My Second Visit to Kamenka
Ze'ev Sharon (née
Translated from my Hebrew Version No. 2.2
No. 2.2: no personal information
and some of the names disguised
Initial translation by Google Translator
Carol P. Bass (née Palevsky)
Drafts prepared during my visit to
Belarus in June 2011
In June 2011 a group of about sixty people, including Irith and I, participated in the March of the Living in Belarus. Dorot Hahemshekh was the association organizer (The Next Generations); Tamara Borodatz was both the instructor and coordinator.
On the last day of the trip, Sunday, 26 June 2011, we went with the group to Minsk airport. Everyone entered the terminal, but we stayed behind to continue the journey independently. Our bus driver drove Irith, Tamara and me to the bus station of Minsk, and there we went on a public bus, line Minsk – Shchuchin, to Lida. The journey took about two and a half hours. We arrived at Lida at 2200 or so. We went to the apartment of a childhood friend of Tamara. We ate dinner: vegetables, scrambled eggs with pasta, cheese, and bread. We talked a bit and went to sleep. Irith and I slept in the living room.
While on the bus, on the way to Lida, we tried to figure out a plan for the coming days. Tamara telephoned several people to coordinate all that is necessary. Vadim told her that he heard in the media that Tamara is in Belarus with a group from Israel! Apparently, our March of Living in Belarus won wide media coverage in Belarus.
Monday, 06/27/2011 Lida
I got up at 0900. Looking out of the window I see a bright, sunny day. After breakfast we continued our coordination for the visit tomorrow to Kamenka. I called the people whose details I gathered in Israel. I spoke with Wanda, who speaks good English. She spoke with Nadia, who told her that she could come with us tomorrow, but not before 1700 which would be after work. I called Rosa, a teacher in Kamenka, but the number was incorrect. I called Jenia, a teacher. He's not home; his wife answered: “You can call again when he gets back home, tomorrow.” All my efforts have failed so far.
Irith and I headed to town for a walk. It is cool, cloudy, and windy outside. The streets are clean. Facades are beautifully painted. Tamara continued coordination, and finally came up with a travel plan for tomorrow. Originally, I planned a two-day visit to Grodno and Kamenka, and finally it ended up with one concentrated day.
Nadia is a niece of Mania, which I shall describe later. She lives in Lida. In the past I corresponded with her several times in English. I thought she knew the language and that we could communicate. It turned out that her English is not good enough to have a conversation. Nadia and her friend Simon agreed to drive us in his car the next day. They escorted us faithfully the whole day, and I believe that they had an interesting day, like we did.
Tuesday 6/28/2011 Lida
Nadia and Simon came to our house in the morning, and off we went. Tamara sat in the front seat, and we sat in the back: Nadia, Irith and I.
We went first to Shchuchin.
Tamara told us about the history of the agricultural revolution in Belarus, a revolution that has put the Khutor (see hamlet) on the map. Until 1861 the villages in Belarus belonged to Landlords. Villagers had no right to own property; they were actually like slaves. The revolution of 1861 liberated the country from the subordination of the masters, but people were left with no property. There was a need for one more necessary step to make. It was Stolypin who made the move. He authorized the villagers the right to buy land or lease it for 99 years. Now people could cultivate the land and support themselves and their families. Following this move, the Khutor was born, a farmhouse in midst of surrounding farmland and plantations. This revolution gave a boost to the economy in Belarus. Stolypin himself was murdered in Kiev by a revolutionary (Jewish).
Tamara organized to meet Marusia and Kola, her son, by the gas-station at the entrance to Shchuchin. This is a remarkable story. I would have not written here about this meeting if it didn't have a connection to Kamenka. Several months ago, I wrote this particular story of escape from death and concealment of a Jewish family with the assistance of a Belarusian family. Marussia is the daughter of Mikhail and Stefanida Tolotz'ko. During the war and the Holocaust they hid a Jewish family of five who escaped from the hands of the German murderers. Of the children of Michael and Stefanida, Marussia, who was fifteen years old, was the only one who knew of the secret and helped her parents with the concealment.
