Just landed back in Odessa to continue the genealogical research I put on hold in order to participate in the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz and then engage in my own bearing witness retreats in Krakow and Lviv. Time to dig for family tree gold!
I’m in Lviv, Ukraine, where the pre-Holocaust Jewish population was over 110,000, made up one-third of the city’s population, and constituted a major center of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. The Jews who remain (roughly only 1,000) are battling the continuing legacy of cultural genocide. This photo was taken at what remains of the oldest Jewish cemetery in Lviv.
The cemetary was established in the 15th century and had an estimated 25 to 30 thousand people buried in it over the six hundred years of its existence. It was desecrated by the Nazis, along with the destruction of all of the city’s synagogues and murder of nearly all of the city’s Jewish residents during the Holocaust. The destruction of the cemetery was completed by the Soviets after the war when they built a market place on top of the majority of it. The old gravestones were used for paving streets and retaining walls.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the city’s remaining Jewish residents have been battling the local Ukrainian government over the expansion of the market into the last remaining small plot of undeveloped land where their ancestors are buried. Just two weeks ago, the community discovered the city in mid-excavation of a piece of that land, making way for more market space. City workers noticed the bones coming out of the ground, but did nothing to stop the digging until an injunction from the court through legal action taken by community leader and head of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, Meylakh Sheykhet, stopped them. Now the members of the Jewish community are reburying the bones. I joined them for one day of this holy work. It was gut-wrenching and heart-breaking to watch my new friends pulling skulls, fingers, and other remains of their ancestors out of the mounds of dirt that had been dug up. I prayed deeply for the peace that had been disrupted for the souls that once inhabited those old bones to be restored.
When I told Meylakh and the other community members about the struggle at Standing Rock and the desecration of Native American sacred ancient burial grounds to make way for an oil pipeline, they shook their heads in grief and disgust. When I asked them if they wanted to participate in a global day of action called for by Standing Rock, to stand in solidarity with the water protectors, they said “Absolutely! Acting in solidarity is one of the most important things a person can do.” Though we’re half a world apart, we feel the connection to the struggle in North Dakota. We Jews know the pain of having our sacred sites destroyed. We know the pain of cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing. It is this knowing that compels those of us committed to the Jewish tenet of Tikkun Olam, repair of the world, to stand in solidarity with others fighting to protect their rights, sacred lands, and the sources of life for us all.
In the background of these photos are mounds of rubble and dirt from the centuries-old Jewish burial grounds the city excavated. And yes, that is a gas pipeline running through these burial grounds. That one was completed, but the one (on a much more massive scale) being built through North Dakota doesn’t have to be. May all who protect sacred lands and sacred waters be blessed with success.
I haven’t written much about my journey in a while because I’ve been largely without words the past few weeks. In shock and grief over the past and present.
I’ve been processing my experience of the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz that I participated in at the beginning of the month. I’ve been walking through the streets of the old Jewish Quarter in Krakow, now a gentrified memorial of the culture that once flourished and was practically extinguished there. And I’ve been reading the surreal news of current events back home: Trump’s shocking win, the subsequent spike of hate speech and hate crimes across the country, the militarized state violence against peaceful and prayerful indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock.
I’m unsure of whether I’m presently walking through history or history is walking through the present. I feel like I’m in some surreal realm where time is folding, in which the past and the present are overlapping on top of each other. I don’t know how to react. I wasn’t done processing the grief of confronting one of the darkest, most horrific, and widespread genocides in history, in which my people and others were scapegoated for a country’s problems and subjected to methodical, systematic torture and extermination. Then I woke up to the news that back home, one of the most bigoted, xenophobic, misogynistic candidates in modern history won the U.S. presidential election, riding a wave of fear-mongering and scapegoating straight to victory.
I just walked through the archaeological remains of synagogues turned into museums, ghettos, train wagons, barracks, and gas chambers that show vividly where this can lead when taken to its terrifying extremes.
Was this a memorial or a timely warning? Am I dreaming? I can’t distinguish anymore between the grief over the past and the grief over what’s happening in the present and the possible future we’re walking into. I see and feel that, like the ocean currents in the Gulf and the winds in Europe, it’s all connected.
