Nesvizh Study Group
aN aNCESTRAL vISIT TO nESVIZH, bELARUS
Dr. Sheldon S. Brown
North Shore Community College
Note: see photos from this trip here.
At the urging of my oldest son Marc, we took an ancestral visit in July 2007 to trace our family’s roots. He said that since he was a child, I would talk repeatedly about Nesvizh. So he suggested that it was about time that we saw the family birthplace with our own eyes. Thus father and son traveled to Europe to see what we could find remaining of the Jewish shtetl in Nesvizh where my parents and Marc’s grandparents once upon a time came from.
Stories about the shtetl (a Yiddish word meaning small town in Eastern Europe where Jews lived alongside their Christian neighbors before World War II) where our family came from in the “old country” were told to us while growing up. To escape Russian persecution, mother came to America with her family in 1910, and father came to escape Polish persecution in 1926. They had both spent their childhoods in the tiny East European shtetl called Nesvizh. The shtetl name means “it’s not a swamp.”
Nesvizh was formerly a Polish hamlet and is presently located in the landlocked country of Belarus. It is sandwiched between Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Its capital is Minsk.
Our journey began in Minsk where our excellent guide-translator, Bella, met us. The drive to Nesvizh took about two hours through the southern countryside where there were more people riding bicycles than driving cars. A few peddlers set up roadside stands selling mushrooms and potatoes for a few rubles. As we passed forest after forest, it occurred to me that these forests were the ideal hiding places for World War II partisans attacking Germans and their supplies.
My father’s brother, Pesah Szwejd (pronounced Schweid) and sister, Penina Siderman, and their respective families were living in Nesvizh when the Nazis invaded in 1941.
My heart skipped a beat as we approached Nesvizh, founded in 1223. We passed farm after farm and a mix of small pre-war shabby houses and post-war concrete houses. There was no industry. It was Sunday and a fair, which dates back to my ancestors’ times, was taking place. People thronged in shops and markets despite the rain.
Was anything Jewish left of this shtetl to indicate that there was once a vibrant Jewish community? Although we investigated before our trip and found that there were no Jews left and nothing remained, yet the question still plagued us.
Near the center of town, our guide showed us a structure called “The Jew House,” which was formerly inhabited by Jewish people and was now a pool hall and grocery.
To our delight the guide found the names of three Jews presently living there, although they were not originally from Nesvizh. They were a physician, a pensioner and a teacher, women who settled there after World War II. Our guide made an appointment for us to visit the teacher.
We were excited to interview the teacher. Her name is Sofia Titova, who came as a youngster to Nesvizh in 1950 with her father who was formerly appointed by the government to teach school. Sophia was following her father’s footsteps.
We searched for signs of Jewishness in her home and were pleasantly surprised. Sofia’s daughter was at a university in Israel doing research on synagogues. Also there were two pictures from Israel and at least one book of Jewish content. Sophia was an excellent hostess and an ambitious gardener. She lived across the street from the abandoned Jewish cemetery, which we visited next.
Walking in the cemetery, we chanced upon one intact tombstone, although others appeared to be scattered around face down. The tombstone gave the name Jacob, son of Isaac Segal Getzog and date of death as 1894, indeed a remnant of the lost Jewish community.
After Marc and I delivered a heartfelt Kaddish, a man dressed in uniform darted across the street and commented on our interest in the cemetery. He explained that after World War II the Communist government gave tacit approval to the Christians of Nesvizh to remove Jewish tombstones and monuments, and use them as stones for their masonry needs. He claimed responsibility for erecting the tombstone from 1894.
He identified himself as the chief of the state police of Belarus. He showed us what appeared to be the back of a second tombstone on his own lawn half-hidden by years of overgrowth. He offered to bring a tractor on the following day in order to move the tombstone to the cemetery and place it next to the 1894 one. He said he had been waiting for someone to show interest in the cemetery. There were other overturned tombstones in the cemetery that he also offered to right. Marc and I were elated.
On the following day, we met with 80-year old Galina Kulakovska-Legostayeva, longtime resident of Nesvizh. She recalled the Nesvizh ghetto uprising and said she had heard the shooting on July 21, 1942 from the second sweep of the Nazi SS Einsatzgruppen.
