All posts by Naomi Epstein

Hi! I teach English as a foreign language to deaf and hard of hearing students in Israel and am a national counselor in this field.

Could You Hear the Wolves Howling at Night in Volkovysk, Father?

Note – This is post number four following our Heritage Trip to Belarus. My husband’s father was Dora’s contemporary but naturally, this post is not strictly part of the “Dora posts” series.

Volkovysk – The founding year is proudly displayed

Local legend has it that the name Volkovysk (or Vawkavysk) means Wolf’s Howl. Whether or not a young boy, who later became my husband’s father, ever lay in bed at night, listening to the wolves howl, is something we will never know. Like so many others who literally lost everyone and everything, who for years didn’t even have a picture or a simple memento to place on a shelf, he closed the door firmly on his pre-war life and did not speak of it.

We certainly didn’t hear any wolves from our hotel situated  in the center of the city, and I believe there aren’t any to be heard even on the outskirts of the city nowadays. Winters are harsh in these parts and the windows are thick. Our guide explained that even back then people would nail on  an extra window frame from inside the house for the cruel winter months. Sawdust would often be placed between the frames for extra insulation. Perhaps wolves couldn’t have been heard through all those layers of protection…

The city’s symbol. The supermarket with the multiple cashier adventure can be seen behind it (see first post)!
The view from our hotel. Wide streets, very clean, not a lot of traffic.

Volkovysk was a real battleground during World War 2 and large parts of the  city were destroyed. We heard a lot about that part of local history at the local museum. 13,000 people lived there before the war, 7, 000 of them were Jews. 40 Jews returned after the war.  The museum is dedicated to Military History and not to the general history of the place. They were able to tell us that the Jewish community had its own hospital, in addition to the school. There was a large fire back in 1909 that burned down the entire street where the synagogue was situated. The fire was so intense that the foundations cracked and the building collapsed.  The only pictures of pre-war Jewish life they had were from the Yizkor book (community memorial book written by  former residents after the war) which we are familiar with.

The military museum. They had a small exhibition on dinosaurs too!
Volkovysk after the war, from the museum

So what can one find from the 1920’s after such destruction?

Well, the river is still there. We believe my father-in-law grew up in a house that also served as a shop and we surmised the general location with old maps we had (many thanks to the many people who helped us obtain a copy of an old map, more on that in another post…).

I’m not sure this section of it should actually be defined as a river but it’s lovely!
This is an old house which could have functioned as a shop and a place of residence, or…
…or it could have been a two-story affair, with the residence above the shop (from the museum)
The train station was also there. But when the Jews were forced to board, it wasn’t at the station, but rather further down the tracks.
The descriptions of what happened here in the Ghetto are pretty horrific. It’s now an industrial building.

If we thought that the cemetery we had seen in Antopol was destroyed, the one here is barely  discernible (though more so then the next one to come…). We never would have found this field strewn with stones, a few barely recognizable as headstones without our trusty guide. This one structure in the center is the lone sentinel who, unfortunately, does not speak.

There is no fence, sign or marker

This was once a headstone. A passerby wouldn’t dream it was a cemetery.

The memorial we did find was erected by a killing field, which is located inside a Christian Cemetery.

Remembering the Jews of Volkovysk who were cruelly murdered by the Nazis. 1941-1942 May their memory be blessed.

It’s a strange feeling. It was a gorgeous spring day around us but there were lots of dark shadows too…

Who Were You, Dora? Antopol – The “Shteitel” Experience

(Note – For explanations about the “Who were you, Dora?” series, click here.)

Easier to visualize days long gone in Antopol!

If this were the United States, there would have been billboards along the road to Antopol advertising it as the village where you can get the authentic early 20th century “Shteitel” life experience, today.  A horse and cart (with a ticket booth!) would have been waiting by the sign to take you on the ultimate village tour. Merchants on carts  would have been a common sight on the Brest-Antopol road in those days, but I can’t help but wonder how commonplace it was for them to pick up a little girl from Brest running away from home to the village, as my grandmother frequently did.

I was too embarrassed to take a picture of the traditionally dressed “Babushka” riding a bicycle and talking on a cell phone…
…but this woman immediately gave me her permission to take a picture of her! We understood each other without a translator!

We walked around with an enterprising local woman (with our guide smoothly translating) who has her own little set tour of the place. Only 800 people, perhaps less, live here today. Not many young folks at all. Once there were several thousand residents, 80% of them Jewish. The woman points at a neighbor passing by and calls out – he lives in a house where Jews once lived. The man replied “I haven’t found anything valuable so I’m not sure about that”.

Some dirt roads remain
There are active wells in many yards. The water table is very high here, I believe they can’t have cellars in these houses.
You still need to stock up on wood
The well is still active but not sure about the outhouse…

The local guide pointed out where the synagogues once stood and the school but I was much more interested in taking in the remnants of how life was, rather than where things once stood. Others have documented that better than I.

