24 December 2016

After two days of travels including an eight hour layover in Iceland and a night in Baltimore, I finally arrived in Alabama where I was greeted by my parents and Majd.

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I was thrilled to receive for Hanukah the samovar brought to America by my Lapidus ancestors in 1892- a reminder that mementos of the past are not restricted to the shtetl, but remain with us across continents and generations.

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22 December 2016

Exercised for the first time in a week before starting my last day in Vilnius. Was determined to visit the essential sites remaining. Took a CityBee rental 10km south to Paneriai Forest. The fog and mist provided an appropriate ambiance.

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A monument at the entrance relayed the horrors that occurred between July 1941 and August 1944. Nazis and their local collaborators killed an estimated 100,000 people including 70,000 Jews from the Vilnius Ghetto. Other victims were Poles and Russian POWs.

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The museum was closed unfortunately, but offered a map of memorials and killing sites throughout the park.

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A monument erected jointly by the presidents of Israel and Lithuania in 2005 stands just in front the museum. It bears a menorah and Star of David.

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The pit where victims’ clothes, shoes and personal belongings were stored lies nearby. Remains of the original stone wall are visible.

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In contrast, the Soviet-era memorial fails to acknowledge that the vast majority of victims were Jewish (as do all Soviet-era memorials around Eastern Europe).

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It was a short walk to the pit where Red Army soldiers were shot to death.

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I continued to the pit where bodies were hastily burned by Jewish prisoners in 1944 as the Soviets drew near. It’s hard to believe that the Nazi’s truly believed they could conceal their crimes.

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In 1953 another pit was dug for the reinterment of victims who lied along the intended path for a railway. It is the largest pit in the park.

It wasn’t far to the mass grave of thousands from the Vilnius Ghetto- elderly, patients, orphans… It was probably the place where Reiches relatives of mine (previously interned in the ghetto) where killed.

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It lies just across from a pit that gained worldwide attention earlier this year when an international team of archaeologists uncovered a tunnel dug in 1944 by Jews ordered to burn the thousands of bodies in Paneriai.

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Known as the ‘burning brigade’, eleven from the group of eighty managed to escape to partisan units, the remainder was killed.

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A memorial to the thousands of Polish victims lies along the 1953 railroad tracks.

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With that, I departed Paneriai. I think it was appropriate that I visited on my last day. I drove back towards city center, but to the opposite side of the Neris River where I visited the only active Jewish cemetery in Vilnius.

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The Suderves Jewish Cemetery was established after the Soviets destroyed the cemetery on Olandu (where my ancestors are buried) in the wake of WWII. Less than eighty bodies were reinterred from Olandu and from Snipiskes Cemetery, which was active from medieval times until the plot on Olandu was purchased in 1831.

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Among the reinterred from Snipiskes were the Vilna Gaon, the pioneer and eternal icon of Litvak Jewry. He died in Vilnius in 1797.

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I sought assistance from the gate keeper, who kindly unlocked the kever.

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Alongside the Gaon are buried a number of his relatives. I thought it was appropriate that I visited the Gaon of Vilna on my last day in Vilnius.

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Afterwards, I scrambled through town to pick up deposits for my accommodation and sim card. At 6:30 I visited Regina for an hour, without whom my experience in Vilnius would not have been as fulfilling. I played some tunes on the piano and bid her farewell.

To conclude my journey I had dinner with fourteen Erasmus students including Kristaan, Daniel, Dima, Enola, Jan… I did not spend as much time with them as I would’ve liked this semester (due to travels), but we promised to visit each other in the coming years.

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I walked home where I packed and cleaned before tucking in for my last sleep in this disgusting dormitory.

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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20 December 2016

Rabbi Grisha, our adored driver Pavel (I can call him Pasha), and I left the hotel for breakfast at 9:15. We settled on a buffet in the center of Brest where we ate latkes- a year round delicacy in Belarus.

We met Regina Simonienko at the Nefesh House just after 10:00. While humble in size, the center is filled with memorabilia from the long history of Jews in Brest. It is funded primarily by the JDC, Dutch Humanitarian Fund and private donors.

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Regina is chair of both the secular-Jewish community and of the Holocaust Memorial Fund in Brest, which lies in the southwestern corner of Belarus. I sat with Regina as she provided an extensive overview of Jewish Brest while Rabbi Grisha translated. As representative of Lithuania in the Council of Four Lands, Brest was the center of Litvak Jewry until the Vilna Gaon brought acclaim to Vilnius in the 18th century.

