Wednesday, April 26, 2006

MEMOIR: An encounter in the Casbah

One of the most popular movies during the late 1930s was "Casbah," which starred Hedy Lamarr and Charles Boyer. The film was about a notorious thief, Pepe Le Moko, who escapes from France with a fortune in jewels and finds refuge in the mazelike and inpenetrable Casbah, the "native quarter" in the city of Algiers. The movie introduced most Americans for the first time to the Casbah's picturesque alleys and souks and created an exotic image of life in France's North African colonies.

In the spring of 1957, I found myself walking in the footsteps of Pepe Le Moko through the narrow streets and alleys of the Casbah. I was the only American in a group of about a dozen European journalists transported by the French army to Algeria to report on the war against the FLN, an Arab guerrilla force that was fighting for independence from France. We were in the Casbah observing an operation to search for rebel caches of weapons.

I arrived in Algeria as a participant in the NATO Journalist Program. Under the program, an individual NATO country annually plays host to journalists from all the other NATO countries. (I do not know whether the program still exists.) The program was designed for the visiting journalists to report on important military and industrial facilities in the host nation.

France was the host nation in 1957, and I was the U.S. representative. I was selected because I was then Business Week's Washington correspondent covering the defense and industrial mobilization beat. The term "industrial mobilization" had a special meaning at that time because the cold war with the Soviet Union was at its peak. The U.S. was spending billions of dollars to build and maintain idle arms production lines that could quickly be activated in case the cold war turned into a shooting war.

I confess that my selection that year did not reflect any special professional prominence on my part. I was picked largely because a friend of mine, who was a State Dept. budget officer, discovered that the department had funds allocated to finance the NATO program.

The program's existence was virtually unknown to members of the press, so there were few if any applicants. At my friend's suggestion, I applied. I never knew whether I had any competition for the assignment. But my professional credentials were appropriate, and I was picked to go to France for a month, all expenses paid by the State Dept., to tour that country's key military bases and factories that manufactured armaments. This was press junketing at its best!

So what was I suddenly doing in the Casbah in Algiers? In 1954, the Algerian Arabs began a battle for independence. The fighting had become so violent that, shortly before our group's arrival in France, a division of French troops committed to NATO and stationed in Germany was deployed to Algeria to fight the rebels.

France was severely criticized by other NATO members for the move. France justified the deployment by arguing that its battle against the Algerian nationalists was an element in the cold war against the Soviet Union. It charged that the Soviets were supporting the FLN guerrilla army.

With my group touring French military facilities at home, the nation's Foreign Ministry decided to fly us from Marseilles to Algeria as part of a campaign to convince its NATO allies that the war against the FLN was indeed a battle against Soviet allies. We were not asked whether we wanted to go. But we went willingly, even though few if any of us regarded the French claim as credible.

We trudged slowly through the Casbah streets, protected by a detachment of French paratroopers. Staring angrily at us, the Arab inhabitants in the streets moved quickly out of our way. From windows on both sides of the narrow streets, other locals cursed and threw rubbish at us.

A short, stocky man dressed in civilian clothing marched in front of us, guiding our group through the maze of the Casbah. One of the journalists pointed to our guide and, in French (which I do not understand), asked the paratrooper captain who the civilian was.

In the flow of the captain's French response, I caught the word "Israelite." That was one word of French I did understand, knowing it to be a synonym for the more common word "Juif." We had just passed a synagogue a few blocks earlier. The synagogue was deserted and surrounded by barbed wire. I recalled that our guide had halted briefly there, staring at it sadly as if the structure had a special meaning for him.

Knowing that our guide was a Jew, I assumed that he was Sephardic and spoke Ladino, the local Jewish language based on medieval Spanish and sprinkled with Hebrew words. When our group halted briefly, I approached the guide and in my best high school Spanish, said to him: "Yo estoy Judeo Americano" (I am an American Jew).

The man became quite emotional. He embraced me, kissed me on my cheeks, and pulled a Hebrew prayer book out of his pocket. He then began speaking rapidly in Ladino, mistakenly thinking that I was fluent in the language. I could only respond: "No comprende." He then began speaking to me in French. And sadly I had to tell him again that I did not understand him.

