They left Belarus in 1923 and the good life that they had created. Times had changed and the place of their home was no longer one in which they could remain. Just as I am departing now on this train to Minsk, my ancestors too left Vitebsk, six of them including my grandmother crammed into a semi-private cabin like the one I am in. They left with little more than their name and their past to forge a new life for themselves in America.
On the day of their departure, their oldest son Monia (Solomon) married his love Freida and bid his family farewell at the station, never to see them again. Love made him stay, necessity made them go. Within my train cabin, now 45 minutes removed from Vitebsk, I can feel their presence and hear their disconsolate cries of grief merged with relief.
Most people in the world live their lives within a stone’s throw of their extended family, often within the same household. As is common with many Americans of my generation, each of my grandparents emigrated from a different country. One of our strongest urges we humans have is for belonging, desiring to be part of something greater than ourselves. One of the ways we develop a sense of belonging is through our connections to the people and places from whence we originate. Although I simply trusted my impulse to go, It was my desire for a greater sense of belonging and understanding that lead me to Vitebsk, Belarus, where I would ultimately uncover a greater connection to those who came before me.
When families are all cut from the same cut of cloth, not only is there an instinctive knowing of one’s family, but through knowing them, there is a way that we just naturally know ourselves as well. To an extent, we are as our people are. When our people come from four different places (in my case from Belarus,Ukraine, Germany and Ireland), a sense of kindredness, of place, of belonging and of a deeper self-knowing struggles to exist in the same naturally intuitive way. Explorations of one’s roots can help to seam together that patchwork of understanding of who one’s “people” are, engendering a sense of connection and belonging where it perhaps hadn’t quite existed before. Having spent time getting to know the place of my grandmother’s birth in Belarus and previously having done the same regarding my grandfather in Ukraine (then Bessarabia), I now feel a greater sense of belonging to those places that prior to these trips was simply not possible. When we come to know a place, we can belong to that place. When we come to know our people, we can belong to those people.
My path to understanding family history isn’t one of simply attempting to dig through historical archives although I have done some of that as well. For a deeper understanding to take place, greater dimensionality seems to be necessary. Just being in Belarus has added an immense fullness for me. To walk a dirt path down to the river and imagine my grandmother as a young girl playfully descending the same trail with momentum due to the steep incline adds a richness, a sense of knowing her and her experience. Seeing children fishing in that river gives me a flavor of parts of their childhood. Seeing firsthand how the giant churches with their golden cross-topped domes lord over the area of town where my family lived lends more nuance to the life lived there by a Jewish family. Shopping the vast market in the old town where most everything from clothes to toiletries to canning supplies to hardware to the fruits and produce from the babushka vendors’ own home gardens helps me to feel what daily life might have been like then as well. Walks along the Vitba river and seeing visions of Monia and Freida in today’s young lovers while others drink beer and eat snacks at outdoor cafes remind me that romance and social times and walks with babies along this river existed back then, in their time too. Listening to traditional Eastern European music on my headphones with an occasional dancing twirl through the old Jewish quarter helps to bring that now-hardly-so-vibrant place back to life. Passionately singing some devotional songs in the decaying and overgrown synagogue now open to the heavens evokes a connection to religious passions and community traditions long since quelled.
Stories help too. I had interviewed my grandmother a few years before she passed so I had gained a basic understanding of her branch of the family tree, but I also gained some extra knowledge including the story of her brother Monia’s wedding on the day of their departure. In anticipation of my journey, I searched out relatives and found a gold mine in my grandmother’s brother Raymond’s wife who recalled many of his childhood memories. Raymond became a well renowned artist in America and had studied at the studio of the artist Uri Pen in Vitebsk as a young boy. Her description of their childhood home and location opposite the Governor’s Palace make it very likely that they lived in the basement apartment of the building which now houses the Marc Chagall Art Center. Chagall came from this town too and emigrated like my family to Chicago. When I spoke with the director of the Chagall Art Center in Vitebsk and showed her my family picture taken in Vitebsk around 1914, she was able to share many insights, weaving their dress and appearance together for me with the history of the times to help create a much more dimensional portrait of my family and their standing within their community. Upon my visit to that art center I saw on the wall a large photographic portrait of Marc Chagall, and in his face I unmistakably saw my grandmother’s eyes. It brought tears to my eyes to see her eyes again, the same shape, color, fold of the skin, and perhaps the same underlying sadness from having lived through similar life experiences.
Understanding history, though, has been hugely important. It again adds dimensionality and, like a good broth, binds together the soup of information and stories collected. To better understand the history of the times in Belarus, I immersed myself in documentaries and articles on the Russian Revolution, watched a wonderful old Russian film called Admiral which portrays life during the civil war and fall of the Tsar, and also listened to many hours of history podcasts regarding that time. History can be very powerful in lending clues to frame of mind and intention. The more we come to understand the times and settings of events, the more seamlessly the pieces can fit together in a more cohesive whole.
