Saturday, November 20, 2010
We are in Guadeloupe
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Today we walked to Fort Napoleon
We are leaving for Minsk, Belarus on May 22, 2008. From there we travel to the ancestral town of Turov in southern Belarus before hopping on a train headed for Lviv, Ukraine. After spending a few days there and again visiting ancestral shtetlach we head for Kiev where we end our trip on June 7, 2008.
We are scheduled to leave from DC on Thursday from Washington National to JFK, then on to Moscow with Aeroflot. Due to schedule changes we are either going to be running to catch our next flight or have an 8 hour layover in Moscow before boarding our flight to Minsk.
Getting the visas was not much of a hassle other than that we had to get them at all. The one for Belarus was easy because the form was clearly laid out, that and one picture plus $131 and there was the Visa.
The Russian visa was equally straightforward except that the form was overly complicated (according to one source it is a copy of the US visa app) and required a phone call to the Embassy to determine what information we needed to provide. I was off the hook on which weapons we had training on and whether we handled nuclear materials (are you carrying anything given to you by another person?!). Again, $131 and a week later there was the visa stuck in our passports with our names transliterated into cyrillic…kinda cool.
Getting train tickets from southern Belarus where we plan to board at a VERY small station heading to Lviv, Ukraine has been an absolute nightmare. If it weren’t for a contact in Minsk who bought the tickets for us we might never have gotten on that train!
Now, with only a week until we leave, I am dealing with last minute items to make sure our trip goes smoothly and we can actually head off into the countryside to see the ancestral homes of the Rosenfeld, Reznik, Brayer and Hochberg families.
At long last the day of departure has arrived! It has been a lot of work getting everything in order, but our bags are packed, our plans are made, the hotels have been reconfirmed (can’t be too safe on this point), and the International train tickets have been purchased by our friend in Minsk. Now, we have to get to National airport and off to JFK where we wait until this evening for the Aeroflot flight to Moscow.
I IM’d my friend in Minsk yesterday who told me that Vladimir Putin is visiting Minsk on Friday (the day we arrive) and that the road from the airport will be closed for periods of time. All I could do was laugh and shake my head… She also contacted the hotel in Turov to verify our room reservation was set and that they would have a shovel available for my use. I intend to do some light exploration of the Jewish cemetery in town since I was unable to raise sufficient funds from Turovers to undertake this project professionally. It is all kosher since I checked with a Rabbi who explained the rules about excavating headstones, so I am going to see what turns up.
I’ll write more when we find Internet access, so let’s all hope that the Minsk hotel in Minsk has free access. More later…
We had a decent but expensive meal in the airport lobby. Talked with 2 Professors living in Hartford, Conn. but originally from Kazan… Another family we met was from Sofia, Bulgaria and yet another, a family from Siberia.
The flight to Minsk boarded a bit late and it was a Tupolev 154M plane which was right out of the USSR. Our landing in Minsk was strange since the plane’s engines kept speeding up and slowing down and we couldn’t see any lights which gave me a bit of a scare. We landed just fine!
Passport control was very easy and we were on our way to the Hotel Minsk. By the time we got to the hotel it was after midnight local time which made for a very long day. Howard calculated that it was 30 hours from the time we met on the DC Metro until we arrived at our hotel in Minsk.
The weather was rainy and 46 degrees. I thought we were going to have summer weather but instead got early March.
About ninety percent of Minsk was destroyed in World War II, so most of the buildings are postwar. Although Minsk gets a bad press on its architecture, both Don and I found it fairly appealing overall.
Our hotel is located on the main downtown street, and we walked down it after breakfast past a few government buildings, to the permanent circus building, where we tried unsuccessfully to see if we could buy a souvenir for my niece Hayley. We then went to the most touted museum in the city – the Musuem of the Great Patriotic War (WWII). The displays were all in Russian, but there were a lot of pictures, diaramas, etc. that effectively conveyed the destruction wrought in the war.
Outside the museum was a small “art fair” that turned out to be a lot of fun. A feature was the famous nested Russian dolls, many of them new wave. Our #2 favorite – Elvis. #1 favorite: Bill Clinton on the outside, then Monica, then Paula Jones, then Hillary, then a cigar.
We walked more..through late afternoon…to Victory Square, a recreated (small) old town, a memorial to the Jewish Minsk ghetto, and the famous Department store Gum, where we bought a few more souvenirs.
For dinner, we went to an Uzbek restaurant, which was pretty good, maybe a 3 on a scale of 5. Don had trout – he ordered it baked with mushrooms but got it fried, and I had (veal) rice pilaf.
Early to bed, early to rise..we were back in the hotel for good by 8.
Our first stop out of town was about 60 miles away at Khatyn, the site of a Belorussian village that was wiped out (buildings and inhabitants) by the Nazis in World War II. It is now the site of a memorial to the town and to hundresds of other villages gone after the war. The gray mist was fitting for the visit, a well done memeorial in open fields where the village once stood. The sites of 28 water wells were maked by bell columns which rang every 20 seconds or so. When we got there, we were the only people visiting, so the feeling was at once peaceful and eerie.