Fortunately, I had become friendly with Holland's representative in our group, Jan van der Plume, a reporter for a Dutch Catholic, labor-oriented newspaper. Like so many Dutch people I have known, van der Plume was fluent in several languages. I asked him to be my English-language interpreter.

The civilian guide told us that his surname was Ben-Hamou. As I recall, his first name was David. He had been born and raised in the Casbah. Virtually all of Algeria's Jews had fled the country, he said. They had been well treated by the French colonial rulers and were not active in the nationalist movement. They were thus harassed by the Arab Muslim population, and most of them had migrated to France or Israel.

Ben-Hamou had decided to remain, although he did not explain why. He was employed by the French police as a secret agent, an extremely dangerous occupation considering the circumstances.

At one time, Algeria had at least 100,000 Jews. The bulk of them were Sephardim whose ancestors had fled from the Spanish Inquisition during the 15th Century. The others were descendants of Jews who had lived in Algeria before the Arab Muslim conquest of North Africa in the 7th and 8th Centuries, and had assimilated into the Sephardic culture.

Ben-Hamou was surely one of the last Jews in Algeria. I often wonder where he was when Algeria finally achieved independence from France in 1962.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The atrocities of religious crackpots

I recently read one of the most disturbing newspaper articles I have ever seen. It reported on the burial in Nashville, Tenn. earlier this week of Cpl. David A. Bass, a 20-year old Marine killed in Iraq. The solemn ceremony was marred by the appearance of a small group of people, standing across the street from the church, "celebrating" Cpl. Bass'death.

The demonstrators were members of a tiny fundamentalist Baptist church in Topeka, Kan. They carried placards reading "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "Thank God for I.E.Ds"--the latter a reference to the roadside bombs that have killed scores of our troops in Iraq. They trashed an American flag and shouted that the soldiers killed in Iraq were "rotting in hell."

These were not anti-war protesters. They were people who considered themselves religious Christians. They were arguing that God is killing U.S. soldiers to punish America for "condoning homosexuality." The Kansas church group had previously attracted publicity by picketing the funeral of the young gay man beaten to death in Wyoming six years ago. I consider their activities to be atrocities.

More recently, they have been showing up, in groups with as many as 20 people, at other military funerals with their ugly chants, anti-gay placards and tattered American flags. According to their literal interpretation of the Bible, homosexuality is an abomination. One may share that religious belief about homosexuals, but that is a bizarre justification for their atrocious behavior at the funerals of troops killed in Iraq.

What is one to make of such people whose dreadful behavior is based on religious belief? They have crossed the line from religious piety to fanaticism, and they threaten civil society. The Bible can be interpreted in many different ways. But what these crackpots are doing is obscene.

There are other religious militants who use similarly atrocious tactics for another cause: abortion rights. These so-called "pro-lifers" are willing to kill and threaten doctors who perform abortions and to harass the unfortunate women who, for very personal, nerve-wracking reasons, want an abortion. But the protestors' alleged reverence for life seems to vanish when society is called upon to take care of unwanted babies. Again, one may truly believe that abortion is sinful. That is no excuse, however, to commit atrocities.

Religious fanaticism is not confined, of course, to Christianity. Several years ago, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Israel "explained" that a busload of young children were killed in an accident because their school had improperly installed a mezuzah--a traditional Jewish religious symbol--on its doorpost. And there have been eccentric ultra-Orthodox rabbis who theorized that 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust as divine punishment against the Jewish people for drifting away from traditional religious observance. They, too, were committing atrocities.

And then, of course, there is radical Islam and the jihadis who are eager to kill "infidels" in the name of Allah. To be sure, the suicide bombers in Israel and Iraq are politically motivated. But they have combined their political causes with religious belief, and they have been taught to expect divine salvation because of their grisly acts.

I am not criticizing those religious fundamentalists who do not intrude into the lives of other people. My own grandparents, who died more than a half-century ago, could probably have been described as religious fundamentalists. They were genuinely pious Jews, however, who did not try to impose their beliefs on others. Nor did they turn to violence against those who did not share their religious values. They were saint-like people who practiced their religion in a truly spiritual manner.

