Recap of our 2008 trip to Belarus & Ukraine

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.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Pre-trip Planning

Well, Howard usually does the trip planning because he generally enjoys doing it and I am happy to oblige him. This time he told me that since it was my trip idea I needed to do the planning. I think it was because of the Visas that I was nominated for the task!!

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.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

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…

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Our arrival in Europe

We left 40 minutes late from JFK due to heavy air traffic. This delay put us into Moscow late, which in the end was fine. We had a 7.5 hour layover but it took about 20 minutes to go from terminal 2 where the Aeroflot flight arrived and terminal 1 which is where the Belavia flight to Minsk left. During the interim we had to go through passport control and customs and get our free ticket for the shuttle bus to the other terminal.

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.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Day 1 in Minsk

I woke up bright and early, about 5 AM and it was already light out. Went out soon after to check out the surroundings. The first thing I noticed was how clean the streets are. We were in the middle of the city and not a scrap of paper around. The streets were pretty empty and I got kind of snap happy. There were a few big Soviet style buldings around and a photogenic century old Catholic church. Also a nightclub that people were still departing from.

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.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Road Trip

 Sunday morning. I don’t want to belabor the point, but we did not see the sun, or even a crack of blue sky, from Thursday afternnon until now, Monday morning. Plus it was cold and rainy for the most part Saturday and Sunday. As we left Minsk early Sunday for a day trip, there was steely gray sky, mist and limited visibility.

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.

Monday, May 26, 2008

At long last we meet in person!

After a busy morning, we went back to the hotel to rest. I called Dmitry a friend I made from the Belarusian Embassy in Washington. He recently returned to Minsk where he is awaiting his next assignment. I hope all goes well with his future endeavors. We had a great conversation and I look forward to keeping in contact with him.  Unfortunately, due to scheduling we were not able to meet with him as I had hoped.

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.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

To Turev

Late afternoon on Monday we took the bus from Minsk to Turev, the original home of my grandfather (mother’s father). The four hour ride was uneventful, passing through flat countryside, mostly farm fields except for the last hour, which was through the forests of the Pripyat swamp lands, parts of which is a national park.

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.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

David Gorodok

 On Wednesday morning we took a hired car to David Gorodok, the hometown of my grandmother (mother’s mother). It was larger than Turev (population of maybe 6,000 vs. 3,000), and similiar to Turev, except there was a higher percentage of brick and concrete houses compared to wood than in Turev, thus not a “quaint”.

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.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

I’ve been waiting for the railroad…

 We arrived in Vidibor, which was little more than a few houses and a train station, at 3pm. It was really surprising that the train to Lviv, Ukraine actually made a stop here. It was very windy so we didn’t walk around much which would have been nice since our train wasn’t scheduled to arrive until 8:57pm. I finished a book I had started reading at the beginning of the trip which was titled “Haven”. It is the true story of 1,000 refugees that came to the US in 1944 at President Roosevelt’s invitation. Really sad how the US State Department handled the issue of refugees (and especially Jewish ones). OK, so we are still sitting in the train station where the ticket attendant only appeared about 30 minutes prior to the arrival of the next scheduled train. Other than her there was only one group of women that appeared and sat in the station for a while before their train came. So, we are still waiting and a freight train passed which was a highlight! Eventually, Howard decided to walk in to the village to see if he could find any food to eat since it was getting towards dinnertime and we had already eaten the few provisions we had brought with us from Turov. In the end he found nothing, not even a shop!

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.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Turev/David Gorodok Diet Plan

Howard’s observations:
Don and I have been trying to eat a better diet – more vegetables, protein with each meal, fewer carbs. Due to a lack of restaurants here is the gist of our meals over these days.

Monday evening on bus:


Tuesday breakfast:

Bread, cheese, and juice

Tuesday lunch:

Bread, cheese, and juice

Tuesday dinner:

Bread, cheese, and juice

Wednesday breakfast:

Bread, cheese, and juice

Wednesday lunch:

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

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Lviv Historical Archives

 So, you thought we would make this journey and NOT have me do any research?! Ha!

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.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

If It’s Thursday It Must be Lviv

 Howard’s observations:
We arrived in Lviv bright (clear blue sky) and early (5 AM). It is now Sunday evening and we will be departing in a few hours by train to Kiev.

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.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

No Chicken Kiev

More from Howard:
It’s Tuesday evening and we have been in Kiev for two days. Kiev is a much bigger city than Lviv, with a population of about 3 million, and it feels much bigger – more traffic, bigger buildings, a very crowded subway system (with the longest escalators we have ever seen).

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.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Kiev Continued

On Wednesday we walked not too far from our hotel to the number 1 tourist attraction in Kiev, the Caves Monastery, a religious shrine and headquarters of the Ukranian Orthodox church. It is a large complex of buildings and man-made caves begun in the eleventh century. We walked around the buildings and caves and attended part of an impressive mass in one of the churches.

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.

Friday, June 6, 2008

A side trip to the Rebbe

 After a couple of days in Kiev enjoying the sights, we decided to head out of town on a day trip. There were several options but we chose Uman because it has beautiful gardens built by Count Potocki (a Polish Noble) and is also the place where Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is buried.

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.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Back in the …, Back in the …, Back in the USA!

 We arrived safely back in DC on Saturday evening.  Our flights were both on time and without any issues.  The flight from Kiev to Moscow was 90 minutes, then a 4 hour layover in Moscow before the 10 hour flight to Washington’s Dulles airport.

Now that we are back home I will upload some of our photos and some of the video I captured using my new Flip video camera.  A very cool, yet simple device that allowed us to capture the “living” sense of being in the places we visited.  Enjoy!