European studies blog

16 posts categorized "Belarus"

27 January 2014

One Family’s Story in Bobruisk during the Second World War

Add comment Comments (0)

The population of Belarus suffered terribly during the Second World War, but the biggest losses occurred among the country’s Jewish communities.  Even now, nearly 70 years after the war, there are still no official statistics for the numbers of dead – only estimates. We can only imagine how terrible it was for civilians to survive, and how hard it was to recover and to rebuild their lives after the war.

January 27 is Holocaust Memorial Day in the United Kingdom to remember all innocent victims.
I decided to tell the story of my good friend Lily Samuel-Podrobinok and of her parents’ families, who were evacuated by train to the Ural Region and  escaped the Holocaust.

The family of Lily’s father Meir Podrobinok (born 1934) comes from the city of Bobriusk.  Meir’s mother Leah, a housewife, and his father Zalman, a milkman, were both born there. Lily’s mother Nina Leokumovich (born 1942) and her family come from Zhlobin in  Gomel Region and later relocated to live and work in Bobruisk. Nina’s father Abram became very famous for his excellent work as a vet, and her mother Ronia was a hospital nurse.

Bobruisk (or Babruisk)  is a city in the Mogilev Region situated on the river Berezina. Established in mediaeval times, it is first mentioned in a document of 1387. Anna Vygodskaia described Bobruisk as “a sleepy provincial town, whose inhabitants sealed themselves off from the rest of the world”, until in the 1870s the railway connected Bobruisk to Minsk, Vilno, Gomel and Libava (Latvia). Being in close proximity to Russia and Poland, Bobruisk quickly established itself as a trading centre.  

The first mention of the Jewish community in historical documents was in 1508. Just a few families were living there, but by 1766 the community had grown to 395. The biggest rise in population was in the 19th century: by 1897 the total population of the city was 28,764, of whom 71% (20,438) were Jewish. Bobruisk came to be called “the city of 40 synagogues” – there is only one left today.

Bobruisk synagogues
 Postcard showing synagogues of Bobruisk. From : Vladimir Likhodedov. Sinagogi = Synagogues  (Minsk, 2007.) YF.2009.b.2407

By 1917 there were 42 synagogues, a Jewish school and hospital, cinemas, a drama club and a Jewish library, one of the four largest of its kind in the Russian Empire.  Bobruisk was also a centre of book publishing in Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian; the best-known publisher, Iakov Gunzburg (Yaaḳov Ginzburg), was active until 1928. There were a number of Jewish newspapers (Bobruiskii listok, Bobruskie otkliki and Bobruiskii ezhenedelnik) and Zionist and other political organizations. The most famous was BUND, which also published political literature.

Germany attacked the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941; Minsk, the capital of Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, was occupied on 26 June, but the Mogilev Region and Bobruisk were defended by Red Army soldiers and military cadets until the town was taken by German soldiers on 28 July. There was only a short time for the residents to make one very important life-changing decision: to leave their home town or to stay.

Zalman Podrobinok
Zalman Podrobinok, photo taken after the war [by kind permission of Lily Samuel-Podrobinok]

Lily’s grandfather Zalman had joined the Red Army infantry. In 1943 or 1944 he was injured and spent some time in hospital; he was reunited with his family through the Red Cross. The rest of Lily’s family on both sides decided to leave Bobruisk. With the Germans bombing and German paratroopers already in the city, there was total chaos and confusion among the population. The family walked 60 km to Rogachev (Rahachow) and then on to Propoisk (today known as Slavgorod), where they safely boarded an open-carriage train to Russia.

At one point the family almost became separated. Somebody saw the young children walking and offered the family a lift to the railway station; the mother helped the children in, but there was no more room, so the car left without her. The children decided they didn’t want to travel alone, so got out and ran back to find their mother. Luckily the family were reunited, and a train took them to Cheliabinsk.

With the outbreak of war the small Russian town of Cheliabinsk had suddenly grown into a big industrial centre with lots of workers, factories and plants evacuated there. Zalman Podrobinok worked at the military plant and Abram Leokumovich worked as a vet, helping to look after the horses used by the Red Army.

