On the 2nd January 2017 I flew to Krakow to begin a research project exploring the Jewish narrative in Poland and Ukraine, an area previously rich in Jewish culture. This was the start of a long term documentary project and begins, almost predictably, in Auschwitz, but then follows a route that shifts and changes, following leads and hunches, ideas and directions, rivers and transportation lines, ‘dead ends’ and surprising synagogues. It could have been more personal: a return to specific family routes but genealogy was never my purpose. Below is the journal I kept as I travelled around Poland and Ukraine over the course of more than four years, attempting to make sense of overt and buried memories, past atrocities and contextual history.
Prologue ~ Narratives of Loss
Within Poland and Ukraine, there are many narratives that overlap and twist and knot. There is the rich narrative of the vibrant Jewish culture that developed within the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, within Galicia, an area of the Habsburg Empire of Austria established in 1772, and throughout the Pale of Settlement, which existed between 1791 to 1917, a vast area that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, crossing many shifting ethnic borders and former kingdoms. There is the encompassing narrative of the Jew in Europe: before the Nineteenth Century Jews had been expelled from most of central and western Europe but Eastern Europe had for centuries been a haven for Judaism and the centre for European Jewish settlement; in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries significant numbers of Jewish people settled permanently in these lands. Within this narrative is the birth of Hassidism, a spiritual reform of the orthodox tradition, which arose in Ukraine and spread into Galicia, then the Kingdom of Poland and then the Duchy of Lithuania. There is, simultaneously, the rise of Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, that developed in Germany, an intellectual reform of Jewish tradition. There is the narrative of shifting kingdoms: the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth was established in 1569 by the Union of Lublin and lasted until 1795, when Poland-Lithuania disappeared beneath the bulk of the Russian Empire and the Austrian Empire. Embedded within this is the narrative of the Jews and their place within the shifting kingdoms they inhabited, of attempts to assimilate them into their host societies and the inevitable acculturation of Jewish populations as they moved out of shtels and into cities with their secular ways. There is the narrative of national identity and territory: Zionism sought to establish a Jewish state with its own borders, rooted in ancient stories, but Jewish society which spread across many borders did not form a large enough majority to comprise a separate Jewish state within Eastern Europe. There is the narrative of Poland, partitioned in the 18th Century among the Kingdom of Prussia, Russia and Austria, then regaining its independence as the Second Polish Republic in 1918 only to lose its sovereignty again during the Second World War when it was carved up between the two dominant Totalitarian forces: Nazi Germany to the West and Soviet Russia to the East. There is the narrative of Ukraine, which suffered its own genocidal trauma, The Holodomor, or Terror-Famine, between 1932 to 1933, as Stalin carried out his bloody-minded Five Year Plan to collectivise the Soviet Union, killing millions of Ukrainian, Polish and Russians in the process. There is the narrative of antisemitism that was endemic throughout Europe, stretching back many centuries; in the Twentieth Century there were preludes to the rise of The National Socialist German Workers Party in Germany: many countries referred to the ‘Jewish problem’ within their midst and pogroms were rife, fuelled by national identities being subjugated and dominated by occupying powers. The 1930′s were characterised by a war of ideologies, from the ultra-nationalist & fascist movements across Europe to the revolutionary zeal of Communist Russia. In the fourth decade of the Twentieth Century narrative knotted with narrative and became entangled in collective trauma, displacement and atrocity across Europe, culminating in the Jewish Narrative of Loss. There is the subsequent narrative of the liberating Russians promoting the propaganda of the Soviet Hero and Polish martyr. There is the narrative of complicity and culpability: Nazi Germany relied upon locals recruited in the occupied countries to carry out its plans (it’s auxiliary army, policemen, guards, murderers and thugs), a process made easier by the previous Soviet Occupation. There is the subsequent narrative of victim become perpetrator, of (non-Jewish) Pole pitched against (Polish) Jew, of nationalist Ukrainian pitched against rival nationalist Polish. There is the intended narrative: the killing spree of Nazi Germany would have extended far into Russia and beyond; Hitler’s genocidal Generalplan Ost was intended to make the German Empire a superpower to rival and eventually supersede America. And then there is the anti-narrative: the atrocities of the Holocaust demonstrate that history does not necessarily have a progressive trajectory, that civilisations can be torn to shreds and individual personalities erased.
Trip 1 ~ Travels through South-Eastern Poland – January 2017
Tuesday 3rd January 2017: Arrival ~ Oswiecim
A thick blanket of snow covers the ground outside. I am in Hotel Kamienic and the room stinks of stale cigarettes. There is one lukewarm radiator and two single beds. The electrics look distinctly dodgy. The shower takes a good two minutes to reach a bearable temperature and does not get hot. Downstairs, in reception, are three dogs, one of which has such laboured breathing that I imagine it going into cardiac arrest. A overly decorated Xmas tree dominates the entrance hall but what hits me as I enter the hotel is the smell of canine and cigarettes!
I arrived yesterday at 3pm. By 3.30 it was already getting dark and thick snow was falling. I was handed a room key at check in but the proprietor immediately followed me into the room and redirected me to a warmer room, one where the balcony doors close properly. I walked into town to ascertain distances, to get a lay of the land which is fast becoming buried by snow. It is dark and slippery under foot and my orientation and sense of the town layout is sketchy as the driving snow keeps my head down and lights from cars blind me. I retire to my room, thinking to have an early night, reckoning it to be about 9pm but it is only 6.30 – time seems to have stalled. I sleep fitfully, jerked awake by fleeting thoughts and images: what am I doing here, seeking memories, planning to visit sights of atrocity and trauma. I keep thinking about the walk into the town centre – I had layers of warm clothing and shoes but the Jews that were kept in the camps or marched between camps had just the barest of clothes; some had no shoes! How did the survivors survive? Why did they not just give up – succumb to the impossible conditions? Am I here to re-experience their trauma? This now seems like a ridiculous thought.
Day 1: Birkenau and Auschwitz
Auschwitz museum (former camp) lies a stone’s throw away from the hotel, directly across the River Sola, but there are no handy bridges unless I walk up to the busy A4, the Krakow Road. My first destination though is the station. I want to see where (I can imagine) the Jews would have been brought in before the final march to the Auschwitz camp, to get a sense of transit. The car registers minus 2 as I drive to there; I climb the footbridge that spans the multiple lines of train tracks. On the far side are six rows of box-carts shunted together, a fitting memorial. Snow is falling as fat flakes and there is an eery quietness to the scene.
From the station to Birkenau is only a few minutes by car. Though the entranceway is overly familiar, as iconic as the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ entrance to the Auschwitz camp, Birkenau it is still a forboding place to approach: the gateway to Hell! Birkenau is also familiar because I came here six or seven years ago, in the summer, with family. Now, as I enter, it is desolate and gripped by the depths of winter. I enter a barrack devoid of all items yet heavy with loss. Outside I photograph steps leading down into a snow covered pool – a pool of white, a pool of nothingness. I photograph the three brick stacks: iconic and symbolic. I cross over a ditch and walk through a field, through thick snow, to the outlines of barracks. I photograph a magnificently desolate tree, completely stripped bare – an icon of barrenness. I approach a copse of silver birch and startle three roe deer.
I am avoiding entering the camp, of coming at it too directly. I am more interested in the clues, or ways that the surrounding landscape can be framed to reveal the past. I photograph a thicket of tangled woods that are sketched with icy outlines. I circumnavigate the trauma, literally the other side of the fence, and photograph a pile of logs that are reminiscent of a pile of torsos!
At Auschwitz Museum I have an appointment with Woljciech Ploza, Head of Archives. He asks me how he can help and I tell him I want to photograph the archives and restoration department and preservation department and conservation labs and anything else that is behind the scenes. He politely tells me that security is very high and photography is not possible. However, he is happy to show me some of the archives and takes me to a small air-conditioned room, more a vault than a study space. This, he tells me, is one of the original rooms of the camp; they have to “make do” with what they have. The room is now kept at a precise temperature to help preserve the documents. He retrieves several box files and shows me the original documents inside. He gets out a fat accounting book with page after page of death certificates: each one is false! Wojchiech tells me that every prisoner at Auschwitz had an identity card and when they died every prisoner was issued a death certificate – however, the reason for death was fabricated, the cause of death falsified (for instance smallpox or myocardia) and the place of death never mentions concentration camp. I ask why the Nazis kept such fastidious records, what purpose did this bureaucracy serve? Wojchiech explains that Jews were assigned with this task, to fabricate lies, in order for the Nazi Germans to propagate the myth that, to an outside observer, the Auschwitz camp was a model of good prisoner care – a place of sanitary and hygienic medical practice. He adds: “it’s in the German nature; everything was recorded.” I query whether such records exist for Treblinka or Sobibor and he says they didn’t as these, along with Belzec, were the death camps and the Nazis were too busy putting the Jews to death to bother with paperwork! The mad mechanism of genocide was too far gone by this point. However, the transportation on the cattle carts would have been catalogued, (again to what purposes?). Auschwitz, he tells me, only keeps records and preservation material related to this camp. I wonder about the archaeological dig going on at Treblinka, more forensic than historical, and wonder what happens to all of the objects being dug up here.
Wojciech tells me that Auschwitz had many sub-camps – working camps where prisoners were put to work in mines. The Jews that were kept alive and kept very busy. Of the total number of Jewish people that were brought to Auschwitz only ten per cent were sent to the concentration camp, the rest were marched off to their death at Birkenau. The first Jewish males sent to Auschwitz arrived on the 14th June 1940; the first Jewish woman arrived on the 26th March 1942. By October 1944 202499 men and 120000 women had been incarcerated here: these were the final numbers tattooed into the prisoners arms (another example of the insanely cruel Nazi bureaucracy!).
After my visit to the archive I wander around a derelict factory across the road. I find defunct brick kilns, which seems a strangely apt epitaph to the day. I photograph the bare and blackened interior – contrasted against the brilliant white snow outside.
Day 2 – Journey from Oswiecim to Przemysl via Lancut.
Today a Hasidic Jew from Stamford Hill tells me that a Jew never gets lost – he always finds his way home! But first there is the long drive from Oswiecim to Lancut. The snow is piled up at the sides of the road and where the road borders a field it is being blown across in a thick mist. The car informs me that there may be black ice. However, the roads are relatively free of ice but heavy with traffic. When I reach Rzeszow I expect to take a straight-forward ring-road around the city and then the A4 to Lancut, but after multiple turnings, none of which mention Lancut, I am disorientated and regretting not adding the sat nav onto the car expense. I take a slip road heading back towards Krakow and try the ring-road again, finding, to my surprise, the turning to Lancut. I am navigating the country with a crude palimpsest of a map in my mind: it suggests that the synagogue is north of town, however after driving right through Lancut I see no signs nor indications of a synagogue. I head back into centrum and park outside the post office; here a passer-by gives me clear directions: “turn right then left then it’s on the right, you can’t miss it, it’s the big yellow building.” And it is very easy to spot as a small group of Hasidic Jews are dancing outside it – a strange sight to behold: Hasidic Jews dancing as if it were the good old days! I enquire about the synagogue and one of them informs me, in perfect English, that it is closed today and that I will need to contact a local key-holder. He notes that I have a London accent and asks me where I am from. He then tells me that they are a minion of visiting Jews from Hackney and that they are visiting the place where their grandparents originate from. We trade personal details: my family came from near to Bialystok and I tell him I am tracing the Jewish narrative in Poland. He tells me that all of the group would have had grandparents living in the Lancut area, some of whom had been murdered and others somehow escaped. He gives me the number to contact for the synagogue – and then, almost as an afterthought, asks me whether I’d like to join them: they are going to the nearby cemetery with the local rabbi – I can take photos! Suddenly I am in a minibus with a minion of Hasidic Jews from Hackney heading to the local Jewish cemetery. I have no idea where or how far the cemetery is and ask if they can give me a lift back into town afterwards but a rumbustious looking chap turns around and says: “A Jew can never get lost – he always returns home!”
At the cemetery there are no graves. It had been destroyed by the Nazi Germans. However, there are two small chapels, and we all bundle into one. I am told to photograph the local rabbi and he is pointed out to me: “but do it subtly,” says a sharp-looking chap, “and do not photograph me!” I weave my way around the group, who are busy writing on pieces of paper and placing them in a central trough, already full with paper. The sharp guy tells me that they are the names and addresses of lost family – to be prayed for and remembered. “Have you photographed the rabbi?” he asks again, “he is that person there, and that is his son, but don’t photograph me!” I change lenses and shoot close-ups. I forget who is who (who I am supposed to photograph and whom not). After the prayers I ask if I can photograph them outside, as a huddle, but am told: “no, just photograph us praying.” And then they are off and I am left in the empty chapel, the graveyard that has no headstones outside. I continue to shoot, camera now mounted on tripod. The Hackney Jews had come and gone like a force of nature and I had been caught up in their frenzy.
