Indulging in Tuscany, And How Bee Stings Lead to An Epiphany.

Ah, Toscana!
Ah, Toscana! A selfie with a view.

After touring emotional sites in Eastern Europe -- memorial-hopping, if you will, for murdered family members -- and then celebrating my birthday surrounded by family and friends in Israel, I thought Tuscany would be a good final stop before returning home to New York. In Tuscany I don't know anyone. Here, alone, I can collect my thoughts, hike, write, and, well, if I must indulge in the local pasta and wine, I must.

And it's all been going according to plan, although what trip would be really worthwhile without a hiccup that leads to an epiphany?

Except it's not really a hiccup, it's a sting.

IMG_4950Hiking from the idyllic farm I'm staying at to Bagno Vignoni I get accosted by a bee (or two? At this point it might as well be a dozen). They get caught in my hair, I run down the trail and scream like a madwoman. It's off-season in Tuscany and no hikers are around to witness me bouncing and flipping my hair as though it were on fire. Finally, the bee(s?) get away with just a couple of bites off my scalp, leaving two knobs on my head. I make it to Bagno Vignoni where tagliatelli with white truffles (now in-season!) and white wine make it all better. I have to wonder what my 16-year old vegetarian hippie-wannabe self would've thought of this 30-something year old woman who is terrified of bees in freaking Tuscany.

But before I can beat myself up too much, I return to the farm and learn that a rogue truck full of beehives had an accident and hundreds of bees are on the loose. The farmers working the field were attacked, forced to jump on their stomachs into the tall grass to hide and then run, leaving their tractors behind. "Queste api sono aggressivi!" says one of the farmers, who got several stings on his face. Aggressive indeed!

Pitigliano: a surreal Tuscan town carved into valleys.
Pitigliano: a surreal Tuscan town carved into valleys.

So it's this knowledge of bees in the air that encourages me to explore spots further removed from here at least for the next day or two. And that's how I discover La Piccola Gerusalemme -- Little Jerusalem in Tuscany -- in a beautiful little town called Pitigliano, a town carved into tuffs of valleys.

Driving toward Pitigliano I'm thrown by the surreal scenery. A town carved into a mountain! I'd read about it, but to see it! Arriving at the quaint and quiet center I see a map where La Picolla Gerusalemme is shown. It consists of a cultural museum and an old synagogue.

I slip ahead of a German tour group to see the synagogue. It's beautiful but sad, especially after reading the museum pamphlet that tells the story of the Jews of Pitigliano:

"In 1598 the Synagogue of Pitigliano was built. [...] [T]he Medici family instituted the Ghetto here in 1622. In the 19th Century, about 1/4 of Pitigliano's population was of the Jewish faith and this community became known as "The Little Jerusalem," a nickname given to it by the Jews of the city of Livorno. In the 1861 Unification of Italy, all Jews were emancipated and many from Pitigliano's Ghetto left for the larger cities. In 1938 the Jews in Pitigliano numbered approximately 70 people but due to the racial laws, this number gradually decreased. During World War II, the approximate 30 Jews remaining in Pitigliano were helped and eventually saved by Pitigliano's Catholic families who hid and protected their fellow citizens in the surrounding countryside. In the 1960s the Synagogue gradually collapsed, taking with it hopes for a 'rebirth' of the city's Jewish community."

The old Pitigliano Synagogue, today filled with tourists.
The old Pitigliano Synagogue, today filled with tourists.

The synagogue was restored in 1995 but it's no longer in use, today it's part of the museum. The museum is beautiful and quite thorough, it shows the remains of the old mikvah (ritual bath), a textile dyeing room, a kosher cellar, bakery and butcher. A side room described as the "Jewish community's original place of worship and study" contains objects "used in Jewish tradition" with explanations of what they are. The objects include kippas (skullcaps), mezuzas, torahs, ketubahs. Each one has a description of what the object is and how it was once part of the Jewish culture in Pitigliano.

It feels like visiting the museum of a lost civilization. And really, it is, since almost none of this civilization is left here -- not enough Jews to make a minyan to use the synagogue, anyway. Although a New York Times piece published last year about this town contains an interview with an impressive Jewish woman who was born here, was saved by Catholic farmers during the war while hiding in a cave for three months and then returned to Pitigliano where she told the New York Times she "has dedicated her life to preserving and restoring her hometown’s Jewish history."

Inside the Pitigliano synagogue, a view from the old women's section on top.
Inside the Pitigliano synagogue, a view from what was once women's section on top.

