A Town Called Stolpce
by Melissa McCurdie

Just over a year ago my husband Barry, my brother David and I visited Stolpce, the town of my mother's birth in pre-war Poland, where our family had lived at least since the 18th century. It was a small town known as Stolpce in Polish, Stolbtzy in Russian and Shteibtz in Yiddish. Stolpce was in Poland before and during WW2. Prior to that it was in Russia and today it is in Belarus. It lies about 72 km SW of Minsk on the banks of the Niemen River and according to an elderly resident who showed us around, it was founded by Jews in the 1600s.

In those early years the Niemen River was used to transport felled timber logs which would be floated down from the forests to the various mill towns en route. The timber merchants would paddle down the river in barges following the timber. A convenient overnight stop was established on the banks of the Niemen River where the ground was marshy and they were able to embed wooden poles to which they would tether their barges and the timber logs overnight. It is believed that the tethering poles known in Russian as a "stolb" gave the town its name, Stolbtzy, the place of the poles.

Stolpce became a thriving market town with a Jewish population of about 3000 before WW2. The Jews of Stolpce were learned; they created vibrant Jewish schools and a Tarbut system as well as several synagogues, which, in true Jewish tradition, offered varying degrees of orthodox observance. The Jewish Bund Movement, a Gemilut Chesed and other Jewish Charities as well as a plethora of Zionist youth organizations sprang up in Stolpce, and many of the youth, including the 3rd President of the State of Israel, Zalman Shazar, left during the 1920s and 1930s to make aliyah.

We grew up hearing our grandmother, our mother and her sisters talk of Stolpce and their lives there with nostalgia and love as well as deep anguish for family and friends who perished there during the Holocaust.

On a cold but bright sunny day in 2007, we were driven from Minsk to Stolpce. All those years of talking, planning and organizing and we were finally there! The guide asked the driver to pull over so that my brother and I could have a picture taken under the Cyrillic lettering on a large sign announcing that we were in "Stolpce".

I wanted to hang on to every moment and to photograph and memorize every detail to share with our mother on our return. Our mother decided long ago that she would not return to Stolpce, saying that she feels that Poland and Belarus are like one large Jewish cemetery and she does not want to walk there. She prefers to keep her beautiful, happy childhood memories of an 8 year old little girl. Her final memory of Stolpce is of them pulling away from their home in a horse drawn carriage, a troika, getting onto her knees on the seat and looking back at her home through the rear window of the troika as a light snow, the first of the winter, was beginning to fall, covering not just the houses and the streets but their lives there for ever.

We walked the streets of the old part of Stolpce and the old Market Square which is now silent and deserted. No market days are held there any more. It is an empty town square now with a lone statue of Lenin in the middle, his arm raised pointing, imperiously. It was a strangely exhilarating feeling to be walking where our granny and grandpa, our mother, aunts and cousins and other ancestors had once walked going about their daily lives. Within a short time, that feeling was replaced by a somber mood as the full impact of the destruction of this once thriving community engulfed us and almost simultaneously we agreed that our mother had made the correct decision - there is no one and nothing there for her to return to. All the wooden pre-war houses, our mother's home included, were burnt to the ground and the brick buildings, some of which still stand are modified and no longer serve the functions for which they were originally built.

Not a single Jewish family or individual of any of the pre-war inhabitants lives in Stolpce today. In fact there is only one Jewish family in Stolpce now, an elderly mother and her twin spinster daughters in their 60's. They came to Stolpce in the 1950s when their father, a magistrate, was sent to work in Stolpce. He is long dead but they have remained, isolated and yet strangely a part of the life of this little town. They prepared lunch for us in their home and welcomed us with a touching warmth that one rarely experiences from strangers.

This family had organized an elderly Stolpce resident to show us around. He is a non-Jewish man called Arkady who was a boy at the time of the war and an eyewitness to much of the horror. He spoke no English but was animated and enthusiastic as he pointed out the old parts of Stolpce while our guide translated. He pointed out buildings like the Rabbi's house, the butchery, a hat factory and many more that used to belong to Jewish families. He knew many of the families by name and while our mother's family name was familiar to him, sadly he did not actually know them. He helped us find the location of our mother's house with the map she had drawn. Although one of the main landmarks, the Catholic Church, which had stood across the road from their home, had been demolished during the Soviet era, we were nevertheless able to identify the site. Arkady was able to help us locate a water well which was at the bottom of their garden and which our mother had marked on the map.

