My Jewish family research missions took me to Mstibovo twice this year. Interestingly enough, both times the customers came from Argentina – one of the destinations for immigrants in the mid and late 1930s.
Mstibovo is a small hamlet in Grodno Oblast, not far from Volkovysk. Its name puzzles Belarusian historians but according to one of the most credible theories it was called after a pagan Slavic god Mstibog. The ancient town mound in Mstibovo has a shape suggesting it was once a pagan worship site.
Mstibovo town mound in the distance
Mstibovo was mentioned in 1451 in the chronicles as a private property and changed a number of noble owners before it became the area center in 16 century. The castle of Mstibovo was built on an elevation located in the bed of the Olshanka river. A mile away from the village, it was located on the very mound which served for pagan services previously. It was basically an island where locals got by boats. When the river became shallow later they had to build a dam upstream to keep the island isolated. The island castle existed until 17 century and had a strong garrison, apparently serving as a prison.
Feudal residence existed in the village that in the 18 century had three streets with over 100 living buildings. In that time the Mstibovo castle housed a tavern owned by the Jews Abramovich, Moikhevich and Borukhovich. Before the Swedish war of the 1700s each of the four town gates had a clock on it – the town had about forty watchmakers.
An abandoned Jewish house?
The wooden catholic church was first built in 1485 and was rebuilt several times because of fires and storms. The construction of a new church started in 1910 on public donations. The red-brick cathedral was designed in neo-gothic style and in spite of a delay caused by the WWI and the Revolution of 1917 the church was consecrated in 1922 in the name of John the Baptist. The second church in Mstibovo was built on the site of an ancient cemetery. Flattened in the 1970s it gave way to the local shop.
Catholic Church of John the Baptist
The Jews of Mstibovo
A Kagal existed in Mstibovo in 1529. It made a separate Jewish locality in Novogrudok area. According to Frantz Okulinsky, a Jewish survivor of Mstibovo, in the 1930s the local Jewish merchants started losing market to their Polish competitors and some were forced to sell their houses. By that time Jews made about one half of the town’s population. A couple of Mstibovo Jews predicted the unavoidable war with the Nazi Germany and moved with their families in 1937 urging others to sell their properties and leave for the USA.
One out of five Matseivas we found in Mstibovo
In 1943 the local police was ordered to relocate all Mstibovo Jews to the Volkovysk camp. The elders remember the Jews asking the villagers to keep their valuables until they were back. Several hundred Jews were gathered in the central square waving goodbyes to the locals who realized that they would never see each other again. Directly the Jews were withdrawn the town seemed deserted…
My guest calling back home in Argentina from Mstibovo
The only thing that reminds of the Mstibovo Jewish community today is a ruined synagogue and their overgrown cemetery on top of the hill behind the village. Matseivas are very hard to find but some of them are readable.