What is the connection to Kamenka? The origins of the father of the Jewish family, Feivel Zachepinski, were in Kamenka. After his marriage he lived with his wife in Kamenka. During the Nazi occupation, they lived in Grodno. Mikhail and Stefanida, who helped them to hide, risking their lives, lived in the nearby village of Strovostz'ina. They assisted the Jewish family, hiding among the partisans, in their backyard, and later in a Z'imlianka between their village of Strovstz'ina, the town of Shchuchin, and Kamenka.
Marusia and Kola arrived at the gas-station by his car. She is a woman of about 85, her back bent. It was obvious that the meeting excited her. I gave her a gift from the survivor family in Israel, and I added my own little gift (a ceramic "Hamsa", homemade by people with disabilities from Kassler House in Haifa). She invited us to visit their home if only for a quick cup of tea. Marusia responded to my question and said that one cannot find the exact location of the Z'imlnka where the family was hidden because it disappeared over the years. The location is about 7 km away from Kamenka toward Shchuchin.
From the fuel station we went on to the Cemetery of Shchuchin. This is a public cemetery for all religions. The signification of a Jewish grave is the absence of a sign that identifies it as Jewish.
I planned to visit the graves of the parents and aunt of Moshe Tocker, my cousin. Kola was leading us in his car. He takes us directly to Raaya Tocker Sidranski's grave. She is sister of my mother's, an aunt I have never seen. It turns out that Kola knew exactly where her grave was. Marusia said that she knew Raaya. The tombstone looks complete and in good condition. I lit a memory candle and read Kaddish. Irith, standing next to me, replied Amen. Kola soon found the grave of Gedalia Tocker. Gedalia was a partisan in the Bielski Brigade of Jewish partisans. There, too, I lit a memory candle and read Kaddish. Then we went to the new wing of the cemetery, about one kilometer distant. Right next to the entrance is the grave of Asia Pyodorov and her husband, who passed away before her. We lit a candle and I read Kaddish.
We went next to Kamenka.
Nadia arranged by her mobile phone that first we visit her aunt's home. The arrangements were made with Nela, the nurse who takes care of Mania. Nela suggested that we will meet Jenia, the teacher, at Mania's house. By doing that we saved time of an additional meeting with him. I got Jenia's name through a request I made at the JewishGen Belarus SIG (Special Interest Groupe) asking for possible connections to people in Kamenka. On the way, Nadia told us that in the village of Protostz'izna, a large village on the way, between Kamenka and Skiddell, was a spirit factory. The plant closed a decade ago. Mom told me about this plant in her memoirs about Kamenka.
Kamenka is located about fifteen kilometers away from Shchuchin. Once we got into town (village is a more appropriate setting), I noticed a change from what I remembered of the place during my visit there in 2002. It took me a while to realize what I saw. The village looked different and the houses on the sides of the street were different. The street that comes from the Shchuchin direction, formerly called Shchuchin Street, is where my ancestor's families lived: Sidransky, Kozakowsky, and Goldberg. In this street were also located the synagogue and the post-office.
In 2002 the street looked very similar to its appearance sixty years before. Same old one-story wooden houses, almost black in color. Now I saw many new houses down the street going toward the church. In my mother's childhood memories, the trees were young, and nine years ago there were tall trees on both sides of the road. This time there were no trees at all. The road itself, which was paved by stones, disappeared. Instead, there was an asphalt road, on each side of which was an asphalt pavement. This was apparently the reason for uprooting the trees. During the drive I looked for the Goldberg house which became a clinic after the war, but I could not see it. I thought, at first, that I had forgotten it's exact location. We were in a hurry to arrive on time at Mania’s home, and thus we couldn't stop for a thorough search. At the church we went left, and again left onto the parallel street. There was Mania's house.
Before the war, in 1931, Mania and her family lived in a Khutor near Kamenka. They built their own house in Kamenka 45 years ago, in about 1966 (i.e., they did not live in a house that belonged to Jews before the war). On my previous visit to Kamenka, Mania told me that she knew my mother when both were children, before the war, and she remembered that my mother's name was Khamche (her name was Nekhama before it was changed in Russia to Ania; Khamche was the name gentiles called her). Mania remembers that they went to school together. Mania had close relations with Feige Sidransky née Goldberg, my grandmother, and with the family of my mother's sister Raya Toker. Moshe, my cousin, used to call her Aunt Mania (Chochwa Mania). For years she lived alone. She has no children.
