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.

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