The marketplace was once vibrant and bustling. Several times a month the locals from the region would come to trade. As relatives have mentioned, the village was known for its cucumbers.

This served as a model for us in other places where the market buildings are no longer standing
The gate would have let in the wagons with the goods.
The stork must have brought a baby already…
Time moves slowly here…

Seeing the remains of the cemetery was heartbreaking. So little left and in such bad shape. At the time we didn’t know that the other ones we would visit were in much worse condition. Someone had donated a fence for this one.

Photo taken by our guide, Andrei Burdenkov
One of the few headstones left
Even the stork nesting above the cemetery looks unhappy…
The memorial at the field where the deeds were done

Perhaps the original untouched Jewish house?

The local guide completed the tour with  a visit to a little museum with household goods. She was very amused by my ignorance of old methods of ironing. I didn’t tell her that my grandmother preferred to fold the shirts and then sit on them!

Something about heating the stick with the grooves and wrapping the shirt around it…

There was no list (even just of surnames!) of former, pre war residents of Antopol, nor was the local guide familiar with any names. Archives again! Considering the fact that my grandmother had uncles, aunts and cousins from both her mother and father’s side in the village, and married a local boy (big mistake, by the way – but that’s another story) I must have been related to a huge amount of residents there…

A very moving visit indeed!


Who Were You, Dora? Dora’s Letters & Present Day Brest

(Note – For explanations about the “Who were you, Dora?” series, click here.)

Dora spent her entire life of 22 years in Brest-on-the Bug (from the top of one of Dora’s letters, 1937). Today’s Belarus.

Since Dora’s letter’s all had Brest-on-the-Bug written by the dates, I immediatly assumed that the river we saw shortly after beginning to walk around the city of Brest was the BUG. It was not. It was the Mukhavetz River. In fact, when Dora mentioned not having the opportunity to bathe in the river in a letter, or my grandmother used to say that the Gefilte fish they made was only from Carp (and not a mix) because that’s what they had in the river, they may have been referring to the Mukhavetz. Though, in their day the city was under Polish rule and the Bug river was not on the border, so they may have spent more time there than later day residents. Notice my use of the word “may“? In the first  few hours I learned the basic rule for a Heritage traveller, especially in relation to the big cities (which have changed dramatically since the war, much more than the villages)- never jump to conclusions. The trip is another part of the ongoing research process.

Fisherman by the Mukhavetz river, Brest
The old Great Synagogue, now a cinema with a glass facade around the original structure.
Looking for reflections of the past. There is no cemetery to visit here, a stadium was built on the site.

Dora’s last letter, from August 25, 1940,  had an address on it, and the address is in Russian. Which means that the street name has remained the same. But the street has been rebuilt, the numbers reassigned, so we went to see where their apartment with a cellar may have stood. But then again, by 1940, Dora and her father were the only two of the former nine  family members who once lived together in Brest. This is before they were moved to the Ghetto but they may have had strangers  added to their apartment or themselves moved to this address by this time. So this may not have been the location of my grandmother’s childhood home. The only thing Dora writes is that her father is working in a State Working Place. Ominous sounding. Especially as we knew what his occupation was before. All previous letters were written on the letter head of her father’s workshop, Pracownia Kotlarska which also had an address. A Polish street name but our guide knew the name it had been changed to.

Where my family’s home may have stood, after being compared to old maps since numbers shifted, even if the street name hadn’t.
Where my great-grandfather probably had his workshop, Pracownia Kotlarska.
An example of Kotlarska, copper household goods, taken in Poland
Kind of what I was feeling at this point…

When we stopped trying to locate specific things from the letters (we looked at her possible school site as well), we began appreciating how our guide, Andrei, was able to point out the finer details that have remained from the past. Dora would have moved around the town on foot.  But the streets in Brest were not cobblestones, they looked like this

A sample found in a corner of the Brest Fortress Compound
Old  metal work on the balcony, they don’t make them like that anymore
An archway large enough for a carriage to pass through
Windows made in pre-war days
I was just awed by the colors I saw everywhere on this trip…

Obviously, life isn’t a Hollywood movie where you find the ancestral city home still standing and a letter with unknown pictures tucked into the window frame. Especially in a place which was such a battleground. On a heritage trip it is important to understand the greater context in which the events we are interested in took place. Our visit to Brest ended with a tour of the Brest fortress. After hearing about the battle there one ceases to wonder why they would erect a giant statue called “Thirst” beside the GIANT statue called Courage.

Courage – Brest Fortress


Thirst – Brest Fortress

More archive research needed…

Remembering Dora (Dvora) and Nahum Meir Volovelski, perished in Ghetto Brest, October 15,1942






Who were you, Dora? First Notes from a Journey Back in TIME

(Note – For explanations about the “Who were you, Dora?” series, click here.)

