Immigration Rewind

How 16 Americans found family, faith and their immigrant roots — generations after their parents left their homelands

A sunset with the silhouette of a mosque and man approaching

The mosque in Ivje, Belarus in September, 2018. Many of the families that are members of a historic mosque in Brooklyn, New York can trace their roots back to Ivje. A group of American Lipka Tatars took a trip to Poland, Lithuania and Belarus to rediscover their ancestry.

Credit:

Ryan Schuessler/The World

“Happy new year, everyone.”

Marion Sedorowitz is standing in the narrow aisle as the accelerating train turns the Polish countryside into a blur of brown and green.

Aisha Ratkewitch, sitting with her grandson in her lap, glances up at Marion. “What do you mean?”

“Today is Islamic New Year,” Marion replies.

Ellen Lebitz, turning away from another conversation, interjects: “It’s also the 17th anniversary of 9/11.”

Marion sighs. “I hate when that happens.”

It’s 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2018, 1,440 years since the prophet Muhammad and his followers fled Mecca, and 17 years since terrorists hijacked Islam and changed the world for the worse. The unfortunate coincidence is not lost on Marion, Aisha, and Ellen, part of a group of 16 Americans on the morning train from Warsaw to Bialystok.

They are among the families whose American story is anchored in a 110-year-old Polish mosque in Brooklyn, New York, diaspora of one of Europe’s oldest Muslim communities: the Lipka Tatars of the Baltic. Aisha is traveling with her husband Steve, daughter and son-in-law, and grandsons — three generations of one family. Marion and her husband Jack Sedorowitz head the Brooklyn mosque’s governing board. Ellen is a dentist who helped forensic teams process bodies on 9/11, and hasn’t been to the mosque in nearly 40 years. They’re joined by others: a grandmother who is Muslim but whose children and grandchildren aren’t, a recently-retired doctor who’s part of a Pennsylvania motorcycle club, a brother and sister from Massachusetts chasing their late father’s past, and a man who, when counting, can only remember four times he’s ever prayed.

Each person came for a different reason, but they all had one thing in common: No one knew what they would find. Really, no one knew exactly what they were looking for.

Man leans over scripture with young boy, laying on carpet looking on

Bob Shabanowitz, right, examines a family tree that hangs in a mosque in Raizai, Lithuania as a local Lipka boy looks on. Shabanowitz’s maternal grandparents came from what is now Lithuania.

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Ryan Schuessler/The World

“Beautiful. Embracing. Comfortable. Safe. Loving. Family.”

These are the words that come to mind when Aisha thinks about what it was like growing up in Brooklyn’s close-knit Lipka Tatar community.

The Lipka Tatars are the descendants of Turkic migrants to the Baltic, whose ancestors settled in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 14th century, a state that encompassed parts of modern-day Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania. (“Lipka” is derived from the Tatar word for Lithuania.) As the story goes, most of those early settlers were hired soldiers who then married local women and, in an effort to assimilate, took their wives’ names: Ratkewitch, Shabanowitz, Bogdanowitz and others.

And there they stayed for the next six centuries, slowly mixing their own culture with that of the Baltic, all while keeping Islam alive in their families, in countryside villages and in cities like Bialystok, Minsk and Vilnius.

Traveling with their Christian and Jewish neighbors, Lipkas rode the waves of Eastern European migration to the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A large community of Lipkas settled in Brooklyn. Now called Moslem Mosque, Inc., the Association of Lithuanian Tatars was founded in 1907. In the 1920s, they purchased a church building and turned it into a mosque. It is one of the oldest surviving mosques in North America.

Also: More American than apple pie, Muslims have been migrating to the US for centuries

To grow up Lipka in the US meant making colduni (stuffed dumplings) and meat babka. It meant visiting the Brooklyn mosque, which they call the Jamia, for Friday prayers, holidays, funerals or religion lessons from a rotating cast of Lipka imams. At community dances, vodka and polka sent grandiose ballrooms spinning into the night to the oomp-pa-pa of accordions. Life was built around family, and the families orbited around the Jamia.