On the way to Shchuchin, Nadia showed me pictures of her family that she had brought with her. Among them were pictures of her grandparents, their children: one son and four daughters, among them Nadia's mother and Mania, her aunt. In the photos, she looks like a young and handsome woman with blond hair. The family lived in a Khutor by Kamenka. Nadia's mother studied to become a teacher and lived in Lida.
A year ago, before her 80th birthday, she suffered a stroke. She is currently confined to bed. Nella is taking care of her. She is a relative and a nurse and works in the medical service of Kamenka. Nella lives with Mania and takes care of her with devotion, day and night. Like Shchuchin Street, so the house of Mania has changed. It looked newer to me from what I remembered from my last visit. A new entrance door, ceramic tiles replaced the wooden floor, and more changes. It turns out that the house is in the midst of renovations. Later, when I went to the toilet, I walked through the barnyard: beds of vegetables, chickens, and pigs. I passed by two dogs tied up in chains. The toilet is in a small hut across the yard with a platform with a hole in it and no running water. I washed my hands in a hut that served as a storeroom or pantry, by a pipe with a tap above a plastic bucket. I wiped up with a clean towel which hung there. That was the way people once lived. I wonder how they used the toilets in cold winter nights.
When we reached the house-yard we were met by a line of people: Nella the nurse, her son, and the teacher. We entered the house. Mania lives in a separate room. She lies in bed and has difficulty speaking. She cried out in excitement. We entered and were seated.
By request, I told the story of my family in short sentences, and Tamara translated. I spoke about my mother and her Sidransky family, about my father and the Kozakowsky family, and about the Goldberg family, who lived in the big house. I Also spoke about Shiel Sidransky, my grandfather, who took his wife and two daughters and their experiences as they escaped eastward, away from the oncoming German Army. I spoke about my dad, who was in the Red Army, and about my mom, who found a letter at the Post Office sent from Russia from my father to his family who did not exist. I told about my dad who came to visit Kamenka, married my mom; they both went to Russia to release him from the Army. The trip was a long journey from Russia to Poland and to Germany, where I was born, until they reached Israel. Everyone was silently listening to my story.
Tamara told about the meeting with Shoshana Resnick Rapoport from Kamenka in Avihail, near Netanya, when she was 102 years old.
Jenia told us about the project of Rabbi Boraz who came from America with his students, among them a black student. Together with local students, they cleaned up and renovated the Jewish Cemetery. I said that, among other things, they held a joint football game, the Americans against Belorussians. Jenia said that it was interesting that girls played on the American team. There were no girls on the Belarussian team. We beat the Americans 5-0, he said.
While we talked, Mania was listening, sometimes referring to the conversation in a harsh voice. Then she went back to sleep or lied down with closed eyes.
Nella, Nadia and Simon disappeared from the room and returned after a while with plates heaped with food. Tamara opened a folding table which stood in the room. I asked her how she knew the dresser was also a table. She replied that in Belarus there is such a folding table in every house. On the table they loaded bread, sausages, cheese, butter, cucumber (fresh from our garden says Nella). Also vodka and soft drinks were placed on the table. We drank vodka and we talked. At the end, tea was served and a big cream cake. I ate a big slice of it even though I rarely eat cake.
Most of the time Mania was asleep. Nella glanced at her from time to time to make sure she was okay. Nella said that she applied for a wheel-chair, and when it is approved, Mania could be taken outside to have some fresh air and sun.
I bought a new DVD camera, especially for this trip to Kamenka. In the end, I did not film as much as I had planned, because we were too busy during our stay in Kamenka. I took the well near the house. It looks like it is being used despite its rusty chain. Its metal roof, however, is new. I shot the street where the house stands. This is the street leading to the lake. On this street, so I understood from my mother's stories, lived the Efron family. The Borer family apparently lived on another street. I could not identify their street.
