Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Returning Home

Today we drove back to Warsaw.  Jakub met us at the hotel so we could say our goodbyes.  We were very grateful for his assistance at every step of the way and felt a real connection with him.

Before departing Radom we asked Dvora if there was anything else she would like to see and she replied the train station.  It was from a nearby track that Jews were deported to Treblinka.  As Treblinka was our destination, it seemed appropriate to start from the same point. The day was rainy and only got rainier as we drove. 

Even with GPS it was difficult to locate Treblinka.  We drove through small villages with unpainted cottages and tall stork nests.  After some circling of the area we found some signs that led the way to Treblinka.  By now the rain was coming down very steadily and the day was gray.  Upon arriving we walked down a wide cobblestone path past rows of rectangular blocks, much like railroad tracks.  Dvora told us they represented the long walk from the train to the execution site.  In front of us were large jagged rocks with the names of countries that were represented.  Walking past them we faced a large sculptural form surrounded by more jagged rocks that seemed to go indefinitely, each representing a community that was destroyed.  We found the Radom rock and actually noted that there were two.  We had saved some of the flowers we had been given at the opening to leave at Treblinka and placed them at both stones.  Then we pulled out my Kindle on which I have downloaded the Kaddish and recited it together for all our family members who were murdered at Treblinka.

And so our trip comes to an end.  For my husband and I it was a two part trip with a week in the Ukraine at my maternal grandparents’ ancestral town, followed by a week in Poland focused on my paternal grandfather’s town.  Our Poland trip included many interactions around an art opening and exhibition of artwork, a talk to high school students and dinner with a local Polish family.  Traveling with our friends gave me a unique perspective on the town of Radom and a glimpse at how my family may have lived.

In our discussion about this trip Dvora said that in her prior four trips to Radom she was a visitor.  This trip was different, rather than being a visitor, she returned to her home town.  The difference was in large part that we interacted with Poles and were received with great warmth and interest.  On prior trips her visit was more insular with no interactions save the usual travel exchanges in restaurants and hotels.  On this visit Dvora told her story to the next generation and shared her pictures and stories with the residents of Radom.  There was a rich interaction that made real connections between people and it is in these connections that real understanding begins.

Presentations, Openings and Polish Friends

Our last day in Radom was a most eventful one.  The weather was sunny and warm, the first such day we had experienced in Poland.  We started the day with a stop at the post office.   When we did research at the archives the prior day we learned that we could no longer pay them cash for our records as we did the prior year.  Instead we were required to go to the post office and give them a slip of paper with the account number of the archives as well as the sum they advised us for payment.  That paper was then stamped and we could take it back to the archives to receive our documents.  Our friend Jakub accompanied us to the post office down the street from our hotel which proved to be fortunate.  Whether we paid by cash or credit card, the post office required a local address in case something went wrong and they didn’t receive payment.  Our home address in the US wasn’t acceptable for this purpose.  It was illogical even to our Polish companion, especially when paying with cash, but without his address on the slip we were unsure how to get our material.  Fortunately he was happy to assist us and we received our stamped paper.

Soon it was time for our presentation to high school students at the Resursa.  We arrived at the Resursa which is a grand building with figures atop it and a statue in front of it.  Jakub had advised us that it was a Citizens Club long ago and was used as an officers club by the Germans.  Now it is an arts and culture center for the city with a variety of programs and exhibitions. They had a large auditorium which slowly filled with students.  Dvora, Jakub and I were on stage together with our interpreter.  As I entered the auditorium and arrived at the front row I saw our young friend Michalina who had been so helpful to us on our prior trip.  We hugged warmly and I was then whisked on to the stage.  I had just a minute to ask Michalina to translate for Dvora’s son as they had decided only to translate from English to Polish.  Dvora was quite determined to speak in Polish, no small feat after 70 years of not speaking it, but she accomplished it masterfully.

The format of the session was to have Jakub ask us questions to which we would respond, with most of the questions directed at Dvora as the focus was on her recollections of her life in Radom.  The questions for me related to what drew me to Radom, researching my family history and how I felt about Radom.  As Dvora replied in Polish, I would recognize a similar word to English and instantly know which story she was referencing.  As I sat and listened to the stream of Polish words I counted the students in the auditorium, about 100 filled the room.

Midway through the presentation we learned that there was a class of Israeli students who had come to the presentation. They understood English, but not Polish and as no one was aware that they had joined us they had missed a portion of the presentation.  The program then switched to English with a promise to the class to provide them with Dvora’s written memories in English that I had provided to Jakub.  After the presentation we invited the Israeli students up to the stage to meet Dvora.  She conversed with the teacher while her son spoke with them in Hebrew.  The students surrounded Dvora eagerly taking pictures of her.  Dvora also had an opportunity to speak with the teacher of the nearby school which is memorializing the school, The Friends of Knowledge, that Dvora attended and gathering information on its attendees.

