PHOTO of Joe Polliack, left, of Capetown, South Africa, and Aaron Ginsburg of Sharon, Mass., in Belarus, where they helped residents of Dokshitsy to restore a Jewish cemetery in memory of Jews slain in the village during World War II. Polliack, Ginsburg and about 12 others celebrated the rededication with residents on May 23. Below photo of a memorial stone placed at the edge of the cemetery.
By Paul Haist
About 68 miles north of Minsk in Belarus in the little village of Dokshitsy a long neglected Jewish cemetery has been restored and the memory of Jews slain in the village during World War II has been memorialized, thanks in great part to two Jews, one from America and the other from South Africa, and also due to efforts by today’s non-Jewish residents of the town.
Joe Polliack makes his home in Capetown, but he visited Portland recently. He says Aaron Ginsburg of Sharon, Mass., deserves more credit than he does.
Who gets how much credit probably doesn’t matter very much to either man. What seems to matter, when you listen to Polliack, is that the martyred Jews of Dokshitsy are properly remembered now, and the people who live in Dokshitsy today, none of them Jewish, have faced a dark chapter of their town’s history, a history that was largely overlooked during the Soviet years.
On May 23, Polliack, Ginsburg, their respective spouses and 10 other South African and American Jews arrived in Dokshitsy to celebrate what they and the residents of the village had achieved, and to rededicate the Jewish cemetery.
Polliack said the Nazis entered Dokshitsy in 1941 and established a ghetto. The killing began soon thereafter and the Nazis began to destroy the town’s Jewish cemetery.
“They shot people daily,” said Polliack. Eight Jews accused of resisting the Nazis were executed on Rosh Hashana in 1941 and buried in what he termed “a mini-mass grave.”
But that was far from the worst of it.
“In 1942 (it was on Lag B’Omer and the immediately ensuing days), 2,800 Jews were taken to two or three large pits and killed,” said Polliack.
In later years, the Soviets put up a memorial on the site of the mass graves, which was across a street from the Jewish cemetery. The memorial identified the dead as “victims of fascism” with no mention of Jews.
Adding further insult to the town’s Jewish history, in 1965, according to Polliack, tombstones from the town’s old Jewish cemetery were removed and used in road construction. Later, authorities declared the cemetery abandoned and it was transformed into a park.
Sometime after Belarus became independent again, repaving work began on a street in Dokshitsy. Workers discovered more than 100 Jewish tombstones used to create the roadbed.
“The town leaders were disgusted,” said Polliack. “The non-Jewish authorities wanted to correct errors of the past and create a memorial to the Jews of Dokshitsy.”
They began re-erecting the tombstones they had uncovered.
To help them with other aspects of the project the officials began looking for heirs of the town’s former Jewish residents.
Enter Aaron Ginsburg, a pharmacist and amateur genealogist whose research already had developed extensive information about Jews in America whose roots were in Dokshitsy.
Polliack, who traces his own roots to Dokshitsy, said Ginsburg formed the Friends of Jewish Dokshitsy and sought other descendants.
“We decided we would raise money to restore the cemetery and mass grave site,” said Polliack, who stressed also that the project began with the citizens of Dokshitsy, that it was their idea. On the day the cemetery was rededicated earlier this year, a school principal in Dokshitsy told the visiting Jews, “We know there is a missing page in Dokshitsy history, which we wish to complete.”
The Friends group raised about $30,000 in the United States, South Africa and Israel, according to Polliack. That paid for stage one of the project.
Stage one included surrounding the Jewish cemetery with 440 yards of fence. They bricked in a long path to the existing memorial at the mass grave and erected a new memorial stating that the dead were Jews, not just “victims of fascism.” They also erected a small stone monument at the site where the eight Jews were murdered.
When Polliack, Ginsburg and the others went to Dokshitsy last May 23 to rededicate the graveyard, it was Lag B’Omer.
“Sixty-six years after our ancestors stood at the edge of a mass grave alone and forgotten by the world, 14 of us descendants gathered there to tell the victims they were no longer alone and forgotten and never would be again,” said Polliack.
Polliack said the citizens of Dokshitsy gave his group a very warm welcome and treated them repeatedly to gifts of bread and salt, in keeping with the Russian proverb, Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.
Rain fell when they visited the cemetery that day. Polliack likened it to God crying. Flowers were laid at the mass gravesite, where Polliack recited Kaddish because he has family there. Later at the main cemetery, accompanied by about 15 town officials and perhaps 70 citizens, Polliack and Ginsburg joined in leading Kaddish a second time.
There is a second phase to the Dokshitsy project and the Friends of Jewish Dokshitsy want to raise money for that as well.
In telling and retelling the story of Dokshitsy and its region of Belarus, Polliack hoped to stir interest among descendants from other villages nearby.
Donations can be tax-deductable. For details visit www.jewishDokshitsy.org on the Internet, write to The Friends of Jewish Dokshitsy, Inc., 43 Ames St., Sharon, MA 02067 or telephone Ginsburg at 508-682-3115. Ginsburg also may be reached using the Skype Internet protocol; his Skype handle is aaron.ginsburg.
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