Seeking Roots in Chernobyl's Shadow

I heard the news the other day: Fourteen-plus years after the big explosion, the last of the nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl complex was finally going to be shuttered. The global media reprised stories of the catastrophe. But I thought of my town. That would be Starobin, the village of my ancestors.

Poor Starobin. Located in a region known from antiquity as White Russia, or Belarus, it has missed few of the calamities that afflicted this patch of the world in the 20th century. Its agriculture was forcibly collectivized after Belarus was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1917. During World War II, the Nazis massacred its Jews and shipped its girls to German labor camps.

And then Chernobyl. It was a fluke. Chernobyl lies in Ukraine, to the south, on the border with Belarus, but the winds blew north when the reactor exploded on Apr. 26, 1986. Starobin, and Belarus, will suffer the consequences long after the last reactor is shut down. I had visited Starobin twice before--in 1994 and 1998--and recently decided to make a third trip, with Leslie, my sister. This time, I wanted to visit a rest-and-treatment center for Belarussian children suffering from radiation exposure from Chernobyl. And there is always the draw of my family's past--a past I have grown increasingly absorbed in exploring, along with the history of Starobin itself.

A village of 6,000 or so, Starobin is a 90-minute drive south of Minsk. But it's another world. Minsk is a big city, the capital of Belarus, which became an independent state after the Soviet Union expired in 1991. Starobin is countryside. As Minsk recedes, drivers have to start watching out for horse-drawn carts along the shoulder of the road. In Starobin itself, the favorite mode of transportation is the bicycle.

BELCHING SMOKE. Visitors are welcomed by the Starobin lady--a kind of Mother Earth hospitality statue, fashioned of local stone. Her outstretched arms offer bread and salt to the weary traveler. The village is a collection of ramshackle wooden cottages, most with no indoor plumbing, and of cheaply constructed Soviet-style concrete apartment blocks. Chickens and the occasional cow wander the dusty streets, some unpaved. Smoke belches from the peat-processing plant, the town's main employer. The River Slutch skirts Starobin, and to the south runs a nearly unbroken forest stretching for 100 miles to the border with Ukraine. The clouds in these parts aren't like those in my native Worcester, Mass.: They're bigger, puffier, and lower--ever suggestive of rain. And it does rain a lot here.

I don't know much about my own family's story. That's my own fault, since I was never particularly curious until I reached my late 30s, by which time my Zadi, my father's father, was dead. Leslie used to talk to Zadi about the Old World, though. We know that Zadi, a tailor, came to America from Lithuania in 1921, at age 27. He didn't talk much about his own parents, to anyone, but he once told my dad that his father, Simon, my great-grandfather, hailed from Starobin. Just when Simon left the village, we don't know.

One reason I first headed down to Starobin six years ago was to see if I could fill in some of this sketchy past. I was also propelled, although I only dimly sensed this at the time, by a kind of midlife identity quest. There are lots of places to seek a wider grounding for personal identity. Why not search in a patch of ancestral ground? Perhaps I was just looking for an alternative to suburban Worcester, an environment I came to find alienating. I was intrigued, in any event, by the idea of identity as a particular physical spot--a solid, unambiguous connection in a world that often affords few.

THYROID CANCER. Leslie and I drove down from Minsk with Viktor, a medical student I've known for a few years now. His father, Vasily, was Starobin's mayor through the 1990s. Vasily has supplied me with no fewer than three possible versions of how Starobin acquired its name, in 1646. My favorite comes from an old book of Belarussian folk legends. ''There lived a man, and he had a son who was so experienced and smart that everyone called him Starobin,'' the tale begins. According to this story, Starobin can be translated from the Belarussian to mean, ''to complete 100 deeds.''

Our first stop was the sanitarium for the Chernobyl children, just across the lazily flowing Slutch. In Russian the place is called Zeloni Bor (''green forest''). Dug out of a pine-and-birch grove, it used to be a camp for Soviet youth pioneers. The children, 6 to 16, look healthy. But they are suffering, in some cases, from direct radiation poisoning. Among those who were born after the accident, there are numerous inherited diseases. Thyroid cancer is a particular danger.

Nobody knows how their offspring, the children of Chernobyl's children, will fare. These children--nearly 400 at any given time--come to the center for stays of almost a month, receiving treatments including herbal drinks and massages with special salts. Everyone gets a manual of dietary tips: eat fiber-rich products such as pearl-barley porridge to purge radioactive substances in the alimentary canal. ''The children don't understand how sick they are,'' a pediatrician told us. ''And maybe that's for the better.'' Life at Zeloni Bor isn't all medical drudgery. There's a disco room, a swimming pool, a soccer field. As much as anything else, the idea is to give the kids a break. The center is supported entirely by the state, with an annual budget of $525,000.