After the session we had some time to explore the town.  We walked towards the archives where we planned to exchange the slip of paper for our documents. As we walked we noted many abandoned buildings or buildings propped up with wood.  We had learned on our last visit that the buildings that were abandoned by Jews upon their deportation often deteriorated as there was no clear title to them.  The city would periodically place an ad in the paper so they could begin the process of taking them over.

At the archives we found that some of our documents had been copied, but the identity papers were on a CD.  Papers in hand, we took advantage of the nice weather to stroll down Zeromskiego, the main commercial street that is closed to traffic.  We stopped for a quick bite to eat and it was soon time to return to the Resursa for the opening.

 As we entered the Resursa we were greeted by a very dapper Jakub.  He advised us that some press were in the room.  We soon saw our friend Michalina.  Her parents who had hosted us at their home on our last visit, greeted us warmly.  They had invited us to visit after the opening.  The room soon filled with people and it was time for comments.  Jakub made some brief comments and Dvora spoke warmly of her experience in returning to Radom doing her comments in both Polish and English.  I spoke about the development of the artwork that was there, my ties to Radom and my collaboration with Dvora.  They presented us with flowers and we were whisked to yet another room to do a radio interview.

Our beautiful day had now turned rainy and we piled into the car of Michalina’s father.  On our last visit, the men had shared a number of shots of vodka so it appeared that they had cleared any barriers to a repeat performance.  The plan was for Michalina’s mother to drive us home as the designated driver.  Dvora sat in front and in no time was chatting with Michalina’s father in Polish.  We arrived at their home to a spread of salads, herring and meats.  This was followed by a tasty fish dish combined with vegetables and then a coconut dessert.  Wine and vodka flowed freely throughout. While I’d like to report on the conversation, much of it was in Polish with Dvora and Michalina’s parents engrossed in conversation.   Finally our evening came to a close with fond goodbyes as our time in Radom concluded.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Exploring Jewish Radom

We began today with a visit to the USC, the governmental office which has vital records for the past 100 years.  Dvora was interested in getting her birth record and that of her brother.  People who can prove their parent was born in Poland may be able to obtain a Polish passport enabling them easier access to European Union countries.  Dvora’s experience was quite smooth because she speaks the language and within an hour we had secured the birth records for both.

Our next stop was the archive which holds records that are over 100 years old.  We secured a number of identity papers for family members.  When we had been at the Warsaw genealogy office of the Jewish Historical Institute, we had obtained lists of family members who had been in the ghetto and completed identity papers.  Many of the papers were accompanied by photographs.

Using JRI-Poland.org I had been able to locate indexes of many records on Dvora’s family that included her great-grandmother’s birth record and her grandparents’ marriage record.  We found the Book of Residents which included her family.  The Book of Residents lists the residents by family along with parents’ names and various events in their lives that required official notation.   My ability to decipher Russian Cyrillic came in handy and we were able to leave with the records on my list.

Our tasks accomplished, our touring now began in earnest.  vora’s niece had secured a van to take us to different locations and we began with a chronological history.  We started at Dvora’s childhood home and concluded with a visit to her home in the ghetto.  We visited the area of the former forced labor camp and I asked Dvora if she ever received any compensation as the Austrian company that ran the weapons factory still exists.  She replied that a few years ago she received a very small sum.

We then stopped at her former school which is now an apartment building.  She was pleased to see that a plaque on the history of the school adorned the door.  We entered the building and I was struck by the worn stone steps on which so many students had walked.
We stopped by the Resursa to see the artwork and photos being hung for our show.  At Dvora’s request we planned another visit to the cemetery and Jakub once again secured the key to the cemetery for us.  Again we said the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, now with this enlarged group of family and friends.  It felt especially important to Dvora to have her family with her in this place.

We also did a brief stop at the site of the old synagogue.  Throughout the day we had several videographers in our group recording Dvora’s stories in the related locations.  Hopefully some will turn out to be useable as filming in a vehicle or on the street has its challenges.  Dvora told some stories that I had heard from her previously, but they took on an added resonance when told on the site in which they occurred.

