HOW DO YOU GET TO TELECHAN?
It isn’t easy. Most of my Eisenberg relatives do not know that Telechan (Telekhany) is our family’s ‘hometown’ in ‘the old country’. Many who do know do not realize that the town still exists. It does. Few people apart from the family have heard of Telechan. In today’s geopolitical world it is located in Belarus, itself a country that most people cannot identify. Mention a place called Svyataya Volya and you can be assured that no one has heard of it. Why then do I mention Svyataya Volya? How is it linked to the Eisenberg family and Telechan? I’m not certain, but I will try to explain later.
When the USSR collapsed in 1991 Belarus, a former Soviet Republic became an independent nation. It had suffered terribly during WWII. One third of its inhabitants were killed. Belarus is only now reaching its pre war population. Politically the country is more like the former Soviet Union than is present-day Russia. Belarus has not yet moved towards becoming a market economy society. It still employs the central planning system of the former Soviet Union. The present political system replicates the old soviet system in many ways.
Unlike planning a trip to most other European countries, one does not decide to travel to Belarus and just go. To visit Belarus one needs a visa. To apply for a visa one needs an invitation from a government-approved agency. Through an e-mail discussion group on Belarus I met a man from Minsk who was once a boy from Newton (Newton South High School, Class of 1964). Frank Swartz is the Executive Director of the Eastern European Jewish Heritage Project (E.E.J.H.P.). He is an American citizen who lives in Belarus. His wife Galina, an English speaking native Belarusian, assists in managing the agency. Frank extended an e-mail invitation for Elaine and myself with instructions to send it, along with our passports, to the Belarus Consulate in New York. With some reluctance I mailed our passports and the required $50.00 per person. A week later the passports were returned with visas attached. Now we would be able to enter Belarus once we arrived at its border with Poland.
Before leaving Boston I received the following e-mail:
“I just want to verify the time of your arrival to Brest. If I am not mistaken, you are going to be in Brest at 15:01 (3:01 PM). I will be meeting you. You will easily recognize me: I am short (about 5’2”) and optimistic. Besides I will have a sign with your name. If something unexpected happens, please, do not get terrified, just wait for 15 minutes on the platform and then go to the railway station and wait for me near the ticket booths. In Russian the ticket booths are called ???????? ????? (Pronounced Beetetnye Kassy.)
From the railway station we will go straight to Telekhany and Svyataya Volya. I have spoken to the head of the Jewish community in Pinsk: Iosif Liberman. He told me that as far as he knows there are no Jews either in Telekhany or in Svyataya Volya, but he will try to find the woman he knows who is not Jewish, but whose late husband was a Jew from Svyataya Volya. She lives in Pinsk now. If he succeeds, we will meet her.
The service (Passover Seder) will be from 19:00 (7:00PM) till 21:00 (9:00PM) and we are invited to attend. Not to limit our flexibility I have not booked any hotels, but Iosif assured me there would be no problem with staying in Pinsk.
Thank you very much for sugar substitutes and analgesics. Your donation
will be highly appreciated by the community. I know everything will go smoothly.
Have a safe and enjoyable trip to Europe. Look forward to seeing you.
Frank had recommended we take the train from Warsaw to Brest, provided the schedule and indicated that “tickets can easily be purchased on the day of departure or before at the Warsaw Station”. It was not that easy. Getting tickets would have been a major problem were it not for the assistance of Luke, our young Polish tour guide. Our plan was to leave our travel group in Warsaw the day after arrival and reconnect with them the following night before they left for Krakow. We were among the first to arrive in Warsaw and after checking into our hotel we were able to enlist Luke’s help obtaining train tickets. Fortuitously Luke’s Aunt works at the main railway station. I gave him our proposed schedule. Later that evening Luke told us that there was a problem. Instead of departing from the Main Station, which was a short distance from our hotel, our train left from the Eastern Station, which was further away. The Eastern Station is used for long train rides across Russia and other former Soviet Union countries. Our train was bound for Moscow. Luke expressed concern about our getting a reliable taxi, especially upon our return the following night. He referred to Warsaw street taxis and those waiting at stations as ‘Mafia’ taxis, to be avoided at all costs. Additionally, he informed us that our train was composed of sleeper cars only. The cost for two people was 170 Zlotys or $22.00 per person round trip. This bargain price was the only good news. Luke’s concern about our safety on the return to the Eastern Station prompted him to arrange for his brother, Pawel, to meet us since he (Luke) would be busy with the group. When he realized that our train did not arrive until 8:30PM he indicated that he would meet us. At that point Elaine asked if we could adopt him. He smiled. In the end Luke’s aunt, who obtained our tickets, met us on the platform. Luke had ‘schlepped’ her to the hotel beforehand to introduce us so that we would recognize each other at the station.
