On Monday, the tour split up for our individual genealogy quests.
I would go first to Drohiczyn (aka Drogichin) in Belarus, spend the
night in Pinsk, and then go back to Lithuania to explore
Balbieriskis. Lots of driving in places I couldn't read the
street signs, fortunately I hired a translator and driver:
Neringa Latvyte-Gustaitiene and Genadius:
My apologies to Neringa and Genadius, the image was accidentally saved
in a poor state.
It was a long drive from Vilnius to Drohiczyn, along the way we had to
cross through the Lithuania-Belarus border through a lesser used border
crossing; it took us twice as long as every one else to be
processed, due to the fact that I was an American. I had to show
two forms of id, and we had have validation slips which would be signed
by the hotel in Pinsk. Neringa joked that the border guards
thought I was spy; it definitely made me a bit nervous.
Once we finally made it through the border, we were stopped after half
an hour by the Belarussian police; at first we thought they
wanted a bribe, but it turned out that they were doing random checks on
the quality of gasoline, as a sort of pollution control; we
passed with flying colors (and didn't even have to pay for it!).
Who says that Belarus is not progressive?
Pictures of the Belarussian countryside:
It was odd driving through Belarus, it was such a contrast to
Lithuania. Vilnius seemed to be a very modern cool city,
with a lot of new buildings being constructed; the country side had a
lot of farm land, but it seemed similar to what I had seen in the
US. By contrast, Belarus seemed like to both degenerating and
locked into an earlier age -- the cities were filled with gigantic
apartment complexes which were obviously falling apart; on the
roads in the farming areas we passed a number of horse drawn carts,
filled with hay, driven by guys in what would pass for a peasant
uniform in a period piece movie. The two countries had started
out the same, I think, when the Soviet Union had disintegrated, but had
taken vastly different paths.
Once we got to Drohiczyn, we met with Sergei Volosyuk, a local
historian, at the Museum of the Partisans. Previously, I had
contacted Yuri Dorn of the Jewish Heritage Research Group
(email@example.com) in Belarus, who made the connection to Sergei for
me. The Museum of the Partisans was devoted to the partisans
who had lost their lives resisting the Nazis; the war is still a
potent memory for Belarussians and several million non-Jews lost their
From left to right: Sergei the museum director, Sergei Volosyuk,
Neringa, and an unknown local politician.
The museum director, also named Sergei, gave me a Remembrance book
about the Partisan resistance in the Drohiczyn area, similar to a
Yizkor book. If only I could read Belarussian!
After the tour of the museum, I asked Sergei Volosyuk to take me to
various places on the map of Drohiczyn which my grandfather, Herschel
Lewak, drew for the Drohiczyn Yizkor book:
original map without my annotations can viewed here
We started out on Libniber St and saw the location of the "New" Jewish
Cemetary (1920's - 1930's); it is now a bus stop. As we
walked, Sergei provided a wealth of information. Some of the
quotes I have are as follows:
"Drohiczyn was very green"
"Most rooves of most Jewish houses were red"
"Drohiczyn had 6 windmills, half owned by Jews"
"The Jews of Drohiczyn were very wealthy"
This last comment surprised me, I had always assumed that they were
impoverished. When I said as much to Neringa, the translator, she
confirmed what Sergei had said, but I am still doubtful -- could this
be the Jewish stereotype living on? Or were they that much
wealthier than the surrounding peasants?
Then we went to the site where two Jewish shuls had been, with a Talmud
from the 13th or 14th century. Now it is a Soviet monument.
The Jewish bath behind it was demolished a few weeks before I arrived.
The photos in the table are arranged
by geographical location, where the bottom is N and top is S.
we walked up the side street and crossed Jerusalem St (now called Lenin
St), we came upon this monument marking the 1452 charter for Drohiczyn.
Moving North up the side street towards Niska's Alley, we first came
upon what had been a hotel (I think).
building owned by the Warshawskis. According to my notes, the
first floor had been a school on one side, post office on the other,
and a bank and offices on the second. It was built in 1929.
Actually, I'm not sure which was the Warshawski building, it could be
We headed down Niska's Alley, going from West to East:
Then south down Lasinter St towards Jerusalem St
Walking East along Jerusalem St, we crossed a bridge built with the
permission of Queen Bonna of Poland, whose husband gave Drogichin to
her as wedding gift.
Jerusalem St, bridge to the left (west).
More houses we passed along the way, I think on Jerusalem St:
For some reason, I had the impression that cousin Joe Zizook lived in
a house near a church. I took pictures of the Russian Church and
homes near the church:
Looking at the house in the top right photo more carefully, I realized
that it bears a surprising resemblance to a house in a family
photo. See what you think:
At some point we wandered into what had been the "Old" Jewish Cemetary,
but was converted by the Soviets in a park. Then we visited the
memorial site where 3380 Jews had been massacred, their bodies flung
into a huge trench.
For a more detailed account of the massacre, look at this
of the Drohiczyn
. Be forewarned, there are some ghastly pictures.
It was a very emotional moment for me, this visit to the
memorial. I have never had much of a Jewish identity, but
suddenly in this place where my ancestors had been murdered, I realized
that I was a Jew and that the people around me were not; it was a
very troubling feeling, I almost cried.
Yuri Dorn was a great resource, he provided me with a list of three
people who were still living, who could have possibly known my
grandparents before the war. One was Kuraeva Olga, Semionovna, b.
1911, a baker before WWII.
Unfortunately, Kuraeva Olga was not very coherent, and through a
translator, much was lost. We asked her about Grandpa Harold's
(Herschel Lewak) father, Moishe; in response she started talking
about a man with a surname of Todres whom she said was Moishe's
father. Todres was expelled to Siberia, but came back for his
wife Klara; I think Kuraeva Olga was confused with someone else.
Todres had two children, a son and a daughter.
When we asked about Grandpa Harold, she said he was a lot of fun,
had a lot of girlfriends. We asked about Aunt Sima (Grandma Sima
Lewak's aunt Sima Goldberg Zizook); Kuraeva Olga said she
owned a restaurant which was very popular, near the Russian
Church. I think that this is where I got the idea that Cousin
Joe's house was near a church.
Then Kuraeva Olga started on a long monologue about her Jewish
Grossman. In general, it was hard to tell how much of the
information she gave was true, she seemed a bit confused, and so it's
best to take what she said with a grain of salt.
Sergei asked Kuraeva Olga where she thought that Grandpa Harold lived,
we thanked her, and went to that place. The house could
have been what is now a garden patch, I took a number of photos of the
houses on the street. (I think it translates to Chyertkova St, off
Sergei volunteered to take us to a nearby town, Antopol, to show us
book on Jewish life in Drohiczyn. As we were driving, I realized
that it was the Yizkor book; I was extremely tired and backed
out. We thanked Sergei, dropped him off, and made our way to
Pinsk, where we were to the stay the night.
Pinsk was amazing, it looked like some cyberpunk movie, with block
after block of giant and decrepit apartment buildings. We stayed
in a privately owned hotel (a rarity, even these days), which had a
nightclub/restaurant below. I had trouble sleeping through with
the bad techno-music coming from below.