My name is Maeve Silver and I am a volunteer for The Together Plan (TTP). I’ve been with the charity for just over two years now which I can’t believe! Where has the time gone?! I’ve learnt so much on my journey with TTP and I’m very proud of how this experience has changed me and my perspective on history and on identity.
I began by coming into the office in Bushey every Thursday for a few hours, helping Debra Brunner, TTP’s CEO with odd jobs. I was so excited when she asked me to create a booklet, with Abi Brunner, about some of the history of Jewish Belarus for those who were going to be travelling on the Trailblazing trip back in 2019. I also worked on Zoymen 2020, TTP’s virtual conference, and am part of the Zoymen 2021 team! We are all very much looking forward to the October event which will bring even more people together. So many more stories will be told. The Together Plan’s Youth for Youth movement (17-30-year-olds) has developed tremendously throughout the past year, even more so due to the COVID-19 pandemic. People took to Zoom and we’ve been able to work internationally with our members which has been brilliant. I’ve also become part of the Archive Services team, which is a phenomenal service that TTP offers in order to reunite people with their Belarusian Jewish heritage.
My work with The Together Plan has really, in a sense, rescued me and has filled a void in my life that I don’t really talk much about. I joined at a time where I didn’t entirely know where I was going or what I was doing. I was in the middle of my ‘three gap years’ and I was waiting for something thrilling to happen. I wasn’t yet ready to go to university at this point. I was waiting for a plan and for a bit of certainty.
I had heard of The Together Plan through my aunt’s friend, and I travelled to Bushey to meet Debra for the first time. I think about that day a lot and I was both shocked and enlightened when she sat me down and told me about Jewish Belarus, its history and the immense work that was waiting to be done. I was already buzzing and I was delighted when she asked me to join and be a part of the charity. Something about Belarus really resonated with me, and at that moment in time, I didn’t understand what it was.
TTP came into my life at a time where I was really struggling with my identity. At that time, I was waiting for some results from a DNA site as I had decided that it was finally time to learn about my paternal ancestry. I don’t know my father as he is an anonymous sperm donor, but I do know that my dad is a very good, decent and generous man. It’s because of him that over twenty children are living now! He gave my mum what she always wanted… And I have spent the last two years getting to know two of my half-siblings!
I’ve struggled to come to terms with the reality of never having him in my life and that I wouldn’t entirely know who half of me was. My DNA test revealed that I’m part-Irish which was a pleasant surprise! It was great to put together the pieces of the puzzle that were there, inside me, the entire time. Also revealed were my Jewish roots and there they were on paper!… The Goronofskys, the Lurias, the Mininskys, the Dyches, the Silversteins, the Galvins and the Mednitskys, who came to the East End of London to escape persecution from Lithuania, Latvia and Poland… all members of my family.
Why am I writing all of this? What’s it got to do with Jewish Belarus? I’ll get to that! I want to tell you about what happened to me on the 22nd March this year that changed my perspective even more…
When I met Debra back in 2019 for the very first time, she showed me a wonderful video from 2018 of that year’s summer programme, Zoymen, (’Zoymen’, means ‘seed’ in Yiddish and so the themes for the programme were growth and personal development). As part of that week in the summer of 2018, one of the Belarusian members of Youth for Youth had his Bar-Mitzvah outside of the Great Synagogue of Slonim. It was all made possible by The Together Plan. This was the first Bar-Mitzvah in Slonim in eighty years! It was a huge deal. I was absolutely enticed immediately, and so my relationship with this important work was born. But what was making me so interested in Belarus? Why had I become so driven and the most focused I’d been in a long time?
Well, I received the long-awaited answer to these questions several weeks ago on the 22nd March. My grandma had been looking through some dusty boxes and fished out an old folder from one of them. She left it on the side for me to look through and see if I could find anything particularly interesting. This grey folder was thick and heavy and had in it many sheets of paper and numerous forms. On a few of these forms was some information on some of my ancestors from Poland, Lithuania and Latvia… nothing I hadn’t seen before… until…
There was this one booklet sticking out of it that was titled ‘SLONIM’…
Eh? Why did we have something Belarus-related in our house? It had never been confirmed that we had Belarusian ancestors who would have made the long and tiring journey from there to East London, like so many other Jewish refugees. I’d wondered if my Mininsky ancestors, who we knew were Polish, had originally come from Minsk, and got their surname from that place (which was very common), but we had no written evidence to support this.