After my family settled onto the train, the story goes that the Bolsheviks boarded the train as well, causing much fear for my family. The Bolsheviks were the party in charge after the Russian Revolution, and wealth and personal aggrandizement were not only frowned upon, but were considered criminal. My family was comfortably well off and were attempting to bring some of the money they had been hiding with them to ease the transition to their new lives. Not long before, the governor of this region who was a near neighbor and acquaintance has sent my great-grandfather Mandl, a successful tobacco merchant, on a journey to Turkey to come back with quantities of tobacco. While much went to the governor who no longer had so much power under the new order, Mandl profited as well. It wasn’t long, however, until he was placed under house arrest for “speculation,” the consequence of which could be imprisonment or even death. The children were known to keep vigil from their English basement apartment opposite the governor’s palace (now housing the local KGB office) watching for the authorities to come and take their father away. Perhaps because they were a more respected and connected family, or because the changes under the Revolution came “a little more softly” in their area, additional punishment never materialized. It was under this backdrop that the Bolsheviks boarded their train. Fearing they’d be caught with hoarded wealth, they tossed their money out the train window before being searched.
The period prior to their departure was a time of immense upheaval. The Russian Revolution (there were actually two revolutions, one in February and the next in October of 1917) changed the order and power structure immensely within the newly forming Soviet republic. Amid great famine, hardship and discontent caused by World War 1, the starving workers and peasants revolted against 300 years of Romanov Tsarist rule and a very fast and massive inversion of power structure was established. An unlikely coalition of wealthy conservatives, liberal intellectuals, former ruling class and much of the Tsarist military guard formed a White Army coalition in opposition to the new Revolutionary “Red” Army rule. Lenin rose to power and in a very short period of time quashed the revolution’s promise of a worker-led democracy in favor of dictatorial one-party Bolshevik rule. Executions or exile of those in opposition to the “Red Shirts” were commonplace. A four year bloody civil war ensued. My family by this time would have been privately hoping for a “White Shirt” victory. By the time they climbed aboard the outbound train in Vitebsk, the civil war was over, the White Army defeated, and with that the hopes of my family for any kind of meaningful, safe and comfortably advancing life. Raymond was known to have said, “Vitebsk was full of color before the revolution, and after the revolution everything was grey.”
During the civil war, to avoid the appearance of association with the White Shirts, my family spent weeks filing the fallen Tsar’s insignia off of their silverware. Now they were leaving virtually everything behind just for the promise of an opportunity to start over. When I first thought of coming to Belarus, I had thought it peculiar that none of that family nor any of their descendants had ever returned in the nearly 100 years since Breinin foot last tread Belarusian soil. The more I came to understand the hardship that my family endured, the more everything made sense. Why return to a place of immense fear and suffering, to a place that had been irrevocably changed, to a life that could never revivify, to a place where there would have been no sense of being welcomed, to a ruling government that either wanted you “re-educated,” dead or gone. World War II also ensued and with it the demise virtually all Jewish people and culture and any possible feelings of warmth toward the homeland. When my family lived in Vitebsk, over half of the population of 100,000 was Jewish. Today Jews represent less than 1% of the population of nearly 300,000.
But now, through magic, mystery and connection on this 6:40am train to Minsk, my ancient emigrating family joins me homeward. Together we look out the window toward birch forests and farm land, villages and factories, history and present. They are endlessly curious about life in America, and we share stories and more than a little food. In their querying I tell them that all will be fine, I promise. They will make it safely to America, and that their children will, as they had long hoped, become artists and successful members of society. My grandmother Sonia will marry a darkly dashing Bessarabian Jew named Moishe (Maurice) and they will open a someday-to-be famous photography studio with Moishe’s brother Simcha (Seymour) called Maurice Seymour Studios. They will have two photographer artist sons and four grandchildren including me the youngest and clearly most handsome. Sonia laughs, thinking me funny, and continues asking most of the questions. I tell them that Raymond will become a successful painter with his work in 40 museums. When I tell them this, Mandl starts to cry. It appears first as a tremor in his chest, then rises through his throat until emerging unstoppably. He bites the left side of his lower lip in an attempt to stem the tide but to no avail. Drawing my two hands together tightly into his, he kisses them. Not wanting to let go, he uses the back of my hand to wipe his tears and ekes out a chuckle. He has held himself and everything around him together for so long in prayer of the distant possibility of these promises which I now proffer. He tearfully manages only a few words, “been worth it,” said as if testing their validity.
Raymond, nestled under his mother Ester’s shawl wing, sketches a drawing of me and hands me the paper. I complain and tell him to do it again because he obviously got my hairline wrong. More laughs, though these are saturated with tears nuanced with a thousand flavors of joy. This is the joy of liberation and hope, of relief and possibility, of goodness and faith, of family and belonging, of future and farewell. Luba, the oldest sister, waves a white handkerchief exaggeratedly like a flag of surrender, and tosses it my way. When our laughter subsides, I tell her that she will marry a man named Sol like her brother Monia (Solomon) whom they had just left behind at the station. She stops me quickly, not wanting to know any more. “Let me be a surprise!” she insists.
I don’t have the heart to tell them that their beloved Monia will be killed in the continued upheaval in their homeland, although I do tell them that he and Freida would have two smiling children, Efrim and Larissa. Lastly, I flirt a bit with my somewhat stoic great-great grandmother Rochellay, mostly over how delish her blintzes are, until she ventures a smile. She rolls a couple of them in newsprint and tucks them generously into my duffle.