“Our Muslim community, when I was growing up, we were very close,” Aisha, 63, says. “We were together. The mosque, upstairs when we had holiday prayers, was packed. It was packed. Upstairs, the women's section was all the way to the back room. The men’s section was packed all the way to the curtain. There were children, family, fun and celebration together.”

For decades, the Jamia pulsed with life.

But over time, the crowds began to thin. Families moved out of Brooklyn, Elders began to die, kids grew up and moved away or became less interested in the religion. The first generation of Lipka immigrants oriented their Brooklyn-born children toward an American future, not one connected to their families’ histories in Europe.

“They didn't want to remember it,” Aisha says about her parents, who immigrated to the US as children. “They came to America to have something better. And they didn’t want to dwell on it, and I guess that was healthy for them. They moved on and did what they had to do.”

On the September 2018 trip, there was a common refrain: “Our parents told us nothing.”

“As a kid you never think to ask your parents,” Steve Ratkewitch, Aisha’s husband, says. “And now that they’re gone, I wish I could go back and ask them about the history and more about the family.”

Dave Rotkowitz, 64, only ever visited the Brooklyn mosque for weddings and funerals, despite living nearby for his entire life.

Man standing in lush cemetery

Dave Rotkowitz stands in Ivje, Belarus’ Muslim cemetery. He came on the trip with other Americans of Lipka Tatar descent because he wanted to see where his family came from.

Credit:

Ryan Schuessler/The World

Hear Dave Rotkowitz talk about his memories of his grandmother praying, and why he hardly prayed himself.


By the time his generation was born, the Brooklyn community’s tether to the Baltic had been all but severed. Two World Wars decimated Lipka homelands and the Iron Curtain, the symbolic barrier that separated the Soviet Union from Western Europe and the US during the Cold War, blocked family members still there from immigrating to Brooklyn. Marion Sedorowitz remembers watching her parents sew money into the lining of clothes they were sending back; many of the packages never made it. If there was any contact at all, it was in Polish, Russian, or Lithuanian — and the first and second generations of American-born Lipkas spoke English growing up.

They were also moving away from Brooklyn, scattering across the country. As their parents and grandparents began to die, so, too, did their source of cultural and religious knowledge. The Jamia was shrinking.

Worse, the 2001 terror attack cast a dark shadow over the community.

“When 9/11 happened it was devastating, because growing up as a kid we never hid the fact that we were Muslim. Given the name Aisha, you really can’t hide too far,” Aisha says. “And then when 9/11 happened, it just seemed surreal, that somebody from my religion, from my background, could do something like that. And it was hard for a lot of years. And it put a lot of doubts in my mind as far as the religion goes.”

“I felt it was a terrible blow to our religion,” says Marion Moorzitz Abramowitz, one of the remaining active members of the Jamia who is also on the trip. “When I was young, I always told everybody who I was. But then when all this trouble started, and all the extra trouble in the Middle East and what’s going on, I don’t tell people who I am unless I know them for a while.”

Two man, seen from behind, stand in front of altar with heads bowed

Bob Shabanowitz, left, prays in a mosque in Bialystok, Poland on the Islamic new year in September, 2018.

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Ryan Schuessler/The World

Hear Bob Shabanowitz talk about the time he was interviewed for a job — the interviewer’s jaw dropped over religion.


“I’m 66, and for most of my life nobody even knew what a Muslim was — or asked, or cared — and then after 9/11 everything changed and suddenly they were the bad guys,” says Bob Shabanowitz, a recently retired doctor who lives in central Pennsylvania. His motorcycle club includes members who are mostly conservative and sometimes Islamophobic. Bob stays because he finds the club to be fun, and the charity work it does meaningful. “They will say things on Facebook, because they don’t know I’m Muslim. They assume, because of my last name that I’m Jewish. And I sometimes feel guilty about that, hiding behind that name.”

Today, Aisha, Steve and their family are among the few people — around 12 — who gather at the Jamia for major Muslim holidays. There haven’t been regular prayers or any religion classes for years, and most of the time the building is closed.

To this day, others in the community are hesitant to openly claim their faith or heritage. Marion Sedorowitz, who planned the trip, says the current climate for Muslims in the US has affected people.