Friends back home, I see you, I feel you, and I love you. My Muslim friends, my Mexican friends, my LGBTQ friends, my Native American friends, my Black friends, my Jewish friends and family, all my relatives: I love you. My friends at Standing Rock: I LOVE YOU!!!!! I’m so inspired by you. I’m so grateful for you. With every report I read from you I’m tempted to cut my ancestral roots journey short and join you. But for now the ancestors tell me to keep going, and so I send my prayers and support for you from here.
If the black snake is not yet dead when I complete this journey, I know where I’m heading upon my return to the states. Sending you all my love, gratitude, and prayers. Prayers for your safety and success. Prayers for honoring the treaties and respecting the human rights and dignity of indigenous peoples and the land. Prayers for healing. Healing for the victims as well as the perpetrators of oppression. Prayers for an end to the cycles of trauma. Prayers for hearts to crack open to the cries of Mother Earth and her children who have suffered and are suffering. Prayers for those blinded by fear and greed to wake up to the sacredness of all life. I am praying.
I just remembered that it’s Thanksgiving – or rather ThanksTaking as Native Americans know it – over there today. I guess this is my thanks-giving. May the conversations and prayers around the tables tonight be in service to truth-telling, reconciliation, healing, and the actual establishment of right-relations.
My family parted ways with me almost three weeks ago after a powerful and moving tour of our family history in Odessa. I’ve been immersed in research at the Odessa archives since, digging through birth records over a hundred years old to find the names of great and great-great-grandparents and the places they moved to Odessa from.
In the process, as I skim through hundreds of names of people born before WWII, who would have been in their thirties during the war and the Holocaust, I wonder how many of these people died at the hands of the Nazis. There were death camps in Ukraine. There were death camps in the Odessa region. Massacres of Jews in Odessa. Only about half of the city’s Jewish population (the third largest Jewish population in the world at the time, after New York and Warsaw) made it out before the Nazis occupied.
I thank Creator that my grandparents were among the ones who made it out, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. My two grandfathers fought in the war, one just in the defense of Odessa (until it fell to the Nazis), and the other throughout the whole war. They survived. My grandmothers struggled through starvation in the refugee camps. We know we had some relatives from my mother’s side who died in the Holocaust. Much of my father’s side of the family tree is still a mystery, but I found reports of Berchenko’s from the same region as my great-grandfather Mendel Berchenko, who were killed by Nazi firing squads. Two of my grand-uncles, as well as more distant relatives, died in the war fighting the Nazis. One of my great-grandparents died from starvation during the war.
This was a side of my ancestors’ stories I had already known something about and knew I was going to face head on in this journey. Being here at the Holocaust memorials and war memorials, reading the horrific history of what happened here, and standing on the soil of where it happened, I feel the weight of this side of history more than ever. I feel my whole body welling up with tears and wanting to scream. I feel the need for some deep processing.
So I’m taking a break from my archival research in Odessa and heading to Krakow, Poland for the 2016 Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat, which begins on Monday. During the retreat, we will have a service in which we’ll light Yahrzeit (Memorial) Candles on the grounds of Auschwitz and read aloud the names of loved ones who perished. If you would like a candle to be lit for one of your ancestors, you can order a candle through the website below (go to the section titled “Memorial (Yahrzeit) Candles”). The money goes to the retreat scholarship fund, which is what is allowing me to participate. Please let me know if you order a candle. It would be a humbling honor to bear witness to your ancestors as well.
Breakthrough in my genealogical research! Since my mother, brother, and cousin left Odessa five days ago, I’ve been immersed in research at the State Archives of Odessa. Today I found my grandmother Dina’s birth record!
I now know the names of all my great-grandparents. The missing name was of my great-grandmother from my father’s mother’s side. Here she is in my grandmother’s birth record! Rivka Minsky (her maiden name still remains a mystery). I now also know the name of my great-grandfather Srul’s father: Shulim! And I now know the name of the town they came from: Yuzefpol.
Rang in Rosh Hashanah in the city where my parents, grandparents, and my great-grandparents (after the revolution) weren’t free to practice. Where they were persecuted for being Jewish. I walked through the streets of Odessa, where being Jewish was a death sentence during the Nazi/Romanian occupation, with a kippah on my head. I felt the fear of past generations urging me not to call myself out as a Jew. I released the fear more and more with each step and kept the kippah on my head.