Afterwards I muse over the words of the rumbustious Jew: does coming here mean, for me, a return to a home-land? Is Poland my familial home, my mother-land or father-land, the place of ancestral roots? The London Jews quizzed me: what was my family name, what was my Hebrew name, what synagogue had I belonged to as a child, was I observant? I felt deeply connected to them yet fraudulent in my assimilated role.
In Przemysl I check into the Albatross Hotel – an ugly municipal building sited on a busy road besides industrial estates. However, it is clean and comfortable. I ask for a map and am given a map and a guide book. There is plenty of history here: a large number of First World War battlements and fortified ruins, but no mention of the Jews. Twenty thousand Jews lived in Przemysl in 1939; Przemysl is located in the heartland of former Galicia – the land of shtetls! When the town fell to the Germans in June 1941 a vigorous Judenrein Pogrom was initiated and as far as I can source there is no Jewish community here now.
Day 3 - The Old and the New Jewish Cemeteries
Before embarking on this trip I hoped to capture the iconic snow landscape (perhaps mixing Southern Poland with Siberia in my mind). Be careful what you wish for: the snow continues to fall in abundance. As I set out on the road from Przemysl, to see the replica wooden synagogue in Sanok, the road is more ice than tarmac. Twenty two kilometres out I suddenly see sense as I skid along the road like I am on a luge attempting to navigate hairpin bends. Suddenly the wooden synagogue does not seem so important. I head back to Przemysl, journey thwarted by weather.
Przemysl has two Jewish cemeteries, a new one and an old one. The new cemetery is easy to find and as I pull into the car park I pass a white hearse with the name Hades on the side. The hearse belongs to the funeral parlour across the road with the large Hades sign above it. Hades: God of the Underworld, ruler of the dead! I enter the Catholic Cemetery, which is well tended and bright with artificial lights and plastic flowers. The New Jewish Cemetery is adjacent. By comparison it is noticeably drab, as if the lights have been turned off. And it is old, very old; gravestones still intact but covered in saplings and twisted roots. There is a small well tended area as I enter but as I make my way deeper into the cemetery it becomes almost primeval. Scenes of Mistah Kurtz deep in the jungle come to mind, except that this is extreme cold not sweltering heat. Gravestones stand at odd angles and are massed together to form ominous groupings. And snow blankets it all and keeps falling – bloated flakes shrouding the uneven ground. There seems to be no discernible order to the cemetery; tombstones seem to grow out of the ground like big bones.
The Stary Cmentarz Zydowski, the old Jewish Cemetery, is much less – literally just one arch and an empty wasteland of twisted undergrowth, bushes and saplings. I explore the space but find no gravestones, no indication that a cemetery once existed here. Are bodies still buried beneath the ground? A large rookery takes to the air, raucous and haphazard, adding a murderous black motion to the white sky.
Today has been a strange day. It registered minus 6 and is predicted to go as low as minus 17. But it wasn’t the cold it was the absence of Jewish life here that struck me. Today I saw plenty of nuns but no Hasidic Jews.
Day 4 – Przemysl to Sobibor via Bilgoraj
Minus 15 tipping to minus 16. One step outside and my feet are blocks of ice. But the roads out of Przemysl are surprisingly clear of ice and no snow is falling; it is a clear blue sky. I stop at a small gas station for an expresso and the attendant tells me that the ‘bad weather’ is coming from Ukraine – as though they are sending bad vibes (or toxic waste!). The coffee tastes good.
I arrive at Bilgoraj an hour early; I have a meeting booked at 11 with Kinga. I am at the Bilgoraj Virtual Shtetl: a replica shtetl with a replica wooden synagogue, in what appears to be a scrap of wasteland between Centrum and the ring road. It is a small plot, a building site, but the synagogue looks magnificent. Kinga arrives and tells me that her father has cancer, which they only discovered on the 20th December, barely two weeks ago, and that the doctors have only given him three weeks to live. He is only fifty seven, five years older than me. It seems an apt, if very sad, way to start our meeting. She leads me to the synagogue and tells me that the surrounding wooden houses, all beautifully constructed out of pine, have upper floor apartments which are rented accommodation to help pay for the building work. Eventually the spaces below will become shops or museum display rooms which will form the sides of the market–place. It is, very much, a work in progress. Funding has dried up and they are waiting to hear from the European Fund. I ask whether Jewish organisations have helped to fund the project but she shakes her head: “they are not interested.” She adds that maybe it’s because it’s a replica synagogue, a museum, not a functioning synagogue. It will draw the tourists not the devout. “But it will be very beautiful,” she adds, “and it will be decorated in the Jewish Baroque style”. I notice that the designs for the interior look oriental and she informs me that the original decorations were influenced by Turkish design. “The synagogue,” she tells me, ”is a replica of the Great Wooden Synagogue in Wolpa. There once were 241 wooden synagogues; the Germans burnt down every single one.” We talk about the turgid history of Poland: “Stalin once said that Poland is like the tumour on the ass of Europe! In 1939,” she adds, “the Russians pushed the Germans out of the area but not for long. They warned the Jews that a holocaust was coming and offered for them to come with them to Russia. Five hundred families went to Russia and they survived; those that stayed were sent to Belzec and all died.”
Day 5 – Sobibor Death Camp
I have avoided Belzec and headed up to Sobibor – it is not my intention to dwell on the atrocity sites but they are hard to ignore and draw me in with macabre fascination. The car registers minus 20 as I pull out of the hotel forecourt. I am staying at a plush spa hotel just outside of Wlodawa, not so far from the Sobibor Death Camp. I can see it is going to be a very bright day, the sort of brightness you only see in winter when it’s snowed and the sun is low. Before making my way to the camp I stop to photograph an eery clump of stunted trees, strangely denuded of branches as if recently harvested (for Xmas?). It is an apocalyptic vision, reminiscent of Paul Nash’s war-torn landscapes. I wade through thick snow but the sun is rising too quickly and dappling the area with light that ruins the deadpan documentary style I am seeking.
The road to Sobibor is very icy. The death camp is another 10km away on side roads, sheer ice with pot holes. I recognise the Sobibor station before I see the entrance to the camp. What constitutes a museum is a monolithic block and strange alien dome and a number of information boards. It is difficult to make sense of, especially as the snow is piled so thick that walking around the memorials is impossible. But standing on the platform, besides the old Sobibor station sign, which would have been the one seen by incoming Jews, I piece together the ending game: from this very stop, this very point on the platform, the Jews would have disembarked and been marched the short distance to the camp, where they would have been disrobed, stripped, shorn and then disintegrated. It isn’t just the cold that is sending shivers through my body as I take in the magnitude of the atrocity. I am aware that the departing Germans, rousted by the Red Guard, destroyed as much ‘evidence’ of the camp as they could, erasing everything except for the archaeological, but still I feel disappointed by the absence, as though what has been preserved here is neglect rather than memory.
Day 6 – Wlodawa to Bialowieza Forest
’Forest fascination is associated with Germany’s treasury of sagas and fairy tales, where robbers hide out in the woods, bad wolves devour grandmothers and little girls, and children lose their way in the thickets and stumble into the hands of witches. Mythical glorification of trees first reached its zenith in the songs, prose and paintings of the Romantic Period. The Nazis were likewise obsessed with the concept of the forest. Hermann Goring: “We have become used to seeing the German nation as eternal. There is no better symbol for us than the forest, which has and always will be eternal.” ‘
Today I enter the Bialowieza Forest. It is a winter wonderland, a scene straight out of Narnia: cakes of snow hang heavy off of the pine trees like sugar icing. It is easy to be seduced by the sheer beauty of it all but I know it is deadly dangerous. Forests were escape routes in the highly unlikely event of escaping from camps. Though there were no forests built near here this is the best example of an extensive and ancient forest, the largest and oldest in Europe, bordering Poland and Belarus. And of course the Nazis would have stayed here, at the grand hunting lodges, dining on deer, boar and bison. There are still European bison and wolves and lynx here, but no partisans! The forest straddles the border of Poland and Belarus; escapees that made it into the forest around Sobibor or Belzec, or were escaping from the Bialystok area, did not usually fare well. Brigands roamed the woods, like the robbers of old, taking advantage of lost Jews; partisans were not always inclined to take them in; local villagers would sooner turn them in than offer them haven; and German guards and recruited local militia would hunt them down. And survival without rations was impossible, even in the summer. The only sustainable source of food for escapees hiding out was what they could raid from local villages. So, hiding deep in the woods was a logistical nightmare for the Jews. And the Nazis were very good at hunting them down.
Tomorrow I will see how deep I can go into the forest without a guide.
Day 7 – The Forest
The Bialowieza Forest is an interlinking network of paths and raised wooden walkways. The designated National Park is closed today so I explore what I can of the rest of the forest, which is extensive. However, getting around the forest proves much more difficult as even the main roads are sheets of ice; the side roads are piled with snow, making navigating them precarious in my Renault Megane. Likewise, walking off piste seems like a reckless thing to do as there is no clear indication of whether it is terra firma or bog beneath the snow. But it is stunningly beautiful – beauty laced with implicitly danger. I see a deer and then a fox and think I identify lynx prints. There is a lot of dead wood in the forest: felled trees and collapsed branches, a vast ecosystem. I read that half of the forest is dead and that this feeds the biodiversity, from fungi to arthropods – a cycle of life and death and then life again. It is too easy to think of it as a winter wonderland; in reality it is a pitiless place where predators hunt prey. It is certainly not a place to be out in the dead of winter, especially without proper boots and clothing. A fleeing prisoner would, I hazard, die of exposure long before any chasing guards got to them.
I photograph the dense foliage and intricate latticework, the frozen streams and iced swampland. I am seeking a disquieting sense of landscape: a place that evokes fear as well as awe. And as I shoot I realise that this is not a place to escape into but a place to flee from, back to the safety of home if there were a home to go to!
Day 8 – Bialowieza Hunting Lodge
I am staying in a former hunting lodge. There are stuffed trophy heads mounted on the walls – deer, badgers and, of course, bison. Also on the walls, in ornate frames, are sepia faded photos of hunters. It’s strange what we choose to remember and what to forget. The dinner menu is not for the fainthearted: bison tartare, venison in blood red wine, bison cheeks and duck breasts. It is the food of conquerors – the victor’s meal! Russian Tsars would come to this town to stay at the winter palaces. Only the Polish aristocracy and visiting Tsars were allowed to hunt big game. With its isolated position and mythic status it would also have been perfect for visiting Waffen SS like Heinrich Himmler, perhaps entertaining his pal Hermann Goring with plates of venison and veal as they talk about the ‘eternal nation.’
Day 9 – Bialowieza to Lochow via Orla and Tykocin
Orla is a tiny hamlet not far from Bialowieza, barely a dozen streets but nestled in its midst is a marvellous stone synagogue. It is, unfortunately, inaccessible but presents a grand facade. The sun is shining on its east flank but the face is in shade; it photographs very nicely. An old Polish man introduces himself to me, speaking mostly Polish but with enough English words peppered in for me to understand most of what he says: the ‘director’ can let me in but he is out right now clearing snow and won’t be until 1pm – too late unfortunately. He tells me that inside are many great frescos. He also tells me that his name is Eugene, Eugene Jolie, and that Angelina Jolie is related to him by his great great great grandfather. We shake hands and he wishes me “good day and good photos.”
Tykocin Synagogue, by contrast, is a polished public museum with easy access. The interior is completely intact. Its central Bimah has four ornate columns forming a square with a raised floor. The Ark is set into the side wall with wooden steps leading up to it. When active the Torah would have been carried from the ark to the Bimah and the prayers read from this raised podium. The man on the ticket desk gives me an audio tape which is strangely patronising – describing the Jewish community as an ancient tribe that liked to build their synagogues near running water! There is no hint that this was a very recent population or description of the brutal tragedy that robbed them of their tradition and lives. An attendant tells me that the last Jew was shot in the nearby forest but that the last service was in 1974. An adjacent corridor houses a small museum gallery, with ‘trinkets’ placed in glass cabinets, like ancient relics: the Menorah candlestick, a Tallis shawl, some prayer books – history neatly consigned to museum status, stripping it of its currency. This synagogue, I realise, is not just a jewel but a painful reminder of what has been lost.