The occupation of Belarus lasted four long years. During Operation Bagration Belarus was liberated on 4 July 1944; Bobruisk had been liberated in June 1944 by the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Belarusian fronts and 1st Baltic front.

Under Nazi occupation there were 260 internal camps in Belarus and 296 Jewish ghettos, of which 36 were in the Mogilev Region.  209 cities and towns were destroyed and 627 villages burned to the ground; 158 were never repopulated. The village of Khatyn  is a symbol and memorial of all the burned villages in Belarus.

In October 1941 prisoner of war camps were set up in Bobruisk and a Jewish ghetto nine kilometres away in the village of Kamenka, where more than 25,000 people were imprisoned, not only from Bobruisk, but later in 1942 prisoners were relocated from the Warsaw ghetto.   Altogether, by the end of the German occupation more than 40,000 prisoners of war and 40,000 civilians had been killed in the Bobruisk area.

There are 572 Jewish Holocaust memorials and monuments in Belarus, and 72 memorials thanks to generous donations from World Jewish Relief (WJR) and the Simon Mark Lazarus Foundation, UK.

Lily’s family returned to Bobruisk in 1946, although some families decided to stay in Russia; some members of Lily’s own family stayed in Cheliabinsk. Coming home again was hard, and it took a long time to settle back into normal life. Zalman and Leah Podrobinok’s home had been destroyed by heavy bombing, so they took out a mortgage to rebuild their house.

Abram and Ronia Leokumovich also came to Bobruisk in 1946 and, because there was a shortage of vets, Abram was offered his job back together with very comfortable office accommodation.

Leokumovich family
Efim, Nina and Abram Leokumovich in a photo taken after the war in Bobruisk [by kind permission of Lily Samuel-Podrobinok]

Both families rebuilt their lives and gave all their children a higher education. In 1990 they decided to emigrate to Israel, but continue to visit Bobruisk as often as possible.

The Jewish community in Bobruisk was revived when a young rabbi from Israel came with his family and restored the synagogue. Today a Jewish community of around 4,000 remains, and the future looks promising!

I would like to thank Lily and her family for their help!

Rimma Lough,  Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian  Cataloguer


Anna Vygodskaia, The story of a life: Memoirs of a young Jewish woman in the Russian Empire (DeKalb,  2012) YC.2012.a.9563

Bobruĭskaia gorodskaia evreĭskaia obshchina : 500 let (Bobruisk, 2008)  LF.31.a.2961.

Pamiats’ : Babruĭsk (‘Minsk, 1995) YA.2003.a.9447.

Pamiatsʹ Belarusʹ  (Minsk, 1995) YA.2001.a.2761.

Ales Adamovich, Khatyn; translated by Glenys Kozlov [et al.] (London, 2012) H.2013/.8994.

Khatyn’ = Khatyn = Chatyn (Minsk, 2005) YF.2006.a.5117.

06 January 2014

Celebrating Kaliady

Add comment Comments (0)

Kaliady – it’s  Christmas, but Belarusian style. ‘Kaliady’ means Calendar (Calendae in Latin)

When I was staying at my parents home this summer in Brest, Belarus I found a wonderful card, published in Minsk by Belposhta with a verse about Kaliady by Belarusian author, poet and translator Ryhor Baradulin and illustrated by Volha Bialitskaia.

Kaliady card
Belarusian Kaliady card. The inscription reads:  “Let the light of Kaliady’s star shine for your happiness, let the vodka and fate not be bitter”.

Kaliady, which lasts from 25 December 25 to 7 January is a traditional winter festival with Pagan roots. Its celebration coincides with Christmas; there are 12 vegetarian dishes on the festive table and the main dish is Kutia, a sweet grain pudding .

Kaliady is always about traditional values:  family, home, children and of course fun. People dress up in costumes and go with songs and music from home to home – trick or treating almost – but according to folklore the more people knock on your door during Kaliady the more good luck you have in the New Year.

