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The ‘Versailles of Belarus’: Inside the Unimaginable Tale of a Ruined Palace, Meddlesome Aristocrats, and a Jewish Industrial Dynasty

The Daily Beast logo The Daily Beast 3/17/2019 By william.oconnor@thedailybeast.com (William O’Connor)
a castle on top of a grass covered field: Will O'Connor/The Daily Beast © Provided by The Daily Beast Will O'Connor/The Daily Beast

In a remote corner of a remote corner of the world, there sits, barely, the ruins of a legendary palace. A vision right out of a Piranesi etching, it is all crumbling bricks and the bare essentials of grand neoclassical architecture—arched colonnades, a symmetrical central facade, and a pediment daring the wind to blow just a little harder. It is one of Europe’s greatest modern ruins—and you can often have it to yourself.

Dubbed the Versailles of Belarus, Ruzhany Palace was the seat of one of Eastern Europe’s most powerful and storied families, the Sapieha, before it became a textile factory for the Pines, one of the region’s most influential Jewish families. It burned down in an accident during World War I, and despite a later attempt to rebuild it, it became a hollowed-out witness as the Nazis wiped out two-thirds of the town’s population because they were Jews.

My discovery of the ruins was purely an accident. A car rental agent in Minsk suggested if I was bored, I might want to check it out. Then, over the ensuing months, as I dove into translations of Polish, Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew texts to try to piece together the story of this beguiling ruin, I realized I’d found the key to a mystical and fascinating world—the great power that was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

How do you tell the tale of one of the most influential and culturally rich lands in the world when for two centuries it was the target (by various iterations of Russian and Germanic powers) of systematic cleansing? A cleansing such that the only frame of reference for most outsiders is a now-deceased American socialite whose marriage to a Radziwiłł reminded us, oh yeah, Eastern Europe once had glamour. And within that, how do you weave in a concurrent story, that of Polish-Lithuanian-Belarusian Jews who were a central (and simultaneously separate) part of that rich tradition?

It’s something that has bedeviled me for years, probably since I first visited Krakow as a college student studying abroad. I visited the palace and museums and went out to Auschwitz. In the palace, I saw names that were impossible for me as a Westerner to pronounce and had no understanding or context for what I was reading on the walls in terms of pre-20th century Polish history. Likewise, my understanding of Auschwitz was limited, essentially, to Hollywood’s depictions of the Holocaust and Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night. The toll was in bodies, not understanding that a center of an entire culture had been gassed away.

a castle with water in front of a lake: Trakai island castle, 15th century, Lake Galve, Lithuania. DeAgostini/Getty © Provided by The Daily Beast Trakai island castle, 15th century, Lake Galve, Lithuania. DeAgostini/Getty

Years later, I found myself paddle-boating at sunset around Lake Galve in Lithuania, admiring the Trakai Island Castle. A tour of the Instagram-friendly edifice left me bewildered—not only because none of it was in English at the time, but also because the historical uniforms and costumes and culture just seemed so exotic to an American and, well, weird. I had spent the previous day walking around Vilnius, a mid-size city full of charm and history but also once known as the Jerusalem of the North before the Nazis (and local collaborators) wiped out the Jews. Yet again, I found myself at an Eastern European crossroads of rich culture and one of the 20th century’s greatest sins, and yet I was blatantly without any grounding for or understanding of the complexity of what I was soaking in.

Lithuanian and Polish history is a Gordian knot that not even the most enthusiastic of the aristocracy-obsessed would want to untangle, and yet, after a summer trip to Poland and Belarus and research inspired by Ruzhany Palace, it all became clear-er.

“The famous castle-palace of [Ruzhany] stood in a complete ruin on a hill above the town, ten kilometers from the forest, inhabited only by rats and bats,”  wrote Eustachy Sapieha in his memoir How It Was. He had gone with his father, the Polish Foreign Minister, also named Eustachy, after World War I to see what could be made of their ancestral home. His father was a central figure in the mess of Eastern Europe between the wars, as new or reborn nations hammered out not only who they were, but where they were. (For anybody who wants a primer on the complexity of this part of the world before the Nazis and Soviets enacted a genocidal reset, read up on “the Vilnius question” of 1920-1928.)

