6/28/2004:  Drohiczyn



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:

Neringa 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:

Belarussian fields
Belarussian fields 2 haystacks
Belarussian village

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 (belshtel@yahoo.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 lives.

Museum of the Partisans

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:

Drohiczyn map The 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.

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Jewish Bath
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Soviet Monument

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The photos in the table are arranged by geographical location, where the bottom is N and top is S.

1452 monument to Drogichin charter  As 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.

former hotel  Moving North up the side street towards Niska's Alley, we first came upon what had been a hotel (I think).

Warshawski's store? then saw a 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.

Alternate Warshawski building  Actually, I'm not sure which was the Warshawski building, it could be this one.

We headed down Niska's Alley, going from West to East:
Niska's Alley 1 Niska's Alley 2
Niska's Alley 3

Then south down Lasinter St towards Jerusalem St

Lasinter 1
Lasinter 2
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 1 house on Jerusalem St, bridge to the left (west).

More houses we passed along the way, I think on Jerusalem St:
Jerusalem St 2 Jerusalem St 2
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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:
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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:
same house 1
same house 2

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.

Memorial Site
Memorial Site, long view

For a more detailed account of the massacre, look at this section of the Drohiczyn Yizkor book.  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.

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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 boyfriend,
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 Lenin St).

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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.