The Polish shtetl Ivenets was where my mother’s family lived. The Katz family left the shtetl in 1935 and moved to the big city, Vilna. They may have moved away physically but not emotionally. The shtetl Ivenets remained their hometown. When I traveled to Ivenets searching for my family roots in 2019, I found it difficult to imagine that only 77 years ago this small and unassuming town, now located in Belarus, was bustling with Jewish life.
Sometimes life holds mysteries and coincidences that may not be understood or comprehended while they take place. However, sooner or later the fog will clear up and the puzzle will be solved.
As a daughter of Holocaust survivors I am often asked how did my parents meet. They met after WWII ended in ruined Europe.
In 2014 I penned my parents’ meeting that led to their matrimony. And I learned that the names of the towns changed over time, sometimes making it hard to research.
In 2021, I solidified the first article in a new one. When I opened the 2014 story page I saw a note I made to myself that there is a book – in Hebrew and Yiddish – about the shtetl Ivenets – where my mother was born. Also that a copy of the book is owned by a distant cousin in Israel. In that book, there is a witness chapter which my mother told and was scripted there, on page 394.
A shtetl, or shtetel, was a small town with a large Jewish population which existed in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Shtetls were mainly found in the areas that constituted the 19th century Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire as well as in Congress Poland, Austrian Galicia, Romania and Hungary.
The book title is: ‘Book of Ivenets, Kamin, and Surroundings‘ (Full title: ‘These We Remember: Yizkor Book of Ivenets, Kamin, and Surroundings; A Holocaust Memorial Book‘ publisher by D’fus Arzi, 1973 – Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) – 484 pages.
In Hebrew: (ספר איבניץ, קמין, והסביבה)
Today Ivenets is a small town some 2-3 hours drive from Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
I decided to follow the note I made to myself in 2014 and see if I could locate the book. I texted my relative and sure enough she called me and sent me the book information. I then did an online search and I found the online version of the book. Inside this book is a wealth of information about the shtetl where my mother – born in 1922 – spent the first 13 years of her life.
The book chapter by Rachel-Katz-Gringer
(Translated to English from Hebrew)
“We were left remnants …
In 1935 my parents left Ivenets and moved to Vilna, some 80 kilometers from Ivenets. Our contact with Ivenets continued and was strong. After all my father’s sister and her family remained living there. In fact they moved to live in our house. We traveled back to Ivenets often, on every possible occasion.
Years passed and we somewhat got used to the big city. Soon political darkness began to hover and spread all over the world. The Nazis conquered country after country. The newspapers were filled with horror stories, but no one believed the rumors because they were unthinkable, incomprehensible.
In 1939 the war broke out. Vilnius was bombed and the Russians occupied the city. The city was filled with refugees fleeing western Poland. We got lucky. After a while the Russians left the city and they handed it over to the Lithuanian government. Life had returned to normal.
But the peace did not last long. In 1941, after the Germans occupied Poland and most of Europe, they also invaded Russia, leaving behind destruction and devastation.
Vilna’s Jewry was on the verge of liquidation. We were imprisoned in the ghetto and the extermination began. I remember that even before we were imprisoned in the ghetto, one of the owners of a large estates around Ivinitz (Ivenets) approached my father and suggested that we move in with him and find refuge with him. He was willing to take all the risks and help us. But Dad hesitated and we stayed in Vilnius.
We lived in the ghetto for two years. Two years of fear, despair and hunger. But the end also came for the ghetto. Some of the Jews were taken to Nazi forced labor camps and some to the extermination camps.
My sister Chaya and I were separated from our parents without knowing if we would ever meet up with them again. On the verge of our parting, our thoughts were also about the family who remained living in Ivinitz.
We were in concentration camps for two years. Forced hard labor, hunger and torture were our lot. With our own eyes we saw the extermination of the European Jewry.
We got lucky and my sister and I survived. We returned to Poland – orphans, homeless, physically and mentally injured, but with a glimmer of hope that maybe someone from our family would still be alive. These were idle hopes. We had to start all over again. Build an independent life knowing that everything has been ruined, no parents, no family, and no friends. They all perished.
We were told a frightful story about our uncle, Leib Drer’s heroic act, which was somewhat consoling. However, it was difficult to get used to the idea that there were no remnants left from such a large and extensive family as ours.
The earth was burning beneath our feet. We should not stay in Poland that gave a hand and assisted the Nazis to exterminate the Jews. Every stone yelled, run away, run away. We left the hated Poland and turned our destination toward the Land of Israel, the only place where we could rebuild our lives and be safe.”
Roots in Shtetl Ivenets
Growing up in a home of ongoing post-Holocaust reminiscence of despair, it was always my plan to follow my roots. I traveled to Poland in pursuit of my father’s family history and their troubling Holocaust end. I traveled to witness the leftovers of several Nazi Death Camps to be able to imagine from close-up what took place there.
In 2019 I traveled to Minsk, Belarus, destination, Ivenets. Accompanied by a most knowledgeable local tour guide we drove to the shtetl Ivenets where I spent a full day imagining the life of my mother’s family and the Jewish community that lived there.
Entering the small town there is a memorial: ‘A brothers’ grave pit.’ In 1942 the Nazi murdered 600 children and 200 elderly from the Ivenets ghetto, Kamin, and nearby towns. As was done in many other places where the Nazis liquidated ghettos, they shot the Jews at the brink of the open pit, or just in it, so their bodies would fall into it and pile up. Cynically this was called the “sardines method.”
On the gravestone is etched: “In this mass grave were murdered and their bodies thrown in of 800 Jews from the Evinitz ghetto, Kamin and the surrounding towns by the German Nazis, may their name be erased. 09/06/1942. Land, do not cover their blood and let there be no place for their cry.””
The town appears poor. The Ghetto compound’s wooden buildings remained the same, only the dwellers are no longer Jews. Some of the buildings received a new coat of paint, others remained dreary grey. The narrow roads were muddy, the Jewish cemetery very neglected and most of the tombstones destroyed. The synagogue building is now a hardware store and the place of the ark is visible.
I walked the streets of the ghetto and an eerie sense of the past ran through my veins. I tried hard to imagine my family’s life there. It was in vain, just emptiness surrounded me. Not one Jew remained living in Ivenets. It is a small Jewless Belarussian town.
I left Ivenets with an empty heart and cogitating; something deep in my soul was amiss.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – George Santayana
I am a daughter of Holocaust survivors, a post Holocaust human product. The holocaust is still vivid with me but already a distance away from my son and blearing away. As generations come and go, the horrors that the Jews of Europe faced in the late 1930s-to-1940s move farther and farther into the past.
The Ivenets shtetl made a lasting impression on me, and I will never forget it.
And so the slogan ‘NEVER AGAIN’ must be resonated louder and louder. This so because those who do not remember the past are destined to relive it at a later time.