The atmosphere in Odessa has changed. I was not the only Jew walking to and from the synagogue wearing their Jewishness publicly by choice. Odessa is once again a place where it is overall safe to be Jewish. This was a city vibrant with Jewish culture over a century ago. There are far fewer Jews living here these days, and many of those here don’t know about their heritage because they weren’t allowed to know it. But there is a Jewish revival happening here now. Especially among young people who are, like me and many others around the world, feeling the call of their ancestors to remember and know their roots. And so in the spirit of Teshuva, we return.
I don’t have adequate words to describe the magic that is happening. The service trip tour of Jewish Ukraine (a powerful week and whole other story in itself for another time) ended yesterday. Then my mother and brother flew into Odessa to join me in visiting their old stomping grounds. My cousin flew in later in the evening. Today we all walked to the apartment where my family had lived. Where my brother was born and raised until my family left for the states. Where my parents got married. Where my father was raised. Where my grandfather and grandmother lived after Odessa was liberated from the Nazis.
We walked up to the front of the building and my mom pointed to the windows of their old second floor apartment above us. A man went up to the locked gate that was the entrance way to their courtyard and began to open it. I asked if we could go in. He let us through.
In the courtyard, my mom continued to point to windows and tell the stories of what was what and who lived where. A man came out of the locked door that was the entrance to their building. He was about to head out of the courtyard to the street, but he thought he heard us call to him and so he came over. We clarified that we hadn’t called him, and explained that we were there taking a stroll down memory lane. He gladly engaged with my mom’s curiosities about what was the same and what had changed in the building. Who was still there and where the rest had gone. Then his own curiosity was peaked: in which apartment had my parents lived? My mom answered. He smiled… “Now I’m the one who lives in that apartment” he replied!
Already that was enough. Dayenu! What synchronicity! We laughed in joy about our meeting. He told us about the repairs and remodeling he had done. He was then ready to be on his way. We thanked him for sharing his stories. I asked if I could get a photo of him and he obliged. We were about to be on our way too. As he’s leaving, he pauses and asks: “Are you in a hurry? Would you like to come up and see the apartment?”
I couldn’t believe it. The place I had heard stories about growing up. The place I had seen in photos, but never thought I would see in real life. Here I was, here we were, being invited up. My heart was pounding and chills were coursing through my body the whole way up the stairs.
Then we were in. I was standing in the home of the grandfather and grandmother I never got to meet. I was within the walls that held them. I was in the parlor where my grandfather played his violin. I was in the bedroom where my grandparents slept. I was in the other bedroom where my parents lived with my mother’s mother and my brother. I stood in what was the communal kitchen they all shared with their neighbors, now a bathroom with a jacuzzi tub.
The man who is the current tenant, Nikolay, popped open a bottle of champagne, poured each of us a glass, and invited us to sit down at the kitchen table. As we chatted, stories I hadn’t heard before were evoked out of this place full of so many memories. It was then revealed that Nikolay is friends with the husband of my mom’s close friend from high school. Nikolay called the couple up instantly to share the serendipity that we were in the midst of. He remarked how unlikely our meeting was. How if we had come into that courtyard five minutes earlier or later, we wouldn’t have been sitting in this place together right now.
Nikolay is a renowned musician of Odessa. A professional jazz pianist. My grandfather, Boris, was a violinist who played in one of the amateur orchestras in Odessa. He had a great love for music. My mother exclaimed to Nikolay that Boris is happy his home was handed off to such a wonderful musician and that live music is still filling the rooms and halls of this place.
We got one more photo with Nikolay, in the parlor room, before we left. Here it is. From left to right: Me, Nikolay, Mom, and Brother. Cousin Phil took the photo. Dad had to stay back in Cincinnati, but we had him on the phone with us through the experience after texting: “You’ll never guess where we are right now.”
In the same place my parents left it.
On this whirlwind, week-long, eye-opening service trip tour of Jewish life in Ukraine with JDC Entwine (a Jewish relief organization with a long history of major impact around the world). Today we arrived in Odessa, the city my family and a few generations of ancestors are from. When I explained my roots to this place to our local guide who greeted us, she lit up and said “welcome home.” I’m flooded with emotion.
Arrived to Ukraine today, the homeland of my parents, grandparents, and most of my great-grandparents. As the train crossed the border, I felt a sense of recognition in my body, like I was in a familiar place. I fell asleep and watched traditional Ukrainian and Jewish circle dances of long ago in my dream.
The ancestors live on in ways inside us. Today the land welcomed them back home.