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Before the war, Jews accounted for over half of Brest’s 26,000 residents. After an extensive tour of her impressive collection, we left for an excursion through the city.

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We started at the statue of Menachem Begin (1913-1992), sixth Prime Minister of Israel and native of Brest. Begin won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for negotiating a peace treaty with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, but also promoted the construction of settlements and the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

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Just behind the statue stands the only synagogue that withstood Nazi terror. It has since been repurposed as a cinema. There were over forty synagogues in Brest before the war.

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Regina told me that the mayor once offered to erect a plaque indicating that the cinema was once a synagogue, she replied to him that she would prefer the reverse.

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We had a pleasant walk down the pedestrianized thoroughfare, which far exceeded my expectations.

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We visited the pharmacy of Solomon Greenberg, one Brest’s most affluent residents in the interwar period. Greenberg paid his family’s way to safety during the Holocaust, his son Jack recently visited.

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The building still serves her original purpose with a small museum that relays her origins.

We ended our tour at the ghetto memorial. Only 19 Jews survived the two day massacre of mid-October, 1941. Reunited with those who returned from military service and from refuge in Siberia, the Jewish community numbered only forty after the war. It had grown to 1000 due to regional convergence in Brest by the fall of the Soviet Union, but Jews remained afraid to affiliate. The Jewish population of Brest is estimated at 800 of 350,000, but far less participate in communal life.

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We bid farewell to Regina at half past noon and started our drive to Kobryn. We arrived at 1:15. An entry marker indicates that the town dates to 1287 when it was a principality in the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, a successor state of the Kievan Rus. The town was conquered by Grand Duke Gediminas only a few decades later and remained under Lithuanian rule until the Partitions.

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We made straight for the synagogue, the second largest in all of Belarus according to Rabbi Grisha. It was constructed in the 18th century for a community of ~1000.

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Hasids venerated the Kobrin Dynasty, related to and later incorporated into the Slonim Dynasty. The traditional (Litvak) community was led by the famed Rabbi Chaim Berlin in the late-19th century.

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A local told us that he worked there in the eighties, when it functioned as a brewery. It has since fallen into disrepair and is apparently the venue of choice for drug deals.

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Efforts in the last decade to renovate the synagogue never came to fruition.

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We were disappointed to find a swastika gratified next to 1488, a common symbol in fascist circles. 14 is a reference to the 14 word white-supremacist slogan ‘we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children’. 88 refers to the eighth letter of the alphabet- HH (Heil Hitler).

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The synagogue stands across from a department of the military.

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We made quickly for the Jewish cemetery so as to utilize daylight. I was surprised to find an impressive entrance and plaque, the entire plot surrounded by a gate. It was locked, but I’d waited ten years too long…

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Three empty ohels stand at the center, each represent a Rebbe of the Kobrin Dynasty interred there.

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Just in front stand a collection of graves of the Soltoveitchik family, a Litvak dynasty that descends from Joseph Dov Soltoveitchik (1820-1892), great-grandson of Chaim Voloshin.

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The close proximity of Litvak and Hasidic graves is emblematic of the religious divide among Kobryn Jews.

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A marker atop a central mound names members of the Kobrin Dynasty interred there.

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Surviving graves surround a swampy pit bisected by an artificial walkway.

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Surely the entire plot was once filled with stones.

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I’ve read that the oldest stone dates to the 15th century, but privileges were only offered to the Jewish community in 1514.  An influx of refugees from Chmelnitsky-ravaged Ukraine made for a sizable addition in the mid-17th century.

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Counted among the 1000+ Jews in the 1784 tax list are Chaim Weinstein son of Todris (1731-1801), wife Tamara and sons David (1769-1810) and Todris (b.1772). I received this information from a researcher commissioned by Ron Winston, whose father Harry (1896-1978) changed his name from Weinstein and later donated the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian.

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Todris’ son, Hirsch (b.1790), was the patriarch of a branch that settled predominantly in Birmingham, Alabama. His grandson Harry Weinstein (1847-1913) was my earliest ancestor to leave Europe for America. In 1885 he settled in Brookside, Alabama where six years later he married a Kobryn native thirty years younger, Sarah Leader (1876-1927). They raised four sons and one daughter- my Papa’s mother, Dora.