The British Library’s Sound collections hold a CD by Belarusian folk group Troitsa  called Zimachka   (“Winter”) with traditional Belarusian winter folk songs (call  number: 1CD0336480 ). This  well-known group was established in 1996 in Minsk, Belarus. The CD has been kindly catalogued by my colleague Ian Davis (Sound and Vision Cataloguer).

We wish all our readers the very best for Kaliady and the coming year!

Rimma Lough, Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian Cataloguer

18 December 2013

“This country called Belarus”: our latest Belarusian acquisition

Add comment Comments (0)

In June 2013 I saw some information about the book  This Country Called Belarus: an Illustrated History  on the website of the Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva. I contacted our supplier MIPP, a firm based in Lithuania, to buy a copy of the book straight away, because some books are so popular they sell out very quickly. In July 2013 the book arrived at the British Library and I catalogued it; it is now available at shelfmark YD.2013.b.892.
Nasha Niva 1908
Nasha Niva
from 1908 (Facsimile edition (Minsk, 1992) at BL shelfmark ZA.9.d.369

Nasha Niva was the first Belarusian-language newspaper; it was published by two major Belarusian cultural figures, Ivan Lutskevich and Anton Lutskevich, and appeared weekly between 1906 and 1915 in  Vilnius [Polish: Wilno, Belarusian: Vilnia]. Publication ceased when the Germans occupied the city in the First World War and was renewed briefly in 1920. The newspaper appeared once again in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The editor at the time was Andrei Skurko.

This Country called Belarus
Cover of the book This country called Belarus (Bratislava, 2013). YD.2013.b.892

The author of the book — the first Belarusian edition of which appeared in 2003 — is Uladzimir Arlou, a well-known Belarusian historian and writer; the artistic designer is Zmitser Herasimovich. The translator is Jim Dingley, Acting Chairman of the Anglo-Belarusian Society. The book was published in Bratislava, Slovakia. The presentation of this book to the world was thus a truly international effort.

The book covers art, history, culture, famous historical figures and facts, biographies, all of which combine to make this book into a most beautiful publication about Belarus.

I hope our readers will enjoy reading it!

Rimma Lough, Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian Cataloguer

04 November 2013

Classroom curiosities

Add comment Comments (0)

Cultural history and history of education is a relatively new research trend, so it was not obvious to the previous generations of librarians and curators that future scholars would want to examine textbooks. This type of material is difficult to collect and preserve. Although produced in large quantities and numerous editions, textbooks, like newspapers and ephemera, are not meant to survive. Older foreign textbooks and practical guides for teaching and learning represent an especially precious category of items. What was meant to be cheaply-produced learning material now becomes invaluable for the simple reason that very few copies survive. One of the most treasured works in our collections is Ivan Fedorov's  Azbuka (shelfmark C.104.dd.11(1)), printed in Lviv in 1574, the first printed and dated East Slavonic primer. This is an extremely rare item - there is only one other recorded copy in the world, at Harvard University Library.

Fedorov's primer 2
Fedorov's Azbuka 

A Slavonic Grammar by Meletii Smotritsky was first printed in 1618-1619 and reprinted several times in the 17th century. Smotritsky made an attempt to codify the contemporary Church Slavonic language as used in the Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian lands. The book had a significant impact on the development of these languages. In 1648 the grammar was reworked to reflect the norms of the language as used in Moscow at that time. We have two copies of the 1648 edition [shelfmarks 71.d.16 and C.125.d.14]. The latter copy comes from the collection  of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753)  and bears notes in Latin, which suggests that the book was used for learning purposes. Interestingly, all notes are made on the page where the  principles of Russian syntax are explained, which probably suggests that the learner was quite advanced. Before belonging to a foreign owner, this copy was in possession of a priest – one Andrei  Petrovich Peresvetov.

