The ancestors danced through the halls of their old synagogue as we sang prayer songs long gone from these lands. Songs renewed with ecstatic tunes conjured from the rebirth of the ancient Judaic traditions happening in distant lands their descendents found refuge in. I could see the ancestors of this old shtetl in my mind’s eye, feel their joy in my heart, while I was sitting with the small number of Jews, mostly elderly, left there. My good friend Daniel, a fellow pilgrim on a parallel journey to connect with his roots, was with me (our journeys intertwined for a week together). We were gathered around the table on Shabbat inside the only synagogue still active in Zhmerynka, a mid-size town in central Ukraine from which my Berchenko ancestors came.
I had arrived there on Monday earlier that week, on my own. Zhmerynka is the town my grandfather, Boris Mendelovich Berchenko, and his brother, Noikh Mendelovich Berchenko, were born and raised in. Where they were bar mitzvah‘ed. The place their parents, my great-grandparents Mendel Berchenko and Dina Berchenko (I don’t know her maiden name yet), lived most of their lives. The place my great-grandfather Mendel, a woodsman, was buried. (Dina moved to Odessa to live with her two sons after Mendel passed away, and she was buried there.)
I came to see this place that held the history of the people from whom my surname comes. To search for my great-grandfather’s grave. To find his tombstone and see what light it may shed on the story of his life and who he is descended from. This was all in hope of the Jewish cemetery still being intact there. I didn’t know in what state I would find it in. The cemeteries in the previous ancestral villages I visited were either mostly gone or entirely vanished. Even the cemetery where a couple of great-grandparents of mine are buried in Odessa is gone. There was no guarantee that I would find anything left in Zhmerynka. Based on my own anecdotal evidence, chances of finding the cemetery intact were slim.
I found a hostel to set up in, and the next morning walked to the synagogue in the center of town to meet the leader of the small Jewish community left in Zhmerynka, a man by the name of Leonyd. He showed me around the building.
It was the last remaining synagogue before the Soviets closed it in the 1960’s. There were eight synagogues and dozens of prayer houses before the Russian Revolution. Zhmerynka was a town with a significant Jewish cultural presence. There were 2396 Jews (17% of the total population) in Zhmerynka near the turn of the 19th century. Before the war, Zhmerynka’s Jewish population reached 4,630 (17.8% of the total population). Today there are around eighty Jews left in Zhmerynka, according to Leonyd, most of them elderly.
The building we were in was returned, after the fall of the Soviet Union, to what remained of the once vibrant Jewish community of Zhmerynka and eventually restored to its original purpose as a synagogue. Leonyd is not a rabbi, but he fulfills the role of spiritual leader for the small Jewish community there, guiding a simple Shabbat ritual every week in the old shtetl.
After a brief tour and overview of the history of their synagogue, we took a walk around the center of town, around the old shtetl. Leonyd showed me the former central synagogue, now Zhmerynka’s “House of Culture,” a Ukrainian community center.
We walked to another former synagogue, now a small apartment building on the edge of the former shtetl.
I wondered if it was in one of these that my grandfather Boris went through the time-honored Jewish rite-of-passage ritual of Bar Mitzvah. I wondered if it was in one of these that my great-grandfather Mendel and great-grandmother Dina were married, where they went for holidays, where they prayed.
A now familiar feeling was moving through me. I felt it in Odessa when I came to the State Archives Building, a multi-story, beautiful work of architecture, and learned that it was the former central Jewish Reform Synagogue of Odessa. I’ve felt it in every city and village I’ve visited here in Ukraine, upon coming to the site of a former synagogue that has been either repurposed or destroyed (the story with the vast majority of the historic synagogues here). It’s a simultaneous feeling of grief and praise. These sites feel holy to me. The walls (if they’re standing) still vibrate subtly with the prayer and song, feasts and dances, joy and sadness, of communities that they held space for many decades ago. To me, these sites are sacred. To the majority of the current residents living in these former shtetls, especially the younger generations unaware of the history of these sites, they’re just buildings or empty lots.