Saturday April 7, 2001
The prearranged taxi arrived on time and the pre alerted doorman got us on our way. The ride to the somewhat seedy Eastern Station took about 10 minutes. The 14 Zlotys ($3.50) fare earned the driver, Michal, a 6 zloty tip. With some help we found the Moscow train on Platform 3. It took longer to locate our assigned car #10, but with the aid of an obliging conductor we did. The conductor on car #10 took our tickets and showed us to our cabin, a three-tier bed arrangement, only to return and move us to the cabin next door. It, like the original cabin, was dark, hot and had limited floor space. Once the shades were drawn, the window opened, the door left ajar, it was tolerable. The conductor returned a third time to move us again, but decided instead to put the new people in the cabin which originally should have been ours.
Elaine became concerned when this seemingly inept conductor did not bring back our boarding passes and return tickets. After unsuccessfully trying to communicate with several people, she was reassured by some English speaking Hungarians on the platform that our tickets would be returned at the end of our trip.
Her next challenge was to find a way to shift the middle bed so that we might use the lower bunk as a sofa and not need to lie down, stand or crouch all the way to Brest. Up to that point I thought that I would have to sit on the corner sink by the window. After much effort Elaine solved the problem and we had a comfortable seat for our trip. When she showed how to do this to other passengers who were sitting and eating in a crouched position in their cabins, nobody bothered to modify their beds for a more comfortable trip, including the 5 crouching people in the next cabin.
The train ride itself was rather comfortable once the bunk bed dilemma was resolved, although Elaine was haunted by memories of passengers in years past being transported to terminal terminals. Warsaw and the surrounding areas on route to the Belarus border are very flat. We passed pleasant farmland and towns. I took a few pictures of the countryside from the moving train. One could visualize invading troops and tanks moving effortlessly through the area, with no natural boundaries to stop their advance. We reached the last stop in Poland, Terespol, in slightly over 2 hours. We had anticipated a longer journey because of the need to change the train’s wheels, because the track gauge in former Soviet Union Republics is different from the rest of Europe. We saw hundreds of sets of wheels amassed in the Terespol train yards. But for some reason the change did not happen. We had been prepared for the 110-mile ride from Warsaw to Brest to be 5 hours. At Terespol Polish customs officers bordered the train and checked our passports. The conductor had distributed customs slips written in Polish and Belarusian. Elaine enlisted the help of a crouching teenager in the next compartment but got only as far as name, & country of citizenship. When Belarusian customs officials bordered the train they replaced the form with one in English, which we completed.
Upon disembarking in Brest we looked for a 5’2” optimistic Frank Swartz who was to meet us. He was not on the platform. A tall man accompanying a short red haired woman whose face was undeniably optimistic approached us. She was carrying a sign with our name on it. The tall man was Vlad, our driver. I had neglected to note that the last e-mail was signed by Galina, not Frank, who had been called away to a meeting in Lithuania. Galina and Vlad had just driven over 200 miles from Minsk to meet us. We embraced warmly like old friends. Galina thought that the first order of business was to secure our return tickets. When our tickets were issued in Warsaw we were told that return seating needed to be confirmed in Brest. I accompanied Galina to the ticket office where she conferred at length with the face behind the glass window. Galina negotiated tenaciously but with no success. The face behind the window promised to talk with some one about the return seating, but nothing could be done today, because they did not know how many seats would be occupied when the train leaves Moscow. This meant that our brief time in Telechan just became briefer. We needed to be at the Brest station earlier then planned to insure our return to Warsaw. So be it.
