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Brest, Kobryn, Divin: Ruderman Scholar Noah Lapidus’ travels in Eastern Europe

During the Fall 2016 semester, Noah Lapidus, an International Affairs major and Jewish Studies minor who received the Ruderman Scholarship in 2016, studied at Vilnius University in Lithuania. In addition to his studies, Lapidus also set out on a personal journey to visit the 21 towns where his ancestors had lived and to explore the remnants of Ashkenazi heritage in Eastern Europe. (To discover how Lapidus learned about his ancestors’ origins, click here.) Lapidus recounted his experiences in his daily blog, The Shtetl Shlepper: Noah Travels the Old Country, which provides a fascinating account of his exploration and those of so many other Jews whose families lived and died in that region. What follows is an excerpt from The Shtetl Shlepper that chronicles a road trip Lapidus made in Belarus accompanied by Grisha Abramovich, Chief Rabbi of the Progressive Jewish Community of Belarus. Here we follow Lapidus and Rabbi Abramovich on one day as they visit three of six Belarussian shtetls where Lapidus’ ancestors once lived.


We began our day in Brest, which lies along the Polish border in the southwestern corner of Belarus. We met with Regina Simonienko, chair of both the secular Jewish community and the Holocaust Memorial Fund in Brest. We met at the Nefesh House, which is filled with memorabilia from the long history of Jews in Brest.