My eyes darted to the top left corner of this booklet to some words that were written in red… in my grandma’s handwriting… ‘Where Hyman Yitzchak Luria was born’…
Hold on a minute. I had heard of that name before. I’d looked at photos of Hyman, my great-great-great-grandfather, in his top hat, when researching my family history for a year-seven project at the age of eleven. I had nicknamed him the ‘relative with the cool top hat!’ If these newly-found records are accurate and correct, Hyman Yitzchak Luria was born in Slonim in 1828. Back in 1828, Slonim was part of the Russian Empire, but in the inter-war years, it had become part of Poland. More specifically, the papers say he was from Derechin, Slonim. He was a teacher… (or perhaps a Rabbi?… as ‘Rabbi’ literally translates as ‘teacher’)… He passed away many moons later at the age of ninety-seven in Bethnal Green in 1925.
This felt, and still feels surreal. I feel even more connected to Belarus. I don’t mind telling you that I had a bit of a cry (a happy cry!) that lasted for quite some time! I also struggled to sleep that night as this was occupying my thoughts. There were (and still are) so many questions dancing around in my head, trying to find answers.
Was there some divine explanation for this? Was I always meant to cross paths with this charity in order to find these hidden clues? Was this the key to me finding out so much more?
That hauntingly beautiful synagogue that towers over Slonim, which can be seen for miles, was the first thing that I learned about when I became a member of The Together Plan and started my journey with them. To me, it is a major symbol. I did not know this at the time, but this synagogue was very significant. Perhaps Hyman had his Bar-Mitzvah where the Youth for Youth members stood in the video, looking up at the dilapidated walls and windows…
… I often stop and wonder what my late mum would have said. She has sadly been gone for a while now but I know this would have made her so proud and so fascinated. She was a lover of history like me and she also studied it at university. Maybe that’s her lasting gift to me! I’ve spent some time focusing on the Jewish history of Slonim… which has made me so shocked and sad. It once had quite a thriving Jewish community and a significant population. The Great Synagogue that I mentioned above was built in the year 1642 and has peered down at the pogroms and the Shoah in which thousands of Slonim’s Jews were massacred. Its four walls have witnessed so much.
Debra and I had a really meaningful conversation a few weeks ago about how Jewish people lived in Belarus which has always been subject to changing borders and has a rich and tragic Jewish history. It was at the heart of the Pale of Settlement and was part of the Grand-Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. Its borders changed many times. It was also part of the Russian Empire… and whilst this history has been happening, Jews have always been there to live it. How would life have been changing for them? I’ve been reading about the Pale of Settlement in which Jews were controlled, segregated and kept strictly in one place. If you wanted to leave that area (Belarus, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania), you would have to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church.
It is very unnerving to read and learn about how Jews were blamed for the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II by his heir Tsar Alexander III who, like his father, implemented harsh discriminatory policies against the Jews. A series of anti-Jewish pogroms and attacks were the result of his scapegoating. Jews were useful because they could be blamed. And so roughly 2.5 million Jews emigrated from the Russian Empire to Western Europe and to the United States. This was the largest ever mass emigration.
My grandma told me about how her maternal grandma, Rebecca, who was Hyman’s daughter, made the long and exhausting journey to the East End of London with her husband Solomon. When their ship docked in Tilbury, they were told that they were in the United States! Lots of Jewish people had this experience of being convinced they were in America, ready for a new chapter in a great and growing country. But we are so grateful that they got off the boat and made a new life in the UK.
To honour them, my aunt, Sharon Ruth Silver-Myer, is named after them. They are her great-grandparents… (Solomon = Sharon and Rebecca = Ruth).
It’s amazing to look back at your hundreds of ancestors and at how tiny the chances are that you are even here. If one ancestor hadn’t met their husband or wife, or hadn’t moved to this village or that shtetl and who hadn’t had their children that you descend from, how likely is it that you would even be here? What if Rebecca and her husband Solomon had been on a boat that crossed the Atlantic to New York? My family and I wouldn’t be here. So I am actually thankful to the crooks who brought them to London.