“I’ve never been afraid to say who I am,” Marion says, “but I know other people chose to not go on the trip. Some people are afraid. They have fear. And that’s what this current administration has created, a sense of fear in people. And not only this current [administration], but since 9/11.”

If it weren’t for that fear, perhaps more than 16 people would have come. After all, a trip like this would not have been possible for most of their lives because of the Cold War.

After 80 years of separation, it is only in recent years that American and European Lipkas have started reconnecting, largely thanks to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the rise of the Internet. Aisha and Steve, Marion Moorzitz Abramowitz, Dave and all the others decided to go on the trip because they were curious about the world their parents and grandparents left behind. They knew there were answers to be found, even if they didn’t know what questions to ask.

Yet, when the group arrived at Bialystok’s mosque, a small wooden building tucked into the courtyard of Communist-era apartment blocks, Dave was still hesitant. He can only remember four times in his life when he prayed — and here, he was about to pray with the leading Islamic cleric in Poland. Marion had arranged for the group to meet Tomasz Miśkiewicz, the Mufti of Poland. He was standing at the gate to welcome the Americans.

Dave catches Marion’s attention, grabbing her elbow as she ties a scarf around her head. Like Aisha — they are cousins by marriage — Marion is one of the few who maintains the Brooklyn mosque’s religious traditions.

“Is it going to be okay if I go in?” Dave asks, glancing up the steps at the faces of Polish Lipkas who are peering out of the door.

“Of course,” Marion says. She too was nervous, but she felt familiarity at the mosque, with the Mufti and growing crowd. She touches Dave’s back, and with her characteristic warm curtness, reassures him: “Don’t worry.”

Inside, it’s a frenzy. About 40 Polish Lipkas there are eager to shake the hands of each American. Dave tries to linger in the back of the group but is quickly pulled to the front with the rest of the Americans. He sits against the wall and the Mufti sits next to him.

Prayers for the Islamic new year follow. Dave goes through the movements, following the others’ motions as the lone voice of the imam echoes through the building.

The imam and Mufti begin to chant the Takbir, a proclamation of faith. With each iteration, more of the Polish and American Lipkas join in. The air becomes electric.

“Bismillah hir rahman nir raheem.” In the name of God, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful.

Aisha’s eyes close as her lips begin to move.

“Allahu akbar.” God is great.

Steve’s eyes water.

“Allahu akbar.”

Even Dave knows what to say.

“La ilaha illa’llah.” There is no god but God.

The chanting swells.

“Allahu akbar.”

Woman kneeling looking forward, profile view

Aisha Ratkewitch prays in Bialystok, Poland’s mosque on the Islamic new year. The terror attack on Sept. 11, 2001 tested her faith, she says, but it was the memories of growing up in the Jamia that kept her grounded.

Credit:

Ryan Schuessler/The World

Hear the Takbir for the new year at the mosque in Bialystok, Poland.


A few hours later, the 16 American Lipkas sit around a patio table on Bialystok’s main square.

“When they did the Tekbir,” Aisha says, “it was the same chant. It was the same sound.”

Jack interjects. “You close your eyes and you were in Brooklyn.”

“We were, we were. You were listening to Dave Moorzitz. You were listening to Alex Yasinsky,” Aisha replies, naming Brooklyn’s Lipka imams of years past. “I got chills.”

“I stopped,” Jack says. “I couldn’t do it.”

“It really was just like the old days when we were kids,” Steve says.

“This woman next to me,” Aisha continues, “she was singing, and I was chanting. And she got louder. When I was growing up, my father, for the Takbir, he always said, ‘Sing it. This is coming from your heart. This is what it feels like.’ So I always sang it loudly.”

“I could feel my dad and mom. Looking down. I could feel their energy,” Steve says. He looks at Aisha. “I could feel your mom and dad’s energy.”

It was a familiar energy — energy that has kept the dwindling community together against all odds.

Sixteen glasses clink. Marion smiles.

“Happy New Year, everyone.”

“Alhamdulillah, we know each other.”

Three women stand green hill, facing gravestone

Aisha Ratkewitch, left, and her second aunts pray outside a Muslim cemetery in the Lithuanian countryside where many of their ancestors are buried.