After having visited my grandparents' birthplaces, I can't help thinking that with the exception of Riga, their birth towns might as well have a museum dedicated to that lost civilization, too (and Riga's apparently still working on it with its annual court-approved neo-Nazi march).

Then I realize, it's these little towns I've visited, the ones that purged themselves of Jews that live in tragedy: local citizens wake up among memorials and torn up, lifeless, synagogues. Each day as they walk past ruins they breathe the loss of a culture that once thrived.

And I remember that in Israel, just last week, I celebrated a birthday with great aunts and second cousins, I saw Tel Aviv growing, Jerusalem abuzz; in Brazil, just about three months ago, I saw my grandparents, my aunts, my uncles and cousins, heard old stories, made new memories; in Houston, I celebrated Rosh Hashanah with my parents and sister, missing my brother who was in college. In the past three months I've gotten to enjoy the family thriving in both its ancient home and our "new" homes.

Another breathtaking view of Pitigliano.
Another breathtaking view of Pitigliano.

It strikes me, as it has many times in the past few weeks, that my grandparents' stories are far from being just about survival. Survival, especially Holocaust survival, is just a chapter. Their stories are about recreation and their gifts to future generations, me included: inspiration and the guts to thrive.


Love/Life in Munich

Air view of Munich.
Air view of Munich outskirts.

It's Oktoberfest in Munich. At night we head to the subway station where metro workers line up by the platform to keep the tipsy from stumbling in the rail. Bavarian costumes rule the street. Girls (grown women) wear tidy braids and dirndl. Boys (grown men) adorn lederhosen and suspenders. German rock, German pop; a man with gray hair dances on top of a table. He falls backwards -- flips in the air -- for a second I think he might be break dancing. Thud. He's on the floor, his feet land behind his head, he's on his neck. For another second I think he may have broken his neck. A small crowd gathers around him and I wonder if someone's called the medics. But he gets up, smiles sheepishly and shakes it off. His friends pat him on the back and start dancing again. The party does not stop.

Oktoberfest... On a table.
Oktoberfest... On a table.

Coming to Germany after tracing the hardships of my grandparents' early lives we aren't sure about arriving in time for Octoberfest. But when I told my grandmother we were going she was excited. Life, she says, started for her in Berlin, with her freedom.

In Berlin she lived in a DP ("Displaced Persons") camp with her parents and brother, sharing one room in a barrack with ten other families, where they all shared one bathroom. After hiding in a cramped cellar for 630 days this was a luxury. In Berlin she and her friends took classes, went to the opera -- they were free.

In Munich, though, she fell in love. Here, she finished university. She celebrated Oktoberfest with classmates and went to school dances. She met my grandfather, who'd been working for Betar helping refugees make their way to start a new life in Palestine.

In Munich, they married and a little over a year later my father was born. In the hospital, they discovered to their horror that they were only religiously married and not civilly married -- the hospital listed my father as an illegitimate child. My grandparents quickly went to city hall to get the papers they needed for my dad's birth certificate. That night, a quartet came to serenade them, a tradition in Munich after the civil wedding. My grandfather ran out and gave the quartet money to leave, they'd been married for over a year -- what would the neighbors think?! The birth certificate was quickly rectified.

Small synagogue inside Munich's JCC.
Small synagogue inside Munich's JCC.

During the day we look up my father's first address and actually find it. I wonder how much it's changed since my grandfather rented two rooms in the building in the 1950s. In this building, my grandfather (the journalist) covered post-war Munich. He wrote about the overwhelming poverty in the city. He wrote about Holocaust survivors living in camps, in ghetto-like conditions. He wrote about Jews bartering for food, unable to get jobs, forced to live on welfare and enduring life as aliens since losing their homes and much, if not all, of their families. Meanwhile, even my father -- the son of stateless refugees -- didn't have any citizenship until his 18th birthday in Brazil.

The modern Munich synagogue is almost a fortress. No peeks inside allowed.
The modern Munich synagogue is almost a fortress. No peeks inside allowed.

The DP camps in Munich and Berlin have all been rebuilt into regular neighborhoods so there's nothing to see in that front. We look for the new synagogue and  Jewish Community Center (JCC). The synagogue is near the tourist-filled center of the old town, a modern, impressive structure. The JCC is a sleek glass building.

