When my great great grandfather, Chaim Wolf (Herman/Heyman) Klausner, sailed to New York City in August 1889, his ship's manifest listed him as having resided in Pinsk, Russia. The 1892 marriage certificate of Chaim's son Meer Leyb (Mayer) says that he was born in Pinsk. And the birth certificate of Mayer's niece Rhoda indicates that Mayer's brother, Joseph, was born there as well.
However, Russian archival records document that Meer Leyb was born in the shtetl of Lahishyn in 1872 and lived there at age two. It's possible that Chaim Wolf and his wife, Leya Enta, moved to Pinsk before 1880 when Joseph was born. However, the ship's manifest from Leya Enta's journey to the United States in 1892 says that the family was from Lahishyn, as were her children, Iossel/Joseph, Chane/Anna, Berl/Benjamin, Rachel/Rose and Rifka/Reba/Rebbeca.
Their exact movements and residences in and around Pinsk are a mystery that will probably remain unsolved. Russian records do indicate that several of Leya Enta's first cousins lived in Pinsk. And those same sources show that Chaim Wolf was born in Lyubeshov -- which because the borders moved -- is now in Ukraine!
And now the fun begins! The remarkable Yuri Dorn of the Jewish Heritage Research Group, who coordinated research on my Belorusian ancestors, found that Chaim Wolf Klausner, my great great grandfather had not been born in Logishyn, Belarus, but rather in Lyubeshov, Ukraine. I was hesitant to add another shtetl to our already-packed itinerary but Susan convinced me it wouldn’t be too far out of the way to drive through a corner of Ukraine on our way to Pinsk.
When I was reviewing plans for the trip with Yuri he diplomatically encouraged me to take public transit into Belarus rather than drive, citing the difficulty of crossing the border. But because I wanted to go to three different countries it made more sense to me to drive. I had read that some rental car companies do not allow travel from the EU into Ukraine and Belarus so I called Dollar Rental to make sure that it was possible with the car I was renting. I was told, yes, that both countries were on the approved list.
The plan was to meet Katya Makarevich, the guide Yuri had assigned to us, at 3 pm at the hotel in Pinsk. Before we started our drive we were worried that we might not make it to Pinsk by three -- who could say how long it would take to pass through border control? -- so I emailed Yuri saying we’d be there by 5. And off we went!
Soon enough we reached the Polish border with Ukraine. There were two lanes. One had a very long line of waiting trucks, mini-vans and station wagons while the other was empty. Thinking that perhaps the waiting vehicles were those that had something to declare, we hesitantly went down the empty lane towards the border-crossing gate, hoping we weren’t doing anything either illegal or impolite. We waited about 10 minutes and were waved through to another stopping point where we waited another 10 or 15 minutes. So far, not too bad.
Soon, a border guard speaking English asked us for our passports, which we gave him. He returned asking whether we had rented the car; we gave him the rental car papers and he left again. He came back saying that he had called the rental car company, which had denied permission for us to drive into Ukraine. He handed me a cell phone so I could speak to the rental agent at the Warsaw airport where we picked up the car. The agent told me “it is absolutely forbidden for you to drive into Ukraine or Belarus. If you do so we will have you arrested.”
I told him what I had been told by Dollar when I called from the US. As it turns out, Dollar Rental is one division of Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group (which is itself a subsidiary of Hertz), and Thrifty is another. Even though all our paperwork said Dollar, it was actually Thrifty that ran the rental operations in Poland. And Thrifty’s rules prohibited travel outside of the EU. I had noticed that the airport rental counter had both the Dollar and Thrifty logos but assumed that they were just sharing the space. Even if there were some corporate connection between the two, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.
I burst into tears, fearing the rest of the trip would be ruined. Unable to enter Ukraine, the shetl of Lyubeshov was definitely off the itinerary, but we had no idea how we would get into Belarus, or get from the border to Pinsk. The border control agent told us that we could drive up to Terespol where we could catch a train across the Polish-Belarus border to Brest. After that... well, we had a lot to figure out.
