Photo courtesy of Aleta Bryant
For Soviet Jews, It’s Impossible to Find Our Ancestry
It is almost impossible to watch television or view other forms of media without being inundated with advertisements for 23andMe or ancestry.com, where viewers learn the stories of everyday people who, tracing their DNA and ancestry, learn they are related to great chieftains, famous jurists, inspiring social activists or President George Washington. We watch on screen as large family trees filled with numerous branches and leaves are traced back decades and generations, across time and countries, and we are encouraged to join the genetic revolution and trace our own family histories.
My mother is 93 and has advanced dementia. She is the last alive of her two brothers and two sisters, and their spouses. My grandparents are long gone. Having only recently been reunited with my maternal cousins after 44 years, I have learned they are as unaware of the details of our family history as I am; and we sadly realize any hope of finding answers to our past from my mother’s generation of aunts and uncles now lies dying in the withering mind and memory of my mother, who has no recollection of my name, much less of our family history. We lament that ours was not a family that spoke of such things and we children did not have the foresight to probe.
All we collectively knew is our family arrived from Slonim, Poland, in New York in the late 1920s. We knew they took the name Kaplan when they arrived. We assumed our name in “the Old Country” was Kaplansky. We had small bits of information: The oldest son of our bubbe, from a previous marriage, initially was left behind in Slonim because his family couldn’t get a visa for him; my maternal grandfather died shortly after they arrived in the United States. Bubbe had to clean houses to support the family in Brooklyn, yet did not have sufficient means to support them all, so she temporarily gave my mother to her aunt to raise. The children went to work as youngsters to help support the family.
These are typical tales for immigrants from Eastern Europe arriving in Brooklyn, N.Y., just in time for the Great Depression.
This year, I was inspired to do more research into my maternal family history — not only by the 23andMe and ancestry.com crazes, but by my taking a trip to Poland and Lithuania. This gave me the opportunity not only to find my roots, but to go back to the very places where these roots began. I could stand and walk in the footsteps of my family’s past.
Perhaps I should have begun this quest much sooner, but I thought the few months I allotted myself would yield enough information perhaps to find a house, an address in Slonim I could stand before and feel the presence of my past.
In my research, I visited the local Mormon Latter-day Saints Genealogical Library and, although the staff was very helpful, I continued to encounter one dead end after another. Finally, with the help of a genealogist in New York and her colleague in Berlin, I located the ship manifest for my paternal grandfather, then another ship manifest for my maternal grandmother, my mother and three of her four siblings. I was ecstatic. I learned wonderful things. I learned my family name was not Kaplansky, but Kapic. I learned my paternal grandfather, Harry, was Hercz.
Hercz was a tanner in Slonim, who miraculously got a visa and left his wife and four children (including his then 6-month-old daughter, my mother) in Poland in June 1926 to head to America. In 1930, visas were obtained for my grandmother, mother and three of my aunts and uncles. I learned their Polish names and dates of birth, the name of the ship on which they sailed to America, the date they left from France, and the date they landed in the Port of New York. But other than knowing they came from Slonim, I could not find an address, a place in Slonim that would connect me to them once I got there. I did learn of a name of a sister my grandmother had left behind in Slonim.
Further sleuthing, I found my mother’s 1948 U.S. naturalization papers, from which I learned my grandmother’s Polish maiden name. But once again, all references to Poland were to the town of Slonim and not to any street address. I hoped that once I actually got there, I might be able to search the local archives and, finding birth records, marriage records and the like, locate some physical addresses I could visit.
Our trip to Slonim took us beyond the borders of Poland and Lithuania and into what is now Belarus. After World War II, Slonim came under Soviet control. In 1991, it gained independence from Russia and reverted to Belarus. Slonim was no stranger to such upheaval. During its history, Lithuania, Russia, the Tatars, Germany and Poland ruled over it.
Its storied past includes a rich and celebrated Jewish tradition. In the late 19th century, through the beginning of World War II, Slonim was a hub of Jewish commerce and Jewish spiritual and political life. It was home to many Jewish movements and movers, including Haskalah, Maskilim, Chasidim, Magidim, Mitnagdim, the Jewish Bund, religious Zionists (the Mizrachi), general Zionists and labor Zionists. Although Jews there suffered from pogroms and anti-Semitism, the Jewish population of Slonim swelled in the years leading up to the war, as Jews from other parts of Poland and Eastern Europe fled to Slonim.