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Many years of independent research revealed that a sizable portion of the Birmingham Jewish community can trace their roots to Kobryn. Abe Tenenbaum left Birmingham for Kobryn in 1920 to distribute funds collected from community members for their relatives left behind. A supporting document for Tenenbaum’s passport application holds signatures of the benefactors, patriarchs of many families that still reside in Birmingham.

 

I recited Kaddish for my many ancestors buried there.

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We then visited the central square.

An alleyway leads to a monument that celebrates Kobryn’s 700 year anniversary. It stands in front the municipal office of the registrar.

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The Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Alexander Nevsky stands a few steps away. It was built in 1868.

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The central square is otherwise surrounded by pre-war buildings including a particularly attractive pharmacy like we visited in Brest.

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Another building marks the entrance to the ghetto, which stretched along Pinskaya Street (now Piersomaskaya Street) to the synagogue.

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Along Pinskaya stood the 20+ homes owned by the Jewish community in 1563. Kobryn’s 8000 Jews were forced into the ghetto in autumn of 1941.

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On June 2, 1942, ~3000 Jews were transported to their death at Bronna Gora. On October 15, 1942 residents from a nearby village were ordered to prepare 4 deep pits in southern Kobryn. ~4500 Jews were marched there from the ghetto, Nazis ordered the villagers to shoot them. Afterwards, Nazis killed the villagers.

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Counted among the massacred were many of my relatives, including Isaac Leader (b.1862). We recited Kaddish at their mass grave.

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At a quarter of 4:00 we started our drive south. We arrived in Divin at 4:10.

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I was impressed by the blue wooden cathedral as we entered the tiny village, which lies no more than five kilometers from the border with Ukraine.

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I didn’t have high expectations of our time in Divin. Rabbi Grisha had never visited and there was no information about pertinent sites on the internet. I did find; however, that Jews numbered ~1000 in 1900 (a third of the village), and that they established a synagogue on Sovetskaya Street. I figured we would drive down Sovetskaya.

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As we exited the car to photograph a traditional home, Rabbi Grisha approached an old man standing behind it. Alexander spoke with a difficult accent, one derived from living in the borderland. Grisha shared my story and inquired about any Jewish sites. To our amazement, Alexander informed us that a Jewish cemetery lies on the other side of town square. He suggested we seek further assistance in the square.

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We thanked Alexander for his assistance and examined his traditional well.

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In town square Rabbi Grisha solicited a middle-aged man who moments later was in the backseat of our car. His name was Michael. Michael directed us a very short distance along Sovetskaya to the cemetery. No stones remained, but a Russian memorial relayed the plot’s significance.

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Sarah Leader’s mother, Eddie Engel, was born in Divin in 1855. Eddie’s father, Isaac Zavel Engel (b.1825), was the patriarch of a large family that settled primarily in Birmingham.

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I was thrilled for the opportunity to recite Kaddish in memory of my Engel ancestors and relatives.

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Michael joined us again in the car and directed us to the nearby mass grave. Just before WWII, the Jewish community had dwindled to near 300 in a village of 3,000. The memorial in Russian read that 1200 Jews were gathered from surrounding villages in the Divin Ghetto before their murder on this site in 1942. Two grandsons of Isaac Zavel Engel and their many descendants were killed there.

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Considering my expectations of Divin, I was beyond surprised by the success of our trip. I thanked Michael endlessly for his support.

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We left Divin before 5:00 and started our long drive to Mozyr. I blogged as Grisha napped. At 8:00 we stopped for dinner in Pinsk. By 9:15 we were back on the road.

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We arrived in Mozyr just before midnight.

19 December 2016

Rushed through breakfast to meet Rabbi Grisha in the hotel lobby at 9:00. With our driver, Pavel, we started our three day shtetl shlep through Belarus.

Our route fortuitously led us through Voloshin, home to the famed prototype of Litvak yeshivas. Rabbi Chaim Voloshin, the leading disciple of the Vilna Gaon, was eager to stop the tide of Hasidisim rising from the south. He left the epicenter of traditional Judaism in Vilnius for the battleground region of White Russia (Belarus). He chose to establish a yeshiva in the humble town of Voloshin, absent of attractions to distract students. His yeshiva, and the strict method of study it formulated, became the model for the yeshivas that spread through Belarus in the 19th century. Counted among alumni are Shimon Peres and Chaim Bialik. Students were provided food and board free of charge by the local Jewish community.

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We continued our drive towards Vilnius until we arrived in the city of Lida.