One more day in Radom, but a jam packed one.  Tomorrow we give our talk at the Resursa to high school students, then an opening in the evening and we reconnect with our Polish friends from our prior visit.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Form and Substance of Story

Yesterday morning we left Warsaw for Radom, the last part of our trip.  In Radom we will prepare for an art opening on Tuesday as well as a talk and interview with high school students earlier in the day.  When we left Warsaw we drove to the area around the monument to the Jewish ghetto and did a stop at the Umschlagplatz, the point where Jews were gathered for deportation to Treblinka.  The monument lists all the first names that were typically used by the Jewish community.  Dvora commented that it spoke to the anonymity of those who were murdered.   At the front of the monument is an image of broken trees, much like one sees on tombstones when someone dies too early.  On the back of that image the surrounding trees are reflected.  It is a very powerful monument that inspires contemplation.

We then departed for Radom, about an hour and a half drive from Warsaw.  Upon our arrival we contacted Jakub, our contact at the Resursa, the arts and culture center where we are having the exhibition of my artwork and Dvora’s photos and story.  Jakub met us at our hotel and had an opportunity to meet Dvora for the first time.  He knew much of her story from the 30 pages of interviews that I’ve completed and transcribed.  He has translated portions of that story to Polish for local publication.

We soon got into a very interesting conversation that began with identifying questions that Poles might want to pose.  It led to an intense conversation about how some Poles fear that returning Jews might want the return of property and how those issues should be addressed.  We also discussed the roots of anti-Semitism, the role of the church and the cross and convent that was once located at Auschwitz, all the sensitive issues!  While our focus is on the story of the Jewish community prior to the war and what their lives were like, we are all aware that sensitive issues could also arise and need to be addressed if they do.  I have no doubt that Dvora can handle such issues very adeptly.

Jakub then contacted the gypsy who has the key to the Jewish cemetery and we drove out there.  Dvora had never been to the cemetery before.  When she lived here she was too young and on her prior four visits to Radom they had not gone there.  Without knowing how to access the key it would not have been an easy thing to do.  I was interested in the new monument which included 70 tombstones that had been previously hidden.  Jakub had taken pictures of it for me and I have been getting them translated.  There are very few tombstones that still remain as the Nazis paved the roads with the tombstones.  Fragments are mounted on the cemetery wall which surrounds an extremely large area, giving us a sense of the magnitude of the cemetery that once existed. 

We went to a small building where the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, is posted on the wall behind a curtain.  On the side are plaques for each neighboring town where communities of Jews perished in the Holocaust. Dvora, her son and I all recited the Kaddish together.  I looked over at Dvora and saw her eyes filled with tears and tears quickly came to my eyes as well.  To say the Kaddish in that place felt especially meaningful.  Four generations of her family members were murdered, her great-grandmother, her grandmother, aunts and uncles and cousins. She knew those family members and friends personally and had individual relationships with each of them.    Later she noted that under that soil lay the remains of the Jewish community of Radom, including those of some of her family members.

I read to her the quote on the wall from Psalms (78,6), "That the generation to come, the children to be born, may know and should arise and tell their children".  It captured well the commitment Dvora has made to sharing her story with successive generations. Dvora later commented to me that this experience was the defining moment of the trip.  Of course the trip isn’t over yet so there may be more moments yet to come.

The following day we made a trip to Garbatka, the vacation town where she spent her early summers with her family.  Dvora is especially nostalgic about this time as it represented a happy time before the war destroyed the life that she had.  We drove through forests with small white flowers on the forest floor.  Dvora observed that the trees were newer, not the thick trees of her childhood.  We started our visit at the train station where vora reminisced about how her mother and the children would be there during the summers, but her father would come on weekends.  They would greet him at the train station and then he would take them into the woods to find wild strawberries and mushrooms. As I recorded her recollections a train passed behind her and the church bells chimed.  We then drove through the town looking for a cottage that resembled her recollection of the ones she stayed in during those summers. 

Upon our return to the city we made a stop at the home where Dvora had lived for the years prior to being forced into the ghetto.  She identified her bedroom window and those of her parents and brother and we walked behind the building while she pointed out the location of each of the rooms of their six room apartment.  In the ghetto they were living in two rooms with no indoor plumbing. 

We then walked through the park to the main commercial street in Radom, Zeromskiego.  Flags were flapping in the bitter cold wind commemorating the anniversary of the plane crash which took the life of the former Polish president a year ago.

Dvora pointed out the building from which the German authorities had operated.  One day during the time of the ghetto, she had been sent there to repair frayed carpet runners.  When the Governor noticed her armband with the Star of David he had sent her away aghast that a Jew was in the building.  It was very strange to actually connect a physical location  with this story, giving it a form and substance that words alone couldn’t convey. 

As we walked down Zeromskiego we ran into family members of vora’s late brother.  When they had heard Dvora was coming to Radom they seized the opportunity to learn more about their father’s life.  We later joined them for a dinner to celebrate this occasion that brought us all to Radom.

