Pine and birch trees grow right up to the road shoulder, marshes dot the landscape, and the locals love to fish and hunt. Driving into the Belarus town of Telechany, about 100 miles from the country’s capital, Minsk, one would be excused for thinking they are approaching a town in northern Minnesota.
Few travelers would make this particular small Eastern European town the object of a 4,800-mile trip. But for me, visiting was a goal set long ago from hearing countless relatives mention it since my childhood.
Telechany, or Telechan in Yiddish, was one of hundreds of shtetls, or predominantly Jewish small towns, in Belarus, Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe from which a great number of Jewish immigrants came to Ellis Island. My grandfather Willy, like thousands of his countrymen and women, left the poverty and uncertainty of their homelands in the early 20th century for the opportunities of a better life in the New World. Willy settled in Minneapolis in 1904 and many of his descendants have been here since.
As far as I know, not a single relative among my numerous American aunts, uncles and cousins has ever gone to visit Telechany. For one thing, from 1945 to 1991, Belarus was behind the Iron Curtain, and unlike many other former Soviet republics, Belarus has stayed firmly in the Russian orbit. Until Belarusian regulations changed in 2017, simply getting a visitor’s travel visa was difficult.
But the main reason for the self-imposed family exile was that for most of us, the thought of visiting was just too painful. Nazi death squads machine-gunned the entire Jewish community of more than 1,500 people and then threw their bodies into burial pits on Aug. 5, 1941. Their lamentations still echo loudly throughout my family.
Nearly 80 years have gone by, and I decided it was time for a Gurstelle to return and in some sense reclaim the old shtetl. I wanted to create some new and positive memories, not to replace, but to mix in with the bad ones, so I could see the past as part of a larger story. I was eager to find out about this place as it was in the decades before World War II as well as what it is like today.
To get to Telechany or to any other place in Belarus, a Western visitor will nearly always begin in Minsk.
In August, after winding up some work in Venice, I boarded a Polish LOT jet bound for Minsk, the large but mostly untouristed (by Americans, anyway) capital city of Belarus.
I can think of few contrasts as vivid as flying from Venice to Minsk. In Venice, among the world’s most famous tourist destinations, medieval and renaissance history abounds. Its summertime streets are filled to capacity and, too often, beyond. I often find Venice in August to be sweaty, noisy and not particularly clean.
Minsk seemed like the anti-Venice. In early August there were no crowds and little traffic, the air was cool and the city sparkling clean. In fact, Minsk is almost unimaginably clean — no litter, no vandalism, no graffiti. Not even twigs or fallen leaves stay on the streets long. In socialist Belarus, everyone must work, and government jobs ensure that an army of uniformed cleaners gets up early and sweeps the city clean.
Also unlike Venice, there is little that is old in Minsk. Although Minsk dates to the 11th century, a huge battle between Russian and German armies in World War II mostly destroyed the city. It was rebuilt, and surprisingly, that’s one of the things that make it so interesting.
The city was reconstructed by the Soviets in what is known architecturally as Stalinist Empire style. This term conjured up images of housing blocs I have seen on the outskirts of St. Petersburg: massive gray concrete blobs with little ornamentation or grace. By contrast, I found Minsk’s Stalinist architecture to be remarkably interesting, with the post-World War II buildings that line downtown’s Independence Street being among the city’s best features. Aside from classical motifs in the buildings’ fenestration and friezes, there are elaborate capitals, grand arches and elegant decorative moldings.
Minsk abounds with parks and public squares, usually centered around a monument to the Great Patriotic War or some other remembrance. My sister-in-law, Carol, and our Belarusian guide, Katya Makarevichus, and I picked out the symbols of the old Soviet Union as we walked down the grand Independence Street. Sculptures of Communist stars, reliefs of heroic workers and hammer and sickles galore line the buildings, all overseen by a giant statue of Vladimir Lenin still urging workers toward their glorious Soviet future.