From there it was on to the Mount of Glory, a 200 foot high manmade cone of earth with a big monument (to WWII of course) on top. At the base was a row of Soviet WWII tanks which were fun to climb on and then we went up a staircase to the top of the hill, where the views were not the best given the weather.
From there is was back to a wet Minsk.
At long last, I met Tania Novikova and Yakov Basin. Tania has been my connection to all things Belarus over the past several years. We have corresponded via email and I have telephoned her using Skype (a wonderful VOIP tool). She made reservations at the hotel in Turov where we will be staying and also purchased train tickets to Lviv. Yakov knew Albert Maizel, a relation of Howard’s, and many other people in the Jewish community in Minsk. Yakov held onto Alik’s research on the Jewish Partisan movement in Belarus during WWII. I am bringing 3 heavy bags of research materials back to the US which I intend to have translated and worked into a book. Yakov explained through Tania that Alik hand copied materials from the archives since they had no photocopy machines at the time he was working there. Imagine that!!
Tania did all the translating during our delicious meal at the Grunwald restaurant where Howard and I had wonderful potato pancakes stuffed with mushrooms.
All too soon we parted company and we headed back to the hotel where we tried doing a little reading before bed but both of us fell asleep almost immediately. A sign that our travels are going well.
We arrrived in Turev about 9:30 PM, just as the light was fading, so we did not see much of the town, except for the beautiful sunset view over the Pripyat River, which flows alongside the main drag of the town.
OK, I’m not sentimental, but how is this? That night, a dream I had included my mother, not something that happens too often. I quickly forgot the details, but it had something to do with me leaving her and going out with a friend. Perhaps it had something to do with the family breaking away with the old country. There…I said I would not get too sentimental!
Actually it was nice to see this town and the other home towns of my grandparents, and it will be a nice rememberance in the future, but I did not get any great rush of revelatory feelings.
Turev proved the most evocative of the past of the four towns we visited. Most of the houses were wood, many streets were dirt, and there were hardly any cars about. A fiddler on the roof would not have been out of place.
On Tuesday we went to the old Jewish cemetery just outside of town. Don wanted to uncover and raise some of the gravestones that were now buried, so he had arranged for a shovel to be made available. We used the shovel a bit, and uncovered two of them, but we could not manage to lift them, so worked on the project for a short time.
We had more of an adventure on Monday afternoon. The receptionist at our hotel said that she could not register us because we did not have the proper paperwork. We had to hire a driver and someone else who spoke English (no taxis in Turev) to take us to a nearby town to get the proper papers. In that town, we had to make three different stops, all with the requisite waits. Walking around Turev that morning, I wondered what we would do all afternoon. Answer: get the proper paper – which took about three and a half hours.
We walked around the town for a couple of hours, taking many photos. After about an hour the rain and cold wind came and probably shortened our stay. We stumbled upon a small museum which had some nice old photos of the town. We left DG for Vidibor where we were to catch the train to Lviv, Ukraine later in the day.
The train arrived right on schedule and we boarded the train. The 2 person compartment was nice even if it was at the end of the car, right over the train wheels. The station we boarded was the last one before the Belarus-Ukraine border. The Belarusian authorities came on board and asked to look at our passports which was no big deal. The weird part was that we could hear several people talking and kept hearing ‘Amerikanski’ and in the end we figured that they don’t see many Americans on this route. They stamped our passports and we went on to the Ukrainian border. The Ukrainian officials came on the train who asked to see our passports. Again, no big deal. This official asked where we were from and stamped our entry card and passports right there. He then welcomed us to the Ukraine. What a difference in attitude.
After the passport process was done we went right to bed. We awoke the next morning at 5am in the town of Lviv.
Monday evening on bus:
Bread, cheese, and juice
Bread, cheese, and juice
Bread, cheese, and juice
Bread, cheese, and juice
There was a restaurnant in DG…I had salad and rice; Don had salad and potatoes. We shared a plate of rice.
Wednesday dinner on train:
Cookies and juice
I had written to the Lviv Historical archives asking about the availability of Cadastral maps (land ownership) maps since the vital records for the towns where Howard’s family came from were lost.
After some waiting and the need to get an English speaker, we entered the reading room where we had to write out a formal request asking to use the archives and the purpose of our research. We then left to walk around Lviv since the staff told us it would take them an hour to retrieve the maps. I went back to the archives while Howard went off to purchase our train tickets to Kiev.
When I arrived back in the reading room the maps were not there, so I had to wait while they were retrieved. Once I had the maps I realized that ownership was indicated by numbers. When I asked about the accompanying index another long wait ensued. When I had this key in hand, I was able to determine that the owner of the folwark (manorial homestead) was owned by Hnat Krolesnik of Czerniow (now Cherniv). An important piece of information that I hope leads to estate records which mention the Brayer family which worked for the land owner.
