The following are notes on, and pictures from, a trip my son Marc and I took during the second half of August 2002, from southern Poland through the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) and up to St. Petersburg, in western Russia. The main motivation for the trip was to see where our ancestors had lived before emigrating in the 1920s and 1930s – and in the case of those that had not emigrated, where they had perished during the Holocaust.
On my father’s side, this entailed visiting the city of Liepaja (Libau, as it was known whenever it was under German rule) in western Latvia, which is where the family of my grandfather Cusiel – for whom I was named – and Lina (Halpern) Porzecanski emigrated from in the early 1920s to Montevideo, Uruguay. But we also visited the village of Simnas in rural Lithuania, which is where they had originally come from at the turn of the 19th century, and where other relatives of ours had lived, mainly under the surname Perechansky. As far as we know, we are the first descendants of the Porzecanski/Perechansky clan ever to visit these areas since World War II.
On my mother’s side, finding our roots entailed visiting the city of Gliwice (or Gleiwitz, as it was known when it was part of Germany) in southern Poland, in a region known as Upper Silesia. This is where the man I was also named for, Arthur Kochmann (1864-1943), a younger brother of my great-grandfather (Ludwig Kochmann), lived most of his life. We did not know much about him before we visited Gliwice, yet once there we were able to learn a great deal about his life. He and many of my mother’s relatives were taken to die in nearby Auschwitz, which we also visited. However, my mother’s immediate family was saved because they were able to emigrate in 1939 from Berlin, Germany, which is where they lived, to Montevideo.
While initially we thought that there was no geographical connection at all between the two families (namely, the Porzecanskis from Libau/Simnas and the Kochmanns from Gleiwitz), other than they were Jewish, we soon learned that they may have had some common Polish connection, after all. Indeed, as it became quite obvious while traveling through Latvia and Lithuania, surnames ending in “ski” or “sky” are completely out of place there: rather, they are typically Polish, or in any case of Slavic origin. Thus, it is possible that the Porzecanskis may have come originally from a shtetl (Yiddish for village) located not too far north or east of Gleiwitz, after all!
We traveled by air, train and bus from city to city, and then rented cars for day trips outside the main cities, thereby getting to know some of the countryside. It was all surprisingly easy, uncrowded and affordable, and even though it was August the temperature was always comfortable (low-to-mid 20s in Centigrade, 70s in Fahrenheit), and most days were breezy and sunny. We were able to make all of the necessary reservations (hotels, car rentals and international buses) ahead of time or on the road via the Internet, and thus never needed the services of a travel agent. (In order to obtain a visa to Russia, however, you must have your lodging arrangements made ahead of time; the Baltics and Poland don’t even require visas of U.S. and European tourists, so one can be more spontaneous with regard to land arrangements.) There were never any problems upon arrival with missing reservations or changed pricing, and everywhere we went we felt that tourists were welcome.
Cash machines were plentiful in all urban areas, and therefore there was no need to bring travelers’ checks or a lot of dollar or euro bills. While we spoke none of the local languages, teenagers were usually able to help us because they are all learning English now. (Russia used to be the lingua franca, of course, so those who speak Russian should approach the older generation.) City and road signs were generally clear and legible, though to get by in St. Petersburg and especially its metro, of course, we had to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. Food was never a problem, since by now one can find everything from Italian restaurants to McDonald’s; however, since there are no observant Jewish communities left in these countries, those who keep Kosher would have to settle for vegetarian food or fish. For guidance, we used and recommend the Lonely Planet volumes on Eastern Europe and the Baltics.
I hope you will find something that you can identify with in this mainly pictorial travelogue – whether you come from the Porzecanski or Kochmann side of the family. Moreover, I suggest you read the fantastic story of Arthur Kochmann even if you are not at all related to the Kochmanns. Our last section is devoted to displaying the family trees that my brother, Yehoshua (Shuki) Raz, has compiled. We have also obtained and scanned several old photographs of family members, which can be seen by clicking the link on that person’s name from his or her family tree. We welcome any other old photographs that you may have. Please click on the section that is of primary interest to you and enjoy!
Arturo Cusiel Porzecanski Kochmann
New York, November 2002