21 December 2016

All of my great-grandparents were born in America, except for one. Abraham Schulman, my Poppy’s father, was born in Mozyr on December 30, 1899. For this reason, I feel particularly connected to Mozyr and find it appropriate that it is the last shtetl stop on my entire roots journey. I will admit that Mozyr is not what I imagined when I often thought of ‘the shtetl’ over the past ten years. There wasn’t a single dirt road surrounded by wooden homes interspersed by carts pulled by young boys in tattered clothes. Perhaps the closest I came was the small village of Ilnyk in the Ukrainian Carpathians, with Divin as a close second. If anything, Mozyr was the exact opposite. In a city of 113,000, Mozyr has historically dominated the oil trade between Moscow and her neighbors to the west and south. While Russia’s oil embargo on Poland and recently soured relations with Ukraine have have taken a fiscal toll, Mozyr still prospers. As testament, bright lights burn day and night atop each and every street. The historic cathedrals (both Catholic and Orthodox) are hidden by scaffolding, signifying their renovation. The bleak Soviet architecture I’ve encountered elsewhere is countered by colorful Soviet architecture with detailed facades.

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My first impressions of a city exceptional were only heightened throughout the day. After a comfortable sleep and warm shower, we left the hotel for breakfast at 9:15.

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We settled on a buffet at a nearby hotel, which overlooks the Pripyat River below. For her intense topography Mozyr is called the ‘city of seven hills’, she drops or climbs at each and every turn.

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After a quick breakfast we winded back through the city to reach our local guides- Lyudmila and Jula. Lyudmila and Jula are actively involved in supporting a community of about 1,000 Jews, although only 600 participate in communal affairs. While Lyudmila was born in Mozyr soon after the war, Jula is my age. Their varied perspectives allowed us a comprehensive view of Jewish life in Mozyr. They brought us first to the center of town, which lies along the coast of the Pripyat. An imposing statue of Lenin welcomes visitors to Mozyr, where communist persuasions still pervade.

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After a short walk along the coast we found ourselves between the entrance to the ghetto and the riverfront, where a synagogue once stood. I love the idea of a riverfront synagogue.

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In 1942, 700 Jews were led from the ghetto to the synagogue. They were forced into boats, then systematically sunk in the Pripyat. Milda said that her father’s friend was a talented swimmer who managed to break free and swim ashore. He sought refuge in a nearby home, but was turned in to the Nazis.

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I’d visited towns where Jews were marched to forests and shot into pits, forced into synagogues then burned to the ground, but never had I heard of systematic drownings.

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At 1km long the bridge that stretches across the Pripyat was the longest in Belarus at the time of construction. Mozyr is both historically and currently home to an important port.

Local lore dictates that two Jews once fought over a barrel of fat that was rolling down the river. They each exclaimed ‘my fat!’, which translates to Russian as ‘moy zhir’- hence the city’s name.

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Jula told me that the river is crowded with locals all summer long. Between the river and mountains, Mozyr seems like a fun place to grow up. Jula confirmed.

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Surely young Abe Schulman played in the river and explored the mountains with his friends before emigrating with his mother, Sophie nee Hofstein, in 1905.

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We passed through the ghetto entrance to find a mass murder site in a narrow valley lined with homes.

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Hundreds were gathered atop the hill. Their bodies rolled down as they were shot.

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Dr. Gabriel Saeta Street was predominantly Jewish even before the war, when Jews accounted for forty percent of the city. Saeta was a Jewish resident who organized Mozyr’s efficient healthcare system before he died while trying to save his patients during the Russian Revolution. His wooden home still stands, perhaps similar to the one that my ancestors lived in.

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We continued our walk through the ghetto until we reached the old Jewish cemetery, which bears neither stones nor a memorial. It was rather ravaged by construction, disassembled by the Nazis. A maternity hospital was built on site after the war, Mila was born there in 1952.

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The old cemetery reached full capacity even before WWI, surely my Schulman and Hofstein ancestors are buried there. I recited Kaddish.