With tears dripping onto my cell phone, I texted Katya and explained the situation and told her we’d get back to her when we devised a Plan B. We took off north towards Terespol, hoping that we’d be able to return the car there and hop on a train to Belarus. After a 90 minute drive through beautiful countryside, with only one weird encounter with some locals who gave us that "you're not from around here" stare when we tried to make a pit stop, we maneuvered into a parking spot in a town with a wi-fi café that Oscar had found on his phone. A cup of espresso always makes things better!
We got on our computers and found the train timetables from Terespol to Brest but we also found out that there were only five places in Poland to drop off the car and that the closest was Warsaw, several hours in the other direction. While sitting in the café Susan got a phone call from a number in Cleveland. Not knowing anyone there, she ignored it. Soon a text message arrived on her phone – it was Irina, Yuri Dorn's wife who lives in Cleveland, where she works with the Jewish Heritage Research Group to help coordinate travel from the US! She, Yuri, Katya and who knows how many other people, were working on a plan for us. If we could get to Brest, they would find a driver and Katya would meet us there. I started to feel like things might work out.
Susan, true to her generous spirit, volunteered to drive Oscar and me to Terespol to put us on the train and then drive the car back to Warsaw, spend the night there and take the train the next day to meet us in Minsk, Belarus. She was willing to miss being in Pinsk and Logishyn so that I wouldn't have to. I felt so grateful. And that’s what happened.
We bought train tickets in Terespol, got through Polish border control, took the half hour train ride to Brest, managed to get through Belarus border control and met Katya and a driver at the train station. Luckily we were able to withdraw Belorusian rubles from the ATM because the next day there was to be a “de-nomination” when the government was going to issue new paper money and coins, which it had never used before. Each denominiation was going to have 4 zeros removed from it. Since $1 USD was worth 20,000 rubles, I withdrew 4 million rubles for our stay; the stack of bills was about 1 inch thick!
It was 11pm and a two hour drive to Pinsk, but we made it -- the hotel bed sure felt good when I crawled into it.
We met Katya in the lobby the next morning and took off for a tour of Jewish sites in Pinsk, a city of about 130,000. Katya has a university degree and taught history for a few years before becoming a tour guide. She speaks perfect English and was a joy to be with. Our first stop was the synagogue to meet with one of its elders, Joseph Liberman. Pinsk is home to the Karlin-Stolin strand of Hasidic Judaism; its practice was ended by the Nazis and during the Soviet era but it was revived in the 1990s with the help of international Jewish aid organizations. Joseph welcomed us to the synagogue, which was located in a building bearing no signs of its use. There was a small room for the women and a larger, well-lit one for the men. Although there was no raised bimah, and chairs and tables instead of pews, there was a beautiful Ark holding the Torah. Joseph showed us a small Torah that had survived the Holocaust and talked with us about the congregation. And then he joined us on our tour of Pinsk.
We drove to the part of the Ghetto where over 5,000 people had been executed. There is now a memorial stone with text not only in Russian and Hebrew but also Yiddish. Next on the tour was Beis Aharon Bielski School and Orphanage, a boarding school for Jewish boys’ started by Yad Yisroel, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the revival of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union under the leadership of the Rebbe of Karlin Stolin and his followers. The school was named after the Bielski brothers, three Jewish partisans during the war who saved the lives of 1200 Jews by helping them escape to the forest and survive there. The boys’ school provides a Jewish and secular education for 45 Belarusian boys between the ages of 6 and 18. There is also a girls’ school which we did not see.
Our last stop was at the Museum of the History and Culture of Pinsk’s Jews, started by none other than Joseph Liberman. The large one room museum was the repository for all things Jewish, both ritual and secular, and both old and new. When we entered the building we were surprised to see a womens’ mikveh and a separate mens’ ritual bath.
Going around the back of the building to climb the outdoor staircase to the second floor we saw three grave stones propped up against another building. Pinsk’s Jewish cemeteries were largely destroyed but the few grave stones that have been salvaged were placed here on display.
We said goodbye to Joseph, thanked him for his hospitality and introduction to Pinsk’s Jewish community, and took off for the 15 mile drive to Lahishyn, the Yiddish name for the town now known as Logishyn.
Other sites about Belarus: