An Unlikely Meeting in My Ancestors’ Old Shtetl of Glubokoe – Part One

I am guided.

By unseen forces.

These are the words that came to me as I sat in a dimly lit, dank, stone arch cellar turned into shul (Yiddish for synagogue) in the heart of the old Jewish quarter in Vilnius, the city once so renowned for being a center of Jewish spiritual study that it was deemed the “Jerusalem of the North.” It was Rosh Hashanah day. I had finally moved on from Ukraine a week before (which wasn’t easy as I had grown to love so much of it and so many people in the many months I was there). I was spending the high holiday in Vilnius while waiting for my visa application to Belarus to be approved so that I could visit the town my great-grandfather Yakov Meytus was from: Glubokoe.

I had resisted coming to this basement cellar shul. “Why did I agree to this?” I kept asking myself. I had been in the Great Choral Synagogue of Vilnius just half an hour before. It was a beautiful synagogue, ornately decorated, the only synagogue (out of dozens) in Vilnius to survive the war and Holocaust. The cantor had an amazing voice and such splendid, joyous energy. A smile so grand creased across his face after every prayer he sang that even his massive, characteristically chassidic, beard couldn’t hide it. The rabbi engaged in sermon with the congregation, giving context to what we were doing, not just recited prayer. There was a good atmosphere in there.

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But then he came. A beardless man about my age, who spoke decent English. His tzitzit gave away his piousness. He came to recruit us. I was sitting with another American who I had met during services the evening before. The man explained that his congregation needed two men for minyan (a quorum of ten adult Jewish men) so they could read Torah. He asked if we would join them so that they could have their minyan. I was a little confused at first. We had well beyond minyan here in the synagogue; it was almost full. They were about to begin reading Torah here. Why did he want us to go somewhere else with him? I asked if there was anyone else who could go with him. He said there wasn’t. His eyes were pleading. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t know him and I didn’t owe him anything. I could have said no. But something greater than my own will was at work.

Against my selfish desire and feelings of resistance, the word “okay” came out of my mouth. My new acquaintance next to me had also agreed. Our recruiter was very pleased. He blessed us with gratitude.

We got out of our seats and exited the synagogue. I wasn’t sure where we were going. The recruiter said our destination wasn’t far. He introduced himself as Gidaliya. I was still trying to make sense of why he needed a minyan elsewhere when we already had one at the synagogue. Then I understood: he’s not Chabad, which the community that was in the synagogue is. He’s something else. He must be Litvak.

Oy, I thought. Litvak services can feel more strict and tedious than Chabad, which for me, as I’m not orthodox, can already feel somewhat strict and tedious. What have I gotten myself into? I thought about apologizing, making an about-face, and heading back to the synagogue. But something inside me wasn’t allowing it. Gidaliya could see my reluctance, my second thoughts. He said to me “Thank you for doing this mitzvah. Don’t worry, you’re in the right place.” Yeah sure, I thought.

We arrived at our destination. It was the Jewish Cultural Information Center and Cafe. Small and plain in comparison with the Great Choral Synagogue. There were a few people standing outside and only a few more inside. Mostly men, but also a couple of women with small children and babies. There was a brief bit of chatting, introductions, and then Gidaliya directed us to head downstairs where the service was to take place. Gidaliya held the door to the basement open for me. He gave another warm, friendly smile and repeated, “You’re in the right place.”

As I descended the stairs and the musty odors of the basement cellar hit my nostrils, I seriously doubted him. I thought I could use the mold as an excuse to leave, to say that I’m sensitive and allergic to it. But something held on to me there, and I entered the small room, normally used for presentations to school groups who come to learn about the Jewish history of Vilnius, now set up as our shul.

I wasn’t sure why I was having such a difficult time saying no. I’ve had struggles with this in the past, doing things against my better judgement out of desire to be nice and to be liked. But through the years, and especially during these travels, I’ve learned to listen to my gut and honor and give voice to my “no.” But in this situation it wasn’t coming out. A part of me was saying “yes.” That part was winning, and I wasn’t sure why.

We went through the service. A Litvak who had flown in from Israel to ring in the New Year in the land of his spiritual ancestors led the service. I found his presence interesting. While thousands of Chassids from around the world were engaging in a now somewhat famous pilgrimage to Uman, around the tomb of their great tzadik, Rebbe Nachman (the founder of the Breslov movement), there was one Litvak who made a pilgrimage to the home of the Litvak’s great tzadik, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (The Vilna Gaon). This Israeli Litvak had an enchanting voice and led some of the most beautifully melodic Torah chanting I’ve ever heard in my life. My mind relaxed as I accepted the place and the moment I was in.

After the Torah service, in a brief pause before musaf (the additional prayer on Shabbat and holidays), Gidaliya struck up conversation with me, inquiring into my story and why I came to Vilnius. I explained that, one, I wanted to experience the Jerusalem of the North, and two, I was applying for a visa to Belarus to visit the town my great-grandfather Yakov Gershovitch Meytus was from. The town use to be part of Lithuania, in the Vilno (as Vilnius was known) Gubernia, but is now within the borders of Belarus.

I further explained that I hadn’t known the name of the town when I began my travels. All we (my family) knew of my great-grandfather’s origins was that he was from somewhere in Lithuania, but at some point he moved to Odessa. When I was in Odessa, I found my grandfather’s (Yakov’s son Gersh) birth certificate. The birth certificate stated which town Gersh’s father, Yakov, came from.

Gidaliya asked which town. I answered: “Glubokoe.”

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“I was just there,” he replied. “I was visiting my good friend.”

“You’re kidding!” I exclaimed. I had already spoken of this town with many locals in Vilnius upon answering the question everyone inevitably asks: why had I come to Vilnius. Only occasionally did anyone recognize the town’s name. No one else I had spoken with had been there, let alone knew anyone there.

“His wife is my wife’s sister,” Gidaliya continued. “They’re Jewish.”

“There are still Jews left in Glubokoe?”

“Only a couple: my friend and his wife.”

“Do they know where the old synagogues were? Where the cemetery is or was?”

“Probably. I’ll connect you with them.”

“That would be amazing! Thank you!” I replied with delight and gratitude.

He smiled that warm, bright, friendly smile again. “You see… I told you that you’re in the right place.”

I smiled back at him as my heart opened up to this truth.

I thought that it was he who had recruited me back in the synagogue, but in that moment the dots connected and I understood that it was actually he who had been recruited. He had been recruited to bring me there for the moment we just had. He had been recruited to connect me with the couple of Jews left in my great-grandfather’s hometown who might know something about the old shtetl.

Gidaliya returned to his seat as the congregation began to pray musaf. I sat back in my seat and that smile stretched itself wider across my face. My musaf was a prayer of gratitude to my ancestors for all the mysterious ways they help me and guide me. Gratitude for reminders that they are with me. I laughed at myself for nearly forgetting. It was their hands at my back nudging me forward when I had wanted to turn around.

Several days later, I received my visa and hopped on a bus to Belarus. I sent a message to Anya and Kostya, my new Jewish contacts in Glubokoe, to let them know I was on my way. Gidaliya had sent them prior word about me, and they assured me that they were eagerly awaiting my arrival.

To be continued…

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Bringing Shabbat Back to the Old Shtetl with Ukraine’s Jewish Heritage Protectors

A few weeks ago, I was in another old shtetl of Ukraine. I traveled to Staryi Sambir, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, for another volunteer work camp preserving the Jewish heritage of Ukraine. It was organized by the Lviv Volunteer Center, a branch of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Charitable Foundation: Hesed Arieh. The LVC organizes important civic-oriented service projects (Jewish and non-Jewish) in Lviv and the surrounding oblast region, from helping meet the basic needs of low-income seniors to protecting sites of Jewish historical significance.

I had been romping around the Carpathian Mountains when I learned of this project in Staryi Sambir, so I arrived after they had already begun. Sasha Nazar was my contact. He is the head of the LVC and was the main organizer of the project in Staryi Sambir. He is a native of Lviv. For the past few years, Sasha has been spearheading the restoration of one the last remaining synagogues of Lviv. With the volunteer base he’s built at the LVC, he turned his attention outward as well, to other historic Jewish places in the Lviv Oblast which have very little to no Jewish community left (not that Lviv has much left — 1,500 Jews today vs. 150,000 Jews pre-Holocaust). He and his volunteers spend much of their free time preserving what’s left of centuries of Galician Jewish history in their region.

I met Sasha and a team of the volunteers hard at work on repairs of the historic 19th century synagogue of Staryi Sambir. They had a team on the outside, setting up support beams to maintain structural integrity while repairs were made on the dilapidated roof. The roof had long been in a state of disrepair and it no longer protected the interior from weather-related decay. The work we were doing was part of a longer-term project to restore the roof and preserve the synagogue.

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The inside of the synagogue was littered with rubble and trash, so there was a team working inside at the same time, clearing out decades worth of debris, including collapsed pieces of the roof.

This holy site had been the spiritual center for the Jews of Staryi Sambir and the surrounding area. Hasidim from the surrounding villages would flock to the rabbis of Staryi Sambir to soak up their teachings and dance their ecstatic tunes. To lose this synagogue would be to lose one of the last physical traces of centuries worth of Jewish cultural and spiritual history on that land.

Down the road, another team of volunteers were hard at work clearing and restoring the historic 16th century Jewish cemetery of Staryi Sambir. I participated in the cleanup and repair work at the synagogue for the first day and a half. After lunch on my second day there, I joined the team at the cemetery.

It is one of the oldest surviving cemeteries in Eastern Europe. I’m not sure how or why this cemetery survived the Nazis and the Soviets. Not many of the historic Jewish cemeteries that were under occupation by both of those regimes are still around today. After bearing witness to the aftermath of destruction of so many cemeteries in Ukraine, including cemeteries in which my own ancestors were buried, it seems to me a miracle that this centuries-old one in Staryi Sambir is still around.

It is a gorgeous site. The old cemetery runs along a hill above the main road through town, overlooking the beautiful Carpathian Mountains. The ancestors have quite the view from there.

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The team had already done a remarkable cleanup job by the time I joined them. A walk along the hill to the section of cemetery they hadn’t gotten to yet showed me what this place looked like before:

The synagogue and the cemetery had been in a state of decay since the Jewish community was wiped out during the Holocaust. Prior to the war, according to local accounts, the Jewish population made up about sixty percent of the village and numbered in the thousands. Today there are no Jews left living in Staryi Sambir.

But there are those of us from other places, near and far, who honor their memory.

There were a few dozen volunteers total. The majority of the them were members of the LVC from Lviv, but there were some who joined from other parts of Ukraine, as well as Russia, Poland, Israel, and the U.S. (me).

Only a portion identified as Jewish. Many were Ukrainians who don’t have any Jewish roots that they know of. They came for various reasons. Many young Ukrainians have taken an interest in the Jewish history of their country. They hear about these neighbors that their grandparents and great-grandparents had, and they want to know who they were. Some of them feel a sense of loss, like a part of their own culture and history had disappeared. Some want to do what they can to preserve what’s left of it.

At the cemetery, I met another hero in Jewish heritage preservation who I’ve known on Facebook for some time, but had yet to meet in person: Marla Raucher Osborn. Marla’s story is an inspiration. Marla founded and runs Rohatyn Jewish Heritage, an organization dedicated to, as paraphrased from the website, facilitating reconnection of the modern-day Rohatyn community with their lost Jewish community history. This came to be out of a literal calling from the current residents there.

Marla is from California, but has roots in Rohatyn, Ukraine. After a couple of heritage journeys of her own to her ancestral hometown, and investing enough time there to inevitably build relationships with the current residents, some of the Rohatyn locals began coming to her with findings. They began bringing her fragments and entire pieces of headstones with Hebrew writing that they would find while doing repairs on homes, buildings, or roads (the Nazis and the Soviets often used headstones from cemeteries they destroyed to lay foundations and pave roads). Marla and her husband Jay would make frequent trips to Rohatyn to aid in the recovery of these lost ancestral memorials. Eventually this led to her and Jay moving to Ukraine and working on this mission, in partnership with the local Ukrainian population, full-time.

Marla’s been involved in Jewish Heritage Preservation work for many years now, and helps with heritage projects in many places in Galicia and beyond. We just missed each other weeks before at the volunteer work camp in Chernivtsi. I was honored to finally meet her and Jay in person in Staryi Sambir after observing online their dedication to protecting the heritage sites across this old country of our ancestors.

After the in-person acquaintance-making, we busied ourselves once again in the cleaning and restoration work of the cemetery. Some were clearing the vegetation overgrowth that swallowed up and threatened the structural integrity of the tombstones, while others photographed tombstones as part of a project to document and database who lies where. The work that was done there is invaluable for historians, genealogists, and especially the descendents of Staryi Sambir’s Jewish community who emigrated to other lands before the Nazis laid waste to the community that stayed behind.

The team back at the synagogue worked vigorously to get the place ready for Friday night. A very special event was to happen there. Kiddush (the blessing over wine to sanctify Shabbat) was to be recited for the first time in over seventy years in the old Staryi Sambir Synagogue.

After we wrapped up our work for the week at both sites, we headed back to our lodging to wash up and prepare. Shabbat was on its way! Where as many of us had been waiting all week to bring it in, the synagogue had been waiting much longer.

We circled up inside. Acknowledgements and gratitude were spoken from the organizers and to the organizers for all the hard work, before and during the week, that went into organizing and implementing this meaningful project.

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Photo Credit: Darina Balabai

Shabbat candles were lit for the first time in over seventy years in that synagogue.

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Photo Credit: Marla Raucher Osborn

Sasha invited me to further warm the place up with some niggunim.

I’ve been carrying the Baal Shem Tov niggun with me across Ukraine and honoring the holy sites I come in contact with through singing this and other ancestral tunes whose vibrations still linger in the walls and the land. Given that the congregation of this synagogue was chasidic, in the Carpathian Mountains where the Baal Shem Tov spent many years, I could feel the walls calling for this niggun once again.

I offered it up, and the community that had come together in the space between those walls, which had been bereft for so long of the song and prayer those walls were built for, joined in. A couple of them later shared with me that they sang with tears in their eyes.

Sasha led us in Kiddush, and we sanctified Shabbat in that historic synagogue we had begun the restoration of that week. We sanctified that synagogue’s place and role as a holy heritage site and physical memory of the ones who came before us.

We filled the walls with a joyous round of Shabbat Shalom, and then we parted from this sacred site and walked down the street to a local cafe for a Shabbat feast.

We celebrated the work done and the connections we made through the avodah (service) we gave. I asked Sasha later what motivates him to do this work. He went through a slew of reasons, but the main one he gave is the one I identify with the most. He explained that attitudes are changing in post-Soviet Ukraine. The younger generations are getting more and more interested in their roots and their heritage. Many of the Jews that are left in Ukraine are feeling a call to learn about their ancestral traditions and history. It’s a small, but growing trend. When they feel this call, they want to see the places that held so much of their history. To physically touch their history, their heritage. Preservation projects like these keep that possibility for them and the generations that will come after them alive.

I can personally attest to the truth in Sasha’s words. I personally endorse the importance of their work.

If it weren’t for the volunteers of the LVC, and the individuals and organizations doing similar work, these memorials, these physical testaments of our history here in Ukraine would vanish.

These folks are the heritage protectors of Jewish Ukraine. What’s left of it. They are preserving our heritage, for all of us with ancestral connections here. They’re investing their time, sweat, and often personal funds (as there isn’t enough support for heritage preservation work from Jewish institutions or government) into this work.

But there aren’t enough of them. They can’t do it alone. There’s more work to be done than there are boots on the ground or resources to support those boots. They need help. Otherwise centuries of our history and heritage here could disappear. It will only be read about in books (and blogs). But I can tell you from first hand experience, there is a big difference between reading about our heritage, and touching it, feeling it with your hands, between your finger tips. There is a difference between knowing it with your intellect, and knowing it with your body. There is a difference between seeing a photo of a centuries-old synagogue, and praying within its walls. There is a difference between hearing stories about your ancestors, and paying your respects at their final resting place.

These protectors are making it possible for anyone who feels the call, like I did, to make the pilgrimage and physically connect with their ancestral heritage. Support them. Come and join them. Work with them. (There will be more volunteer work camps next summer). Pray and sing with them. I promise you, it’s worth it.

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Left to right: Me, Jay, Marla, Sasha, Masha (Sasha’s partner). Photo credit: Darina Balabai

 

To support the work of the Lviv Volunteer Center, contact Sasha Nazar: volcenterlviv@gmail.com

To learn about other Jewish Heritage Preservation projects around Eastern Europe, check out: http://jewish-heritage-europe.eu/

 

Preserving and Reconciling History in Chernivtsi

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.

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Ceremonial Hall at the entrance of the historic Jewish Cemetery, Chernivtsi

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.

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Volunteers hard at work

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.

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Volunteers restoring the cover of a tomb that had come undone

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.

Grief and Praise in the Old Shtetl of Zhmerynka

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.

 

ZhmerynkaSynagogue

Photo from http://photos.wikimapia.org (my photo got deleted)

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.

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We walked to another former synagogue, now a small apartment building on the edge of the former shtetl.

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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.

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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.”

IMG_3506She 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.
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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.

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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.

Bridge Building in Zoziv

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.

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The homestead of my host family

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.

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The old Jewish garment-making building

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.

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The site of the old Jewish cemetery

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.

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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.

A Walk Through the Old Shtetl

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I walked on holy ground last week. Holy ground for me. It is the ground my great-grandparents Srul Shulimovich Minsky and Rivka Minsky walked on for years. The ground they lived on. The ground they were likely born and raised on (I’m still hoping to find archival documents confirming this). The ground that possibly generations of Minsky’s before them live on and are buried in.

I left Odessa four weeks ago to continue on with the journey. After a brief stay with some couchsurfing hosts in a village just outside of Uman and then in Uman itself to celebrate Shavuot and Shabbat with the Breslov Chassidic Pilgrims from around the world, I ventured on to the village my great-grandparents Srul and Rivka Minsky moved to Odessa from. Its current name is Yosypivka, but in my great-grandparents time it was called Yuzefpol.

