What is it in the heart and soul in a human being that pulls him so to the root?
Article by: Tasha Ackerman
This question stays present in the mind of Debra Brunner after Mildred Moskowitz Sellen’s story landed in her inbox. Two days after speaking at a Virtual New Year’s Eve event hosted by Jewish Majorca, Debra was contacted by Mildred’s daughter, Bebe Sellen Fallick. After hearing Debra speak, Bebe reached out to learn more about The Together Plan and for any information about her mother’s hometown that Debra may be able to share. Several months later, Bebe began sharing, via email, her mother’s emigration story from Minsk after World War I with her family, and she included Debra in their correspondence.
Over the next few months, Bebe shared more and more of her mother’s story. Debra was always eager for new insights and snapshots of Mildred’s life that began to weave together. Six months later, Bebe shared Musings by Mildred Sellen Moskowitz with Debra. It felt like she had been gifted a rare gem. Debra’s mission with The Together Plan since its founding in 2013 was to bring together community by recognising the history of Belarusian Jews. Every story that is shared with the Together Plan is like a photograph in a family album, helping us to honour our ancestors and provide a base for future generations to draw inspiration from. Knowing our past gives us a stronger sense of identity. Connecting past, present, and future is restorative.
When Musings By Mildred appeared in her inbox, Debra thought of all of the people within her network and beyond that could connect with Mildred’s story. Individuals and relatives of those who had also fled from Minsk and surrounding areas. Displaced families yearning for the remembrance of home, and for all those who care to preserve history through the memory of people that survived war and of those we lost.
Mildred Moskowitz Sellen relocated to the United States when she was 18 years old, leaving her home in Baranovich. The territory which is now considered part of Belarus, had begun as part of the Russian Empire in her childhood. It was then brought under German control during WW1, and was then fought over between the Poles and Bolsheviks following the war. Baranovich under Polish control created economic turmoil, food scarcity, and an unhopeful future.
Mildred arrived in New York in 1920 fluent in Yiddish, Polish, Russian, German, and some Hebrew, but English would be a new challenge that she would endeavour to master almost completely on her own. On one sleepless night in 1975, 55 years after Mildred had arrived in this new country and began learning a new language, she writes this letter to her daughter that outlined her journey. It reads as an homage to her homeland and an investigation into how one’s identity is intrinsically intertwined with their roots.
Mildred begins: “Baranowitz, my hometown, place of my birth. How vivid it is in my memory, and how I yearn to see it once more in my lifetime. What is it in the heart and soul in a human being that pulls him so to the roots?”
What is it in the heart and soul in a human being that pulls him so to the roots? In Mildred’s musings, she not only recalls the political-geographic significance of the town she grew up in with the war and historical events that occurred, but she also recalls her memories, what makes a city or neighbourhood a home, rather than just a series of streets and buildings.
Before World War I, Mildred describes Baranovich as a city-town where Jewish women dressed in custom-made Parisian dresses and enjoyed wide streets with land suitable to raise cattle. Her tone shifts when she begins to describe the shtetl, which she introduces by stating, “that’s a different tale of woe.” Shtetl is the Yiddish term used to describe Eastern European, post-WW1 towns that had large Yiddish-speaking populations and where Jewish people lived in very close-knit communities.
In the WW1 era of the Baranovich shtetl, Midred recalls that “they considered life in exile temporary and dreamed of a messianic miracle that would come any day and bring them back to the Holy Land, Israel.” She remembers that her very religious and mostly poor neighbours were tailors, shoemakers, dairymen, carpenters, butchers, peddlers, and shopkeepers. She remembers that most Jewish children could not attend school or university in the antisemitic city, but despite this form of discrimination, children were educated in private Jewish schools.
Despite the despair that Mildred remembered of her hometown, her astoundment for Shabbat weaves a glimmer into her memories of this era of her life. With a large family of 12, chicken might be considered a luxury. Yet, the mystical sunset on Fridays demonstrates how traditions and community keep hope alive within the human spirit.
Mildred writes: “Who can describe the spiritual experience of Shabbos? A holiness descended on the shtetl, all the worries and fear seemed to disappear like magic and Friday night supper, the silver candlestick shining, a decanter of wine at my Father’s seat, and a challah in the centre.”
She shares memories of playing in the forest with cousins and dreaming of a future that would soon unfold in an unimaginable way.
Mildred’s story continues as war changes her hometown as she knew it. Living through a war means changing borders which creates changes in the currency and governmental authority, all causing a consistent cycle of food scarcity, poverty, and hunger. In her story, Mildred tracks her journey from Baranovich, Warsaw, and to Gdansk where she takes a 21-day ship ride to Ellis Island to be reunited with her sister in the United States. The US would become her home for the rest of her life, where she would raise her daughter and become a grandmother.
Mildred’s story raises the question: How can a place that is associated with so much pain and loss still hold the significance of and yearning for home?
This question is at the root of what we do at The Together Plan. We hold these stories with the utmost respect, honouring that the truth of the stories resides within the complexity of the emotions we hold around the narratives that define us. That together, these stories keep our history alive. With pain, there is beauty. With woe, there is magic. And where our roots are, there is home.
To read about Jewish Baranovichi/Baranowitz click here
To find out more about the history of Baranovichi/Baranowitz, with archive images, click here