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Around the Jewish World for Argentine Friends, Roots Trip is Both Eye-opening and Unsettling

January 27, 2003
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“Every village has a place on the map and a story to be told. I invite you to discover yours.”

With that sentence, Monica Dawidowicz, a travel agent and Holocaust survivor, proposed a Jewish “roots” trip to Poland and Belarus for Argentine Jews eager to see where their ancestors lived.

While such trips are not uncommon for American Jews, they’re rare in Argentina — even more so since the country’s economic freefall, which reached a crisis level in December 2001, devastated the Jewish middle class.

Despite their economic difficulties, one group of seven friends found the proposal irresistible.

Fernando Lach, a retired architect, recalled the streets of Warsaw that his mother used to tell him about.

Years ago — when Lach, now 71, was studying at an industrial high school in Buenos Aires — his mother would describe Warsaw’s parks and the Jewish theaters were people used to eat gefilte fish at intermission.

Preparation for the roots trip was lengthy. Jewish tourists to Poland generally visit Minsk or Warsaw, or search for places connected to Chopin or Copernicus.

“But they have never asked to be guided in non-touristed small towns like Kossovo, Slonim, Bereze, Stuchin or Bialystock,” said Dawidowicz, who led the 10-day trip last fall. The group invited JTA to its first reunion after returning home.

The Argentines visited several concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek.

As it turned out, the ancestors of all eight participants hailed from the same area in what today is west Belarus, and before World War II was part of Poland.

Accompanied by local drivers, history teachers, tourist guides and translators, the group visited the shtetls that had been home to their forebears. On some of the visits they were outnumbered by their helpers.

Having studied their family histories, taken classes on Polish Jewish history and interviewed Belarussian officials in Argentina, members of the group thought they would have few surprises.

“We knew Jewish life there was killed and is today almost nonexistent,” Dawidowicz said.

“We knew that most of what we could find was commemorative plaques and monuments of where Jews lived and where Jews were killed.”

But once on the ground — surrounded by strangers and cemeteries, plaques of destroyed Jewish synagogues and street names that sounded so familiar — members of the group admitted that they felt shocked.

“Before departure, friends and relatives didn’t know if they should wish me a happy trip or condolences,” said Dora Rubinstein, 74.

Her friends had asked Raquel Meschiany de Sirota, 72, why she was going to the region if there was so little Jewish life left there.

“Just to stand up over the clod were my parents were is enough,” she responded. But in the end, she said, “reality was much stronger than my expectations.”

The group visited the woods in Kossovo were Jews were killed and then buried in common graves. Meschiany de Sirota’s aunt Sonia Jablonka — an Auschwitz survivor who lives in Argentina — always had told her about a castle were Meschiany de Sirota’s grandfather was hidden. The local guide showed them the castle, and told the same story of a man hidden there.

For Lach, the trip helped turn stories into reality: He brought back a photo of a sign for Smocza Street, a place that figured frequently in his mother’s stories.

One of the Jews the group met was an 80-year-old watchman at Krakow’s synagogue, who was a Schindler’s list survivor.

Rubinstein and Meschiany de Sirota said their parents would never have dreamed of returning to Bereze and Kossovo after the suffering they experienced there.

But “this generation is different,” Dawidowicz said. “Not only Jews, but also Italians, Spaniards and others are trying to rescue their roots.”

Members of the group stressed that Jewish monuments in the region seemed well cared for, and that they could see the beginnings of a Jewish revival.

Local Jews also “are seeking their Jewish roots, which long were hidden even from themselves,” Dawidowicz said. “It’s very different from Jewish life before World War II, but it’s something.”

The trip brought the group of friends closer. But they still argue — even over points as inconsequential as whether the tourist guide on their trip was from Lodz or Warsaw.

They reach no consensus, but members of the group don’t give up the discussion: They’re the kind of people that cares about the truth.

That’s also why they undertook the roots trip in the first place — to find answers to who they are.

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