Alice began her exciting and enlightening adventures in Wonderland by falling down a rabbit hole. A hole belonging to a rabbit very concerned with the time, to be precise.

I also began our Heritage Journey back in time with a fall. I miscalculated the number of steps when disembarking  (at one a.m!) at Brest Train Station (Belarus) and tumbled onto the platform.

The good luck charm my friend Beata pressed into my hand before boarding the train must have softened the fall! Got up with just a few bruises, nothing more.

While Alice’s white rabbit proved to be a rather elusive guide to Wonderland, thankfully our guide Andrei Burdenkov never left our side. Because we actually were in two versions of Wonderland – present day Belarus and Early 20th Century Russia/Poland/Russia (today – Belarus, it changed hands a lot).  We needed the guide to understand the first and to be able to see what remains of the second. You really need to know where to look, especially to see the finer details.

At the entrance to Antopol

We don’t speak a word of Russian nor can we read the Cyrillic alphabet. During our entire four days in the two cities we were researching (Brest and Volkovysk) and the two villages (Antopol and Volpa) I think we only saw three signs in English (and actually one was in a national nature reserve). Not only don’t  almost all the hotel receptionists and waiters we encountered speak any English, the concept of customer service in state run-places seems very shaky. Most staff members won’t smile and some make you feel that you should be grateful they are giving you the time of day! But it isn’t just the language barrier. When we entered a small supermarket (small, but bigger than a min-market) we couldn’t understand what we had done to elicit an angry tone and finger being shaken at us. Roni had chosen 3 bananas from the fruit section and walked over to join me in the baked goods section (Andrei was over in the milk section). It turned out there are four cashiers scattered around the small supermarket and you must pay for the goods in each section before moving on to the next section! The idea never occured to us. This is not the case in the large supermarket we later saw, by the way. Being a vegetarian (that’s Roni) in Belarus is quite a challenge. Meat, in some form or other, seems to be included in almost every single dish. Andrei patiently translated menus and negotiated with waiters to find solutions.

Fresh paint before May 1st.

On the other hand, people we met were very friendly (with Andrei supplying simultaneous translation, of course!). These encounters and conversations added greatly to visualising what life was like during the pre-war years of the 20th century. We even had an amazing meeting with a school teacher who came up with a novel way to teach the children about their village’s former residents who perished. I’ll be describing  what we found and did not find in much more detail in the next posts.

In the countryside you can still see active wells

In the villages it was easier to get a sense of what life was like once.  You can find houses that remain forlornly untouched. In the cities it is much harder. Technology helped  compare old maps to new ones and we found many of the relevant locations despite changes. Sadly, some of the remnants of the graveyards don’t look like anything more than a field strewed with a handful of larger stones. One wouldn’t give them a second glance if you didn’t know what to look for. In some places the graveyards no longer exist at all. Heartbreaking.

The remains of the cemetery in Volpa

But in our search for “life”, even spending time outdoors, getting to know the landscape was an important part of the experience. Our ancestors grew up in this flat country with wide open spaces, endless skies, marsh lands, rivers, storks nesting on poles, lots of trees and really cold weather, that makes it is hard to grow things.

The skies seem endless…

This was the backdrop of their lives.




Saturday’s Book: Purple Hibiscus by Ngozi Adichie

Not a Hibiscus but purple…
(Naomi’s photos)


It is so well written that I was utterly mesmerised. I found it physically difficult to tear myself away from the book.

It’s not that the type of characters or the setting are familiar to me – life in Nigeria during a military coup and fanatically religious Catholicism – but the writing is so skillful that I felt I was observing everything happening very closely, standing close enough to see, hear and feel.

Another case of “Thank a Librarian” who put it out on a RECOMMEDED shelf!

But Teachers DO Take It Personally – A Refreshingly Different Take

Gil Epshtein’s photos

It’s the standard thing you encounter in every teacher training  course or teaching manual (and a quick Google search):

“When students (particularly teenagers!) get angry and hurl insults at the teacher, DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY, it’s not about YOU. The students are bringing in things from outside the classroom, issues related to their home life, their relationship (or lack of) with their peers, their academic struggles and much more. So taking it personally is a huge mistake. The insults roughly fall into two main categories – insults regarding the teacher’s appearance or insults regarding the teacher’s professional abilities.

Supposedly only an inexperienced teacher (or an unprofessional one) gets insulted. This is the cause of  all the teacher’s troubles, and what is obstructing a calm and cool response.

At an in-service teacher’s training session I attended at school today, the instructor took a refreshingly different approach, one that rings true and makes more sense to me.