Leonyd showed me the area, the size of about one square city block, that was the Jewish ghetto during the war. It was a closed ghetto that was crammed with thousands. The ghetto Jews suffered from beatings, hunger, and the stress of ghetto life, including the daily threat of being shot if they didn’t abide by the rules. But Zhmerynka was lucky relative to much of the rest of Ukraine. Zhmerynka was occupied by Romanians who weren’t as brutal as the Nazis. Few civilians were actually murdered in Zhmerynka during the occupation. One of the descendents of Zhmerynka’s ghetto Jews even said to me that the Romanian occupiers were “good” to them. I would say the old adage, “everything is relative,” applies there.
We came back to the synagogue where we started. Leonyd dug into who I was looking for there in Zhmerynka, the names of my ancestors who lived there. He said my last name sounded very familiar, but couldn’t remember at that moment who specifically he had known or heard of with that name. There were no Berchenko’s living there anymore, but he was sure there were still some not so long ago. Possible relatives? I’ve only been able to trace, on the Berchenko branch, as far back as my great-grandfather Mendel. I don’t know if he had any siblings or who his parents were or who their relatives were. I tried searching the archives in Zhmerynka and the oblast capital, Vinnytsia, but unfortunately the records no longer exist. They were likely casualties of the war, is what I was told in Vinnytsia. Erasure of memory, not just people, was part of the “final solution”. It’s very much possible that Mendel had siblings or cousins who stayed in Zhmerynka and that it’s them or their descendents who Leonyd was reminded of when I told him my last name.
I inquired as to the status of the Jewish cemetery. I felt relief and excitement to learn that the cemetery was still there. It had survived both the war and the Soviets. But Leonyd warned me that the older section had become a jungle because there weren’t enough Jews left in Zhmerynka to take care of it. Though there are a few elder Ukrainian women who live next to the cemetery and are paid, by Israeli and American families whose ancestors are buried there, to take care of certain plots. Leonyd said they know the cemetery better than anyone, and that perhaps they have seen my great-grandfather’s grave. Find them and I might find the grave.
With hope in my heart and directions from Leonyd on how to find the cemetery, I made my way there. I sent out some prayers along the way for help in finding the graves of my ancestors. Through dirt roads, past homesteads, each with significantly sized gardens and livestock, I arrived to the cemetery entrance at the top of one of the highest hills of the town. The size of the cemetery was surprising and impressive. Hundreds, if not thousands, of graves were there. The section on my left was in good condition, the plots cleared of flora, and tombstones solid, the writing on them legible. The dates on the tombstones confirmed that this was the newer section. The dates on the tombstones, many in decay, poking through thickets of bushes and trees on my right confirmed the beginning of the old section of the cemetery. Somewhere within that jungle lies my great-grandfather’s final resting place.
I began scouting the outer edge of the old section, trying to see where the burials from the 1930’s might be. I don’t know the date or even the year my great-grandfather Mendel died, but the evidence I’ve been able to gather from family members suggests he likely died in the early 1930’s. I saw a couple of men unloading some tools from a truck further up the row I was walking. I presumed they worked there and asked them if they had by any chance come across any Berchenko tombstones. They told me to find the lady two houses down from the cemetery entrance, that she might know where to find them if they’re there. Jenya was her name. She was one of the women Leonyd had mentioned.
I went to her house. Called for her. She came out. I explained who I was and what I was doing there. I asked her if she had ever come across any Berchenko tombstones.
“Berchenko? Follow Me.”
She led me down one of the rows that was relatively clear in the old section. It appeared that people were taking care of many of the plots in this row. Jenya said she looks after a few there. We came to a plot in relatively good condition that she stopped in front of. On the tombstone, in Russian, was written my last name. A rush of excitement coursed through me. I read below the last name and found that it wasn’t the Berchenko I was looking for. Nonetheless, it was an exciting find. A possible relative! Abram Yefimovich Berchenko.
He lived in the same town as my Berchenko great-grandparents. Jenya, asked if I had heard of him. I told her I hadn’t, but explained that my tracing of the Berchenko branch is limited to my great-grandfather, Mendel. Perhaps Abram was a cousin. Could be a brother. If I could find Mendel’s grave and see the patronymic name written there, that could shed some light on the relation. She explained that without knowing the exact year of his death, it’s a tough search. If I knew the year, she could help me find him.
In the meantime, she led me to another tomb she thought I should see in the new section. Another Berchenko! The daughter of Abram. Elizabetha Abramovna Berchenko. Incredible. Another possible relative! Did she have children? Are they alive? If so, where are they now?