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We started our tour at the Palace of Culture where we met Michael Dvilianski in the single room allotted to the Jewish community for services and functions.

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In addition to serving as chair of the Progressive Jewish community of Lida, Michael is the founder and director of the local Klezmer group Shalom. Founded in 1993 to promote the previously suppressed Jewish community of Lida, Shalom has become the preeminent Klezmer band of Belarus. A recipient of funding from municipal and federal governments as well as from a bevy of Jewish foundations, Shalom has performed in ten different countries and at various state functions. They are the cultural pride of Lida.

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It is appropriate that Jewish music should flourish in Lida as my papa’s grandmother, Ida Riches Lapidus (1873-1957), was both a native of Lida and matriarch of a very musical family. Another grandson was the pianist for Frank Sinatra.

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After bidding farewell to Michael we made our way to Lida Castle, constructed by Grand Duke Gediminas in 1323 to defend from Teutonic Knights.

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A city grew around the castle, which changed hands many times over the centuries.

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It was not heavily damaged until the city fire of 1891, but it was renovated in recent decades. Lida Castle was host to the 1422 wedding of Jogaila (King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania) and Sophie of Halshany- parents of King Casimir IV and thus progenitors of the Jagellonian Dynasty.

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We met Andrei Fishbein, vice-chair of the secular-Jewish community of Lida,  just outside the castle at a quarter past one. Andrei indicated that in the city of 100,000 there are only 120 Jews, of whom half are active in Jewish affairs. He directed us to Lidskoe Pivo, one of the oldest and largest breweries in Belarus.

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A staple at the table of Russian Tsars, Lidskoe Pivo was founded in 1876 by Nosel Pupko- a local Jew. Pupko and his family fled for Mexico after surviving the horrors of WWII, but his brewery continued to produce a variety of beverages. In 2009 it was acquired by the Finnish enterprise OLVI, and celebrated her 140 year anniversary earlier this year. It is also particularly appropriate that beer should flourish in Lida, as Ida Riches Lapidus was the matriarch of a family that loves beer and White Russians (translates to Belarus).

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Across the street lied the cemetery established by Lida’s first Jews in the mid-16th century. Surely it was the resting place of my Riches ancestors.

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Records indicate that Ida’s grandfather, Chaim (b.1813), resided in Lida with his wife, Hannah Dina (b.1818), daughters Sarah Leah (1856-1919), Ena Rebecca (b.1856), and sons Grunem (b.1833), Jacob (1837-1910), Kushel (1843-1892), and Nathan (1842-1887). The latter three died in Vilnius. The cemetery was razed by Soviets in 1968, a memorial erected only in 2001.

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We then drove to the site of the Great Synagogue, built in the late-18th century. Despite her sizable pre-war community, which accounted for three quarters of the city, only the one synagogue stood in Lida. Massive in size, there was no need for another. Next door stood the famed Lida Yeshiva, established by Yitzhak Yaakov Reines (1839-1915) in 1905. While prominent across the empire, Reines was condemned by his colleagues for incorporating secular and Zionist studies into his curriculum. The Nazis forced local Jews to burn both to the ground.

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It was a short drive to forest where on May 8, 1942, Nazi collaborators drunkenly murdered 6700 Jews from the nearby ghetto, which housed 12,000 Jews from across the region.

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Victims were lined up along a ravine and shot in groups of 100. The pit was seven meters by thirty meters and three meters deep. A community event is held in memory of the victims on every anniversary. The first marker was erected in 1964, but not until last year were monuments added that indicate victims were Jewish.

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A nearby memorial marked the spot where the children, separated from their parents, were murdered on the same day. It was erected in 1972.

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On the outskirts of the forest we found another mass grave, marked by tombstones that survived the destruction of the old Jewish cemetery. A memorial, consecrated by Rabbi Grisha in 2003, indicated that a substantial amount of Jews from Vilnius were deported to and murdered in Lida.

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With that, we said goodbye to Andrei and continued our drive. En route we stopped in the ancient city of Navahrudak, which was home to one of the largest regional ghettos.

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In 1943 hundreds of brave Jews dug a tunnel from the ghetto work camp to freedom.

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Many managed to join the Bielski Parisan Brigade (made famous by the 2008 film Defiance), of which they made up a sizable proportion. One escapee was the grandmother of the son-in-law-elect, Jared Kushner.

