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
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
I flew to
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
Belarus is not well geared up for tourists, at least
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
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.
The Jewish Dimension
In the small town of
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
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.