The 1,000+ page Holocaust memorial (yizkor) book for the town of Volkovysk (Wolf's howl), Belarus, is available online at the New York Public Library's website. Volkovysk was the birthplace of Simon Hentoff, my paternal grandfather. Finding the Yizkor book online opened a window into my family's immediate history that was closed when my grandfather died in a car accident three weeks before I was born in May 1961.
There are several websites and blogs about the history of Volkovysk, most of them in Russian.The town of Volkovysk is surrounded by an ancient primeval forest that still had large wolf populations when it was founded in the Middle Ages. According to one website, the town's name derives from the legend of the volkolaks, men who sold their hearts to the devil and were turned into wolves. Another website purports to be a photographic record of the town, yet doesn't have any photographs of Volkovysk's pre-WWII Jewish community, and only a few old photographs of synaggues that no longer exist. Yet the Volkovysk yizkor book contains hundreds of photographs that bearing witness to the existence and history of the town's vibrant pre-World War II Jewish community. It documents the rich tradition of religious and intellectual study, robust Yiddish theater groups, and the growing Zionist movement that lead many Jews from Volkovysk to immigrate to Palestine long before it became Israel.
The Volkovysk yizkor book is one if thousands of Yizkor books that were published in the years immediately following World War II to memorialize the Jewish towns and villages destroyed in the Holocaust. More than half of these book were written in Yiddish, and the majority of those books have not been translated into English, and likely never will be. I am lucky that the Volkovysk yizkor book was translated into English, and that the translator had copies available
One of the photographs in the yizkor book depicts Volkovysk in 1910, the same year that 15 year-old Simon Hentoff left on his own for America through the Dutch port of Rotterdam. He became a citizen of the United States immediately after fighting in the trenches during World War I (he was injured during a gas attack in France). He was granted citizenship even before he was discharged from the army, two of his commanding officers bearing witness to his citizenship application.
In the winter of 1942 the relatives of Simon Hentoff who had not immigrated to America, and the rest of the Jewish community in Vokovysk, “were methodically killed” by the Nazis. The Soviet State Extraordinary Commission report on the Volkovysk area, dated March 18, 1945, succinctly stated that “fascist animals destroyed the Jewish population entirely.“ According to a summary of the report prepared by a translator:
the first executions were carried out in woods to the west of Volkovysk. Among the victims were 27 doctors, 50 teachers, 5 engineers, 6 technicians, 5 lawyers, 6 clergymen. By interrogating the residents, the commission created a list containing 3021 surnames of prisoners in the ghetto. In all, during the occupation, 8233 people were murdered in the town, and in the surrounding area - 9328, including 3110 women and 1554 children.[Original source at GARF (State Archive of the Russian Federation), fond 7021, opis 86, delo 37, lists 1-16; NARB, fond 861, opis 1, delo 7, lists 63, 67, 89; fond 845, opis 1, delo 8, list 35; copies at Yad Vashem, M-33/ 701].
Based on the testimony of a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and other witnesses, the Volkovysk Yizkor book offers a more personal account of what happened. The book describes how Volkovysk's badly damaged Jewish Quarter was emptied, and its entire population of men, women and children forced into makeshift underground bunkers dug near the barracks, next to the military camp's parade ground, by Russian prisoners of war.
The bunkers were nothing more than trenches dug into the earth covered with boards. 7,000 Jews from Volkovych were combined with 13,000 other Jews from neighboring villages until a total of 20,000 Jews were living in the underground ghetto:
Around the Jewish quarter the Germans stood in a closed ring, and every Jewish dwelling place was guarded. From every house, barn, hole in the ground, Jews came forth, almost every man, woman and child carrying a pack, streaming toward the Breite Gass, joining in a terrible line of march to the barracks on the edge of Zamostche. Some crying aloud, others silently weeping, still others in tense grim silence. Women and children clung to each other, their men folk gently leading them on. The Nazi troopers and Polish guards kept forcing them forward in dreadful procession. On both sides of the streets Poles lined up on the sidewalks, or looked down upon the scene from the windows of their homes, many jeering and laughing. Roitman had gone that morning as usual to the slaughter house where he was employed, only to be ordered back to town. He met the procession, more tragic than the ancient line of exiles on the road from Palestine to Babylon. A number of Jews attempted to break through the cordon of guards, among them Chaim Oser Einhorn, the two brothers Metchik, the wife of the bookseller Weisenberg, the brothers Zolotnitski, and a son of Jacob Weinstein. They were caught and shot.