Jenya left me to be with these potential relatives. I spent some time with Elizabetha and then went back to Abram. I asked him if we were related, to help me find out. I asked him to help me find any other ancestors who might be there, particularly my great-grandfather. Then I left him and headed into the into the jungle to search. Ducking, climbing over, crawling through thickets of overgrowth, I combed the rows. Hundreds and hundreds of tombstones.
I tried to make sense of where my great-grandfather might be. Many of the tombstones had a combination of Russian (which I can read) and Yiddish, but many other tombstones, especially the older ones, were written only in Yiddish, one of my ancestral languages I have yet to learn. Thus I wasn’t always sure of the dates or the people on the tombstones. I didn’t know if I was looking in the correct rows. After a couple of hours of searching, I exited the thickets. I ran into Jenya working on one of the plots on the outer edge of the older section. She asked me if I found anything. I told her I had no such luck yet. She reiterated that without knowing the dates, it’s a needle in a haystack. Her advice was to come back in the fall when all the foliage would be withered and it would be easier to navigate through the thickets.
I went back to the hostel I was staying at feeling a mixture of victorious and defeated, having found potential relatives, but still not knowing where my great-grandfather’s grave lies. I decided it was good enough. Dayenu. I was going to leave Zhmerynka the next morning and head to the mountains to meet up with my friend Daniel who was on his own roots journey. We had been chatting about backpacking through the Carpathians together and being there for Shabbat. Perhaps I would come back to Zhmerynka and search more in the fall.
The next morning I packed my rucksack and made myself a hearty breakfast to prepare for the road ahead. As I was eating, the managing owner of the hostel, Natasha, who had taken a strong interest in my story of my roots connection with Zhmerynka, came into the kitchen. Behind her followed an older woman. Natasha said that she was hoping to find me. She introduced me to the woman she brought with her, her friend Larissa. She explained that Larissa takes care of some of the plots at the Jewish cemetery and might be able to help me. She was another one of the women Leonyd had mentioned. Larissa told me that there is a woman living near the cemetery who once made a list and map of the tombs there. She offered to take me to her. I remembered my prayer to Abram Yefimovich Berchenko. I sent a message to my friend Daniel that I’m not making it out of Zhmerynka that day after all.
Larissa and I went to the street the cemetery entrance is on. A couple of houses down from Jenya was the woman Larissa was talking about. Larissa called for her. She came out and Larissa asked if she still had that list. She said that she did, but it was only a list of the new section of the cemetery. She never got around to making a list of the old section and didn’t know of any list existing. Larissa apologized to me. She thought the list was of the whole cemetery. She and the other woman chatted briefly and said their goodbyes. Then Larissa turned to me and said she would help me search for a bit if I wanted. I accepted her offer. Through the cemetery entrance and into the jungle of the old section we went.
She knew where the 1930’s rows were. She pointed out that they were organized by alternating male and female rows. We split up and combed through the thickets. After about half an hour, still with no success in finding Mendel’s grave, Larissa needed to go. Back outside the thickets of the old section, I expressed my deep gratitude for her time and help. She wished me luck. I went back in. Up and down the rows, weaving through branches and foliage, scanning for dates, and scanning for names written in Russian. It indeed felt at times like searching for a needle in a haystack. Still that needle was there somewhere. But after another couple of hours of searching, I was ready to call it a day. Perhaps call it a week. A month. A year. Come back with a machete and some Yiddish under my belt.
I exited the thicket at the far end of the cemetery. I headed down the main path that splits the old from the new section, back towards the entrance. I continued to scan the headstones on my left, on the outer edge of the old section. I noticed a small opening into the thicket, a narrow path, I hadn’t seen before. I felt a flash of deja vu, like I had seen this in a dream somewhere. Something in my body was telling me to go into the thicket, through this opening. In the face of my mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion, I followed this instinct.
On both sides of this narrow path were the densest thickets I had come across yet. Only the tombstones directly along the path were clearly visible. I scanned left and right as I moved slowly up the path. A year written on one of the stones popped out at me: 1933. Here was another section of 1930’s burials Larissa and I hadn’t come across. I went into the dense thicket on my right and began making my way along the row. There was no crawling or weaving through. It was so thick I had to break branches and stomp down the small trees and bushes to move forward and uncover the tombstones. Halfway up the row, I paused. My body wanted to go the other way. I surrendered to gut instinct, turned around, and headed back down the row. I crossed the narrow path I came in on and began breaking and stomping my way through the other side. Uncovering tombstone after tombstone that revealed surnames other than the one I was looking for.
