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Traveling with Arkady Shulman


Yezerishe, a small town, is located on the border between Belarus and Russia. It is a busy place with a highway and a railway to St. Petersburg.

Yezerishe was first mentioned in chronicles in the 14th century. It was a strategically significant spot for both Russia and the Great Duchy of Lithuania.

All the roads in Yezerishe lead to the customs, which is a business center of the settlement. We approached the border with Russia. Right next to the border one can find a memorial to Jews, executed here. To be exact, there are two memorials, not just one.

One is standing right by the road, made of smooth stone with an inscription in Belarusian, English and Hebrew: «To victims of fascism. 150 Yezerishe Jews were brutally murdered here in the autumn of 1941.»

Memorial in Yezerishe. Set up in 1964.
Memorial in Yezerishe. Set up in 1964.

This memorial was erected not so long ago – in 2007. This is the 15th monument, dedicated to victims of fascism, built with money, donated by the Lazarus family from Great Britain. Diana, 27, used to work as a teacher and her husband, Michael, used to be a businessman. They are currently retired. Michael’s relative perished during the Holocaust in Poland and the family established a fund in memory of the victims.

The inscription, however, is not very accurate. The most tragic days for Yezerishe Jews were not in the autumn but several months later.

«Sovetskaya Belorussiya» – the country’s main newspaper – wrote twice about this memorial. We should admit that the newspaper wrote about the Holocaust quite a few times. One of the articles mentions that after the war there were few people who could trace the real scale of the tragedy because the local authorities were too busy restoring the settlements.

Indeed, Yezerishe, Gorodok and neighboring villages were almost completely ruined. However even in those years there were people, victims’ relatives, who were eager to erect a memorial and make the list of victims. But the Soviet regime did not favor that, since mentioning Jews would look like display of nationalism and hostility towards the Soviet Union.

That was why the first memorial was established only in 1964 and it would be rather difficult to find it these days. It can be seen neither from the highway nor from the railway road. It is hidden in shrubs in a swampy forest.

The monument was put up by Yana and Mikhail Entins. All we know is that their parents were executed. We can only suppose that they were lucky to survive only because their parents had sent them away on time.

The memorial is a concrete pedestal with a massive tab and an inscription: «To Soviet citizens – victims of fascism. 1941-1945.» The inscription is rather vague and does not reflect all the truth.

Memorial in Yezerishe. Set up in 2007
Memorial in Yezerishe. Set up in 2007

Behind the monument there are rosehip shrubs. In autumn the red berries hang above the tab of the pedestal and look like drops of blood…

Both memorials are dedicated to the same people. The distance between them is around a hundred meters. Neither of them is actually built on the location of the mass grave. The new memorial was intentionally set up in a place with the best field of view. The location of the first one was accidental.

When Mikhail Entin decided to set up the memorial, the massive pedestal had to be carried from the road. They carried it as far as they managed and that determined the location.

Initially the memorial was looked after by the victims’ relatives, later it was abandoned. Larisa Ivanovna Nikiforova, a school history teacher and head of the local museum, took the initiative.

She remembers when she was small and her parents warned her: «Do not run to that place, there are murdered Jews there». Frequently the word «Jews» was replaced by some other words.

Larisa Ivanovna did not like to separate people and brought her students up the same way.

One day her students collected some money, bought a wreath and took it to the memorial. Later railway workers renovated and painted it.

Undoubtedly, the new memorial was installed owing to Mark Krivichkin’s effort. He is interested in the Jews from Yezerishe because his wife’s parents and relatives used to live there before the war. Therefore, he has been collecting all available information, publishing announcements in newspapers and the Internet. Several times he came to Yezerishe and interviewed local people.

I also made attempts to find former Yezerishe dwellers and got lucky. I received a reply from Asia Danilovna Saulkina from Lida. Her grandfather Mark Judovich Shapiro was from Yezerishe. He lived there before the war and worked in fishing.

He was an extremely religious man but he had his own awkward interpretation of the Torah. For instance, he asserted that Moshe had known where a ford across the Red Sea was, and that was how he had saved the Jews. Then he added: «And I know a ford across Lake Yezerishe. Moshe survived in the desert and saved the Jews. I can survive in a forest because I know all the herbs and roots.» He made a lot of comparisons like this one. Before the war Mark Judovich left Yezerishe and settled in Vitebsk.

What else is known about the people who lived in Yezerishe before the war? We can make a short list using the data from Mark Krivichkin and Larisa Nikiforova.

