Why do we need to index historic cemeteries in Belarus?

Most of the people using this website as a genealogy tool are aware that the only evidence of a man’s being on this earth is very often just a tombstone. Regrettably, these collapse because of maltreatment, weather or age or simply sink into the ground. In Belarus one can very often see old headstones being dislocated or even used somewhere in construction.

The tombstones by nature don’t contain too much information but they are the last authentic witnesses of the grand events that took place in the history of Belarus — from the stones on the graves of the Belarusian gentry and literary classics, to the Jewish matzevot, tombstones and markers of the French, German and Russian soldiers. By preserving and studying such places we keep the memory of particular people and events behind which they were and thus we understand better who we are…

My first visit to a Catholic cemetery took place in 2012 – I was trying to help my guest from Australia to trace the genealogy of his Hodyl family. These people originated from Naliboki Village located on the edge of the Naliboki forest (featured in The Defiance story), 100 km south-west of Minsk. During that trip to Naliboki we met an eye-witness of the pre-war events knowledgeable of the locals and their lives, normally, the most valuable asset one has in a genealogy tour. In our case the old lady was not related to the Hodyl so she couldn’t share much about their ancestry but her hospitality made up for that. The search at the old cemetery followed our memorable lunch with a most charming babushka in Naliboki.

The cemetery was very impressive… A little unkempt at first glance, with a fallen tree in the middle, its atmosphere was still quite specific. In the wooded section behind the church I discovered the 19th century tombstones made of metal - the nobleman who owned the area ran an iron foundry. The ironwork and the fact it’s still there – a century or more after being installed – was quite fascinating (I assume such crosses would have gone missing somewhere in the east of the country scrapped for metal). Different crosses, different decoration techniques and different names – even English and German names of the people who died in the late 1800s.

We were searching for our Hodyl people for over an hour - it turned out to be a pretty popular local name. With some tombstones overgrown, some lying face down on the ground or having illegible inscriptions we were unable to read many of them. In a few hours of struggling through thick vegetation we had taken over a dozen pictures of Hodyl tombstones in Russian and Polish and in various spellings. Surprisingly enough, my guest’s father recognized one of the names once he was back in Australia with the images. It turned out that one of the relatives had died only a couple of years before the visit.

It occurred to me during the search that in the 21st century in the center of Europe - that’s what the tourist leaflets will tell you about Belarus - there should be a proper listing of the deceased – church books at least, not to mention a catalog similar to billiongraves. Obviously, I was also aware of the fact that most of the church papers - in Naliboki in particular – had been destroyed during the war and the country’s budget did not have a line for cemetery indexing. My personal concerns were far from being so global so I left the idea hanging in the air for a while.

Later, as I toured the successors of the Poles, Belarusians and Jews who left the country decades ago I started to realize how difficult it is to find information about the ancestors especially when the only source is graveyards.

Another case when the feeling that something had to be done about this occurred in Pinsk two years later (2013). A lady from Canada was a third generation Belarusian and was visiting Pinsk and the area to try and restore the long-broken link with the family. As it happens in two cases out of ten perhaps, the other brunch of the family was discovered right where we expected and a generous table was laid to facilitate the genealogical conversation. We were leaving Pinsk the next morning with a plan to make a short stop at the old cemetery of Pinsk.

The latter occupies a few hectares of land with some dilapidated tombstones and some – still legible and in agreeable condition. Obviously, with my guests reading zero Russian (though many headstones in the south and west of Belarus are in Polish) it was pretty much like looking for a proverbial needle in a haystack, especially given that the ancestors had died about a century before – early 1900s. Strictly following my intuition (which doesn’t exist) I suggested that we took a quick look on the right once we’d crossed the cemetery gates (the look of the section matched our search criteria). The lady’s husband walked behind the first stones to discover the surname that began with the Russian “S” letter and I came over to confirm that the tombstone actually belonged to Syrovatko family – the one we looked for. So much for the theory of probability =)…

The idea of a cemetery catalog was more or less firm in my mind already and once I discovered that a similar initiative launched in Minsk was not really successful I decided to invest my own pocket money into this project. It will be an index of all existing historic gravestones and cemeteries in Belarus that haven’t been dislocated. One of the main features of the catalog – precise location of any indexed tombstone that allows you to walk into a five-meter circle using your smartphone.

It seems like today people living in Belarus don’t care much for the country’s history in general and for cemeteries in particular. Only a small fraction of youths are struggling to preserve and promote their culture and history. I believe that indexing cemeteries - an activity available to anyone with a mobile phone - will make Belarusians more mindful of their past. Having built this country-wide online cemetery we will, hopefully, refine our ethnic identity and design our unique way in the modern world.

No doubt, it will help others from across the world to find their roots and learn more about the place their ancestors came from and in the long run it might eventually open Belarus for the international visitors. Ideally, a community will shape whose aim is not only to catalog but also to preserve the cemeteries in Belarus which might have an impact on other issues our society is undergoing at the moment.

The concept has been perfected over a couple of years and a serious thought has been given to it from all angles considering other similar undertakings in Belarus that enjoyed no success. Joining well-known international projects that seem to have their own complicated policies, non-existing moderators and multiple issues was not an option.

I believe that this website can inspire enthusiasts to build a strong team that takes care of tombstones and promotes this aspect of our culture to the rest of the public. We have every chance to make the project popular by having functions that will help to research one’s genealogy. The purpose and design will attract a great deal of youths — mobile, patriotic and challenge-oriented — that will contribute to it. Second optional website language will be Belarusian and this website will be free, easy to navigate and user-friendly.

If you share my ideas and believe in the success of the project you might give me a helping hand.