Day 10 – Treblinka
It continues to snow – thick powdery snow. But it’s really warmed up; only minus 1 now. Treblinka is about forty minutes drive from the hotel, via a number of drab towns. The town of Treblinka itself is just a loose hamlet, no centre, no shops – however a wonderful sideways leaning hay-barn catches my eye. Treblinka Memorial site is very well laid out and sign-posted. It is not as massive a plot as Birkenau and seems to merge into the forest around it. There is no imprint of the camp left, the Germans very effectively erased what they had made the Jews build, but there is an eery memorial site composed of a monolith and 17000 jagged stones, symbolic gravestones, a vast memorial graveyard. The names engraved on 130 of the stones are names of places not individual people, cities and towns that Jews were deported from. And dominating this field of memory is a massive tree, leaning to one side as if weighed down by history. It is strange to realise that this tree, unlike much of the newly planted plantation around, has stood and withstood the time of the camp.
I wander off path, into the surrounding forest. It is a mixture of old birch and new pine plantations, fields of Xmas trees ready for harvest. As I set up my tripod the legs become tangled in wiry roots and branches and as I disentangle them I am left holding the fine tangle which now looks very much like shorn hair! I pause, overwhelmed by an emotion that feels distinct and precise, then carefully place it beneath a dense spruce, a nest of intense memory. Jews, no doubt, would have been shot indiscriminately here, in these woods, yards away from the gas chambers and the temporary barracks set up to strip them of all of their possessions, including gold teeth and hair.
I am exhausted. Researching these places from afar is very different than physically visiting – as if the sites themselves retain the trauma. I learn things in different ways; it is a way of seeing through emotion. In the forest, as the snow falls, thick and slow, like flakes of incinerated skin, I am overwhelmed by sadness – not really trauma but definitely grief. It is not really memory either as I do not have a direct link to anyone who was in this camp, but it is the realisation that here all of the terrible accounts I have read about actually took place. This is Treblinka!
Day 12 – Schindler’s List film set
Today I follow Aleksandra’s directions to Heltmana 22, the former residence of Amon Goth, camp commandant of Plaszow Concentration Camp. The camp no longer exists but a replica camp, built by Steven Spielberg’s production team for his film Schindler’s List, is still in the Liban Quarry nearby. I wonder, though, whether this is an urban myth. Amon Goth’s house is now empty and in the process of being renovated; it is a patchwork of colours. A sign clearly states ‘No Trespassers’ ~ there is no Heritage Sight sign! Lower down the street, at 11 Heltmana Street, at the corner of what is now a park but once would have led into the camp, is a much more atmospheric house with backdrop of tangled trees, which Iater learn was residence for other camp commanders, so I photograph this building too.
My entry into Plaszow Memorial Park leads me up a hill with a desolate tree and flat tombstones: what’s left of the Jewish cemetery. The view over Krakow is eerily bleak: chimney stacks in the distance feed dark grey smoke into the deadened sky. I wander through the park trying to track down the elusive film set. I am drawn to ruined buildings on a hill and see the characteristic stooped fence poles so favoured by the Germans. And then I see the quarry, like the pit of hell opening up before me. I am stood at the lip of one side peering over the vertiginous edge; at the far side I can see a rusting structure, what looks like derelict industrial machinery.
A small road leads down the hill and I find worn paths through brambles and wire bushes that leads to the replica camp. The fake turrets do not look fake, they seem genuine: suitably corroded and complicated. For a moment I doubt that this is a replica. The quarry floor is full of saplings and old posts with coils of wire. It is an eery place; the quarry walls framing trees and boulders. It is as if the fake has become the real – the re-imagined replacing the erased. Unlike the preserved synagogue in Tykocin this is off any tourist map; it is the hang-out of local youth, beguilingly authentic as leftover debris yet a fake construct in a place of real trauma. Even though this was not the actual sight, nor remains, of the Plaszow concentration Camp it was a place of forced labour where the captive Jews were put to work quarrying out stone. It is a pitiless place: the perfect trap with only one access point.
Trip 2 ~ Lubliners Reunion, Lublin – July 2017
On the 30th June 2017 I flew to Krakow and then took the train to Lublin to join the Lubliner’s Reunion, an event organised by the Grodzka Gate Teatr NN as part of the 700th Anniversary of founding of the City. The Teatr NN wanted to remember the history of the local area, the eradication of the town’s Jewish population, and sent out an invite to Jewish people from around the world with family links to the city and the Lublin area. The Theatre Company moved into the Brama Grodzka (Jew Gate) in 1990 and became intrigued by the history of this gate and the surrounding area: Grodzka Gate is directly in the centre of where the Lublin Jewish quarter once had been, the vibrant Jewish Quarter before it was ghettoised and then liquidated by the Germans. In 1998 the theatre was renamed the ’Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre.’ It is now a theatre company, an educational group and a historical archive centre holding an extensive and growing archive on the Jewish history of the area. The focus is very much upon memory, place and presence: memory of the former Jewish area and the meaning of the Gate. The Lubliner Reunion in July 2017 gathered together about 250 Jewish people seeking their own personal & family genealogy and contact with others sharing similar familial history. The Teatr NN presented & provided a platform for theatre, film, klezmer music, educational talks, tours of atrocity sites and discussion groups. Below is the journal I kept during the week I was there.
Prelude ~ meeting Professor Jonathan Webber at the Jewish Galicia Museum, Krakow
Jonathan Webber tells me that if escapees managed to cross the River San they could make their way to Lviv, Ukraine, and hope to hide. However, if caught by the Russians they’d be sent to the gulags, slightly preferable, perhaps, to the concentration camps! Those escapees that did make it to Lviv and evade detection by the Russian authority, thinking they’d now be relatively safe, were caught off-guard by the invading Germans who drove the Russians back. Rounded up Jews were then sent back, but not to their homes (homes that no longer existed) but to the death camps. Jonathan is a Professor of Social Anthropology and the co-founder of the Jewish Galicia Museum in Krakow. In 1993 he collaborated with Chris Schwarz, a photographer, to document existing traces of Jewish life in Poland before the devastation of the Second World War. The resulting work forms the permanent exhibition at the gallery: ‘Traces of Memory.’ Jonathan tells me that when Chris approached him to use his research as a reference point for his own photographic study Jonathan agreed only if it could be a collaborative project: he would guide Chris as to where to go. Jonathan had already commenced an anthropological study of the Galician area, stretching from western Ukraine to south-eastern Poland, seeking out cultural traces of communities that had been erased. He did this by visiting them one by one ~ turning up and asking the local inhabitants: “did Jews once live here?”, “did this village have a synagogue?”, “does this village have an old Jewish cemetery?” It was laborious and time consuming work but bit by bit he put together an ethnographic map of the area, village by village. Chris Schwartz had a similar idea which included setting up a photography museum in Krakow focussed upon Jewish Galicia. Chris passed away in October 2007 but the museum and permanent exhibition live on. Jonathan now sits on the board of directors.
Lubliner’s Reunion 2017 ~ Old Town
I am staying at the Ilan Hotel, formerly the Lublin Yeshiva, a Jewish Rabbinical School. It was established by Rabbi Meir Shapiro in 1930 and closed down by the Germans in 1939 as part of the general oppression of the Jewish population. The hotel opened in 2003 when the building was handed back to the Jewish community. Built into the hotel, part of the former Yeshiva, is the Synagoga. The Hassidim population was strong in Lublin before the Second World War: the city was forty per cent Jewish, forty three thousand Jews ranging from orthodox to reform. Outside the hotel is a Policja car, with two policemen inside, patiently waiting; there is always a police car. I query why at reception: “This is for you, for your protection. Police protection for visiting Israelis.” She adds: “so you can feel safe.” Strangely these words have the opposite effect on me.
The Grodzka Gate in the old town marked the boundary between the Christian and the Jewish sides of the city. Grodzka Gate translates as Jewish Gate. The gate was not a barrier, though, but a modest stone arch – no turnstiles, no border guards. Movement was free, communities separate yet integrated. The Gate is now known as the Ark of Memory. And it must be remembered that Aktion Reinhardt started in the Lublin area, that Lublin Ghetto became the holding ground for Jews being transported in from across South-Eastern Europe. However, when the numbers grew too big to be housed in the ghetto or accommodated in the concentration camp the ‘final solution’ was the establishment of death camps. Majdenek, a work camp situated on the edge of Lublin City, was intended to be much larger, but it became redundant to the vastly more efficient killing centres of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.
I meet Vladimir outside the Grodzka Gate, standing on the bridge that now connects the old town to the fort. This was once the epicentre of the Jewish district; below us is a car park where once stood Jewish homes. Vladimir tells me he is from Odessa. He is a tourist visiting the City and he is a fine painter with an eye for detail. It is clear that he is funding his way through Europe by selling his paintings, which are arranged along the wall. His art is ready to go – literally painted into their frames. He paints a pretty picture of the old town with no reference to past trauma, a sweet memento to take away from the City.
~ Various Trips to Zamosc, Majdenek & Belzec
Today we visit the synagogue at Zamosc, which is a shell of its former self, with display stands in the central prayer space. I learn that Zamosc once had a population of twenty five thousand before the war, half of whom were Jewish. I learn that on the first deportation from Zamosc and Izbica ghettos thirty thousand Jews were taken to Belzec. Numbers mount up in my head as I try to imagine the crowded scene. I learn that there were two train lines leading out from Zamosc: one to Belzec the other to Sobibor – one way or another to the death camp!
Majdenek is another sanitised camp: the remaining black barracks were, in fact, the Officers barracks. But there is also the Disinfection Barrack and the Krematorium, both of which are lit in such a way that moving through the space evokes dread. The American Rabbi leading his tour party around Majdenek, having visited the Krematorium, tells his group that there were more people shot here at one shooting than anywhere else at any time in history. Shooting Jews was not as economical as using gas, hence the switch to death camps and gas chambers. But, towards the end of the war and in preparation for camp closure and German evacuation, it was decided to use the conventional bullet to the head! When the Russians liberated the camp in the summer of 1944 they only found the ashes, enough to make a sizeable mound that now constitutes the innards of the dome memorial. The Rabbi says that the rumour is that the local people took some of the ashes to spread on their fields, which explains why the land in Poland is so fertile: fed by the Jewish fertiliser!
At Belzec we enter the monumental grounds under a penetrating sun. The whole space constitutes the monument; the camp itself was completely erased by the departing Germans. In place of the ubiquitous black barracks is a vast basalt field that rises and a central walkway that bisects it so that as you walk through you appear to be descending. At the end of the passage is the wall of remembrance. Here the kaddish (mourners prayer) is recited and the memorial candles lit. Here Robert, Grazyna and Jasia are greeting Jewish people. They do not work here nor live near here; they are not Jewish, have no connected family stories – they are visitors from Hrubieszow and they are here because they want to greet Jewish visitors, in particular to meet the Jewish survivors. They go up to the two survivors, give them hugs and speak to them in Polish, then present them with freshly baked fruit cholla. Robert tells me that he holds kaddish in his house and loves the Jewish tradition; he suspects he may be Jewish but cannot say for sure. He says that he has come here today to ‘apologise’ to the Jewish people for what happened. He speaks with Christian evangelical zeal, clearly in love. On the coach back to Lublin we break bread, sharing the fruit cholla.
~ The walk to the Umschlagplatz
Today we walk the final steps to the Umschlagplatz. This was the route that the Jews marched out of the ghetto, the last stage before their deportation to the death camps. This walk roughly follows the ghetto boundary before arriving at the site of the former local slaughterhouse. The Umschlagplatz was the holding station before deportation; from here the Jews were loaded onto trains. This walk is a funeral wake. It is punctuated by stops – stops and short speeches, explanations along the way: here is remembered where a Jewish woman was shot in the head and fell to the ground moaning, fatally wounded but not yet dead; here a woman shot dead and left for two days until the men in black vans came to take the dead away. We have a speech from Wielawa Majczac, eighty six years old, survivor of the ghetto and camp, who remembers everything: she remembers seeing the dead bodies and the dying people by the road side, those that couldn’t keep up so were shot and left. She says she wishes she could join us on the remembrance walk but she can’t walk that far any more; I notice how swollen her feet are – the feet of a living old lady.
