Sixth stop Lahishin, Belarus - home of the Klausners and Greenbergs
I prefer to use the Yiddish name for the town because that's how my ancestors knew it, its current name is Logishyn. We know from Russian archival records that my great great grandmother Leya Enta (Lena) Greenberg Klausner's family had lived in Lahishin since 1816, if not before. Those same records show that her brother Zalman Mordukh and his son Mendel Itsko, voted in elections for the local Rabbi in 1914. Sadly, Zalman Mordukh's second son, Iosel, had been drafted into the Russian army in 1909, the same year his brother Aron, at age 14, decided not to report for military duty as required and left the area for parts unknown. Five years later, Zalman Mordukh's only daughter Golda was granted a passport at age 23 and left as well.
Leya Enta's husband Chaim Wolf and his brother David Movsha had lived in Lahishin since the mid-19th century although Chaim had been born in another shtetl, Lyubeshov, not too far to the south, in present-day Ukraine.
Our first stop was to an elementary school where we were welcomed by the Principal, Assistant Principal and teacher Svetlana Yushkevich, the History Room manager. We learned that the town’s coat of arms contains an image of a wolf, an animal that is able to change shape. One version showed a wolf with stork’s legs while another had deer legs and hooves. Svetlana pointed to the first part of the exhibit about Lahishyn’s prehistory, which included fossils and rocks from the area. She said it was so important for the students to actually touch them and physically feel a connection to the past. I immediately liked her.
When we got to the section about the two World Wars, Svetlana pulled from a cabinet two badly charred and malformed pieces of vellum with barely legible Hebrew letters; they were pages from a Torah. It was a profound moment for me, despite my atheism. While I am a secular Jew, I felt sad and angry seeing and holding a nearly destroyed piece of iconic Jewishness. I later learned that Joseph Liberman’s Pinsk congregation had repeatedly asked for the return of these objects because when Torah pages become unusable they are supposed to be buried. The school had declined to return them. I was glad that they would be used to teach students about genocide but also can see the merit of them being returned.
Svetlana told us that after Belarus left the Soviet Union the teachers were able to include wording in some of the exhibits that would have not been previously acceptable, although I did not get specific examples of what they had changed.
We left the school accompanied by Svetlana and walked a short distance to the Jewish cemetery in a wooded area adjacent to some houses. We made our way down a path and soon saw some grave stones peeking through fallen branches and leaves. It was very similar to the Jarosław graveyard – some head stones standing, others toppled over, the forest encroaching on signs of a destroyed culture. Once again we were only able to see a small area because the undergrowth was too dense outside of an area about 20’ by 20’.
Svetlana, who appeared to be in her 40s, said that when she was a child the area looked like a real cemetery. She said that she had brought some students to clear leaves and brush a few years ago but you couldn’t see any of that effort anymore. She related how she had applied for a grant from the local authorities to clean up the area but had been refused. She applied again, some time later, and the authorities told that they would do something to help, but she seemed skeptical that anything would happen. The sadness I felt was juxtaposed with an appreciation of the beauty of several storks in the pond on our left as we walked out of the woods.
Svetlana proceeded to take us to the still cobblestoned street where the Jews lived to show us typically Jewish architecture. Many of the single-family houses are painted in bright blues, greens and yellows.
At the end of the street, Katya asked Svetlana to show us the "site of mass extermination." This phrase shocked me when I heard it then for the first time and it continued to amaze me when I heard it again and again over our trip. It was at once so banal and ordinary and yet so deeply distressing. It refers to places in Eastern Europe where the Germans took Jews, starting in June 1941, to be shot. Frequently it was a large meadow in which ditches had been dug; the Jews would be lined up on its edge and either the Germans or local militias would fire at them so they fell into the ditch. Some people were killed immediately but others who were only injured were buried alive by the thousands of bodies tumbling on top of them. A lucky few played dead and managed to escape into the woods after the perpetrators had left.
We walked through the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic cemetery to see the memorial erected to commemorate the 555 Jews killed there in August 1941. The beauty of the meadow and trees was once again marred by the brutality bringing us there.
I was so moved by meeting Svetlana, as I had been meeting Iwona in Kłodawa – women who have gone out of their way to keep the memory of Jewish communities alive and to educate people about their loss. When I finally met Yuri Dorn in Minsk I told him of our encounter with her. I suggested that I could help finance the reconstruction of the cemetery there if a way could be found to get the work done. Yuri contacted Svetlana and she said that she would get a survey done of the full physical extent of the cemetery that would help determine the cost of the project. Further, an agreement would be worked out so the school would be responsible for its upkeep.
See the progress that’s been made on restoring the cemetery.