Sloane's copy of Smotritsky's grammar (C.125.d.14) showing the Latin notes

The first Russian textbook on mathematics by Leonty Magnitsky was published in 1703, also in the Church Slavonic language (shelfmark 8531.f.16). It is both an encyclopedia of mathematics which explains its rationale and provides numerous tables, measures and rules, and a textbook with lots of practical 'problems', such as how many bricks are needed to build a wall of certain measurements (see the illustration below), or what one’s debt would be if one wanted a loan at a certain percentage.  The book was published in 2,400 copies and used in schools till the 1750s.


There are more examples of learning and teaching materials from the 19th century in such subjects as languages, history, the Orthodox religion, rhetoric, poetry, literature and law. One of the more curious titles is the book by Ivan Zander Nachatki russkogo iazyka dlia nemetskogo iunoshestva [The foundations of the Russia language for German youths], published in Riga in 1869 [shelfmark 12976.h.18.], which included Russian proverbs with parallel translations. It is very likely that the book was acquired by pure chance, but maybe some British Museum readers used German as a language of instruction while learning Russian, as there were no similar books in English.

Slavonic studies fully emerged in Britain in the 20th century (on the history of learning and studying Russian, see James Muckle. The Russian language in Britain: a historical survey of learners and teachers (Ilkestone, 2008; shelfmarks  YK.2009.a.30298 and m09/.13908 ) and, of course, learning material in English started to be produced in Britain.  In the British Library, we have a nice pocket-size booklet called Russkii Uchenik= The Russian Pupil (Manchester, 1919; shelfmark 12975.a.34). Its author claims that the size is part of his method: “For one thing, you get tired of handling your text-book too often, you find you cannot always carry it about to look at it at odd moments. What is the remedy then? A little, well-printed booklet that you could carry about in your pocket like a letter where words and grammar are arranged in a manner which does not tax your brains in the least but nevertheless enables you to assimilate knowledge in an exceedingly interesting, novel, and attractive manner”. Sounds like an advert of a learning app, doesn’t it?  

Russian Pupil1
Early lessons from Russkii Uchenik= The Russian Pupil

The British Library also holds some Soviet schoolbooks, which might be an interesting resource for historians of the Soviet system of education. And, of course, one can find plenty of curiosities, such as Uchebnik avtoliubitelia [A textbook for the amateur  driver and car owner] (Moscow, 1952; shelfmark 08774.b.3), Uchebnik dlia mladshego veterinarnogo fel’dshera [A textbook for the junior veterinary  practitioner] (Moscow-Leningrad, 1950) and various learning materials for propagandists of atheism, ship’s carpenters, textbooks on logic for secondary schools, and various other subjects. In the atmosphere of Cold War it is not surprising that the British Museum acquired such books as Uchebnik voennoi gigieny [A textbook on military hygiene] (Moscow, 1962; shelfmark 7327.e.45) or Uchebnik angliiskogo iazyka dlia vysshikh voenno-uchebnykh zavedenii [English for Military Highschools] (Moscow, 1957; shelfmark W.P.12521)

At the beginning of perestroika the decision was taken to collect samples of textbooks that would represent the changes in the system of education and in  society, so it is not unexpected that one of examples of school literature of the 21st century is Bukvarʹ shkolʹnika : Putevoditelʹ nachala poznaniia veshchei bozhestvennykh i chelovecheskikh [The Pupil’s primer: the guidebook for learning about things divine and human] (Moscow, 2004; shelfmark YF.2006.b.558).

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead East European Curator (Russian)

30 October 2013

In search of the lost palace in Białowieża National Park

Add comment Comments (0)

We are all so switched on to social media these days that we sometimes forget how recent a development this has been. Every so often, when I go into Facebook, I am confronted by wonderful photographs posted by the Białowieża National Park, a nature reserve in the primeval forest straddling the Polish-Belarusian border. Known for being the last place in Europe that bison still live, the reserve hosts scientific conferences and is a popular resort for walkers and cyclists, as well as for people who simply come to look at the animals and enjoy the enveloping quiet of the forest all around.

But just a decade ago, Białowieża was all but unknown outside Poland and certain scientific circles, and its web presence was negligible. At that time, I was involved in researching the history of the place – originally for a friend’s book (Greg King, Court of the Last Tsar, BL shelfmarks YC.2006.a.13165 and m06/.22031); but we gathered enough information for a long magazine article and finally a website.