The Nefesh House, pictured above, is funded primarily by the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, the Dutch Humanitarian Fund, and private donors.
Regina (middle) provided an extensive overview of Jewish Brest, which was a center of Litvak Jewry until the Vilna Gaon brought acclaim to Vilnius in the 18th century. Rabbi Grisha (left) translated. That’s me on the right. Before the war, Jews accounted for over half of Brest’s 26,000 residents. After an extensive tour of her impressive collection in the Nefesh House, we left for an excursion through the city.
We started at a statue of Menachem Begin (1913-1992), sixth Prime Minister of Israel and native of Brest. Begin won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for negotiating a peace treaty with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, but he also promoted the construction of settlements and the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Behind the statue of Begin stands the only synagogue that withstood Nazi terror. There were over forty synagogues in Brest before the war. Pictured above, the synagogue has since been repurposed as a cinema. Regina told me that the mayor had offered to erect a plaque indicating that the cinema was once a synagogue. She replied she would prefer the building become a synagogue again with a plaque indicating it had once been a cinema.
We had a pleasant walk down the pedestrianized thoroughfare at Brest’s center where we visited the pharmacy of Solomon Greenberg. One of Brest’s most affluent residents in the interwar period, Greenberg paid his family’s way to safety during the Holocaust.
This handsome building once housed Solomon Greenberg’s pharmacy.
We ended our tour at the ghetto memorial, pictured here. Only 19 Jews survived the two-day massacre of mid-October 1941. Red Army veterans and Siberian exiles returned after the war to make up a Jewish community of just 40. The Jewish population of Brest is now estimated at 800 out of 350,000 residents, but far fewer participate in communal life. We bid farewell to Regina at half past noon and began our drive to Kobryn.
The welcome sign above indicates that Kobryn dates to 1287, when it was a principality in the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, a successor state of the Kievan Rus. The town was conquered by Grand Duke Gediminas only a few decades later and remained under Lithuanian rule until the Partitions.
We made straight for the synagogue, the second largest in all of Belarus, according to Rabbi Grisha. It was constructed in the 18th century for a community of about 1,000. Local hasids venerated the Kobrin Dynasty, related to and later incorporated into the Slonim Dynasty. The traditional (Litvak) community was led by the famed Rabbi Chaim Berlin in the late 19th century.
A local told us that he worked in the building in the 1980s, when it functioned as a brewery. It has since fallen into disrepair and is apparently the venue of choice for drug dealers. Efforts in the last decade to renovate the synagogue never came to fruition.
We were disappointed to find a swastika graffitied next to 1488, a common symbol in fascist circles, on the synagogue wall. 14 is a reference to the 14-word white-supremacist slogan “we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” 88 refers to the eighth letter of the alphabet- HH (Heil Hitler).
Rabbi Grisha (above) and I made quickly for the Jewish cemetery to make use of the remaining daylight. We were excited to find an impressive gate guarding the entrance from nationalist vandals. After waiting 10 years, however, I wasn’t going to let a gate stop me.
Three empty ohels stand at the center, each representing a rebbe of the Kobrin Dynasty interred there. Just in front lies a collection of graves of the Soloveitchik family, a Litvak dynasty that descends from Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1892), a great-grandson of Chaim Voloshin. The close proximity of Litvak and Hasidic graves is emblematic of the religious divide among Kobryn Jews.
Counted among those buried here are many of my ancestors. Of the 1,000-plus Jews found in the 1784 tax list are Chaim Weinstein son of Todris (1731-1801), wife Tamara and sons David (1769-1810) and Todris (b.1772). Todris’ son, Hirsch (b.1790), was the patriarch of a branch that settled predominantly in Birmingham, Alabama. His grandson, Harry Weinstein (1847-1913), was my earliest ancestor to leave Europe for America. In 1885 he settled in Brookside, Alabama, which was a bustling mining town. Six years later he married a Kobryn native, Sarah Leader (1876-1927). They raised four sons and one daughter, my Papa’s mother Dora.
This is Sarah Leader, my great-great grandmother. Years of independent research revealed that a sizable portion of the Birmingham Jewish community, like Sarah, can trace their roots to Kobryn. In 1920, Abe Tenenbaum left Birmingham for Kobryn to distribute funds collected from community members for their relatives left behind. A supporting document for Tenenbaum’s passport application holds signatures of the benefactors, patriarchs of many families that still reside in Birmingham, including my own.
After reciting Kaddish for my many ancestors buried in the cemetery, we left for the central square of Kobryn. A monument celebrating its 700-year anniversary stands in front the municipal office of the registrar, pictured here.
The Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Alexander Nevsky stands a few steps away. It was built in 1868.
The building above marks the entrance to the ghetto, which stretched along Pinskaya Street (now Piersomaskaya Street) to the synagogue. Kobryn’s 8,000 Jews were forced into the ghetto in autumn of 1941.
On June 2, 1942, about 3000 Jews were transported from the ghetto to their death at Bronna Gora, a secluded area nearby where altogether 50,000 Jews were murdered over execution pits. On October 15, 1942, another 4,500 Jews were marched from the ghetto to southern Kobryn, where residents from a nearby village had dug four deep pits. Nazis ordered the villagers to shoot the Jews and then they killed the villagers.
Counted among the massacred were many of my relatives, including Isaac Leader (b.1862).
We recited Kaddish at their mass grave, which is marked by this simple memorial. We then left for Divin.
It was a short drive south to Divin. The marker above stands at the town’s entrance.
As we entered the tiny village, which lies no more than five kilometers from the border with Ukraine, we saw this impressive blue wooden cathedral. I didn’t have high expectations for our time in Divin. Rabbi Grisha had never visited and there was no Internet information about pertinent sites. I did find, however, that Jews numbered about 1,000 in 1900 (a third of the village), and that they established a synagogue on Sovetskaya Street. I figured we would drive down Sovetskaya.
As we exited the car to photograph this traditional home, Rabbi Grisha approached an old man standing behind it. The man, who said his name was Alexander, spoke with a difficult accent derived from living in the borderland. Grisha shared my story and inquired about any Jewish sites.
To our amazement, Alexander informed us that a Jewish cemetery lay on the other side of town square. He suggested that we seek further assistance in the square.
In the town square, Rabbi Grisha solicited a middle-aged man, Michael, who moments later was in the backseat of our car. He directed us a very short distance along Sovetskaya to the cemetery. No stones remained, but a Russian memorial relayed the plot’s significance.
I said Kaddish for my family buried there, including the parents and relatives of Eddie Engel Leader who is pictured above with her daughter and my great-great grandmother, Sarah Leader.
Michael then directed us to the nearby mass grave, pictured above. By WWII, the Jewish community had dwindled to a mere 300 in a village of 3,000. The memorial, in Russian, read that 1,200 Jews from surrounding villages were imprisoned in the Divin Ghetto and then murdered on this site in 1942. Two of Eddie’s nephews were killed there with their many descendants. After thanking Michael profusely for his assistance, we left Divin and started our long drive to Mozyr. I blogged as Grisha napped. At 8 p.m. we stopped for dinner in Pinsk and by 9:15 we were back on the road.

Read the rest of the Spring 2017 Haverim Newsletter here.

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Haverim Newsletter Spring 2017