In September 2005, Emma Tait of London,
took a trip to the Grodno
region of Belarus,
homeland of her great-grandparents.
Her experiences in getting to and navigating around Belarus
will be of interest to anyone contemplating a similar trip.
We thank her for sharing her experiences and photographs.
article is copyrighted by Emma Tait.
Reprinting or copying of this
article is not allowed
without prior permission from the copyrightholders.
A Trip to Volkovsk
I live in London. Three of
my great grandparents came from the Grodno region of Belarus – Volkovsk and Pieski. They left
there in the late 1880’s, and other known relatives left before
WW2. I wanted to see where they had
come from, but had little expectation of finding any reference to my
family. I decided to travel on my own,
but wanted to hire a driver/interpreter to take me from Grodno to Volkovsk and Pieski which are close to one another.
Getting There and Getting Around
To get into Belarus, you need a visa; and to get a visa, you need an
invitation to visit. This can be
arranged via a Belarus State tourist company, listed on the Belarus Embassy
website, but on the London Embassy website they are obscurely located. The tourist option takes you to
lastminute.com. Instead, click on the
Home Page, go to Consular and Visa Section, then Information about Visas,
read to the end and find the link for the state tourist companies. For no particular reason, I opted for
‘Belintourist’. I emailed my queries and requests, and they
booked me the train tickets, hotel accommodation in Grodno, driver and interpreter (had to be two separate
people) and provided the invitation letter, a copy of which was sent to the
Embassy in London from where I could obtain the visa. I paid on a credit card.
I flew to Vilnius, mainly because I was interested in seeing the
city, and thought I could take a train direct to Grodno but that was not possible. I could have hired a driver from Vilnius to Grodno which would have been time-efficient and more
expensive, but by that stage I had arranged with Belintourist
to book me a train ticket to Minsk. From Minsk, I had to take an overnight train to Grodno, arriving very early in the morning. I discovered subsequently that by car the
journey from Minsk to Grodno is only three hours.
Belarus is not easy to negotiate if one doesn’t
speak and read their language, or Russian.
Everything is in Cyrillic script, very few people speak English, and
there are almost no maps and guide books in English. The ‘Lonely Planet’ guide for Russia and Belarus devotes a few pages only to Belarus, with little on places outside Minsk. The
‘Trailfinders’ website for the country
is brief, and the Belarus travel websites give the impression that the
main attractions are the eligible young women for marriage. My contact at ‘Belintourist’
kindly sent me a map of Grodno in English, but even he, based in Minsk, had had difficulties finding it.
Belarus is not well geared up for tourists, at least
outside Minsk which has a very busy McDonalds. In the large town of Grodno, there seemed to be one new, modern, decent
hotel – ‘Semashko’. Some of the staff there could speak a
little English and the hotel restaurant, which operated thoughout
the day and evening, did have a menu in English. Although the bedroom was big, with TV and
fridge, there was no bedside light, plug for the basin, curtains that drew
together and thick enough to cut out the light, and the weather was not
sufficiently cold for the heating to be operable. The hotel has no lift.
There are very few
places to eat, let alone have a meal.
Apart from the hotel, I saw no other restaurant, although there were
some places for snacks. However,
there were lots of drinking opportunities – and quite a lot of alcohol
drinking on the streets, especially in Minsk. Although
many public buildings in Grodno seemed to close at lunchtime, there is Sunday
shopping and I found a department store.
Most public places appear to be ‘no smoking’.
As a tourist, one is not
aware of Belarus being a Soviet-style dictatorship, Uniformed police were not in great evidence
(I saw more in Vilnius) and although conscription is mandatory for young men,
I did not see more than a couple of soldiers.
It felt a safe place to be in.
There are few advertising billboards, but fair amount of graffiti
(‘tags’ rather than slogans)
Mobile phones were much
in evidence, mainly used by the young.
People dressed in a variety of styles – smart, casual and
poor. Many wore stylish shoes. I subsequently learnt that it is important
to Belarusians to look good, and people spend quite
a lot of their income on clothes. Grodno has a very large and busy Sunday market by the
The Jewish Dimension
Grodno has one Synagogue that is closed with a danger
notice, and clearly in need of repair.
According to my map, the building has been handed over to the Jewish
Synagogue in Grodno
In the small town of Volkovsk, before WW2 the population had been 16,000
people, half of whom were Jewish. I
was told the Nazis killed 12,000 Jews there, including 4,000 who were brought
in from the surrounding area. They had
to dig a pit to make their common grave that lies at the edge of a new
cemetery and has a memorial built to them.
One of the very few
buildings that remains from before the war, when the
Lufftwaffe used the town for bombing practice, is
marked as having been built in 1932.
Then it was a Jewish bakery.
A local inhabitant, born
in 1943, showed me a low wall, at the back of the pavement, near the central
square and market, behind which was a garden and house. The wall had been the back of the Jewish
cemetery. Around the corner was a
piece of open waste ground, overlooked by a railway line, and with a few other
buildings on the perimeter. There were
overgrown graves and no upstanding headstones. I was told most of the headstones had been
used for road building. There were two
broken/smashed mausoleums that had been used as a fireplace with bottles and
rubbish on a tomb stone.
mausoleum in Volkovsk Jewish Cemetery
Goats were wandering
about feeding, and blackbirds helping themselves. There was Hebrew/Yiddish script on some
stones but many were badly worn.
history museum might acknowledge its Jewish past but it was closed on the day
I went as the town was in the middle of celebrating being founded 1,000 years
The nearby village of Pieski, about 12 miles away along a well made road
flanked by woods inhabited by deer, looked very poor. Inhabitants appeared to be close to a
All the houses were
wooden within small plots of land in which some grew vegetables, e.g. pumpkins, others
had a summer/cook house, an outside toilet, well/pump or store of timber.
Yet many houses had a TV
aerial attached, so presumably there is electricity. There was a wooden mill,
white as a result of being painted with lime to protect it from mildew; but
what might have been a waterfall is now a pretty stagnant stream. There was a smelly general food store. Villagers looked out to check the
strangers; stray dogs also looked wary.
My impression was that the village had been livelier in the
1880’s when my great great grandfather had
run a tavern there.
We got directions to the
Jewish cemetery from an elderly local man.
Between a couple of house, there was an
opening to a very large field, and mound near the entrance. Nearby, we saw part of a grave headstone
with Hebrew/Yiddish engraved. The area
looked even more neglected than Volkovsk. Too depressing to wander around the field
that appeared to have so little exposed.
I had been in the heart
of the Jewish Pale. There was little
remaining of that time. The existence
of Jews in that area seems best acknowledged and recognised
in the history books – certainly not in the places where they had
However, I did learn from
my interpreter that my great grandfather’s name of Shif
was more likely to have been Shifron; and my great
grandmothers’ would have been Leven rather
23 January 2006
Copyright © 2006 Belarus
SIG and Emma Tait