Belarus, It’s Complicated [part II]

Volozhin countryside

Typical of the many Jewish shtetl towns throughout the region, Jewish homes were located right along the market square, and the non-Jewish peasant homes were located further back, to accommodate their livestock. Jewish families typically owned small shops and their homes were unique for their front doors facing the street. Many of these very old homes still have a cow or goat in the yard, apple or cherry trees and gardens. As we were to see the next day in Dolginovo (Dalhinev), the old neighborhoods appear as if time stood still for the past century.

Our guide summarized the 3 typical architectural styles we were likely to see in Belarus:

1.      Shtetl: very old wood homes, colorful but unchanged, with peeling paint

2.      Stalinist: very formal government buildings, made from brick with massive columns, uniquely ugly

3.      Krushchevka: the previously mentioned decrepit apartment buildings where most residents live

We continued on to Lida, the somewhat larger town where our hotel (Continent Hotel) was located. Considered to be the finest hotel in the town, the hotel was in a nondescript building with a reception desk manned by a severe-looking woman who held our passports. The building was spooky, with narrow, dark hallways and doors that popped open when the key card was used, but the strangely decorated rooms (Krushchev moderne?) were immaculate. Just 10 rooms, daily rate about $55.

Loreta brought us to a nearby restaurant for dinner which, due to all three of us being on a vegetarian diet, became a scene out of the book “Everything is Illuminated”. The Russian language menu had no vegetarian options and when Loreta explained our request for vegetarian food to the waitress, she looked over at us in horror. Following a protracted series of negotiations, we were each eventually served a plate of steamed vegetables, along with some local breaded fried cheese that looked very much like latkes (potato pancakes). (Unfortunately, the soups, latkes and blintzes were all made with meat.)

After dinner, we noticed a large group of teenagers hanging out by a nightclub next to our hotel. They were dressed just like American teenagers and openly stared at us, but did not attempt to speak to us. I assume that their reticence may be due to the political situation. Loreta spoke some Russian with them and said that they study English in school but they may not be comfortable speaking. It is true that people in this country who fall out of favor with the government may be arrested or “disappear”.

Lida town

Army recruitment notice

The next morning I woke early and took a long walk around the town. The streets had wide greenbelts and the apartment buildings were set well back from the street. Some people appeared to be walking to work or to the train station, and on every block a woman was sweeping with a straw broom. The place was immaculate, and hanging planters with flowers were on each block. There were few personal cars on the street. I noticed some government buildings and what appeared to be a food market. There was a unique “sidewalk billboard” intended for pedestrians that was an army recruitment notice. I walked to the restored Lida castle (originally built by the Grand Duke Gediminas in the 14th century), which appeared very well kept, although it was closed.

Lida Castle

Pop “culture” has reached Belarus

Upon returning to my hotel, I noticed a preschool directly across the street. A group of children were outside doing calisthenics to taped music, 3-year-olds marching in circles and doing jumping jacks to warm up. Breakfast was another ordeal, with Loreta and the waitress getting into a Russian shouting match. We eventually were served “blintzes” which turned out to be cheese pancakes and sour cream.At this point I should mention that we were forewarned to be prepared for Belarus. Howard and Peggy
e-mailed a 10-page letter to all trip participants with some excellent advice, including:
1.      Bring plenty of snacks to last for a couple of meals, since you may never even run across a restaurant.

2.   Bring toilet paper and antiseptic hand wipes; in the unlikely event that you find toilet paper in Belarus, it will be “rough”.

3.   Be prepared for l-o-o-o-n-g waits at the border.

I don’t think our guide Loreta got this e-mail, as she became increasingly tense, showing contempt for some of the situations and people we encountered in Belarus. I was previously told that many Lithuanian guides refuse to enter Belarus; it is true that the Lithuanians suffered under Russian rule in the past and greatly value their own independence.

We continued our drive to Dolginovo (Dalhinev), the shtetl where both of my paternal grandparents’ families lived for generations. In the late 19th century the Jewish population of about 2,500 comprised a majority in the town. Although my grandfather traveled alone to America as a young man in 1910, his parents and siblings chose to stay in Dalhinev. The Holocaust took nearly all of his family in 1942; a niece survived as a child, hidden in the forest outside the town with her aunt, and eventually made her way to Israel, where she lives today. She was likely part of a group of 200 survivors who made their way to the forest and were protected by a Russian partisan, Nikolay Kiselev. All of the other inhabitants of Dalhinev were murdered. Kiselev, sometimes referred to as the Russian Schindler, was honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem as “righteous among the nations”.

Dolginovo (Dalhinev, Dalhinow)

Blue lupine

A single red brick synagogue survives, in poor condition. A small Jewish community in Minsk has jurisdiction over Jewish sites in Belarus, but there is very little funding available to maintain the old synagogues or cemeteries. A famous rabbi of the family surname, Rav Yaakov Ruderman, was from this shtetl and eventually came to the US and founded the highly regarded Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore, which today has about 1,000 students.

Dalhinev synagogue

The Dalhinev cemetery is on a hill overlooking fields and the village in the distance. A fence in need of repair surrounds the cemetery, which has some very old grave markers. Some are tilted or fallen, and some have weathered over the years so that they are no longer legible.

Dalhinev cemetery

Old grave marker

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