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A Personal Journey

A Personal Journey

by Cheryl Pinkus

.... I wanted to do something meaningful, something out of the ordinary. For years my sister had been on a mission to get my brother and me to travel with her to Lithuania and Belarus to explore our roots. This was the perfect opportunity for me to go. ....

We stayed overnight in the only accommodations in Oshmyany, a hotel that might be considered a minus-4-star hotel in America. I was glad that I had heeded the warning to bring my own sheets.

Babuska Lipkowitz

While we waited for our breakfast to be cooked the next morning, my brother ran across the street to take a picture of a statue of Lenin in front of an administration building. That was our second run-in with the police. Out of the building came an official who in broken English questioned my brother about what he was doing. When my brother explained why we had come, the officer invited us into his office to look up the telephone number of one of the few Jewish families left in Oshmyany. He called Babuska (Russian for "Grandma") Lipkowitz on the phone and in a matter of moments we were invited for lunch. Regina suggested that we stop for some food, which was no easy task, as there was so little food in the shops. Finally with salami, radishes and bread in hand, we drove over to meet Babuska and her family.

Babuska lived in the house of her son-in-law, Anatole Shatsman. The house was small, made of wood and painted a bright yellow and green. We walked up the pathway past the well, out-house and garden to the backyard filled with blossoming lilac bushes. (My father always had lilac trees in our backyard.) We were invited into the tiny kitchen, where we were introduced to Babuska, Anatole, and Dina and Marina, Anatole's teenage daughters. It was difficult to hold back the tears as Babuska told us that she had been at three work camps during the war and that her three-year-old son had been taken from her. Babuska and her husband survived by jumping out of a train bound for a concentration camp. Babuska hadn't known our family, but we soon felt as if she were part of ours.

During our stay in Belarus, Regina stopped many people to ask if they knew of our family. I was impressed with the kindness of the people we spoke to. They were eager to tell their tales and really wanted to help us.

Finding Our Family's History

On our way back to Vilnius, we stopped in Snipiskes, the part of Vilnius where my dad grew up. All through our childhood I can remember my dad saying with a sparkle in his eye, "If you're not good, I'm going to spank you from here to Schnipishok" (the Yiddish name for Snipiskes). For the longest time we all thought Schnipishok was a made-up word. In Snipiskes we looked for #51/2 Wilkkomierska Street and found what we believe is the house my father grew up in. At a street café close by, my brother, sister and I listened to the tape my brother had made of my father telling about family history. Dad wanted to take a trip back to his homeland, but died in 1983 before he had a chance.

On our last day in Lithuania we returned to the Archives to meet with Gelena. She greeted us with a smile and said that we are the lucky ones. With that she produced the records of our grandparents' deaths and the synagogue records (in books ironically called the "Pinchus") of my father's birth in January 1902 and that of his twin brothers, Shia and Yisroel, in 1907. Gelena was able to trace back five generations of Shoags. My fifth great-grandfather, born in the 1700s, was named Aria, my brother Lee's Hebrew name. My father used to tell us the story of an ancestor named Aria, who was a tax collector outside of Vilna. When laws were passed that mandated Jews choose last names, it was Aria who chose Shoag because in the Bible it says, "When the lion [aria] roars [shoag], who is not afraid?"

It is hard to find the words to explain what this trip meant to my siblings and me. There were so many gaps in our family history, but together we were able to put some of the pieces together. We felt enormously enriched by our experience.