Leslie and I drove on to see my favorite feature of Starobin: the goats. For as long as folks here can remember, there has been a communal goat herd in Starobin. The animals look like innocent rascals in their coats of white and their stringy beards. They're kept mostly by the older people in town, one or two to a household, and everybody who owns one takes a turn with the shepherding. Each morning, they're led out to pasture by the Slutch. There the herd spends the day in grassy languor. In the evening the goats are brought home for milking. Each doe yields two to three liters a day; this is a prime source of nutrition for the community.

TORAH SCHOLARS. Thus does Starobin, so ill tended by the outside world, take care of itself. It has to keep doing so, because independence from the Soviet Union has done little to improve conditions. The Starobin peat plant, like all other energy companies in Belarus, is a state enterprise. Its 400 workers receive a salary of just over $100 per month, plus a company apartment for which they pay a token monthly rent of about $1.50.

We headed back to Minsk--no hotels in Starobin--and returned the next morning to explore the Jewish part of Starobin's history. Our first stop was an abandoned Jewish cemetery, where mossy gravestones lay toppled in a field of grass and pines dotted with wild mushrooms and strawberries. It's conceivable that a relative of ours, a Starobin, is buried here, but we can't tell, because the Hebrew lettering on the stones isn't legible.

Starobin was once mostly Jewish. This we do know. A census taken in 1897 recorded 1,494 Jews in a total population of 2,315 people. According to a rabbi's chronicle, written after the Holocaust and translated from the Yiddish by my Uncle Sidney, turn-of-the-century Starobin was known far and wide for the excellence of its Torah scholars. Starobin's Jews were shoemakers, tailors, and grocers--typical trades for East European Jews--and also something befitting their rural station: They were cucumber growers. They planted large gardens of them, and after the harvest the dried seeds, packed in 40-pound bags, fetched 30 or 40 rubles from traveling Russian merchants--not a lot of money, but enough to eke out an existence.

The Jews lived in peace with, if mostly apart from, the Gentiles. But the Russian Revolution divided Starobin's Jews. Some were among the Bolshevik activists who Sovietized the town and then joined the Red Army to fight in the Civil War against the White Guard forces. Many others simply left for good.

NAZI MASSACRE. Well that they did. On the outskirts of town, just down the road from the Starobin Lady, is a monument that commemorates the Nazi massacre of the town's Jews. I took Leslie there for a look. The memorial was erected in 1967 by the Soviet government of Belarus--not out of any particular sympathy for the Jews, but as a propaganda symbol to remind the town of the fascist brutality that had nearly destroyed the Soviet Union. ''In memory of those who gave their lives for the Motherland,'' the inscription reads.

I heard the story of the massacre on my first visit to Starobin, six years ago, from an eyewitness, an elderly woman named Trushinskya. The Germans arrived in Starobin just days after their invasion of Belarus in June, 1941. With help from local collaborators, the soldiers lined up the town's Jews, as many as 1,000 men, women, and children, and had them dig a pit. Then the victims were lined up and shot, the bodies shoveled into the hole and covered with sand. A botched job: The sand, Trushinskya said, moved for three days.

Among those murdered that day was one Chaim Starobin. A relative? Could be. Trushinskya knew him. Chaim was a feeble old man in his 70s, and when the Nazis came to his house, they found him in bed. Just kill me here, he told the soldiers, and they did. Trushinskya heard about this from a clergyman who lived in a room of the Starobin house, and she had seen the body herself. Trushinskya also told me that others in town, including her own family, risked their lives in a futile effort to hide their Jewish friends. In any event, many sons of Starobin were to die fighting the Germans. Their deaths are commemorated in a separate memorial, up the road from the one for the Jewish massacre.

Town residents are a bit guarded about all of this. But just before Leslie and I left Starobin this past summer, Vasily gave us a surprise. He said he had been told by town elders about an old building, now a warehouse for a furniture factory, that at the turn of the last century housed a flour mill owned by a family of Jewish Starobins. We drove out to the building and poked around. Hmm. The brick looked pretty old. But the present owners couldn't find records of any previous proprietors. There's probably no way of ever telling for sure whether this place was occupied by Jewish Starobins, much less flesh-and-blood relatives.

So it goes with roots searches. Mine, at least, is more like an archaeological dig--the recovery of various buried shards of intriguing but indeterminate origin. I can live with that. I can't say that I have found my identity here; in fact, the questing impulse that led me here has ebbed. But Starobin stills exerts a powerful and personal draw. The tragic elements, from the Jewish massacre to the Chernobyl children, pierce me in a way that my native Massachusetts never has. And then there is the deep, timeless beauty of the tranquil aspects. A gentle river. Brooding clouds. Wild strawberries. And the goats. I have this fantasy about going to live there someday. Well, maybe for six months. With a goat or two. Starobin, I'll be back.

Starobin is BUSINESS WEEK's Moscow bureau chief. Leslie Starobin is a fine-arts photographer in Needham, Mass.

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Seeking Roots in Chernobyl's Shadow

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