A Jewish American explores her family's past in Eastern Europe

04/18/2013 4:07 PM

04/18/2013 4:07 PM

WASHINGTON — "All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware."

My aunt showed me this quote by German philosopher Martin Buber she had written on the front page of her travel diary as we boarded our plane in New York City for Eastern Europe. We didn't realize how true it would be to our own voyage.

More than a year ago plans were made between my dad's sister and our mutual paternal cousin to travel back to "the old country" and see where our ancestors had lived before coming to America. (The first to come over on my father's paternal side was my grandfather's uncle in 1871; he changed our family name from Tikotzinski to Epstein.) I have been working on my family's tree for many years, so my aunt and cousin decided I should be a part of the trip as well.

We would travel to Grodno, Belarus, where my grandfather was born (then part of Russia), and Sokolka, Poland, where HIS father was born. We would travel to Minsk, Belarus (also then part of Russia), home of my father's maternal grandparents. Our cousin's mother's side of the family was known to have perished outside Panevezys, Lithuania, in World War II, so we would make a pilgrimage there as well.

Three other major cities were included — Warsaw, Poland; Moscow, and Vilnius, Lithuania — to give us a chance to see the sites there. And thus became our trip.

***

Before World War II, Warsaw was a major center of Jewish life and culture, with one-third of the population consisting of Jews. The Jewish community of 394,000 was the largest in both Poland and Europe and second largest in the world.

From October 1939 to January 1940, the Germans began their anti-Jewish measures — prohibiting Jews from riding in public transportation, requiring them to wear the Jewish star, and conscripting them into forced labor. In April 1940, the ghetto construction began. Thirty percent of Warsaw's population was to be confined to an area that comprised of just 2.4 percent of city lands. Christians were moved out of the area as Jews from Warsaw and other outlying areas were moved in and the population of the Warsaw Ghetto reached more than half a million people. The ghetto was almost entirely leveled during an uprising in 1943 but a number of streets and buildings survived.

We spent most of a day at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, where Jan Jagielski gave us a tour of the museum as well as his library archives. He had walls full of binders for each city and town in Poland. These binders showed photos of the synagogues and yeshivas as well as of some of the Jewish people who lived there. We also were given our own screening of "912 Days of the Warsaw Ghetto," a sobering documentary about the ghetto and eventual extermination of the Jews.

"I can still see their faces" is a project created by Golda Tencer, a Polish actress with Jewish origins. Two rows of old tenement houses in the center of the city, dating from 1880-1900, show what Warsaw probably looked like before the war and ultimate destruction of the city. Tencer appealed for people to send in photographs of Polish Jews so that an exhibition could be created commemorating those who died. These large photographs hang on the outer buildings' walls for everyone to see the diversity of Polish Jewry.

Our Polish guide drove us to Sokolka, about six hours from Warsaw. Our first stop in Sokolka was the train station, to get our tickets for the next day's trip to Grodno. In my notes on the family, I knew that my great-great-grandfather worked with coal. In the lot in front of the station was a huge truck transporting coal; I realized then how special it was to be in this town.

Sokolka, with a population of 28,000, is in the eastern part of Poland bordering Belarus, and is situated on the international road and train route Warsaw-Bialystok-Grodno. In the center of town is a museum devoted to the history of Sokolka. We saw rooms full of costumes and crafts of the town. From there we walked several blocks to an old cemetery on a hill. I stood among the few headstones remaining, which were all worn away except for one that still had a faint Hebrew inscription. I sat down and cried, knowing that I had spent the afternoon where my grandfather, his father and his father had walked and lived.

***

From Sokolka we took the train to Grodno. A visa is required to enter Belarus, which we had applied for and received before our trip. It took almost an hour for the visa check and upon arrival in Grodno we were told we had to buy health insurance for four euros before entering. Although the passport agents were very brisk, we found that the power of a smile overcame the language barrier.

Belarus had the highest per capita mortality of the occupied countries in World War II. Every family lost someone in the war. There is a different understanding of the Holocaust there and more Jews were hidden (again, per capita) than in any other country. There is no history of pogroms (violent riots) and everyone maintains that they have some Jewish blood in them. In the 1870s Belarus became part of the Russian Empire; before that it was Polish. In 1921 it reverted to being part of Poland and in 1939 it fell into Russian hands. Grodno was not badly damaged in World War II as it came under German occupation on June 23, 1941 — the first day of Operation Barbarossa, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

Grodno, in western Belarus, has a population of more than 300,000. The city is naturally divided into two districts by the Neman River. The left bank district was built up mainly after the war. The right bank is comprised of the historical center, with architectural and cultural monuments of the 12th to the first half of the 19th centuries.