We spent four full days in Lviv – three in the city itself and a full day trip to the hometowns of my paternal grandmother – Zolochiv – and grandfather – Cherniv. Lviv is a very nice walkable city of about one million people. The city center is reminiscent of Prague, Cracow, Budapest and other more famous central/eastern European cities. For a long time it was part of Poland and the Austro-Hungarian empire and only became part of the Soviet Union after World War II.
Here is a rundown of what we did in our three days in the city: Visited a few small museums – this is one area where Lviv and the other places we have visited are lagging behind thier western and central European counterparts. The museums are somewhat on the dusty/dowdy side. We also climbed the tower of city hall – about 300 feet, for a great view. We went into about 10 beautiful churches primarily dating from the 16th – 18th centuries. Another highlight was a vist to a park a bit out of the center where about 100 old, mostly wooden buildings were brought to from all over Ukraine.
The best part of the city was walking around – people watching and admiring the architecture. There are many fine buildings from about 1600 through the early 1900’s. The people watching was greatly enhanced by the perfect weather we had. Every day here has been bright blue, with the temperature in the low 80’s and no humidity.
Lviv was much more lively and “open” than Minsk, as Ukraine is a freer society since its Orange Revolution of 2004 brought a democratic government and a more capitalist economy.
On the second day in the city we hired a car to visit the two small towns of my grandparents. The first stop was Zolochiv, a town of about 30,000, approximately 40 miles east of Lviv. The town was bustling for a place its size and we stayed for about two hours. The town was much more substantial than the two anscestral towns in Belarussia. Most housing was in apartments and what houses there were were not “shtetl-like”. We walked about 10 minutes from the center to the one attraction of the town – an old castle, mostly in ruins, but with an intact manor house in the middle.
We then drove to Cherniv, located about 90 minutes away, and about 50 miles south of Lviv. The drive was through rural areas, quite pretty rolling hills. Cherniv is very small, maybe about 300 people. A very small village on a couple of roads. It was nice a peaceful to walk around, there were a few kids on bikes and some adults working their fields. We stayed about 45 minutes before heading back to Lviv.
The first day in Kiev we pretty much followed a suggested walking tour described in our book. We went in a few very old and impressive churches, one large church that was destroyed by Stalin but painstakingly rebuilt a few years ago, the remnants of an old city gate. We also walked through the Podil neighborhood, which is a little quieter and build on a smaller scale than most of the central city. Sort of like how Greenwich Village is to the rest of Manhattan. We also went to Independence Square, the main square of the city and the site of the main demonstrations of 2004 – the Orange Revolution – which brought democracy to Ukraine. Then we walked down the main street of the city. The buildings on the square and the main street were destroyed in World War II, and they are now lined with prime examples of Soviet architecture. The buildings are more impressive for their size than for their beauty. By the way, under the entire square is a large modern shopping center.
Today we visited Babi Yar in the morning. This is the site a few miles from the center of the city where thousands of people were slaugtered in World War II. Early on during the Nazi takeover of the city, Jewish people were rounded up and in one day 33,000 were killed at Babi Yar. Over the course of the occupation, about 100,000 people were killed, including Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, and Gypsys. There are there are three memorials to visit, one for children, one for Jews and one for all people killed there.
After that we had a more upbeat time taking a short river cruise on the Dneper River, the longest river in Ukraine and one of the longest in Europe, about 2,000 miles long. The cruise was good for a relaxing time. Then it was on to the main square for some people watching and after a good Italian dinner, a walk through a large park along the river to our hotel. The walk passed the Presidential Palace and the Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament building.
Next it was on to the nearby Rodyna Mat statue. It is a huge statue of the motherland – maybe about 300 feet tall. The base has a museum about World War II. We skipped the museum since we had been to the one in Minsk, and unfortunately the viewing platform high up in the statue was closed for renovation.
We ate lunch in a Crimean restaurant and then spent the afternoon wandering around the central downtown area.
After riding on the luxury bus for 3 hours we arrived in Uman. We then headed off to the Rabbi’s grave which was a distance from the bus station. We knew we were getting close when we started seeing signs in Hebrew. There was a complex that we entered and found ourselves in a large prayer hall. Several men came up to us and one very helpful guy asked if we were there to see the Rebbe. After reading the 10 psalms that make up the …k’lali we left to go off to the gardens.
The Sofiivka gardens are 400 acres of natural areas, open fields and landscaped gardens including the requisite lake, fountains, swans, etc. The overall impact was quite impressive.
We had a nice lunch at the Chelentano pizza house since it was quick and easy to navigate. Many restaurants we have been to on the trip eat up major time blocks and we wanted to get back to the gardens before catching the afternoon bus back to Kiev.
We drove from MB and stopped in Naples to have a look around. Since I love collecting shells we went to the beach near the Naples pier. Here is a photo of what we collected.
We went to Tampa, Florida this past weekend to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. The show was great!
We drove from MB and stopped in Naples to have a look around. Since I love collecting shells we went to the beach near the Naples pier. Here are a few photos of what we collected.