~ Shared stories
Zig Mandelbaum, from New York, tells me that both his parents survived the camps; he is second generation. He is travelling in a family group of thirty five, with second, third, fourth and even two first generation surviving aunts. The gathered family are coming from Toronto, Israel and France. Zig’s father passed away twenty years ago but he still has stories to tell: his father, he tells me, jumped trains many times to escape deportation. He’d first been held at Bergen-Belsen, before escaping, so he knew about camps from early on. He urged others to jump from transportation trains, warned them of what was to come, where they were headed to, but most would not believe. He threw a boy, separated from his family and travelling alone, from the train to save his life. Zig tells me that he was finally interred at Auschwitz where he came face to face with Josef Mengele. Mengele would gesture left or right to decide a Jews fate: links you died (sent to the gas chamber), rechts you lived (sent to the work camp). His father received a dismissive links and was told to undress, but he struggled to untie his trousers: he’d tied multiple strings around his waist from multiple trousers he’d acquired as he’d moved through Germany and Poland ~ he was literally knotted up. Mengele lost patience and waved him to the right: fate decided as casually as choosing meat at the butcher’s!
Ruth tells me that her mother had not wanted to come back to Poland, was not going to talk Polish and definitely was not going to talk about her experiences whilst she lived here – now she is being interviewed & filmed at Belzec Museum about her childhood experiences of surviving the war and she is speaking in fluent Polish! She remembers that a non-Jewish Polish man had saved her life: he’d told the Germans that she was his daughter; brought out documents to prove it. Judy Josephs is here with her family, including her niece Rose Lipszyc; both she and her niece, who is only a year younger than her, survived the war. They were both here in Lublin and lived on Lubartowska Street. Laubartowska Street still exists but the rest of the Jewish Quarter is erased. They both remember dancing in the streets. I photograph them outside the Hotel Ilan, against a grey wall, after an exhausting day visiting mass shooting & burial sites and ending up a Belzec. They embrace each other like they are clinging on to life ~ their expressions strong yet haunted.
~ Conversations Overheard
“My father survived the Germans, the Polish and the Russians. My father was twenty six when he came to Israel. He did not talk about the past. I only begun to research (my genealogy) last year. But there is very little on line. I hear they destroyed everything.”
“My great grandparents were in Poland before the First World War. My mother is ninety four and every week she tells me something new. My parents families were distantly related. I can trace my family back seven generations. I can go back by extrapolation to 1810. My family came to England at the turn of the century, as economic migrants, avoiding conscription, and settled in Manchester.”
“I came to Lublin in 2000 and there was just a big hole where the Jewish Quarter had been. Now it’s a car park. The Nazis destroyed the whole area, erasing the Jewish Quarter.”
Trip 3 ~ Forensic Archeaology: Oswiecim & Chrzanow Cemeteries – August 2017
Day 1 – Oswiecim Cemetery
The Jewish Cemtery in Oswiecim was established mid Eighteenth Century. Like most Jewish Cemeteries in Poland it was destroyed by the Germans during the Second World War. The cemetery is about 5 kms from Auschwitz Museum (former Concentration Camp). The Germans dug a pit dead centre of the cemetery, creating a small reservoir, and laid water pipes, displacing tombstones and bodies alike. They also built two bunker, one that burrows below the ground and can be accessed by concrete stairs or via an escape hole. Remains of a work camp have been found behind the cemtery where there is now a hospital and questions arise as to what was the nature and scale of this work camp. The Germans cleared the site of its Matzevahs (Jewish Memorial Stones) but in the eighties restoration work was begun by Asher Sharf and many of the Matzevah that had been taken away were recovered, still in relatively good condition. The Matzevah in the cemetery now have all been stood upright and placed in rows; the cemetery become a lapidarium of recovered stones. Placement numbers are scribed onto the back of some, corresponding to a placement map, however there are no corresponding bodies below.
Broken Matzevah fragments are arranged along the cemetery walls, waiting to be measured and photographed: catalogued and archived. As well as being broken they also contain bullet dents from target practice! Larger fragments are also being scanned at the Auschwitz Jewish Centre. Steven tells me that the cemetery also contains two Ohels: memorial structures for eminent & learned Jews. The two Ohels were built after the war: Szymon Kluger was the last Jewish person buried here in the Year 2000. Steven D Reece is a baptist minister and founder of the Matzevah Foundation. The foundations mission statement is to remember, restore and reconcile the memory of the murdered Jews in Poland. Part of this is the back breaking work of clearing the weeds and cleaning up the Matzevah. This work is called ‘tikkun olam’: healing the earth. There were once 1200 Jewish Cemeteries in use in Poland, each one a link to an active community, most of which were desecrated and destroyed.
Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls is the Associate Professor in Forensic Archaeology and Genocide Investigation at Staffordshire University specialising in Holocaust studies. She leads a research team comprised of students on various forensic science courses. The archeological field-trip comprises one module of their course. However, for Caroline, it is a much larger research project looking into archaeological techniques to the investigation Holocaust and historic crimes. For this research trip the team are covering five cemeteries: three in the Lublin area and two in the Oswiecim area. They are also linking up with Matzevah Foundation and Studnia Pamieci, a conservation group based in Lublin. First the team need to clear the ground of nettles and weeds. They then plot the area out with tape measure and mark out a grid, making a topographic map for the area they intend to scan. They are using a Geophysical Survey machine, scanning the ground to the depths of 4 meters to reveal a cross section, much like scanning the ocean depths. They are looking for gaps and holes, evidence of burial and perhaps bones. This is non-invasive archeology ~ tradition has it that the soul remains where the body dies and is not to be disturbed, even in a mass grave! Jews that escaped deportation but were subsequently rounded up would have been brought to the cemeteries and shot. Jewish cemeteries, like forests on the edge of town, were often places of mass shootings. Memories are not being dug up here but they are being revealed with forensic detail.
Day 2 – Chrzanow Cemetery
Today we enter the Chrzanow Cemetery. Anna unlocks the cemetery gate and opens up two Ohels for us to enter. The first contains the tomb of Rabbi Saloman Bochner, who died in 1828. In the second Ohel are six large Mitzevahs ~ six representatives of the Helbersztam Rabbinical dynasty. Anna tells me that in the town of Chrzanow 8000 Jewish people lived here before the war, fifty per cent of the population. Most were sent to Auschwitz, the rest killed here in the cemetery. There is a monument and chain ;link sectioning off a small part of the cemetery, a collective tomb denoting a mass grave. Caroline and team are here to ascertain the extent of the mass grave. But first the area must be plotted and all sizeable branched removed from the area so that the ground can be scanned. The tram are looking for both depressions and mounds: a depression could signify where bodies have been unceremoniously buried ~ the decaying body shrinks and the earth collapses; a mound may denote where earth has been removed, to bury a body ~ the returned earth is never as compressed. Earth scanning is labour intensive 7 laborious work: dragging a scanner, a red box about a foot and half square, like an old cumbersome hoover, across uneven ground. To scan the area will take all afternoon.
Although this cemetery appears better preserved than Oswiecim Jewish Cemetery there is plenty of evidence of desecration: headstone are split and crudely joined back together, some are just headstone stubs, and there are plenty of bullet dents. Steven tells me that the cemeteries around Lublin were even more damaged: literally erased by the removal of Matzevahs. This was the area for Operation Reinhard, the Final Solution; in these areas there are not even the Matzevahs to be recovered and returned.
Trip 4 ~ Travels within the Inverted Triangle formed by the Three Death Camps – Dec 2017
The Parable of the Turkey Prince: ‘There was once a prince who lived with his father and mother, the king and queen, in a splendid fashion. He received the finest education and upbringing. To his parents’ chagrin, one day the prince went through an identity crisis and came to the conclusion that he was really a turkey and not a human being. Initially, the king and queen thought he was kidding. However, after he stopped joining them at the royal table and instead, moved under the table and sat there naked and pecking at crumbs, they knew that serious trouble was afoot. Needless to say, the prince’s strange behaviour caused indescribable angst for his loving parents, and intense embarrassment for the royal family at large. The king was ready to spare no expense for the person who could cure his son. The finest doctors and psychiatrists of the land came and tried to cure the prince, all to no avail. The king was at a loss until a gentle-looking wise man came to the palace. “I hereby offer to cure the prince free of charge,” declared the man. “My only condition is that no one interferes with anything I do.” Intrigued and desperate, the king and queen readily agreed. The following day, the prince had company under the table. It was the wise man. “What are you doing here?” asked the turkey prince. ”Why are you here?” countered the man. “I am a turkey,” responded the prince emphatically. ”Well, I am also a turkey,” the man replied. With that, he began to gobble like a turkey and peck at the crumbs on the floor. The prince was convinced. A few days passed in this fashion. One morning, the wise man signalled to the king to bring him a shirt. He said to the prince, “I don’t see any reason a turkey can’t wear a shirt.” The prince thought about it and agreed, and soon the two of them were wearing shirts. Soon the wise man asked to be brought a pair of pants. He said to the prince, “Is it forbidden for turkeys to wear pants? Certainly not!” The prince thought it over and agreed, and soon the two of them were wearing pants. So the process continued. Shortly thereafter, the wise man convinced the turkey prince that it was not forbidden for turkeys to eat human food, which was surely tastier. Then came sitting at the table and enjoying human conversation. Within a short time, the turkey prince, although still maintaining that he was a turkey, began conducting himself exactly like a regular person.’
In December 2017 I travelled within the inverted triangle formed by the three death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec ~ the epicentre of Operation Reinhardt: The Final Solution. I visited some of the towns that once held sizeable Jewish populations, visiting what remained of the Jewish Cemeteries, the Synagogues, a few still in use for religious prayer but most either derelict or transformed into exhibition spaces or libraries. I generally followed the train lines, the transportation routes that linked the towns and cities, not just within Poland but further afield, to the three death camps ~ the inverted ending to a long history.
Day 1: Meetings & Conversations
Krztstof tells me that his principal job is Curator of Exhibitions at Majdanek Memorial Museum; however he is also part time tourist guide and historian with special interest in the Jewish history of the Lublin region. He has been part of a team working on the Districts of Extermination exhibition, collecting together archival images of Lublin before and during the ghetto period. He shows me a black and white photograph of four men ~ poor Jewish men, he tells me, who would carry goods for low cost. “But what is interesting is this here,” ands he points to a smudge on the wall besides the men: “this is the public poster announcing the ghetto.” This photo was taken before the ghetto was set up and captures that moment when the Jewish people of Lublin would have realised that their world had just shrunk: henceforth the Jews would be confined to this demarked area of the city. Lublin actually had two ghettos; a second one was created further out of town, near to the Majdanek Concentration Camp, after the first one had been liquidated, the Jews marched to the Umschlagplatz, set up for the remaining few thousand Jews that were still useful, between the months of April to October 1943: six months extended life!
Krzystof shows me a book of drawings made during the German Occupation, Drawings on the Scraps of Life: graphic sketches of dead bodies lying by the train tracks, a decapitated forearm, prisoners behind barbed wire. The unknown artist has a name, Jozef Richter, but little else is known about him. However, Krzystof explains why he believes the unknown artist worked on the railway lines, following the transportation routes; these were where the transit ghettos were located and the artist would have had ample scenes to record: Jews shot and left by the side of the rails; a body caught under the wheels of a train, leaving scattered body parts. Krzystof tells me that the artist drew on scraps of paper, the corners of newspapers. He has managed to source a copy of an original newspaper used and placed a drawing perfectly over the original, accurately ascertaining the date of the drawing. This is the first time that the drawings of the artist have been gathered together; the pictures were bequeathed by Miriam Nowicz who had been searching for source material documenting the Holocaust.
Krzystof explains that for many reasons Lublin is the place that needs to be remembered most: it was here that Operation Reinhardt was orchestrated ~ the orders received from German High Command but the the logistics planned from German Headquarters in the city. Lublin, geographically, lies at the epicentre of the three death camps and Jews were transported in not just from the Warsaw and Bialystok regions but also from neighbouring countries such as Ukraine, Czechoslovak, Hungary and Romania. It was a massive operation.
I meet Agata in a cold office at the end of a labyrinthine building reminiscent of an Italian Palace. She apologises for the cold and shows me the two small electric heaters she relies upon to keep warm; it is snowing outside and this room has a very high ceiling. Agata runs Rootka Tours, along with three other people. They provide specialised tours of Jewish Poland and Ukraine, the area that was formerly known as Galicia, the so-called land of the Shtetls. Agata has a special interest in Ukraine; she spent a year there studying Jewish History. Now she incorporates this into the Rootka Tours. Agata is putting together a tour itinerary for next August. She tells me that travelling through Ukraine taking photographs, as I have been doing in Poland, would require a translator and a driver. Not many people speak English. Agata speaks both English and Ukrainian, as well as Polish, and would be a perfect guide, but she is very busy.