I asked Nella and Jenia about the Goldberg's house, which I had not seen when we arrived. Nella said that the house served as a clinic, in which she worked. The house was in a condition that required maintenance and repairs, which cost too much for the council to invest in. At the same time, the medical care system in Belarus was changed. The Hospital in Shchuchin provided medical service for the region, and an ambulance transported patients from the surrounding villages. In Kamenka there is a day-care clinic with two doctors (if I got it correct). Nella works there as a nurse. She moves among the patients and treats them in their homes. As to the Goldberg house, the old clinic - the house was demolished! In its place two to three private houses were built.
Nella coordinated our next visit to Kamenka: the Council, the Church and the School.
We went to the Council. The Council building is exactly opposite the church. It is a renewed and handsome structure, progressive and neat. Our first meeting was with the Council secretary, because the mayor was off to lunch. A young woman was waiting for us in her office. Natalia is her name. She does not know English. She majored in library studies at the university. I asked if they had a map of Kamenka or of the region – they did not. When I asked about any written materials about the place, Natalia showed us The Shchuchin Region Memory Book. This is a book that Heshke (Asia Pyodorova) helped to make, and I purchased from her in 2002. Tamara browsed through the contents of the book, but did not find anything of importance. Natalia replied to my question that in the Kamenka archive there are materials from the year 1978 approximately, but not from earlier years. She said that there may be materials on Kamenka for previous years in the central archive in Grodno, located on Dz'z'insky Street. I had already hired a search in this archive, and received only dull information on my family. It seems that I would not find here in Kamenka any interesting information from the war time and earlier.
After we returned from our visit to the church, we met the head of the Council, who had just returned by his car from his lunch break. We spoke with him (through Tamara) standing in the street. His car looked old, not uncommon here in Belarus. He is a young man. Sergei is his name. He seemed cooperative and although he did not invite us to his office, he listened to us with interest. I think that he may be willing to help in the future. Tamara explained to him my request: that the Council will maintain the Jewish Cemetery, which has been renovated by the students of Rabbi Boraz. Sergei said that they have difficulty in trimming the grass using a hand scythe. If we can help acquire a mower carried on the back, activated by a gasoline or diesel engine, it will help them greatly. Later, when we visited the Cemetery, we did find closely cropped grass, but there were an abundance of shrubs and young trees growing all around. Asking about the Clinic, the Goldberg’s house, he said that they have filmed its demolition and that he would send me a copy. I gave him my email address.
After visiting the Council, and before we met the head of the Council, we had visited the Church. Nella led the way past the road. There, at the entrance, Sophia was already waiting for us. Sophia was a history teacher at Kamenka’s school. She is now retired. She became a Christian believer and goes to church every day. Her shape is thin and she looks austere. Sophia took us into the yard, to a statue of a saint. Then we went into the church. It is a large and beautiful church. The priest was not present. According to Jenia, the church is active. I had not visited the church on my first visit in 2002 because it was closed. I was told then that the church was usually closed with no daily activity in it. The priest came from Poland only for events such as weddings, funerals, etc. We did not climb to the church steeple that offers a view of the surrounding landscape. Nor did we go to the church basement.
Next to the church there is a Catholic Monastery, with twelve nuns who are taking care of elderly people in the village. Opposite the church there is a large square, and in the middle of it there is a Memorial to Soldiers from Kamenka and neighboring villages who fell in the "fatherland war”.
When we went out of the Church, a car which passed by the church stopped, and out of it came a woman who ran to Tamara and hugged her with excitement. Both were very enthusiastic about the unexpected and almost impossible encounter. The woman came years ago to work in Israel, and there she met Tamara and became friends. Now they met in Kamenka in an almost impossible timing. I already said earlier that there are very interesting happenings in our tour to Belarus ...
From the Church we went to the school. Sophia and Jenia led us, and we followed: Irith and I, Tamara, Nadia and Simon. The old wooden school is complete and painted beautifully on the outside, but it is not used because it's structure is not safe anymore. Next to it stands the new school, made of bricks. We entered. The interior is simple, spacious, clean and tidy. The school is empty because of the holiday. Jenia showed us a classroom. He and Sophia explained about the place. The school has some 200 students from Kamenka and surrounding areas; about half of them are from Kamenka. Currently enrolled are eleven classes, from first grade to junior eleventh. Students have a choice to learn English or German, and some are learning German. Jenia has lived in Kamenka for about twenty years, and is teaching. His mother worked forty years in the clinic of Kamenka. My impression of him is of being a good-hearted, calm, pleasant, and modest person.
