russian from earlier days, so altogether it worked out.
St. Petersburg itself was wonderful, the Hermitage even better. We spent a week in the city and walked from one end to the other. Even its cemeteries, with the graves of some of the world's great composers, was terrific. Then we spent a week in Moscow, again renting an apartment from this New York agency. This was two bedrooms on Kutuzvoskoy Prospect, Moscow's Fifth Avenue. Moscow was also a sightseeing city for us. The museums are great, the architecture wonderful and we really enjoyed the city. Since we had our own car, everything was easy to get to, and we went nearly everywhere, easily and without waiting for a group.
From Moscow to Minsk is more than 450 miles, so we started very early in the morning. We filled the tank at a very modern Finnish-owned station on the outskirts. The highway is mostly two-laned, the traffic mostly trucks. And the traffic wasn't too heavy. All along the highway tiny peasant villages appeared. Their houses, more than a century old, were of wood and the window frames were heavily ornamented and carved. We stopped often to take photographs of these houses, with people often popping out of them to see what we were doing. We took a long rest stop in Smolensk and visited the Kremlin there. It looked very much like the Kremlin in Moscow.
We arrived in Minsk about 9 PM, called my cousin from a downtown restaurant, and she came and led us to her home, almost in the center of town. She spoke Russian and some German, as did her husband, and we had little trouble understanding each other. One day she took us to the Minsk Archives, but little was accomplished there. On another day, we drove to Uzda, the village where my mother was born. We arrived after the town archive had closed, but my cousin got the name of the archivist from the police and we got her to come back to the archives. My cousin, her son and daughter-in-law, who speak English well, and I started poring over the vital records books looking for our family, but we could find nothing with the Kunofsky name.
We also visited Nesvizh, where we knew other Kunofskys had lived, but the archive was closed. The town was kind of divided in two, one part looked Stalinist 1950s, with dilapidated apartment blocks, and the other looked like Tsarist 1870s, with peasant houses on barely paved streets. We took photographs of a former palace, now a hospital, and then returned to Minsk.
On the fifth day, my brother and his wife flew back to the States and Cyndie and I drove to Grodno, just a stop on the way to Bialystok. We didn't have any relatives there but thought there might be some records regarding Bialystok. At the Grodno archives, the people were hospitable and said they would look up names for us at a later time if we left a $30 deposit, which we did. Several months later, we received a letter from the Grodno archives that stated they could find nothing.
The border crossing from Belarus to Poland took a few hours, but the traffic to Bialystok wasn't heavy. In Bialystok we stayed at another new hotel, which cost about $50 a night. I had written in advance to the State Archives and they were very helpful. Volume after volume was brought to us to peruse. I did find the birth records of my aunt and uncle, the names of their parents, my grandparents, but I could not find my father's birth records nor any records of the birth or marriage of my grandparents, Srul Leibowich Pearlman and Feyge Rosachotsky. We spent at least a half day poring through their Records. We also visited the City Archives, where the people there were even more hospitable. Not only did they bring down every birth and marriage record volume that might pertain to my Pearlman family, but they helped me search through them. It took several hours and they couldn't have been more friendly or helpful.
Since we could get no more out of the archives, we decided to visit the towns and villages where my grandmother's family had lived for more than a century. The town names I got from a cousin I found in Paris five years ago. Now 89, she had done a family tree of the SKOVRONEKs, my grandmother's father's real name. I also sent her a map of the Bialystok to Ciechanowiec area of Poland and asked her to circle every town she remembered from her childhood, and write down what memories she had of each town she circled.
We drove from village to village, trying to piece together her various memories. It was fascinating. In many places when we stopped to ask questions or get directions, we found many Poles who had worked in the states, especially in the New York area. In Grodek, we saw a farmer directing his cows toward a barn. He was wearing a Yankee baseball cap. As a greeting, I yelled out "Yankees." He smiled and yelled back: "Brooklyn. I worked in Greenpoint three years." My Parisian cousin told me that my grandmother and her brother had owned land near a village called Janki; it took us an hour to find it. It was a cluster of houses surrounded by fields. A woman near one of the houses came over and I asked whether any one knew of the Rosachotskys. She called her husband and he told us that he had worked for my great-uncle and described him very well. He sent us to other nearby villages to people who had worked for Benche Rosachotsky. They told us about his family, remembered hazily by people now in their 80's, but they liked him very much and told us why. It all made sense.
To help us with translations, we went into the town of Ciechanowiec and found a woman who taught English. She was surprised to see us and excited about our find and she joined us for the rest of the day. She was terrific and when we finished she invited us home to have dinner with her and her family. She never asked for money and tried to decline a monetary gift I gave her. We stayed the night in the Ciechonowiec Museum, which had rooms for guests. It cost about $15 for the night for both of us. On the way back to Bialystok we stopped at the archives in Lomza, where I had also sent a letter about my family and that I would be coming to research. The director of that archives was very helpful, and with his help we found confirmation of many of the names on my cousin's family tree. We also gave the tree deeper roots. We found the name of the father of our oldest ancestor, Tevye Skovronek, who was born in 1795. We also found the names of that father (Berek)'s two brothers and family trees for them that took us into the early 20th century. A fantastic haul.
We didn't find all we wanted to, on paper, but we found a great deal just by traveling and talking. I haven't had time to do much more about the Pearlmans, Kunofskys and Skovroneks in Eastern Europe. But two years ago, I had another kind of success. Using my cousin's family tree I located a Skovronek descendant who had left Paris 50 years ago to marry a Spanish man. And last year, we visited her in Barcelona where she lives with her lawyer husband and their three children. It was a fascinating experience. She didn't even know she had American cousins.
We are now in touch with our cousins in St. Petersburg, Minsk and Barcelona, and we plan to go back again in a year or two, and dig deeper for those ancestors.