For the first time in our trip a JCC refuses to let us in for a peek into the local contemporary Jewish life. The center is reserved for members only, we are told. We stand our ground until they relent. The JCC is breathtaking. The "small" synagogue seats 400 people and is consistently filled for services, the Israeli security guard tells us. I can't imagine what my grandfather would have thought of Jewish life in Munich today.

Book registering those buried in Munich's oldest cemetery. Preserved by TK and her family.
Book registering those buried in Munich's oldest cemetery. Preserved by Johanna and her family.

Later, we head for the old Jewish cemetery, built in 1816. We discover a beautifully maintained plot of land and meet Johanna, the woman (not Jewish) whose family has been taking care of the cemetery since before the war. Johanna shows us a registry of those buried in the cemetery, a yellowed book her father-in-law managed to hide from the Nazis during World War II. She lives on her own in a small house inside the cemetery walls and spends her days weeding out overgrown plants and planting fresh flowers for the dead.

In Munich we hardly see any monuments for war victims. Life seems to go on. Then we take off for Berlin and it's a different story.


Poland Surprises. (In a Good Way.)

At border control between Ukraine and Poland our train stops for two hours.

An official opens our bags, another one takes away our passports. Someone else comes back to check our bags for cigarettes and vodka. A woman returns with our passports. We wait. The train moans and puffs. It's 4am. But there's an hour time change. So is it 3am? Who knows. We get moving again. Just when I'm about to fall into a deep, comfortable sleep... we arrive in Krakow.

Krakow, where modern and historical mix.
Krakow, where modern and historical mix.

We stumble into our hotel and when we wake up a couple of hours later the Poland surprises begin. These surprises have names. First in Krakow they are Gosia, Andrzej, Slawek and Jakub. Then in Auschwitz there's Michael. In Tarnobrezg there's Irena. Finally, in Warsaw there's Pawel.

Gosia is our guide in Krakow. She is 30 years old, an educator for the Żydowskie Muzeum Galicja, and specializes in Jewish Krakow. She is not Jewish. After living in a small Polish town and walking by an abandoned Jewish cemetery on her way to school every day while growing up, she began asking questions. When she didn't get answers she decided to earn a degree in Jewish Studies. "It's part of our heritage, our culture," she explains.

Inside the Zydowskie Muzeum Galicja in Krakow.
Inside the Zydowskie Muzeum Galicja in Krakow.

Jakub, the young director of the Zydowskie Muzeum Galicja, has a similar story. He grew up surrounded by fragments of old synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in Kazimierz, Krakow's Jewish district.

Gosia and Jakub are part of a movement in Poland that's breaking the silence that's been a part of the country's makeup since World War II. It's not just the Jewish survivors who didn't want to linger on the past, it was Polish survivors, too. Often because of guilt, sometimes for fear of losing property that once belonged to Jews, explains Pawel, our guide in Warsaw. A new generation has decided to not only ask questions but dedicate themselves to vocalizing their stories.

"Papal window" in Krakow's Bishops Palace, where Pope John Paul II addressed the people. The pope made a huge impact in Poland, encouraging freedom from totalitarian government and a positive relationship between Jews and Christians.
Window in Krakow's Bishops Palace, where Pope John Paul II addressed the people, encouraging freedom from totalitarian government and a positive relationship between Jews and Christians.

Our visit to Auschwitz is somber as expected. But we meet Michael, an Austrian who is not Jewish but decided to learn and educate visitors about Jewish life in Auschwitz before the war.

The following day we drive to Tarnobrzeg with Andrzej and Slawek. Neither is Jewish. We find an old synagogue that's been converted into a library. Tarnobrzeg was 67% Jewish before World War II. Today there are no Jews left. Before we take off on our trip Andrzej, 24, gives us a history of the city's Jewish life. Andrzej says he decided to get his undergraduate and graduate degrees on Jewish studies because there's always been a feeling of nostalgia in his home -- his family was also displaced after the war -- and "what's more nostalgic than Jewish history?" he asks.

When Andrzej was 14 or 15 he found a postcard from Georgia at his grandparents' house. He asked his grandmother about the postcard and she told him about a Jewish man his great-grandfather saved during the war. His great-grandparents had lived in Lviv, in front of a synagogue, and his great-grandfather's best friend was Jewish. Before the war he'd left Lviv and took his best friend with him to hide in Bierutow. After the war the friends went their separate ways and Andrzej great-grandfather ended up getting displaced during the Soviet years. His friend, who'd moved to Georgia, had looked for him for years and finally found him. That's why Andrzej discovered the postcard.