Before I began this journey, I had never heard of Yuzefpol. I didn’t know where my great-grandparents came from, let alone what my great-grandmother’s name from my father’s side was. I found my grandmother Dina Minsky’s birth record in the Odessa archives. The record revealed my great-grandmother’s name, my great-great-grandfather’s name, and that they were from the village of Yuzefpol. Through further digging and the help of local genealogists, I was able to trace the former Yuzefpol to it’s new name of Yosypivka, a small village in the Vilshanka region of the Kirovograd oblast of Ukraine.

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Without knowing anyone there, where I was going to stay (there are no hotels and no people registered on couchsurfing in Yosypivka), or if there was anyone who could tell me anything about the old Jewish shtetl there, I hitch-hiked my way over from Uman to Yuzefpol (there were no direct buses or convenient bus transfers). A series of friendly drivers, out of a sense of altruism or simply desire for company and conversation during a long journey of their own, helped me get to the very rural village in the heart of the country.

I was dropped off a couple kilometers outside, at the beginning of the dirt road leading to the village. With my big backpackers rucksack shouting “outsider,” I headed in. As I walked what was, for the length of those two kilometers, a road deserted of people, I greeted the land. I thanked my ancestors, whom I asked for protection on the long road over. I thanked them for bringing me here as the village came into view in the subtle valley I was heading towards.

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I was finally looking upon with my own eyes the place I had been imagining in my mind the past several months since learning of it. I felt a juxtaposed sense of being an outsider in a strange new land and at the same time being an old acquaintance of this place. My ancestors were fed by this land. Literal molecules that came from the soil of this land became the food, that became the cells, that became the sperm and eggs, that became my grandparents, that became my parents, that became me. Part of me is an old acquaintance. A part of me is this land.

Grounding in this sense and knowing, I walked into the mystery of what this land has become and who is on it now. I passed a few quiet houses, built in traditional Ukrainian village style cob. A bit further down the road, a woman was working in her garden (every house has a big one… or five…). I asked her, in Russian, where I could find the village council administrative office. She replied in Ukrainian. After I explained that I don’t speak Ukrainian, she switched tongues and told me how to find the office.

I turned onto the main street and walked into the center of town, receiving curious glances from people not used to seeing outsiders in their village. I got to the council administrative office to find it closed. I was hoping to see if they had any archival documents that could reveal further information about my ancestors who lived there. In addition to seeking the birth records of my great-grandparents, I’m trying to find the birth records of their two sons, my grandmother’s older brothers with whom she lost contact after they moved to the U.S. (shortly after the Russian Revolution). My father doesn’t know their names. I’ve got a lead on who one of them might have been. Assuming they have descendants, I have long lost relatives somewhere out there. If I can confirm who my grandmother’s brothers were, that will bring me closer to finding our relatives.

I walked into a small store next to the village council office and introduced myself to the woman working there. I explained who I was and what I was doing there, and asked her if the council office was closed for the day. She replied that it was and it wouldn’t be open again until Monday. It was Friday afternoon. I had hoped to get to Yuzefpol earlier in the day, but getting there took longer than expected. I decided to hunker down there for the weekend. I asked the woman, whose name I learned is Lesya, where I could set up my tent for the weekend. She said I could set it up by the lake near the center of town, but before that she would take me to meet her neighbor, the former head of the village council, who might be able to help me find some of the information I’m seeking. She closed up the store (there were still two more working hours of the day) and took me over to her neighbor’s place.

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Lake near the village center

An hour later, I had a date scheduled for the next morning with the former head of the village council, Valentina. She had generously offered to give me a tour of the village, in particular the old Jewish quarter, a.k.a. the shtetl, and show me as much as she knows of the Jewish history there. Within this time, Lesya had made arrangements for me to stay with her eldest son on the other side of town, instead of in my tent by the lake, which Valentina and Lesya agreed wasn’t necessarily the safest option due to the handful of alcoholics who may walk around the lake at night. I was flooded with gratitude for the kindness and care these strangers were showering me with. I thanked my ancestors for guiding me to those I needed to find. Within an hour of arriving, I had a tour scheduled of my great-grandparents’ old shtetl and a bed arranged for me to sleep in.

Lesya took me to relax at her home across the street until her eldest son, Vassily, got off work. She introduced me to her younger son, Roma, who just got home from high school. Lesya then went off to reopen the store for its last hour of operation for the day while Roma and I sat down for tea and got to chatting. Lesya returned an hour later and Vassily arrived shortly after with a bucket-full of carp he caught in the lake earlier that day. Lesya fried them up with potatoes that came from their garden, threw together a salad also from their garden, and we sat down to a hearty, home-grown, home-cooked Ukrainian meal. After dinner, Vassily took me to his place and, despite my insistence otherwise, he set me up in his room and he took the couch in the living room. This was Ukrainian village hospitality: take in the stranger and care for them like family.

I met Valentina at her place early the next morning and we set off for our excursion. We headed along the main street, which runs parallel to the river the village was settled along. Contrary to what many warned me regarding Ukrainians offering a stranger help, Valentina wasn’t expecting any money. She was doing this out of the kindness of her heart. She’s a quick-thinking and quick-talking woman with a powerful presence, an infectious laugh, and a big heart.

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We came to an intersection that Valentina explained was the beginning of the old Jewish neighborhood of the village, the shtetl. The park in front of us, she explained, use to be the bustling Jewish marketplace. We walked up a street with houses spaced widely apart. She said that before the war (WWII), the street was packed and houses were right next to each other. The village’s current population is just over 500 people, according to Valentina. In 1897, the Jewish population was 872 people (36% of the total population), and in 1939 the Jewish population reached 1041, before the Nazis wiped nearly all of them out.

She showed me the one house that is still standing, having been renovated, from the era in which Jews lived in the village. All the other houses that were in the old shtetl were in disrepair and replaced with new homes, barns, and family farms. We passed by the spot where the old synagogue was. Now someone’s house and farm stands in its place. I pictured the old synagogue on the little hill where the house is, and imagined the old shtetl Jews gathering in and around it. My father heard from my aunt, who heard from my grandmother that my great-grandfather Srul Minsky, was a rabbi. I wondered if he led the congregation there in that old synagogue, or if his father, whose name I learned was Shulim, led them (rabbis tend to run in the family).

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House still standing from shtetl times

We passed by the building, still original, that was the old yeshiva. These days, with expansions around it, it is a farm machinery repair shop. Further down the street was the old mikvah. The building that housed it is no longer there, the land it was on is overgrown with bushes.