But a role at the center of world powers was nothing new for the Sapieha family, which also counted at the time a Polish cardinal who would save the future John Paul II’s life. (The current queen of Belgium also belongs to its ranks.)

Balzac, in his novel The Imaginary Mistress, wrote, “Count Adam belonged to one of the oldest and most illustrious families of Poland, connected with most of the princely houses of Germany, with the Sapiehas, the Radziwiłłs, the Mniszechs, the Rzewuskis, the Czartoryskis, the Leszinkis, the Lubomirskis; in short, all the great Sarmatian skis.”

“Klossowski is not a great Polish name, like Sapieha, Radziwiłł or Poniatowsky,” reads a New York Times art critic in a profile of Balthus.

The palaces of this “great Polish name” were fashionable destinations in Vilnius, Warsaw, and the countryside. (Another of their legendary palaces, the Black Castle in Halshany, Belarus, now stands in ruins after being destroyed by the Swedes in Great Northern War of 1704.) In the 19th century, the patriarch of another branch of the family often held court with the Austrian emperor when the Sapieha family owned the over-the-top Krasiczyn Castle in Galicia (the part of Poland partitioned to Austria).

For more than 300 years, the Sapieha had been one of the most powerful and prominent clans in this part of the world, and most significantly at a time when the region was one of Europe’s largest powers. While today we think of Russia as the big bad wolf of the Eastern Europe, from the 15th to just before the turn of the 18th century, both the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (first separately, then together as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) were major (and often the dominant) powers.

Their golden age was roughly from the middle of the 1500s to the middle of the 1600s, when the region (i.e. its noble families) amassed large amounts of wealth while largely staying out of the religious conflicts roiling Western Europe. And while the Swedish invasion in the 1650s was absolutely devastating (the Swedes are alleged to have made off with anything they could pry loose, and destroyed nearly every major city), the Polish-Lithuanian union became a big player again at the end of the 17th century. In fact, the end of Ottoman supremacy in Eastern Europe, with the failed siege of Vienna in 1683, came about at the hands of Poland’s legendary King Jan III Sobieski. Eventually, however, the Commonwealth was brought down by a fatal flaw. Its monarch was an elected one, and its nobility controlled it to an extent not seen elsewhere. Powerful, hungry neighbors were able to play on those nobles, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth came to an ignominious end in the 1790s when it was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria.

a castle on top of a grass covered field: A view of one of the palace colonnades. William O'Connor/The Daily Beast © Provided by The Daily Beast A view of one of the palace colonnades. William O'Connor/The Daily Beast

While the Sapieha family had already been players in the world of Lithuanian and Polish politics in the 15th century, it’s really in the 16th century that the family vaults to the forefront under the guidance of Lew Sapieha, who eventually would go on to become Great Lithuanian Hetman and ruled large swathes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as Chancellor from 1589 to 1623. A portrait of him in the Belarus National Arts Museum depicts him as a tall, portly but powerful, and serious ruler. His greatest success was as the author of the Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which codified Lithuania laws in the aftermath of its unification with Poland into the Commonwealth. This, along with his collection of 3,000 books, allegedly lent him the nickname of the "Lithuanian Solomon." He also commissioned as a mausoleum for his family the St. Michael the Archangel Church in Vilnius, where his opulent tomb can still be seen.

Lew is also where the story of the Ruzhany Palace begins. While the sources are often vague and contradictory, as best as I can piece it together, in 1598 Lew Sapieha decided to erect a palace in the town that he bought from the Tyszkiewicz family. The palace reportedly was designed to be both a fortress and house of pleasure: it was two stories, cross-shaped, and had three towers. Its multi-story vaulted basement would sometimes serve as the Grand Duchy’s safety deposit box, or so claims the museum now housed at the palace.

The palace became a major political center while Lew Sapieha ruled, and royalty would sometimes roll through, such as Sigismund I.

The most famous event in the first iteration of the palace was when King Ladislaus IV Vasa (ruled 1632-1648) visited and “spent nine days in unspeakable luxury as the marshal’s guest.” Included in the swag bag? “A Belgian carpet worth 10,000 zloty, a ring for the queen, bought for 16,000 zloty, and a sable fur bought for 3,000 zloty in Moscow.”