Another Jewish person who was born in Slonim was none other than Michael Marks who, with Thomas Spencer, founded the British retail chain Marks & Spencer. He came to England in 1882 and moved to Leeds. He came when many other Jews did. How many people know about this every time they go there for their shopping?!
I also learnt about how a lot of Jews died early but my great-great-great-grandfather, Hyman, lived to ninety-seven! Debra and I touched upon how wonderful it is that when a person dies, someone else is born, perhaps at the same moment, and they start this beautifully cyclical process of living. It’s a lovely aspect of the Jewish story.
The Together Plan made a connection to Sam Webb (born Shlomo Wabnik) when he returned to Brest (his place of birth) in 2019, and helped him to discover more about his family records. He made this journey after eighty-two years of living in Melbourne, Australia. Sam was born in 1925 and this struck a chord as this was the year that Hyman died. When one life finishes, another starts. You can find two videos on TTP’s YouTube account about Sam’s return visit and another of Sam telling his story. He reminds us that connecting to your past is vitally important. Maybe we can say that Sam lives for the 30,000 Jews who were murdered in Brest. The video of him returning to the courtyard of his childhood makes me want to go to Slonim for a cathartic journey in honour of Hyman. My family wants to make a trip of it.
Finding out I was Irish was thrilling but this was something else. I don’t struggle with my identity anymore. I don’t feel like half a person now and my trauma is slowly fading to dust. But this trauma is collective, and so many Jews from Belarus and beyond are suffering from it. We need to address this and start the healing process. My personal healing has come about because I crossed paths with TTP and learnt valuable skills and lessons along the way. I have met so many talented, dedicated and generous people too. It’s almost like it was always meant to be… like some divine passing and I was (thankfully!) caught in a moment in time.
I’m actually getting myself ready to go and study History at Swansea University this September. It is my hope that my studying will finish this mental mending and that I’ll connect even more to the family who were left behind in Belarus. I said before that I am now a member of the Archive Service team, and I am so excited to fall down the rabbit hole! The team works so hard to give people the valuable keys to countless locked doors. It’s so deep to comprehend but it’s true. Under every stone, in every field, in Belarus you will find Jewish history. It is buried in the soil.
Debra once said to me, “We haven’t even made a dent yet”.
I always wonder what my great-great-great-grandfather, Hyman, would have said about the work of The Together Plan, and about my discovery of his shadowed past which has for so long been neglected and forgotten with the threat of being lost forever. I’m sure he’d be relieved and proud to be given back his voice.
His presence will forever be perennial.
I feel like my work with The Together Plan has brought my family home, as we’ve flicked back through some of the pages of our ancestors’ story, our story, to when we were living in Slonim. We’ve added ink to the fading words. It is true when they say that you can feel like you are a part of a place you haven’t even been to, and you can know the dead without meeting them. I said to my grandma that whilst I’ve been with The Together Plan, I have seen familiar faces and have wandered up familiar streets.
I didn’t think the Luria ancestors were from Belarus. I didn’t even wonder. As I’ve mentioned, I thought the Mininskys could have been. They eventually started a new life in England and changed their surname to Mayne (my grandma’s maiden name) so they could ‘fit in’ here. Could Mininsky have been a play on ‘Minsk?’ Quite possibly, although we can’t prove this… yet… but to know for sure that we come from Belarus through the Luria name, is very important to me.
If Jewish Belarus is to emerge even more from this small, dark corner that it occupies right now, we need more and more people to come forward with their stories, so that we can bring back life to our ancestors. If there is one thing that I have learned from this groundbreaking charity, it is that our world is a street and not very big!
As we emerge from COVID-19, things will return to how they were but not completely. The world is an infinitely different place now. We have to change with it and move forward this important work to revive these lost memories. The pandemic brought us all closer together as life became virtual. Let’s all work together now that we are more connected.
I look forward to the day where I will be able to wander out of my home and see familiar faces, in familiar streets….. and when I get there, I will be telling them about this story.
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But wait – there’s more…I have just discovered the name of Hyman’s father… Moshe Luria who is my great-great-great-great-grandfather! Oy! And….. lookout for the next blog! There is more, lots more…