Along the way, we visited some of the elders of the village, those born before the war. Though my great-grandparents left Yuzefpol over a century ago (they were already in Odessa by 1908, the year my grandmother was born), Valentina thought that maybe someone could have heard their last name mentioned through stories retold, or perhaps some Minsky relatives had remained and these elders had met them. Elder after elder we visited greeted us warmly and were eager to help, but could not recall ever having heard the last name Minsky. They, without specific prompting, recalled all the Jewish families they knew who were murdered by the Nazis. They said that the villagers who might have known anything about my great-grandparents have passed on, that I’m twenty or so years late in coming there. Sometimes knowledge and stories disappear with the people who hold them if we don’t capture those stories in time.

Our final stop for the day was the old Jewish cemetery. In an open field on a hill at the north-western edge of the village it stands. A cow, chained up in the field, greeted us at the entrance of the cemetery. Its chain had become wrapped around one of the few tombstones that’s still standing. Valentina patted the cow and unwrapped its chain from the tombstone. The cemetery is largely in decay, with most of the remaining tombstones laying in the ground, some halfway or more swallowed up by the Earth reclaiming them. Most of what remains of the cemetery are decaying foundations of tombs. Some of the surviving tombstones still have legible Yiddish/Hebrew writing on them. Knowing that with the hundreds, maybe thousands, that were buried here it would be highly unlikely, I couldn’t help but wonder if any of these might be my great-great-grandfather’s, Shulim Minsky, tombstone. I wondered if any other Minsky’s might be buried here. How many generations. How far back did we go in this village? Where did we come from before we came to this village? Maybe the answers, or at least a lead, were on one of those tombstones.

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I pulled out a small stone with a heart-shaped colorful bead pattern affixed to its surface, which I remembered I was carrying in my backpack. It was gifted to me when I left Odessa, and I felt it had traveled with me for this very occasion. I placed it atop one of the tomb ruins in the center of the cemetery, to let the ancestors know there’s at least one descendant left of this old shtetl who honors their memory.

It was a bitter-sweet tour. My heart was swelling with both joy and sadness. Joy at the gift of the opportunity to connect with this land that my ancestors once dwelled upon. Grief over the deep sense of loss I felt walking around what, despite new residents living on the land, is a ghost town of the culture my ancestors were a part of there. This has become a familiar feeling journeying through Ukraine.

Before Valentina and I parted ways, she told me to come back to her place Monday morning and that she would take me to the village council office to see if there are any archival documents that could be of any use. We also made plans to visit the Holocaust memorial at the site where the Nazis murdered the village’s Jews.

I went back to Vassiliy’s house. He was still at work. I grabbed my guitalele from the house and sat down with it in the yard. I breathed in the fresh air of this rural village far from the bustle of city and industry. From my heart, through my hands and vocal chords began to stir prayer songs. Modeh Ani, the Shema, B’Shem Hashem, the Baal Shem Tov’s Niggun. I sang them out. A pair of mourning doves flew over from the woods next to Vassily’s land and perched themselves atop a tree nearby. I sang through tears that began running down my cheeks. I felt the land listening, ears perked up, with a sense of nostalgia for words, prayers, melodies it hadn’t heard in decades. A quiet breath after I finished singing, the doves flew back in the direction from which they came.

I hadn’t known it at the time, but I later learned that Vassily’s land was part of the old shtetl. It was land Jews had lived on. Who knows, perhaps even my own ancestors. I had assumed Vassily’s land was outside of the shtetl. We hadn’t passed by it on our tour. But on Monday at the village council office, Valentina’s son-in-law, the current head of the council, showed me a map of the village. He showed me the extent of the territory of the old shtetl. He pointed out where the marketplace was, the synagogue, the yeshiva, the mikvah, the cemetery. He pointed to a spot within the territory and said, “that’s where you’re staying now.”

I was flabbergasted. “I’m staying where the old shtetl was?!”

“Yep.”

I wanted to cry in amazement at the providence that brought me to not only tour the old shtetl my great-grandparents were from, but to live in it, lay my head at night in it, work the land of it (I spent Sunday voluntarily working Vassily’s fields), and get to feel its soil between my fingers during the time I was there. Had I lived in my tent by the lake, I would not have been in it. Had Lesya or Valentina set me up at either of their places, I would not have been in it. Had the village council office still been open when I arrived in town, I might not have met Lesya in the store next door. But I met her and she set me up to stay with her son, who lived on the land of the old shtetl.

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Vassily’s land and house

At the time I sung them, I thought that I had been singing those prayer songs on land not far from, but not exactly in, the territory of the old shtetl. I thought the land was listening from somewhere not far. Then I understood that it was the land I was on that had been listening to me. It was where I was staying that had been missing those old prayers, those old songs.

The village council office unfortunately held no archival documents of the Jews of old Yuzefpol. The head of the council said that if they still exist, they’re likely in the archives in Kirovograd, the administrative center of the oblast.

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So here I am now. In Kirovograd. Digging further and further. On my way to Kirovograd, I stopped in Pervomaisk to find the man who organized the installation of the Holocaust memorial in Yosypivka/Yuzefpol, to see if he might have any info connected with my ancestors. Valentina, who was village council head when the memorial was installed, couldn’t remember his name and couldn’t find any documents with his name on it. There were no contact numbers for the Jewish community of Pervomaisk and no address as their community is small and they don’t have a synagogue or Jewish community center. All I had to go on was I was looking for a Jewish man in his 60’s or 70’s who helped build the memorial in Yosypivka/Yuzefpol a decade ago.

I found him. His name is Aleksander. Upon meeting him I felt a sense of comfort and warmth, like I was meeting with an old friend. I then learned that his grandparents were also from Yuzefpol. Unfortunately he didn’t recall them mentioning anything about any Minsky’s. Though they lived in Yuzefpol around the same time my great-grandparents were there. They probably knew each other. Perhaps they were friends. Perhaps that part of me that is my great-grandparents recognized the part of him that is his grandparents. Neither of us spoke it aloud, but I think that both of us were feeling, subtly somewhere in our bodies, in our chests, in our hearts, in the place our ancestors speak to us without words, like this was a reunion of sorts.