A small group of students arrived. They returned from a "lager"- summer camp. They were a nice group. Jenia told them about the special guests and we talked with them a little, in English. I said to Jenia: here you see the results of your work, we can talk in English with your students. I was impressed by the beautiful relationship between the children and their teacher. One of the girls was quite similar to Eden, our granddaughter. Irith took a picture hugging the girl and told her about our twelve-year-old granddaughter. The Belarussian student said that she is also twelve. Tamara and Irith sang to the children the Hebrew song Hinea Ma Tov Uma Naiim Shevet Akhim Gam Yahad ̶ “How Good and How Pleasant for Brethren to Dwell Together" and I joined in. After the singing, Tamara explained to them the lyrics.
Sophia led us to a room which served as a museum. I assumed that she had founded the museum, which presents the history of the school and of the town by pictures, posters and mainly by exhibition of various objects. Among the displays I remember seeing carpenter tools, such as a bow saw, a wooden school bag, and more. On the walls were hung 2-3 photos, the oldest one from the year 1956. Jenia replied to my question that they have neither lists of students nor photographs from previous years. I was disappointed because I hoped to find photos or lists of pre-war students!
I gave Sophia two copies of photos which I brought with me from my family album. One photograph was of students and teachers of a Kamenka school class. Photographed in it are Jewish and local students. Sitting in front are a teacher and a priest (during my 2002 visit to Kamenka a woman identified him by name as Aranovic). The photograph was taken some time before the war, the exact year is unknown to me. Among the students are two girls, both of whom are standing. One is my father's (Eliezer Kozakowski) sister; the other one is the daughter of Alter Goldberg. Both perished in the Holocaust. The other photograph is of the Fire Brigade of Kamenka in which are several Jews, among them Alter Goldberg and his brother Herschel. The photographs are in black and white and about 20X30 cm in size.
Now the museum on the history of Kamenka is enriched by pictures from the pre-war years.
When we went out I was thinking that it could be an interesting idea to establish in the Kamenka School Museum a display on the heritage of the Jews of Kamenka.
We stopped in Shchuchin Street (that was the street's name in the old days), where I walked along the street. It has changed a lot since my visit in 2002. Then it looked as it did sixty years ago. And this time it looked new and spacious. I've already written about it and I will do it again because the scene excited me. The boulevard, with it's beautiful trees, was not there anymore. There is a paved road and asphalt pavements on either side. Most of the old wooden houses disappeared and were replaced by new houses, mostly two-story white brick houses. The Goldberg house disappeared and Nadia showed me it's former location. In its place stood two newly built stone houses, still without gardening and plants. Only one house that looked as if it apparently belonged to Jews, was there, but the neighbors did not know who were the original occupants. They said that there was an old woman, about 90, who might know. We went to look for her using the instructions we received. Nadia asked people working in the yard near her house. They said that the woman would not even remember the name of her grandson.
We went to the car and drove to the Jewish Cemetery. It is located at the edge of the village, beyond the row of houses on Shchuchin Street, in front of the Christian Cemetery. It covers a large area. The cemetery is fenced with iron fencing with the Star of David along the entire length. There is an iron entrance with the Star of David on top. The fence was constructed in 2004 by the project organized by Rabbi Boraz of Dartmouth University in Boston. University students came to Kamenka and, together with local students, cleaned the cemetery, erected gravestones that had been lying with their faces in the ground. With the assistance of workers from Grodno, they built the fence and gate. At the entrance there are two signs, clean and complete. One tells the story of this unique project, and the other is a memorial plaque for Jewish families.
Years passed and negligence returned to the cemetery. It is hard to maintain a site in a village where there are no Jews or other interested parties to care for the place.