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It wasn’t far to Karelichy, where in 1869 Elias Davis was born. Family lore dictates that Elias changed his surname from Liss to Davidovsky so as to avoid the draft. He escaped using false immigration documents with his family to Birmingham, where they adopted the surname Davis.

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Karelichy was beyond decimated during the war, and there are no remnants of Jewish life. We visited the site were I believe the stood a synagogue.

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The municipal center of culture is accommodated by a pre-war building in the center of town.

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It is surrounded by traditional prewar homes, perhaps the kind where my Davis ancestors lived.

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We continued on our route, along which we made a quick stop in the ancient city of Mir. I found Mir exceptional for her preservation of both secular and Jewish heritage sites of resounding importance. While Voloshin founded the ‘Litvak Yeshiva’, Mir perfected it. Founded in 1817, the Yeshiva flourished under the Kamai family of Rabbis. Unlike other Litvak Yeshivas that died with the six million, students and faculty from Mir were provided false visas from the Japanese diplomat Sugihara, which allowed them to make their way to Israel via Japan. The Mir Yeshiva flourishes to this day in Jerusalem and Brooklyn.

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It was a short walk to Mir Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the pride of Belarus. Built in the early 16th century, the luxurious castle flourished under the ownership of the Radziwill family. It compensated for a lack of defensive topography by employing the most advanced weaponry. She was apparently flooded with lavish furnishings from across the continent.

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We continued our drive and arrived in Baranovichi at 7:00. We were welcomed in the single-room Jewish center by an elderly crowd that had been eagerly awaiting the Rabbi’s arrival. The wedding began promptly. The bride and groom had been together for almost sixty years. They have children, grand children, and great-grand children residing in Israel. Jewish services (weddings included) were forbidden under Soviet rule, it was said that the last Jewish wedding in Baranovichi took place in 1930. I was kindly invited to assist in holding the chuppah and asked to make a few remarks.

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I was even gifted a box of chocolates from the community and invited to join their modest feast. The meal ended with a round of jubilant traditional songs. Never before did I feel so connected to the shtetl. Ida Riches Lapidus’ sister, Bessie Riches, married Jacob Cohn of Baranovichi.

Around 8:45 we started our drive to Brest. I blogged en route. We arrived at half past 11:00.

18 December 2016

Tried to blog, but didn’t leave myself nearly enough time. Showered and then rushed to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War.

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It was packed with Soviet propaganda, obviously no mention of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or the Soviet invasion of Poland. Red Army soldiers were consistently referred to as heroes or patriots.

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There was one mention of Jews in the entire museum. They were otherwise incorporated into general statistics despite accounting for the vast majority of victims (as in all Soviet memorials).

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The museum was flooded with Belarusian soldiers.

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Rushed back to the hotel where I met my translator, Natalia Gurevich. She is around my age. Natalia was actively involved in Hillel where she met Darina Privalko (who organized my trip). She kindly drove me to pick up a sim card before heading to the Minsk Jewish Campus at noon.

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Host to a bevy of Jewish organizations, the community is funded mostly by the Joint Distribution Committee. Of particular note is JDC’s welfare program called Hesed, which offers housing for hundreds of elderly, operates a food bank and a Jewish daycare.

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We also visited the Hillel headquarters, made sure to take a picture for the folks at Northeastern.

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At a quarter past noon we met Vadim at the complex’s Jewish History and Culture Museum of Belarus. A one room exhibit, Vadim provided an overview of Jewish life and history in Belarus while Natalia translated. He described Jewish life in Eastern Europe as particularly brutal under the Russian Empire, who restricted Jewish residence to the Pale of Settlement (occupied Poland-Lithuania) when they conquered the region in the late 18th century. Their political oppression, Vadim suggested, contributed to their involvement in socialist politics and support for the Russian Revolution.

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He described Belarus as a battleground between the Litvaks, based in Vilnius, and Hasids to the south. I was particularly interested in his discussion about yeshivas. In the late 18th century, Belarus became home to the ivy league of Yeshivas, which were founded by disciples of the Vilna Gaon.

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I was interested to learn about the flood of emigration that started in the late nineteenth century. The vast majority of Jews left illegally, having purchased an all-inclusive package from smugglers including a fake passport, transit to a port and tickets to America.

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At 2:00 Natalia and I left for a nearby cafe where we met Rabbi Grisha Abramovich, my tour guide for the next few days. Rabbi Grisha is the chief rabbi of the Progressive Jewish community of Belarus. After a coffee we bid farewell to Natalia and started our tour of Jewish Minsk.