The Sapieha certainly knew how to threw a party. Another account of a banquet the family threw at this time documents, “a herd of four massive boars representing the four seasons... twelve roasted deer... corresponding with the twelve months. Displayed all around there were lengthy cakes equalling the annual number of weeks... These were followed by 365 items of baking, symbolizing the annual number of days... [12] silver watering cans... 52 silver kegs for 52 weeks... 365 demijohns of Hungarian wine … And for the court servants as many as 8700 quarts of mead, equalling the annual number of hours.”

When the diplomat Bernhard Tanner passed through in the early 17th century, he remarked that he dined in “the city of the most sophisticated Lev Sapieha, where, unlike the cities of this kind, there are quite a lot of stone houses and there is a magnificent temple.”

During the 1600s, the Sapieha clan played major roles, some helpful, some not, in the fate of Poland and Lithuania in the face of invading forces, most notably the Swedes and the Russians. In 1655, the Swedes devastated Poland in what would locally become known as the Deluge. But eventually, the kingdom righted itself under perhaps its most legendary of kings, Jan III Sobieski, who famously defeated the Ottomans.

It was at his country palace this past summer outside Warsaw, Wilanów, that I began to wrap my head around this region. A Rococo vision of pastels, room after luxurious room is filled with objects that demonstrated the reach of this land where East really met West. Chambers that could easily be swapped with those in palaces in France or Spain had portraits on the wall of various Hetmen and so on that made it very clear we weren’t in Paris any more. Tales of the king’s military prowess were everywhere, but so too were those of his struggles with his own countrymen.

Perhaps none was a bigger thorn in his side than a third-generation leader of the Sapieha family, Jan Kazimierz Sapieha the Younger, who eerily resembles Brain from Pinky and the Brain. Originally a supporter of Sobieski, Kazimierz and his brother eventually turned on the king and used their control of much of the Lithuanian forces to constantly undermine the monarch. (For anybody interested in virulently anti-Sapieha history, the official website of the Wilanów Palace is an excellent place to start. They even quote the queen as saying his brother essentially hated children.)

a gate in front of a building: The Wilanow Palace is seen in Warsaw, Poland on February 23, 2018. Jaap Arriens/Getty © Provided by The Daily Beast The Wilanow Palace is seen in Warsaw, Poland on February 23, 2018. Jaap Arriens/Getty

Jan the Younger also seemed to always pick the wrong side, and without getting into too much detail, he cost the family by pissing off other noble Lithuanian families under Augustus II the Strong of Saxony (who was elected king of Poland in 1697). Those forces, led by Michał Serwacy Wiśniowiecki of Vilnius, defeated the Sapieha and destroyed the palace at Ruzhany in 1700. The subsequent Great Northern War of 1700-1721 (essentially a showdown between Sweden and Russia that Poland badly misplayed) left the family licking its wounds.

Despite the family’s diminished position, they would continue to play a major part in the political affairs of the Commonwealth until its dissolution.

The individual central to the palace’s story, Aleksander Sapieha, was born in 1730 in the years after the Northern War, and used politics as a means of restoring his fortune. By the 1780s, he was determined to rebuild his family’s legendary palace, and having spent time in Paris he hired the Saxon architect Samuel Becker to build a grand Neoclassical structure. The castle and park, with its dramatic colonnade wings, theater, and picture gallery, would eventually result in it being dubbed the Belarusian Versailles. (Or, um, as the official website for the country of Belarus states, “the castle was equal in beauty to the famous Versailles.”)

