ONLINE NEWSLETTER
No. 4/2000 - 25. January 2000

Editor:
Elsebeth Paikin
The editorial staff:
Mario Kampel - Lori Miller

Belarus in September

A ShtetlShleppers Trip to Minsk

23. September - 1. October 1999

by Risa Heywood, Belarus SIG Co-Coordinator

Minsk and Belarus of today

Our trip started with three wonderful days in Minsk, as a sort of introduction to Belarus as it is today. Minsk is a mostly modern city, which is straddling the west, and the memories of World War II and Soviet rule. The people were very friendly and welcoming, the weather was Indian summer and the leaves were changing.

Synagogue in Minsk
Synagogue in Minsk
Door i Minsk
Door in Minsk
House in Minsk
House in Minsk

We went to a synagogue in Minsk and participated in an oneg in the communityís sukkah. We were surprised to see a vibrant Jewish community. While the adults were in the sukkah, the children were conducting their own service.

We toured what had been the Minsk ghetto and saw many examples of Jewish architecture, including one pre-war building with an ornate wooden door that still had the imprint of where a large mezuzah had been.

Our first museum was to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. This museum is a must on your trip to Belarus in order to get the Belarusian perspective on World War II and to understand why the war is still remembered so vividly in this country.

After that we were able to visit the Skarina Institute, which does research on Belarusian culture, including the culture of minorities who have lived in Belarus - Jews included. We had a very interesting meeting with Professor Maldis, the retired director of the Institute. He showed us his private collection of postcards of towns of Belarus. These postcards date from about 1904 to 1915.

The last day of our visit to Minsk, we experienced an evening of incredible Belarusian hospitality in Frank and Galina Swartzís home. All of the participants on our trip were treated to a feast of Belarusian specialties cooked by Galinaís mother. Among the courses we stuffed ourselves with were borscht, stuffed cabbage, homemade cabbage buns, rugelach and, of course, vodka.

Visit to "our" shtetls

After the first three days in Minsk, we visited several shtetls, saw beautiful examples of Jewish architecture, viewed many memorials to the slain Jews and heard incredible stories of what life was like before the war from both Jews and non-Jews.

We concentrated on speaking to any Jews who are left in these towns, as they are dying at a great rate and their stories need to be recorded now!

Mir

On Monday, we visited Mir, Nesvizh, stopped briefly in Kletsk and toured Lyakhovichi. Mir is a small town that still retains many important examples of Jewish architecture. As we saw all over Belarus, you can tell a Jewish building because it was often built of brick, rather than wood; it had three windows facing the street; had decorative molding below the roofline and around the windows; and often had window shutters. We visited the old Jewish town square of Mir. On it sat three shuls - a large one that is now a vocational school, a smaller one for merchants and a "cold shul" that is in very bad condition. Near the shuls sit what were the Cheder and boarding house for the Yeshiva students. The Mir Yeshiva is a large building that used to have 200 students in attendance at one time. It was built at the end of the 18th century and is now a post office. There is also a castle in Mir that houses a museum. It was closed on the day we arrived.

Mir Yeshiva
Mir Yeshiva
Cheder and Boarding House in Mir
Cheder and Boarding House
A house in Mir
A house in Mir
Mir: Merchants' Shul
Mir: Merchants' Shul
Mir: Kalte Shul (Cold shul)
Mir: Cold shul
Mir: Main Shul
Mir: Main Shul

Nesvizh

Next, we made a quick stop in Nesvizh and toured the Radziwell castle that was built starting in 1573. Nesvizh is a beautiful city with many public parks. It still has many examples of Jewish buildings.

Nesvizh

Kletsk

We drove through Kletsk, quite a large town, on our way to Lyakhovichi. We stopped for a few minutes at a Jewish cemetery that I noticed by the side of the road. We waded through the weeds and saw that there are still some readable stones. It looked like no one had stepped foot in that cemetery for many, many years. The whole cemetery is overgrown and covered in moss. Synagogue in Kletsk
Synagogue in Kletsk

Lyakhovichi

We spent a sunny, warm afternoon touring Lyakhovichi with a very stately, former veterinarian dressed in a suit and a bowler hat. There are no Jews left in Lyakhovichi today, but the people of the town were so generous to us and were happy to share their memories and time. There was one synagogue in the town before the war. It is now a part of a canned vegetable factory that sits in the middle of town.

Synagogue in Lyakhovichi
Synagogue in Lyakhovichi

The Jewish buildings and houses that surrounded the synagogue are now paved over as a parking lot and buildings of the factory. One has to remember, though, that many of the towns of Belarus were 40-70% Jewish before WWII, so there are still abundant examples of Jewish buildings left. We viewed some of these houses in Lyakhovichi and had a long talk with a 92 year old resident and his wife about life in the town. We walked to the outskirts of town and saw the site of the Jewish cemetery. It was reclaimed by the government and is now paved over for a driving school. Finally, we viewed the two memorials in town that were recently erected by Israelis. They commemorate the Jews of Lyakhovichi shot on one day in 1941 in fields on the outskirts of town. Eerily, a kindergarten now sits on one of the sites and children from the school lay flowers at the memorial.

