The Samarkand guesthouse manager insists the breakfast room makes wishes come true. I consider sharing the quest that brought me from Los Angeles, but I’m dubious about his superstition. Instead, I focus on the spread—blinis, cherry compote, fried eggplant. The walls are a kaleidoscope of intricately carved and painted designs left over from the Jewish family who once lived here. Above the remnants of an altar is a benediction in Hebrew: May you be blessed when entering and blessed when leaving.
I need such a blessing, for I am here—in Muslim Central Asia—with an elusive goal: to uncover traces of my Jewish family more than 75 years after they left and never returned. Unlike the Bukharan Jews who had lived in this ancient city for hundreds of years, my Polish Jewish family’s connection to Uzbekistan was much briefer, more tenuous. They were among hundreds of thousands of Jews who found refuge in Uzbekistan during the Holocaust.
At the beginning of World War II, my grandparents fled east to Soviet-occupied territory. In June of 1940, Stalin deported them to Siberia and they suffered a year of forced labor in camps. When liberated, they chugged by train to Uzbekistan in the fall of 1941, seeking safety. Samarkand was too packed with refugees to absorb more. The authorities told them to continue 18 miles to the village of Juma, where they would remain for four years, eking out a livelihood on the black market. My father was born in the dusty village.
Seventy-six years later, I feel his presence as I wander Samarkand’s alleyways and chance upon magnificent, azure-tiled mosques and mausoleums. In Uzbekistan, at the crossroads of the Middle East, Russia, and China, I imagine my father pausing, marveling at these structures that were familiar and different from what he had seen before—part of his origins and yet also completely new. But he is not with me.
I am eating alone in the breakfast room when a woman in black strides in. Anait, an Armenian Uzbek, introduces herself as my guide in this journey to trace my father’s origins. I tell her that he’d always planned to return to his birthplace—but at warp speed, his mind stopped working two years ago, and then his body collapsed. Uzbekistan was a place written in his passport, obituaries, and death certificate. But it was a mystery to him. Tears slide from my eyes.
“You came here with your mission,” Anait says. “You are fulfilling his wish.” And then she tells me it’s time to get to work.
I traveled to Uzbekistan alone, but friends joined me in Samarkand. I introduce Anait to Oleg and Lilia, academics who fled Russia at the start of the Ukraine war and so were labeled enemies of the state by Vladimir Putin. Like my grandparents, they see Uzbekistan as a way station, rather than a destination.
The four of us pack into a white micro taxi for Juma. I stare out the backseat window, cramped and hot as sweat trickles down my legs. I try to imagine what it was like for my grandparents on the way to an unknown home in an unknown country. Like our group today, they too may have passed cotton fields, donkeys hauling carriages, and vendors with pyramids of watermelons.
Deep in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum archives, I had found an address that my grandfather listed as the family’s Uzbekistan home: Kaganovitcha 5, Juma. But every Uzbek I asked was certain that street name would have been changed. It had been titled as such for Lazar Kaganovich—nicknamed Iron Lazar—one of Stalin’s henchmen, who played a role in the fatal famine of millions.
When we arrive in Juma, Anait and Lilia flag down taxi drivers and ask if they know Kaganovitcha Street. Everyone says no. We walk into a restaurant and ask the people inside. No again.
Then I remember my grandparents arrived by train, slept the first night on the ground next to the station, and found a house nearby. The woman running the restaurant tells us the old depot is over a bridge. Anait recalls a detail I’d recounted to her: My grandparents had rented from a Tatar family, part of an ethnic Muslim minority. During Soviet rule, Samarkand was divided into neighborhoods, and Anait assumes Juma was the same. She asks the manager if there was a Tatar settlement in Juma. Bingo. But that was decades ago. Only one Tatar group remains.
The conversation is too rapid for my companions to translate. Not until we are walking over the bridge do I realize that the middle-aged man from the restaurant with warm eyes, a round face, and a loose gait has offered to drive us to the Tatars. He opens the doors to a Soviet Lada sedan with broken windows. “This was once the coolest car around,” Anait reminisces. The driver steers us across cobblestoned roads, honking and waving at each passing car.