Then I saw her. Not in the row I was in, but in the row parallel, the women’s row directly behind the tombstone I had just uncovered. I don’t remember now what drew my attention over there, but I glanced behind the tombstone I was at. It was one of those moments where I did a double take. I couldn’t believe my eyes at first. But there in front of me, in the only Russian lettering below the rest which was all in Yiddish, was my last name. Another Berchenko! A Berchenko who died around the time my great-grandfather died. The fact that they were in a women’s row and the first initial next to the surname was the Russian “B” told me that it wasn’t my great-grandfather. But I couldn’t help feeling like this was another ancestor, like this grave had been calling to me to find it.
My body was buzzing. It took me a minute to gather myself, to reaffirm to myself (to the best of my ability) that I wasn’t dreaming. I had found a needle in a haystack! It was a different needle than the one I was looking for, but an exciting needle to find nonetheless.
I gave praise for the moment, for the miracle. I spent some time with the grave, with this potential ancestor, B. Berchenko. I took photos and when I got back to my hostel, I put out the call on Facebook for a translation of the Yiddish. Within two hours, the call was answered.
“A modest and precious woman (Bubby) Yehudis bas (daughter of) R’ Simcha Meir Berchenka. Passed away 6 Menachem Av 1938.”
I called Leonyd to ask him if he knew anything about these finds, from the previous day and this most recent one. He told me to come meet him at the synagogue with the photos.
He didn’t know about Yehudis or Abram, but he recalled Elizabetha. He said that they were more than likely relatives. He explained that Zhmerynka was one of those shtetls where there were entire family clans. In the cities and some other shtetls, it could be common for people to coincidently have the same last name and not be related. But in Zhmerynka, it was a rarity for people to have the same last name merely by coincidence. If people had the same surname, it was in the vast majority of cases because they were related.
Leonyd recalled that Elizabetha was a doctor. She married another doctor with the surname Turner. He said they had children who, if he recalled correctly, moved to the U.S. back in the nineties. He didn’t remember their names. He urged me to stay in Zhmerynka for Shabbat, come to the synagogue for their Saturday afternoon service and meal, and meet the other elders of the community. He was confident that someone among them would know the names of Elizabetha’s children and perhaps even have their contact details. Potential living relatives somewhere in the same country I call home. I had to follow this thread through.
I messaged my friend Daniel again to let him know I now wouldn’t be making it to the mountains in time for Shabbat, and invited him to join me for Shabbat in the old shtetl of my Berchenko ancestors. We are members of the same Jewish spiritual community back in California, and the excitement of bringing in Shabbat together in the old country where we both have roots had been building up. So he hopped on the train and made his way over.
Daniel got in to Zhmerynka on Friday afternoon. We dropped off his bag at the hostel and headed to the center of town, to introduce him to the old shtetl. We followed the trail Leonyd had taken me down. I showed him the former synagogues, turned into the Ukrainian House of Culture and an apartment building.
Daniel posed a question he had been wrestling with on his ancestral journey, the same question that I’ve been wrestling with since I began my travels. How do we honor these sacred sites of our people, that have been repurposed or destroyed? How do we honor these buildings and spaces where for decades and in some cases centuries, people gathered to pray, to connect with each other, with the source of life, to give thanks for their lives, and to cry out for help in their struggles? How do we honor the sites where so many ancestors were laid to rest, but few descendents are left to visit and care for them?
Sing to them is one of the answers that keeps coming to me when I’m at these sites. We stepped into the corridor of the old synagogue that is now an apartment building. We walked slowly through its halls and up its stairs, touched its walls, peered through a cracked open door into an abandoned apartment. We paused in front of the former Aron Kodesh, the section that used to hold the sacred Torah scrolls. We stood in silence, in honor, in grief and praise.
Then we began to sing. It was a tune that was likely sung in these halls before the Russian Revolution (before this synagogue was shut down) as it came from Medzhybizh, a village only eighty-five kilometers to the west, a few hundred years ago. It was a Baal Shem Tov niggun. It was the medicine we needed. It may have been the medicine the walls of this old synagogue were craving.