Borisov

Borisov Cemetery
Borisov Cemetery
Borisov Cemetery
Grave
Rabbis' Graves moved from Minsk to Borisov
Rabbis' Graves from Minsk
Memorial of the Ghetto
Memorial of the Ghetto

On Tuesday, we visited Borisov and Zjembin, which are northeast of Minsk. In Borisov, we toured the city with Gary Zarkhin, the young head of the Borisov Jewish community. There are now 1000 Jews in a city with a population of 160,000. Before the war, the Jewish population was 52%. We visited the new Jewish cemetery, toured old town Borisov and saw the site of the Borisov ghetto. Half the population of the town was forced to move into a few blocks between a main street and the river. They were then brought to a ravine on the outskirts of town and shot on one day. The memorial that stands there was paid for, soon after the war, by the Jews who survived. It is a hauntingly beautiful memorial - a natural grave covered with very tall, thin trees in the middle of a beautiful forest. A natural path covered with pine needles surrounds this quiet memorial site.

Zjembin

In Zjembin, we spent a couple of very memorable hours documenting the stones left in the Jewish cemetery. We bought a small bag of flour from a peasant woman nearby and our group formed an assembly line painting flour on the stones to bring out the letters, deciphering what they said and photographing each stone. Much work still needs to be done to create any meaningful record of what exists in the cemetery. Many of the stones were too badly weather worn to read, but we did photograph almost 50 stones. When we turned back to view the cemetery after we had finished, the field glowed with Hebrew letters, on the now flour-covered headstones.

Several people in our small group were descended from the SHIFRIN family from Zjembin, which was a large family that still maintains a family society and about which a book has been written. We visited the last Shifrin to live in Zjembin, although there are no Jews left in the town. Leda Shifrin invited us into her home, brought out a box of photographs and proceeded to tell us what she remembered about her husbandís family. Then her neighbor gave us a tour of the town and showed us what is left of the foundation of the synagogue, and where the market and the ghetto were. She told us stories about her Jewish friends, what it was like when they were forced into the ghetto and how the Jewish holidays used to be celebrated. Finally, Leda Shifrin showed us the memorial to the over 900 Jews killed on one day in Zjembin. As her American family drove away, there were tears streaming down her face.

Zjembin Memorial

Zjembin Memorial

Bobruisk

On Wednesday, I drove to Gomel with Galina and Anatoli, on the way we stopped in Brobruisk where we met Faina Paley, head of the Brobruisk Jewish community. There are 2000 Jews in Brobruisk today, many of them elderly. Faina invited us into her apartment, which is also used for religious services. She had the table laid for lunch and treated us to homemade gefilte fish, tzimmes and eggplant salad.

Gomel


The Sukkah in Gomel
The Sukkah in Gomel
Gomel shul
Gomel shul
Torahs in Gomel
Torahs
Synagogue in Gomel
Synagogue in Gomel
Hotel in Gomel
Hotel in Gomel

The next day in Gomel, we met with Leonard Diamondstein, the 70 year old head of the Gomel Jewish community. Before the war, 70% of Gomelís population of 170,000 was Jewish! Today there are 8000 Jews in Gomel. We visited their synagogue, which was built in 1895 and was called The Synagogue at the Corners. It had been one of 24 synagogues in the city. The Jews of Gomel got the synagogue back from the city government in 1995. There is now an Orthodox community, a Progressive community, a school, kindergarten, Jewish Club, library and more using this building as their home. While we were there, we saw some women learning Hebrew to prepare them for emigration to Israel. During the war, Gomel was almost completely burnt, so it is a miracle that even one synagogue survived.

We visited the only remaining older Jewish cemetery in the city. The Soviet government would reclaim cemeteries if they were not used after 25 years (not only Jewish cemeteries) in order to use the land for other purposes. We were unsettled to learn that the hotel we stayed in the previous night was built on the site of one of the old Jewish cemeteries. The cemetery we did visit was rather small and in disrepair and obviously not maintained. We were told that the children of many of the deceased had moved their parentsí remains to the newer cemetery that is maintained. Many of the graves were done in the Soviet or Russian style (I didnít get a clear answer on the origin of the custom) with an ornate metal fence around the grave and a picture of the person engraved on the headstone. Often there would be a bench or table inside the fenced area, so family could visit and have a picnic there on Remembrance Day.

Finally, we visited the local history museum. The museum is part of a large city park that used to be the castle and grounds of the Paskevich family. The museum gave a history of the city, including dinosaur bones that were found there, but with no specific mention of Jews. Most interesting to me were the display of very large currency that was used in the late 1800ís and a display of the furnishings that would have been in a merchantís home during the same time period. I could just imagine my family living in a house like that and shopping with those large bills.

End of the tour and the trip

After a long drive back from Gomel to Minsk, I spent my last night in Belarus.

And next day we flew back to the U.S.

The trip was fascinating, enjoyable and a whirlwind.

I wish I had had at least double the time in every place we visited!

I want to thank Susan King and Joanna Fletcher for putting together the ShtetlSchleppers project and enabling more people to have these adventures and memories. And I also want to publicly thank Frank and Galina Swartz and our driver, Anatoli Sonkin for making this trip so memorable. Frank and Galina made the arrangements in Belarus, shared their city with us and introduced us to their friends and family. As one of the guides available to ShtetlShleppers participants, Galina tirelessly and expertly interpreted for us and sought out the most interesting people for us to meet. Anatoli drove us all over the country, shared his great sense of humor and patiently waited while we toured a cemetery or visited with townspeople.

If you have any desire to see Belarus for yourself, please donít wait! The highlight of the trip is to meet the warm and friendly people of this country and to hear and record the stories of what Jewish life was like before the war. Unfortunately, the story tellers are aging and will not be around forever.

For more information on ShtetlShleppers
go to JewishGen's ShtetlSchleppers Website

Dates for this years trips: May 3 and September 6, 2000


Copyright © 1999 Belarus SIG and Risa Heywood


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