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Seventh stop - Minsk, Belarus, home of the Axelrods and Levins

In 1834, at 16 Meer Axelrod was living with his first wife, 18-year-old Dvoyra, in the home of his parents, Shlyoma and Sosha, in the shtetl of Radoshkovits (Radaškovičy, Belarus), 28 miles from Minsk. On October 30, 1838 a son, Shlyoma --named for his still living grandfather -- was born in Minsk to Meer and his second wife, Chana Beylya. It was unusual for a child to be given the same name as a living relative and eerily, within a year, the child was dead. Meer had an elder son Iosel who had been born in 1836 although it is unknown which wife was his mother and whether he was born in Radoshkovits or Minsk. 

Between 1840 and 1856 Meer and Chana Beylya had four daughters, Nekhama Paya, Meryam, Feyga and Tsirl, and two sons, Abram Shlyoma and my great great grandfather, Berko (Barnett), who emigrated to New York City in about 1885. Berko's wife, Risya (Risha or Rosie) Levin, and their five children, Sarah (Bessie), Nechame (Annie), Dora, Leah and Henry, followed him a few years later.

Risya Levin was born in Minsk to Itsko and Chaya, who had moved there without proper authorization papers from the shtetl of Uzda, 40 miles away. In 1874 it was reported that Itsko was a tinsmith living in a house that he owned. Two years later, his son, Yankel, was attending the Jewish Artisan school, learning to become a tinsmith like his father. By 1886, just before daughter Risya moved away, Itsko was reported to own half of a brick one-story house with an iron roof and a wooden shed.

Documents from my research can be seen here.


Minsk is experiencing a huge building boom, as developers try to cash in on the large influx of Belarusians moving in from rural areas. As Susan said, Minsk looks like a city Donald Trump would build if he were in charge -- very Las Vegas-like with no regard for the existing architecture or natural environment.  Belarus’ president for life, Alexander Lukashenko, and Trump have much in common. 

Typical new construction in downtown Minsk.

Typical new construction at the edge of the city.

We saw the human-constructed Island of Tears in the city’s Svislach river – a memorial to Belarusians killed in the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan.  Many, including people getting married, visit the soaring statue.  All throughout our trip we witnessed many newlywed couples taking photographs in front of historic buildings, sometimes creating odd juxtapositions.

Going to the chapel...

Part of a landing strip was incorporated into the memorial.  (Don't ask me why the wedding party is posing with those masks!)

These rocks, brought back from Afghanistan, each bear the name of the place where a Belarusian soldier was killed.

We went to one of Minsk’s sites of mass extermination that used to be a clay pit before the War and is now in a residential neighborhood. “The Last Way,” created by artists Leonid Levin and Else Pollack in 2000, is a bronze sculpture commemorating the 5000 Ghetto residents shot there in March 1942. The memorial marker that had been there since 1947 was the first and only one in the USSR devoted to the Holocaust that had text in Yiddish. Amazingly, the monument survived Stalin’s efforts to eradicate all traces of Jewishness. The peacefulness of the site was contrasted with my sadness at being there.

"The Last Way"

The other memorial we went to was another bronze sculpture by Leonid Levin and Maxim Petrul called “The Pogrom.”  It, too, was very moving, capturing the centuries of disruption faced by Jews in their Eastern European homes.

The text at the bottom, in Russian, Hebrew and English says, "At this place in 1941 - 1943 more than 5000 Jews were exterminated by fascists and their collaborators. Eternal memory to the innocent victims of Nazism."

Playing tourist again we appreciated the grandeur of Stalinist/Brutalist/Soviet Era architecture and monuments, and tasted local libations including horseradish liqueur.

Parliament building with Lenin statue.

The university where our guide, Katya, studied.

Sculpture on top of skylight of the underground mall built below the large square surrounded by government buildings.

There are scores of religious buildings that were repurposed during the Soviet era. This was the Choral Synagogue that was home to the State Jewish Theatre of Belorussia in the 1930s and then a cinema in the '50s. You can see the striped facade still remains on the side of the building (next photograph).

Anticipating the unique taste of horseradish liqueur.

And across the street another wedding photo.

Every KFC should have a piece of art like this on its facade.

Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit Uzda, where the Levins lived until the 1840s, nor Radashkovitz, which the Axelrods called home until the 1850s. Next visit...

Other sites about Minsk:

  • YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe - Minsk
  • Jewish Virtual Library - Minsk 
  • Jewish Heritage Research Group - This is the organization that researched archival records finding family members living in Belarus as early as 1818 and that organized the trip for me


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