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A short walk from the cemetery brought us to the most humbling memorial from my entire journey. The monument read in Russian and in Yiddish: On this spot in autumn of 1941, Mozyr Jews burned their souls to heaven. They did not kneel in front of the Nazis. They left this life as free people. Everlasting memory to them. 

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Between twenty and forty local Jews; men, women, and children, crowded into the home of Yaakov Gutman. Dowsed with gasoline they drew lots to determine who would light the match. The event has been described as the ‘Masada of Mozyr’- a square in Ashdod bears that name. A stone marks the spot where the home once stood.

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We ventured next to the interwar cemetery, disassembled by Soviets in the 1960s. No marker.

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It stands next to the Mozyr State Pedagogical University.

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It wasn’t far to the highest point in Mozyr, where a tall column reigns over the entire city.

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The monument and adjacent eternal flame commemorate the thousands of locals who died fighting in the Red Army against Nazi terror.

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They stand in front a long park filled with monuments to Mozyr’s victims and brave.

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(1) A memorial to those evacuated from Mozyr who starved to death in the siege of Leningrad.

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(2) A tank from the Afghanistan war and behind it a memorial to those locals who lost their lives fighting.

(3) A memorial the those nine locals who died liberating their hometown

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At a quarter of noon we arrived at the premises of the ‘Mozyr Community of Jewish Culture’. We were greeted by leaders of an active Jewish community that numbers ~600.

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In addition to weekly services and holiday celebrations, the center offers Hesed welfare funds to 470 elders in Mozyr region and also provides Sunday school for about 200 children, which includes a Hebrew language program (ulpan) for teenagers and young adults.

I shared the story of my family from Mozyr. Aaron Schulman (1874-1952), a cigar maker, left Mozyr for New York City in 1904. In NYC his only child, Abe, attended Columbia University and NYU Law School- my first ancestor to attend college. The family moved to Rochester in the early ‘20s where Aaron’s brother, Charles Shoolman, lived with his large family. Aaron and Sophie opened a dry goods store and Abe a successful law firm.

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After briefly serving as Assistant Corporation Council of Rochester he was elected to represent Monroe County in the New York State Assembly in Albany, where he served for ten years (1938-1948). He was dubbed the ‘legislative father of cerebral palsy’ for his efforts to allocate state funding to research and the afflicted in his state. He was also appointed to the national executive board of the Zionist Organization of America. He was a close friend and colleague of the Republican candidate for president in 1944, Governor Thomas Dewey (defeated by Harry Truman).

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To my astonishment, the women knew both Schulmans and Hofsteins. Mila’s math teacher in her gymnasium was Brunia Hofstein, whose brother Baruch Hofstein was a barber. Though all Hofsteins migrated from Mozyr to America or Israel, a Riva Schulman still resides in Mozyr. The community chair (Mira Krapivskaya) managed to contact Riva, who doubts any relationship as there were once many unrelated Schulman families in Mozyr.

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The community leaders kindly shared stories of Mozyr’s past. A state appointed rabbi, Kugel, served the city for many decades in the 19th century. They told me that the origins of Mozyr’s Jews were lost to history in fire at the local archives in the early 20th century, which aligned with what I’d been told by relatives: the Schulmans had a difficult time immigrating as their vital documents had been burned. The community kindly gifted me a ceramic mug.

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We bid farewell to Mila, Jula directed us back towards city center. Jula studied anthropology with a focus in cinema at Belarus State University in Minsk. She pointed out Mozyr’s first settlement, a wooden castle that dates from the Kievan Rus. It was burned to ashes many times, the current structure is only decades old.

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The impressive city hall stands nearby.

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Mozyr was the center of Polesie Region before the war.

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A monument in front commemorates the many locals who died as a result of radiation poisoning from the nearby Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. Mozyr, like Ovruch, lies in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

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After purchasing souvenirs for my relatives we said goodbye to Jula and started our drive back to Minsk. We passed through Kalinkovichy on the way to lunch. Pasha pointed out a mass grave.

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We arrived in Minsk at 7:00, I thanked my new friend Pasha for his assistance. Rabbi Grisha helped me purchase a ticket and board the train. My time in Belarus was the perfect end to my journey.

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