The Towns of Our Ancestors –“A Town with Many Names”

This Article was written for the JEWISH GENEALOGY SOCIETY OF LONG ISLAND’S award winning quarterly “Lineage”  Spring 2014

As a way of introduction I am a printmaker who has been making linocuts and woodcuts of wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe. I have reached into my past life as a history and geography student and teacher.   In addition I have an interest in genealogy through marriage.   As I created linocuts I also learned as much as I could about wooden synagogues, the towns they were built and the people who lived within. These people are people are our ancestors. The vast majority of our ancestors attended wooden synagogues. They were builtlost souls over the shtetl 2 11x17 linocut

mainly in small market towns, which were called shtetls.   Over the years many towns were able to replace wooden synagogues with Stone and Brick buildings. Many of these stone synagogues are being restored today, but wooden synagogues are all gone. Lets go to our first Town.

Sapotskin, Belarus

Alternate names: Sopotskin [Russian], Sopoćkinie [Polish], Sopotkin [Yiddish], Sapotskin [Belarussian], Sapackinė [Lithuanian]

Sapotskin is a small town located in Belarus, where Poland, Lithuania and Belarus come together. The shtetl of Sopoćkinie[Pol] was part of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania. It during this time that the old wooden synagogue was built. After the Partition of Poland, Sopotskin[Russian] became part of the Russian Empire. After World War I, Sopoćkinie[Pol] was again part of Poland. During World War II, the town fell under Russian Control and then sopotkin 107German control. The Jewish town of Sopotkin [Yid], ceased to exist in November of 1942. As a result of World War II Sopotskin[Russian] returned to Russian Rule. Today, Sapotskin, is located in Belarus. Until World War II the vast majority of the town’s people were Jewish. Today the town is almost 100% Polish, and is the only town in Belarus that is allowed to have bi-lingual street signs.


Sapotskin owed its existence to the geographical fact that it is was situated on the road between Grodno and Kovno. It was linked by road and canals. Jews made their living from this trade and trade in forest products. Once World War I ended and borders were erected between Lithuania, Poland and Russia trade was halted and the town withered away.

World War I had a great effect on the Jewish community. In the first weeks of the War the Germans occupied the town. They turned the old wooden synagogue into a stable and two stone synagogues were converted into hospitals. The Germans liberated the Jews from the harsh control of the czars. After a few weeks the Russians returned. They feared that the Jews would be loyal to the Germans and forced all Sapotskin’s Jews to move away from the border region deeper into Russia. After six months the Germans returned and made Sapotskin a regional center. Those Jews who were not deep into Russia, returned to find their homes destroyed. As World War I come to a close the Germans retreated and the newly formed nation of Lithuania invaded Sapackinė [Lith] in a failed attempt to keep the region from becoming part of the newly formed nation of Poland. When the Poles took control, the Jews of Sopoćkinie [Pol], faced hard times as the town lost much or its economic base and the new Polish government became increasingly anti-Semitic.


The Jews of Sopotskin did not stand by passively. The town was the center of the Zionist movement in the Grodno District. Sopotskin’s great Rabbi Shemuel Yaakov Rabinovitch was an early force in the Zionist movement. The vast majority of the town’s youth belonged to various Zionist groups. The bund was also strong.   Many town members were lucky enough to settle in the land of ISRAEL.