Sunset drive from Tarnobrzeg to Krakow.
Sunset drive from Tarnobrzeg to Krakow.

Slawek, who comes to Tarnobrzeg with us, too, decided to get his degree in Jewish studies when he was in his 40s. His mother's father hid a Jewish family in his basement during World War II.  Slawek never got a chance to ask his grandparents about their experience, but he knows they were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Growing up Slawek had his own experiences with neighbors who were Jewish and  remembers going to Shabbat dinners without realizing what they were. His friends came over for Christmas dinner. Years later Slawek moved to Krakow and wandered through Jewish cemeteries. Memories arose and he decided he wanted to learn more. He remembers many of his Jewish friends who'd moved away in 1968 during a time of intense anti-semitism in Poland. He's still in touch with an old buddy who moved to Israel.

Slawek and Andrzej helping us read Hebrew on old headstones.
Slawek and Andrzej helping us read Hebrew on old headstones.

In Tarnobrzeg,  Andrzej and Slawek take us to see an abandoned Jewish cemetery. They put on kippas before we go in and crouch in front of fragments of gravestone. Andrzej and Slawek read the Hebrew names.

"Oy gevalt," says Slawek when we realize the small holy construction, the Ohel, where a tzadik is buried, is locked.

Suddenly we hear an small old lady rushing toward us, "Mam klucz!" she says.

She has the key.

photo-23
"Mam klucz!" ("I have the key!")

Irena tells us she lives in front of the cemetery and had been expecting us. Her husband had been the cemetery's key keeper but when he died she'd been charged with the honor. She'd heard some Jews were coming by and was thrilled by the visit. Neither Irena nor her husband were ever paid for their service and she takes the responsibility very seriously. We wonder how long she'd been looking out her window waiting for us.

We arrive in Warsaw early the following day and Pawel walks us through some of the city. Pawel isn't Jewish but teaches us how to imagine the old Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, tells us about Jewish heroes who survived, and those who didn't.

He grew up in a time when nothing was talked about, he tells us. He's passionate about this emerging Poland, a Poland that talks about its heritage -- all of it. He shows us how Warsaw, a city that had been left in crumbles after the war, is creating thoughtful monuments and reminders throughout the city to remind citizens and visitors of what the city once was and of those who once lived here.

In Poland our surprises make us hopeful. We decide to stay here longer.

One of the many thoughtful memorials in Warsaw, remembering the Jews who once lived in this building.
One of the many thoughtful memorials in Warsaw, remembering the Jews who once lived in this building.

Dubno Remains.

A memorial outside the old Dubno airport where 22 family members were murdered on May 22, 1942.
A memorial outside the old Dubno airport where 22 family members were murdered on May 27, 1942.

Today I travel to Dubno. We ride a car from Lviv, past the countryside, beetroot and potato plantations and forests. Before taking off, my grandfather gives me names to look for: his old school, his address growing up, the river he swam in during the summer and ice skated on during the winter.

After two hours in the car we arrive. We see the river, Ikva. It’s still there, the Dubno castle tower behind it, intact. It’s a warm day but there are no children playing outside. I imagine what it might’ve looked like as a young boy playing with his friends.

A horse carriage on a dirt road in Dubno: a common sight.
A horse carriage on a dirt road in Dubno: a common sight.

We drive to his old school, where my grandfather would walk to, about 3 or 4 kilometers, each day. He wasn’t a great student, he’d told me, but loved history, physics and geography. Math, not so much. The building, to our surprise, is still there. The outside is almost intact. But it’s an abandoned building. Weeds grow around the edges; windows are cracked. No one uses it anymore.

We find a woman, Ludmila, who studied in the same school as my grandfather. She was a year older, she tells us, and studied with an older class. Ludmila, who’s 89 or 90, has kind eyes and invites us inside her home, where she shows us photographs of her class. Unfortunately, she can’t remember my grandfather since he was a year younger. When we go back outside we see a horse cart on the dirt road carrying supplies, a common sight here. I imagine the old village doctor my grandfather had told me about, the only person in Dubno with a car back in the 1930s: “One time his car stopped and he got his gun and shot the engine,” he told me laughing.

Dead sunflower fields on the outskirts of Dubno.
Dead sunflower fields on the outskirts of Dubno.

We find my grandfather’s old street and look for the house where his family once had a garden and grew cucumbers, radishes and other vegetables. This street is paved now, but some houses look like they could still have a separate bathroom outside, some look like the walls are barely hanging on.

