Travel to Belarus #belarus

David M. Fox <fox@...>

I am reposting this message >from the JewishGen Digest of Nov. 1 for the
beneifit of those who do not subscribe to that mailing list. While the
subject of the message is Research in Grodno, the contents of the
message are applicable to Belarus in general.

David Fox
Arnold, MD
Belarus SIG Coordinator


Subject: Research in Grodno
From: "eric adler" <>
Date: Sun, 01 Nov 1998 08:19:55 PST
X-Message-Number: 31

I have just returned >from a four-day trip to Belarus focused primarily
on genealogical research in Grodno. It was an absolutely wonderful
trip, and I do recommend travel there. Special thanks to Ellen Sadove
Renck, who helped me greatly. Here's a run-down on the trip.

Getting there. Travel to Belarus, for Americans at least and probably
for a lot of nationalities, requires a visa, which also requires an
"invitation" >from Belarus (e.g., >from a hotel, business, friend, etc.).
I requested mine in Germany, so it may have been easier than in
countries such as the U.S. I also requested an "express" single-entry
visa, which they processed in less than an hour but which cost me DM 200
(about $120). Normal visa processing time takes longer (depending on
type of visa) and costs less.
I took the train to Belarus; flying by plane into Minsk or Warsaw
is another option. There is no direct train >from Minsk to Grodno, so
the best option is taking a train >from Poland. Driving there >from the
West (it is still an appropriate term) often entails waits of over 24
hours at the border of Poland, so I took the train. Many people warned
me of the threat of "Russian bandits" on the train, so I paid an extra
$30 for a sleeping compartment which I locked. I do not believe that it
is possible to rent a car in Belarus.

Surviving. Bottom line: you either need to know Russian or need to
have a guide. A guide is simply the best option. Prices for everything
(except goods >from the West such as razors, toothpaste, fancy beer) are
dirt cheap. The official exchange rate right now is about 70,000 rubles
to the dollar. I could get at least double and as much as 160,000 on
the black market, but risked confiscation of money and fines. The
dollar rules Belarus (and the DM is becoming more important), but is
best to bring small notes ($20 or less). You can also get rubles >from
the bank using credit cards. There are no ATM machines.

Archives. The official-and proper-way to request records >from any
archive in Belarus (or permission to research in them) is through
something called "Belkom Archive" at Kollektornaya Street #10 in Minsk.
The director of one archive also recommended sending a request through
the consulate. Individual archives are not allowed to provide
information on the contents of their holdings, but this archive
supposedly is allowed to provide the information on subordinate
archives. The basic cost for any research request is $50; Belkom
Archive supposedly has a bank account with the Bank of New York.
I did not know about Belkom Archive prior to my trip, so I sent
requests (through a friend) to each of the two regional archives in
Grodno (which also supposedly have information on all towns in the
Grodno Region. The first was the Grodno Regional ZAGS Archives. The
director is Ms. Irina Bolbat. It supposedly has records of births,
deaths, and maybe marriages after about 1900 (she was not allowed to
tell me exactly). Unfortunately, my family had left Grodno in 1891.
She explained that a person at another archive named Kornashova or
something had recently been fired for giving out too much information
(and too freely), possibly to people >from Israel. Because of this, she
was very formal with me.
The other archive in Grodno is the Grodno Regional Historical
Archives. The director is Ms. Karina Botrakova. Based on conversations
at ZAGS two days prior, I understood her constraints. She explained as
soon as I got there that she would have her people do the research I had
requested. She prefers for her workers to do the research because
justifies the existence of her job. Beyond that, however, she seemed
sincerely proud of her research abilities, and even explained that she
felt it was something of a personal failure if she could not find the
information. Anyhow, I'll have to wait on the information and will have
to pay at least $50. With extra time the following day, I had my friend
call her to ask if it was possible for me just to see the revision
lists, but Ms. Botrakova said it was not. I have a feeling that it
could be possible under the right circumstances, but last week was not
the right time due to the person being fired. The best way might be to
write Ms. Botrakova directly and ask for specific permission to do so.

The Cemetery. There were once three Jewish cemeteries in Grodno. The
main cemetery, closest to the city center, was destroyed by the Soviets
in the early 1960s, leveled and dug up and replaced by a sports complex.
A second one was also destroyed by the Soviets. One remains, located
across the Neman River >from Grodno, located in a forest on the opposite
bank below the New Bridge (Nowy Most). I estimate that there are at
least 1500 stones there, the oldest dated 1758 (and still readable) and
the latest >from 1970 (the government has not allowed burials there
since). My friend and I wrote down and/or photographed most of the
readable stones, and will put the information on the digest soon.
The cemetery is in awful condition. The gates are left open, and a
section of wall is missing. It is overgrown with vegetation, many
stones are missing, toppled or broken, and a lot of the old stones are
very worn and partly or mostly submerged. The main exception is the
grave of a famous man named Suesskind, which was restored recently via
money >from donors in Israel. Someone actually lives in the cemetery (in
a house). They have been paid in the past to take care of the cemetery
(of which they do an awful job). Their chickens roam throughout the
cemetery, their two old cars lie abandoned in the cemetery, and their
laundry hangs on tombstones. In the past, they have received about one
million rubles per months (about $7) for the upkeep, but they have not
been paid recently. I gave them a few dollars, which made them happy.
While in the cemetery, we met a few interesting people. One was
Michael Kemerov, whom someone recently mentioned. He is a very nice man
in his early 30s, a Jew who is active in the Jewish community there and
who is writing a book on the history of Jews in Grodno. He asked for
any information or pictures which people might have of Jews in Grodno,
and I have his address if you would like to send him anything. We also
saw a man who was cleaning two gravestones and painting them gold. It
turns out they were the graves of his grandparents. The following day,
we saw him there with his wife and daughter. We also met two Jewish men
in their 70s. They had a long discussion with the couple who lives in
the cemetery. I discussed the possibility of cleaning, restoring, and
indexing the cemetery, possibly this coming summer or the next.
Everyone we talked to supported the idea and agreed that it would be
relatively easy to fund because of the relative strength of the dollar.

