A few weeks ago, I made it to another village in which ancestors of mine lived: Zoziv. (I’ve been without my laptop for the past three and a half weeks, thus the delay of this post). It’s a small rural village in central Ukraine. My great-grandparents from my mother’s side, Gillel Sukhotnik and Ida Tanzer were from there. My time in Zoziv mirrored my time in Yosypivka in many ways. I arrived prepared to just plop my tent where ever was safe and live out of it during my exploration of the village. I found myself instead invited by a Ukrainian woman I met on the street, a grandmother who told me to call her Aunt Vera, to stay with her family in their rural village homestead. She lived with her daughter and her daughter’s two children. They lived near the center of the village, near where the old shtetl was. Again I was taken in, fed, and cared for by complete strangers in a place that was simultaneously foreign and a part of my story. A place where a piece of me comes from.
There were hundreds of Jews (133 Jewish families according to local archives) in Zoziv before the war. No Jews are left in Zoziv today. Most did not survive the war and Holocaust. But there are those in Zoziv who still remember that we were there, where we were, and what we had there. I was given a brief tour by the current head of the village council, Aleksander Borisyvich, but he is a busy man, so we sped through the village in his car. He stopped the car to show me where the synagogue of the village use to stand, now an empty space between the small village’s only cafe and the lake. He showed me the main street in the village center where the shtetl Jews lived. He showed me the small, former Jewish garment factory building, now a Ukrainian orthodox church.
My great-grandmother, Ida, was a seamstress. My great-grandfather, Gillel, ran the garment business that sold the clothes Ida and her co-workers sewed. My heart swelled with excitement as I understood that I was standing in front of, looking upon, the building they ran their business out of over a hundred years ago. This was where they learned to excel at the trade they took with them to Odessa, where my grandmother was born. I marked the locations of these sites to return to on my own when I had more time.
Next we drove to the site of the old Jewish cemetery on the northern edge of the village. I had been hoping to find some tombstones still standing. Perhaps one of them could tell me more about the Sukhotniks and the Tanzers from whom I am descended. Aleksander Borisyvich warned me that there was nothing left, but I needed to see it for myself. I needed to be sure. I needed to at least come honor the site where my ancestors (before my great-grandparents) were laid to rest.
We drove past expansive fields of golden wheat on our right, and dense forest on our left. Around a curve that hugged the river the village was built along, and onto a hilltop field with bushes scattered among the wild grasses. Aleksander Borisyvich stopped the car and said this was it. I got out. I looked around. Indeed, there were no tombstones I could see. Nothing marking that this was a site where hundreds, possibly thousands, had been laid to rest. I made a point to return to this site as well so I could properly pay my respects when I had more than just a minute (Aleksander Borisyvich had a meeting to get to). On the ride back to the center, I asked the Aleksander Borisyvich what had happened to the tombstones. He said he didn’t know, but they probably just fell apart due to decay and no one looking after them.
The next day I went to visit a village elder, Vassily Pavlovich, who the family I was being hosted by connected me with. Aunt Vera’s eleven-year-old grandson, Artyom, guided me there and stayed for the conversation. It occurred to me that my visit may be teaching this eleven-year-old Ukrainian boy, who was so excited to get to know and host a foreigner, about a piece of history of the village that normally isn’t spoken of. That Jews are a part of the history of the place. That we made up a significant portion of the village. That we were there. I wondered if he would know that if I hadn’t come.
Vassily Pavlovich was like a character out of a book or movie. Dressed in vintage flannel with a classic village-style flat cap and a magnetic story-telling personality to boot, He told me everything he could recall about the old Jewish shtetl and the Zoziv Jews he had known in his youth. Despite the occasional unconscious, subtly anti-Semitic biases in some of what he shared (a common, complex thread in my travels throughout Ukraine I’ve had to deal with, to be expounded upon in a future post), he had a breadth of knowledge of the village’s history. So I stayed to learn what he knew and talked with him about the biases which came out (with mixed success in being heard and understood).
He recalled being at the old Jewish cemetery when tombstones were still standing there. He described their tree trunk-like form, and I understood that they would have been similar to the few surviving tombstones I saw in Yosypivka. His theory was that they were taken at some point after the war, since there were no Jews left in the village to look after the cemetery, to be used as building material. This is an all-too-common story about historic Jewish cemeteries throughout Ukraine.
The next day I went back to the site of the old cemetery. I walked around, looking for some trace. A piece of a headstone perhaps that somehow managed to evade the grabbings for building material. Nothing. A headstone could possibly illuminate the mystery of the names of those who came before my great-grandparents. The mystery remains. The mystery of the exact spot of where those ancestors lay remains. I asked my body to guide me as best as it knew to where they were. I found myself drawn to a spot next to one of the bushes scattered throughout the hill. A congregation of grasshoppers were gathered on the spot. I hadn’t noticed them at first. They revealed themselves and made way for me when I arrived. I laid down a stone I brought with me, gave my gratitude and respects, and spoke prayers for the wind to carry upon its wings. The grasshoppers sat quietly next to me honoring the ceremony taking place, perhaps participating in their own way.
I visited the former garment factory on my way out. I touched its walls and felt the soil around it, the land that held it. I pictured my great-grandparents, who I’ve never seen, coming in and out, making the place a buzz, carrying their garments to be sold on the market square just outside the building. I thanked that land and those walls for having supported my great-grandparents lives.
I was adorned with parting gifts of food for the road from my hosts, along with a traditional Ukrainian folk doll, called a Motanka, which protects against evil spirits. It was hand-made by Aunt Vera’s close friend Larissa who I met during a meal at Vera’s family’s homestead. Larissa wanted me to know, before I left, that not all the Jews of Zoziv were wiped out by the Nazis who came through there. There were a few children who were hidden, of course at great personal risk, by Ukrainian families of Zoziv. She wanted me to know that. She wanted to counteract the subtle, unconscious anti-Semitism that remains in some of the village. She wanted to build bridges that were deteriorated or had been destroyed. She invited me to come visit again, to bring my future family. She exclaimed that she and Aunt Vera would be glad, honored, and excited to receive us as guests. I told her I would return some day. To show my future children where they came from. To show them that there are good people there, like the people who risked their lives to save children during horrific times. I meant it.
I got a photo with my host family before hopping on the bus and continuing the journey to the next village my ancestors walked the earth of. To see what traces of the lives and culture they lived in are left. To find others interested in building bridges.