Windy Day in Warsaw

We arrived in Warsaw last evening to meet our friends Dvora and her son Gary. Dvora is a survivor and former resident of Radom who now resides in the Twin Cities.  She is sharing her pre-war and ghetto photographs in Radom in conjunction with my artwork and of course her stories. 

Most of our day was spent in travel getting from Lviv to Warsaw, a one hour flight with lots of delays.  Our licensed taxi to the Lviv airport was about a fourth of the cost of the private one we used to get to our hotel.  When I gave the driver a tip, he protested that I had paid him too much.  Ahh, an honest man!  “For you”, I reassured him.

Over dinner we heard about the private taxi that our friends hired at the Warsaw airport. which charged them the equivalent of $60 for what should be an $11 cab ride (45 zlotys).  Travel always involves such stories, small change in the whole scheme of things, but irritating nonetheless.

Before we departed Lviv we had a few hours in the morning and did at stop at the National Museum  of  Ukrainian Art which houses Ukrainian icon paintings from the 14th-17th century as well as special exhibitions of contemporary art.  I found the paintings of Judgment rather amusing as little fellows in black with spiky hair and heels tortured unfortunate souls.  They looked rather cartoon-like through contemporary eyes. Some life-size and realistically painted wooden cutouts represented groupings of saints and other religious figures creating interesting tableaus.  We also especially enjoyed contemporary work by Michael Kimonovsky (my translation from the Ukrainian). 
 . 
It has been cold and blustery in Warsaw with periodic rain.  Last year we got caught in a torrential downpour here so associate the city with miserable weather.  The one bright spot (in addition to our companions) has been our hotel Mamaison Diana which provided us with palatial apartments at a very favorable price.  We are staying in a very modern apartment with two bathrooms, a walk-in closet, a large round Jacuzzi and a balcony which runs the length of two rooms.  We will be totally spoiled for all time after these accommodations.  The restaurant has also been excellent.

We purchased a tram pass for the day so we could easily maneuver the city and set out in the direction of the Jewish Historical Institute.  We actually were heading to the Jewish genealogy office associated with the Institute which is staffed by Yale Reisner and Anna Przybyszewska.  On our last visit to Warsaw we had spent considerable time there and came away with a wealth of information.  I thought Dvora would find this to be an interesting resource as well.  Several hours later we left with lots of information to follow up on at the Radom archives.  We learned that the Jewish school she attended in Radom has been adopted by another school that is in the same area and they are documenting the history of her former school and its attendees.  We’ll make sure to try to connect while there.  We also identified what identity papers are at the Radom archives from the ghetto listing which included Dvora’s family members.

We then walked throgh blustery winds to the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto by which time it had begun to rain in addition to the wind and cold.  We headed for warmth at the Arsenal, an excellent restaurant on the tram line that we had eaten at on our last visit; There we holed up for a meal in cozy surroundings.  Dvora shared many of her stories with us over lunch and we reluctantly departed into the cold after several hours. 

We decided that because of the weather we would opt for a warmer alternative, riding the tram lines on a tour of the city.  Dvora soon began chatting with local residents leading to an alteration in our plans and a visit to the old town area, the Stare Miasto.  Everywhere we went everyone was quite helpful and having a Polish speaker in our midst certainly simplified our usual travel.  One man escorted us to a bus stop and gave us very precise instructions, another chatted at length with Dvora ending the discussion by kissing her hand.  Once again we retreated to a cafĂ© for warm drinks and then made our way back to the hotel where we gathered yet again around food and stories.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Of Castles and Cemeteries

Yesterday was devoted to castles and yet one more cemetery, one of the most interesting ones to date. We began our day in Khotin, a city about 30 miles away from Kamenetz Podolsk in Bessarabia. My interest in this city is that my grandmother’s family originated there and several family members gave it as their most recent residence prior to immigrating. At that time it was located across the Dniester River in Roumania. Now it is part of the Ukraine.

We began our day with a visit to the fortress/castle that we had admired from Zhavnets on the other side of the river. Not quite as grand as that in Kamenetz, it made up for this by the striking views of its location. Located high above the river, it is surrounded by earthworks and fortifications.

We also drove around Khotin to the area where the Jewish homes and shops had been and identified buildings that would have existed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A synagogue still stands and is in use although there are not enough Jews to have a minyon. At one point we drove past a home that was abandoned and I viewed the inside which consisted of two rooms with what may have been a heating unit of green enamel. An outhouse stood in back and a wooden storage shed and root cellar adjoined the house.