With our driver, Pavel, we started at the Yama Memorial- literally ‘the pit’. Erected in 1947, it was the first Holocaust memorial in the Soviet Union. It stands where on Purim, March 02 1942, Nazi forces murdered 5,000 Jews from the nearby ghetto. The largest in German occupied Soviet Union, the Minsk Ghetto held roughly 100,000 Jews. Of Belarus’ pre-war Jewish population, about 200,000 managed to evacuate or join the Red Army before Nazis arrived. The remaining community of 800,000 was eviscerated.

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Until Belarus gained independence in 1991, the Yama Memorial was the singular tribute to Holocaust victims in Minsk. As Judaism was otherwise suppressed, the Yama Memorial became a symbol of Jewish resilience and the preferred site of Jewish assembly. Since the collapse, additional memorials have been erected surrounding.

We then drove to the district of Rakowska where the 19th century yeshiva still stands. Rabbi Grisha described it as a yeshiva for those not so inclined to study. It now houses the Rakovsky Brovar restaurant and bar.

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Students were often ‘distracted’ by the many attractions of Minsk and the nearby etiquette school for young Jewish women.

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Nearby stands a pre-war Jewish residence. The Rakowska district miraculously survived the various battles of German occupation and retreat.

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Rabbi pointed out the practically built rear side- all it needs is a chuppah to function as a sukkah.

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It was a short walk to the Rakowska Synagogue, one of three that survived the war. 83 places of worship stood in Minsk prior. Built in the 19th century, the Rakowska Synagogue served Minsk’s middle-class.

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We drove next to the Great Choral Synagogue. Constructed in 1903, it served Minsk’s upper-class. It now houses a theater.

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We then made our way to the old Jewish cemetery, razed by the Soviets. At her entrance stands nine memorials to the 30,000 Jews deported from Western Europe to the Minsk Ghetto where they met their deaths. Rabbi Grisha was instrumental in erecting many of them.

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Just behind the memorials we found a collection of toppled tombstones discovered only in the last decade during metro construction and pipeline projects under the abandoned cemetery. At least 100 stones have been found.

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One of few traditional wooden homes that remain in Minsk stands adjacent the cemetery. It is used as a set for historical films.

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Around the corner stands Rabbi Grisha’s synagogue, bought only in 2011.

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He showed me his three torahs, donated by American Jewish communities. My visit coincided with not one, but two programs: a NFTY meeting and a lecture on Kabbalah. Rabbi Grisha kindly offered me delicious cabbage blintzes (I hadn’t eaten all day) as I interacted with members of his community.

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Rabbi Grisha asked me to make a few remarks to participants of the Kabbalah program. I told them how meaningful it was to see a Jewish community flourish in the land of my ancestors. An elderly man (or as they call them in Eastern Europe, ‘survivors’) told me that he served in a partisan brigade with Simon Lapidus of Minsk. My great-great-grandfather, Henry Lapidus, was born here in 1863. Henry immigrated with his wife Ida to Bayonne, New Jersey in 1892. It’s possible that Simon was a relative, but Lapidus was a relatively common surname among Ashkenazi Jews. Nevertheless, it was a special moment.

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With that, we traveled by the old Jewish hospital, which functioned as a partisan headquarters during WWII. It now serves as a music academy.

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We ended our tour at the two other functioning synagogues of Minsk. Combined, the three synagogues represent the three Jewish communities of Belarus- Progressive, Chabad and Litvak. There are roughly 40,000 Jews still in Belarus, half of whom reside in Minsk. There are about 15 Jewish communities across the country.

Built in 2010, the Chabad synagogue is the first built in Belarus since 1930.

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It stands on Kropotkina street, where records indicate that my family lived in the late 19th century.

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We finally ventured to the Litvak synagogue, which Rabbi Grisha described as the most conservative.

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Relations between Jewish communities are never easy, but they seem to fare better in Minsk than in Vilnius. Hanukkah events were coordinated so as to not overlap.

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Rabbi Grisha and Pavel dropped me off at the hotel after a very successful day. Talked to parents then blogged.

17 December 2016

Woke up at 4:45, was at the station within an hour. Went through customs and boarded the train.

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Arrived in Minsk at 9:45. Wandered through the massive shopping complex that encompasses the station while trying to contact my parents, but no WiFi or cell service.