We got into the van and Vlad retraced the same highway he and Galina had just driven. The plan was to stop first at Svyataya Volya then Telechan and arrive in Pinsk in time to attend the Seder. Galina assured us that there was enough daylight to see both towns. The next day, reversing our route, we would leave Pinsk; drive to Telechan then to Svyataya Volya and finally to the Brest station. It meant a lot of riding but we had anticipated it. Our first destination Svyataya Volya was about 110 miles, a 2½-hour drive, most of it on the same highway. Belarusian police, at a permanent control station on the highway, stopped us. Apparently vehicles are routinely stopped. Vlad showed some papers. Galina assured us that it was a routine procedure and for our safety.
Once off the main highway, on the road to Svyataya Volya, we saw clusters of wooden houses with fences that evoked images of ‘Anatevka’, the mythical village in Fiddler On The Roof. Were we not specifically looking for it we would have driven past Svyataya Volya in less than a minute. Svyataya Volya (which means Holy Will) is a little village with houses on both sides of the road. The only distinguishing features were a small church on the right hand side of the road and a monument further ahead on the left. The few streets on each side of the road appeared to be dead-end lanes. We stopped at the monument. Most towns and villages of the former Soviet Union have monuments commemorating World War II losses. I knew of the memorial in Telechan but was surprised to find one here. The left hand row listed the names of soldiers who died in uniform; the middle section listed partisans lost and the right hand row listed ‘other’ town people killed. Under ‘others’ it said, “440 Jews killed August 5, 1941”. I was taken aback by the number of Jews who once lived in or around Svyataya Volya and saddened by the tragedy of their execution. The date, August 5, 1941 is one day different than the date inscribed on the Telechan Memorial. The German Einsatzgruppen (killing squads) marched from one town to the next methodically slaughtering all Jews.
Why did I want to stop at Svyataya Volya? I have reason to believe that Svyataya Volya was the home of the Eisenberg (Ajzenberg) family before they settled in Telechan. The communities are only 5 miles apart. Both the Russian-American Genealogical Archival Service (RAGAS) and the Minsk Historical Genealogy Group have traced my Eisenberg/Ajzenberg family to Svyataya Volya. Although the information is not conclusive there is too much documentation to dismiss this possibility. If I can confirm the relationship of one of my Telechan ancestors to an Svyataya Volya Eisenberg it will track my family back to the mid 1700s.
I readied my camera to take the first of many pictures, this one of Galina talking with a local woman in front of the monument. THE CAMERA DID NOT WORK! I could not believe it. I had taken pictures from the train and it had worked. Quite odd timing I though but I probably needed to replace the battery. I went to the van to get my camera case full of film but NO BATTERIES. I left them at the hotel in Warsaw. I had planed this trip for so long, had more film than I would use and had extra batteries, but not with me at this crucial time. I could not believe my bad luck and stupidity in not bringing the spare batteries with me. Compulsive me. I really blew it. Here I was at the first important destination on my journey and I had no camera. I had declined a generous offer of a camcorder for the trip because I did not want to carry that extra piece of equipment and thought my still photos would suffice. What are the odds of finding a standard battery in Svyataya Volya, let alone a C123 lithium battery? The 5 ’2” optimist, Galina, wanted to try. She asked 11-year-old boys on bikes and old ladies with shopping bags, with no success. We abandoned the hunt and drove the 5 miles to Telechan, a larger town. Although I was not optimistic about finding a battery there, the odds were better. We could return to Svyataya Volya the next day. This mishap led to a series of unforeseen events that might never have occurred otherwise.
Approaching Telechan there is a large, modern, hard to miss sign. The word Telechan (Telekhany) is in large Cyrillic letters TEVEXAHbl, (the V is inverted). We drove to the center of the town in search of a lithium battery. Galina pointed out former Jewish homes, generally made of stone or stucco, which she explained could be identified by three windows on one side of the house. She did not know why that was, only that it was. Along the way Vlad stopped the van and he and Galina showed people the battery and asked where we might purchase one. We were directed to several small kiosks and a store, none of which could help. Of necessity we relinquished the great battery quest and embarked on locating the Jewish section of Telechan. I had a street map (from the Yiskor book) and a 1904 photo of the Oginski Canal that ran through the middle of the town. We showed the photo and map to two men standing by the road.