We go by the large Dubno synagogue, which is still standing in the center of town. Windows are boarded up and we see ruins on the inside through the cracks. A drunk man walks over to us and says something our guide refuses to translate. There are 20 Jews left in Dubno, our guide tells us. But no synagogues remain active today.

The remaining shell of the largest synagogue in Dubno.
The remaining shell of the largest synagogue in Dubno.

When I told my grandfather I was coming to Dubno, his birth town, he first asked me why. There’s nothing to see, he said. Twenty-two members of our family were murdered, including his mother, Zysl, and his younger sister, Mania.

I wanted to see where he was born, how he managed to reinvent himself, recreate a life, thrive from ashes. I’m discovering that everything he left behind stayed more or less frozen in time, deteriorating.


Belarus and Ukraine: Car Rides, Plane Rides, Train Rides and Fuel.

Remains of the Great White Synagogue in Stolin.
Remains of the Great White Synagogue in Stolin.

In Belarus we spend hours riding the car. From Minsk to Pinsk (about 4 hours). From Pinsk to Stolin (about an hour). From Stolin to Minsk (another 4 hours). This in the span of three days.

For breakfast, the Pinsk hotel offers us "Broth with a Bird." As adventurous as we like to think we are, we pass. We eat potato latkes with sour cream and black bread for lunch. We have chocolate and vodka for dinner.

Village and farm houses -- "dashes" -- on the way from Pinsk to Stolin.
Village and farm houses -- "dashes" -- on the way from Pinsk to Stolin.

In Stolin we see remains of the Great White Synagogue, the place where possibly my grandmother spent days sleeping in transit with groups of refugees before her 630 days under the ground.

At lunch we eat more black bread with beet-sour cream salad and marinated potatoes.

During the drive from Stolin to Minsk, I doze off while watching the scenery of tall trees and marshland. I imagine my grandmother, age 11, walking with her aunt and a group of refugees from David Gorodok after being kicked out of the ghetto, sleeping in the forest, begging for food. I remember how once, she told me, she was so thirsty she could hardly continue walking. She saw a well filled with green moss and bugs, stuck her hand in it, wiped the bugs off, and happily drank the water. Until today, she says, she's grateful for every glass of water.

The room mom and I had in the Minsk "hotel."
The room mom and I had in the Minsk "hotel."

Before we arrive in Minsk I receive a message from the hotel we're supposed to spend the night in before taking off in a plane to Kiev. The guy says he needs the exact time we're arriving to meet us. He'll be in a car in the parking lot, wearing black. This doesn't make my mother nervous at all. Really.

We arrive in the evening and there's Alex in his car. He takes us on a five-story walk-up to an apartment. Outside the main road the streets are dark and practically empty. We see security cameras on every street corner. Alex leaves us and we opt against leaving the apartment, er, "hotel," for water and dinner. We barricade our door stacking up our two suitcases and hope for the best.

In the early morning we leave for the Minsk airport. After checking-in we try to find some coffee. There's a bar, there are folks drinking whiskey. It's 8:30am. We skip breakfast.

Flowers left on the edge of the Babi Yar ravine where the Nazis staged among the Holocaust largest slaughters.
Flowers left on the edge of the Babi Yar ravine where the Nazis staged among the Holocaust largest slaughters.

Arriving in Kiev, we see welcome signs outside the airport on the road to the city written in Hebrew. Interesting, I think.

We go see the memorial of Babi Yar, where somewhere between 100-150,000 Jews, gypsies, Ukrainian nationalists, Soviet POWs civilian hostages were slaughtered by Nazis and collaborators on a ravine astonishingly close to the center of town. A day later will mark the horrible event's 72nd birthday. The memorials are covered in flowers, candles and stones. We add our own stones. We look inside the ravine and try to imagine the unimaginable.

Later, we have dinner, probably one of the best meals of the trip. The borscht, finally, is almost as delicious as my grandmothers'. The Chicken Kiev is divine. The cherry strudel is juicy and tangy.

It's been 12 hours since we've arrived in Kiev. After dinner we drag our bags inside a train. In about six hours we'll be in Lviv. We collapse til morning.

** Note: It's about time I send out a huge thank you to my mother, who's taking amazing photos of our trip, being a wonderful blog editor and most of all, an incredible partner in every adventure. 


Knocking on Pinsk doors.

A woman who's lived in this house all her life, remembering the war starting when she was six years old.
A woman who's lived in this house all her life, remembering the war starting when she was six years old.

