My visit to Noviye Mlini, Chernigov Gubernia, Ukraine
May 2007

by Joshua Buch

former synagogue
Former synagogue in Noviye Mlini, Chernigov Gubernia
The Aron Kodesk (the Holy Ark) was taken out of the building and now it is the entrance.

 

Background of the trip

Let me state right at the beginning that I wish my trip was a bit longer. It was too short. Regardless, it was an amazing very fulfilling experience.

Unbeknown to me, three of my cousins (Aviva, Menachem , and Nadav Kaplan) living in Israel planned to visit Noviye Mlini, the birth village of our mothers in Chernigov Guberniya, in the Ukraine. They also planned to visit Bobroisk, their father’s birth town in Belarus (one of their cousins on their father’s side was also going with them, David Margolin).   Their plan was to fly to Kiev, stay there one night, than going to Chernigov town for two nights and from there, to cross to Belarus for two nights.

When my brother (Udi Buch, also living in Israel) and I (living in Philadelphia) heard of the planned trip we immediately decided to join our cousins. It was one of the most amazing unforgettable experiences of my life.

Five grandchildren of Alexander Siskind Schreier (ages 62-73) walked for several hours in the unpaved streets of the village of Noviye Mlini singing his Friday evening Zmirot (Hasadik songs).  The last time a member of our family lived there and sang these songs was in 1923.  Our mothers were born there in 1912 and 1914, and our grandfather was also born there, in 1873. 

We sang out loud: "Tzur Tzur Tzur Mishelo Achalnu..." and "Yoribon Olam VeOlmaya, Veolmaaa" and a few other songs.  If any one of you reading this saga is familiar with these songs, please let me know. 

A distant relative of mine, Susan, visited our family village of Noviye Mlini in the early 1990s, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She sent me pictures and some information. I knew from Susan that I should stay overnight in the city of Chernigov and drive to Noviye Mlini. She told me that they had been unable to cross the Desna River from Sosnitz to Noviye Mlini because the ferry was not functioning. It took them about two extra hours to find a place to cross. Susan also told me that there was no Jewish cemetery in Noviye Mlini and that the nearest Jewish cemetery was most likely in Sosnitz.

I then begun to figure out how we would drive from Chernigov City to Noviye Mlini and sent many e-mails based a numerous web searches. This is how I discovered the Chernigov Jewish Genealogy Group. I was asking questions about the crossing of the Desna near Sosnitz and the cemetery in Sosnitz. I also mentioned that I am looking for the Schreier family from Noviye Mlini. My e-mail communication resulted with the following:

  • No one was able to help me with information about the crossing of the Desna. I tried to communicate with the town of Sosnitz itself but was not able to find out how we would cross the Desna. The relatively good map I had showed a road that crossed from Sosnitz to Noniye Mlini, however, Susan's story bothered me a lot. (We took a chance and found out that there was a new bridge. It saved us a lot of time)
  • Members of the Chernigov Group provided some very helpful information about the cemetery in Sosnitz including pictures. Based on this information (and more, see below) I knew that there are no traces of old stones in this cemetery. The Jewish cemetery there is a post WWII cemetery. I realized that I would not be able to locate family graves there.
  • To my great surprised I received e-mail from a member of the Chernigov Group, Fima who has a Schreier family cousin living in Israel. This was an amazing connection. Due to Fima’s help I now have numerous Schreier family documents and discovered at least two more generations and some large branches. Fima also found a great document on another side of my family, the Libin family. Unfortunately I received the documents and the new information on the Schreiers after I left for the Ukraine.

We have a family connection with Rabbi Muzikant, the Habadnick Rabbi in Chernigov. He did us a great favor, drove to Sosnitz to check the cemetery there and came back with the report that we would not find anything of immediate interest to us.

My cousins originally planned to visit just Noviye Mlini, where our mothers were born. Our grandfather and his siblings were also born in Noviye Mlini. I convinced my cousins to consider visiting the village of Kudrivka, just north of Sosnitz. Our grandmother, Doba Libin was born there. However, I knew that we might not have time for Kudrivka.

