Finding Grandma Lil – Brest, Belarus

May 25 – 26, 2014

After finding Papa Dave, we were off to Brest, Belarus to find Grandma Lil.

We decide the train was the most logistically sane option to get from Vilnius, Lithuania to Brest, Belarus, even with the change in Minsk. The trip from Vilnius to Minsk is about 2 1/2 hours. We boarded the train and all was without incident until we stopped at the Belarusian boarder and were boarded by customs agents and border control. They checked our migration card and asked a number of questions, including asking for proof of health insurance, which Alex did not have. After some posturing, the guard told us Alex could buy insurance in Minsk. We did not. The train was pretty modern.

And then there was Minsk. “Minsk’s gleaming train station is a tribute to the modernity of Belarus, and proof that no matter how much money you spend you can still come up with something just as chaotic as the old train station.” The train station is packed with kiosks selling everything from flowers to instant noodles. The pay bathrooms were hidden. Allan, finally found one in the basement of the brand new train station. In the meantime, Alex had to go across the street to a shop to change clothes. Getting on WiFi means having your passport number recorded. Allan finally found the First Class VIP lounge which we were more than happy to pay to enter.

About an hour later we boarded our train and found our private “first class” sleeper compartment. Not! They stuck a random person in with us. Alex wouldn’t touch anything. We started calling it the “chicken train.” We were really happy to get to Brest.

We checked into The Hermitage Hotel, in the historical cultural and business center of Brest. The hotel was really nice and very close to a park, where a lot of people headed after work. There was a lot of activity in the bar. The 2014 IIHF World Championship  was hosted by Belarus in its capital, Minsk.

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Brest is one of the oldest cities in Belarus. Brest is a city with a long and complex history, and at different times it has been part of different countries and linked to different cultures. Brest was originally part of Kievan Rus. At different times Brest was under Russian, Polish and German rule. When Grandma Lil was born Brest was part of Russia. After WWI Poland was re established and regained control of Brest. In 1939, Brest was annexed by the Byelorusian Soviet Socialist Republic. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Brest became a city in the modern Belarus.

The hotel was able to get us a driver/guide, but he did not speak English. The young girl that checked us in volunteered to be our translator. She was very nice and we were very grateful. The museum was closed but our driver did his best to help us on our quest.

Aunt Marilyn and Uncle Sol had visited Brest about 20 years ago. So we had a little to go on. Marilyn remembered an army barracks or armory, which I believe we found. It’s condos now.

Again, Allan commented that we walked were she walked and breathed the air she breathed. He also was surprised at how urban Breat was. Not what he had pictured in his mind. It’s years after his mother lived in Brest, but it would have still been considered an urban area. We know that Lil was born in 1916 in Brest, Poland and Sol was born in 1924 in Chicago, Illinois. We assume Lil probably left Poland in the early 1920’s. The 1921 Census reports the population of Brest as 29,553 with 15,630 Jews.

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The border splits two cities, the Polish city of Terespol and Belarusian city of Brest.The next leg of our trip took us to Warsaw. We took a ten  minute train ride to the border city of Terespol, where we caught a train to Warsaw. We had some time to kill in Terespol. We had a beer and snack and made conversation with a young American couple. Alex explored the town.

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Visiting Allan’s parent’s birthplaces and childhood home was an incredible experience. And sharing the visit with Alex was special. It’s up to Alex to return with others. Thanks, Alex, for being the keeper of our family history.

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