Gil Epshtein’s photos

In a nutshell, the instructor explained that feeling insulted is an automatic and instinctive human reaction, a survival strategy which indicates the person must protect himself /herself.

Therefore, it is utter nonsense to tell a teacher not to take insults personally. We’re human beings, that’s what makes us caring teachers. Students crave empathy, to be really and truly seen, that requires emotions.

Actually, the instructor claimed, teachers who can respond appropriately and in a constructive manner to a student’s outburst are those that RECOGNIZE their feelings and have given thought to how he/she reacts to such feelings and what works to enable them to regain their equilibrium. Teacher’s aren’t robots! I believe Palmer discussed this in “The Courage to Teach” but I read that a long time ago and don’t encounter such an attitude in my reality.

Interestingly, the instructor noted that research has shown that what really gets under most teachers’ skin are insults relating to how good they are at their profession and not barbs targeted at personal appearance…

I would add that what hurts more than anything a student  could say is when a staff member whom you turn to for support and understanding replies:

“You took that personally? What?! You should know better by now”!

Note: I recommend checking out this very practical post, on a different angle: “Controlling the Power of Words: Teaching Students How to Confront Insults” by Dr. Richard Curwin



Saturday’s Book: “The Dinner” by Herman Koch

A long evening
(Naomi’s Photos)

Wow, what a skillful writer who can really pack a punch!

The author is “only” describing two couples (two brothers and their wives) spending an evening out in a fancy restaurant, but a whole lifetime and a tense plot pops up cleverly between the minuscule food portions such upscale restaurants have a reputation of serving.

Believe me, it’s best not to know more in advance. Let the author present the story in his way.

Interesting side note the author makes in the book – what do people the world over really read about Holland and famous Dutch people? There are the famous painters and there was Anna Frank (and some other heroic stories I might add). Don’t forget “Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates” ! But I really can’t recall reading anything else that takes place in the Netherlands.

The only thing I resent is one of the comments on the front cover of the book. It IS a thought-provoking book but I most certainly do not identify in any way with the characters.


MOST of what teenagers post on INSTAGRAM is…

Hello! You weren’t here before! (Naomi’s photos)

Sometimes things turn up just when you need them. I always like to practice a point that needs highlighting by using something thought-provoking or generally informative.

A few days ago I read a very inspiring lesson plan called “Image challenge – how to teach critical thinking through INSTAGRAM” on Magdalena Wasilewska’s blog. I really recommend checking it out!


My lovely colleague pointed out yesterday that some of our Deaf and hard of hearing students  may have a problem in the upcoming exam with the word “most” since we’ve been reviewing superlatives for the last few weeks. In their reading passage, the word is used when describing the results of a survey, as in “Most of the young people said that…”.


(Naomi’s Photos)


The topic of teenagers who post pictures of themselves in an alternative reality, works beautifully for my purposes.

I chose a different video than the one Magda used as I thought it was less suitable for my class, especially as the characters clearly seem to be talking. What they are saying doesn’t matter, but with my students I prefer videos where it is clear that you don’t need to hear the audio.

Today I started using the following worksheet in class. All sentences include the word “most” but are related to the video.

Here is the worksheet.

most and instagram

Here is the video.

I hope it works well for you too!





Saturday’s Book: “The Reader on the 6.27” by Didierlaurent

Some are different…
(Naomi’s Photos)

As the cover states, it’s a charming book.

It really is. Charming is the apt description. There’s even a different take on “Prince Charming”!

It’s sweet (and short!) and makes you feel like saying “aw, nice!”.  It has some unusual (quirky, perhaps? ) ways to express a theme that I, of course, believe in – reading books and writing tales (AND reading aloud!!!!)  are really good for you, in many ways.

I wonder if the author was influenced by “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” as there is the same theme of people doing menial jobs that are almost invisible to society, yet who have a rich literary world going on in private.

In short, not raving about the book but I’m glad I read it.


Fun for Children who are Seriously Sick – A Guest Video Post

The tired puppet – courtesy of puppeteer Ruth Levi
(Naomi’s Photos)

Veteran teacher Marlene Saban has kindly sent me a video lesson to share on the blog. She teaches both junior-high & high- school. A reading passage about a special camp (run by special people!)  devoted to bringing some joy to the lives of children grappling with illness, inspired Marlene to add a video as a lead-in exercise (in the case, a short advertisement) and another one directly related to the topic of the reading passage. Since no hearing is needed to understand the advertisement and the other video is meant to be shown without sound, (the students must read the captions in English!), Marlene’s video lesson certainly can be used with deaf and hard of hearing students too!

Marlene used this lesson with a strong class of students in the seventh grade ( 13 year olds).

Here is the lead-in advertisement:

Here is the main video:

Here is a downloadable document with Marlene’s lesson plan and worksheet.


Fun for Sick Kids- by Marlene