As it turned out, Arkady used to attend the school which was next door to our mother's house, and remembered seeing a well on the next door property. Another house stands there now made of ugly unrendered grey breeze blocks, and chickens scratch in the vegetable garden on the side. I had no desire to knock on that door - it was not the same house but it was an overwhelming feeling to stand in front of that block of land and to know that not only were we standing at the spot where our mother was born, but we was standing in front of a piece of land that had been owned by our family for many decades. We have original documents signed by our great great grandfather Yehuda Leib Sagalowich in which he formally passed the house on to his son, our great grandfather Boruch Moshe Sagalowich. One of these documents is written in Hebrew in a very elaborate and legalistic manner, one is written in Polish and another in Russian with the rubber stamps and signatures of the town hall officials. They all confirm the ownership of the land with the wooden house and barn on it and that all taxes on the property had been paid.

From the old market place, we walked down to the banks of the Niemen River. It is much narrower than it used to be and the substantial wooden road bridge that used to connect Stolpce with a tiny hamlet called Swierznie on the opposite bank was gone. All that remains are 2 wooden posts from the footings of the bridge obstinately poking above the water level. We have so many pictures of the family and friends swimming and rowing on the river that, cold though it was, I was determined to at least dip my fingers into the water.

We asked to be shown where the Stolpce ghetto was. Arkady pointed to an area behind the Russian Orthodox Church that still stands and then he became even more animated. "Wait wait" he said and opened his battered briefcase and produced a bulky lever arch file crammed full of old fashioned typewritten pages and black and white photographs. He informed us that he is writing a book about Stolpce and that he had gone to the Warsaw archives and obtained copies of archival pictures to show what the town used to look like. He told us, as the guide translated, that he is writing the book because the truth of what happened in Stolpce is not properly known.

He flicked through the pages, found what he was searching for and started reading. He read about an event that had clearly traumatized him when, as a young boy during WW 2, he saw a fire break out in one of the large wooden houses in the ghetto. He said that the fire seemed to be coming from inside the middle of the house. He saw and heard that people were in the house but no one ran out. No one was allowed in to the ghetto to help extinguish the blaze and no one in the ghetto did anything to extinguish the flames. He said he could not understand how no one did anything to help. He watched helplessly as the house burnt and many people died inside.

An icy chill came over me as a story that had often been repeated in our family and which is recorded in the Stolpce Yiskor Book, came to life through an eyewitness. I asked the guide to translate for me and explained to Arkady that it was our understanding that my mother's paternal uncle, our grandfather's brother, Eliakum Milcenzon, had lit the fire. When the liquidation of the ghetto began and Jews were being taken to the forest and shot into an open pit, Eliakum apparently decided that he would not allow the Nazi's to take him and his family alive and chose instead to set fire to the building and end their suffering that way.

I am not sure which one of us was more startled, Arkady to finally have an explanation of an incident that had clearly haunted him all these years or my brother and I hearing a story we had heard about so often, being described by an eyewitness.

From there, we went to the Jewish Cemetery. It is located about 200-300 meters from the Niemen River at the western end of the town. What a sad sight greeted us. A small unkempt piece of land, perhaps a half an acre with a few solitary gravestones still standing and some lying partially hidden by the undergrowth, garbage and empty alcohol bottles strew around. The cemetery is apparently about 20% of the size that is used to be and now private houses and a warehouse stand on land, which we were told, used to belong to the cemetery. We were told that many of the tombstones had been used as foundations for that warehouse and many others had been thrown outside the cemetery on the land between the Niemen River and the cemetery fence and covered with a layer of soil. We were unable to find any family tombstones in the cemetery - not one. This cemetery was not only the burial place of our ancestors for centuries but also the scene of several Nazi massacres of Jews. The desecration of that cemetery felt to us like the final insult to the Jews of Stolpce.

