Peres Pays a Nostalgic Visit to His Birthplace in Belarus

Shimon Peres made a nostalgic trip back to his birthplace here this week, a town of 450 souls about 55 miles from Minsk.

Obviously touched and excited, the Israeli foreign minister told the villagers that he could still remember the smell of the nearby woods and the sight of the river bank near the town he had left 58 years ago at the age of 11.

Many of the townspeople had only a hazy idea of who he is. An old woman, upon being told that Peres is a “minister from Israel,” said, “Oh, that’s good! He’s welcome here.”

Peres told the villagers that before the war, 1,400 Jews lived in Vishnevo — and hardly any Christians. Half the Jews, he said, went to Israel. The other half, among them Peres’ own grandparents, stayed behind and were killed by the Nazis.

Today, the villagers told Peres, there is only one Jewish family in Vishnevo, and that family came after the war.

Peres arrived here Aug. 23 after completing the first official visit of an Israeli foreign minister to Russia. While the visit was deemed an important diplomatic success by Israeli officials, it was marred by a few small mishaps.

For one, the visit attracted little attention in either the Russian or the Israeli press, because it coincided with the first anniversary of the attempted coup in Moscow and immediately preceded the resumption of the Middle East peace talks in Washington.

Peres did not meet with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Nor did he meet with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, as he had wanted to do. The Israeli Embassy in Moscow advised against a meeting with Gorbachev during the coup anniversary, according to a diplomatic source.

Peres did meet the Russian foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, who surprised his Israeli guests by declining to sign a largely symbolic memorandum of understanding. It may instead be signed when Peres and Kozyrev meet at the United Nations in New York next month.

A LAVISH LUNCH OUTSIDE MINSK

Peres also met Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and the vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, who kept him waiting for 55 minutes and failed to apologize. Rutskoi paid a visit to Israel earlier this year.

Peres also met with senior Belarussian officials in Minsk. Among the issues discussed were the establishment of direct flights between Minsk and Tel Aviv, a program to send kibbutz teams to Belarus to teach Israeli agricultural methods and trade deals involving potash and pharmaceuticals.

Foreign Minister Pyotr Kravchenko, who visited Israel in May, hosted a lavish lunch for Peres at a government dacha outside Minsk.

Among the guests were Belarussian intellectuals, including an 85-year-old Jewish sculptor, Zair Azgur, whom Peres visited at his studio before the lunch.

Another guest was the chief rabbi of Belarus, 25-year-old Yitzchok Wolpin, born in Monsey, N.Y., who politely refused the temptation of gefilte fish and a broth with tiny knaydlach because they were non-kosher.

Afterward, on his way to Vishnevo, the foreign minister’s 13-car motorcade passed through the nearby town of Valozhin, his parents’ birthplace. In the cemetery there, Peres found the graves of two members of his father’s family, which then went by the name Persky.

As he said Kaddish, an 8-year-old boy standing nearby exclaimed to his mother: “They are all Jewish, and they have Jewish mamas, too.”

‘TAUGHT ME TALMUD AND TOLSTOY’

A few minutes later, Peres shook hands with the boy, named Etan, one of the 20 to 25 Jews living in Valozhin.

Etan’s grandfather was born there, and he pointed the way to a house he said was once owned by the family of Peres’ mother. But when Peres came to the house, an old babushka could not say who lived there in the past.

“And what would the director be wanting?” she asked respectfully.

He had better luck at the town bakery, which once was the site of a yeshiva. “Do you know what this was?” Peres asked the women who worked there.

“Of course,” said a local woman. “It was a rabbi school. Our parents told us.” Built in 1806, the yeshiva was burned down by the Nazis.

But the highlight of the foreign minister’s visit to Belarus was Vishnevo. After walking up and down the village’s main street, Peres finally found what he was looking for.

“This was my grandfather’s house, where he taught me Talmud and Tolstoy,” he said, pointing to a blue wooden house. “Over there was my parents’ house; the Nazis burned it.”

After so many years he could not be completely sure. What convinced him was the well between the two houses, which he remembered from childhood.

With him was Foreign Minister Kravchenko. The Belarussian turned the wheel, pulled up a bucket and offered Peres a drink of water he had not tasted in 58 years.

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