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Amateur Historian

Can you tell us a little about your background?

I used to live in Bobruisk and came to Toronto for a family celebration, which was the first time in thirty-five years that all family members from all over the world were gathered together. I was born in a simple working Jewish family, where, unfortunately, Jewish traditions were not practiced; there were absolutely no Jews where we lived, and my parents were simply afraid to observe any traditions.

What is your profession?

Before emigrating to Israel, I worked as a milling machinist at an automotive plant in Minsk. In Israel, we arrived with just a smuggled $50 in my pocket just when the Persian Gulf War began. This was a very difficult time for us, arriving into a state of way, especially considering that the local air raid siren in Ramat Gan was installed on our balcony.

It was very difficult for us to communicate; no one else around spoke Russian, and we did not yet know Hebrew. Thankfully, the parents who came with us were able to speak with some of their neighbors in Yiddish. 

To make ends meet, I took whatever work I could find, working in cleaning and construction, as was the fate of many of my fellow expatriates. It so happened that I had to return to Bobruisk, where my old mother lived. I was approached by a Jew from abroad who was looking for the grave of his relatives. To help him, I went with him to the Russian-Jewish cemetery there, and was horrified by the condition of the graves. Sometime after this, an act of vandalism took place in the cemetery in which Jewish headstones were destroyed and desecrated by swastikas. I took a pen and paper and went to the cemetery to take a census of the surviving Jewish graves. Since I read a little in Hebrew, I was able to read some inscriptions, but many graves could not be identified at all. During perestroika, people began to come from abroad to visit the graves of their relatives. Knowing that I had a census of some Jewish graves, I was asked to help locate and maintain the graves. People trusted me and relied on me to care for the resting places of their loved ones. Over time, the numbers of people who I connected with in this way increased, and I became known in different countries around the world. As my children joke, I became a "world celebrity" without using a computer or social media.

A couple of years later, some Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidim arrived in the city, and I noticed that they were praying at one particular grave. I approached them to get acquainted, and they told me that this is the grave of the grandson of the third Lubavitcher Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem Mendel, known as the Tzemach Tzedek]. The Chassidim were interested in the history of the Jewish cemetery, and I showed them my census. That's when the idea arose to create and publish a "Guide to the Jewish Cemetery of Bobruisk." The idea was supported by Leonid Rubinstein, the chairman of the Jewish community of Bobruisk. It took a year and a half to rewrite all the graves in the cemetery, because there are about 7,000 graves there. Moreover, I did not just rewrite the names of those who are buried alphabetically, but also drew a plan for locating graves by sectors. After the publication of this book, many appealed to the Jewish community of Bobruisk in order to learn from our experience, and as a result similar guidebooks were published for other cities of Belarus. Now I am an active pensioner, and I was elected a member of the council of the Jewish community.

What do you do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?

My work in the Jewish cemetery began as a hobby. I did it just because I was asked. Over time, it became a duty to other Jews. 

Given the opportunity to meet anyone, who would you choose?

I would like to meet and speak with Sholom Aleichem. The fact is that when people spoke Yiddish, I understood only the two words "Sholom Aleichem” [peace upon you]. Not really realizing the true meaning of these words, I sensed in them some kind of powerful force, as if they contained the meaning of all Jewry. I transferred the love for these words to the writer who made them his pseudonym. I will tell you a secret, for some reason I was also called Sholom Aleichem.

What are your plans for the future?

Jews (like my family) are scattered all over the world. But no matter how far apart we are, we are all united by common roots. And maybe because I'm trying to take care of these roots, G‑d will help to preserve and strengthen the tree itself – a single, united tree of the Jewish people.