How I came to visit my grandparents shtetl

Harold Cuckle

In 1990 I joined a group of medical scientists and practitioners who were travelling to Belarus in order to see for themselves the effects of the Chernobyl accident. My own motives were mixed. At that time I was Chairman of the UK Medical Campaign for Soviet Jewry, so I had people to see and things to deliver in Moscow, Minsk and Mogilev. And Minsk, were to be based for most of the visit was close Igumen, the stetl of my mother’s parents. But were exactly was Igumen? I could not find it on a map but I was directed to Monsignor Nadson, the Apostolic legate for Belarus in London. He had a collection of old maps of Belarus and was able to direct me to Igumen which in the Soviet period was renamed Cherven.

On arrival in Minsk the group was addressed by a number of officials and scientists. We were lectured on the various consequences of Chernobyl. Each speaker referred to a large map on the wall behind them indicating hot spots of radioactivity. During a coffee break whilst carefully examining the map for a certain small village I was approached by a Belarus scientist. He asked what I was looking for and was astounded by my answer. Cuckle, until then just known to him as the author of various medical articles, was suddenly a fellow Jew and Minskaya. It may sound corny but from that moment we became good friends. And it was with his help that I managed to get to Cherven.

But first I wanted to buy a large scale map of the Cherven area, like those produced by our UK Ordnance Survey (1in to 1mile). However I was confidently informed that there were no such maps, only street maps of cities and large scale maps of whole regions where a village is a small dot. I don’t know why I so stubbornly refused to accept this. Well whatever the reason I spent several hours entering and leaving every shop, regardless of the type, in central Minsk and beyond. My task was helped by the fact that at this time the shops were often virtually empty. For instance one had just two items for sale, a bra and a tie, neither of which I needed. Eventually, in the early evening I entered a fishing equipment shop on Gorky Street and my quest ended. The shop did not have any fishing tackle to sell but there on a table was a pile of maps, all the same, entitled ‘Minsk and Environs’, with the scale 1cm to 2km. Presumably would-be fishermen need them to find rivers and lakes. You can see part of my map on the website.

Soon afterwards my new friend organised a car and driver and his colleague, whose grandfather was originally from Cherven too, accompanied me to the village. Leaving the A244 we approached Cherven from the West and immediately on our right was the Jewish Cemetery. It was a sorry sight: many stones askew, weatherworn, overgrown, a crowd of Turkeys scurrying about. Nevertheless there were some magnificent gravestones that had survived the ravages of time and conquest. And more surprisingly it was still in use, as evidenced by some contemporary gravestones. I had been told that there were no longer any Jews living in Cherven, so perhaps some of those from Minsk preferred to be interned in the old stetl.

A curious feature of my magnificent map is what appeared to be a Star of David marked in a field on the North-East outskirts of the village. My companion suggested that this might be the location of a memorial to the Jews who were murdered there by Einsatzgruppen. I considered this unlikely because at that time in the Soviet Union such memorials did not indicate that the victims were Jews. Indeed the only one that did so was in Minsk and there were very special circumstances associated with it. But I was wrong. Perhaps the cartographer was himself a Jew and had dared to surreptitiously insert the inappropriate symbol. The memorial is in the far corner of a field close to the woods where the deed was done. It is a tall obelisk set in a fenced off garden. Very moved we stood and read the inscription which misleadingly speaks of the loyal Soviet citizens killed by the dastardly Fascists on that fateful day – 2 February 1942.

Back then through the dismal streets, some unpaved, past wooden houses and grey people. To Minsk, Moscow and home where I bored my friends with enthusiastic outpourings, quelled for years until today when this website gives me a chance to revisit my excitement once more and share it with you.

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