I can now confess, however, that I may have had a different opinion as a child when
my devout grandmother, with whom I lived, "encouraged" me to recite my prayers when I awakened in the morning and when I went to bed at night. Although I am not now religiously observant, my grandmother's "encouragement" did me no harm.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Adventures with a family name

My blog and I were featured in an article about elderly bloggers in the New York Times on April 11 ( The article "unmasked" me, for I have not directly revealed my name, Mort Reichek, on these pages until now.

My surname is an unusual one, and it has produced some interesting experiences. A few years ago, for example, I received a letter from a lady college professor in Chicago whose maiden name was Richek. She had seen a letter to the editor I had written to the New York Times and wanted to know whether we might be related.

I responded that the key to any relationship was whether her Jewish immigrant forebears came from Ostrow, my father's home town, or from other villages in Lomza "gubernya" (province), a region in Poland once under Czarist Russian rule. The slight difference in the spelling of our names was unimportant because the U.S. immigration officials decided how to spell my family name: Reichek. My paternal grandfather did not know the Latin alphabet when he came to the U.S. more than a century ago; he knew only the Hebrew and Cyrillic scripts.

The lady professor replied that her paternal grandparents were also natives of the Lomza region. We subsequently engaged in a long phone conversation comparing family notes and concluded that we were probably related, albeit distantly. To my knowledge, my paternal grandfather had only one brother. He remained in Poland after my grandfather's departure for the U.S. Several of the brother's offspring perished during the Holocaust. My grandfather also had legions of cousins, some of whom followed him to this country. I theorized that the professor's grandfather or great-grandfather was one of the cousins.

I have always been curious about my unusual surname. And like my newly discovered kinswoman in Chicago, I have been intrigued by the handful of strangers I have encountered who bear the same name. Although my immediate family is quite small, the Reicheks were apparently a large clan concentrated in the Lomza area. People who bear that name and are descended from natives of that area are usually related.

That assumes, however, that they are Jews. During World War II, I was briefly stationed at an Army base in Missouri where the Catholic chaplain was named Ryczyk. I was told that he pronounced the name as I did (RYE-check). Unfortunately, I was shipped overseas before I had a chance to meet him. But I was fascinated by the idea of linking a Catholic priest to my grandfather, a Hasidic rabbi. If there was indeed a genetic connection between the two men, it would have made an incredible story.

Several years ago, my daughter spent a year in Israel. On a visit to Nahariya, a town near the Lebanese border, she saw a street sign that read "Reichek Street" in Hebrew. In the Latin alphabet it was spelled "Rajczyk." An Israeli friend explained that it was the Polish spelling of our name. (The priest's family had evidently Anglicized the prefix.)

In researching the street name's origin, I learned that it was named after a deceased Holocaust survivor who had built the Carleton Hotel there. His daughter, who was born in Antwerp, Belgium after World War II, was now managing the hotel. Curiously, she had a brother still living in Antwerp named Martin Rajczyk, virtually the same name as my own. She referred me to her late father's sister Golda, who lived in Rochester, N.Y., for information about the family.

Golda was excited to hear from me when I phoned her. She had been in the U.S. since 1954. She had known that her paternal grandfather, Mayer Rajczyk, had a brother who had migrated to the U.S. around the turn of the last century. In her travels around the country, she had constantly checked phone books for people bearing the name Rajczyk, the spelling adopted by Polish Jews after the end of Russian rule, hoping to find an American relative. She never found any.

We were easily able to establish our relationship as second cousins. I knew that my grandfather's brother was named Mayer. My father, who was still alive when I called Golda, remembered that his Uncle Mayer's son Itzl had lived briefly with the family in New York before returning to Poland shortly before World War I. Itzl, who perished during the Holocaust, was Golda's father.

I have a habit myself of checking local phone books whenever I am in a city for the first time, seeking people bearing my uncommon family name. I have rarely succeeded. But I once encountered a lawyer named Reichek in Cleveland. His father had been an immigrant from Bessarabia, now part of the former Soviet republic of Moldava. That's a long way from Lomza. Neither the Cleveland lawyer nor I could imagine that branches of European Jewish families a century ago would be so geographically separated. The Rothschild bankers were clearly an exception. But since we were not Rothschilds, we concluded that we were probably unrelated.