My grandfather's seven brothers and sisters came to America from Grodno two at a time, the last being my grandfather, age 10, and one of his sisters, who was 13, in 1910. They left their parents in Grodno.

From a family document, I knew where my great-grandparents were buried. I had always hoped to see their headstones, but we were unsure whether the cemetery was still standing or was in disrepair. As it turns out, the cemetery — in the "Zaniemanshi Forshtat" area of Grodno — was in very good condition. A caretaker lives on the grounds and the cemetery is behind a wall and locked gate. Volunteers have been lifting and resetting the stones that had fallen over. We weren't able to find the exact grave locations, as the cemetery no longer is organized in aisles and rows of plots, but we stood looking over the area where people from that era are buried.

Beyond our wildest dreams was the stunning connection we were able to make by spending a day with Gregory Hosid, a native Grodno Holocaust survivor, who led us to the site of the destroyed Zanemanye wooden synagogue where my grandfather remembered playing in the balcony as a child. It stood in what was the Jewish neighborhood of Grodno-Forshtat ("before the city"), an elevated area on the banks of the Neman River. Zanemanye meant "behind the Neman River." We were overcome to be standing where we believed my grandfather lived as a child.

Hosid told us his personal story, of how he had jumped from the train that was taking him to the Treblinka death camp and hid in the woods. He ran into another refugee in the snow, a man whose wounds he cleaned, a shoemaker who fixed Hosid's shoes, and in turn they saved each other's lives. They joined up with the partisans to fight the Germans. Hosid took us to the Jewish ghetto and the execution sites of Grodno. We saw the Great Synagogue that was built in the 16th century. It burned down in 1902 and was rebuilt by the Jewish community.

My father's mother's family came from Minsk but we had no information other than that, so our guides took us to the Belarusian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War, which is the world's largest collection of World War II memorabilia. The three floors show weapons, medals, underground publications, general everyday-living items used by the partisans and more. We also went to the Jewish ghetto and The Pit, a memorial on the site of the main execution pit in Minsk (5,000 Jews were murdered in one day) with a sculpture depicting the victims.

***

We spent a day in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and saw The Choral Synagogue — the only active synagogue remaining in Vilnius. We then had a guide take us to Panevezys, about two hours north of Vilnius. We saw the former Panevezys yeshiva, now a market / cafe. We then met with Gennadi Kofman, the head of the Jewish community of Panevezys. Although we were there for my cousin's family history, it gave me great pride, as a genealogist, to "give back to the old country": My cousin showed Kofman her grandmother's passport and photos of her grandparents she had brought with her, which he gladly made copies of for their archives.

Our guide took us to a park which was once the only Jewish cemetery in Panevezys. The tombstones had been taken as foundation stones and walkways during the Holocaust, but some had been reclaimed and used in a memorial at the site of the cemetery. From there we were driven out of town to a dirt road, where a sign stated "Jewish Genocide Victims Cemetery." It was here that 8,000 Jews were killed in the pits outside Panevezys.

Friends asked me why I wasn't going to the concentration camps on this trip. In Panevezys it hit me — I wanted to see where my ancestors had lived. I had seen the Jewish ghettos in all the cities we were visiting. I saw where the Jews were forced to live during the Holocaust. Yes, they died in the ghettos as well, but I was seeing where they lived.

This voyage was about life for me, not death — to see where and how my family and other Jews lived in the land of my ancestors.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Linda D. Epstein is Senior Photo Editor for McClatchy-Tribune Photo Service: lepstein@mctinfoservices.com

IF YOU GO: PASSPORT AND VISA SERVICE

Travisa: http://www.travisa.com

TOUR GUIDES IN POLAND

Warsaw Travel Tours: http://www.warsawtraveltours.com, telephone 48-664-702-755

TOUR GUIDES IN BELARUS

Voluntas: fjs@voluntas.org, telephone 375 29 699 4016

TOUR GUIDES IN LITHUANIA

Travel Agency "JeruLita," Vilnius, Lithuania, telephone 3705-2333716, http://www.jerulita.lt

HOTELS

InterContinental Warsaw, warsaw@ihg.com, http://www.warsaw.intercontinental.com

Mamaison Al-Suites Spa Hotel Pokrovka Moscow, http://www.mamaison.com, telephone 7-495-229-57-57

Kronen Park Hotel, Grodno, http://www.kronon.by, telephone 375-29-360-00-50

MUSEUMS

The Belarusian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Francisk Skorina Ave., 25a, Minsk, telephone 375-17-227-11-66

Jewish Historical Institute, Tlomackie 3/5, Warsaw, telephone 22-827-92-21, http://www.jewishinstitute.org.pl

Museum Sokolka, ul. Grodzienska 1, 16-100 Sokolka Poland, telephone 48-85-7112435

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