By World War II, 70% of the population in Slonim was Jewish. By December 1942, after the last of five “aktions” by the Nazis, 25,000 Jews in Slonim were killed. The 400 to 500 Slonim Jews who survived did so by escaping — some into the forest, or because the Soviets had deported them to Siberia. The rest are under the earth in the killing fields that surround the town.
Before arriving in Belarus and Slonim, I knew something of the horror of this annihilation. But it did not prepare me for the shock of being there. I felt sadness, emptiness and outrage beyond anything I had ever felt during my travels visiting Jewish heritage sites in Germany, along the Rhine River, in Lithuania or in Poland. Belarus — in particular, Slonim — was different; it was punch-in-the-gut different. And it was not just because it was the place from which my family came. It was a difference made very clear by our incredible Belarusian guide, Alexander, who spent three days taking us to several places, including Baranovichi, Mir and Minsk.
Today, when one drives into the main square of Slonim, if one has a learned eye for history and architecture, one can pick out which of the buildings would have been Jewish homes or businesses. Moreover, although it bears no outward sign or identification, one also cannot miss the incredible, fenced-in, dilapidated, crumbling structure that once was one of the largest and most magnificent synagogues in Eastern Europe.
What you do miss (if you are looking) are Jews. Any Jews. Even worse, what is missing is any sense or consciousness at all in the town or its current inhabitants of what was, at one time, an important and significant presence of Jews.
Alexander, hearing us speak about how there seems to be a resurgence of interest in Jews and Judaism in Poland, summed up the situation in Belarus with incredible insight and impact: The Polish people, many of whom today, individually and as a nation, feel they have lost something as a result of the loss of the Jewish people and culture. They are engaged in trying to recapture some part of this loss (even if, as some argue, they may not be taking sufficient responsibility for the loss). However, the residents of Slonim, and Belarus in general, don’t seem to take note of the loss of Jews at all, or even feel they have lost anything as a consequence of losing the Jews.
As a Jew walking through and around Slonim, this indifference to the lost Jewish past and lack of Jewish presence is palpable. You can swallow it; you can taste it. It’s a bitter, bitter taste.
The loss I felt in Slonim compounded when I learned from Alexander that any effort I might make to locate any documentation — such as birth, marriage or property records of my family — would be futile. After the Soviets came to power in Belarus, they destroyed all prewar records of the Jewish people who lived in what is now Belarus. Unlike Jews who can trace their ancestry to Poland, Lithuania or even Ukraine, those of us seeking our previously unknown family history in Slonim or elsewhere in Belarus are pretty much out of luck.
So there is no house I can stand in front of or street I can walk down, knowing my family was once there. There are no records to help me find members of my family.
Yes, I can stand in front of the great Slonim Synagogue and imagine my family might have stood there, even prayed there. I can walk along the river and try to feel their footsteps beneath mine as they enjoyed a stroll on a beautiful summer day. I can try to hear in my mind the gleeful laughter and shouts of young children, among whom would have been my 4-year old mother, playing in the public square and parks.
I can go a short distance to the perimeter of town, up a hill and stand in the big killing field, wondering if my grandmother’s sister who was left behind, as well as other unknown relatives, breathed their final breaths as they stood here, surrounded by pastoral beauty that is evident even today. When I stand in that field, am I standing in their footsteps?
Returning from my travels, I still will try to do what research I can to track down information about my family. It does seem much of what I may be able to learn is going to be about the lives they lived here in America. I feel blessed to know my family’s correct surname. I feel blessed to have been to Slonim, to see the town where my grandfather was a tanner and where my grandmother, mother and her siblings were born and lived until 1930.
But there is an overwhelming anger and grief; not only over the destruction of the Jews of Slonim, but from the subsequent Soviet destruction of the records of their very existence. I am angry those branches and leaves of my history can never be found or added to my family tree. I am angry for myself and for all the Jews in the world for whom 23andMe and ancestry.com can never be options as we seek our pasts.
Nevertheless, although many of us may not have individual family trees, we still can find a past that is precious, significant, meaningful and enduring. A past that lives on in each one of us. As Jews, we are part of a larger family whose history is remarkable, relevant, important, worldwide in scope, well-documented and continuing.
We are not just 23andMe. We are 6MillionandMe, and beyond.
BY ALETA BRYANT