In my search for Reicheks, I hit the jackpot about 30 years ago in Houston, Texas, a city where I had no known relatives. There were at least a dozen Reicheks listed in he phone book. I learned that they were the children and grandchildren of Hyman Reichek, who had left Poland many decades before and had settled in Texas, where he raised a family of five daughters and four sons.

I spoke to Hyman's wife who revealed that she and her husband came from Ostrow, my father's home town in Lomza province. Their family had been adherents of the same Gerer Hasidic sect to which my grandparents belonged. She was unable, however, to remember my grandfather. When I returned home, I described my encounter with the Reicheks of Houston to an elderly great-aunt, my grandfather's surviving sister. She immediately identified Houston's Hyman Reichek as a first cousin with whom she had lost contact.

Years later, I received a phone call from a woman in California whose maiden name was Reichek. She had met my daughter, who lives in that state. When she heard my daughter's last name, she was curious to know whether they were related. My daughter referred her to me in New Jersey. The woman had a pronounced Texas accent. She was astonished when I quickly asked her whether she was the daughter of Hyman Reichek in Houston. Indeed she was. Since her father and my grandfather were first cousins, I figured out that we were second cousins once removed.

I have occasionally been asked by people learning my name whether I am related to other Reicheks they have known. Usually the other Reichek turned out to be one of my uncles or first cousins. But the other Reicheks have included people I never heard of--a dancing teacher on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a kosher butcher in Brooklyn, and a Lubavitcher Hasidic rabbi in Los Angeles.

East European Jews were required to adopt surnames only in recent centuries. In most cases, they selected or were endowed with names based on their occupations, places of origin, parents' given names, and even their physical descriptions. The name Reichek doesn't fit any of these categories. I have been unable to determine its origins. But I have had a hint--not necessarily credible, however.

I was once invited to a reception at the Polish embassy in Washington. In conversation with a young diplomat, I told him that my father was born in Poland. When I mentioned my father's home town of Ostrow, near Lomza, he grinned mischievously. He explained that when he attended college in Warsaw, Ostrow was a favorite site for male students to "shack up" with their girl friends during weekends away from school. He obviously had very fond memories of Ostrow.

I saw a potential connection between the Polish diplomat's disclosure and my family name years later when I met a Czech writer at a literary cocktail party in New York. The writer was interested in hearing my last name and asked whether my family was of Czech origin. When I told him my father was born in Poland, he said the languages of the two countries were similar and volunteered that my name Reichek meant "little paradise" in his native tongue. His definition took on a special meaning when I recalled the young Polish diplomat's tender recollection of sexual liaisons in my father's home town.

I was able to get a confirmation of my family name's meaning from a neighbor who was born and raised in Poland. I asked him how to say "little paradise" in Polish. He paused for a moment, declaring that it was not a phrase that came up often in conversation. Then, thinking aloud, he stammered: "Rye, rye...check." Seeking additional confirmation, I found another Polish-speaking man who affirmed that Reichek did indeed mean "little paradise" in his native language.

Unfortunately, however, history shows that Poland was never exactly a paradise for the Jewish people living there. How my family was saddled with its name I will never know.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The myth of George Bush' s national security "leadership"

For months I have used my blog to criticize the Bush Administration's disastrous decision to invade Iraq and its subsequent mismanagement of the occupation. I have also argued that the Administration is wasting billions of dollars to deploy a ballistic missile defense system, which most prominent scientists believe is worthless, and to develop highly-advanced weapon systems whose requirement is questionable. Meanwhile, it has failed to sufficiently supply the troops in Iraq with such an obvious item as armor for military vehicles.

Growing numbers of top-level military officers, who are no longer on active service, are now confirming my argument about the Bush Administration's military blunders. For example, Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, the former director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week that he regrets not challenging the decision to invade Iraq "whose actions were peripheral to the real threat--Al Qaeda." He retired, he said, because he opposed "those who used 9/11's tragedy to hijack our security policy."

"A fundamentally flawed plan was executed for an invented war, while pursuing the real enemy, Al Qaeda, became a secondary effort," Gen. Newbold wrote in a Time Magazine essay. "We must never again stand by quietly while those ignorant of and casual about war lead us into another one [harking back to Vietnam] and then mismanage it."

Gen. Newbold's criticism is echoed by other high-ranking retired officers such as Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, who formerly led the military's Central Command, which was responsible for Middle East operations. These critics regard the Iraq invasion as a strategic mistake that took the focus off the real war on terrorism.