A model at the museum of how the palace would have looked in its heyday. William O'Connor/The Daily Beast © Provided by The Daily Beast A model at the museum of how the palace would have looked in its heyday. William O'Connor/The Daily Beast

When I first learned about the palace ruins, from an agent at the Avis rental shop in Minsk, I stifled a snicker upon hearing the nickname. I had planned to visit the fairy-tale-esque Mir Castle and the well-restored seat of the Radziwiłł family, Neszhiv Castle. But I breezed through Mir Castle, which wasn’t really set up for the history-minded (both have a bit of a theme park-ish vibe to them today). And after Neszhiv I figured the extra hour and a half in a car my Spotify would not connect to wouldn’t be too painful (tacking that on for the ride home, however, was excruciating as the drive is flat and mostly through forests). The town of Ruzhany is charming, with little stucco buildings made livelier when the sun peeks through. The palace ruins sit up on a rise overlooking the town. After the crowds of Mir and Neszhiv, I expected something similar. Instead, I pulled up to an empty lot in front of a gleaming lichen-green gate complex. A couple rubles later, and I’m walking down a dirt path cutting through knee-high grass toward the elegant remains.

a stone building with a mountain in the background: A view inside the palace ruins. Chunks of brick and mortar littered the ground. William O'Connor/The Daily Beast © Provided by The Daily Beast A view inside the palace ruins. Chunks of brick and mortar littered the ground. William O'Connor/The Daily Beast

Stepping gingerly through the ruins today, one tries to imagine the grandeur of the palace. Limestone details can still be seen here and there, and the dramatic proportions of the rooms are easily grasped. The house was famed for its theater with up to 100 entertainers working in it at a time (with a combination of serf, and free Polish and French actors, it was estimated to be the largest in Poland at the time) as well as its park with its “wild” and sculpted gardens, ponds, grotto, and outdoor theater. It was grand enough that on September 12, 1784, the king of Poland Stanisław August Poniatowski visited the new palace. He would reportedly return multiple times to watch plays.

Aleksander died in 1793, and his son Franciszek was allegedly a ne’er-do-well who piled up gambling debts. For the palace, which reportedly suffered as its costs strained the family, the figure who changed its course was Eustachy Kajetan Sapieha, Franciszek’s son. Because of his opposition to the Russian tsar in the uprisings of 1830-31, he was stripped of all his possessions in the Empire, including Ruzhany. On December 21 of 1829, perhaps recognizing his impending fate, he handed over the palace and its lands to Ari Lieb Pines, a prominent Jewish textile manufacturer.

My visit to Belarus was at the tail end of a stomp through Eastern Europe (chasing stories in Romania, Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan) that began in Warsaw. A friend had recently moved back from New York City to go work for her family, and after the long winter was eager for some familiar faces. It was while in Warsaw (fending off allergies in one of the greenest cities I’ve ever been to) that I hoofed out to Wilanów Palace, and that I went to one of the best museums I’ve ever been to—the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

a view of a city at night: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews (POLiN) is seen in Warsaw, Poland on February 16, 2019. Jaap Arriens/Getty © Provided by The Daily Beast The Museum of the History of Polish Jews (POLiN) is seen in Warsaw, Poland on February 16, 2019. Jaap Arriens/Getty

I arrived early in the afternoon after walking through Warsaw’s eerie restored historic center, and spent the next four hours alternately mesmerized, flabbergasted, and overwhelmed. Here it all was—the richness and centrality of Jews and Jewish culture to this part of the world. Auschwitz and other killing camps weren’t just places where humans died—they were where a major world culture was essentially snuffed out. (To give you an idea of how enthralling the museum was, I’m planning to return to Warsaw this summer as I only made it up to World War I before it closed for the day.)

Between Wilanów and POLIN, the world that had long seemed to mystical and hard to grasp, came into focus.

Thus it was no surprise to me in my research on Ruzhany that the next iteration of the palace was as home to a textile mill for the Pines (pronounced pin-ess) family. Throughout the 19th century, much of the industrialization done in modern-day Poland and Belarus was by Jewish entrepreneurs—the best symbol of such success likely being the Poznański Palace in Łódź. As Eustachy Sapieha noted in his memoir How It Was, “Yiddish was the language of commercial law in the entire Central Europe and of course Eastern Europe.”

But what I wasn’t prepared for was my journey to understand the Pines family and what happened to them as well as the other Jews in their town.

“Really random question,” my ever-awkward self opens with, as I try to track down modern-day family members, “but would the Pines side of your family be Jewish, and originally from what is now Belarus?”

I was messaging a Facebook acquaintance of mine who lives in Israel named Adam Pines, and I wondered if his family branch was the Belarusian one, and if so, how much the family knew about the palace that had captivated me and that they had once called their own.

