ONLINE NEWSLETTER (No. 2/2006 — February 2006)

Editor: Fran Bock

In September 2005, Emma Tait of London, England, 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.

© This 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

by Emma Tait


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 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.

General Observations

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 river.

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 community.

The 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.

Smashed 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.

The Volkovsk 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 ago.

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 subsistence existence.

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.

Well outside Pieski House

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 lived.

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 than Lev.

Emma Tait

23 January 2006