04 June 2008

Belarus: More on Dokshitsy rededication

A few days ago, Tracing the Tribe noted the JTA news brief on the cemetery rededication in Dokshitsy, Belarus.

Over the past few months, I've been in communication with Aaron Ginsburg of Sharon, Massachusetts, who has played an instrumental role in this accomplishment. There is much more information on the town and the event at JewishDokshitsy.org.

[NOTE: This posting was updated June 7 to correct Aaron's place of residence.]

The full story, by Grant Slater, is now up at JTA.

DOKSHITSY, Belarus (JTA) -- A smattering of the 7,500 residents of this village where Jews once lived huddle under their umbrellas as the rain falls.

They peer over their shoulders to catch a glimpse of Aaron Ginsburg, who traces his ancestors here, reciting a speech through tears.

""Dokshitsers made new lives in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia and what would become Israel," Ginsburg tells the crowd as a camera from Belarusian state television focuses on him. "Few came back. Those who did found all they had loved gone. We are their children and grandchildren."

Behind Ginsburg stand 170 gravestones etched with faded Hebrew inscriptions, the most recent reincarnation in a patchwork effort by local authorities, local Jewish communities and returning descendants to restore Jewish cemeteries across Belarus.
Ginsburg, a pharmacist and amateur genealogist in Sharon, Massachusetts, played a vital role in the Dokshitsy project that is being marked on this May day.

As in my own ancestral shtetl of Vorotinschtina (an agricultural colony adjacent to Zaverezhye, about 12 miles southwest of Mogilev), there are few, if any, Jews. The last time someone visited Vorotinschtina, there was one elderly lady who remembered the Jews, and pointed out one of the Jewish houses, and remembered one of our Talalay relatives. On one day in 1941, everyone (some 300 souls) was slaughtered; only a handful of people survived because they were away on business or at school elsewhere.

In Dokshitsy, about 2,800 were rounded up and shot; 98% (more than 800,000) of the rural Jews in Belarus were murdered by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen killing squads.

The story indicates that the Belarus government may be taking a new direction to honor victims, despite the anti-Semitic comments of its president, Alexander Lukashenko, although he later met with magnate Lev Leviev, a major supporter of Chabad in the FSU. Since that meeting, some local initiatives towards restoring several Jewish cemeteries have taken place.

Due south of Mogilev, where most of our Talalay lived, is Gomel with a half-million people. Construction workers came across hundreds of Jewish graves while a stadium was being expanded. The city consulted with Jewish leaders and recruited local Jewish students to help relocate the remains.

For nearly a decade, Ginsburg has traced his family back to Dokshitsy, two hours north of Minsk.

As is the case in many shtetls across Belarus, many Jews had already left for the US and elsewhere before World War II, most in the late 1890s-1918. Most of those who remained were murdered, as they were in Dokshitsy and in Vorotinshtina. The monument on the spot where the Jews were killed does not mention their religious background.

Demolished in 1965, the Jewish cemetery's gravestones were removed or buried in a park untouched for four decades. When the gravestones were discovered, the town officials wanted to preserve the cemetery and looked for someone to help. Ginsburg heard from them in February 2006; the letter said they wanted to right a wrong against its Jewish citizens.

Ginsburg created the non-profit Friends of Jewish Dokshitsy and raised more than $28,000 to help fund the cemetery's reconstruction.

What had been a field of gravestones buried or strewn about is now a fenced-off area with more than 100 gravestones standing upright and a marble monument with inscriptions in Hebrew and Belarusian.

A smooth stone pathway leads from the road to the cemetery gate. All of it was built by the Dokshitsy city government.

For the trip, Ginsburg united 14 people with ancestors from Dokshitsy and brought them to the cemetery, where they recited the Mourners' Kaddish. The descendants came from South Africa, Israel, Russia and the United States.

Mark Izeman, an American lawyer in Minsk whose grandfather was born there, wondered why the city did this. He asked if it was guilt, but said after being there, "I think they are happy to help close the circle." He spoke to local residents at City Hall and in a school.

Read the complete article here, which quotes other individuals, such as Dokshitsy region chair Oleg Pinchuk and Michael Lozman, who has been leading groups of American college students for cemetery restoration activities since 2002.

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