Over the next couple months I would talk with other members of the family (many thanks to Wayne Pines and Lisa Newman), sifted through the treasure trove of documents and testimonials on JewishGen, and read the heartbreaking Yizkor (memorial) book put together about the Jews of Ruzhany by the survivors.

The earliest recordings of Jews in Ruzhany appears to come from the 1620s, and by 1720 the community was large and successful enough to pay the same amount of poll tax as all of the Jews in Vilnius. While life in the town was still precarious (there had been a gruesome blood libel incident in 1752 in which two local Jewish men were killed to satisfy a mob), Jews in Ruzhany would have had a similar situation to Jewish communities in Lithuania and Poland in that they would have been protected by the nobility. But after the partition of Poland, Ruzhany fell into the Russian Empire and as a result, life as Jews became even more precarious. Still, the 19th century also saw Jewish members of the town becoming prosperous and turning it into a religious and commercial center. By 1897, the number of Jews numbered 3,599 in a town of just 5,016. It had a Yeshiva, and Elie Wiesel called it one of the “Hasidic capitals.”

The Jews were at the center of the town’s prosperity, especially when its weaving industry took off in the 19th century supplying the Russian army. Russia had become one of the largest exporters of industrial linen, and Jewish families owned most of the factories producing it in northwest Russia. In Ruzhany, the most prominent family involved in the business was the Pines family.

a large stone building with a clock tower with Mount Vernon in the background: The restored gate complex at the palace. William O'Connor/The Daily Beast © Provided by The Daily Beast The restored gate complex at the palace. William O'Connor/The Daily Beast

The first member of the Pines family to arrive in Ruzhany was Ari Leib Pines, who came from Volkovysk where he was born in 1787. He built up the town’s textile industry, and in the process became close to Eustachy Sapieha to the point that when he faced exile, Sapieha sold him the palace in 1829 for just enough to survive in France. For nearly a century, the palace would be the center of the Pines family’s success, and became a towering symbol of the family’s prosperity in the imagination of other Jewish residents.

Sorting through the family’s story is a Herculean task. There are many branches of the family, and the 20th-century diaspora has spread them all over the world. Many of the Pines in Israel, for instance, took the name Oren, which is the Hebrew word for a pine. In addition, the Pines were such an illustrious Jewish family that men who married into it were known to adopt the family name instead of their wives taking theirs.

What is clear is that with the Sapieha gone, the Pines took on the role of the most prominent family in the town.

“As is known, the livelihood of most of the residents of the town came from work in the weaving factory of the Pines family,” recollects one person in the Yizkor book for Ruzhany. (Books like this were put together by survivors of the Holocaust to try to create a permanent memory of the places and people that were destroyed.) The book has notes about how the family married into other wealthy and “pedigreed” families and saw themselves as a dynasty. A Russian Empire government listing of businesses in the town in 1895 denotes their dominance.

One member of the family, Noach Pines, “built a factory … that he was unable to complete … due to a shortage of money, for he spent his money for completely different purposes … If a Jew came before him and complained about his daughter who had come to marriageable age but had no dowry, he would immediately take out a proper sum and give it to him. If another one came and said that winter was approaching and his house did not have a roof, Noach would open up his wallet and take out the money needed to fix the roof.”

When a great fire happened in 1875 the Pines were generous with helping those affected and again in another fire in 1895. They were major funders and participants in the Zionist movement as well as in promoting Jewish culture and education.

Others in the family, however, were not seen as quite so charitable. If there is a villain of the family, at least according to the Yizkor book testimonials, it was Mordechai Pines who owned a factory in Ruzhany in the early 20th century. When “workers then came and demanded that he reduce the number of work hours per day to 12, or increase their wages [he] refused to agree to either of those demands. The unrest of the workers grew. [He] closed the factory, saying that he was leaving the city.” When he fled town, sons of other Jewish families captured him in the night, threatened him with a gun, but he still refused to change work conditions, and managed to escape by running away when he went to pee. When the workers went on strike, the book notes, he brought in strikebreakers until the town nearly revolted and he agreed to some of the demands.