Mazo was the head doctor of the hospital and was recruited to the Red Army as soon as the war started. Leaving, he asked his wife to evacuate herself and the child. Frida Lvovna, his wife, also worked in the hospital as a pediatrician. She explained: «I have a peaceful job, nobody will harm me.» She stayed in Yezerishe. When she was being taken to the execution, she wrapped the child into a downy shawl and carried him in her arms. She begged: «People, be kind, please help. I have always helped you.» She was around 30. She was shot holding the baby in her hands.

Beilinson was a pharmacist… Abe Lenkin was a shoemaker and had indisputable authority in town…

Only Zalman Riabkin survived. At night he and his family loaded their things on a carriage and headed eastward. He succeeded in crossing the front line. Before the war people were joking that Riabkin, even though he was poor, was the cleverest Jew. These words now seem to have been prophetical.

Before the war Jews used to mainly live in streets, located near the highway. That was where fascists ordered to establish the ghetto. It was surrounded with a fence and barbed wire. But even without that, there was nowhere to escape: the winter came early that year and escaping to the forest with no food, warm clothes, with children and old people meant death. So, Nazis did not especially worry about that.

The ghetto consisted of 150 people. Life was hard – people got sick, many were starving. There were not only local people but also Polish refugees, whose life conditions were even worse, since they did not have any relatives that could help.

The ghetto was formed at the beginning of autumn, people were forced to work: cleaning the streets, unloading carriages at the railway.

The last day of the ghetto was a cold January day. It will be difficult to name the exact date now, since many years have passed and nobody remembers for certain.

Larisa Nikiforova says: «When we were collecting materials for the school museum, a student’s grandmother remembered the following. When the Jews were being taken to the shooting, two boys ran out of the group and began shouting: «We are Russian, we are Russian!» They were caught and shot.»

- The execution took place on January 19th, 1942, - asserts Lidiya Vasilyevna Fadeyeva. She was thirteen at the time and remembers all the events. – We used to live in a village called Pankry, not far from Yezerishe. My cousin Vasily Minov came to us one day and said he had been forced to bury the dead bodies. He said he had been sure they would kill him as a witness.

Yelena Dmitriyevna Korshkova, who is 80 now, frequently came to the ghetto to bring food for her friend Zina Ratovskaya. She remembers that on the day of the liquidation many Nazi policemen arrived in the ghetto. It looked like they were intending to have some kind of demonstration shooting. Yelena could not stop shaking after the execution. She came back home and left a mark above the oven with a piece of coal – January 29th.

Uliana Fedorovna Ovsova was thirty in 1942. «We were taken to the station to load the railway carriages. We knew when they were planning to carry out the execution, we observed it. They were convoyed to the trench. One woman lost her shoe and just went on walking without it. Near the trench Nazis began shooting. The wounded tried to crawl out of the grave. Germans hit them on the arms to make them fall back.»

Piotr Burdyko was an ambulance driver and knew Mark Krivichkin really well. He told him: «When Jews were being executed, my brother and I were busy carrying hay on our carriage. On our way we saw Germans with victims’ clothes and shoes on a horse carriage.»

Before the execution, people were made to undress and their clothes were sold or given away to people who «deserved» it.

All the ghetto houses were burnt down by the Nazis. Yezerishe had a lot of people who joined the Nazi police. At the beginning of the 60’s they were taken on trial. One of the local dairymaids was once sent to a resort as a good worker. She went to a restaurant there and recognized a man, who had taken part in the execution. He was taken to Yezerishe, many people confirmed the fact. His last name was Pavluchenko…

There were still a few families living in Yezerishe in the 50’s. Now they are gone. There was a school teacher. His parents concealed him behind an oven during the war. His father was Jewish and died in the war, mother – Russian. He was brought up by his step father. He avoids talking about his father and the war. So, we will not bother him.

Jewish settlements in Vitebsk region

Vitebsk Albrehtovo Babinovichi Baran Bayevo Begoml Beshenkovichi Bocheikovo Bogushevsk Borkovichi Braslav Bychiha Chashniki Disna Dobromysli Dokshitsy Druya Dubrovno Glubokoye Gorodok Kamen Kohanovo Kolyshki Kopys Krasnopolie Kublichi Lepel Liady Liozno Lukoml Luzhki Lyntupy Miory Obol Oboltsy Orsha Osintorf Ostrovno Parafianovo Plissa Polotsk Prozorki Senno Sharkovshina Shumilino Sirotino Slaveni Smolyany Surazh Tolochin Ulla Verhnedvinsk Vidzy Volyntsy Yanovichi Yezerishe Zhary Ziabki

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