In a courtyard on the outskirts of town, we find the four members of Juma’s sole Tatar community taking a break from their morning labor. Farmers, they trace their origins to Crimea. A woman wearing a colorful floral headscarf and cutoff jeans tells me that Stalin deported her mother to the Ural region and then her mother made her way to Uzbekistan in search of workable land. Another says his family arrived later and not by choice: When the German forces retreated from Crimea in 1944, the Soviets packed more than 183,000 Crimean Tatars into cattle cars; over the course of weeks, the entire community was sent to Central Asia. My mind reels as I try to keep track of the complex layers of people—more than a million—whom the Uzbeks welcomed during and after World War II.
Most of this ethnic mix is now gone. The woman confirms they’re the last Tatars and that they too have never heard of Kaganovitcha Street. Then, an animated conversation erupts: There is a Russian woman whom they call the oldest person in town. Perhaps she might know.
Through the gate of a turquoise house we see a sprightly woman, hair dyed black and purple, wearing a velour jacket. She invites us into her home. The walls are painted the same brilliant turquoise, the floor is covered with carpets, and raspberries she picked from her garden rest on the counter.
The woman, named Zoja, offers us some black tea and chats easily with Anait and Lilia in Russian. They suddenly exclaim in unison, “Wow, wow!” We do not need to search any longer. We have found the one person who seems to hold memories of Kaganovitcha Street. And, miraculously, we are on it. Zoja has lived almost her whole life at what was once #6 Kaganovitcha. The address I am searching for, #5, is across the street.
Zoja tells us of a brutal childhood: Her father died in jail and was buried without a marker; her mother was murdered at the train station. She found ways to endure the frigid nights and scorching days. And she recalls playing with two girls in the house my grandparents rented, and how they left with all the other Tatars.
I follow Zoja across the street, pausing to pick a cherry from her tree. Two girls lounge in the wide, arched entryway to the house where my father spent his first months of life. A bald Uzbek man with gold teeth answers the door. He smiles broadly, evidently tickled by the American visitor.
It is to this home that my grandparents would have retreated when my great-uncle died in the local jail, just like Zoja’s father. Here that they would have read a letter from the mayor of their hometown in Poland, Zamość, responding to my grandmother’s inquiry: The fate of their parents and sisters left behind was the fate of all the Jews. The town was Judenfrei—free of Jews.
I do not tell the owner about the pain my family endured here. Instead, I smile. I can sense how a place that for my family was marked by desperation is his greatest pride. He tells us the house was a big purchase; he rebuilt it with a combination of mud and straw walls. I linger in the garden but refrain from crossing the threshold into the home. I realize Zoja, with her spirit and stories, is the link to my family’s past that I had hoped to discover. The redone home is this man’s family story. I thank him with the Uzbek gesture of putting my hand to my heart and say goodbye.
What was once a vague outline is now a place I have smelled and felt and touched.
There is one last place I want to see in Juma. In an oral history recording I found of my grandmother in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum archives, she said that no matter how destitute the years in Uzbekistan were, in the evenings, the women would dress in nicer clothes and stroll along the train tracks with other Polish refugees. We walk a few blocks to the shuttered station, with its closed ticket office, mint-green chairs, and a kitchen.
Like my grandmother, the four other female family members traveling with them were all young during the war, but none of the women got pregnant for five years. And then most of their stomachs began to stretch. “We knew already the war was ending,” my grandmother recalled. In June 1945, my father was born.
The following summer, my grandparents, holding their year-old son, would climb onto a train to Poland, completing a journey of 5,000 miles, only to confirm that the loved ones left behind were a pile of ashes. My grandparents and father spent four more years in Europe’s refugee camps before they boarded a boat to New York City in 1950.
The sun no longer beats down on us as we walk away from the train station and return over the bridge. On our drive back to Samarkand, I sit in the front seat, the cool evening air blowing, and I feel relieved. What was once a vague outline is now a place I have smelled and felt and touched. Juma was the site of so much heartache, but also of joy. I feel my father’s presence, even as I yearn for more: to share his exuberance at this complex site where he entered into this world and to cry with him in awe at how unbelievably far he traveled.