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The News from Grodno…

August 24, 2020

Poland in 1933; At the time both Grodo and Bialystok were a part of Poland. After WW2, Grodno was separated from Poland and became a part of Belarus


Grodno is in the news. That doesn’t happen here in Colorado very often. But there it is, Grodno has made the NY Times!

It appears to be on the verge of one of those “color revolutions” that suggest so much radical change – but in the end – don’t deliver very much of anything. Look at Hungary, Poland, the Baltics, Ukraine. Communism might have failed – it did – but capitalism has been no picnic either. It’s one of those situations where people know what is wrong with what they have but don’t have the vaguest clue as to what lies ahead. And in all these cases – as the political systems veer sharply right – pro-Nazi wackos, bigoted ethnic nationalists, or in the case of Poland a seethingly reactionary Catholic Church come charging out of the woodwork.

Ah yes, and then there is all that foreign interference – National Endowment for Democracy, and the like – who offer vague prescriptions and virtually no program other than Wester neo-liberalism and, it appears, Lithuanian and Polish meddling each wanting a bit of western Belarus for their own maps. They are involved too.

How will it play out in Belarus? Too early to tell, but the government there does have a lot to answer for.

If I am interested in Grodno, Belarus’s major city on its western border with Poland, it is because it is from Grodno that both of my grandfathers, Abraham Prensky and Julius (Yehudah) Magaziner, hailed. The Neman (sometimes spelled “Neiman”) flows through it. It was across the Neman that Napoleon invaded Russian in 1812.  I was told that for centuries my ancestors lived along that river, as fishermen and rabbis. Further north on the Neman is the Lithuanian town of Prienai, which Jewish residents nicknamed “Pren.” “Prensky” – the name I was born with before my father legally changed it at age 3 – means someone who comes from Prienai, and so somewhere back there in history my ancestors left Prienai and moved south to Grodno, still along the Neman River. “Back in the day” even Vilnius, now capitol of Lithuania was a part of Poland.

Both grandfathers came to the USA in 1904 to escape having to serve in the Czarist armies, the same government that had unleashed pogroms against Jews throughout the Pale. One met a lass from Vilnius, Molly Jackson, my paternal grandmother, the other the daughter of a Bialystok rabbi – today just across the border in Poland (at the time they were both a part of Poland) – my maternal grandmother, the great Sarah Magaziner. In Brooklyn and the Bronx New York where my parents and their siblings grew up, ethnic gangs formed around people from the same areas back in “the old country.” The Grodno gang in the 1920s was led by Meyer Lansky. Several of my uncles were involved; one for most of his life if I am not mistaken.

I have never been although in the years the family was living in Finland we met a family from Tallinn, Estonia, one of whom grew up in Grodno. I was excited to meet someone from there, but he was cold as ice and didn’t seem to give a hoot about my family connection. Several close friends here in Colorado are Jews from nearby (to Grodno) Minsk.

Grodno and Bialystok have known terrible times.

During Operation Barbarossa, the ill fated Nazi invasion of the USSR, the two towns were among the first to experience the Nazi wrath. On the first days after June 21, 1941 Nazi hordes took both towns. They came with genocidal teams called “einsatzgruppen” that killed Jews and Communists in mobile gas trucks, a prelude to the death camps, tens of thousands of Jews exterminated at the outset of the war, among them my mother and father’s extended family.

Ehrenburg and Grossman’s “The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry” tells the story of one ten year old Jewish girl, Dora Shifrina, who recorded her memories of the Nazi seizure of Bialystok.

She wrote:

In the building where we lived about twenty men were shot right in front of my eyes. After I saw that, I grabed my little sister and brother and rushed to our uncle, who lived nearby. It made a horrible impression on me. The screaming and wailing of the mothers and the crying of the little children were horrible. I was overcome by pity when I saw it all. Our whole building with everything we owned was burned down. We stayed with our uncle only for a little while. The Germans carried on terribly. They murdered a lot of Jews; in our yard and the neighboring yard along they murdered seventy five people. They seized sixteen thousand people, supposedly for work; they said they would let them go when a ransom was paid. But they never let them go; they murdered them all and burned them…

When everything was on fire and the synagogue started to burn, the barbaric Germans took men, women, children and old people and threw them into the synagogue alive. Dora Shifrina’s parents did not survive. They were murdered before her eyes.