After touring the town we drove to the cemetery. I had done a search on-line and found the tombstones had been photographed. One was of particular interest to me, Mariam daughter of Avrum was all that was recorded, no surname and no dates. My great-great grandmother was Mariam (Wasserman), daughter of Avrum so I was interested in locating that tombstone to see if it was possible to decipher more. We arrived at the cemetery in front of which stood a house with writing on it that indicated it was the Jewish cemetery. As no one appeared to be home except a small child, we began to explore. Once again we saw striking photo engravings and I quickly found a tombstone for a Wasserman, the maiden name of my great-great grandmother. My first thought was that this appeared to be an orderly cemetery with tombstones in rows. That belief was shattered as I got about three rows back and discovered that small saplings made many of those rows impassable.


First the cemetery manager’s wife appeared and then the manager himself. A burly man with a white beard, he was accompanied by his grandson, a small child who perched on a tombstone as Alex translated for us. The manager told us that he grew up in the cemetery and was the third generation to manage it. He reported that when a group tried to improve it they actually created problems. They cut trees down, but they dropped their seeds creating the saplings. They also tried to burn brush and it destroyed about 500 tombstones.

We asked him about my family names and the one he was able to offer information on was that of Wasserman. While two had been on the on-line site, he showed us several additional ones. He told us that a Wasserman came from Israel each year to visit the grave of a family member. I was interested in a Mariam Wasserman of a more recent generation as family names frequently are repeated within a family. He showed us a tombstone that had a scissors on it and no surname and indicated that it was for a Wasserman as it was one that the Israeli visited as well. He seemed to know all of the tombstones personally as well as their families reporting that one was the mother-in-law of another.

The cemetery has been in existence for 300 years. When I asked about my great-great grandmother he asked when she would have died and led us to the section that would be around 1900.

While I found Miriams and Abrams, I didn’t find them in the same tombstone. Realizing the futility of the search, I began to focus on the decorative details on the stones. The other cemeteries typically had a Star of David, but very little other ornamentation. The tombstones in Khotin were often multi-colored as well as ornamented with fish, birds, lions, griffons and ornate patterning. I inquired about an area that was particularly decorative and was told that it was 200 years old.

Upon returning to Kamenetz we visited the castle there. The prior day it was closed as they were filming a movie there. It is often used for such projects. Our final project was to attempt some videotaping. A test drive by auto quickly reminded me of the bumpiness of the roads and I walked across the bridge filming and down the street where my grandfather lived. Not quite ready for prime time, these videos will allow me to share the imagery with family.

This morning we began our journey back to Lviv. By now the horse drawn carts, storks and elderly women in head scarves looked much more familiar. The day was sunny and we chatted as we drove. By now we felt like old friends with Alex having discussed a wide variety of subjects spanning family, politics, history and literature. When we arrived in Lviv, Alex gave us a brief tour of the Jewish sites including what remains of a 16th century synagogue destroyed by the Nazis, the former Jewish district and ghetto area, traces of Yiddish writing which remain and a Holocaust memorial. We bid a fond good by to Alex. His assistance had allowed us to access sites which would otherwise have been inaccessible to us due to language barriers and a lack of knowledge. Our investment in his time had been well worth it. Tomorrow we fly back to Warsaw and meet up with Dvora and her son for the next leg of our trip in Radom.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Communing With the Ancestors

Yesterday was a very full day as we began our explorations of Kamenetz Podolsk in earnest. Much of the day was spent in cemeteries, three of them to be precise. Cemetery information can be a very important resource when researching family history. Having discovered the tombstone of my great-great grandfather in Belarus, I am always hopeful when visiting the cemetery of an ancestral town. I also know how challenging most Eastern European Jewish cemeteries are to navigate. There is often no person or funds to maintain them and they quickly become overgrown and largely inaccessible.  Until I experienced  an "overgrown" cemetery, I did not fully appreciate the meaning of the word.

We began our day at the Kamenetz Podolsk cemetery. The keeper of the cemetery had a list of the names of the graves for more recent burials. He provided us with four pages of surnames handwritten in Cyrillic which I photographed and Alex offered to translate. Alex read through the names aloud as I listened for family names. A few were similar to some of my family names so I took photographs, unsure yet if they will connect to anything in my family.

The more recent tombstones were interesting as many of them had photographs, some that appeared to be photo engravings that covered a large portion of the tombstone. Writing was usually in Russian, but sometimes with Hebrew as well. Alex indicated that the older tombstones were to the right of the newer ones. I have found that it is often just as easy to photograph all of the tombstones rather than just look for my own family members. The time it takes to decipher the names in Hebrew can just as easily be spent on photographing each one allowing me to figure them out at my leisure and providing information for other researchers in the bargain.