The fence is still painted from the outside, but from the inside there is rust in many places. There is young grass that looks as if it was recently mowed. But, the whole area is covered with lots of weeds. In some places the weeds reach a height of half a man. I could not see many of the headstones which I had seen in pictures that Rabbi Boraz sent me a couple of years ago. Perhaps they have fallen or they might be covered with weeds. I did find and photographed an erect headstone that carried a name which looks like Kozikowsky, very close to my father's surname of Kozakowsky. I could not find the headstone of Khaya Yenta Zabagonsky which I saw in 2002 and was photographed in 2004. I could not locate other headstones known to me. Simon and I walked around the cemetery grounds; there are only a few graves visible. I left the place with uncertainty: Perhaps I was not looking closely enough (a thorough search was impossible because we had to go to Grodno). I have seen too few tombstones. Perhaps they are covered with weeds.
I was surprised to see leaning on the cemetery fence a bouquet of dried flowers. I wondered who put it there.
I thought that maybe we, second and third generations of our Kamenka-born ancestors, should organize for cleaning and maintaining the Jewish Cemetery in Kamenka. I have thoughts of how to do it, but I'm not sure if I can organize people to participate in a project like this.
We did not finish all I planned to do in Kamenka, and we went on to Grodno. We passed by Skidel; the Shifrah family, family of Alter Goldberg’s wife, was from Skidel and it is possible that she and their two daughters were taken from there to be murdered in Auschwitz.
In Grodno we visited both relatives of the Toker family branch and Zvi Hosid. Tamara has assisted us in translation.
Zvi Hosid lives in an apartment building. He opened the door still chewing on his lunch. We sat in his small and simply furnished living room. We talked a little. I asked Zvi if he knew of Shlomke Kozakowsky (whom I assumed might be of my father's family). Zvi knew him. He studied with Shlomke's sister in the same class in Grodno. Shlomke, said Zvi, "had a good voice". He moved to Moscow, apparently because of his "good voice". If he lives, he should be about 90.
I asked Zvi if he knows where and how Jews of Kamenka were taken to their death. His answer: Kamenka was included in the Third Reich (in the General Gubernment ) like Skidel is. The Jews of the Third Reich were sent to Kielbasin transit camp, and from there to Auschwitz or Treblinka. One cannot, he says, know to which one of them (unless there is further evidence). Luna's Jews, for example, were sent to Auschwitz.
I forwarded Zvi greetings from acquaintances in Israel, and he sent his greetings to them and to others. At 20:15 we finished our short visit and left Zvi's small Grodno apartment.
We went home to Lida, a drive of about an hour. The roads were good but the traffic was dense. On the way we passed again by Skidel. My memories took me back to my first visit to Belarus in 2002 when we went with Heshke (Asia Piodorowa) to Kamenka. When we got home to Lida it was about 10 o'clock at night.
Tomorrow we go to stay in Tamara's Khutor near Belitza.
Future issues / ideas
- Get a wheelchair for Maria - If she does not receive confirmation of her request .
- Receive the DVD film on the demolition of the Goldberg Clinic
- Do (?) a project of conservation of the Jewish Cemetery including: purchase of a lawnmower to the Council. Perform a first cleaning with a group of Jews with connection to Kamenka. Send every year a small amount to preserve the cemetery. Maintain an annual ceremony about the Jews of Kamenka. Involve the participation of students in these actions. Build paths between some special stones in the cemetery. Try getting financial assistance from the church and/or city of Grodno and or regional manager, Simon Shapiro.
- Get a town map, perhaps at the engineering office.
- Do (?) a project of a corner in Kamenka Museum about the Jews who lived in Kamenka. It could contain: names and photos of Jewish families, stories, Jews who had served in the Polish and Russian army and or in the resistance and Partisans. The murder of Jews of Kamenka in the Holocaust. Any displayable articles. DVD film on demolishing the Clinic. Two 80 mm moving camera films taken in Kamenka in 1934 and 1935. Film of the project of Rabbi Boraz.
- Maintain connection with the school personnel.
- Maintain connection with Kamenka
people in Israel and abroad.
- Make a blog on Kamenka. Maintain and develop the Kamenka website on JewishGen.
- Contact with the priest. Visit of the church steeple and church basements.
Melbourne & Kiriat-Ata
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