The ten year old little girl remembers. She will never forget (1)

In 1938 Bialystok had a Jewish population of some 42,000 (out of 100,00). By 1948, three years after the end of World War Two the Jewish component of the city was 660. Bialystok, one of the great centers of Polish-Jewish culture wiped out. And so did Grodno Jews suffer the same fate. After the war, a memorial plaque, commemorating the 25,000 Jews who were exterminated in the two ghettos in the city of Grodno was placed on a building in Zamkova Street, where the entrance to the ghetto once was.[13]

Here according to Wikipedia:

The Grodno Ghetto (Polishgetto w GrodnieBelarusianГродзенскае гетаHebrewגטו גרודנו‎) was a Nazi ghetto established in November 1941 by Nazi Germany in the city of Grodno for the purpose of persecution and exploitation of Jews in Western Belarus.

The ghetto, run by the SS, consisted of two interconnected areas about 2 km apart. Ghetto One was established in the Old Town district, around the synagogue (Shulhoif), with some 15,000 Jews crammed into an area less than half a square kilometre. Ghetto Two was created in the Slobodka suburb, with around 10,000 Jews incarcerated in it. Ghetto Two was larger than the main ghetto but far more ruined. The reason for the split was determined by the concentration of Jews within the city and less need to transfer them from place to place. Their situation had considerably worsened with the ghettos’ locations highly inadequate in terms of sanitation, water and electricity.[1] The separation of the ghettos would later enable the Germans to murder the prisoners with greater ease. The larger ghetto was liquidated in 1943, a year-and-a-half after its establishment, and the smaller one, a few months earlier.[1]

And yet the remnant of the Prensky and Magaziner families that were wiped out at the hands of the Nazis had experienced war thirty years prior. During World War One, fighting on the eastern front gravitated around both Bialystok and Grodno and, at least according to an aunt, my Aunt Mal (Malvina Stone), most of the extended family had gotten caught in the WW 1 crossfire  between the Russians and Germans,. Many had died during that period.

All communication with the family in Europe ended.


Belarus, the country where Grodno is located, is not in the news much and I do not claim to have a profound knowledge of the place. I did read Elim Klimov and Ales Adamovitch’s “I Am from the Fiery Village” upon which the disturbing film “Come and See” is based. It details Nazi crimes in Belarus and is unsparing in the horrors the Nazis committed there. The book was even more chilling than the film. The April, 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident didn’t only contaminate areas of northern and western Ukraine but vast areas of Belarus as well with death and cancer rates soaring in the years and decades afterwards.

With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Belarus emerged as an independent state, but one which maintained close ties with Russia. Belarus during the Lukashenko rule of 26 years was not “a pretty place” – post Communism did not prove to be any better than Communism either from the economic or political viewpont and much of the criticism that the government is facing is deserved. I don’t doubt the corruption nor the repressive measures that have become common place.

Nor do I believe that the current government is sustainable. It will collapse. The real question is what will replace it? Will it be another “color revolution” most of which were essentially counter revolutions, or will it be something better economically, politically. And then there are the geo-political considerations as NATO tightens its squeeze around Russia with military bases and nuclear weapons. These past decades since the collapse of the USSR, the United States has excelled at creating right wing, ethnically narrow governments, intervening either directly or through proxies in the name of “humanitarian internvention” or “democracy” but the results have been neither humane nor democratic.

I am concerned for Belarus – and of course Grodno from whence so many Prenskys and Magaziners hailed – not be another pawn in NATO’s game.


Ehrenburg, Ilya and Vasily Grossman. The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry. Transaction Publications. New Brunswick, U.S.A and London, U.K., 2002, p. 187

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 25, 2020 8:14 am

    Thanks for the history and analysis both personal and geopolitical. John

  2. Tosia permalink
    January 30, 2023 4:20 pm

    Thank you. My grandmother (Sophie Sidor) and her family are from Grodno. They came to the U.S. before WWI.

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