Credit:

Ryan Schuessler/The World

“We’re looking for Aisha, John’s daughter.”

It has been a few days since the new year prayers in Poland and the group has moved to a cemetery near the village of Raizai in the Lithuanian countryside. Fatima Šantrukova repeats the announcement a few times in Lithuanian, standing on the gravel road outside the gates to a Tatar cemetery. She had been waiting for the Americans.

“Aisha, Aisha,” Fatima Šantrukova’s older sister, Aiša Gembicka mutters. At 92, she’s standing barely over 4 feet tall and is leaning on a walking stick; a long, white piece of lace is draped over her head. She and her younger sister, 79, both have decades of wrinkles — lifetimes of smiles and resilience — etched into their faces. They are Aisha’s second aunts, first cousins of her father.

Aisha pushes her way through the rest of the group who are standing around the two women. She looks startled.

“That’s me. I’m Aisha, John’s daughter.”

Fatima Šantrukova grabs Aisha’s hand and the three are off, trekking up the soddy hill of the cemetery. Tears soon follow. Aisha never knew her father’s extended family but they knew her — her uncle wrote letters to her aunts and visited once before he died. For the next 90 minutes, the two sisters led Aisha through the cemetery, introducing her to relatives she seldom thought about before.

“I’m feeling joy with my cousins,” says Fatima Šantrukova. “I remember hearing about them from my childhood. I remember my cousin [Aisha’s father], now I met his daughter and granddaughter and small baby.”

“Alhamdulillah,” she says. Thanks be to God. “We know each other.”

At each grave, the sisters and Aisha bend over and press their hand into the cool earth, whispering “salam alaikum” to their ancestors and relatives. Aiša and Fatima Šantrukova’s Lithuanian chatter becomes more recognizable to Aisha, though she has not heard the language in decades. Aisha’s mouth begins to instinctively form the words of a language tucked deep into her past.

Soon enough, Aisha is praying with them, too, whispering in Lithuanian laced with Arabic.

Three women stand around grave, pressing hands into soil

Aisha Ratkewitch, left, and her second aunts pray over the grave of a common ancestor in Lithuania.

Credit:

Ryan Schuessler/The World

Listen to Aisha and her cousins pray.


Borrowing from the traditions of their Christian and Jewish neighbors, the Lipka Tatars’ practice of Islam has taken on a decidedly Baltic flavor over the centuries: the lyricism of their prayers, the architecture of their mosques, the flavors of their food. Up until the mid-20th century, using a modified Arabic alphabet to write in the Belarusian language was a common practice. Many Lipkas drink, though still abstain from pork. Traditionally, women do not wear the veil. Interfaith marriages remain common, and most families celebrate Christmas and Easter alongside Muslim holidays. Some scholars classify the Lipkas’ practices — local “saints,” protective amulets, unique rituals around birth and death — as “folk Islam.”

“I have strong, personal Muslim beliefs. I believe in the faith. I believe in my God. I always have,” Aisha says. “Visiting these people here and these Eastern European sections, these are real people, these are my people, these are the good people who I grew up with and who taught me my values.”

“We’re trying to build this,” says Zita Milkamanovič, a Lithuanian Lipka who helped the American group plan their visit. “You know, young people not so much interested in the culture because they get married with another culture, Christians for example. With time, we are losing our culture and religion as well.”

In the ‘90s, wealthy Islamic countries, mostly in the Middle East, began pouring money into reviving Islam in Eastern Europe, which was repressed during Communism. In Poland, Saudi Arabia began building an Islamic school in the center of Bialystok, but the project fell apart after Poland’s Lipkas resisted the stipulations that came with the school. Many of their traditions are antithetical to what the Saudis wanted the school to teach. In Poland, Lithuania, Belarus — and the US — Lipkas have stories of being challenged by non-Lipka Muslims as heretics, or not “real” Muslims.

“My son-in-law is from Algeria and he is Muslim,” says a Tatar woman in the Polish village of Bohoniki. “And he wanted to change the family. And I said ‘No, I’m too old and you are not going to change my family. We are Polish.’”