We are knocking on doors. Babushkas answer many of them, wearing scarves wrapped around cotton-white heads, thick socks and sandals on feet. We, or actually, our translators, ask them how long they’ve lived here, who they know.

Do they know of a Christian woman living on the street 70 years ago who hid six Jews in her cellar for 630 days and nights?

A couple of women shake their heads like we’re all insane. “Nyet.”

But then one tells us, hidden halfway behind her wooden door, that she was 6 years old during the war and has been in the same house since she was born. She remembers, she says, the police looking for a woman who looked Jewish. Everyone in the street knew that one of the neighbors was hiding Jews, she says, but they told the police that the woman was Russian. They were protecting the neighbor and the Jews. One of the Jews living in the cellar on top of stacks of hay for 630 days and nights was my grandmother. She was 11 when she moved in.

Our search for old neighbors in Pinsk continues.
Our search for old neighbors in Pinsk continues.

The woman living on the street now says she thinks the house where the Jews were hiding was number 38 or 40. So we look down the road and find the houses, which have been rebuilt. We knock on a neighbor’s door. Zofia Fiodorchenko, who hid my grandmother, lived at number 40, he says. She lived there until the 1980s, had a daughter and two sons. She died a few years ago; she’d already sold her house by then. Nevertheless, we knock on that door. No one answers.

We think we find my grandmother’s house. But when she sees a photo we email her she doesn’t recognize the building.

A memorial for the Jews murdered in the Pinsk ghetto.
A memorial for Jews removed from the Pinsk ghetto and murdered in the forest.

We drive around Pinsk, a town of 130,000 and it’s much bigger than the villages we saw during our four-hour car ride over from Minsk. Our guide shows us a playground. “This used to be one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries of the 16th century,” he says. I see the swing sets and imagine the children playing there today. The cemetery survived the war, only to be destroyed by the Soviets in the 1960s.

Walking in the quiet old town center, I look around wondering if any of the older women might remember being 10 or 11 years old and having had a Jewish best friend before the war, a neighbor. Would she remember the girl’s mother being forced out of her house with her sick son, to go to Siberia? Does she remember her mother agreeing to store a few of the family’s valuables – perhaps clothing and photographs – so they might come get these things after the war? Might she remember the girl knocking on her door months after the Germans had taken control of the town?

A skyline view of Pinsk.
A skyline view of Pinsk.

It was nighttime, dark. Maybe she remembers making eye contact with the girl for a second through a window by the door? I wonder if she realized the flurry of excitement my grandmother felt for a split second, thinking that maybe she’d get her coat back, the coat her father had bought her a year ago, and that her friend was now wearing. Does she remember her mother handing the girl a sandwich as she opened the door just a crack, then shooing her friend away? I wonder how long the girl kept that coat.

The breakfast buffet at our hotel.
The breakfast buffet at our hotel.

Our hotel is quite modern. There’s a disco ball enhancing the restaurant’s purple decor and we can watch Russian music videos during breakfast and sing karaoke at night. Unfortunately for us, central heat is only turned on in October and it’s an unusually cold September in Belorussia. We warm up with potatoes, chocolate and vodka. We eat the best potatoes we’ve ever had. I consume more vodka I’ve ever had in one sitting. We are warm.

We go to Pinsk’s historical museum depicting a town where before 1941, 77% of the population was Jewish. There are photos of cathedrals, rooms with prehistoric artifacts and costumes, medieval memorabilia, displays of local animals. There are no photos of synagogues. There are no samples of Jewish artifacts. There is one room devoted to World War II. One small display shows a couple of photos and a map of the Pinsk ghetto. Our guide tells us that her grandfather, not a Jew, fought in the war as a partisan and his hand was mangled. Her grandmother, she told us, was waiting for him after the war, and they married.

We sneak a photo in the chassidic Pinsk synagogue...
Simchat Torah in Pinsk: We sneak a photo in the chassidic synagogue...

At night we walk from our hotel to one of the two surviving synagogues (there used to be 41 in Pinsk before the war). It’s Simchat Torah and the Chassidic synagogue soon fills up. We are surprised to see young people, lots of children. Many speak Hebrew; a few speak English. The kids run around excited, dancing, throwing candy in the air, at each other. Simchat Torah, says the rabbi, “is the happiest day of the year.”

We leave the synagogue. Once we close the gate the singing, clapping and laughter disappears. In the street there’s no sign of a community celebrating, just dark and quiet.