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Soon I’ll be moving on to the other villages of my other great-grandparents. On to other reunions.

There Is No Tombstone There Anymore

One of the missions my ancestors recruited me for on this journey is to find the graves, or at least the cemeteries, where my great-grandparents were laid to rest, and take care of them if possible. Five out of the eight of them were laid to rest here in Odessa. My parents only knew the locations of two: great-grandparents on my mother’s side (Yakov Gershkovich Meytus and Rukhla Meytus, born Ruhkla Kogan). My mother showed me their graves when she, along with my brother and cousin, came to meet me in Odessa last autumn.

It was quite a sacred moment to visit for the first time in my life the site where my great-grandparents were laid to rest. I felt connected with them more than ever before. I never got to meet them in the flesh. They died before I was born, halfway across the world from where I was raised. I heard stories of them. I felt them in my heart. Coming to their graves was the closest experience I’ve had to meeting them in person. I was moved to tears as I fully grasped the significance of standing at the spot where their bones lay beneath the surface. I was upon the soil their physical bodies decomposed to, next to the trees and shrubs their bodies fed. I understood more clearly why many traditional cultures regard nature as the ancestors. I spoke to my great-grandparents more closely than I ever had before. I praised their lives and gave them thanks for mine. We all did in turn. It was a blessed experience that also brought our living family closer together in tenderness and connection.

The other two great-grandparents on my mother’s side are far from here. Great-grandfather Gillel Sukhotnik died in transit evacuating out of Odessa to Uzbekistan during WWII. Where he is buried is a mystery. I haven’t been able to find any records on it. I learned that great-grandmother Ida Sukhotnik (born Ida Tanzer) is buried in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I was informed that the cemetery no longer exists. Destroyed by the Soviets.

This is unfortunately an all-too-common story of cemeteries in the former Soviet Union, especially Jewish cemeteries. I began seeing first-hand the tale of this tragic history when I was in Lviv and saw the massive outdoor market built on top of virtually all of the old Jewish cemetery there.

Here in Odessa, the Jewish cemetery that is still active is the Third Jewish Cemetery of Odessa. It opened officially after the 2nd World War, but unofficially was already open some years before the war. The First Jewish Cemetery of Odessa dates back to 1792, even before the official “founding” of the city of Odessa. The Second Jewish Cemetery of Odessa was opened in 1885. Unfortunately they no longer exist as cemeteries. They were destroyed by the Soviets. The first one was laid to waste in 1936, along with the adjacent Muslim and Christian cemeteries. The second one was destroyed in 1978.

My friend Kirill Nefyodov of PhotoTour_Odessa showed me the former site of the Second Jewish Cemetery of Odessa. I had my camera with me and asked him if he could share a bit about the history of the cemetery:

Not even the Nazis caused the level of destruction to the 2nd Jewish cemetery that the Soviets did. The Nazis desecrated the cemetery, toppling grave stones and leaving much of the cemetery in ruins. It was, however, able to be restored after the war. (This is, of course, not to gloss over the incomprehensible horror, death, and destruction the Nazis caused).

But decades later the Soviets brought in bulldozers and wiped every trace of cemetery away. Over the first one they poured concrete and constructed buildings.

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Site of the former 1st Jewish Cemetery of Odessa

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What remains of the entrance gate to the 1st Jewish Cemetery of Odessa

Over the second is now a park that is in many spots littered with trash. There is no memorial, no plaque, nothing indicating that this was once a cemetery in which thousands were buried. No physical trace to honor this sacred site. Most of the everyday passersby have no idea they’re walking over the bones of ancestors. In all likelihood, mine (from my father’s side) included.

I mentioned in the video above that I’m searching for confirmation of which cemetery my great-grandparents from my father’s side, Srul and Rivka Minsky, were buried in. My father didn’t know where any of his grandparents were laid to rest. I was able to find the death certificate of my great-grandmother Rivka Minsky in the Odessa archives, but there is no mention of where she was buried. In 1938, the year her death record states she died, most Odessa Jewish families were still burying their deceased in the Second Jewish Cemetery (though the Third was already open, unofficially).

Unfortunately the burial records of the Second Jewish Cemetery have disappeared. No one I spoke with at the Odessa State Archives, the Third Jewish Cemetery, the Jewish Museum of Odessa, the Holocaust Museum of Odessa knows what happened to the records. Most likely they were destroyed along with the cemetery is what I was told. Which means that getting one hundred percent confirmation is unlikely. But there is no record of Rivka or Srul Minsky at the Third Jewish Cemetery, and my local sources here agree, based on the info I have, that they were most likely buried at the Second.

Walking through, I imagined what it might have looked like when it was still active and respected as a sacred burial site. I wondered where my great-grandparents might be. A tiny seed of a fantasy stirred in a corner of my mind, that their tombstones could somehow have survived here somewhere. That any tombstone could have survived here. I began to wander. A part of me was searching. I mostly found piles of garbage.

I did find a few markers that this is actually once again an active cemetery. Just not for humans. In Odessa, people use the public parks as pet cemeteries. A thorough wandering through any park here can usually result in finding at least one grave of a family’s deceased pet. Here, on this site where thousands of Odessa’s Jews were buried, I found several recent pet graves. Would the care-takers of these pets have buried them here if they knew that they were burying them on top of human remains? Would people use this land as their personal waste dumping grounds if they knew what was here before?

Cemeteries are sacred sites. Especially for those whose ancestors were laid to rest there. The graves are physical altars where we can go pay homage to those from whom we came. They are spaces that connect us most closely to the physical memory of those who’ve passed on. They are the soil which our ancestors’ bodies have become. They are places that deserve to be honored, respected, and cared for. That’s not to say that other land doesn’t deserve such honor, respect, and care. All land is sacred.

The burial sites of the ancestors are especially sacred. They have been revered as such throughout millennia. The desecration, destruction, and disappearance of such sites is tragic. I personally feel this tragedy in the realization that I don’t, and possibly never will, know the exact site where some of my great-grandparents lay. As much as I want to visit their grave sites, I can’t, because so much of our human family has, for some time now, lost touch with what is sacred. I grieve for the loss of these cultural and personal heritage sites.

