One of the most influential rabbis in the Litvak world was Rabbi Yisro’el Me’ir Kagan (1838-1933), who is best known by the name of “Chofetz Chayim,” which is the title of a book he wrote about Jewish ethical law on a specific topic. The rabbi was born in the shtetl of Dzyatlava / Zhetel / Zdzięcioł, in the Grodno province of the Russian Empire. He studied in Vilna / Vilnius and in 1869 he established a yeshiva in Radun / Radin / Rodūnia, which in the 19th Century was in the Vilna province / gubernya of the Empire.
Jews first settled in the Dzyatlava in 1580, shortly after the 1569 Treaty of Lublin, which united the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania into a single state. In 1795 the Russian Empire was annexed Lithuania and the area that includes Dzyatlava became part of the Empire’s Grodno province / gubernya. The 1897 All-Russia Census reported that there were 3,979 Jews living in the town, constituting 75 percent of the total population. Between the First and Second World Wars, the town was in the newly established Republic of Poland. A 1926 census reported that there were 3,450 Jews out of a total population of 4,600 people, again about 75 percent.
On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded western Poland and two weeks later the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland (the “Kresy”). Jews living in western and central Poland, rightfully fearful of the Nazis, fled eastward and many settled in Dzyatlava. By the beginning of June 1941, the Jewish population had increased to more than 4,500. The Nazis attacked the Soviets in late June 1941 and quickly took control of Dzyatlava. Most of the Jews were murdered in mass executions that occurred in April and August 1942.
In the early 2000s, Zhanna Nagovonskaya, a teacher in Dzyatlava, decided to establish in one room of a local school a museum to the memory of the town’s Jewish community and to the Chofetz Chayim. In 2019, Remembering Litvaks made a major donation to support this museum’s important work. The museum is currently directed by another Dzyatlava teacher, Elena Radomskaya.
Here is a short, English-language video in which the director describes the museum.
From left to right: V.V. Ishutin, the director of Dzyatlava Gimnazia No. 1; Zhanna Nagovonskaya, the founder and former director of the museum; Phil and Aldona Shapiro of Remembering Litvaks; and Elena Radomskaya, the museum’s current director.