One hundred years ago this year, my grandfather, Julius Seidel, then a 16-year-old boy, left his parent’s home in the Belorussian town of Postavy -- and he never looked back.
His mother, afraid of raising any suspicions, admonished him to act normally as he walked to the local train station, to give no hint that he was leaving the place of his birth to make his way way out of Czarist Russia, across Poland and Germany to Hamburg, and to join the great European migration to America. He would never see her again.
My family — my father and mother, brothers, sisters-in-law and nephews — visited Postavy in 2006, and earlier this week, my friend Robin Lustig and I spent part of a day there on the first leg of our own journey from Postavy to Hamburg, In the Footsteps of our Families.
At the time Julius was born in 1898, nearly 750,000 Jews lived in what is now Belarus. Today, there are maybe 15,000 living in the country: many left for the New World, 800,000 died in the Holocaust. (Wikipedia.)
Julius would not know his hometown today. The main square is presided over by Vladimir Lenin, a wannabe revolutionary at the time of Julius’s departure. Cafes, a movie theatre, a grocery store and a Russian Orthodox church grace the square. Parking is hard to find as Volkswagens, Volvos, BMWs, Mitsubishis and Mercedes Benzes compete for spaces. Benches in the shade are prized on a hot, humid summer afternoon.
The past is always present. An ancient Jewish cemetery is just a few blocks away, and down the street, behind a dispatch office for trucks and heavy equipment, a memorial stands to Hitler’s victims: ”Here lie Jews of Postavy and Dunilovichi, murdered by the German fascists on November 21, 1942 - We will never forget them."
At the train station, 20-somethings sit chatting, a conductor nibbles sunflower seeds, a few men and women mill around smoking, two young lovers embrace as they all wait for the next train to pull into the station.
There’s no apparent concern that anybody sees you're going somewhere -- but it's Belarus, so someone other than Julius's grandson is most likely also watching.