A Traveler’s Personal Story of Her Return to the North Caucasus
When MIR traveler Susanna Markiewicz McNeil signed up for MIR’s Return to the North Caucasus small group tour, she was – literally – returning. Susanna was born in a village in Dagestan, an out-of-the-way region her Polish parents fled to during the atrocities of WWII.
Prior to her departure, Susanna shared with MIR that her family had once lived in Dagestan, and that she was actually born there. MIR worked diligently with our Tour Manager and local MIR guide to find a way for her to visit her birthplace and reconnect with her roots. We used our destination expertise and on-the-ground connections to make it happen.
We are grateful to have Susanna share her story of her very personal return to the North Caucasus, and to the small town where she was born and lived the first few years of her life.
When I booked my trip to the North Caucasus, I was excited to walk in the footsteps of my parents, who traveled this route under far less pleasant circumstances. They were Polish Jews, running from the murderous onslaught of the Nazis.
There was a second, even more personal, motivation for me: I was born in Bashlikent, Dagestan, a village in a Russian province in the North Caucasus, located close to the Caspian Sea. No, I did not expect to see this village, but I wanted to come near it and learn more about the people, history, language, culture and geography of the place where I was born – a place so elusive that I could not find it on most maps.
Before the trip I contacted the trip leader, MIR’s Tour Manager Michel Behar, to learn a little bit about the people of this area. He sent me what he could find, including a link to a map showing where Bashlikent was located in relation to our route. To my delight and amazement, we were going to be around 15-20 kilometers away. I was truly pleased that I would be able to say that I was this close to the place I was born. I thought that actually going there did not seem likely.
When we arrived to join the MIR tour, I had another stroke of good luck. Our local MIR guide, Vladimir, was a journalist and specialist in Chechen and Dagestani cultures. After consulting the itinerary and discussing options, Vladimir and Michel formed a plan that while we were in Dagestan, a jeep could take me, Vlad, and one other traveler to Bashlikent.
Vlad had contacted the Bashlikent administrative center to explain my circumstances and inquire if there were any elderly individuals who might recall meeting my parents. Indeed, there was one 88 year-old gentleman who did remember them. So Vlad made a plan to go to the town and meet the key leaders of the Bashlikent cultural center and museum to learn more about that time period and my parents’ situation.
After parting ways with the MIR tour group for the afternoon, Vlad, our MIR driver (Alvi), fellow traveler Susan and I headed for Bashlikent. As we approached the town, we had to make our way through a herd of cows blocking our path.
Arriving at the cultural center, we were met by three gentlemen: the director of the cultural center, a director of public relations and a historian. The latter had written a book about Bashlikent, its history and its current activities, including sports, the arts, business and agriculture. This gentleman, Murad Rashidov, had paid for the printing of the book — $3,000 for 1,000 copies — and was giving them away for free. It was a labor of love and pride for the town he cared so much about.
After a very pleasant chat and tour of the facilities, including a small museum, the three gentlemen proposed that we go to meet Rashid Rashidov, the man who had known my parents.
Rashid and his wife lived in a small apartment complex with a fairly large courtyard that contained trees, flowers and bushes, including a pomegranate tree, a blackberry bush and other fruit trees. We were ushered into a large room, with the dining room table already laid for us. Once settled in, we were introduced to Rashid and his wife through Vlad, who interpreted for us.
The couple offered us cognac and homemade wine, as well as honeydew melon and watermelon. It turns out that the area is filled with vineyards, and the grapes are used to make cognac. The kind of hospitality they offered to us was typical of what we encountered everywhere in the North Caucasus.
Rashid recounted his memories of my parents, Victor and Sarah Markiewicz, the Polish couple who came to live in Bashlikent. My dad was a doctor and my mother had a baby girl. At the time, Rashid was a 12-year-old boy who helped my father with various tasks, including sterilizing his medical equipment and running errands. His wife, who is younger, remembered playing with my parent’s little baby girl — me!
Rashid seemed to strongly admire Dad. He described him as “tall” and said he “walked like a soldier.” He was amazed that he and Dad would walk 18 kilometers to the district administrative center. He remembered specifically that Dad had treated some shepherds for an infection. It is likely that Rashid did a number of odd tasks and errands for Dad as well. In any case, Dad must have trusted him enough to let him assist him.
Understandably, he knew less about Mom, but distinctly remembered her going to the market in Derbent (30-40 kilometers away, 15 of which were on a local road and the remainder on a main road that goes from Derbent to Makhachkala) to sell her produce. Rashid’s wife said admiringly that Mom spoke fluent Kumyk, one of the many languages of the region.
Before leaving the table, we gave three toasts with cognac, a Dagestani tradition. Then Rashid’s wife presented Susan with a large bottle of their homemade wine, which she had complimented earlier. I had already been presented with a signed copy of the book about Bashlikent that the historian had written, a lovely surprise and a very special reminder of a marvelous visit. Rashid’s wife then gave Susan and me each a coffee mug with a heart that read “Love.” It just happens to perfectly match the green tiles of my kitchen!!
One more surprise awaited me — it turned out that Rashid’s mother had rented a room to my parents in the very complex that Rashid and his wife lived. Would I like to see that room? You bet I would!
We went to the entrance that led to the small room where my parents and I spent the years until WWII was over. I could hardly believe that I was standing in such a special and long since elusive place. Then we drove one kilometer to see the plot of land where my parents grew their food. Now I better understand why it was such a struggle for them to get enough to eat!
This special side-trip to Bashlikent that MIR was able to facilitate provided so many answers to the great puzzle of my lifetime, about the place where I was born and the struggles of my parents during those difficult years. Now I have seen the place that always seemed so vague and mysterious, almost fictional – the place of my birth.
And after meeting the warm and hospitable people who welcomed me, I can better understand why my parents decided to spend the rest of the war years there, with people who accepted them so warmly and who displayed such caring.
Explore Your Heritage with MIR
Researching family names and dates can lead to an irresistible longing to see the places that shaped family stories. MIR has a dedicated team of Private Journeys Specialists who can work with on-the-ground staff in any of our destinations, and can handcraft itineraries that let travelers connect with their family heritage in whatever way they wish.
For more information, call MIR at 800-424-7289 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
MIR has more than 30 years travel experience to Russia, with affiliate offices in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Siberia offering on-the-ground support, and tour managers that clients rave about. MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
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Find out more about the North Caucasus:
Top photo: Susanna and Rashid Rashidov’s wife smile for a photo op. Photo credit: Vladimir Sevrinovsky.
PUBLISHED: December 5, 2018