In Riga Reality Hits. Hard.

Candle we lit in honor of family members murdered in Riga.
Candle we lit in honor of family members murdered in Riga.

The night we arrive in Riga is dark and rainy. The following day's weather follows suit. It's fitting for the mood of the day.

We visit the Riga ghetto where my great-grandparents and great-aunts were taken before being murdered. It's eerie: the houses down the streets are now just as they were then. Outside one house we see a wooden structure -- the dilapidated bathroom. When our guide, Victoria, tells us that people live in these houses today we can't believe her. She tells us she's visited people in these houses and felt the ghosts of past atrocities.

Outside the apartment building where my grandfather, his parents and sisters lived before the war.
Outside the apartment building where my grandfather, his parents and sisters lived before the war.

We see the art-nouveau apartment building where my grandfather once lived with his parents and sisters (now renovated), the school where he studied (now apartments) the building that once housed his father's hat shop (now being renovated). I imagine him walking to school, just two blocks from his home, his father taking the trolley to work, a few blocks away. We drive by the university where he studied economics, a beautiful building -- I imagine him walking the halls.

We see one of the synagogue that was burned down on July 4, 1941. My grandfather, Eliezer Blankfeld, had already been drafted into the Latvian army by then, which was soon absorbed by the Red Army. Six years later, as a journalist recording the life of Jews in Germany after the war, he would write in an article entitled Why?:

"I remember that day, the 22nd of June 1941, as if it were today.  I was a soldier, far away from home without any possibility of contacting my parents or my sisters, and they—not knowing the fate of their only son . . . ."

Wooden structure in the ghetto used as a bathroom.
Wooden structure in the ghetto used as a bathroom.

I wonder when he learned that his family had been taken to the ghetto. Did he hear about the Jews being killed in the middle of the ghetto streets? Or did he hear about the 25,000 Jews who'd walked 6 km in their summer clothes to the Rumbula forest to be frozen to death, shot or burned and buried in mass graves? Could he imagine they might be part of that group?

We visit the only synagogue in Riga  that survived the war and see the Sukkah  where around 30 Jews celebrated Succot only the night before.

So-called Freedom Monument where neo-Nazis annually commemorate SS divisions in Latvia.
So-called Freedom Monument where neo-Nazis annually commemorate SS divisions in Latvia.

We drive by the Freedom Monument where I have one of my biggest shocks. Every year, Victoria tells us, neo-Nazis hold a parade celebrating Waffen SS divisions in Latvia, created in 1943 on orders of Hitler. This year three members of the Latvian parliament tore up pictures of Nazi concentration camp victims. I cannot believe the Jewish community here still puts up with violent, court-approved hate and anti-semitism. It's devastating.

I have no words.

Today we see a memorial with thousands of victims' names. We light a candle.

Memorial to the Jews who died in the Riga Ghetto in 1941.
Memorial to the Jews who died in the Riga Ghetto in 1941.
Motel, Lida, Masha and Raja - names of my grandfather's parents and sisters killed in the Riga Ghetto.
Motel, Lida, Masha and Raja - names of my grandfather's parents and sisters killed after being forced from their homes to the Riga Ghetto.
One of the houses in the Riga ghetto.
One of the houses in the Riga ghetto.
Sample of room in ghetto house -- houses 7 families (usually 35-40 people).
Sample of room in ghetto house -- houses 7 families (usually 35-40 people).

Whirlwind in St. Petersburg

We arrive late at night in a haze, get off the train as the St. Petersburg anthem welcomes us to the station. On our way to the hotel we see few cathedral domes and the occasional palace, as we get to Nevsky Boulevard we see international luxury stores scattered all over.

Our stay is a whirlwind. We visit palaces with golden rooms, palaces with manicured forests as their front lawn, churches with incredible mosaics and history. We see the Hermitage, art spilling from every corner. On the way to Catherine's summer getaway palace we see Putin's palace. Behind gilded gates, we only see it from afar, inside a car window -- it's impossible to describe, comparable to the monarchs' old "summer homes."

We spend two days observing how monarchs lived in luxury, gifted each other with palaces and changed their palaces' room moldings in accordance with the latest season trends. Many of the palaces were destroyed by German bombs during World War II so we see many replicas of tiled rooms.

We go to a cheesy Russian folk dance show; a man dances the Hora. We eat Varenyky and Blinis but the ones my grandmothers make are better. We hear a priest chanting in a Russian Orthodox church and the quick monotone reminds us of a Chabbad rabbi's chanting.