We pore over a map of Poland to figure out how I can best use my time in Poland ~ I have just under a week to visit as many former Jewish towns and villages as I can. She points at places and explains that this town has a synagogue, this one a Jewish cemetery; you must go here to see the wooden houses that Jews once lived in; do not bother going here. She hands me another map with all all the former shtetls, part of the Shtetl Routes Project. Agata works closely with Grodzka Gate, who have been involved in mapping out the former Jewish areas, creating both an on-line interactive map and a comprehensive guidebook ~ infact they seem to all know each other like a large extended family: Agata can provide the tour guides but Grodzka, along with the Polin Museum in Warsaw, provide the detailed knowledge. Agata herself though is a font of knowledge, passionate about the history, and I am drinking it all up like a hungry child.
Afterwards we go for soup and Agata tells me that next August is a massive Jewish gathering in Warsaw ~ another genealogy event. She plans to schedule her Ukraine Tour for after this, a group of up to twenty, for those who want to extend and enrich their visit with a tour further afield. This is the age of Jewish tourism and she is off to Israel shortly to drum up more business. There is busy trade in visiting Jews seeking their threads of memory. Genealogy has never been so important it seem, as second generation slips into third and fourth generation. There is a constant narrative that runs throughout this project and that lies behind all of the conversations I have: it is the narrative of how the past shapes the present and how this is both remembered and forgotten.
Szymon tells me that he likes the fact that there is no sentimentality in my photos. Szymon is an artist and he is working on a project titled ‘Forgetting the Holocaust in order to Remember.’ He recounts the story of a Rabbi who was asked to help a boy who spent all his time under the table making the noise of a turkey. Nobody knew what to do about it; the boy refused to come out and eat his meals at the table. It was embarrassing but the boy appeared oblivious. So the rabbi went under the table too and started to make turkey noise. Soon they were both talking turkey together under the table. This went on for some time but eventually the boy came out with the Rabbi and begun to eat normally again at the table. Szymon tells me that his artwork will be under the table; people will need to enter into his space to see the art, to hear his words, hear his sounds, talk turkey! Szymon is not Jewish and isn’t interested in the cliches of Holocaust memory but he is very interested in Hasidic history and in reimagining the past in order to remember it. His studio is located on Lubertowska Street, as close to being the former Lublin Jewish Ghetto as is possible (the rest of the ghetto, the rest of the former Jewish district of Lublin, was completely erased by the Germans). Here he collects objects which are memories which become concepts and coalesce into intellectual ideas. As an artist he works like a learned Chassid working within the tradition of the Tzadik.
Day 2 ~ Revisiting Sobibor via Chelm and Leczna
At Sobibor they are building a new visitors centre. The memorial site is closed however I circumnavigate the workers and approach through the surrounding forest. The first thing that catches my eye is a small wooden shack with door hanging off it’s hinges, reminiscent of a sentry hut but in fact the camp guards boom box. I’m entering the death camp stopping to photograph an outside toilet!
The memorial site is comprised of a huge mound of white stones; signs stipulate no entry. I walk into the surrounding forest, both mature woods and young coppice. New wood has been planted since the camp was dismantled and remains erased. There is the eery silence: no visitors, no tour guides. But then I am aware of the construction noises, of blocks being built to house memories, to frame the narrative. Despite a thick morning fog that curdled across the countryside the sun has now burnt the moisture away. Taking photographs in this intense low light renders the scene as optimistic.
I head to Chelm where I am aware that there is a synagogue and a Jewish cemetery. However, the synagogue is now McKenzee’s Saloon, which appears to be a bar. I look for a way in but the bar is shut. I head down hill to the cemetery. On entering the Chelm Jewish Cemetery I am struck by the falsity of the scene: there are fake Matzevahs, uniform and mass produced, and stuck to each one os a fragment of the original Matzevah with it’s characteristic cuneiform Hebrew script: totem headstones in place of removed ones. A bonfire casts a ghostly pale across the scene.
The days are short; it’s dark by 3.30pm. I make a dash for Leczna to see the synagogue, which I’ve heard is impressive. The light is fading as I skirt around the small town. There is no visible trace of the Jewish Cemetery; I end up at the back of an industrial estate opposite houses with dogs barking at my foreign status. The synagogue, however, is intact though clearly in disuse. It is, indeed, an impressive edifice, looming up out of the gloom. I photograph it from all angles as the light rapidly fades until I am virtually shooting it in the dark, clawing it back from night’s obscurity.
Day 3 ~ visiting Kock to see the wooden houses and Kazimierz Dolny to see the memorial wall
Kock, pronounced Koshk, is famous for it’s wooden houses. It’s most notable Jewish inhabitant was Menachem Mendel Morganstern, the famous Tzadik of Kock. I photograph his former residence, with its distinctive polygon turret and capture a scowling old man who clearly lives here now, old enough, perhaps, to remember when Jews lived here. But without a translator I can only surmise, none the wiser. I wander around the small town, stopping at the small wooden dwellings, formerly the homes of Jewish families. Some are inhabited but many are boarded up and in a state of dereliction. They are only basic hovels, almost fairytale in their construction, maybe two rooms, possibly a kitchen, outside toilet ~ poor Jewish homes. But, given that all the wooden synagogues in Poland were burnt down, they take on powerful significance.
Kock is a small town easily traversed. The cemetery, though, is is situated out of town, sandwiched between fields and woods. It begins to snow when I reach it, always a perfect scene setter, and it is eerily quiet. I have been told that the key-holder lives in a nearby house but the fence is low enough to hop over. On entry a blue roofed memorial chapel greets me, like something, again, out of a fairytale. It is a beguilingly beautiful scene, reminiscent of pageantry. To one side is a tree with Matzevah placed around it. The Matzevah, I am later told, were used during the Second World War to sharpen knives (butcher’s knives?). The headstones were returned after the war by the local people, however they did not know where to place them so stacked them around the tree, where they have remained. Further into the cemetery is a woodstack, thin branches stacked as if in preparation for a pyre.
‘… true kavanah required the abandonment of bodily sensations, for the body should be treated as a mere ‘bundle of straw’ dragged behind the praying soul.’ ~ Simon Schama, Belonging (pg 461)
Teresa, working with Studnia Parmieci, an NGO based in Lublin, Poland that deals with Holocaust education memory and Jewish heritage in the Lublin region, tells me that they are due to bring out a booklet with guidelines on how people can best preserve their local Jewish cemeteries.
In Kazimierz Dolny the cemetery is located outside of the small town on a steep wooded bank overlooking a busy road. Here the atrocity is marked by an impressive memorial wall with fragments of Matzevah cemented into it. The wall has a symbolic crack in it representing the rending in the fabric time, or as if a lightning bolt of grief has rent it apart. This, of course, is Jewish tradition: the expression of grief is shown by the rending of garments by the mourner prior to the funeral service. Behind the wall, though, the scene grows even darker ~ the few remaining headstones are scattered amidst tall trees and the steep slope as if randomly discarded. There’s not much to preserve here.
Day 4 ~ Jozefow & Szczebrzeszn
As I approach Jozefow I receive a message from Agata telling me to check out the monument commemorating a mass burial site just outside of town. It’s easy to miss: a squat stone perched on the embankment. Agata tells me that behind the monument is a picturesque pine forest, where the mass grave resides. Apart from the stone there is nothing else to indicate that this is indeed a place of murder; Agata is right, it is a very picturesque scene. Jozefow itself is a small town built around its rynok, central square. All the small towns I visit are built roughly to this plan. From the square I orientate myself: the Synagogue is situated south. I round a corner and there it is, distinct yet modest, like most synagogues, no ostentatious show like their neighbouring Catholic churches. The Synagogue is in good condition and I enter expecting to see a bimah and Torah Ark, however it has been transformed into a very neat library. Yet the distinctive shape of the synagogue is still there, masked by floors and mezzanines: there is the shape of the former Ark and the distinct shape of the windows and behind the librarians desk is a small menorah. Karawn, the librarian, shows me a large book of local history, more of an album, with black&white and sepia photos tacked in. She then gifts me a smaller book about the history of Jewish Jozefow: a collection of ubiquitous black&white photos of pre-war life. I have seen similar photos in synagogues turned into exhibition spaces: the type of remembering that is in fact a forgetting. At Kazimierz-Dolny Synagogue the interior was was just so: enlarged photographs hastily mounted onto card and hung on exhibition stands – the token gesture reiterated by typical Jewish music!
The Jewish cemetery is more difficult to locate; I know that is south of the town, located near the quarry, but when I reach the quarry I forget the cemetery, absorbed by the scene, responding to the myriad associations to hard labour and brute force. There is something dramatic about the earth work: the boulders, the sliced rock, the crumbling earth, the massive scars in the earth. Eventually I find the cemetery; it is a rambling site, partially restored with Matzevah forming a jagged line up a wooded slope, out of sight of the town though the town is clearly in view from the cemetery – as if memory is obscured once you leave the grounds but wells up once you enter.
At Szczebrzeszn I find the Synagogue just behind the main square, an impressive pink building, like a massive wedding cake! I walk around it, trying to find a way in; I can see people inside sitting in offices. The last door I try is unlocked and I enter a ticket office, which is empty. I wait but nobody comes, so I try more doors and stumble into the former synagogue hall, now a display space with with a stage occupying side, the end that would have had theArk and housed the Sefer Torah. But there are only impressions now, the wall neatly plastered and painted, the past whitewashed over. Standing on the raised stage it is easy now to see the former synagogue: the tall double doorway and high arched windows. I feel like a thief, trespassing, but remind myself that breaking and entering had been done by others multiple times, with cruel intent.
The Jewish cemetery is up the steep hill and on entry I am confronted by an ancient gnarled oak set within a metal fenced rectangle, with a few uprooted Matzevah leaned up the metal bars. It is a curious scene, a monument to memory and absurdity. Further in are rooted Matzevah at contrary angles, the cemetery overgrown and untended.
Day 5 ~ Krasnik and return to Lublin
Krasnik is a monochrome town; the weather doesn’t help, overcast and snow turned to slush. The Synagogue is just off the Rynek. Yesterday I contacted Mariusz, the keyholder, a teacher at a local school. However, he was unable to meet me and the second keyholder is currently in Warsaw. So I stand outside the Synagogue feeling frustrated as I can see it is an impressive building, recently renovated. I walk further down the hill to where elderly people have gathered around a makeshift vegetable and meat market. I photograph an old man who has brought a dozen plus eggs, who looks old enough to remember when the Synagogue was bring used by Jews. There are clearly no Jews here now, though this town had a sizeable Jewish population. Further down the lane, heading out of town, are houses that would have comprised the Jewish district; I catch an old lady as she comes out to put rubbish into the bin. She scowls at me as way of acknowledgement.
The Jewish cemetery is nowhere to be seen: at the juncture on the map is a dilapidated wall but no sign of the graveyard.
I walk back to Wolpa Street, where Matzevah were once used to pave the road. Ironically the road is being repaired and concrete paving blocks are stacked, ready for use. Again, no Matzevah!
In the afternoon I visit Emil at Brama Grodzka. Emil has been part of the small team putting together the Shtetl Routes: an on-line interactive map with the locations of former shtetls, synagogues and Jewish cemeteries ~ a guide book to the past. We talk about his work and he tells me that they now have a Ukrainian as well as Polish version of the guide-book and promises me that the English version is on the way. In several weeks they go to Ukraine for the book launch. I realise that the border between South east Poland and north west Ukraine is very porous, that the land here holds the memory of a culture that once stretched across what is now geographically defined as Poland and Ukraine but formerly was Galicia and Volhynia, and beyond this the Pale of Settlement. The conversation between Lublin and L’viv seems to be as active as ever. I tell Emil of my own plans to visit Ukraine, a necessary extension of my project, and he agrees that it is essential: that there are even more places to visit there, the palimpsest of the recent past even richer. I photograph him in his office, amidst his clutter of reference books and publications, then he takes me for soup. He tells me that he comes from a small town near to Chelm and that his mother was a librarian; the library was, like in Jozefow, built into the former synagogue. His mother had an interest in the Jewish history and he also picked up this fascination. We talk about Polish and Jewish identity, and of Polish-Jewish identity; we agree that his interest in mapping out the former Shtetls is an integral part of his Polish identity.
