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To my greatest pity, I could start the description of my family with only scanty information about my close ancestors, my grandparents. All the preceding generations, unfortunately, melted in centuries.

My grandfather on my mother’s side, Judah Tsivin, was born in the Smilovichi shtetl, 35 km from Minsk, on 21 December, 1879. The exact date of his birth is known only due to its coincidence with the birthday of the “leader of all times and people”, Comrade Stalin, which, as my mother remembered, the grandfather was extremely proud of.

I know almost nothing about my grandfather’s family but for that fact that all his relatives emigrated to America after the terrible pogrom in Chisinau in the early 20th century. Grandfather Judah tried to go to the New World too, but failed because of his inborn lameness. In Finland he was not allowed to board a steamer heading to the USA. An emigration officer said that physically different people were not wanted in America, only healthy ones. The grandfather had nothing to do but go back to his native Smilovichi.

At that time Smilovichi was quite a big shtetl. Jews, making the most of its population, coexisted peacefully with Belarusians, Poles, and Tatars. It can’t be said that there was brotherly friendship among the representatives of three religions, but people got along quite well.

The pogroms against Jewish in Smilovichi occurred, but most part of non-Jewish population took no part in them. My mother told me that Belarusian people often had saved their Jewish neighbours from the Black Hundreders.

During the Civil War a horrible bloody massacre took place. Many Jews were killed. Those who survived were exterminated in the Holocaust. We visited my mother’s small motherland. She didn’t find her house. It had been burnt down during the war. Nothing was left from her childhood, only a neglected Jewish cemetery with the time-skewed grave stones, the ruins of a brick synagogue and a dozen sunken huts on the outskirts.

The notion of “shtetl” itself couldn’t be applied to the post-war Smilovichi. “Shtetl” and its locals were killed by the fascists. My mother often remembered the shtetl period of her life.

She left her parent’s house rather young, but her connection with Smilovichi lasted till the war began. Her parents, friends, and fellows lived there. She could remember well the names of many locals. To be more precise, the nicknames which were used so often that true names were known only to family members.

Many nicknames sounded indecent, if not offensive. In most cases a nickname was connected with the occupation of its bearer. But sometimes it stuck because of some physical or intellectual inability or a prominent feature of character. For example, my grandfather, Judah Tsivin, who had an inborn lameness and had repaired boots all his life, was nicknamed as a lame shoe maker or Judah the Crooked. The grandfather, as my mum told me, never took offence. There lived an old woman in Smilovichi who was always lamenting and complaining. People called her “Bobe Enta”. The nickname became common in our family. When my brother and I were annoying our mother, she called us “Bobe Enta”.

Soon after his return to Smilovichi, the grandfather married a local girl, Fruma. They lived together for only six years. Grandmother Fruma gave birth to two daughters, Nahama and Tsipa, my mother.

Aged 26, Fruma tragically died. My mother was only a year and a half.

I’ve heard this sad story many times and remember it well. Frankly speaking, the only true fact in it is the death of my grandmother itself. Here’s the story.

Once Fruma was down with cold. She was treated by a local paramedic, and, evidently, not quite professionally. The grandmother’s condition was getting worse and worse. She was dying. Finally, the doctor sent her to a hospital in Minsk. On the way to Minsk she lost consciousness. The grandfather tried to give her ammonia to sniff. While doing that, his hands were trembling and he, by unlucky chance, poured the ammonia into her mouth.

If that caused my grandmother’s death is difficult to say today. However, the following day my grandmother died in hospital. The grandfather lived the rest of his life with a heavy burden of guilt for her death.

After the death of his wife, my grandfather lived together with his two daughters, my mother and her elder sister, aged six. In Smilovichi there also lived my mother’s grandmother who took care of the little sisters. By that time Judah had become a skilled shoe-maker, worked a lot and was considered a well-to-do man. The grandfather, Tsipa and Nakhama lived in a big brick house. The grandfather’s parents had died early. All the lineal heirs had left for America. Grandfather Judah turned out to be the only owner of the house that cost a lot of money at the time.

About a year after my grandmother’s death, my grandfather got married again. This time, he married a thirty-year-old widow, named Dvoira. She gave birth to three more children- two girls, Sarah and Rahil, and a boy, Kopul. Thus, the grandfather’s family brought up five children and they lived quite well.

Dvoira was a semiliterate small-minded woman. The life of her step daughters became much worse. Their father was always busy with his job and paid no attention to the girls, while the step-mother loaded them with housework. The only person who could intercede for the orphaned girls was their grandmother who sometimes visited them to tidy up. To the age of sixteen my mother was brought up by her elder sister Nakhama. But, aged nineteen, Nakhama died from blood poisoning.

My mother’s life became hopeless. The grandmother was old, often fell ill and was unable to tidy up, so it wasn’t easy for my mother. Aged twelve, she was given to the local tailor to study dress making. There she had to babysit and do a great many various things about the house, which had nothing to do with tailoring. But the tailor taught my mother reading and writing in Yiddish. Yiddish had always been my mother’s native language. She did speak Russian but with mistakes.

Age fourteen, my mother moved to Minsk, to the house of a rich Jewish tailor. For two years that she lived in his house she also had to do different kind of jobs about the house, go to the market and take care of the children.

In 1928, my mother found a job at the clothing factory “October”. She worked there till the beginning of the war, for over 13 years. During those years she completed a workers’ faculty and finished high school. But her education had a rather serious draw-back: teaching was only in Yiddish. That was the reason why my mother had poor knowledge in Russian.

On the day of the outbreak of war my elder brother Fima was in the district of Cherven town, about 30 km from Minsk. His kindergarten went there for summer vacations. On 23 June the Germans bombed Minsk. My mother was in despair. Fima was saved by uncle Hona, my father’s brother.

Hona had served in the army since the late 1940s, and was transferred to Minsk at the outbreak of war. The uncle was a driver of a high-ranking military man at the headquarters of the western military region.

In total chaos my mother somehow managed to find Hona. He left his job and they rushed to Cherven together. They found and took Fima from the summer camp.

On the way back they went to my mother’s parents in Smilovichi. She suggested moving to Minsk, but the grandfather refused to leave his property. He said he was sure that the Germans wouldn’t do any harm to civilians.

My mother often remembered that my grandfather disliked the Poles. That ill feeling appeared during the Civil War, when a squad of the White Poles massacred Jews in Smilovichi. Some bandit sabred Judah. Fortunately, that was a flat cut and Judah survived, but a scar across his cheek remained forever.

Judah Tsivin considered the Germans decent people. He was sadly mistaken. Already on 14 October, 1941, all the Jewish population of Smilovichi and about a hundred French and German Jews were shot. Totally, the Nazi exterminated about ten thousand Jews, including grandfather Judah and his wife Dvoira.

At the beginning of the 1960s the Jews of Smilovici who survived the war set a small monument at their own expense on the site of the horrible tragedy. The monument was made by a sculptor from Smilovichi. The male and female faces on the monument were typically Slavonic. But that was an obligatory ideological condition of the Soviet authorities. The permission to erect even a Slavonic monument on the site of the Jewish grave had been sought for several years. Only with the help of an influential health worker from Smilovichi the problem was solved.

No approval of placing an inscription in Yiddish and the Star of David on the grave stone was given from the authorities. It was banned even to mention that the place is a mass grave of Jews buried alive. The humble and traditional inscription in Russian says: “Here 2000 Soviet citizens of Smilovichi are buried. They were shot by the fascist executors on 14 October 1941.”

Lev Izrailevich
Haifa. Israel.

Jewish settlements in Minsk region

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