The procession finally reached the bunkers near the barracks. At the gate of the camp in which were the bunkers, a body of SS troopers awaited the arrival of the marchers. No sooner did the first line reach the gate when the Gestapo fell upon them with sticks driving the women and children to the left and the men to the right. Confusion and panic ensued, the Jews were unable to draw back, for behind them were the police and the great masses of Jews in the procession being driven steadily forward. The men and women at first did not even realize fully what was happening; that members of families were being separated from each other and scattered. All were thrust into bunkers, the men separately, and the women and children by themselves. Once the Jews were inside the bunkers, the Germans immediately locked the doors, smothering the cries of the women and children.
In the dim light of the crowded bunkers mothers hunted for their children, and the children for their mothers, and then all sought for places upon which to rest their bruised and weary bodies. When night came they found themselves in total darkness. No one slept, and everyone awaited in agony the coming of daylight. Finally when dawn came they were informed that families could get together. The doors of the bunkers were opened, and men, women, and children rushed out, running to and fro searching for their loved ones, calling out their names. Finally families were reunited and a measure of calm settled upon the camp.
The bunkers, or dugouts, made by the Russian prisoners were trenches dug deep into the ground, with roofs only slightly above the surface. The roofs consisted of boards in which were inserted a few small windows. Light entered only from these windows and the entrance at each end.The bunkers were three meters deep, with steps leading down, each bunker about 50 meters long and 10 meters wide. A table extended from end to end with benches running along either side. For sleeping purposes narrow shelves lined along the wall in three tiers, so narrow and so close together it was difficult to find a resting place, and almost impossible to turn around. In each bunker were forced approximately 500 persons. There was a single outhouse for each bunker for use by the adults, men and women. A single toilet within each bunker was reserved for the aged, the sick and the very young. The stench was beyond description. The camp was divided into sections, each containing several bunkers, each section surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Encircling the entire camp were barbed wire fences in three parallel lines. Two small wells of water had to suffice for all. It was insufficient for drinking purposes; washing was out of the question.
Gradually the Jews tried to adjust themselves in some manner to their underground life. Families huddled together in separate little groups. The head of the camp was Noach Fuchs. The four doctors from Bialystock together with Dr. Marek Kaplan of Porzeve, the son of Shmuel Kaplan, and Dr. Eliezer Epstein of Piesk, organized such medical care as was possible under the circumstances. A community kitchen was arranged and Sonia Botwinski and Siome Galin placed in charge. M. Chantoff was placed in charge of a small police force. Notwithstanding all this care and organization, the appearance of all soon became fearful; their faces encrusted with dirt and their bodies covered with vermin. They could barely recognize each other. The daily food ration consisted of 170 grams of bread and one liter of soup. At times even this ration was not forthcoming. The hunger was so great that when raw potatoes were brought many would rush forward to snatch some under the eyes of the guards, risking death. Death in this manner took its toll daily.
There was also organized a Chevra Kadisha to bury the dead. Epstein the hardware merchant acted as chairman, and he was assisted by a son of Rapoport the cloth merchant. Yankel Paltes was in charge of the actual details of burial. Their work was never ending. The dead were buried in the Vataschiner fields, 200 meters beyond the barracks. The corpses were placed in common graves, without monument or marking stone.
Kotliarski was one of the Jews who betook themselves to their prepared hiding places when the order came for the Jews to leave their homes. With him were Ivenski, his aunt and his cousin. From within his hiding place Kotliarski could hear the rumble of heavy wagons passing by and the agonized cries of men and women. At the time he was greatly mystified, but later learned that the cries came from the Jews of the surrounding villages who were also being brought to the bunkers. These villages were Amstibove, Most, Swislotch, Rosh, Porzeve, Liskove, Izabelin, Piesk, Wolp, Zelva, Kremyanitze, Yalovke and others.
In all, there were placed in the bunkers about 20,000 Jews, thirteen thousand from the surrounding smaller villages and seven thousand from Wolkovisk. To each small village was assigned a separate bunker. The bunkers occupied by the small villages were even more dreadful than those assigned to the Jews of Wolkovisk.
