10 October 2010

Belarus: A few shtetl Jews survive

Many readers of Tracing the Tribe have roots in Belarus, where some 98% of rural Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Our TALALAI family lived in both Mogilev and in the agricultural colony Vorotinschtina adjacent to the hamlet of Zavarezhye - some 12 miles southwest of the major city of Mogilev, lost some 300 souls on one day in 1941. The only ones to survive - a mere handful - had been away that day. Other branches were murdered in Gorki, north of Mogilev. Some branches were evacuated to Tashkent and returned to find nothing. And, of course, there was the Minsk ghetto, where other members were murdered.

Fortunately, our closest family had immigrated to the US beginning in 1898 and through 1920. From family documents and partial family trees found among the earliest immigrants' belongings, we know they stayed in touch with family back home, and were aware of what happened.

When Minsk researcher Yuri Dorn visited the colony a few years ago, he sent me photos of still beautiful green fields, of dilapidated houses and also spoke to the few elderly people in the area. One elderly woman had remembered some of my relatives, whom she knew as a young girl.

Judith Maloff of The Forward recently traveled to Belarus and visited with some of the remaining elderly and ill shtetl Jews.

Her story offers historical facts of those times, along with the photos and stories of some of these individuals.
The interviews we see in Holocaust documentaries are but fragments of lives. Subjects talk about their horrendous concentration camp experiences, and the story ends. But suffering has continued in Belarus for many of the elderly, who are among the poorest Jews in the world. Unlike survivors who moved to relatively comfortable circumstances in Israel or the United States, those who remained in Belarus endured religious intolerance under the Soviets after the war. Now they are finishing their days with further deprivation.

It’s a lonely life for Jews who returned to their shtetls after nearly everyone else was massacred. More than 600,000, or 90%, of Belarusian Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. Today, most of these market towns have but a handful of Jews left struggling to get by on pensions so slim — sometimes no more than $120 a month — that they sometimes have to choose between heat and food. These survivors are often sickly, and unlike most Belarusian elderly, they lack extended family to take care of them.
The story mentions the Hesed welfare centers, supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides home visits, food and aid in the winter. The JDC also distributes compensation funds to Nazi victims.

These few souls are the remnants of nearly-vanished shtetl life.

Maloff interviewed them and Diana Markosian photographed them, in evocative black and white

-- Grigory Hosid, 86, of  Grodno. Prewar Jewish population was 21,000; today, 600.

-- Riva Lazarevna Katz, 85, of Ivenets. Prewar Jewish population was 1,200; today four.

-- Faina Paley, 75, of Bobruisk. Prewar Jewish population was 27,000; today, 1,260.

-- Grigory Kagan, 79, of Kirovsk. Prewar Jewish population unknown, today, one.

-- Ida Mikhailna Kaslova, 75, of Buda-Koshelevo. Prewar Jewish population was 500; today, one.

Do read the comments to the story, which also provides a link to the Survivor Mitzvah Project of Los Angeles, which provides additional help.

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