That night we gathered on the patio of our hostel, with some of our hostel neighbors and Natasha (the hostel manager) who had never previously observed, but were interested in bringing in Shabbat with us. Natasha informed us, as we were setting up, that the hostel use to be an apartment building owned and rented by Jews. Throughout most of its history, it was a home for the old shtetl Jews of Zhmerynka. Daniel and I realized that this would not be the first Shabbat to be honored in this building. It felt good, the kind of good that makes your heart smile wide, to be bringing it back to this home together.
Saturday afternoon, we headed to the synagogue. A group of the congregants greeted us at the door and before introductions, immediately began talking about Elizabetha Berchenko. Word clearly had gotten around about me and my search. One woman said she knew Elizabetha’s children and she gave me their names. She said she has a friend in Zhmerynka who has a friend in the states who likely has Elizabetha’s children’s contact info. She gave me the phone number of her friend there in Zhmerynka.
Then we all sat down to begin the service. Leonyd led us in the Shabbat blessings. It was a brief service. My experience in the places in Ukraine that still have some Jewish presence is that in the non-Chasidic communities, the services are more about gathering community for meals together than they are about praying and praising together. We made quick blessings over the wine and bread. Then we dug into the meal and conversation. Daniel doesn’t speak Russian, so I played translator, relaying questions and answers, facilitating cultural exchange.
We asked if anyone among them speaks Yiddish. Everyone pointed to one of the elder women sitting at the middle of the table and said that she speaks it fluently. They said she knows many Yiddish songs. I asked her eagerly if she would sing one for us. She said she didn’t want to because they make her cry. She didn’t want to cry today.
As the plates of food came close to empty, people began to stir in preparation to leave. The service didn’t feel complete for me. I asked if they would be interested in singing a niggun. Leonyd said “please.” They stilled back into their seats and turned to me with anticipation. I began. Daniel recognized the tune instantly and began to co-lead the niggun with me. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s “Krakow Niggun”. The tune was foreign to the congregants. They listened attentively. Some joined in after a couple of rounds. The room lit up with the ecstatic energy of the niggun. Those who weren’t singing were clapping, their eyes beaming with delight. When we finished, they asked us to sing more.
Daniel led the next one. Another juicy niggun dripping with Shabbat ecstasy (I can’t remember the name). Then Leonyd led one that I’ve heard only in Ukraine. Another one of the congregants led one. Then we broke out into Shabbat Shalom. Daniel and I sang other nigguns we learned from our community back in California. The musical energy kept flowing.
There was an older tune wanting to be sung. It was beckoning from within. From the walls, from the floor and the earth below it, from the past that my roots inextricably link me with. I asked Leonyd and the congregants if they knew who the Baal Shem Tov was.
“Of course,” they replied. They travelled together as a community to his grave site in Medzhybizh about a year ago.
“Then perhaps you know this one,” I said. I turned to Daniel. He gave me a nod, and we began singing it together. The tune we had sung the day before in the halls of the synagogue turned apartment building. The tune that had likely been sung in these halls as well before this synagogue we were in was shut down during Soviet times.
It turned out the congregants weren’t actually familiar with it. The tune had been lost here in Zhmerynka. We were bringing it back from halfway across the world where we had learned it. The congregants once again joined in after a couple of rounds. The ancestors were with us. Clapping with us. Singing with us. Dancing around the room. This was their tune.
As we closed, the members of the congregation gave us their blessings for our respective journeys. We gave our gratitude for them allowing us to share in such a meaningful Shabbat with them, in this old shtetl of my Berchenko ancestors.
Daniel and I left Zhmerynka the next morning. Our next stop: Medzhybizh. To honor, pay our respects, and give praise at the final resting place of the Baal Shem Tov. To ask for his blessing in finding his old sacred stomping grounds in the Carpathian Mountains, where we were heading after Medzhybizh.
I didn’t end up finding my great-grandfather’s grave while I was in Zhmerynka. But I unexpectedly found other likely ancestors of some relation. Dayenu! I’m still working on getting in contact with the children of Elizabetha and establishing what our link may be. Perhaps one day I’ll make physical contact with the final resting place of my great-grandfather Mendel and find out who his parents were and how I’m related with the other Berchenko’s there. Perhaps one day I’ll be there in Zhmerynka again, with long-lost relatives, to grieve and praise together.