In the first sweep on October 30, 1941, Einsatzgruppen selected 585 skilled workers, forced them into a tiny ghetto, and massacred the remaining 5,000 souls of Jewish Nesvizh.
When the skilled workers selected realized that the Nazis planned a further selection of 30 crafts people, they knew their end was near. So, they made a courageous decision. They chose to fight the Nazis and their collaborators and not die like “sheep going to slaughter.” The history of the ghetto documents this first Holocaust ghetto uprising in which about 25 Jews escaped into the forests and joined the partisans.
Galina spoke of once meeting a survivor from the ghetto.
Zobovitz Rescues Two Brothers: Levi, Age 7 and Yehuda Neufeld, Age 10
According to a ghetto uprising leader, Shalom Cholawski: “The parents kissed their children. Eyes filled with tears. The children looked at them in sadness and silence. We lifted the wires and the children slipped underneath, setting out, alone, barefoot. They looked back once. We followed them for about two hundred meters, the fence between us, until they turned and disappeared from our sight. We stood tensely. Would they arrive safely? Would we see them again? We didn’t hear any cries or shooting, so after a long silence, we turned and walked back to the ghetto. The children passed Albyenska, Pilsudskigo [streets], and then reached the home of Zobovitz.”
“Zobovitz received us warmly,” Yehuda told us. “We ate in their house and slept in the barn. The next day the ghetto was in flames. Zobovitz consoled us, suggesting that our parents might have fled to the forest.
The three daughters in the house cared for us as kindly as our parents did. The food was good. What they ate, we ate. The days were long, the nights even longer. We had nothing to do. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. I already knew how to read, Levi did not. I read all the books in the house.
We used to receive the Belorussian newspapers, which were full of war news. Zobovitz knew the Russians were advancing and told us, giving us hope. They sewed warm clothes for us and supplied us with blankets. But despite all that was provided, we were not to be comforted. There was always that fear. Each knock atthe door terrified us.
When the search for Jews became more intense, Zobovitz had a relative from aneighboring village bring a cart. We were placed in it and covered with straw. The peasant drove us off. We were transported to a barn several kilometers away. Wehid in the barn for twenty-four hours, and on the following day, another peasant came and brought us to the partisans in the forest.” (Cholawski, S., 154, 155, 160, 180-182)
In the forest, the boys found their place and behaved independently despite their emotional trauma. Levi learned to read and write. Both studied mathematics and geography. Yehuda learned to be proficient in Russian and became a courier for the partisans.
After the war, they returned to Nesvizh and were adopted. They attended fifth grade. Together with their adopted parents they moved to Germany. Then they immigrated to Israel and studied at universities. Levi has died and Yehuda has become a chief aviation engineer in Tel Aviv.
In preparation for our meeting, Galina sat down with a neighbor and they drew up a list of Jews they remembered from their childhood days and the names of about 90 Jewish businesses, but unfortunately she did not know our family, the Szwejds and Sidermans. However, a couple of names she had written on the list were familiar to us.
We bumped into an elderly redheaded woman by the name of Sophia Ginsburg Loseva Klasvdias, who spoke English and who had lived in the ghetto. She remembered that as a child, she could not understand at the time why a familiar Jewish family in the ghetto set fire to their house. She later realized that the house created a huge smokescreen in an attempt for the family to flee. Her parting words were, “So sad. Nothing I could do.”
Later we joined the chief of state police. As a person in high places he was able to “borrow” the tractor. He moved the second tombstone to the cemetery. We were hoping by shear coincidence that the stone would read our family names of Szwejd or Siderman. But no, the stone belonged to a different family instead, Levitz, and dated back to 1887. What a find!
Following our discovery of two old Jewish tombstones in the abandoned Jewish cemetery of the destroyed shtetl of Nesvizh, Marc and I were “psyched.” We were ready for our next move.
Although we originally had gone on our journey without expectations of finding any vestiges of this lost shtetl and of our family, Marc and I wanted to press our luck further. What else remained in this tiny shtetl after 550 years of a rich Jewish heritage?
Jewish Nesvizh had flourished. It was known for its Talmudic scholars, eight synagogues, yeshiva, Hebrew and Yiddish schools, Zionist youth groups and organizations. Judges from rabbinical courts of Poland and Lithuania would meet there. Jews spoke Yiddish and developed their own culture. They were largely observant. They interacted with their Polish neighbors in the marketplace, where they operated businesses and played music at Polish weddings. But none of this exists any longer.