I claim no professional military expertise, unless I can take the liberty of citing my experience as an Army staff sergeant during World War II. But I have credentials that do give me some credibility to critique the Bush Administration and its disastrous decision to invade Iraq and its subsequent mismanagement of the occupation.

For a decade during the 1950s and early 1960s, I was a journalist specializing in defense affairs. I covered the Pentagon as a Business Week correspondent, reporting on Secretaries of Defense Charles Wilson, onetime CEO of General Motors; Neal McElroy, former CEO of Procter & Gamble; and Robert McNamara, onetime CEO of Ford Motor Co.

Donald Rumsfeld, the current Defense Secretary, was formerly CEO of G.D. Searle & Co., a major pharmaceutical company, and of General Instrument Co. His performance overseeing the operations in Iraq reinforces my belief that former CEOs of major corporations are not necessarily the best candidates to head the Pentagon. Perhaps the U.S. ought to emulate Israel, whose ministers of defense are invariably retired generals.

The greatest political irony of the past decade is that George W. Bush was elected twice to be President largely because he was viewed as being "strong on defense." Those who voted for him apparently regarded his opponents, Al Gore and John Kerry, both Vietnam war veterans (in contrast to Bush and his vice-president, Dick Cheney, both Vietnam draft-dodgers), as being "weak on defense." I never could figure out the basis for this foolish assumption.

In any event, our commander-in-chief has brought us to a situation in which young Army officers are leaving the service at a high rate, where recruitment of enlisted personnel is slowing, where increasing numbers of top brass are calling for Rumsfeld to resign as Defense Secretary, and our military capabilities have been seriously diminished. This is the record of a President who is "strong on defense"?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

In memory of Herb Rabinowitz

When I began this blog more than a year ago, I intended it to be simply a vehicle on which to post autobiographical ramblings and to sound off with my opinions on political and other current events. But I've sadly found another function: to memorialize people who have had important roles in my life. They are, like me, old guys and they are passing away.

Herb Rabinowitz, who died of a heart attack on April 7, at his home in Shrewsbury, N.J., would have been 82 later this month. He was my first cousin, my best friend, and the brother I never had. We grew up together, started school together, and maintained close contact with each other throughout our lives. Aside from my wife, no one knew me better than he did.

We shared the traumas of military service in wartime and the loss of young daughters. In each case, I found emotional support and an intimacy that only some one like Herb could provide. Herb was a longtime executive with Monsanto Co.'s Textile Division and later the executive director of the Knitted Textile Assn. During World War II he served with the 75th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge.

The best way to describe Herb is that he was fun to be with. His love of life and sense of humor was contagious. He was talented enough to have been a stand-up comedian. We both entered kindergarten at P.S. 64 in the Bronx the same day. I have always remembered that one of us threw up because of nervousness. For decades we jokingly argued whether he threw up or I did. Herb settled the argument at my 80th birthday party by reporting that we both threw up.

Herb's father, my Uncle George, was an ardent baseball fan. The only time that Herb ever disappointed his father was when he failed to share his father's enthusiasm for baseball. So when my uncle wanted to attend a game at Yankee Stadium when both Herb and I were young boys, my uncle would take me with him because Herb had no interest in going. Thanks to Herb, I attended lots of Yankee baseball games. My own father, who didn't know a baseball bat from a tennis racket and regarded sports as an alien activity, would never had taken me.

Herb and I maintained a great lifetime rivalry over who was more knowledgeable about minutiae and trivia, particularly on obscure matters dealing with geography. He very rarely failed to match my expertise.

Herb's death leaves a void in my life and in the lives of all who knew him. I was proud and fortunate to have had him as a cousin, friend and surrogate brother.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Looking for "good news" in Iraq when there is none

There is an almost pathetic quality to the complaint of the Bush Administration and its ardent supporters of the Iraq invasion that the media are failing to report the "good news" about the war. They fault the media for concentrating on the violence and the other 'bad news" emanating from Iraq. They even imply that there is some kind of media conspiracy to undermine our operations there.