In addition to the architecture, there is much in Minsk for a visitor to experience, including monuments, museums and a tour of the Minsk Tractor Works, known by its Russian acronym “MTZ.” I vividly remember seeing a film made long ago propagandizing how vast fleets of shiny tractors roll off Communist assembly lines to be shipped to giant collective farms where they are joyfully driven by patriotic workers. Where did most of those tractors come from? Minsk.
I was told that one in 10 of all the world’s tractors are built at MTZ. Although it was a Sunday, our entourage took a detour to see at least the outside of the giant tractor factory. During workday tours, visitors can don hard hats and actually help assemble a tractor.
Out to Central Belarus
While Minsk itself is among Europe’s most interesting (albeit least known) cities right now, our main destination was tiny Telechany, about three hours southwest from Minsk by car, mostly through farm country.
Most people would think that fields of corn and soybeans would look the same everywhere. But Belarus has its own take on this. Agriculture in Belarus still is based on Soviet-style collective farms, which are absolutely enormous. The area around Minsk is pancake flat, and the fields stretch to the horizon, unbroken by farmhouse or road, with only the occasional MTZ tractor chugging along to break up the visual monotony.
In the region of Grodno, about halfway between Minsk and Telechany, stand the magnificent Mir and Nesvizh castles, which are the most frequently visited places in Belarus outside Minsk. Dating from the 16th century, these large fortified palace complexes blend Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance walls, turrets and windows.
The pretty and pleasant city center of the town of Mir is just a few blocks from the castle. We stayed overnight at the excellent Mirsky Posad hotel, which was once Mir’s main synagogue. As early as the 17th century, there was a sizable Jewish population in Mir. As we strolled through the town, Katya pointed out several buildings that were important within the Jewish community. One restaurant used to be a synagogue for craftsmen, including leather workers and furriers. The building next to the hotel was the synagogue for merchants. Down the block, the post office was formerly Mir Yeshiva, an influential school of Jewish learning. Early in World War II, the students were saved from the Holocaust by Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who evacuated them first to Japan and then Shanghai, China. After the war, Mir Yeshiva was re-established in Jerusalem and New York’s Brooklyn borough.
On to the shtetl
When we pulled into Telechany the following morning, the day was bright and pleasant. From listening to my relatives, my mental picture of the town was based on life there before World War I. Although a lot changes in 110 years, I hoped that we could uncover a few tangible connections to the present.
We began with a trip to the local high school, where an ebullient teacher named Maria has established a museum devoted to the town’s history. This classroom-size exhibition ranges from Paleolithic times to the present, with a large section devoted to Telechan’s most important historical civic construction, the Oginsky Canal.
The canal was built by a wealthy Polish nobleman in the 1700s for the purpose of transporting goods, mostly logs, from the Russian hinterlands to markets in Poland. For years many of the townspeople made their living from the canal, including at least two of my ancestors who owned a boat and shipped goods to the larger city of Pinsk and perhaps beyond.
After the museum visit, our group walked the town’s streets, visiting monuments and memorials.
I was struck by how much the city’s present housing stock resembles the pictures in my family’s albums. The small wooden houses have metal roofs and large backyards full of cabbage and squash gardens and a terrific number of chickens. There was rarely a time on our walk when a rooster was not crowing.
Walking down Lenin Street, the town’s main drag, I tried to imagine what it was like here when young Willy walked this street, chatting in Yiddish with his brothers and sisters. Maria pointed out the spot where the main synagogue formerly stood in the city center close to the town’s statue of Lenin. (It seems that all towns in Belarus have at least one statue of Lenin.)
From the statue, we turned down a dirt road that led toward the canal. It is lined with small houses with big gardens. The people working in them did not look up from their puttering to notice us.
It was here, among the wooden shacks, chicken coops and pine trees that I heard most clearly the echoes of my long-departed relatives. This was why I came all this way: to find out what a normal, not tragic, day on the shtetl was like. Now, when I think of Telechan, I will also think of a small, ordinary town in Belarus that looks and seems a lot like a small, ordinary town in Minnesota, instead of solely a place of unfathomable tragedy. And that is exactly what I hoped to accomplish.
William Gurstelle is a travel and science writer based in Minneapolis.