Date line: 1900 – 1911; Samke (Shamki), Region of Minsk Gebernya in Belorussia.
Two large, unpaved streets make up the entirety of the Shtetl of Samke, described my grandmother Riva Stienberg. In front of the log cabin homes that line the streets, one can find a hardened dirt path measuring 3-4 feet that serves as a makeshift sidewalk. No cars traverse these roads — only horses, wagons, bicycles and human feet. There is no “town center,” the few stores, such as grocery, shoemaker, blacksmith, tailor and butcher shop, are located inside the homes. Cellars with walls made of earth or stone store potatoes, carrots, cabbages, apples and pears for the winter. These cellars remained very cold, but never freeze.
If there is a town center or gathering place, it is the shul (synagogue). The shul is “a beautiful structure,” recalls Aunt Reva (Lawson) (Brodkin) Steinberg. It is “built of logs also, and [stands] up on a hill surrounded by plants.” (Reva Steinberg interview).
The children of Samke attend Russian school in the mornings and the boys attend Cheder (Jewish school) in the afternoon. The Melamed (teacher) is Yisroel Pesach Lawson, Aunt Reva’s father. He holds class in his home. He is very learned, having studied from the ages of 13 – 18 at the Yeshiva of the Lubavecher Rebbe – Rabbi Zalman Shnayerson. Yisroel Pesach also serves as the town Dayan (judge), as the nearest court is in Choloponitch, approximately 7 kilometers away (Uncle Sam said 4 kilometers – but having traveled the distance, it is 7). The families are close, “united by mutual feelings of love and respect,” all living a traditional Jewish life (Id.). The children play together – picking berries in the spring and summer and swimming in the nearby stream.
The main industry of Samke is farming. The families grow corn, hay and vegetables. In addition, the Steinberg family raises geese and sells them in the nearby towns. How did it come to be that these families owned land in a time and place where most Jews were denied this right?
It began four generations earlier, when eight Jewish families settled in Samke and received an unusual gift from the Czar – land. My grandmother, Rose, told us that the Samke families received the land grant because “a certain Jew had done a favor for one of the czars.”
It is the nearby town of Chaloponitch where mail is received. Uncle Sam Steinberg runs over to Chaloponitch to get the mail. One time, when he does not remove his hat before the picture of the Czar in the Post Office, he is nearly arrested. It is to Choloponitch that they send for a doctor when someone is very ill. Borosov, the next largest town (60 kilometers away) has paved roads and is the place to find a train to travel to the “big city” of Minsk.
The first Steinberg to arrive in Seattle is Solomon Reuben Steinberg, arriving in 1904 via Harbin and Nagasaki. Soon, my great-grandfather, Chayim Leib (Hiram) Steinberg arrives. He does not like Seattle and goes back to Samke in 1907. But my great-grandmother, Chaya Tzivia (for whom I am named) sends him back to Seattle in 1910: “I don’t want my two sons to serve the Czar [in the army],” she proclaims. “You’ve got to go back to the United States.” (Id.) The rest of Chayim Leib’s family arrives to Montreal by boat and then continues on to Seattle by train in 1911. My grandmother Racha (Rose), the youngest in the family, is 7.
Dateline: June 16, 2016. Samke (Shamki), Belarus.
No Jews remain in Samke. There is only one human being still living there – Raisa. She was born in Samke (she calls it Shamki) in 1943. By the time she came into the world, the Jews of Samke had been shot into a pit three kilometers outside of Chaloponitch. We visited the very sad memorial commemorating these 1941 murders.
Esther (my daughter) and I were accompanied on our journey by Lucy, our guide and translator and Andrei – the most gracious Mayor of Chaloponitch. Andrei, who spent four hours with us, told us that no one had been to visit Shamki or the WWII memorial for the Jews since he has been Mayor. As we drove the road from Chaloponitch to Samke, I could hear the pounding of Uncle Sam’s feet on the road – heading over to get the mail (of course we visited the Chaloponitch post office).
I don’t really know where to start in describing both my emotions and the reality of what I saw. The pictures tell only part of the story.
What once was a vibrant Shtetl with houses lining the main street – which is quite long – is now a ghost town. As we turned off the main road into Samke, I felt as if we were driving down a road to a hike deep in the Olympic Mountains. Overgrown grass covered the road once busy with horses, buggies, bicycles and feet. Lush green trees grow on either side of the road where the log houses of my ancestors stood. Where there were once houses, a school, a water mill, Jews – there is nothing. The only in-tact home is Raisa’s. It was built after the war. As we walked up the hill, just on the other side of Raisa’s home, she pointed out where the synagogue stood – it is an empty space, overgrown with long grasses. Just off to the right of where the synagogue was, Raisa showed us the “cemetery.” All we found in the cemetery were a few stone remnants sticking out of the ground. I could not see any lettering on the stones. The above picture of Raisa standing alone, shows the main road of Samke – empty and overgrown.
Even the stream that they used to swim in is gone – the water was diverted and the stream is dry.
As we gazed outward from the top of the hill – away from the Shtetl -past an open field where the corn and hay used to grow – we saw a small grove of trees in the distance, maybe ½ mile away. This grove is called Hirsch Mountain. We have Hirsch’s in our family – so who knows which Hirsch this was named after and why. Raisa did not know.
I really tried to look down the overgrown, empty road and picture Uncle Sam, Uncle Ruben, Aunt Etty, Yisroel Pesach, Aunt Reva, my grandmother and especially my grandparents, Chayim Leib and Chaya Tzivia, walking down the street, visiting with their neighbors and sharing the latest news. It required more imagination than I have. Mostly, I felt two overwhelming emotions – sadness and gratitude.
Sadness at the fact that not only are there no Jews left in Samke – there is nothing left. Though the history of our family is not erased – because it remains in our hearts and minds, the place of this history is erased by overgrown grass and trees. This is deeply sad.
Gratitude at the fact that my great-grandmother shoved my great-grandfather back out the door — back to America, back to Seattle. If they had remained in Samke, they would surely have ended up dead in the pit outside of Chaloponitch.
In my next blog post, I will attempt to describe Raisa, her home/little farm, and the amazing meal she prepared of pork and eggs, boiled potatoes, goat cheese, goat milk, bread, pig schmaltz (fat) and home-made potato vodka – 55 proof, as well as our visit in Chaloponitch.