The daily routine began well before dawn—when darkness still covered the earth. The workers had to line up early in the court of the bunkers, the women would seek the means of heating some water for the little children. Most pathetic were the efforts of the mothers to care for their young. At the toilet outside two lines were formed, separately for men and women. Within the bunkers the bedding would be arranged, then some would go for water, others would join the bread line. The Jews would congregate in one of the bunkers for prayers. The rabbi would proclaim a formal fast, for certain groups each in turn. They recited Selichoth (penitential prayers), chanted the Ovinu Malkenu, “Our Father, our King, bring us speedy salvation”. The prayer leader would pray aloud with intense emotion, and the congregation would respond with sobs. They stood, crowded together in the filth, in the half light, some wearing their prayer shawls and phylacteries, some without them, pleading with their utmost strength, clamoring for help at the gates of Heaven.Destruction of Wolkowisk http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/volkovysk/vol954.html [Апісанне на беларускай] [Описание на русском языке]
A Contemporaneous World War II Photo of the Location of the Improvised Jewish "Ghetto" in Volkovysk. The photo, found on a Russian language website, is identified as the location of a "POW camp" located on the military base. The barracks are in the foreground. The buildings in the rear are the stables.
Finally, after weeks of starvation, constant thirst, and disease, the "ghetto" was emptied, the remaining Jews herded into cattle cars and freighted off to Auschwitz and Treblinka Concentration camps. Except for the Jews exiled to Siberia by Stalin - and those Jews who emigrated to America, Palestine and other destinations before WWII - the small 7,000+ Jewish community of Volkovysk was completely wiped-out in the Holocaust (save a handful of survivors). But for the yizkor book - and a scattering of government records - it is almost as if they never existed at all.
If you visit Volkovysk in Belarus today you will not find any memorials to Volvovysk's Jews. The State-run schools offer no formal education about what happened to them or the history of the Holocaust. Recently, Jewish organizations such as Yad Vashem in Israel and the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, have started to train a handful of brave Belarussian educators on the methodology of teaching Holocaust studies.
One of the only remnants of Volvovysk's Jewish community to survive the destruction of the retreating Nazis was "the old cemetery, grown high with weeds and grass, the fence fallen in and the finest monuments torn down, the others lying on the ground." In 2009 the old Jewish cemetery in Volkovysk was ploughed through by local authorities to install a new water line, scattering the bones of my ancestors in dirt piles alongside the narrow trench. This is how Dr. Moses Einhorn, the editor of the Volkovysk yizgor book, described Volvovysk and the old cemetery as he remembered them before WWII:
To me, Wolkovisk was always beautiful. It is situated in a valley in the ancient province of Grodno, the heights of Rosh on the north, and on the south the Schlossbarg where once upon a time Russians and Swedes engaged in battle and along which Napoleon's army passed. Surrounding the towns are great forests, the Zamkover Waelder, once famous for their many wolves. Rising in the East, the Wolkovia River widens into a lake on the edge of the town and then flows along the southern boundary of its Jewish quarter. It is only a trickle in the summer-time and freezes over during the winter, but overleaps its banks when the spring freshets come. Near the center of the town stood a mill, a short distance from which were the bath houses. The land belonged to the Catholic Church and upon it the galach (priest) lived, but all were free to come and go, and to play in the waters and upon the banks without hindrance.
http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/volkovysk/Vol991.html (English Translation).In the old cemetery one may find reminders of the ancient proud past of Wolkovisk, going back hundreds of years. In her silent tombs lie buried great Jewish personalities who were her sons. Wolkovisk produced a long line of Jewish notables, men who enriched with their lives and work the spiritual heritage of the Jewish people.
Photos from http://www.volkovysk.blogspot.com
When a local blogger brought this desecration to the attention of Byelorussian officials, the local authorities offered neither an apology nor a commitment to protect the remnants of Volkyvich's historic Jewish cemetery. According to one blog comment, the officials had failed to respond to an Israeli descendant of a Jewish family from Volkovysk who offered to build a monument that would protect what remains of the cemetery.
When I worked as a legal specialist doing rule of law training in the former Soviet republics, I used to tell people my family came from Byelorussia, and that I would someday like to visit the birth place of my grandfather. The place my people came from was beautiful, but it doesn't exist anymore.