Tonight we arrive in Riga, rain pours down as our plane lands. Tomorrow we finally begin to explore, the real reason why I'm here.

Russian Varenyky... good, but not grandma's...
Russian Varenyky... good, but not grandma's...
Gorgeous day in St Petersburg.
Gorgeous day in St Petersburg.
A tiny fountain and foliage at the Peterhof Palace aka "summer home."
A tiny fountain and foliage at the Peterhof Palace aka "summer home."

Train Rides from Moscow

We roll our bags into the train station, go through two security checks and find the fast train to St. Petersburg. Our train is scheduled to depart at 4:30pm and it does. Seats are comfortable and spacious, the ride is smoother than an airplane ride. I nod off watching the countryside.

We're still in the light, tourist-y part of our trip, but I can't help thinking about an 18-year old Jewish boy who took a train from a small town outside Moscow to Dubno, in the Ukraine. It was 1945, just a few months after World War II ended.

It had been four years since he'd left his home. In those four years he'd been a partisan, a decorated Red Army soldier and most recently he'd left a school for officials as a lieutenant. He'd gone hungry, had been wounded and tortured. He'd fought in the Belorussian front, he'd seen indescribable brutalities; he'd killed men. He knew his mother and sister were dead, but he'd heard his father was alive, and he was going to find him.

His train ride lasted a week, during which he sang patriotic Soviet songs with other wounded soldiers and found ways to dodge the military police since he had no documents to travel.

We, however, arrive in St Petersburg in roughly four hours. In the station we're greeted by bright lights, a pleasant breeze and the city's anthem. In a week, we will head to Dubno. The only thing I have in common with the 18-year old boy is I have no idea what I'll find when we arrive.

Train ride
Train ride from Moscow.

10 Lessons from Moscow

It's been an unforgettable three days. Moscow is even livelier than I'd expected and I  learned a few things.

1. In an effort to relieve Muscovites from the traffic jam Putin causes when he rides a car to work (led by an entourage clearing traffic for him), he had a helipad built by the Kremlin and began using a helicopter. Apparently the helicopter caused gold leaf from the church domes and palace tops to break away and sprinkle along the Kremlin lawn. Putin doesn't ride his helicopter to work that often anymore... and our guide claims you can still see specks of gold leaf inside cracks on the ground. I will have to return to Moscow and find some.

2. Women's heels can never be too high. Really, how do these gorgeous women walk?

3. Porta Potties can be works of art.

4. If you like statues, you'll like Moscow. But you better know how to read Russian or bring a guide so you know what you're looking at.

5. I love Gorky. Also, I love Gorky's house. It's cosy, it's funky and I'd like to rent his room. And library. And dining room.

6. Naked-man-paintings are a thing in Moscow. Or I've just been lucky enough to see one a day. Also, Disney-world-like characters are a thing at the Red Square: we've seen a tiger, a princess and a rabbit. Don't ask; I don't know.

7. Moscow's public transportation rocks. New York could learn something about fast, clean cars and stations from Moscow. Sorry, New York.

8. Underground crosswalks are brilliant. They keep you dry, dozens of steps help you burn off the herring and they protect you from cars and bikes. Note: not ideal for heavy luggage.

9. It's not that cold here (fine, it's not that cold yet). Also, it's not that gray in September. Anyway, pack short-sleeves next time I come in the fall. Not that interesting, but practical.

10. There are more carats here than potatoes. If you want to see some bling, head over to the Diamond Fund at the Armory.  It's only fit, I suppose, in a city that collects oligarchs and charges outrageous prices for everything. Unfortunately, no cameras or phones are allowed inside the Diamond Fund.

Moscow, I wish I could stay longer. I'll be back, though. Promise. Next stop, St. Petersburg... In the meantime, I leave you with these...

Moscow on a sunny, blue-skied, short-sleeve friendly fall day.
Moscow on a sunny, blue-skied, short-sleeve friendly fall day.
Moscow statues... If anyone knows who these guys are, please let me know!
Moscow statues... If anyone knows who these guys are, please let me know!
Kremlin gold.
Kremlin gold.
Naked man art.
More naked man art.
More naked man art.
disney in moscow
Disney at the Red Square...
Outside Gorky's house.
Outside Gorky's house.
Surreal staircase at Gorky's house.
Surreal staircase and chandelier at Gorky's house.
Porta Pottie Art!
Porta Pottie Art!