The Places Behind the Faces, Part I: Vasilishki

If you look carefully at the translation of the birth records on Finding Names for the Photograph, we have another hint for further research from the birth records. The gardener’s great-grandfather Shimel (sometimes Shimen) is not originally from Odessa or Tiraspol after all, although the family lived in both places. He is originally from Vasilishki, which is in Belarus.

As a reminder, this photo is Isidore and his family (except sister Malka who was in the U.S.). Take a look at the father, Shimel, seated in the center. He was born into a family of Vasilishki Scheshkos who had probably been in that town for generations.

Inna tried to find Shimel’s birth record, but the Lithuanian archive that houses these records does not have Jewish birth records for the year Shimel was born. They have very few Jewish records for Vasilishki at all. But there was one large Scheshko family in town, that is clear. It’s possible that Mendel, son of Girsch (born 1833), could be Shimel’s father.

Shimel’s birth in Vasilishki means that the name Scheshko (Sheshko) might not be Ukrainian, but come from elsewhere. Inna used Alexander Beider’s A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames and discovered that “Jews with this surname lived in Ukmerge (old name Vilkomir) town that is located in Lithuania, Lida, Belarus, Village Sheshki in Panevėžys district of Lithuania and village Sheshki in Ashmyani district of Belarus. So if the family lived in one of the Sheshki villages, then the surname is toponymic.” That would mean that the name came from where they lived at the time they took the name. This differs from family folklore, which is that the name came from the trade of ironworker or sword maker. No definitive decision on the origins of the surname yet.

Vasilishki is still in existence. You can get a feel for what it looks like today HERE. Google will translate it into English, if you wish. It did not look this way before WWII. It was a drab, gray town set in a beautiful landscape with forest, streams, and meadows. The railway station was sixteen kilometers (ten miles) away.

JewishGen profiles Jewish communities, including Vasilishki. From that site, I found the following information. Before WWI, the town was in the Lida district, Vilna province, and part of the Russian Empire. Between WWI and WWII it was still the Lida district, but now it was Poland. After WWII Vasilishki was part of the Soviet Union and today it is in Belarus. Think of it as in the Vilna region. It is 20 miles WSW of Lida and 42 miles east of Grodno. There were sixteen nearby Jewish communities. Not documented to my satisfaction, but of interest, is an online report that suggests that the town was first mentioned (that we know today) in 1486. Jews may have lived there since the 16th or 17th century.

The Jewish population in 1897 was 2,081 (out of a total of 2,780), but in 1921, it was 1,223. Jews made up about 80% of the town, and it could be considered a shtetl. In 1909 a men’s private Jewish school was opened. JewishGen has a list of Jewish surnames that were found in Vasilishki in 1834. They include Sheshko.

In the 1920s the entire region was constantly changing as it was just after the Russian Revolution of 1917. One Jewish response to the changing world was the creation of the Betar movement, which was a Revisionist Zionist youth movement founded in 1923. Very soon there were chapters across Europe. It was an influential group. For instance, Menachem Begin, Israeli prime minister (on and off between 1980 and 1983), was a member of this youth group. Vasilishki had its own Betar group before and perhaps during WWII.The organization still exists today, particularly on college campuses.

Betar of Vasilishki

Click the photo to enter the source at JewishGen

Of course, this history leads up to WWII and the Holocaust. If you wonder as I did what happened to the town’s inhabitants, I will tell you that Jews no longer live in Vasilishki.

If you recall on my post Who Are These Other Scheshkos? I posted a small portion of a list from a database of Jews that were murdered in the Holocaust. These were Sheshkos from Vasilishki. At the time it seemed far away from our Scheshko/Sheshkos, but now we know that the gardener’s great-grandfather left Vasilishki at some point. Presumably, he left his family behind in Vasilishki. Realistically, it appears at this point as if the Sheshkos listed as murdered were actually the gardener’s relatives. This was quite a blow to absorb as up ’til now the gardener did not really connect his father’s relatives with the Holocaust.

There was another list I put up–of Jews who survived the Holocaust–and there were Scheshkos in Belice. On this map from JewishGen you can see how close Vasilishki is to “Bielica,” which is possibly the Belice on the list. If Vasilishki is 20 miles from Lida, then clearly it’s not much farther to Bielica. Of course, we don’t know what happened to these people after the war, but notice the names. Ida Scheshko, like Isidore’s mother. It does seem unlikely though as the last place we see her (so far) was Odessa and she would have been quite old. It’s possible that the Belice survivors are related to the Shesko/Scheshko/Scheschkos in Canada, but this is just an intuitive leap, and I could be wrong.

What actually happened in Vasilishki during the war? Before the Germans arrived there, the military sent all the Jews into the forest in case of bombing. They had to pray silently during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When the Russians retreated and the Germans arrived, they ordered everyone back to their homes. At first, the Jewish population thought that this was a good thing and they communicated easily with the Germans through Yiddish. But quickly they started to see the cracks.

A forest in Belarus

Wikipedia

At the very end of 1941 a ghetto (read: prison) was established in Vasilishki by the Nazis for the Vasilishki Jews, as well as those from neighboring villages. They were worked very hard. The Lithuanian police, on May 10, 1942, helped the Nazis select Jews to be killed. Pits had been dug in the Jewish cemetery, and between 1,800 and 2,200 Jews were shot and killed and buried in the pits. About 200 people were transferred to other ghettos, and a few escaped into the forest.

On JewishGen, I found the Vasilishki portion of Shchuchin Yizkor Book which includes testimony from survivors of Vasilishki and provides a narration of what occurred before, during, and after the war. You can go here to read more. And Vasilishki is mentioned elsewhere on the site, as well. I don’t think it requires joining JewishGen, but you can join for free if you like, although a donation would be appreciated.

The Vasilishki Jews who were murdered by the Nazis are honored in the Forest of the Martyrs in Israel.

14 thoughts on “The Places Behind the Faces, Part I: Vasilishki

  1. I had to read this twice to absorb it all; there is so much here, and so much of it is horrifying and hard to read. I know how the gardener felt when he learned he had family—and not very distant family—killed in the Holocaust. The first time I found a relative who was a Holocaust victim I was just shocked. Like your husband, I’d always believed that no one in my family was left in Europe and killed by the Nazis.

    Although I had long been horrified by what had happened to the six million killed, it hits you differently when you realize your own family members were murdered—even though you never knew who they were. And my list keeps growing. And it never gets easier. I find something hurts inside each time, and my breath catches in my throat.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, the shock is so palpable. Looking back, I don’t know how we could think the Holocaust didn’t come near the family, and yet, we didn’t have a good understanding of locations, etc. And it’s so much easier not to put names and faces, isn’t it? To be, in effect, in denial. Thank you so much for reading, Amy. I know there is a lot of harsh information here and this isn’t a pleasant blog post with pretty pictures . . . .

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I find it so hard to get my head around the last part of this post Luanne – still after all these years and even though such holocausts continue today in other parts of the world. How do you get your head around human beings mass murdering other human beings – for whatever reason? And then to discover it was your family forebears – it must unsettle the very earth beneath your feet I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You are definitely inspiring me to try to dig deeper into my family’s history.
    Tangentially related:
    Did you happen to see “Indecent” the play by Paula Vogel on Great Performances last Friday? It’s a play within a play sort of thing with Klezmer music and dance, and the original play was performed in the Lodz ghetto.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Luanne, this was an amazing post so well written.I have spent considerable time on Jewishgen, in fact just this morning doing some research. I am always at a loss for words after reading the horrific accounts and details. Post like yours should be required reading for high school ethics/gov’t classes.

    Liked by 1 person

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