Last month, I participated in an international volunteer clean-up, restoration, and preservation project at the old Jewish Cemetery of Chernivtsi, one of the largest surviving historic Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe. The majority of the volunteers there were German, many (maybe most) of whose parents were German soldiers in WWII. The cleaning that happened there went deeper than the roots of the plants that we cleared out. I found myself at various times watering the freshly exposed earth with tears. Tears of healing. Tears of unexpected love for the descendents of my ancestors’ enemies, the descendents of my people’s murderers.
I had spent the previous couple of months traveling through the former Ukrainian shtetls where my great-grandparents were from: Yosypivka, Zoziv, and Zhmerynka. Part of my purpose in traveling to those villages was to search for the graves of my ancestors. I found the cemetery in Yosypivka mostly in decay with few tombstones left, the cemetery in Zoziv completely vanished, and the cemetery (the old section) in Zhmerynka swallowed up by overgrown vegetation.
The disappearance of active Jewish community from these places meant the decay, destruction, and disappearance of the Jewish heritage sites there. So when I saw that an acquaintance, Christian Herman (amazing blogger and advocate in the Jewish Heritage Preservation world), posted on Facebook about the volunteer project happening in Chernivtsi, the impulse to join overtook me. (Christian helped found the annual service project years ago).
I don’t have direct ancestors that I know of from Chernivtsi, but after experiencing the grief of finding my ancestors’ cemeteries in various states of ruin, I wanted to do what I could to help prevent that same disappointment for others who still have a chance to find their ancestors’ graves.
Chernivtsi was a cultural capital of the Bukovinian Jews. The first documentation of Jewish presence in Chernivtsi dates back to 1408. By 1919, the Jewish population of the city numbered almost 44,000 and comprised almost half of the city’s total population. There were around 50,000 Jews in Chernivtsi just before the war. Approximately one-third survived the war and Holocaust. Most of the survivors did not return to Chernivtsi, but emigrated to Israel. The Jews that ended up in Chernivtsi after the war were transplanted there from other parts of the Soviet Union, which the city became part of.
Today there are only around 1,000 Jews living in Chernivtsi. The Bukovinian Jewish culture has all but vanished from the city. The Jewish cemetery, with its over 50,000 graves, is one of the few monuments left of the culture that once flourished there. The volunteer project is meant to ensure that the Bukovinian Jews of Chernivtsi are not forgotten.
I learned about the project too late to register through official channels, so I just went to the cemetery after I arrived in Chernivtsi, to find the volunteers. It began to rain as I made my way over, and when I got there, I found a group huddled under one of the few spots with some cover. I asked if they were there for the volunteer project. They affirmed that they were. I told them I was there to join. They welcomed me with open arms.
They were done with work for the day because of the rain, but invited me to join them there the next morning.
I was surprised to find myself the only Jewish person joining the project. Everyone else was non-Jewish. They were from two different organizations: SVIT Ukraine and Action Reconciliation Service for Peace. The SVIT volunteers were Ukrainian, Swiss, Finish, and Romanian. The Action Reconciliation volunteers, who made up the vast majority, were, except for one Polish woman, all German.
They were already hard at work when I got to the cemetery the next morning. I grabbed a pair of gloves and pruners and joined in. We cut down trees that threatened to break through tombs, cleared overgrowth that made it nearly impossible to access entire sections of cemetery, and removed networks of vines that had swallowed up tombstones. The German group, whose ages I guessed ranged from around forty to eighty, worked with a passion that showed they were deeply invested in this project, in this mission of preserving the heritage there. In the sweltering heat, I had trouble keeping up with some of the eldest volunteers. They were workhorses giving it their all.
The SVIT group broke for lunch on the earlier side. The German group kept working and I decided to keep working with them. Eventually they broke for lunch too. The Germans invited me to eat with them. I accepted. They were extremely friendly and welcoming. They generously shared their food with me. Out of respect I waited for the elders to grab their food before I did, but they insisted that I fill my plate first.
I sat down and found myself the only Jew in a circle of Germans, who were of course speaking German with each other. I’ve never been to Germany. This was the first time I had ever been in a group (a large one) of German strangers speaking in their mother tongue. I’ve got to admit I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy. I intellectually knew that there was nothing to fear, that I was safe, that they were friends, not enemies, that they were good people there to be of service. But hearing them speak German, which I don’t understand, and seeing them laugh about something that I was not in the loop on, brought up old associations and inherited memories. I felt my body tensing with nervousness. Deep inside the membrane walls of the cells of my body, there were alarms going off telling me to get the heck out of there. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that it was okay, that I was safe.
Soon enough, the nervousness was to be replaced by something else. The woman sitting next to me switched from German with her friends to English with me, and into conversation we went. She was interested in my story, my connections with Ukraine, and so I shared. I don’t remember how we got there, but eventually the conversation turned to her father. He was a soldier in the German army in occupied Ukraine. My body tensed up again. This time anger began to stir up in me. I took a deep breath again. My thoughts went to wondering if her father and my grandfather, who was an officer in the Soviet Army during the war, ever faced each other on the battlefield. Could this be a reunion of enemies, now sitting and eating sandwiches and watermelon together in one of the few surviving Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe?
