IN THE FORMER SOVIET UNION
Diane Goldman, editor, MISHPACHA
There is much to gain from creating relationships with Jews still living in our ancestral towns. Complete a picture of your shtetl with testimony from people who continue to live there. Compile historical information not found in western sources or surviving in former Soviet archives through letter-writing and phone calls with your contact. Local sources abroad are often different from what English-speaking Americans can access from home.
Start by asking the rabbi or head of the Jewish community in your ancestral town to create a list of all Jews remaining in the town and in surrounding areas. Perhaps you'll find a family surname match.
Then identify Jewish individuals with skills who might be encouraged to interview the eldest members of their Jewish community. Send disposable cameras to photograph Jewish landmarks, including synagogues, cemeteries, mass graves, and schools. Or ask someone to visit town archives and churches to inquire if any Jewish metrical books still remain.
If appropriate, send money to Jewish schoolchildren and teachers to clean up a Jewish cemetery by removing shrubbery, straightening fallen stones, repairing broken fences, and indexing gravestones. You could enter these names into the IAJGS Cemetery Project database to share with thousands of researchers.
The possibilities are endless. Request copies of local phone books to scan for relatives and Jewish surnames, clip local Jewish newspaper articles, or create a memorial book commemorating a community destroyed in the Holocaust by recording names of the deceased and oral testimony.
If you, a genealogical special interest group, or your synagogue or school is interested in developing similar relationships, consider joining a program called Yad L'Yad.
Yad L'Yad ("Hand to Hand" in Hebrew) is a Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ) national partnership program linking American synagogues, schools, and organizations with Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union (FSU). The goals of the program are to support fellow Jews who are eager to pursue their Jewish heritage and to involve American Jews in this process.
According to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, 1.5 to 2 million Jews still remain in the FSU. Yad L'Yad was born in 1990 and since March of 1994 has helped to support over 80 partnerships in the following FSU Jewish communities:
By providing medicine and funds for food parcels,and cultural, educational, moral and financial support to grassroots leaders and institutions; providing religious, educational supplies and Judaica to needy children and community groups; and offering links to the West for communities who fall victim to anti-semitism and who need help in the form of advocacy, the UCSJ is striving to create personal relationships while assisting in FSU humanitarian efforts.
JGSGW board member Mike Getz also serves on the board of the UCSJ and is active in its work. His involvement and interest in both organizations helped to create a JGSGW partnership with communities in Latvia. In doing so, the JGSGW set an international example of how genealogists can learn from surviving FSU communities while supporting their needs.
In 1995, the JGSGW committed $1500 toward developing partnerships with Latvian Jewish communities to record family histories of survivors. Some 80 family histories from members of the Jewish communities of Daugavpils, Jekabpils and Rezekne, were recorded and translated into English. These histories contain almost 800 names, many of which reflect families and individuals lost in the Holocaust and events relating to it, whose fate is probably unrecorded elsewhere.
In return, all funds provided for this purpose were remitted to the involved communities to alleviate hardship, particularly among the elderly and indigent. These arrangements were set up during visits Mike made to Latvia and contacts established then. Approximately $700 has been remitted in this way with two or three further projects still to be completed.
JGSGW member Diane Goldman visited the Carpa-thian region of southwestern Ukraine last summer. In preparation for her trip, the UCSJ found there were not yet contacts in her ancestral towns. She agreed to courier a small bookbag packed with history and language books provided by UCSJ to a contact in Mukacevo. "They also sent some cash, the address of my contact, and a list of questions to ask about any communities not already on the UCSJ list." Diane "really didn't expect this contact to add much from a research point of view, but certainly found it interesting and worthwhile from a perspective of kindness." She met with Rabbi Chaim Hoffman and was able to report back about Mukacevo, Vinogradov, Beregovo, Uzhgorod, and Khust.
I couriered school supplies and money to a synagogue in Zhitomir, Ukraine, during a 1997 visit for UCSJ. Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm, his wife Esther and congregant Girsh Schreibman met with us to answer questions about neighboring towns. They shared historical stories about the region, both religious and secular, and provided access to a synagogue library.
The UCSJ Zhitomir contact led us to a Jewish contact in Polonnoye and another in Lyubar. Each in turn was able to provide names of Jews still living in their communities. They escorted us to Jewish cemeteries, mass grave sites and former Jewish buildings. My Polonnoye contact Semyon Bentsianov, a retired journalist, had compiled a memorial book on the history of Jewish Polonnoye including hundreds of names of those killed during the Holocaust. Furthermore, upon hearing of my genealogical interest, he visited the local ZAGs archive and identified a 100- year old Jewish metrical book for me to review when I arrived.
I shared my success with fellow Polonnoye researchers upon my return to the United States. Milton Kline writes, "I was able to contact Mr. Semyon Bentsianov in Polonnoye. He provided me with information regarding my father's KLEINER family. The information was obtained via conversations with residents, it was not archival."
After reading my post to the Volhynia Listserve, Linda Cantor contacted Semyon Bentsianov about neighboring Poninka, her grandfather's ancestral town. "Semyon visited Poninka and with the help of an older Jewish woman in town, he recreated my family's history. He provided the names of my grandfather's siblings who died during the Holocaust as well as the names of those who survived and lived in Poninka as late as the 1980s. He also gave me the name and address of one family member who now lives in Israel. He is my mother's first cousin, the son of my grandfather's brother, and I have contacted him. I hope that this will act as encouragement for all of you."
"All the Yad L'Yad partnerships are very different," said Washington, DC-based Buffy Beaudoin- Schwartz, UCSJ Director for Administration and Assistance Programs. "The general model is to pair synagogues and schools here with Jewish communities and schools there." After contact is established, the synagogues are in touch at least once a month. And they usually decide together what the greatest needs of the FSU Jewish community are. Sometimes the American synagogues donate funds for a visiting nurse, a meals-on-wheels program for elderly Jews, or even such basic needs as food or medical supplies. American schools send Jewish educational materials, medicine, warm clothing and toys.
"Genealogists are in a position to support the future of their ancestral towns and potentially learn about their family history in the process. Yad L'Yad projects could be organized through special interest groups or by individuals," emphasized Beaudoin-Schwartz.
Yad L'Yad is a long-term supportive partnership that can be geared to your schedule. A monthly phone call, or email in some cases, will keep communication lines open. Financial commitment depends on you and what kind of projects you or your special interest group select to meet a particular need.
You and your Yad L'Yad committee will make the initial contact and get acquainted with your English- speaking contact in your partner community. You will then develop a need-based agenda and design a plan of action and time schedule with your community.
If you are interested in becoming involved in UCSJ's Yad L'Yad program, please call or email Mike Getz at 301-493-5179 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Perform a mitzvah in supporting these people who might be able to help you recreate your family history. Antisemitism is on the rise in the FSU because of collapsing Russian financial markets. People are starving and the government has become less centralized, thus creating more regional opportunities for unaccountable antisemitic incidences.
For more information, visit UCSJ's Website
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