I thought I’d begin with the tombstones at the back as those would presumably be older, but as I worked my way to the back I noticed a wooded area behind the cemetery and saw a tombstone in the woods. Thinking it was just a stray tombstone, I went to photograph it. I quickly realized that the woods were full of tombstones with small trees filling the spaces between them and many knocked over or unreadable under moss or behind thick saplings. Those which were readable however, were remarkably clear. They appeared to be preserved from the sun by the very woods which made it difficult to move between them. Now a woman on a mission, I began to work my way from one thicket to another tripping over branches and breaking off deadwood that obstructed my view. Not exactly an idyllic wooded setting, the ground was strewn with garbage and appeared to have been the site of numerous drinking parties. A swastika was painted on one of the tombstones which lay on its side.

Originally I had thought it would take just a short time, but as I proceeded I found that the section extended the width of the cemetery. Never one to stop halfway I continued for several hours until I had completed all of the old section and then proceeded to photograph those which were legible up through the war years, about 200 in total. It was often a logistical feat as I held branches back with one hand and photographed with the other. Did I mention that those bushes had thorns? My translation skills are limited to deciphering the name of the deceased and the father’s name. I attempted some translation this evening and oddly the first one I translated was Abram son of Srul (an abbreviation for Israel). My great-grandfather was Abram son of Meir-Srul. I couldn’t yet determine the date which should identify whether this is relevant to my family.

From the cemetery we did a brief stop at the memorial for those who were murdered by the Nazis in an open area in the town and then went to Karvansary, the area where Jews first lived in Kamenetz. Karvansary lies just below the castle wall. We began with a stop at the original cemetery. From the cemetery the view is quite scenic with the castle in the distance and goats grazing on the hill in the middle ground. Nestled in the hills are the houses of Karvansary. The cemetery was small and only about 30 tombstones were at all legible and some barely, but I went ahead and photographed them hoping someone can make more sense of them than I can.


We then drove through the area of Karvansary and Alex identified houses that would have dated to earlier times. On the way back I saw my favorite image of this trip. Up in the hills on a bicycle, a young man was herding the goats. Some ran ahead while some stragglers followed the bicycle. 

From Karavansary we headed out to Zhavnets, a town across the Dinster River from Khotin. A researcher had told me that my grandfather’s family originated in Zahvnets. First we drove through the city and identified older homes in the area where the Jews had lived, then we headed for the cemetery. The cemetery is located across the river from the fortress/castle in Khotin so we had very scenic views of the fortress. I was delighted to hear that the cemetery had already been photographed as I could not imagine tackling yet another one. Two cemeteries were buried in the woods, once again tombstones hid behind trees and moss covered many of them, but the setting was rather idyllic with only forest surrounding it. It had a very different feeling than maneuvering around the garbage dump in Kamentz.

Our cemetery search is not yet over. Tomorrow we go to Khotin where my grandmother’s family originated where we will find yet another cemetery, fortunately one which has been documented. Thus ended our day communing with the ancestors.

Monday, April 4, 2011

On a Very Bad Road to Kamenetz-Podolsk

Yesterday morning we met our guide, Alex Dunai, and began our journey to Kamenetz-Podolsk in the Ukraine.  Kamenetz is the ancestral home of my maternal grandparents and the last ancestral town I needed to visit.  Previously I’ve traveled to my other towns in Belarus and Poland.  I had met Alex at the International Jewish Genealogy Conference and heard him speak, but this was our first opportunity to have an extended interaction.  Alex arrived at our hotel with his new vehicle with a “strong engine” which I would come to appreciate as we navigated roads filled with deep potholes by moving rapidly between lanes while avoiding oncoming traffic. I was grateful to have Alex at the wheel as well as serving as our linguistic aide.  This was clearly not a journey we would have wanted to attempt ourselves.

Once out of Lviv we came to small towns where houses lined the road behind low fences, much as I had seen in Lithuania and Belarus, but the homes were less homogenous in color and style.  Some sported tile work that seemed to mimic Ukrainian needlework.  Farm land surrounds the towns and tall trees have spheres high in their boughs which gives it a very ornamental feel.  Alex told us the spheres were mistletoe.  It was a warm, sunny day and landscape formed interesting silhouettes against the sun. We passed a cemetery of crosses set amongst the trees with their mistletoe ornaments.  Across the road, truncated trees mimicked the form of the crosses. Storks nested high above the houses having just returned from Africa.  As we drove, people walked along the side of the road, many were older women with babushkas on their heads and canes in hand.  Roosters and chickens and the occasional turkey wandered by the roadside.   

After a four and a half hour drive we arrived in Kamenetz Podolsk, clearly the most visually striking town of my ancestral heritage.
An enormous castle/fortress stands in the city like something out of Disneyland, but this is the real

deal. I had seen pictures of it, but one soon realizes that a picture does not do justice to this town.  Below the castle is the area of Karvasary, where the Jews lived in earlier times. 

