Belarus SIG Newsletter

Issue No. 4 - August 1999


Novogrudok, 1908

Novogrudok (Navahredok) lies about 74 miles WSW of Minsk (as per JewishGen Shtetl Seeker). It was in White Russia and now in Belarus.

My grandfather was born there around 1895. My great grandmother and her four sons emigrated to Canada and the US before WW1. In 1969 my uncle sent a letter of remembrance to another uncle about their early life. It includes memories of the Novogrudok of their youth.

I wish to share these memories with you. The following are excerpts from that letter:

"In your letter you mention Navahredok, our old home town, of which you say you have some pictures. As you probably know, the town which is the birthplace of all of us is something of a historic location and in our day was in many respects quite an interesting little place. It boasts as being the birthplace of the well-known Polish poet Adam Mitzkewich who in his famous book, Pan Thadeusz, makes several references to it. I was told by someone familiar with his biography that Mitzkewich came of a Jewish ancestry. I was also told that another well-known person, the late Alexander Harkavy, the author of the first Jewish-English dictionary, came originally from the same town. References to Navahredok and to books on the history of the place can even be found in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

It was a picturesque little place, built as it was on a hill amidst extensive fields, thick forests and some small lakes, where as youngsters we roamed about a good deal. There were the castle hills with the tall ruins of an ancient castle and an abandoned old church still standing, and amidst which we as children often played. There was the central market place with its main rows of stores, buildings and side stores and stands around it.  There was the synagogue yard with its many synagogues. There were also the several churches and one mosque. There was the large court yard in the centre of town, in the centre of which stood our little two-roomed home.   There was the Maniezsh and Zolotucha, Pigs Lane and Jewish Street and all the other streets, lanes and places of which I can recall almost every foot. There was the intoxicating fragrance of the Russian spring lilacs, the fruits in the many orchards and the fresh vegetables from the gardens around the town.

There was Tepke and Kondibe, Parad and Balagrivetz. There was also Rashchiche (who, according to another notation had a garlic and onion stand) and Motke der grober tochas; there was Yooshke the klippe and der Kalter Schmid, sometimes known also as the Kalte Szoppe, and the many other characters whose names and nicknames have become a humorous by word with all of us. But there were also the Beilins, the Harkavys, the Getsofs, and the Eliasbergs - people of a type who would do credit to any community. The father of Larry Zolf, the T.V. personality, tried to market two books he wrote on life in his old home town.

I have often thought that there was a great deal more which could be written, humorous or otherwise of life in the Navahredok of our day. It was in many respects more Jewish than Tel Aviv, but I don't recall it to be anything of the "Shtetl" of Sholom Aleichem's stories.   Isolated , as it was, from the main centres--it was some twenty miles from a railway station--it had many odd and humorous customs and people, but there was a good deal of evidence of modern ideas. The very layout of the town showed that it was built according to a plan. There were people who received and read newspapers--even from abroad. There were some homes that had carpets and drapes and even the odd piano. There were numerous other things which one could find in larger places. The town also had a little of the character of a Peyton Place. The people in the community, generally, felt themselves bound by strong sense of moral values. As I think back of Navahredok and the lean years which we lived in during our childhood I nevertheless don't recall being particularly unhappy. On the contrary, I have often felt that my early years there were in many respects the most interesting of my life.

Because of the limited space in the house the whole outdoors was our home for most of the year and that did not seem to hurt us. The neighbours among whom we lived were in more comfortable circumstances but we did not seem troubled or envious or unhappy over that. We made our own playthings, sleighs, skates, guns and other things that were often admired by our neighbours. But since we did not have the discipline of a school, or the enjoyment of orderly organized games for children, we would pass some of our time and often amuse ourselves with pranks and mischief--like pelting the metal roof of old Eli Fisher's home with stones. The poor old fellow...would run out of his house frightened stiff; or posting the invitation from the Haggadah - "Kol dichfin, yase v'yechal" at the entrance to the toilets in the yard; or slipping out quietly from the house at 5:00 in the morning to drag a large metal drum up a sloping roof, fill the drum with stones and then send it crashing down to the ground, bringing out the frightened neighbours in their night clothes, but the little culprits were nowhere to be found--hidden under a barrel in a neighbours yard. These are samples of some of the shenanigans that we, with some of our neighbours' kids would cook up."

The balance of the letter contains personal information about my family. My great grandfather, Noah Kopstein, was married first to Gitte Beilin, of which marriage there were no children.

He married second Ruchamah Kortitsky and they had 5 sons. The oldest son was sent to the I. C. A. farm school in Minsk.  This privilege was the saving of the family. My uncle was sent to Canada by the school and he was able to send for his mother and three surviving brothers. The family was gone from Novogrudok before WW1. And so, I share with you this little bit of the Old World.

Deborah Kopstein Burr, Ontario, Canada

A photo from Novogrodok today.

(The other photo has been removed from the online version only - not the pdf-file - because we were told that it was from Mir and not from Novogrudok!)

(photographed by Ms. Harriet Kasow, Israel, who has given us permission to print it here)

Copyright © 1999 Belarus SIG and Deborah Kopstein Burr

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