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Arkady Shulman

Arkady Shulman


Rosa Iosifovna Sverdlova.
Rosa Iosifovna Sverdlova.

Rosa Iosifovna Sverdlova has long been retired. She underwent a serious operation and is currently supported by Vitebsk charitable Jewish centre «Hasdei David». Every day she is visited by a social worker. Rosa Iosifovna calls her «my Natasha».

Her life has not been easy – she lost her husband, her son died at the age of 30. Her daughter-in-law and grandson are currently living in Israel. When I arrived, Rosa Iosifovna prepared an envelope with some photographs from her family album. Almost every photograph had her grandson in it. Perhaps it makes life easier to know that you have descendants.

Then we started talking.

«I was born in a place called Volyntsy on November 26th, 1924. This is where I spent most of my life.

I started my education in a four-year Jewish school and then in the fifth grade was sent to a Belarusian school. The school had two teachers. I remember one of them was Riva Markovna. I finished the 10th grade in 1941. It was the morning after our graduation party (12 people graduated form the school in 1941) when we were told about the war.

Volyntsy was a rather big settlement before the war. Most of the population was Jewish.

Volyntsy had a synagogue, where my mom used to take me when I was small. It was a two-storey wooden building. Women prayed on the second floor. For some reason I remember them crying. Men prayed downstairs, swaying from side to side. I can also remember them dancing. Perhaps my memories of the synagogue are related to some holidays. There was a rabbi and a shoichet.

My father, Joseph Haimovich Sverdlov, was a religious person. He attended the synagogue daily. He could speak Hebrew, Russian. The language we used at home was, of course, Yiddish. In the postwar years everyone in the village – the Jews, the Belarusians and the Poles – could speak Yiddish fluently. At home we celebrated the Passover and Purim. Everything was done according to the tradition. On Yom Kippur the whole family fasted.

Before the Passover several families got together and made matsot. This usually took place in the Yudins' house. I came there to help. A Russian woman, Valentina, would make the dough. Before the war it became problematic to make matsot due to strong anti-religious propaganda. At that time I was graduating from school. My brother, Mikhail, lived in Moscow and was a member of the Komsomol party. In order to avoid problems the parents decided to stop making matsot. My brother would bring them from Moscow before the Passover – that was the solution to the problem.

Mother, Ida Rafailovna, whose maiden name was Tuvinskaya, was a housewife. Although she was not fully literate and did not attend any educational institution, she was a naturally wise person. There were 4 children in the family – my three brothers and I. Our grandmother lived with us (mother's mother).

Our family was not rich. We lived in a small house but there was enough room for everyone. In addition, we had a small household: a garden, a cow and chickens.

All the houses in Volyntsy were wooden. Only one building was made of bricks – it belonged to a rich man, Isurin by name. In the 30s the authorities confiscated the house, which was first turned into a Jewish school. This is one of the few buildings that managed to survive the war. It was reconstructed and an Orthodox Christian church was opened here at the beginning of the 1990s.

I remember that before the war Jews from Germany lived and worked in Volyntsy. I cannot say for certain how and why they came to the village. Perhaps, when Hitler came to power, they fled to Poland and after September 17th, 1939 – to our village. At that time Volyntsy was very close to the Polish border.

Volyntsy did not have a Jewish cemetery – the dead were taken to the cemetery in Drissa (Verhnedvinsk).

My father had a brother, Idl Sverdlov, who lived in Disna (before 1939 it was a part of Poland). When it was annexed to the Soviet Union, they decided to see each other and so we went to visit Disna.

When the war started, my brother Mikhail, who at that time was at a health resort near Volyntsy, came to see us. He insisted that we should move westwards, so my mom packed our bags, taking the most necessary things, and we began our trip. We were joined by my cousin Boris from Disna. There were seven of us all in all: my parents, elder brother, I and three boys. When we reached Velikie Luki, we managed to get on a train and reached Tataria.

First Mikhail worked as a teacher and later was mobilized and sent to the battlefront. He was wounded in the war but survived. After the war he studied in an institute and worked. He is not alive now, neither is my younger brother. Only brother Yefim is alive – he lives in Daugavpils, Latvia.

After Mikhail was sent to the battlefront, I replaced him in his job and worked as a school teacher.

In 1944, when the war was coming to an end and our village was liberated, I wrote a letter to the regional department of education and was soon given a teacher's position in Volyntsy school.

