A Trip to Grodno and Vicinity

May 2000 - by Jan Sekta

All the cemetery photographs:  Roll 1    Roll 2     Roll 3       Roll 4 

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Jan Sekta was a history teacher in Poland. In his spare time, he worked to reconstruct the history of the former Jewish Community of his town.   We “met” on the internet when he volunteered to translate postcards in Polish my father’s cousin received from her parents in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940 and 1941.  When I offered to do something for him in exchange, and mentioned I could read the old German handwriting, he sent me handwritten Prussian- era legal documents  he wanted to read for his historical research.   We collaborated for several years.

The last time I was in Grodno was in 1994.  Some of my mother-in-law’s relatives live there.  She herself was born in Naumowicze, a village a dozen kilometers or so from Grodno.  She lived there until 1958, when she and her mother left for Poland.  After 1958 it was no longer possible to travel to Poland from Belarus.

May first and third are holidays in Poland, so this year there were 5 days off:  Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, so we decided to visit family in Grodno.  We left Friday night and had a good trip.  We arrived in Grodno at eight in the morning.

The same day I went to Lida.

Life in Belarus is hard.  Average salaries are $45 to $60 a month, but the cost of living is high.  I hired a driver and paid for gas.  I asked my wife’s cousin for a recommendation, so that I’d be dealing with someone they knew.

We looked for the Jewish cemetery in Lida almost an hour.  I asked several people.  One didn’t know.  One pointed out an old Catholic cemetery, very run down.  Finally a woman told us that the Jewish cemetery was filled and levelled after the tombstones were removed, and a housing development built over it.  I asked where this was, but she didn’t know exactly how to identify it.  The housing development was pointed out, but as I didn’t know how close I was to the proper location, I didn’t take a picture.

Lida is now a large city, with new buildings everywhere.  Few of the old buildings are left, except on the edges of the city.

On the way back to Grodno, we passed near Szczuczyn and decided to visit.  It’s a small country town, but many people didn’t know where the Jewish cemetery was.  It took another hour to find a woman who knew where it was.  It’s outside of town, close by a large military airfield.  This airfield is large, with many hangars and other buildings.  Behind the second airfield is probably the mass grave of Jews murdered by the Nazis in WWII.  I didn’t go there, as I didn’t want to be that close to an airfield with a camera.

I found the Jewish cemetery, which is about 50 meters wide and 50 or 60 meters long.  Quite a few of the tombstones are weathered and have fallen or been toppled.  But many are still standing and have readable inscriptions.  As there were about 40, I photographed them all.  Right next to the graves are garages.  The owners use the cemetery as a garbage dump, and bottles and other rubble are scattered about.  As I approached the first grave, I could not believe what I saw!  On the grave was a dead dog, in an advanced state of decay.  The person who profaned the cemetery will rot in Hell!  Where is his respect of the dead?   A cemetery is sacred ground, regardless of who is buried there – Jew, Pole, German, Russian, whatever!  Also, the poor dog, also one of G-d’s creations, deserves more respect.  This was not the first time carrion had been tossed into the cemetery, as I found several skeletons of animals and chickens.  The cemetery is partly covered in uncut brush, weeds, nettles, grass, and thistles.  I stung my hands uncovering tombstones.  But it was the right thing to do!  The dead should be remembered.  In a dozen or so years, the cemetery will slide completely into oblivion.  My photographs will preserve its memory.  Grass hides the tombstones.  As I was leaving, I looked back, and couldn’t see any of the graves.

Tombstone 1   Tombstone 2

All the cemetery photographs:  Roll 1    Roll 2  Roll 3 Roll 4

I talked to a man who said some of the nearby towns like Sopockino, Wasiliszki, Zelodok, and Mosty [ = Bridges, 53° 25', 24° 31'.  This town is southwest of Szczuczyn & southeast of Skidel, therefore just outside Lida District]  also have extant Jewish cemeteries.

It was afternoon when I returned to Grodno.  The driver didn’t have time to find cemeteries for me that day.  So it was only on the next afternoon I went to the only Jewish cemetery remaining in Grodno.  Once there were three, but the other two fell into disrepair and have been turned into a stadium and a parking lot.

The remaining cemetery is in the forest by the River Niemen.  It’s very large and is enclosed by a brick wall.  The wall has collapsed in several places.  The cemetery is very overgrown.  Nearby is a house, in which some people live.  This house is so close it’s almost in the cemetery.  Closest to the graves is the outhouse, hens run around in it, and underwear and clothes are dried on bits of string hung over tombstones.  There are many, many tombstones. I would estimate about 1600.  The most recent date from 1968.  I shot one roll of film, as my supply was limited.

Several synagogues are still standing in Grodno.  In 1992, one was returned to the Jewish Community.  Before its return, it had been used as a bookstore, then by a fruit and vegetable wholesaler.  It is slowly being repaired.

The yeshiva building is also still standing.

Copyright © 2000 Jan Sekta
HTML by Irene Newhouse 

updated 1/2021

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