The  Smotrich River surrounds the city on three sides and flows into the Dinster River.       Two bridges cross the river.  Below are high bluffs and a canyon-like topography which was clearly visible as greenery had not yet filled in the trees.  The bare trees were quite beautiful in their starkness.  We walked across both bridges taking countless pictures as each vantage point offered a new vista.  As we crossed one of the bridges we noticed something we had seen in Lithuania, locks attached to the bridge with names of young couples and a date engraved.  In Lithuania it is a tradition to attach the lock and throw away the key upon marriage.  Apparently this is also done in the Ukraine.

I had the name of the street on which my grandfather lived with his family at the time of the 1897 census.  Alex had determined that the name had changed, but found the location.  The street ended at a large park and the area closest to the park was the older section.  I walked along the first few blocks and took photos of the older buildings, imagining how the family lived in the homes in this area.

In the course of our day we tried a few Ukrainian foods that were new to us.  As my husband is a ‘pescetarian” ( a vegetarian who eats seafood) we had to think about foods that might work in a country of meat eaters.  I was introduced to “green borscht” which is made of sorrel leaves with rice and potatoes.  At dinner we tried “mamaleyga” which is like polenta with cheese with some meat atop.  My pescetarian husband found potato pancakes and mushroom soup to be good meatless alternatives.  He'll be eating a lot of that.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Warsaw and Lviv: Finding Our Way

For those who may be interested in considering travels to Poland or the Ukraine, I thought it might be helpful to speak to some of our travel experiences and discoveries. I am a price conscious traveler who likes affordable quality. When I plan our trips, I do extensive research, read other travelers' reviews and monitor rates across many sources. My one absolute is Internet in order to write my blog and research my surroundings. Because we had such a positive experience in the Mamaison Isabella while in Budapest last year, I decided to try the same chain in Warsaw. Here I found two Mamaison hotels, one an apartment hotel like we used in Budapest and one which provided a lovely hotel room.

Upon our arrival we went to the Mamaison Regina which is the only hotel located in the old part of the city. Now keep in mind that the old part of the city is actually new having been reconstructed after its wartime destruction. At first I was prepared to not take it seriously, but have come to appreciate that the city went to unusual lengths to preserve its past and the reconstruction is truly masterful. Frescos decorate buildings and design work reminded me of the central plaza in Prague. When we looked out of our dormer window at the Regina we overlooked one of the artfully painted buildings. Around the corner were inexpensive, but appealing restaurants and the Vistula River flowed just a few blocks away. Had we more time in Warsaw it would have been an easy walk across the river to Praga, the area of the city that suffered far less destruction than Warsaw and still contains some of the older buildings. The hotel was tasteful and contemporary and with a favorable rate offered an extraordinary value.

On our return we will be staying at Mamaison’s sister hotel, the Diana, which is an apartment hotel. I expect equally high quality from them. In addition to Budapest and Warsaw, Mamaison also has hotels in Prague, Bratslava and Moscow. The hotels offered favorable rates when booking directly and paying in advance.

We had a lovely dinner our first evening and scoped out a restaurant that served breakfast for the following morning. To our dismay very little was open at 9AM on a Saturday including the restaurant of our choice. We found a small coffee shop where we got the hot chocolate that seems to be typical of at least two experiences in Lublin and Warsaw. Very thick and rich, one eats it with a spoon. The chocolate is similar to what one would find in Spain and is almost dessert – like.

We caught a taxi to the airport in the morning.  A short flight got us to Lviv where I began by puzzling out the Cyrillic on the airport building only to discover that it spelled Lviv. We were very surprised by the airport entry as it felt more like an ancient train station and looked very Soviet.  We later found that a new one is being built. A slow line moved forward into another room. There we found our luggage and had to run it through a screening machine on the way out. The security person asked if we spoke Ukrainian, German or Polish to which we replied “English”. He had been chatting at length with the woman who preceded us, but our conversational prowess just wasn’t up to the task.

When we exited to the central entrance area, we discovered a bank machine which didn’t know what to do with our card. Hmm, how to get money to get a cab was going to prove to be a problem. A Ukrainian came up to us and through gestures asked if we needed a taxi. I was hesitant to take a private cab, but soon saw that there was no taxi line to access. To my question of “How much” the guide replied only, “Dollars, Euros”. I knew the rate was supposed to be between 80 and 100 grivinas which equates to $10-12 and decided to wing it. He pointed out an ATM across the street from the airport and we got enough grivinas for immediate use.