She said that her father served as an engineer during the war and that he didn’t see much actual battle or mass killings, but in his role he inevitably helped support them from behind the scenes. She said that she grew up wanting to believe that he was unaware of the mass killings of Jews in Ukraine, that he was kept in the dark about it. That he gave his consent and support unknowingly. But as she got older, the truth began to seep in. The places he was stationed were too close to some of the mass killing sites. Even if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, there were so many Jews shot at some of these sites that he would have heard about it. Somebody would have talked, and word would have spread. He knew.
I could see that she had been having a hard time reconciling with this since it seeped in.
She went on to share that an aunt of hers through marriage (the wife of her uncle) was a Jewish Holocaust victim in Germany. Her aunt was protected from the Nazis while her husband was alive, but the stress of the war and Holocaust gave him a heart attack. Once he was gone, it wasn’t long before she was sent off to a concentration camp, the last place her aunt ever saw.
Her voice began to quiver as she began to say, “And there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about these things.” Tears began to well up in her eyes and she turned away. So she didn’t see that tears began to well up in my eyes at the same time. I saw the pain she’s been carrying. I saw the regret she carries for the crimes of her father. I felt her grief over things she had no control over because they happened before she was born. I wanted to hug her, to embrace her, to cry with her. I felt love for her.
I was surprised by this feeling. Ten minutes before, my body was telling me to run away from her. Now my body was telling me embrace her. But I waited. I wasn’t sure if she was a hugger or comfortable with being emotionally open. The thought occurred that even if she is emotionally open, perhaps she’s reluctant to share her grief with me. Perhaps she felt it was irresponsible to reveal her pain to me. What right did she, the daughter of a German soldier, have to cry in front of the grandson of Jews from the land the Germans brought so much carnage to? She walked away towards the tool shed. A couple of minutes later she headed back towards the picnic area where we had lunch. I intercepted her, and asked if I could give her a hug.
She smiled and said, “of course.”
I embraced her. My heart began to climb into my throat and my eyes began to well up with tears again. Now mine was the voice quivering. I said to her, “thank you for being here.”
Her immediate reaction was to wave off my acknowledgement and gratitude. Not out of disrespect. But out of, as I perceived it, the shame and guilt she was carrying for the crimes of her father. She said that she was doing it for herself, to make herself feel a little better. I told her that whether she’s knows it or not, it’s not just for her. This time she didn’t turn away even though her eyes got a little wetter. She looked me in the eyes, and took in my words.
The next day, I had lunch with the German group again. I got into conversation with the eldest man there. He told me a bit about the history of Action Reconciliation Service for Peace. He honed in on the reconciliation theme. He said that in his opinion, they (the German people) can’t reconcile, because the people to reconcile with are gone. They can only atone.
I understood why they were working so hard, with such passion, with such great effort. They were atoning for the sins of their fathers. They felt their atonement, as a people, wasn’t over. Despite the national apologies, the reparations, and the service work since the founding of Action Reconciliation and the efforts of other individuals and organizations, the atonement goes on. I wondered when they will feel their atonement is complete? What is the marker for completion?
I didn’t agree with him that it was only atonement and not reconciliation. No, they can never reconcile with those whom their fathers killed, but they are not their fathers, and many of those who were killed have living relatives and descendents for whom the work these Germans were doing makes a difference. I am one for whom it makes a difference. They may have been atoning to those buried in the ground there, particularly in the mass grave site for the nine hundred of Chernivtsi’s first Holocaust victims. But whether they intended it or not, they were creating a sense of reconciliation for me that I had not realized was incomplete and had not known I was going to find there.
On the last day, we held a ceremony at the Holocaust mass grave site in the cemetery. The day before, the main organizer asked me if I would be willing to read the Mourner’s Kaddish during the ceremony. After some meditation upon it, I replied that I would. Some of the pious of my people will not agree that I had the right to recite Kaddish as we did not have minyan (a quorum of ten Jewish adults) according to tradition. I felt in my heart that we had the exact minyan that was needed there. We had the minyan that the cemetery and history had summoned together.
With lit candles in hand, we circled around the mass grave. I explained to the group that the Kaddish is a praise of the Source of life, and in it we are praising the lives and the Source of the lives of those who were laid to rest there.
Then we praised.
The whole two weeks of the cemetery project had been a big praise. It had been a praise for the people and the culture that had once thrived in that city. It had been a praise for the individuals and families that made up the community, whose names are etched into the fading fabric of time on those tombstones. It had been a praise for their descendents, some of whom still come back to bear witness and pay their respects.
We praised them with the sweat of our service and the tears of our reconciliation.