The light at the end of the tunnel in this part of the story is that there are good people in Odessa doing important heritage preservation and restoration work. One Odessa Jewish Cultural Heritage preservation activist I spoke with, Pavel Kozlenko, founder and director of the Odessa Holocaust Museum, has a beautiful vision for a memorial at the site of the former Second Jewish Cemetery. I’ll write more about this and how those interested can support it when the project is ready to go. The main thing needed to make this memorial happen is funding. Hopefully, together, we can help honor the memory of the ancestors who were nearly, but need not be, forgotten.

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Archival photo of the front gate entrance to the Second Jewish Cemetery of Odessa

A V-Day Tribute to My Grandfather

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My grandfather, Gersh Yakovlevich Meytus, enlisted in the Soviet Army when the Nazis invaded Soviet territory. He had a free pass, as he had the Soviet equivalent to PhD, to evacuate with his research institute and avoid the war. But he felt called to defend his home, his people, his family.
 
He made sure my grandmother and their daughter (my aunt) got safely onto one of the trains evacuating out of Odessa. Then he went to the front. He narrowly avoided being captured when the Defense of Odessa (which lasted 73 days) collapsed and he was separated from his unit. He very timely ran into a farmer with a horse-drawn wagon near the outskirts. He commandeered the horse after the farmer, who chose to stay in the besieged area, refused to help him. He hopped on and galloped out just before the city was completely surrounded by the Nazis and their Romanian allies.
 
He attained the rank of political officer, whose duty it was to boost the moral of the soldiers in the face of oftentimes impossible odds. He made it through the war alive. His two brothers, Garrik (biological brother) and Yefim (brother-in-law), died in battle during the war. My grandmother rejoined with my grandfather in Soviet-occupied Berlin after V-Day. There my mother was conceived and born.
 
We don’t know much else of my grandfather’s war story. He didn’t like to talk about it. When my mother inquired, he would usually simply say that war is hell. He did like to tell one story about how during one of his speeches to rouse the troops for their next fight, he realized, after taking a big gulp, that his troops had replaced his full glass of water with a glass of full-strength vodka. They roused their own moral with their laughter while he tried to catch his breath.
 
On this 72nd anniversary of V-Day, I give thanks to my grandfather for putting himself on the line to defend his home and family. I give thanks to my great-uncles who gave their lives to defend their loved ones. Without them and the countless others who put themselves at risk and gave their lives, so many of us would not be here. On this day of their victory, I send them my deepest gratitude for my life. Thank you grandfathers, for all you did and all you gave to make this world a place I had the possibility to be born into. May we, the progeny of your sacrifice, work with such fortitude for the future generations.

The Night We Crossed the Sea

Four nights ago, on the 7th night of Passover, I found myself in yet another building in which one of my recent ancestors lived here in Odessa. Synchronicity, once again, led me there.

I commemorated the 7th night, the night that the Israelites crossed the Red Sea from bondage to freedom, at the Chabad Synagogue of Odessa. I was about to make my way back to my host’s apartment after the service was over, when a congregation member I met a few months back came up to me outside and invited me to go make kiddush with him and his friends, a couple of Israelis working and living in Odessa. One of the Israelis was hosting at the apartment he and his family are renting here. I accepted the invitation.

Along the way, I inquired as to where we were heading. I wanted to know if it was on my way home or a detour. They made some joke about not worrying, that they were not leading to me danger. Trust them was the message; I’m going where I need to go and that’s all I need to know for now. I let go of my desire to know and followed the flow. I stopped paying attention to which streets we were turning onto as I put my trust in the moment and immersed in conversation with them. The topic of course came to what I was doing in Odessa and my ancestral journey.

As I told them pieces of my story, we walked through a gate and into a courtyard. I paused in my tracks as I recognized the courtyard.

“Are we at Zhukovoskovo 4?” I asked.

“Yes,” our host replied.

“This is where my great-aunt, Maria, lived with her son Ernest. My mother brought me, my brother, and my cousin (Maria’s grandson) here when they came for the family history tour of Odessa.”

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My cousin (Maria’s grandson) and my mother (Maria’s niece) in the courtyard in front of Maria’s old apartment

Their eyes widened. “You’re kidding,” one of them exclaimed.

Zhokovoskovo 4 is a complex of several apartment buildings. After we rejoiced in the synchronicity (dayenu!) our host led us to his building. It was the exact same building my great-aunt lived in. I only got to see it from the outside when I was here with my family. Our host of course had the code to get into the building, and in we went.

Finding myself on Pesach in the same building that Maria had lived in was enough. Our host didn’t live in the same apartment. Maria lived on the ground floor. His apartment was on the top floor. As we passed Maria’s old apartment, I paused at the door. The hour was too late to be knocking and explaining and asking if I could come in. I imagined Maria walking through that door in her young adult years, before I ever knew her. I sent her greetings and wished her a chag sameach. Several floors above, during the meal after kiddush, we made a l’chaim in honor of her and the life she lived and the life she helped make possible for the rest of the family.

Maria and her son, Ernest, were the first in our family to leave the Soviet Union and cross the sea to what was the modern promised land for a great many Soviet Jews: the U.S. (There were a couple relatives who left in the early 1900’s, but the family completely lost contact and connection with them as maintaining communication was dangerous. I’m trying to find info about them and their families.)

Ernest was our Nachshon. In a prominent rabbinical Midrash about the moment of the parting of the Red Sea, the story goes that the seas did not part until the leader of the Judah tribe, Nachson, walked into the sea and kept walking until the water rose past his nose and he could no longer breath. Only then did the seas part. It was Nachshon’s faith that opened the path to freedom for the Israelites.

Ernest, with his mother Maria, applied for emigration out of the Soviet Union at a time when doing so was a great personal risk, especially for Jews. Most were denied exit visas and were obligatorily fired from their jobs for what was seen as grave betrayal of their mother country. (They were labeled “Refusniks“).They were then denied almost all other jobs except in some cases the most menial. If they weren’t able to find even menial employment, they were arrested and imprisoned for “parasitism”. Despite the risk of drowning in that sea of Soviet oppression, Ernest applied for emigration and pulled as many strings as he could to make it happen. Miracles ensued and the sea parted for him and Maria. His faith and fortitude showed my parents that they too could cross the sea to freedom, which they did (still at great personal risk) a few years later.