He soon found our hotel and only then asked for 200 Grivnas. I replied 100 and we settled on 150. In Lviv we are staying at the Hotel Chopin which is a lovely hotel in a convenient location. The staff speaks English and it has a reasonably priced restaurant with a fabulous breakfast, omelets made to order, cappuccino and cinnamon filled croissants. Anything we wanted to order off the menu was included with the room fee. One of the appeals of this hotel is that it is around the corner from the Lviv Art Gallery, a collection of largely Polish and Ukrainian art.

We immediately headed over to the more contemporary section of the Lviv Art Gallery covering the 19th and 20th century and largely Polish and Ukrainian artists. The earlier period of the 15th to 18th century is housed in a nearby palace which we will visit on our return. We entered a room with some rather stodgy looking portraits, but half way through it began to get interesting with artwork that seemed more symbolist in origin. Some of the artists’ work reminded us of other artists with whom we were familiar, but most of the names were unfamiliar to us. I was also surprised to see a series of paintings of Jewish imagery, some by Maurycy Gottlieb.

We then wandered over to the Rynek Square to explore the town and enjoyed the variety of architectural styles which were represented. A striking building with winged figures atop beckoned at the end of a central avenue and we learned that it was the Opera House.

It was a Saturday night and many people were out, but the restaurant that had been recommended near our hotel had closed by 9 PM. Back to the Rynek we went to find an open restaurant. At the one we selected the waitress didn’t speak any English and our command of Ukrainian was nil.  Helplessly she looked around the restaurant for help. Taking our order soon became a community effort. A woman at the next table understood our question and relayed it back to the waitress in Ukrainian. Yet another woman helped her on the next question. With the aid of the entire restaurant we soon succeeded in placing an order. 

Thus ended our initial foray into Lviv. We look forward to more explorations on our return and may draw on our guide, Alex, for suggestions as Lviv is his home.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Contact, A Book and An Interview: Preparing for Ukrainian Travels

We’ve begun our journey to Poland, arriving in Warsaw where we delivered the artwork and the photographs for the Radom exhibition later this month.  Tomorrow we head off to Lviv from where we begin our journey to Kamenets-Podolsk, the original home of my maternal grandparents.

As I prepared for our trip to the Ukraine and Poland I received an interesting contact.  Betty sent me an e-mail telling me she was a survivor and had a connection to Radom.  She invited me to contact her to learn more.  When I called her in Ohio I learned that she was a survivor of Trochenbrod, a virtually all Jewish agricultural community in western Ukraine that existed prior to WWII.  Many people are familiar with it as the setting of Jonathan Safran-Foer’s book Everything is IlluminatedFew Jewish communities were agricultural and I am unaware of others that were almost exclusively Jewish, a set of circumstances that created a community that was quite unique.

While most of the town was murdered in the Holocaust, Betty had hidden in the forest as a young girl with her family and survived, one of 33 survivors out of 5000 Jewish residents. The only Christian in Trochenbrod was the post-mistress whose son now lives in Radom.  As his playmates were the Jewish children he spoke Yiddish and learned some Hebrew as well.  Almost sixty years after the war Betty connected with this former childhood playmate.   When she heard of my Radom project from the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Ohio, she resolved to contact me.  She asked that I reach out to her childhood friend in Radom in the course of my visit.

The story of Trochenbrod has recently been told in a book The Heavens Are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod by Avrom Bendavid-Val.    Betty Gold (then Basia-Ruchel Potash) tells her harrowing story in the book as does the son of the post-mistress.  As I always try to do topical reading for my travels, this book on the Jews of the Ukraine seemed especially appropriate for my airplane reading and began to give me some context on the relationships between Jews and the nearby Ukrainian villagers.  Ukrainians were often used as killers by the Nazis, but this book does underscore the positive relationships which also existed between Jews and their Ukrainian neighbors.

A few days ago as part of my Identity and Legacy oral history project, I had the opportunity to interview a Ukrainian Jewish woman from Kiev.  She too spoke of the positive relationships that existed into the 1930s between Jews and Ukrainians.   It began to change in 1932 when a famine was created by the policies of the Soviet Union as they began to move towards agricultural collectivization.  Millions of people died and the Jews fared somewhat better than the Ukrainians creating jealousies.  When I asked why the Jews fared better she gave examples of Jews using resources more efficiently and being more entrepreneurial in order to survive. This is a theme that also was addressed in the book on Trochenbrod where the Jews took poor farmland and irrigated it to make it usable.  I suspect that this creative and entrepreneurial bent grew out of the restrictions that were often placed on Jews historically.

From unusual contacts to newly discovered books to timely interviews, it seems that many forces are converging to educate me as I seek to understand the historic and human dynamics that affected Jewish and Ukrainian interactions.