By Ellen Stepak

My expertise in this subject began with a very large research project known as MVC.

Twenty years ago, in 2003, along with Matilda Tagger of blessed memory, Chana Furman and Rosie Feldman, I undertook a very large project of documenting as many as possible of the memorials in Israel to Jewish communities which were destroyed in the Shoah. At the time, we were all members of the Israel Genealogical Society, and the project remains in its website. We called it Memorials to Vanished Communities (MVC). This project may not be familiar to many of you, so I am taking this opportunity to reintroduce it. Surely it deserves to be remembered. The MVC was uploaded in 2008. Beverly Shulster Beiman of blessed memory prepared the material for uploading.

Most of these memorials are located in cemeteries, but others are scattered around the country. Those in cemeteries have symbolic ashes brought from the cemeteries or killing sites of the town or village. Usually, landsmanshaften associations, of people from the town being memorialized, were responsible for planning and building the Memorials to give their members a place to gather to remember their families and friends for whom there could be no gravesite. On Holocaust Day in April in Israel, survivors and descendants continue to meet at many of these memorials, for a short ceremony.

 

At one point we decided to broaden the definition of what is a memorial. We documented the communities memorialized in Yaar Hakedoshim (Martyrs’ Forest), and venues such as Beit Volhyn in Givatayim and Beit Marmores in Tel Aviv. We decided to include street names, if they were memorializing a community. We added memorials for other pogroms. I did most of the documentation work and the photography of these memorials. Some volunteers, most notably Jean-Pierre Stroweis, also sent photos and details of other memorials. Altogether, there are over 500 memorials of various kinds and over 2000 lines of data in the project. A few of the localities appear in the list more than once: for instance, both as a memorial and as a street name or in the Martyrs’ Forest. The Holocaust Cellar in Jerusalem did not agree to be part of the MVC, but other venues did.

Many memorials in cemeteries are for a single community. Others list a main town or city, plus a list of other towns or villages in the vicinity of the main kehila. The largest of these is for the city of Wlodawa, in eastern Poland, which lists altogether eighty-five neighboring communities. The photo below shows part of the Wlodawa memorial. This memorial is also for Sobibor concentration camp, which was located in the same region.

Most of the memorialized communities were in what was Poland and Lithuania prior to World War II. Since the borders between European countries changed after the War, some of the places are now in Ukraine or Belarus. For some reason, there are countries which are not represented on these memorials, such as Germany, Romania or Austria. Hungary is primarily represented by a large memorial in Holon, listing many communities. Lithuania has a very large memorial to many Lithuanian Jewish communities in the Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery in Givatayim. France also has its own memorial at the Roglit Forest in the Elah Valley.

Of course, most of the towns memorialized were rather easy to identify. But not only did I identify them; I also gave a description of their locations, such as 15 kilometers SSE (south south east) of Warsaw. I added coordinates and a description of where in Israel the memorial may be found, in the database. The town names are in Hebrew and in the modern language, often with an alternative (Jewish) name. There is a page for each entry in the database.

Finding the right town

Some towns have similar or identical names, and this can present a problem. For instance, Breslav (Ukraine) was one of the hardest ones for me to identify, because Wroclaw (Poland) is spelled like Breslav in Hebrew, and in the beginning, I got it wrong.

Under JewishGen Databases: General, JewishGen.org has a tool called The JewishGen Communities Database, and it is “awesome”. This was my main source for information about the towns and larger villages. I also used the book from Avotaynu, Where Once We Walked, A Guide to the Jewish Communities Destroyed in the Holocaust, by Gary Mokotoff and Sallyann Amdur Sack, with Alexander Sharon, revised edition, 2002.