Tonight I sit in Mandragora Jewish Restaurant. The Mandragora styles itself as an authentic Jewish restaurant serving Kosher menu: it states on its website: ‘an amazing trip inside the Jewish culture and tradition combined with pre-war Lublin.’ It even offers Shabbat nights with live Klezmer music. However, it is strikingly inauthentic, in the way that all themed restaurants are: a show-piece to the cliche of memory. Poland appears to have this dual response to its Jewish past ~ it has been said to me on several occasions by Polish people I have met: ‘maybe I am Jewish?’ There is an entwined historical fact to this uncanny feeling: Jewish children were ‘hidden’ with non-Jewish neighbours during the war to save their lives, and subsequently raised within Catholic families, losing their Jewish identities. Three generations later these secret identities are being unmasked. And this need to reveal the hidden identities also seems to be yet another response to the ongoing Jewish narrative, within Poland and Ukraine, to take stock of their entwined losses, trauma, culpability and national identities.
Pawel agrees to meet me at 8pm. Pawel is the custodian of the Old Synagogue at 10 Lubertowska Street. He arrives on time and ushers me into a dark courtyard, typical of this area of Lublin, where he grapples with two huge padlocks and a mortis lock before we enter into a cluttered hall, as if entering an antiquarian shop. Framed black & white photos of Lublin Jewish life line the walls as we ascend the creaky wooden stairs. Pawel unlocks another door, all the time talking to me in Polish and broken English. We enter a room with walls covered with more photographs, a shrine to the past, and Pawel proceeds to tell me about each and every one: photos of his mum as a young woman, the family having a picnic, gatherings of Jewish people in synagogues, images of the Jewish ghetto, a memorial being erected in Lublin. It is an archive and I ask him whether these are all his personal images; some are his he tells me, but other people give to him, as the custodian of memory. He tells me the story of the passenger ship that sailed to America with a thousand Jews and five German non-Jews, seeking to leave Germany before the outbreak of war, but, he tells me, America took one look at the boat full of poor people and kicked them back; they tried Cuba, but were again sent packing, so were forced to return to Germany. The five German non-Jews returned to their normal lives but the thousand Jews were sent to the concentration camp, where they all died. “So you see,” he tells me, “this was problem before the War, not just in Germany.” I ask him whether there are still Jewish people in Lublin, still a congregation; he shrugs his shoulders and says maybe twenty, twenty five, but they don’t meet regularly: “is awkward.” He adds that there are lots of young Polish people now who have rediscovered their Judaism, but he seems skeptical of this.
He opens another door that leads to a small anteroom with an Aga set into the wall, adobe style; it no longer works, he tells me: there is no flue. And then we enter the Synagogue, a simple room with bare beams set with rows of mismatched chairs but crammed with objects: a shofar made from a goat’s horn, a more ornate one made from antelope, a wooden Magen-Dawid hanging in the window by the Shabbat candles, a shabby wardrobe draped with an embroidered red velvet curtain serving as the ark for the Sefer Torah, a cabinet full of religious trinkets, and more photos lining the walls. He takes out the SeferTorah and unfurls the ancient parchment, paper sepia like very thin leather, which he estimates is between 100 and 300 years old. He shows mr a goose quill used to hand scribe the Hebrew script. He opens a wooden chest full of old prayer books. These, he explains, are Genizah: damaged or heretical texts. This, he tells me, is treasure, worth more to him than diamonds. It is a trove of items collected, gathered, found and saved over the years by Pawel: a battered iron plate with an intricate scene of two Jewish resistant fighters in the Ghetto looking down on the street from the vantage point of high window, armed with rifles and a hand grande, whilst below below bodies are in turmoil; this he picked up from the dirt in Warsaw when they were clearing the ghetto area. He picks up the Antelope shofar and gives me a demonstration blast.
He tells me he loves film and asks whether I have seen Defamation, an Israeli film about the Holocaust industry. The film director, he explains, has a lot of Chutspah; he films the tourists and the tour guides who make their money from the Holocaust, the phenomena of death turned into tourism. And I realise, as he talks to me, that I am in Pawel’s very special space: a place of authentic memory of the Jewish past, fractured and cobbled back together but with no fake narrative, no sentimentality. Pawel is no meshuggenah, he is intensely intelligent in the way that custodians of the past often are.
Trip 5 ~ Ukraine, L’viv Region – August 2018
In August 2018 I join Rootka Tour group, a travel agency based in Lublin, Poland, specializing in tailor-made tours related to Jewish heritage sites in Poland and Ukraine. This tour is focussed upon north-west Ukraine and led by Agata Radkowska-Parka.
Day 1 ~ Busk to Brody
In Busk the synagogue has been renovated and transformed into an Evangelical Prayer House. A small, modest cross sits incongruously in front of the characteristic arched windows of the former synagogue. Behind the main hall is a more run down section of the building, the former Beit Midrash, now residential. It holds the clues to its past: on the lower half of the entranceway is a mogen-david carved into the wooden door and higher up marks of nails where the mezzuzah would have been placed.
The Jewish cemetery occupies a hill just outside of town. When we arrive local people are moving their herd of cows through the cemetery; a teenage boy and young girl sit on stone blocks watching the herd. Headstones are scattered around them, but in good condition, still in original positions, the cemetery not desecrated. Professor Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, accompanying the tour, reads the inscription on a notably large and thickset Matzevah and informs me that it dates back to 1620. The cemetery and has no surrounding fence, no gate, it is open land to walk through, to graze on, and stretches across the hill. A picturesque backdrop of a golden domed church, so characteristic of this area of Ukraine, completes the idyllic pastoral scene.
In Brody we visit the Old synagogue, still extant but literally a former shell of itself. It stands next to a very active children’s playground. There is no entrance, the building is sealed off to the public, but you can see parts of the interior between crumbling walls, peaking out like bones from an eviscerated carcass and growing vegetation. the interior still retains characteristic architectural features: the tall domed windows and curlicues above the interior columns.
We move through town, along a main street, and Yohanan informs me that this town straddled the border between the Galicia, aspart of the Austrian Hapsburg Empire, and the Russian Empire. He further elucidates that the Jewish community within Galicia region enjoyed far more autonomy and integration into society than Jewish people settled further west in Russia; the Jewish community here was far more assimilated.
The tour part stops in front of the Polizia Station; a curious policeman stares out at us. Our tour guide tells us that this used to be the bank. A Ukrainian man approaches, eager to tell us what he knows. His name is Vova and he is a renovator of the former bank and the building next door. He is wearing a cycle top that is too small and first appearances are that he is a little worse for wear. The main tour party move on but a few of us, curiosity caught, linger. Vova urgently informs us that he is renovating these buildings by himself, completely self-funded. He pulls down a shutter on a window and points to the lock, then explains that that this used to be a Jewish sweet shop and that the Jews introduced a locking system to protect their property. He further informs us that the main street we have just walked down, was once called Gold Street because of all the different Jewish trades on the street. He thinks he is of Jewish origin. He has been involved in maintaining the Jewish relics; as well as renovating he has cut back the weed and saplings growing on the synagogue, helped to take back the Jewish headstones, which had been piled up in the town square, to the Jewish cemetery. He is extremely keen to tell us his story, having quickly identified us as the visiting Jews and himself as the custodian of local Jewish memory.
We move further through Brody to the gymnasium: the former Jewish school. Yohanan informs me that this was a very important Jewish school, founded in 1875. He further elucidates that the Jewish community within the Habsburgs Galicia region enjoyed far more autonomy and integration into society than Jewish people settled further west in Russia and that the city school was an intrinsic part of this now assimilated Jewish culture. The Austrian empire, Yohanan explains, preferred to keep minorities, with their own traditions & religions, active rather than suppress them as the Russian empire did, and Galicia was therefore a rich multicultural region with an active Jewish community. The gymnasium is now a Ukrainian high school and the doors are open. School is out so the classrooms are empty of people, in a state of suspended animation: chairs upended on tables, plants arranged on tables like still lives, posters curled in corners, student certificates on the walls. Each room has its own topic, its own flavour: the science room with its periodic table, the green room with Soviet style portraits on the wall …. some rooms are being redecorated and there is the astringent smell of paint pervading the building. The design is striking: arched stairwell, round portals, bright rooms. And the school spreads across three floors. It is easy to imagine this in its heyday, as an active place for Jewish learning, the busy shputterings of, maybe, Yiddishkeit mixed in with Polish or Russian.
The last port of call is the Jewish cemetery on the edge of Brody, renowned for its size and good state of preservation. The headstones are stood like regiments of soldiers with defensive shields, stacked side by side. They are incongruously tall, as if a graveyard for giants. Some of the rows are so tightly packed they form tall stone corridors, as if entering a maze of menhirs. At the entrance is the Ohel with the tombstome of a learned rabbis (or several learned rabbis) but further in to the cemetery the Matzevah become tightly ranked amidst the weeds and nettles. The cemetery is enclosed by a fence and seems well maintained in areas. There is the backdrop of a coniferous forest, which given the context, always seems a foreboding presence.
We drive across the flatland, endless fields of sugarbeet and carpets of sunflowers; gardens have apple trees laden with fruit and the fresian cows look healthy and heavy with milk, the octagonal churches gold domed and immaculate. it is rich, fertile land, the land of milk and honey, once erroneously known as the bread basket of Russia (Stalin drooled over it, collectivised it, set ridiculous quotas and starved millions of Ukraines). However the roads are pot holed, the homes ramshackle and mostly one storied and the people evidently poor.
We are headed to Sataniv and our previous tour guide has been replaced by Viktor, a translator.
Just outside Sataniv we rendezvous with Dmitro, a local Historian. Dmitro speaks no English so Viktor is translating. He is keen to show us a roof tile which he tells us was made in 1920s, manufactured at a local Jewish factory to roof Jewish homes ~ there is the distinctive mogen-David stamped into it. He then takes us to a monument that sits upon a mass grave dating back to a massacre in 1648-1657. It is a Christian monument but the victims were a cross section of Jews and Catholics, massacred by invading Cossacks. He wears a Tallis like a scarf and t-shirt with army insignia on it; when asked he tells us he helps with Ukrainian army volunteers. He accompanies us to the Jewish cemetery, which sits on a hill overlooking the town; again the ubiquitous gold domed Church in the background, and, on such a sunny day, a bucolic sky. The cemetery is well maintained with several Ohels made from basic wood frames and corrugated iron rooves. Yohansan explains that this is s pilgrimage site for visiting Hasidic, mostly from Israel, who tend the graves. It is noticeably better maintained than than the other cemeteries we have visited. Dmitro tells me that the animal symbols on the Matzevah were influenced by buddhism: the circular hares with ears forming a triangle is both the wheel of life and the Holy Trinity. He also tells me that the squirrel eating acorns was a sign of wisdom and used for women. But there is dispute – Yohansan tells that us that the use of animal symbols was actually much more prosaic: the use of birds often corresponded to people’s names; the use of hares/rabbits referred to a productive and procreative lineage. He is outraged at the mistaken flights of fancy that Dmitro uses, which he describes as dangerous.
Sataniv Synagogue, built in 16th / early 17th century, Yohansan, tells us was a fortress synagogue designed to protect the Jewish population from attacking Tartars. This was one of several ‘fortress synagogues’ in the area; uncharacteristically built of stone when most synagogues were wooden structures. The Sataniv Synagogue has been renovated by the Hasidic community and is now a grand show piece. Yohanasan explains that narrow windows from the corridor originally would have been far narrower, too narrow to comfortably view through, and that the corridor would have been the women’s area: the tradition being that they could attend synagogue and hear the service but could not participate in the service nor see it. Viewing galleries on an upper level for women to sit would come later, with more enlightened thinking.
As we drive out of Sataniv we stop at a derelict Jewish property, once part of the Shtetl. Yohanasan explains that this home, notably bigger than the homes around it, would have been a business as well: he points out that the windows are larger because they opened up for trading, the awning is wider so they can still sell when it is raining, and they would have housed several families in order to run the business. They may also have had a stable for horses and cows. This house would have been built early 1900s. We get out to photograph it and several of us clamber into the interior. It is a time capsule: there is old wooden furniture, upended like in any derelict property, and straw on the floor. This could be original furnishings as the house has clearly not been lived in for a long time.
In Hrymailiv we visit the ruin of the Jewish Synagogue. It stands on top of a small hill in stark contrast to the Synagogue we have just visited, literally the bare four walls: arched doorways and circular windows, like a simple to cut out model. It remains due to the poverty of complete neglect, like an old medieval castle. There is, it appears, indifference to its presence by the local population, who themselves appear very poor. However, again, the church, which is located about 200m away, is opulent and immaculate, set amidst the poverty like a promise (or mockery) of better things to come!