The Synagogue. The main synagogue in Grodno is a very important
building, built in the 16th century, I believe. There is also still a
smaller, younger, and less-famous synagogue which is now used as a
commercial type of building. There were once something like 37
synagogues in the city. The main synagogue is apparently the largest in
Belarus. Unfortunately, it is in a disgraceful state of disrepair. It
was handed over to the Jewish community in 1991, and a Jew named Yuri
Chaimovich Boyarsky staked responsibility for the project. He has not,
however, made satisfactory progress on the project. At the very least,
he is a poor manager/fundraiser/restorer. All the people I spoke to in
Grodno, both Jews and non-Jews, called him a liar. The local prosecutor
is investigating him for corruption in the project such as misuse of
donations (There was an investigator there both times I visited.). I saw
no work being done. The inside of the synagogue has great potential,
and they have done some work, mainly on the bimah. The outside of the
building remains untouched, in awful condition. The entire building is
generally dirty. Mr. Boyarsky talks frequently about the new roof he
put on the synagogue, but that was five years ago. People say they see
no progress at all, and no work being done. Several people (Jews) told
me that he had rejected offers by a man named Felix Sandmann to restore
the synagogue, and that he will not let anyone else restore the
building. This is an awful pity, because buildings are being restored
throughout the city and the cost of labor and supplies is so low.

The Jewish Community Center. The Hesed Nachum Jewish Welfare/Community
Center is located at Bogdanovich Street #6 in Grodno. I got a great
feeling there. It is clean, friendly, and alive. When we visited,
people were practicing singing songs. There was a full schedule of
events posted. At the cemetery on Friday, Michael Kemerov invited us to
join a youth group there on Friday evening. A very important person in
the community is named Grischa Chosid. He is 74 years old, a retired
physics teacher who escaped through a window in a boxcar headed for
Treblinka and fought as a partisan in World War II. He speaks English.
He is a good man, someone I could trust. He showed us the cemetery near
Nowy Most the first time.

Grodno/Belarus in General. The country itself is flabbergasting, vastly
different >from Western Europe and even countries like Poland and the
Czech Republic. The country is very poor, although people there say
that they are better off than those in other former Soviet republics
like Russia and Uzbekistan. At the market, people sell things like used
light switches and plumbing. The buses (trolley cars) are jam-packed
(!) with people who don't pay the 2000 rubles (1 1/2 cents) or so to
ride, and no-one checks. We often sat in line >from anywhere between ten
and thirty minutes in order to get gas, which is rationed so that people
can get only twenty liters at a time. The cars are not nice-mostly
Ladas and such that are 15-20 years of age on average. Some are new,
but they are few and far between.
The country is very militarized, with mostly unarmed police in gray
camouflage uniforms everywhere. Military vehicles are a frequent sight
throughout the cities. We drove to the capital of Minsk on a Saturday,
hoping not to be stopped at police checkpoints ("milicja") every 50
kilometers or so. I was driving the car to and >from Minsk, and
actually received a speeding ticket on the way back for doing 18 km/h
over the speed limit of 60 km/h. Luckily, it cost only 178,000 (about
$1.20) and didn't affect insurance rates or anything. In Minsk at a
place called Victory Square, four teenagers (both boys and girls) in
Scout-type uniforms stand on low wooden boxes guarding the monument for
several hours a day (taking a break for lunch and such, of course). My
friends said that they were in an organization similar to the Soviet
Komsomol; Hitler Youth came to my mind. I took a picture of the U.S.
Embassy, and two antsy embassy guards and a Belarussian soldier jumped
out of their guard shacks. I showed the guards my U.S. passport, but
they still moronically said that it was not allowed.
Minsk was more well off than Grodno and a different world >from the
farms with horse-drawn plows and wagons that we saw on the way to Minsk
(they reminded me of Little House on the Prairie). In Minsk, there are
even six McDonald's and a decent-but packed-subway. One bar even sold
Guinness beer. Saturday is the day for marriages, and we must have seen
a dozen couples visit the monument to Afghan war heroes in a thirty
minute period. It is tradition for newly-married couples to visit war
Grodno also has a lot of beauty in its antiquity. Minsk was
largely built after World War II, whereas much of Grodno survived the
War and is very old. Grodno has two noble castles, one "old" and one
"new." It also has a beautiful theater and an old town. Much of the
Grodno ghetto is either preserved or being renovated, although the gate
to the ghetto has been vandalized and only one candle on the large iron
menorah remains. The Catholic and Orthodox churches in the city are
also pristine. One dominate feature in the city is Lenin Square, a
large open area with a huge statue of Lenin, the base of which is
rumored to be built >from gravestones >from the old main Jewish cemetery
where the stadium now stands.

Eric Adler

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