Lipkas follow a minority religion in their home countries, but they are also minorities among other Muslims. In Poland, they’re outnumbered 10-to-1 by non-Lipka Muslims, most of whom immigrated there after the end of the Cold War. There are more Lipkas in Belarus than anywhere else, around 8,000, but out of 45,000 total Muslims. Yet, Lipkas have retained control of their countries’ Muslim institutions: The muftis of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus are all Lipkas.

Man in mosque wearing robe

The imam in Navahrudak, Belarus prepares for prayers in September 2018. He was one of many European Lipkas who welcomed a group of Americans to the town, home to a historic wooden mosque.

Credit:

Ryan Schuessler/The World

The Brooklyn community’s challenges are no different. The official membership of the Jamia is around 200 families, a small dot out of an estimated 3.5 million Muslims living in the US. The shifting demographics of the Muslim community directly around the mosque — there is a thriving Bangladeshi community nearby — present the same questions their European cousins are facing: Should they open the Jamia to non-Lipka Muslims and risk losing its unique cultural foundation, or remain insular despite dwindling membership and interest?

Marion Moorzitz Abramowitz recalls her days as a member of the Jamia’s board in the 1970s, “Even back then, we talked about bringing some other group in to help us to grow. And at that time we had a very nice population, and I always felt like I didn’t want to lose what we had, culturally. But yet, I don’t want, on the other hand, [the mosque] to die. It’s a very fine line.”

In the Jamia’s early days when the involved community was at its largest, its leaders sometimes turned away Muslims who weren’t Lipkas. The group rarely mingled with other Muslim, Polish or Lithuanian communities.

“I think it’s kind of an inevitability,” Alyssa Haughwout, the Jamia’s current caretaker and Aisha’s daughter, says about opening the mosque up. “You can have a Tatar mosque in Poland. You can’t have a Tatar mosque in Williamsburg and think that down the line you won’t open it to other people.”

Woman holding black and white image of a group of people in front of building

Alyssa Haughwout holds a photo of her Brooklyn mosque in the 1920s. The community in Brooklyn dates back to 1907, making it one of the oldest organized Muslim groups on the American continent. She is now the caretaker of the mosque.

Credit:

Ryan Schuessler/The World

More about the Brooklyn Jamia: They gave her the keys to the mosque — and now she wants to open its doors to the neighborhood

Like the Americans, European Lipkas are trying to navigate cultural preservation with increasing numbers of non-Lipka Muslims in their countries. During the height of the refugee crisis in Europe, some Polish Lipkas echoed the rhetoric of the country’s far-right nationalist government about Muslim immigrants.

Still, Europe’s Lipka communities have had a revival in recent years, renovating and building mosques and community centers with the help of local governments, the European Union and, occasionally, the Turkish government. In the Polish village of Kruszyniany, the EU helped finance the construction of a Tatar cultural center; the Turkish government aided in the construction of a mosque and religious center in the town of Suchowola. In Minsk, the Turkish government also helped the community rebuild its “cathedral mosque,” which was destroyed by the Soviets. It opened in 2014.

For the Americans, whose community is fading, visiting other Lipkas — in the midst of this cultural renaissance, no less — offered a sense of validation that many had not felt in years.

“You’re amongst Americans and — at least where I grew up — very little Polish people,” Bob says. “‘Shabanowitz, what kind of name is that?’ And you got teased. And then you go to the cemeteries here [on the trip], and it's all the names of your relatives. It’s like being part of a family again. I don’t know if Americans feel like that when they see hundreds of Smiths and Browns.”

“When I went to school, we were called Mohammedans,” says Marion Moorzitz Abramowitz. “And I was the only one in the entire school. It’s not like nowadays, there’s much more of us. But here, I feel like I belong. ... It's a closeness that you feel, like a home, even though it's so far away.”

Women stand around table, cooking

Alyssa Haughwout, right, helps Dzenneta Bogdanowicz, left, spread melted butter on fresh dough. Bogdanowicz, who operates a Tatar restaurant in Kruszyniany, Poland, held a cooking class for the Americans.