Białowieża Park started life as a hunting ground for the Lithuanian and Polish kings, and the forest’s (few) inhabitants enjoyed a tax-free status on condition they looked after it. In due course, following the partitions of Poland, it fell into the hands of the Romanovs, who set about restocking a forest now much damaged and depleted by invasions. Tsar Alexander III, a particularly enthusiastic huntsman with solidly bourgeois tastes, built himself a massive lodge there in the 1890s, transforming the simple estate into an imperial park, complete with outbuildings and landscaped grounds. Polish presidents and Nazi viceroys used it later, but the palace was damaged in World War Two and subsequently torn down. Today, the scientific study centre stands in its place.

Hofmarshalhouse - JA

The Hofmarschal’s House, one of the remaining outbuildings (©J.Ashton/C.Martyn)

The estate gets odd mentions in memoirs and histories of the late imperial period – particularly of Nicholas II’s reign – but practically nothing was written about it in detail. It took Greg and me some time to even work out where it actually was, but both of us have a particular interest in architecture, and were fascinated by the first picture we saw of the turreted behemoth that had been Alexander’s palace.

Getting to Białowieża  in 2004 proved a reasonable challenge. There was no direct route by public transport from Warsaw, and the resulting car trip took many hours longer than anticipated, mainly due to farm vehicles passing very slowly along the little roads. On the other hand, it was very peaceful and relaxing! The town of Białowieża, two uneven roads lined with wooden houses, has probably not changed greatly since Tsarist days, save for the addition of two modern hotels. The park opens from the end of one street, and in its gatehouse – one of the few remaining traces of Alexander’s gothic fantasy – was an exhibition on the history of the palace. In Polish, of course.

Bialowieza JA

The trip yielded vast numbers of photographs, both of the estate today and of the estate as it was, and they are visible – with some from other sources – on the website we eventually put up,  laying out the contents page in a plan of the Palace Park. A BL colleague assisted with translating Polish sources, to produce what is still, we think, the fullest collection of information on the Palace available in one digital resource.

 The Palace in its heyday

These days, of course, there are plentiful photos of the whole estate on the net, and a boutique hotel cashing in on the Tsarist connection has opened in the disused imperial station. There is a direct bus from Warsaw and lots of websites in English. But I don’t think anyone else has recreated the park’s layout online or published lists of the Palace’s rooms! Nor, to our continuing frustration, have floorplans ever surfaced in any published resource or in any archive from St Petersburg to Białystok.

About a year ago, I was contacted by a descendant of the Palace’s architect, Nicolas de Rochefort, who was also seeking information about his (now) obscure ancestor. I offered to send him copies of the photos and plans I had, but ultimately could not find the CD they were on. So, M. de Rochefort, if you’re reading this – I’m sorry, and I hope that soon you can make the trip too!

Some more BL resources on Białowieża Palace:
Białowieża, carska rezydencja, by Swietlana Czestnych, Karen Kettering (LF.31.a.3514)
Saga Puszczy Białowieskiej, by Simona Kossak (YA.2003.a.20990)
Białowieża : zarys dziejów do 1950 roku, by Piotr Bajko (YF.2004.a.2209)

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager

26 June 2013

Brest Fortress: History, Defence, Memorial

Add comment Comments (0)


Throughout its history the city of Brest in Belarus has had many different names – Bierascie or Berestye (founded 1019), Brisk (in Yiddish), Brest-Litovsk (as part of Russia), Brześć (as part of Western Belarus and Western Ukraine after the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty with Germany, then part of Poland from 1918-1939). From 17th September 1939 the Soviet Union regained its territories and re-named the city Brest.

In the 19th century fortifications were built because of the city’s strategic location on the border between West and East, and close to the Baltic States and Ukraine. Military engineers who took part in building the fortifications include G.I. Lagorio (1867-1938), D.M. Karbyshev (1880-1945) and B.R. Droboshisnkii (1880-1943). A book describing the history of the fortifications is Fort V i drugie forty Brestskoi kreposti (Brest, 2009) [BL shelfmark YF.2011.a.3176].