One of the men, named Stephan, recognized the location in the picture of the canal entering a lake and said he would take us there. He got into his car filled with young adults and babies. We were to follow him. He headed towards a small village on the outskirts of Telechan and stopped in front of a house on a side street. Stepan was just in time to see his cow escape from the barn and trample through the garden. He managed to get the cow back into the barn while the occupants of his car carried the children and groceries into the house. Stepan was now free to lead us to the location in the picture. Again we followed him. The road and canal became smaller and more rural. I was concerned about what was happening and felt that I had lost control of the situation. We were driving farther away from Telechan. The road ended, as did the canal where it emptied into a large lake. We were in a beautiful wooded setting, identical to the photo taken 97 years earlier. Quite remarkable!
Earlier Stepan had asked where we planned to spend the night and Galina told him we were going to Pinsk. He inquired why we would travel to Pinsk when there was a ‘hotel’ in Telechan. Pointing to a building near where we were standing, he indicated that it was the ‘hotel’ he mentioned previously. The exterior featured intricately carved wood and brightly colored trim. Elaine commented that it looked like a Russian dacha. It was closed and unoccupied but Stepan offered to call the Director should we decide to stay. After being assured by Galina that it would not be a problem if we did not turn up in Pinsk, we decided to spend the night in “Telechan”. Everyone was tired and the prospect of driving another hour to Pinsk was not appealing. Galina volunteered to call Iosif Liberman in Pinsk to let them know of the change of plan. The ‘hotel’ was in reality a hunting lodge in a nature preserve built and owned by the State. The Director was called, keys were found and we were shown inside. The paneled dining room featured a display of mounted animals and animal heads on all walls. We were surrounded by and looked down on by a large moose head, and eagle, a wolf and other taxidermied creatures. Elaine and I were given two choices of accommodations, the $18 room or the $25 room. We chose the more expensive room. Stepan indicated that we could also have the steam room turned on but that it would cost extra. The lodge was a pleasant, clean and well-maintained building. We looked forward to settling in and relaxing for the evening. But what were we to do about supper? Stepan informed us that they were not able to prepare a hot meal for us and that we might want to go into Telechan for food, but if we did not mind a cold supper they could arrange one and make some hot tea. We chose that path of least resistance and agreed that a cold supper would be fine. No one was eager to climb into the van again to search for food in town.
The Director, Yuri Alexander Ilnitski, (b.1959) arrived and while I was out of the room Galina told him the purpose of my visit to Telechan. Yuri said that his mother (b.1926) still lived in Telechan and might know some of my family. He added that his late father spoke some Yiddish which he had learned from his best friend who was Jewish. I wrote down the names of my grandparents, uncles and aunts so that Yuri could ask his mother if she knew any of them.
Yuri left and later returned with 2 colleagues and his teen-age son. One end of the long rectangular table was now covered with sausages, bread, pickles and the obligatory bottles of vodka, in this case, Belarusian Vodka. No one would need to go to bed hungry or sober. The table was set for 7 people; Galina, Vlad, Yuri, his two friends, one of whom was the fish and game warden and the creator of one of the sausages, Elaine and myself. It was a fine spread, which in addition to the foods listed above, included slices of pork fat that I took to be a wedge of cheese or butter until Elaine informed me otherwise. Other than the pickles there was not a vegetable in sight. One would not consider this a well-balanced meal. (Frank Swartz describes Belarus as a good country for people who suffer from “cholesterol deficiency”) Yuri’s sullen teen-age son did not join us. He sat at the far end of the long table watching an animated TV program. Stepan had left but returned and started a fire in the fireplace. He also did not join us.
Yuri had talked to his mother who said that in her youth she had known some Eisenbergs and he arranged for us to meet with her tomorrow at 9:00AM. She was going to contact her friends so we could show them old pictures I brought with me. This was an exciting unanticipated prospect.