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Started my tour utterly exhausted, four hours of sleep didn’t cut it. Just across the station stands the ‘city gates’, erected after WWII in Stalinist style. Atop one tower hangs an 11.5 foot clock, a military trophy from Nazi Germany. The opposite proudly adorns the communist sigil of the Soviet Union.

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I wandered a short distance to Independence Square, which boasts Belarus’ most prominent institutions. It has been called the largest city square in Europe.

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Minsk City Council and Belarus State University stand adjacent.

The Government House mirrors the university. Completed in 1934 it is one of the only significant buildings in Minsk that survived the war.  The building is occupied by both houses of parliament, though they receive little authority in a country described as Europe’s last dictatorship.

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An imposing statue of Lenin still stands in front, testament to the Russian persuasion of the Belarus government.

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It lies adjacent to the Church of Saints Simon and Helena, known locally as the Red Church. It was commissioned by a native socialite, Edward Woynillowicz, and named for his two deceased children.

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It was completed in 1910 for the Roman Catholic community of Minsk, though it served as a cinema in Soviet times. It was returned to the Catholic community in 1990. Belarus gained independence in 1991, but has served as a Russian satellite since the accession of Lukashenko in 1994.

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The central part of Independence Avenue stretches from Independence Square to Victory Square, which at 15km long is one of the largest thoroughfares of any capital city in Europe.

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The avenue is a showcase of Minsk’s most impressive Stalinist architecture, constructed between WWII and the ’60s. I was particularly impressed by the National Bank of Belarus and the KGB headquarters, the latter occupies an entire block.

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Further down Independence I arrived at October Square, which has been the site of Minsk’s most violent anti-government protests over the last decade. It is dominated by the Palace of the Republic- the largest public structure in the city and the last from Soviet times. It serves as a concert hall, but also hosts state functions.

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The neoclassical Trade Unions Culture Palace stands on the the other side of the square.

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I strayed a few blocks from Independence to Freedom Square, with the Minsk City Hall situated in the center. The original structure was built in the late-16th century, but demolished by Tsar Nicholas I in 1851. In 2004 the Hall was rebuilt, but serves only ceremonial purposes. The City Hall is surrounded by a bevy of structures intrinsic to Minsk history.

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Behind the hall stands Belarus’ Academy of Music, which has produced her most prolific musicians.

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Minsk prospered under Russian occupation when she served as the center of Minsk Gubernia, one of the most populous regions in the empire. The administrative headquarters still stand along Freedom Square.

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The Gubernia Headquarters neighbor the Church of the Holy Spirit, an early-17th century Basilian monastery destroyed by the Great Fire of 1835. It was entirely rebuilt in recent years.

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The Holy Spirit Cathedral stands behind the church. It was built in the mid-17th century to accommodate the Bernardine convent next-door.

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Converted to an Orthodox church during Russian occupation, it now serves as the Cathedral of Minsk.

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The Church of the Holy Spirit is mirrored by the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, a 17th century Jesuit cathedral that now serves as a center of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. Unfortunately, there was a baptismal service so I couldn’t enter.

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I ventured from the square to the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. Constructed in 1611, it was the only Orthodox cathedral in Minsk until the Partitions.

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Belarus is a predominantly Orthodox nation with a large Catholic minority.

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I continued my walk through Minsk to Trinity Suburb, said to be the most beautiful in Minsk. Perhaps because of the weather, perhaps because of my exhaustion, I didn’t find it remotely impressive.

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The suburb lies along the Svislach River, which divides Minsk in two. A bridge connects the suburb to the Island of Tears, which hosts a memorial to the thousands of locals killed during the war. Minsk was ravaged by battles of German occupation and retreat.

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Atop Trinity Suburb stands the National Opera and Ballet Theater, constructed in the 1930s. It survived the war and has served her original purpose since.

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I walked from the theater back to Independence, where I found the Minsk Circus. As an institution the circus dates to 1853, but the premises on Independence were not constructed for over a century. It was the largest circus in the USSR.

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Finally I reached Victory Square, indicated by a tall column.

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In the passageway beneath I found a memorial to the martyred soldiers.

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From Victory Square I walked for an unexpected hour around the ‘first ring’ of Minsk to my hotel.

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After making contact with my parents I ate lunch and worked on my blog. For the rest of the evening I tried desperately to stay awake, I picked up dinner from a nearby market before going to sleep at 11:00.

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