Witnessing a Teacher Breathe Life into History – Volpa, Belarus

Volpa, Belarus

Note – This is post number five and our final stop on our Heritage Trip to Belarus. Once again, we were dealing with the time period in which Dora lived, but since our relatives from here are from my husband’s side, this post is not strictly part of the “Dora posts” series.

The amazing history teacher Teresa Kudrik and former principal Yuri, in the school’s museum. They gave us a very warm welcome and a fascinating tour.

Imagine you are a student in a small rural school, in a small, sleepy village. One day your teacher takes your class out for an unusual kind of “treasure hunt” around the village, a sort of “story in a suitcase”. At each stop along the way, you meet Basya (one of the older school girls played Basya, dressed up in the old style), supposedly a Jewish girl who once lived here, who tells you what  once used to happen on this spot. The girl’s name was taken from a class photo. In the last years before the Nazi’s took over a few Jewish girls studied in the local school.

The “Mikveh” once stood here.
The synagogue in Volpa was such a unique building that it was known the world over. Poland named it a national treasure in 1929. The only drawback was that it wasn’t heated. In winter it could only be used on the Sabbath and the congregation would try to rush the services because of the cold! It was made of wood and burned quickly during the war.

Imagine Basya explaining that Jews had different places to buy food because of the dietary laws. She would have used  this photo to show that all the children were neighbors and could play together.

A picture found in a villager’s attic. The two neighbors & friends bound forever in the same frame, a Christian boy and a Jewish one (alone in the photo).

Now you must imagine how the walk around the village ends – with Basya revealing that only her spirit could remain in Volpa, since she perished along with all the other Jewish residents (only one survivor).

Can you imagine planning such a tour for the school children?! I was dumbfounded to learn of this project that the amazing history teacher Teresa Kudrik organized. Teachers can work magic, you know! Even more so to learn that Teresa had been on a course at Yad Va-Shem in Jerusalem!

The school has a small but very impressive museum devoted to the history of the place. They raised tobacco here.

In the Jewish section of the museum they used pictures from the Volkovysk Yizkor Book (Memorial Book), where Volpa is mentioned. This was the first place on the trip where we found the complete list of names of the former Jewish residents that perished. We did not encounter such  a list in Antopol or in Volkovysk. It was also our first encounter with someone who was delighted (in fact, the first real smile we encountered on the trip!) to hear that Roni’s grandparents were from Volpa and was happy to receive copies of the few photos we have from those days, for the museum.

The section on local Jewish history
It was thanks to former principal Yuri that we got to visit the museum and tour the school.
Our guide, Andrei Burdenkov, also smiles when he isn’t busy listening and translating for us!

As a teacher, I was also very interested in the school itself. It was very modern looking and attractive. We got to see the fine computer lab and the biology lab. I was surprised to see chalk boards in use but Andrei explained that chalk is abundant in these parts. The classes are very small, the number of residents in such villages is dwindling.

The highlight of our tour!

We took a short walk around town before heading back to the cemetery. We had actually started with the cemetery, if you could call it that. We never would have found it on our own, it is so very easy to miss entirely. Andrei had coordinates. There’s barely anything to see, tall grass (with ticks!) and no fence. But at the museum we learned that a memorial marker had been erected there and so we returned to find it.

Local mailboxes
Spring must be roof mending time.. The winters around here are harsh.

What is left of the cemetery of Volpa…
Volpa cemetery memorial

A memorable visit indeed!

Our guide, Andrei Burdenkov, prepared this video “Driving through Volpa”








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…


Here’s a video our guide, Andrei Burdenkov took of the streets of Volkovysk.


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!

    • Our guide, Andrei Burdenkov, posted two videos of our visit. Here they are:

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!