In the Medieval Ages, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania — occupied by the territory of modern Belarus — was a European state holding equal rights. In the small town of Motol, in Brest region’s Ivanovo district, Belarusian, Polish, Italian, Latvian and Jewish cultures intermix in a unique fashion, recalling days of old. Original crafts, colourful local customs and a unique dialect remain almost unchanged
Motol’s history dates back many centuries, being first mentioned in the Lithuanian metric in 1422. However, it seems that the settlement was founded even earlier. One legend states that, in the mid-16th century, famous Belarusian historical figure Bona Sforza lived here. This highborn Italian, wife to Rzech Pospolita King and Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismund I, liked this picturesque place, situated on the bend of the Yaselda River. Its people were tall, light haired craftsmen and merchants, who wore leather footwear rather than that of peasants and richly embroidered linen self-woven clothes. Under Queen Bona’s patronage, Motol received the Magdeburg Right in 1555 — 30 years earlier that the larger and older neighbouring city of Polotsk. Bona invited Italian craftsmen to Motol — primarily, land reclamation experts — to cultivate the local marshes. In fact, the three 500 year old drainage canals she built still function today. As a sign of gratitude, local residents named Motol’s main market square after her (it was re-named only in 1939, when the land was attached to the USSR). Motol people still tell stories about the famous Italian lady.
Motol is also well known globally as the homeland of Israel’s first president, scientist-chemist Chaim Weizmann. Old timers remember where the spacious wooden house of his seemingly wealthy family was situated; it had eight rooms and two entrances. Chaim’s family owned the surrounding timber forests, with valuable timber sent along the rivers and canals to the central regions of Poland, the Baltic States, Germany and the Black Sea coast. Sadly, almost no Jews live in Motol these days, most having been killed by fascists during WWII. However, Israelis often visit the homeland of their forefathers;
accordingly, the name of the town is also written in Hebrew on a road sign.
Motol is primarily known for its craftsmen, with almost all residents claiming a link to some extent. It seems the local air is full of the spirit of entrepreneurship. Embroideresses, builders and flour millers (there were eight mills) abound. Crafts flourished in the 19-20th century, with bakers, for example, gaining recognition for their rolls (called ‘korzhik’ or a crunchy biscuit locally). Masters lived close to each other around the Korzhivka area, as it is still known today. Sadly, the close proximity of their homes often resulted in fires spreading. With this in mind, Motol residents jointly purchased equipment in St. Petersburg to produce roof tiles and hollow blocks to construct walls.
Local residents are also known for their culinary skills, being able to cook unique meat and fish dishes. These were actively traded, with Motol’s central square hosting wonderful fairs eight times a year. Buyers from neighbouring towns and villages, and those from further afield, attended.
Today’s residents keep up their spiritual heritage, preserving their unique traditions, language and links with their native land — even when living far away: in Argentina or Australia. Many come to Motol for New Year, Christmas and Kolyady, to holiday in line with old folk customs. The Director of the Motol Historical-Folklore Museum, Olga Matsukevich, met us on the eve of the holidays, to explain the culinary traditions of Motol residents. “I’ll tell you which dishes were cooked for Kolyady,” Olga begins, whetting our appetite. “As a fast precedes this folk holiday, sixteen dishes are cooked, including mushroom kvass, alongside fried, steamed, boiled and salt-cured fish, and sour cabbage with flax oil. On the morning after the fast, sausages and other meat products are prepared, following traditional recipes. Of course, mead always accompanies the holiday, made from germinated grain. Tourists absolutely love it.”
Motol’s residents pass on their tasty recipes from one generation to the next. The museum is home to a diploma given to a local resident — Mukha — for his achievements in sausage making, in the 1930s. His business is now run by his grandchildren. There are three such sausage making enterprises in Motol today, while three bakeries make their own bread, buns and pies, all to unique recipes. According to Ms. Matsukevich, every Motol home knows how to make its own bread, sausages and cheese.
Tables are laid with wonderful linen tablecloths before dishes are served, with guests welcomed with a round loaf, served on an embroidered linen rushnik cloth. The fabric is even woven locally, being delicate, and semi-transparent, like silk. Some local people still have ancient knitting looms at home but this skill is gradually disappearing. Priceless hand-made pieces are now only taken carefully from old grandparents’ trunks for the most important holidays, such as weddings.
Hand-made jackets decorated with bright embroidery and traditional patterns are similarly precious and saved for special occasions. In days gone by, 12-13 craftsmen worked in Motol; in summer, they prepared sheep skins, ready for them to be sewn into winter garments for villagers and guests. Some Motol-born Belarusians, returning to the village from Argentina, were extremely impressed by these local winter clothes. Of course, it’s not easy for local craftsmen to compete with factories, so hand-made leather jackets are now only seen at the local museum or worn by actors in the Motol Neighbours Folk Theatre. The famous local hand-made shoes are so strong that many local families wear them.
Motol residents have no wish to part with their rich traditions, which are now celebrated in the local museum, featuring about 30,000 unique exhibits. Many have been donated by Motol residents, while staff have recorded local songs, proverbs and customs. Moreover, every year, Motol hosts Belarus’ only food festival: Motol Delicacies. It gathers hundreds of participants and many thousands of visitors. The tasty morsels are always accompanied by singing, dancing and laughter.
By Vladimir Bibikov
Amazing beauties of Motol
[b]In the Medieval Ages, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania — occupied by the territory of modern Belarus — was a European state holding equal rights. In the small town of Motol, in Brest region’s Ivanovo district, Belarusian, Polish, Italian, Latvian and Jewish cultures intermix in a unique fashion, recalling days of old. Original crafts, colourful local customs and a unique dialect remain almost unchanged [/b]Motol’s history dates back many centuries, being first mentioned in the Lithuanian metric in 1422. However, it seems that the settlement was founded even earlier. One legend states that, in the mid-16th century, famous Belarusian historical figure Bona Sforza lived here. This highborn Italian, wife to Rzech Pospolita King and Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismund I, liked this picturesque place, situated on the bend of the Yaselda River.