We left there with heavy hearts and we were driven about 2 kilometers further on into the forests which border the town. There, in a clearing, is a large mound, which is the mass grave of 3000 Jewish souls. They were taken from the ghetto on 23 September 1942 and for several days thereafter, shot naked into an open pit. Eyewitnesses who survived in hiding in the forests reported that the earth continued to move afterwards - it was only the lucky ones who were killed by the bullets - many were injured and buried alive. Standing as a silent sentry among the trees is a memorial erected during the Soviet era, a large white statue of a figure wearing a hooded robe with an inscription reading: "Here lie the remains of 3000 innocent Soviet Citizens".

In 1984, Stolpce landsleit from around the world collected money and erected another monument at the site with plaques in Hebrew (now missing) on one side and in Belorussian on the other, reading: "Here on September 23, 1942, German Nazis and their agents executed 3000 Jews. These peaceful residents of Stolbtsy, men, women and children, were murdered by shooting or by burying them alive. Hundreds of Stolbtsy Jews were killed in the years of War from 1941-1945. Burial places for them are unknown. Let the memory of all the annihilated Jewish community of Stolbtsy be everlasting. Let the memory of these victims be blessed. This monument was constructed by the surviving Jews of Stolbtsy in 1984."

Standing at the mass grave was one of the defining moments of my life. Knowing that my family and their friends lie in there and that, but for the foresight of our grandfather, he, our grandmother, our mother and her 2 sisters, our great grandmother and our great aunt would be have been in there too, was almost too much to bear. We stood there in silence. We tried to light the Yortzeit candles which we had brought, but without success as a stiff breeze rustled the silver birches that surrounded us. I walked slowly round the perimeter of the grave feeling deafened by silent screams. The misleading tranquility in a place that has witnessed such evil and which has reverberated with the sound of murderous gunshots and the pathos of men, women and children wailing and pleading for their lives, made my blood boil.

On our return I resolved to do what we could to set in motion the restoration of the Stolpce Jewish Cemetery. Our parents of course agreed and generously funded the first part and half of the second part of the renovation. The renovation was undertaken and supervised by the Jewish Heritage Research Group of Belarus, headed by Yuri Dorn. The first stage of the cemetery restoration was completed and over one hundred tombstones were found, cleaned, photographed, translated and catalogued. Imagine our joy when among them we found the tombstone of our mother's grandfather, our great grandfather, buried next to one of his sons who died young and about whose existence we knew nothing. A database of these tombstones together with pictures can be viewed at http://tunicks.com/cemetery/

We were told that the houses around the perimeter of the cemetery are built on cemetery land, and that an "empty field" over the back fence on which a large mound of earth was heaped was also cemetery land and that the heap contained tombstones which had been gathered up. Yuri negotiated successfully with the mayor of Stolpce for the return of that piece of land to the cemetery. The town authorities were very helpful in securing the consent of the neighbers who border the field as apparently Belorussian law requires that their consent be obtained. All the legalities were completed and the land has now been re-incorporated into the cemetery, completing the 2nd stage of the renovation.

A further 2 projects remain; first to obtain permission and to recover the tombstones from the foundations of the warehouse that borders the cemetery and to return that land to the cemetery, and secondly to recover the headstones that lie outside of the cemetery fences, covered with soil. There is a way to go yet but step by step, and with the help of Yuri who has undertaken many such cemetery restoration projects, we feel confident that it will happen.

We believe that this project will serve as a sign of respect and acknowledgement of our ancestors. Moreover, it will ensure that the current inhabitants of Stolpce, many of whom were not born at the time of the war, will know that Jews founded their town, that Jews lived and died there, laughed and cried there and that many of them are buried there. It is also important for them to know that somewhere in the world, descendents of the Stolpce Jews remain connected with and concerned about these sacred sites.

Anyone who would like to contact me who may be a Stolpce landsleit or descendant is welcome to do so at barmel@bigpond.net.au   I am keen to obtain any photographs or documents regarding pre-war Stolpce, in particular, photographs of tombstones in the Stolpce Jewish Cemetery taken when the cemetery was in original condition. A special section on the website will be used for these pictures in the hope that we will eventually create a data base that will have pictures of as many of the tombstones as possible from the original cemetery. If anyone has or knows of the existence of such photographs or documents I would be most grateful if you would please contact me on the above email address.

The background is photo of the survivors of Stolpce after the war.
This is all that remained from a population of about 3,000 before the war.
They are standing next to the memorial which they built at the site of the mass grave in Stolpce