As the High Holidays approached, Rabbi Scott Kalmikoff, 28 and the program coordinator of the Diller Teen Fellows program at Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, was inspired by remembrances of an annual family tradition.
“We would go out to Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, N.Y., to visit the graves of our deceased relatives,” Kalmikoff said. “There is a large stone noting that part of that cemetery is the ‘Second Schklover Welfare Society,’ where my great-grandparents happened to be buried.” The name comes from Shklov, the town his great-grandparents came from that was at the time in Russia and is now in Belarus.
“I had heard a lot about Shklov from my father,” said Kalmikoff, “who had heard a lot about it from his father, so I was naturally curious and wanted to go there.”
Luckily, Kalmikoff, who was ordained a rabbi in 2018 at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, N.Y., had a great-aunt — Anne Kalmikoff Miller, his grandfather’s sister — who, before she died in 2002, had documented the lives of relatives who had remained in Russia and survived the Holocaust.
On her own and with the help of the Red Cross, “she was able to trace a lot of our relatives, who lived in the mandated Pale of Settlement,” said Kalmikoff. The Pale of Settlement was an area established in the late 18th century that Russian Jews were forced to reside in until 1917. It was a mostly rural area and consisted of small towns, including Shklov. Many Jews, said Kalmikoff, moved to big cities like Moscow, “when they were allowed to after World War I. I learned from my aunt that I had relatives in Moscow, but I wondered about Shklov.”
After Miller’s death, her grandchildren gave Kalmikoff letters in Yiddish and other material that confirmed the presence of family members in Russia.
“Those letters in Yiddish had addresses on them,” said Kalmikoff. “Using those addresses, I was able to contact family and found I had one relative named Masha Kalmykova in Shklov. A wonderful woman in Staten Island named Alla Blest, who was a friend of my great-aunt and knew Russian, helped me with the contacts.”
Kalmikoff told NJJN that as a youngster and high schooler, he yearned to travel to Shklov, but didn’t have the means to do so. Now that he does, both he and his father traveled to Shklov in August, spending three days in the town, where he met Masha, his grandfather’s cousin.
“It was a trip that had to be taken,” Kalmikoff said. “I had heard about this since I was young, and I wondered if I would ever see Shklov. Not many Jewish families have living relatives in that area. We do, and I feel it is important to meet them.”
Shklov, about 25 miles north of Mogilev, the third-largest city in Belarus and 140 miles northwest of Minsk, the capital, was once a major center of the Haskalah — the “Jewish Enlightenment” movement that began in the late 1700s and lasted about a century. By the 19th century, it was home to a yeshiva and 5,000 Jews. In 1939, that population had dropped to 2,132. The Nazis occupied Shklov on July 12, 1941, and slaughtered 3,200 Jews who lived in the greater Shklov area.
Masha’s father, Grigori “Herzl” Kalmykov, seemingly knew what was coming and enlisted in the Red Army on July 6, 1941, six days before the Germans arrived, and so avoided the slaughter. After World War II, he married Basya Jaffe and they had a daughter, Masha, now 73, soon after the war ended.
Scott’s father, Howard, originally was not interested in going to Belarus. “I bought the tickets without his knowledge,” said his son, “but he was glad he went. He felt we brought our family together when we visited Masha.”
Masha told the visitors a story about her father’s major act of chesed to honor the murdered Jews of Shklov. After World War II, Grigori went to the site of the mass grave and had the remains of the Jewish victims re-interred in five graves in the town’s Jewish cemetery. A Holocaust memorial was also placed in the cemetery and has been refurbished over the past few years.
Kalmikoff said he and his father “were able to communicate a little in Yiddish with Masha. It was a thrill just to see her. She could have immigrated to Israel, but she chose to stay where she always had been. She couldn’t leave.” Father and son also had use of a translator.
Father and son also visited the Shklov Museum, which just acquired ownership of an old synagogue building in the town. Kalmikoff said he hopes to help the museum raise money for a Jewish branch to commemorate the rich history of Judaism and Haskalah in the town.
Kalmikoff interned and served as assistant rabbi at the Modern Orthodox Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph before filling his position at the federation. Diller Teen Fellows is a leadership development program for Jewish 10th and 11th graders.
Kalmikoff has memorialized his family at http://kalmikoffandkrevulinfamily.weebly.com