A brief outline of our four days trip (More details below):
We all arrived in Kiev late in the day and stayed overnight in Hotel Lybid.
Day 1: We met our translator at the hotel lobby. A van with a driver was also there. We spent half a day touring Kiev. In the afternoon we rented a van and drove to the city of Chernigov (about 2 hours drive).
Day 2. We went to visit Noviye Mlini
Day 3: We visited some sights in Chernigov. My cousins left for Belarus. My brother and I drove back to Kiev. We stayed the night and went back home.

A Translator/Guide

If you plan to visit the Ukraine and Chernigov Guberniya you must have a translator, unless you speak Ukrainian/Russian. You will not manage there with English. Even in the streets of Kiev you will not manage with English. If you can get a translator who will also be a guide, great, but this is not a simple issue. We had a very nice pleasant young lady with us for the entire visit. Her name is Elena Krivova. Her English was perfect. In Kiev she was a “guide”. She did a wonderful job showing us the city. Once we were in Chernigov she was mainly a translator.

Car rental and Driving

We had a rented van, which we drove. But do not have a car in Kiev. You do not want to drive there. If you want to see Kiev, walk and take taxis. You can also use the subway but please be very careful. The subway can be absolutely jammed and over crowded. It was a scary situation on the subway. You can easily miss your stop because of the overcrowding. Also, especially on the subway, watch for pickpockets.

We got the rented car only as we were ready to leave Kiev. Driving in Kiev is crazy. The streets were absolutely jammed and our cab drivers often drove on the sidewalks. Also, the only real good road was from the airport to Kiev. However, one lane was usually not in use due to hundreds of broken cars. Yes, hundreds of old broken Russian- made cars are on the road.

When you get your rented car, check and examine each and every little mark and scratch, etc. After we returned our car the car rental agency guy found a very very old scratch on the back of the mirror, which he claimed was our responsibility. I am certain, they charged for this scratch 10 times already. Also, due to the road conditions, some traces of tar were on the car and he claimed that it would cost $30-$40 to buy the chemicals for the tar removal. We did not argue with him. We took pictures of the “damage” and had the claimed cleared by the agency that booked the car for us in Israel. Regardless, just inspect the car carefully, they will look and charge you for anything.

Driving outside of Kiev was not a problem. The roads are not good but there is very little traffic to deal with. When you park the car, make sure your translator checks to see if it is a legal spot etc. There might be somebody nearby who charges for the parking.

Hotel Reservations

Our trip was arranged by one of my Israel cousins with a Ukrainian travel agency. The agency was just fine but be careful, the hotels are unreliable. Hotel Lybid in Kiev was very nice. Realize, that if it is summer, it might be very hot, and the air conditioner in your room does not work all the time. It will work only when your key is inserted in a specific place. It then activates the electricity in the room. If you are lucky enough to have two keys you might be able to leave one in the room the AC, but I am not certain if this will work.

Our accommodations in Chernigov are the REAL STORY!

In Chernigov we had reservations for seven people/four rooms in the Prydesnyanskiy Hotel. There are not too many choices there. We had the reservations for the four rooms well in advance. A week before we arrived my cousin was informed by the travel agency that the hotel had a flood and that we might not be able to stay there. They assured him that they would get us other arrangements if needed. When we were already in Kiev we were notified that the hotel in Chernigov was not available due to the water problem. The travel agency told us that they have a man in Chernigov who rents out small apartments. He would meet us and arrange for four apartments for the two nights. The gentleman was very nice and spoke perfect English. He took us to four different apartments. In each case these were not apartments for rent. The people who live there left to sleep for the two nights with friends or relatives so they can make the few dollars on the apartments. The cost was right, about $40 per night for two of us. However, these were very small apartments, some in terrible condition with torn sheets, small towels, unpleasant odors in the hallways etc. The interesting lesson is about the living conditions there and the poor Ukrainians who lived in these apartments and then rent them out this way. We then realized that we are renting for two nights. We also went to see the “flooded” hotel and found out that no flood ever took place there. There was a very large convention in Kiev and they run out of hotel rooms. The organizers of the convention paid premium prices and poor us, with reservations, were cheated out of our accommodations. Well, these stories tell you about the very poor economic conditions there. Also realize that by far, most of the “taxis” are just private cars that will take you anywhere you want as long as you pay them cash.