Credit:

Ryan Schuessler/The World

“I don’t have a connection to the Saudis, I don’t have a connection to the Pakistanis,” Aisha says. “My connection is with the [Jamia] and with the Tatar group, and I think after being here it’s that much stronger, because culturally, that’s who we are, and those are the types of Muslims that we are.”

“It’s really surprising to see how little we had strayed, honestly,” Alyssa says. “It was a nice feeling to see it and know it exists somewhere else.”

In Lithuania, the group eventually convenes in the Tatar village of Keturiasdešimt Totorių, not far from Vilnius. Locals had prepared a feast in the local community hall: colduni (the ubiquitous stuffed dumplings), samsa (meat pastries), and sweet rice pilaf.

As the meal comes to a close, Marion Moorzitz Abramowitz pulls her large purse onto her lap and begins to dig around. She approaches Fatima Buinovska, one of the village’s leaders.

“I am the granddaughter of Samuel Rafalowitz,” Marion Sedorowitz begins, “imam in the Brooklyn mosque. And he came from Vilnius and I wanted this book to come back to this. Full circle.” She hands the Quran to a teary-eyed Fatima Buinovska.

Aisha is sitting with her father’s cousins, who brought family photo albums to lunch. The three are now chatting in Lithuanian. “It feels like it just came back. It feels like I’m talking to my grandmothers,” Aisha says. Suddenly, Aisha lets out a startled yelp, the faded page of the album stuck in between her fingers. There’s a small, black and white picture of a child. She’s stunned.

“That’s me.”

“Our parents told us nothing”

Woman in sunglasses looking at camera

Marion Sedorowitz, the vice-president of the Brooklyn mosque’s board, organized a trip for 16 Americans to visit the homeland of their parents and grandparents in September, 2018.

Credit:

Ryan Schuessler/The World

“Oh my god, look at all these people,” Marion says as the Americans’ bus turns around the corner of a dirt road in Ivje, Belarus, two hours west of Minsk.

They’re heading towards Ivje’s Tatar community building, and from down the road Marion can see out the front windows that there are around 30 people mingling in the building’s courtyard. The others behind Marion crane their necks to see.

It’s the end of the group’s two-week trip before they begin to travel back to the US, and by now word had gotten around Europe’s Lipka communities that this group of Americans was making their way through the region. In each village the Americans visited — at each mosque and cemetery — there were more and more Lipkas who had traveled to meet them, looking for their long-lost American cousins.

With each passing day, the Americans come to realize that, while they knew nothing about their families in Europe, those same families knew all about them — to the point where the Americans seemed to have an almost mythological place in their cousins’ memories. The Americans kept showing up in the Europeans’ family photos, their names neatly recorded on the back.

“How can that be?” Aisha asked herself in Lithuania days earlier.

The answer to that question became clear.

“Our parents told us nothing,” they all said. But in the scraps of paper that managed to cross the Iron Curtain, their parents painted a picture of their lives in America for their European relatives.

While the American-born Lipkas had both feet firmly planted in the New World, their parents quietly kept their feet in both as best they could.

In Vilnius, Bob found his mother’s first cousin — who was born in Brooklyn but lived in Lithuania. From there, she was exiled by the Soviets to Siberia for a decade. Her parting words to him: “Don’t forget about me.” In Belarus, Ellen found herself face-to-face with a man who had a picture of her grandparents. In Minsk, Marion Moorzitz Abramowitz recognized a portrait of her great-grandparents hanging in the office of Abu-Bekir Shobanowitz, the Mufti of Belarus. Turns out, they were his grandparents.

People standing near each other, laughing

Aisha Bohushewich, in the center, meets Jack and Arlene Bosch, siblings from Massachusetts, at the mosque in Kletsk, Belarus. Jack and Arlene’s father immigrated to the US after being orphaned during the Russian Civil War, leaving a brother behind, Aisha’s father. “He could never talk about them without crying,” Arlene says.

Credit:

Ryan Schuessler/The World

Hear Aisha Bohushewich talk about meeting Jack and Arlene Bosch.


“They definitely knew more about us,” Steve says. “We had so little knowledge. My mother never talked about the old country, for whatever reason.”

Many of the Lipka families in Brooklyn trace their roots to Ivje, a town of around 7,000 people that was founded as a Jewish village in the 15th century, but has since been home to Muslim, Jewish, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communities.