Earlier I had asked Galina to try to rent or borrow a camera. Hence I was delighted to see Yuri’s teenage son enter the room with an older camcorder strung around his neck. I though Galina had arranged for the camera, but she said she had not. Through Galina I inquired about renting the camera and was informed that the film in it belonged to Yuri’s other friend (not the sausage maker) who agreed to sell it to me for $4.00 American. Next I tried to hire the teenager to record our visit. I’m uncertain but I think the sullen teenager had reluctantly agreed to record us on Sunday. His father has prevailed upon him to ‘shoot’ of us eating at the supper table.
The cholesterol consumption began, accompanied in true Russian fashion by many lengthy vodka toasts. Yuri welcomed me back to my homeland. The gamekeeper/sausage creator quoted an Old Russian proverb, Vlad proposed that we should return and settle in Belarus, and on it went. My toast was # 5 and I do not recall how many more were tendered before the meal adjourned. The food disappeared and I was complimented on my ability to drink vodka Russian style. (I have been well taught over the past 20 years by Russian friends in the States). We were supposed to be in Pinsk sharing this first night of Passover with members of the Jewish community. Instead we were in Telechan eating pork sausages, and bread with Russian ‘goyim’. At one point during the meal I informed the three local men that it was the night of the first Seder. They decreed that we consider this gathering a Seder and we continued with the festivities. I do not remember if we ever drank the hot tea originally promised. No one seemed to care. Of all the possible scenarios of how we would spend time in Telechan I would not have imagined this one. We enjoyed a wonderful pagan Pesach.
Sunday April 8, 2001
We awoke to a beautiful misty view of the lake and surrounding woods from our bedroom window. Down stairs a young woman from the village was preparing a cholesterol rich breakfast for the four travelers. Next Stepan appeared. It happens that he was not just a Good Samaritan recommending that we stay in Telechan. He is the custodian at the hunting lodge. This morning he was also the cashier with whom we needed to settle our bill. He worked on it for what seemed a long while. Outside, Vlad introduced Elaine to a drink of sap tapped from a nearby tree. At one point in his calculations Stephan said that because I was a native Telechaner there would be no charge for parking. The final bill for the four of us totaled $35.00, $25.00 for Elaine and myself and $5.00 each for Galina and Vlad rooms. The supper and breakfast were included as was the Vodka. Frank Swartz had alerted me to the two-tier system whereby Belarusians were charged a fraction of what foreign visitors paid for the same services. As we were leaving the lodge Galina, in her parental role, urged us to use the bathroom facilities because we were not likely to find adequate toilet accommodations elsewhere. Elaine recalls Galina’s similar caution at the Brest station that “country life is rather primitive”.
Yuri arrived to lead us to his mothers’ house where we were expected. On route we made three unannounced stops. First at the lake just south of town, next at the monument commemorating the war dead and lastly at the sawmill. In addition to being the Director of the hunting lodge Yuri is also the Director of the sawmill in Telechan. 70% of the working people in Telechan (population 4,500) are in his employ. Yuri said that few are originally from Telechan. They are from the smaller villages in the area. He told us that when Jews lived in Telechan they lived in what is now the center of the town.
The large memorial erected by the soviet authorities along side the road is inscribed: “Now we are near the common grave where more than 1,400 women and children, peaceful inhabitants of Telechan, were murdered by Nazis August 1941 are buried here”. (I have the date of August 4, 1941, but am unsure of my source). Although we know that these victims were Jews, including my two Aunts, Tzipora (Eisenberg) Bernstein and Bracha Eisenberg and my four first cousins, there is no mention of Jews as the victims on the granite monument. At the base of the monument is a recently added plaque in Hebrew specifically acknowledging that Jews were murdered. Elsewhere in Telechan there is a mound on Sventavolya Street that marks the spot where the Nazis shot the Jewish men and communists. I was unable to see it. Our hurried schedule did not allow enough time to linger at the granite monument and reflect on the enormity of the disaster that had occurred there.
