The hugs kept coming. She called me sister and began to cry. How in the world was I going to explain to Raisa, the lone-resident of Samke, the birthplace of my grandmother, Rose Steinberg (Shteinbok in Belarus) that I cannot eat the feast she so lovingly prepared – fried pork and eggs, bread with pig schmaltz (fat), baked goat cheese, goat cottage cheese, boiled potatoes, goat milk, moonshine vodka, from potatoes and well water.
I asked my guide/translator to explain to her that for religious reasons I could not eat the food she prepared. “None of it?” Well, I explained, pork is forbidden and anything that is cooked in her home is considered non-kosher.
So Esther and I both sipped the fresh goat milk that Masha or Dasha had lovingly provided. We did not like it. I was brave enough to try the cottage cheese made from Masha’s goat milk (not a cooked product). I did not like it. When it came to the homemade moonshine potato vodka, we both tried it. 50 Proof! I could do no more than get down a small sip. But, by the time we were done with our “meal” Raisa and Andrei had both downed 4 shots – not small shots found at a synagogue Kiddush – each was at least double that!
Luckily, Andrei was happy to partake of all the prepared delicacie. Raisa was happy that someone was eating her feast. Lucy, our guide, as kind enough to eat a bit of the baked goat cheese. As we lifted our glasses of vodka, we toasted Samke and long life. “Do you know the Russian drinking song about Stalin?” I asked. My mother-in-law, Esther, loved this song and taught to my husband Shlomo who loves to sing it and play it on our piano. It is a drinking song to the motherland and to Stalin and it was very popular in the 1930’s before WWII. It starts – “Vipyom zaradinu, vipyom za Stalinu, Vipyom za novadelyon.” I began to sing and she joined right in. She knew the song much better than I. (video posted on facebook) Well, that induced a new round of pouring and apparently, like the Jewish tradition at a Passover Seder – one never pours one’s own drink, she poured for me, Esther and Andrei and Andrei poured for her. Well, more singing – louder and more exuberant than before. At the end of a swig, the bottom of the glass must be visible, so I slipped my clear and odorless liquid into my water. No way was I drinking more of this stuff. But I sang heartily and laughed, looking around at her sparse and poorly built home. I took in the scene and the savored the moment.
Raisa’s home is made of flat wood – not the round log cabin type that adorned this shtetl before the war. It is painted a fashionable yellow and blue, but the paint is dull and fading. Her small yard is gated and covered with grass. Entering the yard, the first thing you see are the goats – Masha, Dasha, and Yasha. They are friendly and cute. Then you notice the chickens running around the yard. Beautiful chickens really, full of color and wandering free -the eggs produced are definitely “cage free” and not corn fed! They live in a small wooden coop on the other side of the barn, just next to a huge wall of cut fire wood. Does Raisa cut her own firewood? I did not ask. There is a small dog on a chain hiding in a shed and a cat asleep near the house.
Upon entering her home, there are no doors – a curtain of gold color marks the entrance to the small ante-room. Raisa quickly brought out a narrow, long table for us to sit around and enjoy our feast. To enter the living area, you go through another curtain. The first room is small but crowded with things, including a telephone – the old fashion kind – attached to the wall. On the wall are three pictures: her husband who died many years ago; her two children, one of whom lives in Chaloponitch and the other who lives in Minsk; and of herself as a young woman. Yet another curtain separates the tiny kitchen where the pork and eggs are frying next to a pot of boiled potatoes. The final room of the house has a television and a large embroidered picture of the Mother Mary holding baby Jesus. This is where she prays.
Raisa, Masha, Yasha, Dasha, the chickens, the dog and the cat are all that is left of our beloved Shtetl, Samke. The rest is covered with trees, bushes, flowers and grass. I cannot imagine how Raisa lives here in the winter when the mercury dips well below zero and snow falls in feet, not inches. Having met Raisa, though, I know that those who lived and died in this place – both Jew and non-Jew – were warm-hearted, loving people, full of life, good food and good drink. She represents the harsh, but good life that my family must have had here. As we drive back down the long, grass-grown road back to Chaloponitch, I think of the stories told and the memories held by my grandmother, great Aunts and great Uncles and I look at my daughter, Esther, in the seat next to me and I say “thank G-d my great-grandmother left this place.”
We head back to Chaloponitch and Andrei gives us a grand tour of the bleak and dull looking Soviet-era town hall. He proudly shows us the meeting room where townsfolk gather to vote and discuss matters of import. He shows us his sparsely furnished office, with a picture of President Aleksander Loekasjenko. Then we take a short walk to the posts office to see the place of the legendary story of Uncle Sam having to take his hat off before the picture of the Czar. Andrei informed us that the building itself was replaced after the war, but the location is the same. It was a small and antiseptic with one clerk sitting safely behind a glass wall. Not much to see – we snapped a picture and left.
Then Andrei began talking to a woman he met on the street. The result of the conversation that I did not understand was that we walked down the street a block or so and meet an 80-something year old woman who was born and lived until 1969 in Shamki (that is what they call it). She was sitting in her small yard, under the shade of a tree. Her niece explained who I was and asked if she would talk to me about Shamki. She described the place as a wonderful place to grow up. They were farmers and had many geese. After the war, it was not the same – the Jews were all gone. She described that terrible day in 1941 when the Germans came and told all the Jews that they could pack a 5 kilo suitcase and then marched them out of the Shtetl over to a pit three kilometers from Chaloponitch, and shot them, one by one. She began to cry at the memory – it was upsetting. Her father was working in the mill with some of the Jews and at first the Germans thought he too was a Jew and began to beat him. He showed them the cross around his neck – so let him go home, bloody, but alive. She moved here in 1969 and has lived in Chaloponitch ever since. We thanked her for her time, snapped another picture and hopped back in our van for Vlad – our driver – to transport us in space and time back to Minsk.
Minsk itself is a time warp, with its elegant, but small, pre-war buildings mixed in among the newer, stark and large Soviet-style buildings, but it is light years ahead of Shamki and Chaloponitch.
I am so glad that I took the time to visit Minks, Samke and Chaloponitch before heading off to Poland. It was well worth the effort and now I know that there is no looking back and my great-grandmother, Chaya Tzivia Rossman Shteinbok, whose name I carry, is my hero.
I spent a beautiful Shabbat here in Warsaw and last night went to the Warsaw JCC for a silent dance party. I will report on this soon. Today – off to visit Lublin and Majdanik.