Maria was our Miriam. (Interestingly, the name Maria is derived from the Hebrew name Miriam.) The biblical prophetess Miriam, the elder sister of Moses and Aaron, led the Israelite women in song and dance of praise after they crossed the sea and the seas closed back up on the pursuing Egyptian army.

My great-aunt Maria too loved to sing. She carried songs and stories from the old country across that great sea that she and Ernest crossed, and reminded us of our own family’s redemption out of oppression and persecution.

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Maria in her old apartment in Odessa

Maria was our wise elder. She lived through unimaginable times. She was born in 1913, lived through the First World War, the Russian Revolution and subsequent Russian Civil War, the Holodomor (Stalin’s forced famine that killed millions in Ukraine), Stalin’s Great Purges, The Second World War, and decades of persecution of the Soviet Jewry.

Her husband, Yefim, was drafted into mandatory military service before the Second World War crossed into the Soviet Union’s borders. Maria was left to care for their young son, only three years old at the time, on her own. They believed that Yefim would only be gone a couple years, that the war wouldn’t come into Soviet territory, that he would be back after his mandatory peace-time conscription. Then the Nazis invaded. When Maria heard the news that the war came to their door and that all able-bodied service men were heading to the front, she fell to the ground and fainted.

She hid in bomb shelters with her son during the blitzkrieg of Moscow (where they were living at the time). She barely caught the last train out of Moscow after finding the administration office, where they needed to get their evacuation papers stamped with an official seal of approval, already abandoned. She frantically searched for and found the stamp she needed, filled out and stamped her papers herself, and ran as fast as she could to the last train with her son.

They were evacuated to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Everyone not fighting was put to work for the war effort. Food was scarce for the refugees as the priority was placed on feeding the soldiers. Maria later recalled how she and other mothers (including my grandmother who was with her in Tashkent) saved their meager scraps of bread to feed the children when they would wake up crying and screaming in the middle of the night due to hunger.

Maria and Ernest made their way back to Moscow after the tide of war shifted and the city was safe. Maria’s husband, Ernest’s father, Yefim, never made it back from the front.

Some years later, Maria, with Ernest, moved back to her home city of Odessa. After a couple years, they settled into the apartment building that I found myself in making kiddush on the 7th night of Passover, the night of the crossing of the Red Sea.

Maria worked as an English teacher in the Soviet Union. Her knowledge of English helped our immigrant family adapt and find comfort in a strange new land, the way Miriam’s qualities helped the Israelites find water in the wilderness on the other side of the sea.

In her youth Maria was a child actress in the Odessa Yiddish Theater her parents were actors in. She maintained that flamboyant, bright energy and naturally, dramatic personality of an actress into her elder years. Yes she also at times displayed the classically stereotypical worries and anxiety of a Jewish grandmother. It would be surprising if she wasn’t anxious after all she lived through. But overall, I remember her (I knew her in her elder years) for her cheerful vitality, her bright smiles, and her love.

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Maria in her apartment in Odessa

She had immense love for and devotion to her family. Despite all the hardship and pain she lived through, she showed us how to rejoice in the lives we have and to praise the miracles that delivered us out of persecution. How appropriate that I found myself in our Miriam’s old building that night.

Journey (thus far) Roundup

I’m still in Odessa, the city my family immigrated to the U.S. from, but will be moving on soon. I rode out the winter here as the other parts of Ukraine and Eastern-Europe where my great-grandparents were born and moved to Odessa from were in a deeper freeze than I anticipated and was geared for. Plus Odessa is a great place to learn/practice Russian (one of my big goals) as it is still mostly Russian speaking, while my further destinations are mostly Ukrainian speaking. I’ve been here long enough now that I know my way around much of the city without a map, can have a basic to intermediate level conversation in Russian, and have many friends and even community who I’ll dearly miss when I depart. I hadn’t imagined, before I began this journey, that I’d get to know the city my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are from this intimately. It’s been quite the experience.

Here’s a roundup of the major happenings on my journey thus far, (mostly) in order from the beginning to now:

Read what is essentially the manifesto of my journey here. Read about my route here.

I began my journey in Ulan-Ude, Siberia. Click here to read about my experience there.

I volunteered with a trail building project around Lake Baikal, the sacred land my tiny percentage of Yakut ancestry is indigenous to.

I traveled to the Altai Mountains, the mountains my uncle use to spend his summers backpacking through while he was on summer break as a professor at Barnaul University. My experience in Altai was powerful. Read about me getting to know the land and people here. Learn about the nature park I volunteered at, which protects the sacred valley. Listen to the sounds of the Altai here.

After traveling through “European Russia” (as the Siberians call Moscow and St. Petersburg), I arrived in Odessa, the home city of my parents (and older brother), grandparents, and great-grandparents. Magic ensued and I actually got to see the inside of the apartment my grandparents (who I never got to meet) lived in. I paid my respects at the graves of my grandparents and great-grandparents, which I had never been to before as oceans separated us. I rang in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the city my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were forbidden to observe their cultural traditions. I began digging through files at the Odessa State Archives and found the name of the great-grandmother we knew nothing about!

I greeted the grief that is part of my family’s and my people’s history, and decided to take a pause from Odessa to participate in a program at Auschwitz. I processed my experience at Auschwitz and my shock at the unfolding of the election back in the U.S.

I left Poland after spending a month there, returned to Ukraine, and spent a few weeks in Lviv. I connected with the remnants of the Jewish community there, witnessed, and provided a hand in their struggle against the continuing legacy of cultural genocide (of course the history goes beyond just the cultural form of genocide) there.

I returned to Odessa and continued my genealogical research at the archives. I learned where my great-grandparents Srul and Rivka lived and visited the courtyard of their old building!

I helped my father’s cousin find her long lost relatives, and I found my mother’s long lost relatives in Novosibirsk!

I led a few Jewish Renewal style Kabbalat Shabbat rituals for Odessans who had never experienced this movement of Judaism before, and some who had never participated in a Shabbat service before.

From here I’ll be heading to the villages my great-grandparents were from, a few of which I found only recently through my research at the Odessa State Archives. Subscribe and stay tuned for further updates as the journey continues.