In either 1914 or 1915, the palace was destroyed by a fire. After World War I and the defeat of Soviet forces by the Polish, Ruzhany became a part of a newborn Poland. The country’s foreign minister was none other than Eustachy Sapieha, grandson of the noble who sold the Pines family the palace.

Although, sold is perhaps not the right verb, as according to some accounts, the original sale was done on the condition that if the Sapieha could return, they could purchase it back at the same price. The details around that are murky, but what isn’t is that the foreign minister’s son, also named Eustachy, recounted in his best-selling memoir that he returned to Ruzhany with his father in the 1920s to see what they could make of the place.

“During one of my visits, we went to see it closely. In those years there were still two small outbuildings or guardhouses on either side of the entrance gate,” he wrote. “When one stood in the huge courtyard and looked at the main body, the ruin was really impressive. The outer walls of the central building, or the palace itself, may be incomplete, but still exist. From two huge outbuildings, the one on the left has been dismantled for a long time, the one on the right is completely burnt, but its walls have somehow remained steady. All together they once connected with the palace, standing partly on the arcade, a bit reminiscent, of course in a reduction, of Saint Peter's square in Rome.”

At the time, as one can see in photos on JewishGen, the palace was much more intact. And so Sapieha did not have to rely on his imagination as I did.

a large stone building: William O'Connor/The Daily Beast © Provided by The Daily Beast William O'Connor/The Daily Beast

“I do not remember the details of the rooms inside the palace very much, but it was easy to conclude that there were three huge rooms in the middle of the building, probably the same size, one above the other,” he continued. “The first one was below the level of the yard, the next one was raised a little above the level of the courtyard, and the third was on the first floor. I imagine that it was a kitchen, a reception room or a dining room and a living room, or a living room.

Eustachy fils was an interesting character. In his memoir he talks about how his first start in business was working in the offices of Jewish-run companies as one of the few Gentiles, let alone a nobleman. But, he said, “before the war in Poland 90 percent of those who are now called businessmen were Jews. As for me I've never met a goy i.e. a Christian working at a Jewish company.”

As a result, he wrote, he "learned Yiddish with enthusiasm for my personal satisfaction” and Hebrew, and caused a “sensation.”

While in Ruzhany, he recounts a remarkable, almost hard-to-believe twist.

"In a certain moment … an elder pompous Jew with a long beard came up to us, he made a bow and invited to his house with a great dignity because he had to tell our father something very important. After greetings and after a short visit to the farmstead of the [Roman Catholic] priest we went to the pointed house. That Jew introduced himself as Pines. He treated us with tea with bagels and told the story of his family who had settled in Ruzhany in the beginning of the 18th century. It turned out that shortly before the November rebellion his grandfather and my great grandfather [Eustachy] concluded an agreement of sale and purchase of the Ruzhany Castle which later had been given by his grandfather for a cloth factory. Our interlocutor bent and took the original of the act of sale out of the lower drawer of the writing desk. In this act it was stated that the buyer would pay a sum which he would be able to gather during a certain period of time; but it was also stated that if anybody of Sapieha’s family being a real heritor of the contractor would come back to Ruzhany the palace had to be sold to him at the same price."

According to the younger Eustachy, the Pines man sitting across from them then declared, “The Prince has his right for inheritance, so, the contract is valid and I have to give the property to the Prince in accordance with the agreement. I understand that currently the Prince won't accept it as far as only ruins are left but contract is the contract and I'd like to inform the Prince about this.”

But then the picture of the palace’s ownership—if we are even to believe Eustachy’s claims about about the buyback clause—gets opaque again. Multiple sources say there was an attempt in the 1930s to restore the palace. According to one historian I talked to, Urszula Szulakowska of the University of Leeds and author of Renaissance and Baroque Art and Culture in the Eastern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1506-1696), the Sapieha tried to restore it but fled in 1939 in the face of their possessions being taken as Ruzhany fell under the Soviet sphere in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that split Poland between Russia and Germany. If so, the families must have remained close, as pictures of the Pines family (as well as recollections from members I talked to) have them spending time at the palace well into the 30s.

