After a decade of tracking down relatives, father and son travel to Belarus, reunite with long-lost family
Staten Island Advance, August 26, 2019
After more than a decade of genealogy research, a father and son from Grant City took a Jewish heritage journey earlier this month to Shklov, Belarus, for an emotional reunion with their long-lost family members. Scott Kalmikoff had to convince his father, Howard, to take the week-long trip to retrace their family’s footsteps from before World War II. “I needed to make the trip happen,” Scott said. Their first attempt at visiting Belarus had been thwarted, and Scott says he couldn’t let it go, despite some resistance from his dad. Because many family members were persecuted during the Holocaust in Shklov, Howard was having a hard time getting excited about seeing the Kalmikoff’s hometown. “I bought the tickets without telling him,” Scott said. “We were going.”
SOLVING A MYSTERY The Kalmikoff’s journey to Belarus was inspired, partially, by a mysterious list of names at a gravesite in Long Island. Just before the Jewish high holidays every fall, the family travels from Grant City to Beth David Cemetery in Elmont to visit the graves of their deceased relatives. They visited multiple headstones, including one large stone which reads “Second Schklover Welfare Society," where Scott’s great-grandparents are buried. The cemetery visit sparked interest for Scott because he didn’t know who these relatives were and wanted to know more. Scott also was inspired by his great-aunt Anne Kalmikoff Miller, who spent years tracking down members of the family through the Red Cross in the 1960s and 70s. “She was kind of like our grandparent, she really was the matriarch of the family,” Scott said of Miller, his grandfather’s sister, who he referred to as his “Oma.” She researched and discovered that her relatives were a part of a mass-migration of Jews to Moscow in the 1920s. After his great-aunt’s death in 2002, Scott, at age 10, grew interested in genealogy and Miller’s grandchildren gave him old paperwork and pictures that she had collected. “I was given this box of old letters that were written in Yiddish from our relatives in Moscow and Shklov to my great-aunt,” Scott said. “Using the addresses and the information that were on the envelopes and in the letters, I was able to track [family in Shklov] down.” While Scott was in high school, he discovered that his great grandfather’s brother had a daughter named Maria (Masha) Kalmikoff, who lives in Shklov. He was able to communicate with her through Alla Blest, a Russian translator on Staten Island who was a friend of Miller’s. “I’ve known that Masha is living in this town by herself, one of the last Jews, and one of the last members of our family to live in this town,” Scott, 27, said. “One of the goals of our trip was to meet her.”
THE REUNION Scott and Howard first planned to travel to Belarus after a trip to the Greek Islands -- visiting the family of Scott’s mother, Marion Schaefer -- but the pair didn’t have the right travel visas. Their trip finally became a reality on Aug. 2., when the father and son landed in Minsk. “I’ve heard about this since I was in diapers…but I never would imagine I’d actually be in Shklov,” Howard said. After traveling approximately 210 km from Minsk to Shklov, they had a tearful reunion with Masha, who they were able to communicate with through their tour guide. “First of all we were crying, we were hugging – we were crying like babies," Howard said. “It also was so sad because I hope I’ll get to see her again, it’s not like it’s around the corner.” Scott said he was most moved when he was sitting with Masha in her home and came to the realization that “this person is our relative and that all of these years separated our families from one another.” He was eager to learn about her history. On July 6, 1941, Masha’s father, Gregory Hertzel Kalmikoff, enlisted in the Russian Army. Six days later, the Nazis marched into Shklov and persecuted the Jews. He survived because of his military status. When he returned to Shklov after the war in the 1950s, he led the effort to dig-up all of the Jews who were killed to be re-buried in Shklov in mass graves in the Jewish cemetery. He also erected the Shklov Holocaust memorial in the cemetery. Scott mentioned that he would walk down the street and point to himself and say “Kalmikoff” to those who passed by. Many recognized the name and asked if they had been to the cemetery. “It was meaningful for us that our family had such a big role in memorializing the Jews from Shklov who were killed in the Holocaust,” Scott said.
INTERVIEWED BY LOCAL TV The Kalmikoffs visited the Shklov Museum and took a tour of the town, visiting all of the former Jewish sites including prayer houses, yeshivas, and former rabbi’s homes. After the tour, a museum staff member contacted a local TV station, Шклов ТВ (Shklov TV) and told them about Scott and Howard’s journey. They were interviewed by a reporter and Kalmikoff photos were displayed on the segment. Scott was blown away by the coverage of his family’s history on the TV segment. “[My family] is finally being remembered the way that they should be,” he said, about the photos they displayed about his Shklov ancestors. In addition to the Jewish heritage segment, Shklov TV required Howard and Scott to taste cucumbers dipped in honey, a local tradition in Shklov, which is known as the “cucumber capitol of Belarus," as of August 2013. The Kalmikoff family is featured in the above Shklov TV news segment video from 8:40-11:40.
THE KALMIKOFF FAMILY TREE Scott hoped that throughout his journey of finding relatives that he would come across someone in his family who had all the answers, but he never did. “I realized that I had to become that person because people really didn’t know," Scott said. He created a website to display his decade-long work of connecting Kalmikoffs around the world. The site is extensive, highlights burial locations of deceased relatives, old family photos, and documents. "Now people come to me about information about the family,” Scott said, explaining that many younger Kalmikoffs use his research for school family history projects. “I feel like it’s my responsibility as someone who carries the last name Kalmikoff to carry on the legacy and to make sure that they are not forgotten."