Next we drove to the sawmill. The sawmill is/was formerly the ski factory and in the late nineteen and early twentieth century was the ‘Hutte’, the glass works. Presently coat hangers and other wooden items are manufactured there. As it was Sunday the mill was closed. Yuri in his car, followed by us in the van, was admitted at the main gate. We exited the vehicles and walked to the back of the mill. I had told Yuri that my grandfather, Azriel, was a sawyer. Yuri called my attention to the middle building, which he said was part of the original structure. Then he added that if my grandfather lived in Telechan and was a sawyer, he worked in that building. That was a meaningful connection for me. We followed Yuri into the building and up a flight of stairs to his big office where he presented me with two small flags. One was the Belarus flag and the other had the word TEVEXAHbl (Telekhany) printed on a white field. I was honored by his kind gesture. From the sawmill we proceeded to his mothers house.
What a welcome we received. Yuri’s mother embraced and kissed us as if we were long lost relatives. I cannot imagine a warmer reception. Only one friend was with her but they had talked to others and collected names of Jewish Telechaners. The table was set and food appeared. No one was hungry but we all ate. Yuri’s sister, visiting from Minsk, was also present. Eight of use crowded around the table in Mrs. Ilnitski’s living room.
Before coming to Telechan I had no expectation of meeting anyone who might know members of my family. But based on my conversation with Yuri, who said that his mother had known some Eisenbergs, I now thought that it might be a possibility. I brought many pictures to show Mrs. Ilnitski and her friend. Although the name Eisenberg appeared on her list, neither Mrs. Ilnitski nor her friend recognized any of my family members. In fact they could not identify anyone in all my pictures. Somewhat apologetically they reminded me that they were young or not yet born when most of the pictures were taken. The last Jews in Telechan were murdered in August 1941. Mrs. Ilnitski would have been 14-15 years old at the time. Most Eisenbergs left Telechan in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The two women recognized the setting of many pictures as well as specific groups, such as the band and theatre company. They had compiled a list of names of Jewish people that they had known* and gave it to me. Mrs. Ilnitski’s friend presented me with an old picture postcard of a large gathering of Telechan Jews. She was unable to identify the event or anyone in the picture. Both women became nostalgic as they viewed the old pictures. They talked of the “Polish times” (Telechan was part of Poland from 1918 to September 1939) when Jews and Gentiles studied together in school and separated only for religious class. They said, “We miss the Jews” whose theatre group, gymnastic demonstrations and brass orchestra they patronized. . They bemoaned the fact that Telechan has had no such groups since. Life in Telechan was more interesting back then. Unfortunately we needed to abruptly curtail our visit because of the long ride back to Brest. After many hugs and good byes we boarded the van.
As we speeded out of town Vlad made a sudden stop, spoke to Galina and turned the vehicle around towards Telechan. We did not go very far when he stopped again, this time at an old well by the side of the road. This style well is featured on the cover page of the Telechan Memorial book and this article. I had asked about it during our visit and was told that it was called the crane because of its appearance. We exited the van and as we approached the well an old man came forward and spoke to us. He drew water from the well. Galina cautioned us not to drink it so we used it to wash our hands. It seemed a fitting goodbye gesture.
I had anticipated coming to Telechan to walk the streets, take some pictures, and gain a sense of what the town might have been like before WWII. I wanted to pay homage to my murdered relatives and to honor my Telechan family. I anticipated a short visit. Were it not for my broken camera I might have accomplished my stated goal. However, an entirely different succession of events took place because the camera malfunctioned. Each happenstance encounter led to another chance encounter.
Instead I got a glimpse of Telechan today, met some people and feel a stronger bond with the community. Sunday was a hurried day and I left Telechan feeling that I needed more time there. The experience was significantly different then what I had imagined. I saw and did things that I had not expected to see or do. Still I lacked the time to leisurely walk around town, pay tribute at the mass gravesite, and try to decipher locations of houses and sites pictured in the Telechan Yiskor book. There is reason to return.
Assisted by Elaine Eisenberg
*List of Jews known to Yuri’s mother and her friends
Feinshmid, Director of the Jewish School; friend of Yuri’s father
Shalakhman (had a shop where he sold Vodka)
Lutsky (Also had a big shop, sold manufactured goods)
Levin Landman (the one who leased/rented the lake and gave Nadezhda Demchilo/Ilnitskaya’s father a bucketful of fish on holidays)
Komadeyev (had a big shop where he sold manufactured goods)
Bregman- Basya, Fanya, (school friends)
Krupchik- Ester, Ronya, Borull (school friends)
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