by Aleta Bryant
It is almost impossible to watch television, or view other forms of media without
being inundated with advertisements for 23andMe or ancestry.com , where we 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 even President George
Washington himself. 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 back into time.
My mother is 93, and has advanced dementia. She is the last alive of her two
brothers and two sisters, and all of their spouses. Grandparents are long gone.
Having only recently been reunited with my maternal cousins after 44 years, I have
learned that they are as unaware of the details of our family history as I am; and we
sadly realize that 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 our family history. We lament that ours
was not a family that spoke of such things, and we children did not have the foresight
All we collectively knew is that our family arrived from Slonim, Poland to New
York sometime in the late 1920’s. We knew they took the name Kaplan when they
arrived; and always assumed that our name in “the Old Country” was Kaplansky. We
had small bits of information – such as, that the eldest son of our Bubbe, whom she
had from a prior marriage, was left behind in Slonim initially because they couldn’t get
a visa for him; that my maternal grandfather died shortly after they arrived in America;
that my Bubbe had to clean houses to support the family in Brooklyn, and still did not
have sufficient means to support them all, so had temporarily to give my mother to her
aunt to raise; that the children went to work as youngsters to help support the family.
All very typical tales for immigrants from Eastern Europe arriving in Brooklyn just in time
for the Great Depression.
This year I was inspired to do some more digging and research into my maternal
family history; not only by the 23andMe and ancestry.com crazes, but by the fact that I
was taking a trip to Poland and Lithuania, which gave me the ideal opportunity not only
to find my roots, but to go back to the very places where these roots begin; to stand
and walk in the footsteps of my family’s past. Perhaps I should have begun this quest
considerably sooner, but I thought that the few months I did have would surely yield
enough information to enable me to find, perhaps, a house, an address in Slonim I
could stand before and feel the presence of my past.
In my research, I ran into dead end after dead end. I visited the local Mormon
LDS Genealogical Library and, although they were 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 was able to locate the ship manifest for my paternal
grandfather, and 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 that
my family name was not Kaplansky, but Kapic. I learned that my paternal grandfather,
Harry, was really Hercz, who was a tanner in Slonim, Poland, 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. I learned that four years later, in
1930, visas were miraculously obtained for my grandmother, mother and three of my
aunts and uncles also to come to America. I learned their Polish names and dates of
birth, and the name of the ship upon which they sailed to America, and 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, Poland, I could not find an address, a place in Slonim
which could connect me to them once I got there. I did learn of a name of a sister my
grandmother had left behind in Slonim.
Doing a little further sleuthing, I was able to find my mother’s 1948 U.S.
Naturalization papers, from which I also learned my grandmother’s Polish maiden
name. But, once, again, all references to Poland were simply to the town of Slonim,
and not to any street addresses. I hoped that, once I actually got there, I might be able
to search the local archives in Slonim and, finding birth records, marriage records and
the like, locate some physical addresses I could visit. Again, I was searching for a
place I could stand with my feet touching the earth I knew would have been touched
by my family.
Our trip to Slonim actually took us beyond the borders of Poland and Lithuania,
and into what is now Belarus. After WWII, Slonim came under Russian control until
1991, when it gained independence from Russia, and reverted to Belarus. Slonim was
no stranger to such upheaval as, during its history, it had been ruled at different times
by Lithuania, Russia, the Tatars, Germany, Poland, and, currently, Belarus. Its storied
past included a rich and celebrated Jewish tradition. In particular, in the late 19th
Century, through the beginning of WWII, Slonim was a hub of Jewish commerce, and
Jewish spiritual and political life. It was a 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 pograms and antisemitism, as did Jews throughout Eastern
Europe, the Jewish population of Slonim swelled even more in the years leading up to
WWII, as Jews from other parts of Poland and Eastern Europe fled to Slonim as they
were driven east.
By WWII, 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 murdered. The
400-500 Slonim Jews who survived did so by escaping Slonim – some into the forestor
because they had been deported to Siberia by the Soviets. The rest of the Slonim
Jews can be found under the earth in the killing fields that surround the town. (In fact,
the killing fields in all of Belarus have been numbered at 10,000.)
Before arriving in Belarus and Slonim, I knew something of the horror of this
annihilation. But what I knew beforehand did not prepare me for the shock of being
there in person. It was a special sadness and emptiness and outrage I felt beyond any
such feelings I have ever experienced 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. As will be explained, it was a difference that was
made very clear to us by our incredible Belarusian guide, Alexander, who spent 3 days
taking us to several places in Belarus, 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 can also not miss the incredible, fenced-in, dilapidated, crumbling
structure that was once one of largest and most magnificent synagogues in Eastern
Europe. [See photo attached] (In fact, the synagogue was at one time a priority site for
the World Monuments Fund; but seems to have fallen off their list for lack of interest.)
What one does miss, however, if one is looking, is Jews. Any Jews. And 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.
Our Belarusian guide, 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, as follows. Unlike the Polish people, many
of whom today, individually and as a nation, feel that they have truly lost something as
a result of the loss of the Jewish people and culture, and are actively 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), the residents of Slonim, and Belarus in general,
don’t seem to take note of the loss of Jews at all, or even feel that 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 – and it’s a bitter, bitter taste.
The loss I felt in Slonim was compounded when I learned from Alexander that
any efforts I might make to locate any documentation – such as birth or marriage or
property records- of my family in Slonim, or Belarus, would be futile. After it came into
power in Belarus, the Soviets destroyed all pre-WWII records of the Jewish people who
lived in what is now Belarus. Unlike Jews who can trace their ancestry to Poland,
Lithuania, even the 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 that my family was once there;
and no records to help me find members of my family who remain unknown to me.
Yes, I can stand in front of the great Slonim Synagogue and imagine that
members of 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 outside 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. Or I can go a short distance to the perimeter of town, up a
hill, and stand in the big killing field we visited, and wonder in my heart if my
grandmother’s aunt who was left behind, as well as other yet unknown relatives,
breathed their final breaths as they stood surrounded by pastoral beauty that is evident
even today. When I stand in that field, am I standing in their footsteps?
Having returned from my travels, I will still try to do what research I can to track
down more information about my family. It does seem that much of what I may be able
to learn is going to be about the lives they lived here in America, after they left Slonim
and arrived in New York. I feel blessed finally to know my correct family surname. And
blessed to have at least 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 also an overwhelming anger and grief; not only over the destruction
of the Jews of Slonim, but from the subsequent destruction by the Soviets of the
records of their very existence. I am angry that 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 an option
as we seek out our pasts.
Nevertheless, although many of us may not have individual family trees, and
branches and leaves we can locate and chart, we can still find a past that is precious,
significant, meaningful and enduring – maybe even more so. A past that lives on in
each one of us. We, as Jews, are part of a larger family, whose history is immense,
remarkable, relevant, important, worldwide in scope, well-documented, and continuing.
We are not just 23andMe; we are SixMillionandMe, and beyond.
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