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BELARUS to U.S.: 1920-2020, a Family Story

According to our family history, September 1, 2020, was the 100th anniversary of my maternal grandparents’ arrival in Quebec, by boat, from Belarus. Because of the anti-Jewish pogroms, my grandmother, Rochel Chepelevsky, and grandfather, Moshe Eisenstadt, had been quickly married in Slonim (150 miles SW of Minsk) so that they could get out of town. They left immediately.

My grandfather’s hometown, Telechan, had been destroyed five years earlier, in 1915. By which marauding army I don’t know—German, Russian, or Polish. By the time my newlywed grandparents left in 1920, some family members were already in Israel and the U.S. The handwriting was on the wall and had been on the wall, for I don’t know how long.

On August 9, 2020, Minsk and Belarus became household words among politically sensitized Americans, after the incumbent authoritarian president seemed to hijack the election for his sixth term in office, not for the first time. Large protests broke out. The European Union and other countries have refused to accept the results of the election, citing widespread electoral fraud. 

The events in Belarus, combined with current and similar events in the U.S. and Israel, moved me to reconnect to my family’s history, to see if there was anything useful to the moment.

This blog documents some of my reflections, most of which are inconclusive. But my consciousness is fond of post-scripts and in fact our brains are trees. There may be additional ramifications, sooner rather than later as my 69 year old self is pushing hard towards wrapping things up.

BELARUS, 1920

In 1993, my mother’s younger brother compiled a family history and privately published a 300+ page volume, with copies for everyone. Uncle Ray had been working on our family genealogy for quite a while, had made trips back to the “old country”, and asked family members to share anything of interest.  With maps, some geopolitical history for context, letters,  photographs, and memoirs from various family members, Three Families is a family treasure. 

Immediately after the wedding, my grandparents left Belarus by train, eventually reaching the boat in Hamburg. Although my grandmother’s youngest brother remembers “snow” on the wedding day, the ketubah (marriage contract) is dated Tammuz 12, 5680, which translates to June 28, 1920.  The latitude of Slonim is 53 degrees, 8 degrees north of the Canadian border. So perhaps it’s not impossible that there would have been snow.

My grandparents then took the train from Quebec to Denver, where my grandfather’s brother was already well-established and owner of a hardware store. No one has documented the date and weather of Rochel and Moshe’s arrival in Denver, but snow was likely visible on the Colorado Rockies—a beautiful sight when arriving from the east, as we grandchildren learned many years later in our annual summer trips from Chicago. Unfortunately, since the1970s-80s, the view is greatly obscured or invisible due to the smog-encrusted city and foothills.

After a few years, my grandparents—now Ruth and Morris Stone—became part-owners of General Hardware, eventually buying out my great-uncle and great-aunt. The rest is both Denver history and family history.

THE JEWISH HOLOCAUST, World War II (1939-45)

At the end of the Introduction to Three Families, there is a list of 46 family members who were killed in the Jewish Holocaust of World War II, who had not left Belarus, for whatever reason. To introduce the list, my uncle wrote:

Of Blessed Memory. We who read these words are the fortunate. Our ancestors had the foresight and were able to find the wherewithal to depart from their condemned homeland. In many cases, they suffered great difficulties to do so. But many in our family were not so fortunate. Sadly enough, members of all three families were victims of the Nazis. We remember them here. So little separated their fate from ours.”

So little separated their fate from ours.

IOWA DERECHO — August 10, 2020

September 1, 2020 was also the first day of meteorological autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Chicago area, we are in a prolonged drought. We had some rain yesterday (Sept. 2), but the last decent soaking rain occurred on August 10, the day of the Iowa derecho. We call it the Iowa derecho because that’s where such astonishing damage occurred, destroying 1/3 of Iowa’s corn crop, uprooting trees and tearing apart hundreds of buildings in Cedar Rapids and other Iowa cities in the middle third of the state. I didn’t see major reports of human deaths and injuries, but many were reduced to refugees, living in cars without food, water, or basic supplies for days. Real refugees, recently arrived from Africa, were once again thrust into that desperate, uncertain existence.

Here in Evanston, IL—250 miles due east of Cedar Rapids–I had talked briefly with my next door neighbors who, serendipitously, are from Cedar Rapids. At 1:00 PM we were gathering up all loose objects in anticipation of the winds, I asked one of the young people, “Have you heard from your people in Cedar Rapids? Was the storm as bad as they predicted?” Along with mentioning something about the side of a garage being ripped off, my neighbors’ actions underscored the potential threat: they brought everything inside, including wrought iron furniture and weigh-lifting equipment. I got the message. When the tornado sirens went off at 3:30 PM, I spent the next 45 minutes sitting on my basement steps, listening for the winds, on high alert.

Luckily, I didn’t have to do anything further. Other than a few small tree branches littering streets and yards, my immediate neighborhood had no damage and no power outages. But the derecho had crossed the Mississippi into Illinois and by 5:00 PM fifteen tornadoes had touched down in the Chicago area, including one in Rogers Park, a mile south of my neighborhood. The freshman alderwoman of that Chicago neighborhood later tweeted: “They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

So little separated their fate from ours.

DENVER 2008

In 2008, General Hardware in Denver closed its doors, a victim of both changing neighborhood demographics and big box discount home improvement centers. For four generations, it had been the cornerstone of my refugee family’s relatively safe middle class life, even as each generation had spread across the United States and established our own economic roots.
–my grandparents
–their three children
–seven grandchildren
–seven great-grandchildren

The fifth generation is already here–one great-great-grandchild, I believe, who will never know General Hardware except through oral and written history.

So little separated their life from ours.

U.S. 2020

Since the Belarus election on August 9, 2020, protests have not stopped. Authoritarian experts in the U.S. who have been warning us about Trump, the GOP, Corporate Democrats, mainstream media, etc., are warning about the possibility of a similar result in the U.S. 2020 elections in November and similar follow-up events.

I can’t help but wonder how many of the Belarus protesters are even now anti-Jewish. We know from thousands of years of patriarchy that most are still likely anti-woman, even though—or perhaps because—women are being given credit for leading the protests, carrying the red and white Belarus flags everywhere.

Or, are we really watching a sea change like the Black Lives Matter response to George Floyd’s murder by a policeman? Are these the vanguards of an historic commitment to making Earth a home for all of us? Stay tuned. Things are unfolding in front of our eyes.

There are two preconditions to making Earth a home for all of us:

— Living one’s own life.
I think this is expressed most clearly in those quote by a Siberian shaman:

“The majority of people that come visit me, I tell them: Your trouble is that you do not live your own life. If you lived your own life then why would you get into someone else’s life? To allow yourself to diagnose things, to give advices when you were not asked for them. That’s when you cease living for yourself and start living someone else’s life. To begin to interfere with others. And conflicts begin. You have to learn to live first, and become such so that you can give yourself to the world. To become a gift. It’s the state when you give yourself as a blessing.”
—Sept. 2018  Interview with the Siberian shaman Alya, who wished to stay anonymous. Filmed by the TV Channel Russia-Culture in cooperation with Ethno Taiga. Translated into English by ©Excellence Reporter.

— A habitable Earth.
Restoring Earth’s soils, air, water, biodiversity, and beauty while learning how to feed, house, and clothe ourselves (without repeating the destruction) should keep us all busy–and employed–for a while.