Inside Ivje’s Tatar community building, the crowd is buzzing. The Belarusian man who helped the Americans organize this part of the trip is reading the Americans’ names and genealogical information into a microphone.

“Marion Sedorowitz …,” he begins as Marion raises her hand. He continues in Belarusian and says the name “Gembicki,” her mother’s maiden name. Voices erupt and several women rush forward. Marion’s normally stoic face is suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. She smiles as the women embrace her.

Woman surrounded by people, crying and laughing

Marion Sedorowitz becomes verklempt as newly-found relatives rush to her in Ivje, Belarus.

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Ryan Schuessler/The World

Outside, Steve and Aisha are talking to an elderly man, Halil Shobanowich. Amidst the chaos, Steve had recognized the people in the portrait Halil was holding. They were his grandparents, which makes Halil his first cousin. Halil is the last of his siblings alive and is in poor health, leaning heavily on a cane, sores on his face, and speaking with a raspy voice. He needs regular medicine, but cannot afford to make the journey to the nearest clinic as often as he should.

The reunion lasts two hours, then eventually moved to the town’s mosque for evening prayers — the same mosque where Steve’s parents visited and played as children. Inside, the imam shows the Americans a framed leger hanging on the wall.

The ledger is filled out in Belarusian, but written with the Arabic alphabet. He explains that it’s a record of the Americans who donated to the original mosque’s renovation in 1922. He begins to read the names: Rafalowitz. Safarewitz. Asanowitz. Alexandrowitz. Shabanowitz. Bogdanowitz. Wilson — that one surprised the Americans.

There are more than a hundred names — a record from a time when there was no Iron Curtain between Brooklyn and Ivje, no war to further separate families who already had an ocean between them. A record that says, against all odds, the European Lipkas never forgot about their American families.

Woman's finger pointing at scroll on wall

A ledger — dated to 1922 — details the names of the Americans who sent money to renovate the mosque in Ivje, Belarus. The text is in the Belarusian language but written with the Arabic alphabet.

Credit:

Ryan Schuessler/The World

A lot has changed since Brooklyn’s Lipkas sent that money to the mosque — most of their descendants probably can no longer find Ivje on a map. The world changed, twisting the Jamia like a towel, ringing it of its people and transforming it into something those first immigrants probably wouldn’t recognize.

“They would probably be really disappointed,” Steve says. “It’s sad to see something they participated in and built up, little by little, watch it basically disappear.”

For many communities in the US, especially small ones like the Lipka Tatars of Brooklyn, this is the price of progress.

In Ivje, the sun is setting, and most of the Americans are on the bus waiting to make the two-hour drive back to Minsk. Aisha is standing with Steve as he speaks to Halil, clutching a framed piece of Islamic calligraphy wrapped in newspaper his cousin had given him off the wall of his house. He had come on the trip with limited expectations. But the experience shook him.

Man holding picture faces another man

Halil Shobanowich, right, and Steve Ratkewitch speak through a translator to try figure out how they’re related. They soon realize their mothers were sisters, meaning they’re first cousins.

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Ryan Schuessler/The World

“We come here, and these people are giving us food, and they’re giving us presents and so many things,” Steve says. “And I was taught never to go to someone’s house empty-handed. And every day we were going to peoples’ villages and homes and meeting them and eating their cooking, and I brought nothing with me. That still bothers me. It really does.”

The time has come for the two men to say goodbye. Halil steps forward — another relative taking hold of his cane — and throws an arm around Steve, his raspy voice mumbling blessings into his cousin’s shoulders. He kisses Steve’s cheek several times with a warm firmness that can only come from family. Aisha looks on, remembering her experience meeting her own family.

Steve promises to write, and to send a holy book and prayer book back to his cousin.

“I want to send you my mother’s Quran,” he says, “and her chamiyl. I want you to have them. I want them to be here.”

On-site translations were done by Anna Krasnicka, Adas Jakubausaks, Zita Milkmananovic and Anna Bogdanovich, who helped the Americans, this reporter and Lipka Tatars in Europe better understand each other.

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