We had dinner at a local restaurant (not bad at all). After we survived the night in these four apartments we met the next morning in the local McDonald’s. Based on my cousin Susan’s recommendation we took lunch with us. Whatever we were able to buy at McDonalds was our lunch the next day in Novi Mlini.

Novi Mliny

We drove to Sosnitz. On the map it seems that it should be just an hour drive, but it took almost two hours. The roads are very poor. We found out that there is a bridge on the river. We crossed it, amazing; there was nobody there, just us on the bridge, with a beautiful view of the river. On the way we passed several villages. In one we saw a bread truck. He stopped near each house and sold bread. We finally arrived in Novi Mliny.


Buildings in the center of the town of Novi Mlini
The pink building is the post office.

We walked in the two main streets. Unfortunately, we had no address or any information about our family houses or the Jewish neighborhood.

One street is unpaved; the other might have been paved but was covered with a foot or more of dirt. We did not see one car in the entire village. People rode 1930s style bicycles and were very pleasant. We were told that the last Jew to have lived there was a Mr. Shapiro who died some 50 years ago.

synagogue

They showed us the men’s club building, which had once been a synagogue. We looked at the building and the upstairs glass windows on the front. The windows contained Stars of David. (click photo on left for close-up of windows)

The entrance to the building was clearly the old ark “Aron Kodesh”, which was taken outside of the building.

Immediately, at the entrance to the building there were stairs to a small balcony upstairs, clearly the “women section” “Ezrat Nashim”.

 

An interesting thing about the village was the fact that if one removes the few electric and phone lines it looks as it had 150 years ago. Most of the buildings were dilapidated wooden shacks.

wells
Two public wells on the main street in town.


The buildings are clearly old. Some are in a terrible shape. I am certain we saw the house my grandfather was born in. I just did not know the right address. Most of the roofs were some kind of corrugated metal. There were several active water-wells in the village and one store. The store had one small refrigerator filled with beer. We wanted just cold water but were unable to get it. Warm bottled water we had in the car. The only food in the store was canned food. There was NOTHING fresh there.



Old weights and an abacus were used in the village store


We spoke with some of the people and told them who we were. The news went around and the mayor of the village also came. He was also on the model 1930 bike, just unbelievable. We asks again about the Jewish cemetery and was told that there was no such cemetery around. We then had a picnic under a tree, sang our grandfather’s songs and said kaddish.

That evening, back in the city of Chernigov, we went to the small Habbadnick synagogue/school for celebration of Shavuot. In Chernigov we did not visit any old synagogue or the old Jewish cemetery. This was a serious mistake. As I mention above, the trip was planned poorly and the original purpose was just to walk in the street of Novi Mlini. Only after I returned home, with the invaluable help of Fima, I found out that my grandfather’s grandfather, Gedaliya Schreier, his father and his grandfather lived in the city of Chernigov and one might assume that they were buried there. We probably would not have found any family grave but visiting the cemetery in Chernigov would have been a meaningful experience.


Members of the Buch and Kaplan families at Babi Yar

Crossing the boarder from Chernigov to Belarus

My cousins took a taxi to the Belarus border. They were not able to cross it with the car (they knew it in advance). Later I learned of their experience. The only vehicles that cross at that point are large trucks. It is very complicated for a private car to cross there. My cousins went through the Ukrainian passport checkpoint with their luggage. Then they had to walk almost two miles to the Belarus passport entry point. They must have looked like refugees walking with their suitcases.

Afterward

After our return home, I decided to check on other family names that were connected to Chernigov. I sent the Chernigov Group the name Polonsky (my great grandmother’s maiden name) and received an amazing reply from Bert Lazerow. He found the family in Neizhin, amazing. Because of Bert I now know two or three additional generation on this side of my family. Because the trip was too short, we did not go to Kudrivka or Neizhin the villages of our Libins and the Polonskys anscestors.

Contact Josh Buch for information about translators and accommodations in Chernigov.

Note: Alternative names - Novi Mlini, Novyye Melnitsy, Novyye Mlyn, Novyye Mel'nitsy
Location: 51.78°N, 31.84°E

 

Created February 2010
 

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