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Across the Former Soviet Union Curiosity About Jewish Cemetery Wins Russian Student a History Prize

May 13, 2003
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Twice a day for 10 years, Alexei Evstratov passed by an abandoned cemetery in his hometown of Borisoglebsk.

“I knew that this was a cemetery, but not until a few month ago did I know it was a Jewish cemetery,” said the 11th- grader, who is not Jewish.

He decided to take research matters into his own hands by interviewing local residents about the cemetery. The result: some 50 pages of typewritten text — Evstratov doesn’t have access to a computer — titled “The Traces of the Jewish Community in Borisoglebsk.”

Evstratov’s painstaking work was recently rewarded when he was named one of five first-prize winners out of nearly 3,000 entrants in a national youth history competition — and the only winner who chose a Jewish-related topic.

Evstratov comes from a family of factory workers and says Jewish topics never interested anyone around him.

But the shy, tall 16-year-old said the cemetery triggered a number of questions in his head about the Jewish history in his city, so he embarked on his work.

A central Russian city with a population of 50,000, Borisoglebsk has never been an important Jewish center. The Jewish population of this town has never exceeded 300 people.

It turned out that some 50 Jews — mostly elderly — are still living in Borisoglebsk, though few of them were willing to speak to Evstratov.

“People are closed-mouthed,” said his adviser, Ivan Ivannikov. “The old-seated fear is still alive, the fear that lingers from the pogroms under the czars and from the years of socialism.”

Moreover, it turned out, Evstratov said, that Jews who are left in town “don’t even know each other.”

The story of Borisoglebsk’s small Jewish population is similar to the Jewish history of many communities across Russia.

In these towns, most of the Jews who once held prominent positions in education, health care and local government have died. Their children and grandchildren left for larger cities, and some have emigrated from Russia.

The Communists closed the Borisoglebsk synagogue in 1930, and its building — adjacent to the cemetery grounds — was turned into a private house that was later abandoned and destroyed.

Evstratov believes that none of the Jews who are still living in the city have any relatives buried in the cemetery.

During the day, neighborhood children play war here, and when it’s dark, homeless people converge on this plot of land full of broken stones that once marked Jewish graves.

Evstratov says that out of the dozens of tombstones that can still be found in the old cemetery, only five can still be read.

“Most are broken, some don’t even resemble tombstones anymore, no names are seen,” he says.

He said the oldest grave he found was from 1911 — and the most recent one is from 1975, a tombstone of the Epelbaum couple.

“I took this picture last fall,” said Evstratov showing a photograph of this tombstone. “Since then, it has been broken, like most others.”

Evstratov recently traveled to Moscow for the awards ceremony along with Ivannikov, who is mentoring a group of two dozen high school students interested in various aspects of their town’s past — ranging from the biographies of prominent local people to the history of Borisoglebsk churches.

Ivannikov, a short 57-year-old with a tanned face, says he was glad when Evstratov proposed his research subject.

“This is important for the history of the town. Without this, the picture of our town’s past is not complete,” he said.

Ivannikov said he hopes that if Evstratov’s research becomes better known in Borisoglebsk — thanks to the prize he received in Moscow — there is a chance to save what is left of the cemetery from complete destruction.

“Perhaps we can have our Jews get organized somehow to clean up and fence the cemetery,” he says.

The Moscow-based Euro-Asian Jewish Congress welcomed Evstratov’s research.

“During the past century, dozens of Jewish communities vanished from the territory of Russia without any trace. Your activity helps to revive the memory of those communities,” a spokesman for the congress wrote in a letter to Evstratov.

The letter was accompanied by a prize — two tape recorders to help Evstratov in his further research.

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