We found out our house had not been destroyed, but now other people were living in it. My mother, who was not a shy woman, said: «This is our house and we will live here». That was how we regained our house.

We had no belongings left (Rosa Iosifovna started crying). Our neighbors were very friendly and brought us some things to help – a pillow, some potatoes and so on».

Rosa Iosifovna informed me that she was a freelance journalist for a regional newspaper. Below are some extracts from her article in the newspaper Narodnoye Slovo».

«There are moments which one can never forget. I can remember May 9th, 1945 up to every single detail. At that time I lived in Borkovichi, a village near Volyntsy. I worked in a local school. Early in the morning someone knocked on our door and window shouting: «Today is Victory day! Come out for a meeting!» The local club was really crowded. People were hugging each other, kissing and crying the tears of happiness, because the war was over, and sadness, because many people had lost their beloved ones in the war.

The war took my fiancé as well. We had been planning to get married but that dream was not to come true. He was killed 15 days before the war.

Postwar years were genuinely hard but we managed to raise the ruined cities and villages from the ashes.»

After the war Rosa Iosifovna studied languages at Minsk Pedagogy University and became a teacher of German in Volyntsy.

She was told about the tragedy that had taken place in Volyntsy during the war.

- Very few families were evacuated. The railway was rather far away, which made it hard for big families to reach it. The village was divided into two parts by the river Drissa. The smaller part, which consisted of several small streets, was turned into a ghetto. All the Jewish residents were forcefully moved there. The local policemen assisted the Germans in that. The ghetto was surrounded by barbed wire but was not really guarded. Very few people dared to escape. Where could they go? Nobody would shelter them. In addition, it was a severe winter, which made it impossible to survive in the forest. There was one Jew, whose last name was Joffe, who helped the Nazis – he thought they would not kill him because of his valuables. However, he was shot by the Nazis together will the rest of the Jews. That took place on February 22nd, 1942. About 150 people were murdered.

The fascists had prepared a deep ditch in advance to bury the victims...

Below is another extract from Rosa Sverdlova's article:

«There is a mass grave in Volyntsy with a memorial, which has an inscription: «To the victims of fascism, murdered in February, 1942. Next to it there is a grave, where the Shenkmans were buried – my childhood friend Riva and her husband Mikhail, who participated in the Great Patriotic war. They had an incredible destiny.

Riva Tzirkina came from a poor family. Our fathers were friends and her mother died at a young age, leaving five children...

When fascists came, they immediately set up «the new authority», killing, hanging and shooting innocent people.»

The ghetto residents realized that the worst was to happen any day. There were rumors that in neighboring villages the Germans were killing Jews. No doubts were left when a bug ditch was dug out in the pine forest. In addition, the Nazi policemen constantly mentioned that Jews would be exterminated.

«Late at night, following her father's advice, Riva Tsirkina and her brother Lionia decided to escape. She was 16 and her brother – 12. The father stayed with the smaller children.

...They did not know where to go and were walking around the village until they met an acquaintance, who offered to shelter them, even though it put his life at risk. Later he took them to another village, where they stayed with his friend Petrovsky.»

The Petrovskys sheltered Riva and Lionia for several months. They treated the children as if they were their own. Later, when someone in the village found out about the Jewish children, the Petrovskys were threatened they would be reported on. So they had to hide the children on the village outskirts.

Soon policemen broke into the Petrovskys' house and cruelly beat up Arkady, the head of the family, trying to find out where the children had been hidden. Arkady said nothing. After that incident they decided the children would be better off in Rossony region, which was controlled by partisans, so they sent the brother and sister there.»

Some time later the children joined the Soviet army, where Riva worked as a nurse. In 1998 Arkady Petrovsky, his wife Maria and daughters Alexandra and Zinaida were announced «The Righteous among the Nations». The parents were awarded the title posthumously, while the daughters often met Riva and helped each other.

«The war was over and Riva's brother was demobilized. Their house in Volyntsy was not destroyed and they settled down there. Soon Riva married Mikhail Shenkman, a former partisan, whose family (wife and two children) had been shot by the Nazis.

Riva gave birth to three sons. Later they moved to Polotsk.

Riva and Mikhail wished to be buried next to the burial site of the ghetto Jews from Volyntsy.”

Arkady Shulman

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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