On September 1, 1939, German forces invaded Poland. Two weeks later, as part of their secret deal with the Nazis, the Soviets invaded from the east. Ruzhany became part of Soviet Belarus. Poland underwent what the rest of the USSR had undergone in the prior decade (most notably Ukraine) as intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and so on were either shot or sent to the gulag. Ruzhany was no different. The Yizkor book notes, “during the first days of Russian rule, disarray fell upon the city. Several of the wealthy people and merchants of the city, including Noach Pines and his family, Chaim Turn and his family, and Yekutiel Sherman were deported to Siberia.” The town, like the rest of lands under Soviet occupation, was stripped of its religious identity, which must have been a severe blow to such a devout and storied religious community.

Then, in June 1941, Hitler stunned the world by breaking his pact with Moscow and invading the Soviet Union. Ruzhany, like the rest of Belarus, Lithuania, and Poland, came under the Nazis.

“Belarus was the center of the confrontation between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union,” writes Timothy Snyder in his seminal work, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. “Its cities were battlefields of armies in advance and retreat, its towns centers of Jewish settlement destroyed by the Holocaust. Its fields became German prisoner-of-war camps, where Soviet soldiers starved in the tens and hundreds of thousands.”

What came next after the predations of the Soviets is no surprise. The Yizkor book for Ruzhany is brimming with cruelty enacted by German occupation forces on the Jewish population, which had swelled by at least an additional thousand due to refugees. In the beginning, the Germans terrorized the population. They killed any intellectuals left, extorted the population for any remaining wealth, put the Jews into a ghetto, enacted forced labor, tortured and raped at will.

Then, on November 2, 1942 the “terrible day,” as one survivor called it, arrived. Thousands of Jews from Ruzhany were rounded up for deportation. Over the next two months, nearly every Jew who was living in Ruzhany (roughly 3,000) when the Germans arrived was dead. Most died in the killing rooms of Treblinka. Hundreds, mostly the old and infirm, were shot and killed before the caravan left town. Dozens were shot along the way, many of them children who tried to go to a river for water when they passed by one in the caravan. The Germans killed them with machine guns. One woman who managed to escape and hide as a Christian, Chana Kirshstein, wrote in the Yizkor book that, “Gentiles related that the route was strewn with corpses.”

“No Jews live in Ruzhany today, yet their descendants can be found throughout the world of 2012,” Edith (Edie) Vegotsky Taylor wrote in a foreword to a translation of the Yizkor book. In my research to find out more about the Pines family, I found myself overwhelmed and amazed by all the branches of it spread out all over the world, and how much success they’ve had in the ensuing decades after unthinkable tragedy. Adam was indeed related to the Pines that had lived in Ruzhany, and thanks to the extended family’s efforts, a lot of the basic information about their lives in the town could be found online.

a large stone building © Provided by The Daily Beast

As for the palace, it was irreparably damaged in World War II, putting it in much the same state it’s in now. After the war, it became part of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. With a past tied to aristocracy and Jewish businessmen, the palace was not a priority. Then, with the fall of the Soviet bloc (Belarus still remains quasi-communist and certainly authoritarian with much of industry being state-owned) the country has slowly opened up. Over the years, much of the travel to the town was by descendants of its former Jewish residents, looking for something physical to grasp onto for their ancestors. Some were disappointed in the state of the Jewish cemetery, but in the accounts I read, or all I talked to, the travelers were fascinated by the palace ruins and the story of the Jewish family that had owned it.

Then, in 2008, the Belarusian government began a restoration project on the complex. The gate and its two wings were restored completely and a museum opened up inside. According to official websites, it plans to restore the entire palace complex to its former glory.

As I drove the long drive back to Minsk, Russian music blaring, I wondered what I would do with the palace. I’m generally not one of those who thinks it’s my place to tell people what to do with their crumbling heritage. But while I like a grand pastel-colored Eastern European palace as much as the next traveler, there is something poignant about its ravaged state in this place where so much pain was enacted.

Sometimes it’s alright to leave a scar alone.

Author’s Note: Due to the information about this palace’s history (multiple world wars, genocide, communism, etc) being murky and often contradictory, if you have more details on Ruzhany Palace, please reach out, or hopefully this sparks somebody with more time and a fluency in Polish and Russian to investigate even further.

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