Kholmskiye Vorota, Brest Fortress
Brest Fortress: the Khlomsk Gates. Picture by Szeder László from Wikimedia Commons

On 22 June 1941 at 4 o’clock in the morning the forces of the German Wehrmacht attacked the Soviet Union. The Brest Fortress was in their way. The “Barbarossa”  plan  was to take over the Soviet Union within the space of 2 months.

The first day and first hours of the war are described in a book written by Uladzimir Shnarevich IA krepasts, viadu boĭ = I am fortress, I am in action = Ici la fortresse, continue à combattre =  Hier Festung, kämpfe weiter = Aqui la fortaleza, continuo el combate (Minsk, 1991) [YA.996.b.4851]. The German attack took the Soviet Red Army by surprise, but the defence of the citadel was quickly organized under the leadership of Captain Ivan Zubachev, Commissar Efim Fomin and Major Petr Gavrilov (1900-1978). These commanding officers were later captured and spent four years in concentration camps.

Plan of the fortress from Petr Gavrilov's memoir "Srazhaestsia krepost" (Krasnodar, 1980) YA.1993.a.3764

There were heavy human losses on both sides, as well as among civilians who lived near the fortress. The city itself was taken over by German troops very quickly, but the fortress continued to fight until 23rd July 1941.  

Today Brest Fortress’s place within National cultural heritage and the Museum are described in the book Svod pamiatnikov istorii i kultury Belorussii : Brestskaia oblast [YA.993.b.5235]

The first book about the  defence of Brest Fortress, Brestskaia krepost, was written by the Soviet journalist and author Sergei Smirnov (1915-1976) and published in 1957. It was received with huge interest not only by public and historians, but also by veterans who had fought in 1941 and survived the war. An English translation Heroes of Brest Fortress  was published in 1965 in Moscow by the Foreign Languages Publishing House [X.639/966] and a second Belarussian edition appeared in 1973 [X.989/25712]

Veterans also came forward to share their own  experiences, including Major Gavrilov whose book Srazhaetsia krepost was published in Krasnodar in 1980 [YA.1993.a.3764].

Geroicheskaia oborona
Memoirs of Brest Fortress veterans: "Geroicheskaia oborona" (Minsk, 1961). 9681.b.28

After the publication of Smirnov’s book, the decision was made to honour the memory of military and civilians who died at the Brest Fortress in the form of  a memorial and museum.

The museum was opened in 1956; also in 1956 the fortress received the title of Hero Fortress. On 25 September 1971 the Brest Fortress Memorial was opened to the public by P.M. Masherov.  See the books Brestskaia krepost: ot muzeia do memoriala (Brest, 2004) [YF.2007.b.3464], and  Brestskaia krepost : fakty, svidetelstva, otkrytiia = Brest Fortress: facts, evidence, revelation. (Brest, 2004)  [LF.31.a.1088]

The defence of Brest Fortress inspired many artists and  writers’; see Brestskaia krepasts-heroi u tvorchastsi mastakou (Minsk, 1991) [YA.1996.a.11759]. The most famous painting of the defenders of Brest Fortress is “Zashchitniki Breskoi kreposti” by the artist P.A. Krivonogov (1951). There is a book about border guards past and present - Chasovye perednego kraia: Brestskaia Krasnoznamennaia pogranichnaia gruppa im. F.E. Dzerzhinskogo (Brest, 2011) [YF.2012.b.228], and a drama by Kastus Hubarevich Brestskaia krepasts: heraichaia drama. (Minsk:, 1963) [X.907/6335]. Finally, this collection of postcards shows the city today: Brest: eto moi gorod (Brest, 2005) [YF.2006.a.35390].

Rimma Lough, Russian/Belarussian/Ukrainian Cataloguer

Main entrance to memorial
Main entrance to the Brest Fortress Memorial