What "good news" is there to report? Yes, we've promoted open parliamentary elections and the creation of a constitution in a country that has known only totalitarian rule. But after several months of political battling among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds--and more of the same between Shiite blocs--the Iraqis have yet to establish a stable government. And, yes, the U.S. forces have opened schools and medical clinics and are improving water, power and sanitation facilities. Many of those, of course, were damaged during the invasion.

But this "good news " is overshadowed by the communal chaos we have created. The death toll of Iraqi civilians and U.S. troops continues to increase and the country is on the brink of a full-scale civil war. The situation has deteriorated to the point where civilians in Baghdad are arming themselves for protection against death squads and gangs of thugs. There is evidence that members of private militias are infiltrating the ranks of the police and even the army. We want democracy in Iraq, but the failure to create a unity government suggests that the Iraqis don't seem to want it as much as we do.

President Bush has argued that we invaded Iraq as part of the general "war on terrorism."
He disregards the fact that, in the process, we have strengthened the strategic position of neighboring Iran, a belligerent regime that is a far more serious security threat to the U.S. than Saddam Hussein ever was.

When and if the U.S. ever decides that a more aggressive stance against Iran is justified, the Bush Administration's credibility has been badly weakened by its exaggerated claims in the past about Iraq. In short, the President has "spent his capital," which he keeps talking about, on an unnecessary war in Iraq. Moreover, the nation's military forces have been so badly stretched that our capability to take on Iran--if that is unhappily found necessary-- is seriously restricted.

Aside from the benefits that our potential enemy Iran has derived from the Iraq invasion, the war has also created a recruitment tool for anti-American jihadis and has antagonized much of the Muslim world whose friendship we so much want to win. So much for conducting the war on terrorism.

Senator John F. Kerry, who failed miserably to take a meaningful stance on Iraq in his unsuccessful run for the Presidency, has belatedly come up with a plan that makes some sense. He proposes that we set a deadline for Iraq's politicians to form an effective unity government. If the Iraqis fail to meet it, he wants American troops to withdraw.

If the Iraqis succeed in assembling a stable government, Kerry suggests another deadline: a schedule for withdrawing American combat forces by year's end. "Doing so will empower the new Iraqi leadership, put Iraqis in the position of running their own country and undermine support for the insurgency, which is fueled in large measure by the majority of Iraqis who want us to leave their country," Kerry said. "Only troops essential to finishing the job of training Iraqi forces should remain."

I can envisage "good news" in Iraq only when our forces withdraw from the quagmire that the Bush Administration has created.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The search for our family's ancestral home

The background of my mother's family, which migrated to the U.S. from Czarist Russia in 1903, differed markedly from that of the multitudes of other Jews fleeing Eastern Europe around the turn of the last century. Virtually all the other Jewish immigrants had lived in "shtetls"--the small towns memorialized in such stories as "Fiddler on the Roof"--or in the ghettos of such large cities as Warsaw,Vilnius, Lodz, Odessa, and Kiev.

My mother's family were rural people from what is now Belarus. During the half-century that my maternal grandmother lived in New York City, I don't think she ever really adjusted to urban life. Her family had lived on a mill located in the rich agricultural region that was and probably still is the bread basket of northwestern Russia. The family lived amidst the peasants who worked the land, processing their wheat and producing flour. They were completely isolated from the larger communities from which most other Russian Jewish immigrants came to America.

My grandmother claimed to have come from Minsk. What she meant, of course, was the province or "gubernia" of Minsk, not the metropolis of Minsk, the province's large capital city. Her family's mill was located in the boondocks, outside a tiny village she called Puzhets. That was apparently the village's Yiddish name. The official Belorussian name was Puchovichi.

Since Jews were barred from owning land, my grandmother's father, Moshe Aharon Tsivin, leased the land on which he operated his mill from a local nobleman. (My parents named me after him, Anglicizing the Hebrew names of Moshe and Aharon into Morton Arthur.) My grandmother always spoke respectfully about the "graf"--Yiddish for a count or baron--from whom her father leased the property.

My cousin, David Fox, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and an ardent genealogist, shares my fascination with what he has described as "the mill that all through my childhood was part of the family lore." Dave, whose mother is my first cousin, formerly headed the Jewish Genealogy Society's Belarus Special Interest Group.

