What is it about railway stations that conjures up ghosts of the past? We’re standing on the platform in Pastavy (or Postavy), deep in the Belarussian countryside, almost exactly 100 years since Stu’s grandfather, Julius Seidel, stood on this same platform (maybe)and boarded a train to start a new life in the New World.
In my mind’s eye, I see him on that day in 1914, just months before the outbreak of the First World War, in his too-long trousers and flat cap, 16 years old, with a battered suitcase containing all he owns at his feet. He is standing, embarrassed, as his mother, aunts and cousins surround him with love and anxiety, dabbing at their eyes with outsize handkerchiefs.
Sentimental nonsense, you will say. And you will be right, because I have no idea if any of it happened like that. But that’s what railway stations do to me – call it a brief encounter with my emotional core. I never knew Stu’s grandfather, and have seen only a couple of pictures of him (take a look at Stu’s family album page). Yet in my imagination on that station platform, he came alive. Just for a few moments.
We’re going to be taking a lot of trains and seeing a lot of stations over the next couple of weeks, so I dread to think what’s going to happen when I catch up with some of my own family ghosts. But Pastavy has been a great start to our adventure – retracing our families’ footsteps as they pulled up their roots in central Europe and headed west to safety and prosperity. Their stories are the stories of immigrants down the ages, which is one of the reasons that Stu and I have embarked on the project.
In Pastavy, there’s not much left of its once thriving Jewish community. We find the reason at the end of a dirt track – a modest memorial stone, inscribed in Russian, Hebrew and English: “In memory of the 4,000 Jews of the Postavy ghetto, murdered at the hands of the German Nazis, November 21, 1942. Forever in our hearts.”
Today, Pastavy is a neat, pretty little town with a shaded central square dominated by a statue of Lenin, in his familiar strutting pose. Off the main streets, dusty lanes are lined with simple timber-framed homes, some with fruit orchards round the back. On a baking hot July morning, there’s a calmness in the air, a sense that people here have most of what they need for a reasonably comfortable life.
Stu has been busy recording audio all day – once a radio reporter, always a radio reporter, I guess. I’ve known him for more than 30 years, but I’ve never seen him at work before. He’s good. But I’m going to have to be careful not to interrupt all his interviews. And, of course, not to get annoyed when he starts doing the same to me.
I’m writing this on the train to our next stop, Vilnius, in Lithuania, where my 10 generations back ancestor Josuah Hoschel ben Joseph was born in 1578. He ended up as a senior rabbi in Krakow, and is even described in the Jewish Encyclopedia as “one of the most eminent Talmudical analysts of his age”. I fear I would have been a big disappointment to him.
But there’s another, more immediate reason for me wanting to come to Lithuania – more of that in a couple of days.