Following directions sent to me by a friend of my late teenage cousin, Pini, who perished in the Holocaust, we arrived at a house where we excitedly found a cut-out place for a Mezuzah on the right doorpost, the sign of a Jewish home of the past.
We had stumbled miraculously upon the Mezuzah–less house where my Szwejd family had lived peacefully before the Nazis invaded.
Behind the Szwejd home stood my Siderman family clapboard house with its fruit trees still blooming 66 years after the SS Einsatzguppen arrived on their first sweep.
Before the Germans, Nesvizh came under Polish rule after World War I; the Soviets took control in 1939 and demolished Jewish communal life. Two years later, the Germans captured the hamlet and began terrorizing the Jews, looting their property and murdering them indiscriminately.
The Germans issued stringent ordinances, destroyed the eight synagogues and Jewish schools and desecrated the cemetery.
It was a wet day on October 30, 1941, when all 5,000 Nesvizh Jews were forced by the SS Einsatzgruppen to assemble in front of the marketplace across the town hall called “Ratusch,” ostensibly for document inspection. Instead, a “selection” was made of 585 skilled workers destined for a different fate: to live temporarily in a tiny barbed-wire fenced ghetto, who ultimately rose up against their Nazi tormentors nine months later. The remaining Jews were split into two groups by armed SS who led them in different directions. My aunt and uncle and their children were among the martyred.
Marc and I decided to follow their paths. They were the same roads my father’s brother and sister, uncle Pesah Szwejd and aunt Penina Siderman and their families followed, and we were walking in their footsteps. It was wet out and reminiscent of the horrific day 66 years earlier. We walked on the sidewalks as a defiant gesture against the former German ordinance prohibiting Jews from walking on sidewalks. They had been forced to walk in the streets, removing their hats before German officials.
The first path led us through the Radzivil Castle park. We chanced upon an ebony monument in front of the killing pit dedicated to 1,500 peaceful citizens of the Soviet Union (not Jews) who were killed by the Germans. For some unknown reason the remains were transferred by the Soviets to the Christian cemetery.
We walked to the Christian cemetery and located a white monument with a similar inscription addressed to “Comrades!”; again, no Jewish names.
Afterward, we continued on towards the town of Snov, where we tracked down a third memorial to 1,200 Soviet citizens, omitting Jewish victims. We placed stones on those monuments and recited Kaddish. Thus we saw evidence of anti-Semitism along with the Soviet liberation of Nesvizh in 1944.
The day’s journey ended at the Nesvizh Historical Museum. We toured the galleries and in the last room we made an amazing discovery. In a display case before our very own eyes stood only one Torah roller, Etz Hayim, with a few sections of Torah parchment which was sheared off at the end.
The Torah parchment was opened to the weekly portion of Lech Lecha in Genesis. That portion was read for the last time in a Nesvizh synagogue on the Sabbath of October 25, 1941, just five days before the destruction of the ghetto.
The Torah remnant was placed upside down so that a person would have to literally stand on one’s head in order to read it. I conjectured that the remnant pointed downward as if to emphasize that the Jews of the shtetl were buried and all that remains of the vibrant people is an unkosher Torah, Pasool.
It is indeed unfortunate that the Nazi vision of making Nesvizh Judenrein and relegating Judaism’s most sacred ritual symbol, the Torah, to a museum where museum-goers could view what once belonged to an “extinct race” came true in Nesvizh. However, there are a few survivors, Sh-ayrit Haplayta, who live on in Israel and Australia. Though their numbers have dwindled, they, their children and grandchildren meet yearly in Israel on the anniversary of the genocide for a memorial service to the Lost Shtetl and to proclaim Am Yisroel Chai, the Jewish people lives!
There once was a shtetl called Nesvizh which is no longer. No native Jews live there now. All that remains of a Jewish connection are Soviet monuments not inscribed to Jewish victims., two old Jewish tombstones, a so-called “Jew House,” a “Prayer House,” and one Torah fragment.
Compiled by the members of the Nesvizh
Facilitator and Webmaster:Steve Stein
Created and maintained by Mike Meshenberg until March 2016
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