Five years ago, he embarked on an ambitious project to locate and visit what had been the family's mill. His research uncovered a "1903 Minsk Gubernia Russian Business Directory." Assisted by a Russian translator, he found my great-grandfather, Moshe Aharon Tsivin, listed in it as a miller in Puchovichi.

Far more adventurous--and much younger and more physically fit--than I am, Dave flew from his Maryland home to Belarus, hired an English-speaking guide, and set out to find our forebear's mill. They visited several likely sites.

Writing in the genealogical society's online newsletter, he reported that in the first village visited, "We talked to all the old people [in the community]. Everyone was helpful and friendly. Although no Jews currently live in the village, which was formerly part of a noble's estate, they recalled the names of Jewish families that lived there before the Nazis rounded up all the Jews, and many of the Belorussians executed them in a nearby forest.

"The people broke down crying as they described what happened to their neighbors. Many fled to the east on foot, and others went into the forest to fight as partisans. The villagers remembered the name of the Jew who operated the mill in 1926. This was long after my [great-grandmother's father] emigrated to the U.S. It appears that there was a history of Jews leasing the mill from the noble who owned the estate in the area, including all the nearby villages."

The villagers gave Dave and his guide directions to a mill a few kilometers away. The mill looked relatively new. "It was definitely not the old mill we were looking for," Dave wrote. "We talked to an old man living in the only house near the new mill, and he pointed out a nearby old wooden building which he said was the former old mill that my [great-grandmother's father] leased. Apparently the river had changed its course, and the old mill was situated on a dry riverbank.

"Across the path from the old mill, now used as a storage building, was an old abandoned house. We can only speculate that this was the family home of [Moshe Aharon Tsivin], because of its proximity to the mill...but I felt convinced that we had located the mill that had been described in family stories as being at a cross roads, on the outskirts near a river or stream. The thrill of standing and looking at this old building, and knowing that my great-great grandparents worked there is impossible to adequately describe."

The abandoned old house was presumably the birthplace of both my mother and her brother, who was Dave's maternal grandfather.

Moshe Aharon had five sons and three daughters. He hired tutors to live with the family to educate the children at home. As a young girl, my grandmother would sit in on her older brothers' classes. She was thus exposed to lessons in the Hebrew language and the Torah. As a result, she became far more knowledgeable about religious matters than other Jewish girls of her generation.

When I studied Hebrew as a modern language in a public high school, I can now confess, she did much of my homework and was thrilled to be able to participate in my American schooling. She verbally translated the Hebrew that I was assigned to learn into Yiddish. I then translated her Yiddish into English and became an A student. But I doubt whether this procedure enhanced my knowledge of Hebrew.

Because of her childhood religious studies, she functioned as the matriarch of her Bronx synagogue. After the formal weekly Sabbath services were completed, I can recall that she assembled a group of at least a dozen old ladies, most of whom barely literate, to discuss Bible stories with them in Yiddish. I often wondered whether the rabbi ever challenged her role as a rival religous leader.

When my grandmother married, her husband joined her family at the mill. But there was a quota on the number of Jews who could live in the district. An informant eventually notified the authorities of my grandfather's presence. He was imprisoned, but was released after his father-in-law, the miller, bribed the police. Bankrolled by his father-in-law, he and his wife and children, including my mother, fled to Rotterdam in Holland, where they boarded a ship to take them to America, "the goldenah medina"--the golden land.

By this time, all Moshe Aharon's sons had left the mill. Three had preceded my grandmother to the U.S., where they simplified the family name from Tsivin to Sivin. Another son become a dentist in Gomel, a large city in Minsk province, and the eldest served in the Czarist army for some 20 years. The latter two also eventually came to the U.S.

When I was a young boy, the old soldier, who was a childless widower, would often visit my home. He would seat me on his lap and regale me in Yiddish with stories about fighting the "Turks" in "Kafcaz." I wish I had had a tape recorder to record his colorful tales. My great-uncle had served in the Russian wars against the Muslims in the Caucasus region, all of whom the Russians called "Turks." More than a century later, the Russians are still battling the Chechens and other Muslim peoples in the region.

Shortly before World War I began, Moshe Aharon's wife died, leaving the elderly man alone at the mill. He then belatedly followed his children to the U.S., where he lived with my grandmother until his own death.

Sadly, he has no male descendants who bear the Tsivin or Sivin name.

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