Localities with a known Jewish community may be found on the opening page, entitled JewishGen Communities Databases. The results give much information, including the distance and direction from the capital city of the current country. Included is where the town was located before World I, between the World Wars, and after World War II (ca. 1950). Placing the cursor over the town name on the left gives even more information. And this may help in particular in cases where two towns have the same or similar names. If the town had a known Jewish community, and is one of the approximately 6000 such locations, clicking on the JewishGen symbol on the top lefthand corner of the listing leads to a “locality page” of information. These 6000 locations are in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

One of the components of the JewishGen Communities Database is the JewishGen Gazetteer, which was formerly known as “Shtetlseeker”. The Gazetteer is based upon USBGN (U.S. Board on Geographic Names) of the U.S. Geographical Survey, which means that it does not differentiate between towns with or without a Jewish population. JewishGen has modified this listing, in order to make it less overwhelming, by putting a JewishGen symbol for known Jewish communities. This website names over one million localities. For instance, I searched for the town name Sosnivka in Ukraine, and received a list of thirty-five places. However, not one of them was marked as having a Jewish community. So, in some cases, the Gazetteer is not very helpful. In others, it broadens the number of possible towns, where there are only a few of them.

The Communities Database radius search is one of the most useful tools when you don’t find the town but you know that it is near a known town. To access this tool, you need to look up the main town and record its coordinates. Next, you must click on Communities Main Page on the bottom left corner of the page. You will then see a menu. The bottom item on this menu is “Search for Places by Location—Radius Search”. After you click on this, you can enter the coordinates of the known location. Choose to look within thirty miles of the known locality, which is the maximum distance possible. Then enter the first letter or letters of the name of the town you are searching for. Usually, you will find the town, assuming it is within thirty miles of the other town.

Of course, if this fails, you can try to zoom in on a good, detailed map of the region online, and there you may find your village. I have used both of these methods over many years of research. Very few villages/shtetls had such a small community, that I did not succeed in finding them either using the JewishGen Communities Database, or on a map. They were denoted “not located” in the database of the MVC project.

One of my recent dilemmas was finding the hometown of my grandfather in Ukraine. We knew that he was from a village he called Sosnivka, because he wrote poetry (in Yiddish) about his longing for the town. And we knew it was in the region of Kremenets. Unfortunately, we traveled to Ukraine in 2006, and probably visited the wrong town. (There are two towns named Sosnivka in the vicinity of Kremenets in western Ukraine, and I assume that our guide chose the one most likely). Only in 2021 did I discover that the correct name of the town was Shchasnivka or Shchasnovka village, when it turned up in a newly uploaded record for two listings for my family at JRI-Poland. Presumably, the Jewish inhabitants had called it Sosnivka, but that was not its name in Ukrainian. Then I was finally able to find the village on a map; it is not in the JewishGen Communities Database, but I have requested it be added.

I do not plan to go back to Ukraine and visit this town, which is probably like so many of the one-horse villages of the region: most of the homes are located along the one main street. The largest building is the local Orthodox church; there is no Jewish cemetery; and by now nobody remembers the Jewish inhabitants.

 

Ellen Stepak nee Goldenberg was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts and grew up in Huntington, Indiana, USA. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin/Madison, she made aliyah to Israel in 1969. Since 1995 Ellen has been engaged in research of her ancestors from many modern countries: Belarus (Pinsk); Germany (Rotenburg an der Fulda); western Ukraine in the vicinity of Kremenets; Lithuania (Kupiskis, Vabalninkas and more); and Poland (Lodz). Among the surnames she is researching are: Brenn, Posenitzky, Werthan, Gotthelf/Godhelp, Goldenberg, Krukstein, Klots (Kalish) and Kling. Ellen has written four family history books (one for the family of each of her grandparents): We Were All Klutzes, The Werthans of Rotenburg an der Fulda, The Brenn Family of Pinsk and Our Goldenbergs. Ellen has helped document old Jewish cemeteries in Europe, has translated material for JewishGen.org, and has written articles on genealogical topics. She is an active member of the Israel Genealogy Research Association (IGRA) and serves on the Board of the Association of Pinsk-Karlin, Yanov and the Vicinity.