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Zelva History

The family traces its origins to the Russian Pale of Settlement. Our ancestral town of Zelva is located in the Grodno Province of the modern Belarus (formerly the Byelorussian S.S.R., or White Russia). It is approximately 54 miles SE of the capital city of Grodno, and is situated on the Zelvianka River, about midway between the cities of Slonim and Volkovysk.

This region was once part of Poland. It came under Russian domination as Poland was gradually dismembered at the end of the 18th Century. Then, after the First World War, a new Polish republic was created, and this region reverted to being Poland, until the outbreak of the Second World War, when it was first occupied by Russia and then overrun by Germany. This also accounts for the ambiguity of family elders in describing where they came from. Sometimes they said "Russia," sometimes "Poland," or "Russian Poland."

The town of Zelva was noted for its trade fairs. It was also the seat for the Va'ad Arba HaAratzot, a Jewish governing committee that oversaw a large area of Jewish comunities in the Pale.  The Jewish population of the town peaked at about 2,500 in the early part of the 20th Century, and then began to decline as immigration upsurged. Here are two views of Zelva, taken during the early part of the 20th century that were obtained by Roseline Glazer of New York City, and sent for our use:

The Jewish population that remained behind, fell into the clutches of the Nazi Germans at the outbreak of the Second World War. Those that survived the initial set of purges and executions in Zelva, were concentrated in nearby Volkovysk along with other Jews from surrounding towns, and then taken to the death camp at Treblinka where they were exterminated.

  Here is a picture taken of the remains of the Great Synagogue that was located on the Schulhof of the town. The photograph was taken after the end of the Second World War, by returning landsleit at the time,and appears in Sefer Zikaron Zelva.


Here is a picture of the Jewish cemetery, also taken immediately after the Second World War:

The town of Zelva continues to exist in modern times, although no traces of its Jewish community remain.

A number of our landsleit have made the trip back there, and found the old Jewish cemetery has been converted into a soccer field.The gravestones have been deployed for various forms of construction including paving blocks.

The following triptych of pictures comes from Dr. Richard Katzman of Pepper Pike, OH who visited Zelva in the early 90's..They show the Cyrillic sign on the entry road to Zelva, the soccer goalposts on the Jewish cemetery, and the unkempt growth around it.


Through the efforts of Sherri Chasin Calvo, of Clarksville, MD we were recently able to obtain a post war aerial reconnaisance photo of Zelva from declassified Soviet military archives. Sherri passed it along to her uncle, Michael Friedman of Manalapan, NJ, who sent it to me. This photo, with North in the direction of left, is shown below:


When Sefer Zikaron Zelva was being prepared, Yitzhak Shalev (Shulyak),a native landsman and survivor living in Israel, set about to reconstruct a map of Zelva from his personal memory. A reduced version of that map is shown below, which illustrates that is memory was quite good.

A larger version of this map can be obtained by clicking on this image for those of you interested in viewing the detail more closely.

(click here for a high-resolution map)

The lower left side of the map may not be as accurate as the rest. Variances not only appear relative to the photo, but also, Mildred Shapiro Ragosin of Edmonton, Alberta (Canada), who lived in that northwest corner of the town,recalls the street layout to be somewhat different. Nevertheless, its overall accuracy makes it an important testament to the physical structure of the Jewish community in Zelva,  which today is no more.


In the Greater New York Metropolitan area, the Jews who emigrated from Zelva formed a landsmanschaft called the Zelver Benevolent Association, which continues to exist and function to this day.