DAY 3 ~ Chortkiv
Today we visit two synagogues in Chortkiv ~ the New and the Old. The new Synagogue is on a busy junction and is in relatively good condition. Our guide, via our new interpreter, informs us that the Synagogue is now used only to store medical equipment for the Ukrainian army. It is not a hospital. The old Synagogue is located behind the hospital. It is surrounded by furniture restoration workshops, the hospital car park and a small market. The building is also being used for storage: stacks of fridges, old tyres, planks of wood, even several busts of Lenin ~ humiliated to the basement of a derelict Synagogue! And, amidst the ubiquitous junk, gold: the Synagogue still retains original wall features, the pattern of religious designs, the distinctive pastel blue walls, but best of all, tucked away in the corner as if in shame, is a faded but intact fresco of a lion with the Hebrew words ‘Strong Lion” above it. This crumbling ruin, used as little more than a warehouse, still retains its wealth, which is slowly fading, consumed by the poverty of neglect.
The interpreter tells me that the Ukrainian government does not invest in Synagogue nor cemetery restoration and conservation. Any funds to renovate & conserve must come from outside international organisations and individuals, such as Israeli Hassidics. I ask why: why they do not remember this aspect of their history and he replies “its complicated.” He adds that they are still at war with Russia, a Frozen war, in which Russia holds a strategic position in the East. The ongoing conflict, intrinsically linked to past conflicts and atrocities, in which Ukrainians were both victims and perpetrators, seems to have crippled and paralysed the country. In addition, I am told, the government is extremely corrupt, the oligarchs hold the wealth and the power and the churches are heavily invested in.
We leave via the hospital, past the medical skeleton and gynaecological dummies.
From the Synagogue and hospital we walk up the main street and enter a residential building with a very tight and ornate stairwell. This was the home of Marta Goren who survived the Holocaust. Marta’s mother had been a pharmacist when the Germans invaded the town. The family had been moved to the Ghetto but Marta’s mother had been allowed out to work in the pharmacy. She was therefore able to bring her daughter out with her whom she then hid with locals in this building. We visit the pharmacy across the road, which still operates, and crowd in like invading anthropologists. Alexandra, our guide, talks to us through the interpreter, whilst people pop in and out to pick up prescriptions. We are then invited into the back, to the cellar, and we swarm through the building like locusts, entering the room arrayed with jars of tinctures, cabinets of medicine and patients files, then descending into the dank basement, mining every inch of the pharmacy for morcles of memory. Marta’s story is told in the book: ‘The Daughter that we Wanted.’ Marta, now known as Marta Winter, is still alive and lives in Israel.
I leave the tour group in Chertkiv and board the bus to L’viv, also called Lviv, previously called Lemberg. I am now no longer cushioned by the structure of the tour and travelling with local people with whom I do not communicate. And it becomes even more clear how abjectly poor this country is: the bus is basic, with ripped seats and poor suspension, the toilets are cesspits, the roads, as to be expected, crumbling and I’ll-maintained. Out of the towns I see old ladies with stooped backs, deeply coloured dresses and characteristic patterned head scarves, tending to cows and chickens, men riding donkeys and carts, simple one storey homes and large numbers of abandoned & derelict property. In the small towns there is a monosyllabic feel ~ drab concrete buildings, Soviet style apartments, made more foreign to me because all the signs are in Cyrillic script and what is on offer appears unappealing.
I am traveling through stork country and I see my first one striking off across a field and then another strutting across the road and another stood characteristically on its nest ~ a symbol of nothing in particular other than their own odd beauty.
DAY 4 ~ Baczewski Restaurant, L’viv (and the fake Rabbi)
I start the day with a visit to the fake Jewish Restaurant. At The Golden Rose Restaurant has a reputation for being anti semitic: waiters dressed up as Hassidic Jews, a haggling system for the bill, Jewish trinkets on sale and walls full of Jewish Archival images & objects and crudely drawn Jewish caricatures. However they are very happy for me to photograph the interior and even pose for me.
I start the day with a visit to the fake Jewish Restaurant. At The Golden Rose Restaurant has a reputation for being anti semitic: waiters dressed up as Hassidic Jews, a haggling system for the bill, Jewish trinkets on sale and walls full of Jewish Archival images & objects and crudely drawn Jewish caricatures. However they are very happy for me to photograph the interior and even pose for me.
When I leave the restaurant, with my anti-semitic trinkets, I bump into a tour group led by an obviously fake rabbi. (I learn later that he works for the restaurant and as part of his talk promotes it), He speaks in Ukraine but it is obvious that his jokes are about the Jews and that he is lampooning their stereotypical mannerisms. And his audience love the jokes as he camps it up, seeing no issue with the racist subtext. Again this is the notorious anti semitism posing as philo-semitism that I have heard about, dressed up as fascination with Jewish culture.
In the afternoon I meet Anna from the Centre for Urban History of East Central Europe. Anna works part time for the Centre in L’viv and the rest of the time in Switzerland. She has agreed to tell me about her work around Jewish history and even offers to take me on a tour of the city centre, which becomes an intense and in depth introduction to the Jewish history. We start at the the memorial square for the Di Goldene Royz Synagogue, The Space of Synagogues,which Anna had been very involved with. She informs me that there were, in fact two synagogues side by side here plus a Beth Hamidrash (a rabbinical teaching house). The Golden Rose Synagogue is still evident by its remaining side wall, with characteristic arches, but the other Synagogue is now the place of an outdoor restaurant, the only remaining feature being the arched doorway that would have been the doorway for the women to enter the upper gallery. Likewise the Beth Hamidrash is simply a demarked rectangle on the ground within the memorial space. Anna points out the faint remains of Synagogue fresco and I point to the graffiti. This, she says, is a problem: teenagers still come to this spot to drink, as they always have, and leave their cans and bottles and even graffiti the walls. She tells me that there was dispute about making an open memorial here due to the anti Semitism but she argues that the only way to change this is to educate. I note that since we have been there people have come and gone with obvious interest and respect.
We continue through the city, passing former Jewish hat shops and tailors still with their advertising script on the walls and stop at the corner Jewish Hospital, now a general maternity hospital. The building is in very good condition as it was not vandalised during the war but maintained as a functioning hospital. Behind it are small wooded grounds and a market, both standing on the former Jewish cemetery, which was erased by the Nazis. There is a memorial plaque and a pile of Matzevah fragments that look like rubble. Mothers walk through with young children and I photograph a young boy with a blue plane; life continues and is reborn here, though Jewish memory is largely forgotten. Anna tells me that she refuses to go to the market for several reasons: that it is built over the cemetery and that they sell dogs and kittens and rumour has it that if they cannot sell them they kill them!
At the Val Valhina Shul I meet Sasha who is involved with the L’viv Volunteer Society and one of the local Jewish communities. The Volunteer Society are involved with Jewish preservation & conservation work and have worked alongside the Rohatyn Jewish Heritage Foundation preserving cemeteries and reclaiming buried Matzevah ransacked from Jewish cemeteries, used to build roads by the Nazis then covered over by the Soviets. He has invited me to join the local Jewish community for the shabbat meal. This is, he tells me, the ‘young’ group; the older and more orthodox community meet at the Synagogue near the station. The Yanker Yantser Shul is in a state of heavy renovation; the massive central prayer hall is full of building material and paint, chairs and tables stacked, posters on cards leant against the wall, lumps of masonry on a table that I assume is from the Synagogue, a cardboard menorah and a stone plaque from another shul, framed photos of drawings of the now destroyed synagogues of L’viv (there were once about forty Synagogues catering for a large Jewish population, reduced now to two after the war). The arched windows tall enough to let light food in, counter-balanced by neatly spaced circular windows. And there are a few remains of frescos on the wall. The gathered Jews make a shabbat meal of dark bread and cream cheese, a tomato salad, pickled eggplant, cheese slices, grapes, cabbage, peaches, feta cheese and a watermelon. They use plastic plates and plastic cutlery; everything on the cheap except the atmosphere, which is rich and raucous, voices raised to shouting. They gather in a room on the third floor of the Beth Hamidrash; the cavernous main hall is a building site which Sasha is single handedly trying to raise from the dead. He shows me architectural drawings of how he’d like the restored Synagogue to look, which its raised level one end and exhibition area in main hall. He explains that it needs to be an educational site, a museum, but could be built to adapt easily into an area for prayer. As it is, the only room in this vast building where the small community can gather is the small room (an office) on the third floor. Sasha reads a few kaddish prayers from the siddur and then hand round small plastic cups of wine, except it isn’t wine but some type of juice. The service is very short then we all file down the stairs to the bathroom on the first floor to ceremoniously wash our hands before a Sasha says another layer and we begin the meal. The community are welcoming, accepting my presence, but do not welcome me: no formal introductions, as though Jews all know each other already ~ one extended family.
DAY 5 ~ Baczewski Restaurant, L’viv
I am sat in the Baczewski Restaurant, L’viv, an opulent eatery that serves an extraordinary buffet breakfast between 8 – 11am. If you do not arrive early enough you can queue for well over an hour, as I learnt yesterday morning. The really unlucky ones can queue for an hour and a half and then be turned away once it reaches the quarter to eleven threshold. So today I arrive extra early and once inside take my time; I want to observe and better understand this place, as I am aware it has Jewish roots. A pianist plays for us, evoking a bygone era, which seems apt given the complex history of Ukraine and ironic given the fate of the Baczewski family. Canaries warble, foliage grows and there is the general atmosphere of luxury, privilege and forgetting. On the restaurant website there is no mention of the Jewish heritage though the restaurant does have a ‘Jewish Hall.’ The Baczewski family established a vodka company in L’viv in 1782 and became one of the wealthiest families in the city. They successfully traded and built up the company for one hundred and fifty years before the warehouses were destroyed by Luftwaffe bombing and the last surviving owners were killed in NKVD camps in the forties. We are sitting in opulence created by Jewish wealth!
Yesterday Anna talked about what sociologists and anthropologists and ethnographers and even artists refer to as the ‘void’ left by the absence of the Jewish population. My understanding of this is that with the decimation of the Jewish individuals & community went part of the intellect, ingenuity, wealth and intrinsic character of the cities and towns. Within L’viv the Jewish population comprised one third of the city before the Second World War. The absence or void, which is also a collective trauma and wound, winds around the towns and cities, evident in abandoned synagogues and neglected cemeteries but also absent opportunity. Interestingly, a quick Google search of ‘Jewish void’ reveals the Hebrew word for void, challal, also means ‘life.’
At midday I visit the Ethnographic Museum to see the Jewish Galicia exhibition. It’s an old, stuffy museum without much imagination. The guards are all old and we do not speak each others language but it is clear that I am strictly forbidden to take photographs so I keep my camera sheathed until out of view. There is no cctv so I begin shooting, annoyed by restrictions and thinking that the old guard have no right to restrict me. The woman guard comes up to me and points at my camera clearly querying whether I have taken photographs. I say “no no” and walk on my camera swinging brazenly on my shoulder. The final room I enter is clearly the showpiece of the exhibition ~ three carefully lit large candelabra, throwing ornate shadows behind them, and cabinets with beautiful sefer Torah. I can hear the guard on the phone and the word “fotographica” but hidden from her view I snap away anyway, determined to capture the exquisite scene, playing my ‘god given right’ card!
Before I leave L’viv I head back to the Under The Golden Rose Restaurant for more fake trinkets but pause at the ruined wreck of the Yeshiva, which is sited behind a corrugated barrier amidst a wasteland of ruin and suspended construction. Any building work here has been halted whilst there is dispute over the fate of the Yeshiva. As I scout a possible way in two Ukrainian women come out of the facing apartment block. I ask them if they have a view of the Yeshiva and whether I could quickly photograph the former school. They agree to let me in and from their balcony I have the perfect view. One of the ladies tells me that they are from Kiev, visiting L’viv for several days. She asks me why I am photographing the building. She tells me it is a shame that this site is in such a bad state, unaware of the significance. She then becomes concerned about what I am going to say about L’viv and Ukraine and asks me not to write anything negative. I think about the caricature rabbi and fake Jewish Restaurant, the synagogue used as a warehouse, the bolshy old guard and the opulent restaurant that fails to mention its connection to Jewish wealth, none of which can be ignored. But I also think about the passionate historians and restorers, the NGO organisations invested in Jewish memory work, those employed to research and educate, all of whom are the custodians of Jewish memory and determined to repair the damage.
Trip 7 ~ Ukraine, Kiev Region – November 2019
‘After all, “shtetl” as a word is nothing but a cultural artifact, a caprice of collective memory. It signifies a vanished Jewish Atlantis, a yearning for a distant and utopian national culture and for the redeeming traditional values of East European Jerusalem, that “holy community” that we tend to strip of corporeality and then sugarcoat its imaginary residue.‘ ~ Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern: ‘The Golden Age Shtetl’
In November 2019 I returned to Ukraine, this time concentrating on the Kiev region to see what still remains of the Jewish memories and communities. I arrive in Kyiv at 5.40pm; it is dark and I have no network coverage so the world is even more indistinct and foreign than normal. This is my seventh trip for this project and I should be comfortable with the travel, but instead I feel that customary dread, that sense of not belonging, of not being at home, the familiar yet unfamiliar. It doesn’t help that I arrive late at night; it doesn’t help that the words everywhere are largely in Cyrilic, including street names. My navigation skills are hampered, like a bird without its internal compass. It doesn’t help that before coming I was unable to purchase Ukrainian currency and was told not to buy too much UAH in Ukraine as it can’t be converted back to Stirling. It doesn’t help that there is confusion about whether Ukraine is or isn’t a member of Europe, that its political indistinctness, to those outside the country, adds to its its geographical indistinctness, which in turn adds to its historical and national indistinctness. But there is ATM in the airport and a city bus waiting outside … so I sit down again after a long flight and wait the journey to play itself out. Yesterday I watched The Devil Next Door, the trial of Ivan the Terrible, The Demon of Treblinka. I have Ivan’s face, old and young, etched into my mind. During the trial the prosecution tried to demonstrate how the grainy black & white photo they had retrieved from the KGB files matched the older face now: the distance between the eyes, the inter-pupillary distance, the upper face, the height of the ears, the marked widows peak. The defence did an equally convincing job of disproving this evidence. There was, as with all good trials, uncertainty both ways: the older Demjanjuk was an auto worker from Cleveland, a Ukrainian immigrant after the war, innocent looking and a bit simple. The scrutiny of the killer’s face jumbled in my mind with images shown during the trial of emaciated corpses, skin & bone and dead eyes, and graphic descriptions by the survivors of skulls being crushed. The witnesses broke down or became bullish, pointing their accusations at Ivan who sat there, intent yet impossible to read, until he is smiling when the defence tears apart the prosecution and the retelling of the atrocity seems to become entertainment.
DAY 1 ~ Babyn Yar to Brodsky Synagogue
I wake to damp mist; there is still an indistinctiveness to Kyiv. Trying to orientate myself I head south down Yaroslaviv Val Street, passing a building that is familiar. I read the inscription plaque: the Ukrainian House of Actors. The building is bleak and monolithic, yet clearly not in keeping with the surrounding buildings, temple-like with imposing doorway, elusively linked to another culture. It is firmly shut, no easy way to access. It presents like a puzzle, which, with the right adjustment, will all make sense. And then I remember: this is the Karaite Kenesa Synagogue: a Persian Synagogue in Kyiv!
I continue to the Golden Gate, a strange wooden monument, a replica of the original Eleventh-Century fortified entrance to the medieval city, that looks like its been misappropriated from a theme park, and descend into the Zolotovorits’kyi Metro. The entrance to the Metro is easy to miss until you realise that the strange clicking sound denotes the Metro station. I am unprepared for the steep descent, as if dutifully entering an underground bunker, which adds an eery resonance to the clicking counter at the entrance: radiation levels being vigilantly monitored! The ornate interior of the the Zolotovorits’kyi Metro, with its giant chandeliers, patterned tiles and Soviet iconography, a curious blend of nostalgia and modernism, sits incongruous with the surrounding drabness. I take the Metro to Dorohozhychi, ascending to a darkened passageway, characteristic of the Metro, full of small outlets selling food and clothes; on the corner is a strange gathering of pigeons, grey to match the surroundings, congregating around a makeshift shelter: the poverty is very evident in this city.
Babyn Yar is set within a small park; a huge statue of Olina Tahini stands watch at the entrance, Soviet and strong, cold and romantic. In the park two cleaners are sweeping leaves into long piles; it’s easy to see echoes of history in the innocent gestures. The ravine is really a large ditch lined by arching trees but rising up from the ground is a chilling monument of twisting limbs as if the bodies have been dug up and cast in bronze. Baba means old lady, Yar means ravine: it’s difficult to tell how old as the ground covers its grave so completely.
I head south in time for the shabbat service at the Brodsky Synagogue. The service has only a few elderly men in attendance however it begins to fill with old and young until I count at least a hundred souls: men (it’s all men downstairs; the women peer down from the balcony) shake hands and stroke each other on the back in tender motions; there is an abundance of affection here. The children are allowed to run around making noise (girls & boys) and the prayers are constantly interrupted by hushes. There isn’t one rabbi but two, as if the community is doubling up on charisma; I recognise the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine when he stands and makes a long speech followed by a resonant Shalom from the younger rabbi. When the prayers rise in fervour and hands clap, after a quiet period of dovening, I feel an overwhelming sense of the heimliche here, so strong that I don’t wish to leave, so resonant that I forget I am in Ukraine. This is a bonded community that is so easily forgotten by an assimilated Jew. I recognise the eyes and the smiles, the nods and subtle gestures, the familiar family. There are no musical instruments here: it is the powerful surge of the human voice that is time-less. When the ark opens and the sefer torah is taken out and carried to the central Bimah, I realise just why I have come here, to Ukraine; it is here, in a vibrant synagogue that the realisation of loss is so apparent: here I see the power of the Jewish culture that was once so much larger; here the old lady of the ravine is nowhere to be seen.
Afterwards I head to Cimes, the Jewish restaurant, in need of some chicken soup, but Cimes no longer exists, replaced by a Ukrainian chicken joint, and I am slammed back into reality. At the One Street Museum is a cabinet full of Jewish trinkets, in the way that whole worlds can be consigned to footnotes, and outside a stall full of memorabilia including what appear to be Nazi propaganda!
DAY 2 ~ Vasyl’Kiv / Bila Tserkva / Bohslav
Chaim picks me up outside my apartment and we head to Vasyl’Kiv just south of Kyiv. Vitali Buryak, known by his Jewish name Chaim, has been compiling a website on the Jewish communities in the Kiev region for the last five or six years. I came across his website while doing research on shtetls. and he agreed that he could take me on a 3 day tour of the region, a scratching of the surface. I specify that I want to meet Jewish people, Heads of communities, old and young. In Vasyl’Kiv we meet Yakob, Head of the Jewish Community in Vasyl’Kiv, an elderly non-descript man carrying a plastic bag. There is nothing to identify him as the Head of the local Jewish community: no long beard, dark attire, penetrating stare. After brief introductions we all climb into Chaim’s car and set off to tour the remains of the former Jewish community. Yakob informs used to be 42 per cent population here, almost half the population. He points out a building, now a dental practice, that was once owned by a wealthy Jewish businessman, and across the road a synagogue, one for the wealthy Jews, now a school. There were many synagogues here, forty plus, some for rich some for poor. Yakob has lived here all his life; ninth generation Jew of Vasyl’Kiv. He tells us that there was a Pogrom here and points to the corner of the school, formerly the synagogue, where there was once a balcony. In 1919 the head of the gang gave a speech blaming the Jews. There were160 victims of the pogrom; the memorial plaque is buried beneath a Soviet memorial to the Soviet war heroes, one history buried by another as is so often the case in Soviet Russia. There are 120 Jewish people living here now; Yacob has 2 sons. We meet Tatianya (Tanya) Rosenburg, former Head of Jewish community, and they show us another synagogue which is also a school. Tanya insists we go behind the school so that she can show us where a wooden Jewish house once stood, now just a grass patch. There are burnt ruins of old wooden buildings and Yakob and Tanya have a heated exchange, 2 different opinions: Yakob says the ruins are the remains of Jewish homes connected to the synagogue but Tanya insists that they are not Jewish – Yakob eventually concedes. We visit another synagogue, ornate but very run down synagogue, repurposed after the war as a railway station but since converted to flats on the first floor. The Mogen David window has been replaced with a Soviet star! The Jewish community do not have their own building, which seems to be the case in most places, so the local Ukrainian veterans allow them to use their building. On Shabbos about 20 – 25 people gather; on religious holidays up to 40 people. Yakob’s uncle was captured in 1941 and killed – according to official documents he just disappeared; Yakob’s aunt was never told what happened and until she died always awaited his return. We visit the cemetery and Yakob shows us the memorial to the Jewish war victims. The plaque with 40 Jewish names was turned around by the Soviets, history denied, but Yakob turned it back 2 years ago: he fixed the crack in the marble and meticulously repainted the black lettering and then plastered it back into place. The Chief Rabbi of Ukraine came to visit and for a brief moment Yakob and the Vasyl’Kiv memorial plaque were famous.
We drive to Bila Tserkva to visit a school. Before the second world war the population was 9,500 of whom one fifth were Jewish. This town is notorious because it was the first place where children were murdered during the war, allegedly by the Ukrainian police as the Nazis refused to kill them. The Head of the school meets us and tells us that she was asked to set up a kindergarten by the Chabab and Rabbi. She tells us she was an assimilated Jew and was at first uncertain about doing this but her husband, who is non Jewish, encouraged her. The school has now been running for 21 years. She tells us that there are no buildings owned by the Jewish community, now a familiar situation, so the community gather in the school. The school runs from kindergarten up to 16yrs but many children get scholarships in Israel and then don’t return: Jewish families in Ukraine are emigrating to Israel, making Aliyah, and the Jewish population is declining she tells me. I meet the school children; the story of the children seems strangely relevant here in Bila Tserkva; they are here today, on a Sunday, because they have been cleaning up the Jewish cemetery. When I meet them they are eating pizza. When asked they tell me that their parents didn’t attend Jewish school: this was the time of Soviet occupation and Jewish way of life was crushed. They are the first generation with total freedom to be Jews. However, of the synagogues that remain they are all repurposed, none used by or belonging to the Jewish community. However, she says with excitement, the largest synagogue, which is currently used by the agricultural college, is hopefully going to be returned to them. The college got into a lot of trouble recently when it made alterations to the exterior; they were fined for defacing a listed building and the Jewish community was so incensed that the college agreed to return the synagogue to the Jewish community – if they agreed to clean and fix up a similar building for the college to use, a deal with strings attached. We visit the synagogue and Chaim tells me that this was once the most important synagogue in the area. Nearby is the monument to the Jewish victims with a partial explanation of the story of the children: it explains that the children were separated from their parents before being taken out of town to the woods and shot, but crucially does not mention that the killing was done by Ukrainians, does not publicly admit any culpability.
In Bohslav we meet Roman Tivin, Head of the Jewish Community. There are only 17 Jewish people in Baritslav and only 9 observant, not enough, as Chaim points out, to form a minyan They gather for prayers in his house. Roman takes us to his house but before entering he points out the home across the street where a Jewish family lived. He explains that the lower floor was used as a ‘technical room’s, not a shop, and the upper floor as residence, but when the Soviets came it was converted you two homes. He tells us that this whole street was once Jewish, a Jewish neighbourhood, the shtetl, and further up the road the Jewish market. Inside he makes us wait for twenty minutes whilst he clears up and then makes tea and brings out cake, leftovers from the shabbos: macaroons, apricot crumble, and then home made honey which we eat pure. And then a plastic bag full of old family photos and photocopied documents, including an image of his father in uniform standing next to Yuri Andropov, the former head of the KGB, also a Jew.
We end the day at Korsun, checking into a hotel with a windmill outside, an entertainer in the restaurant crooning and an incongruous gnome in the garden! The singing is at full volume and lacks subtlety, like karaoke, and as I eat the centre of the restaurant becomes the dance floor so that it feels like I am at a Ukrainian wedding!
Day 3 – Korsun / Zvenyhorodka / Uman
We meet Klavdiya (Claudia) Kolesnikova, Head of the Jewish community in Korsun. She takes us to a small room in an auspicious building; this is the Jewish Museum for the Kiev region. The museum contains photographs, documents, religious items and stories collected from and donated by local Jewish communities in the area. There are photographs of decorated Jews from the First World War, Jewish self defence units from the civil war & pogroms in 1917-1919, photographs of writers and poets, an original sabre from 1920, taken by a Jewish soldier who served with Kotovski, a pocket sized siddurim, tallis and tefillin and prayer bags, mezzuzah stored by the son of a Jewish blacksmith for 50 years after his house was disassembled, diaries containing calendars, wedding invitations, new year cards, an early nineteenth century wine jug. Two cabinets contain items from after the first world war: in the 1920s there was the rise of different national cultures including different factions in the Jewish communities; these were all closed down in the 30s. Klavdiya tells us story upon story, memory upon memory, an urgent story-teller. Klavdiya also prints a small newspaper once a month, a Jewish Chronicle for the Kyiv region, called “Nadezhda” (“Hope”). The periodic was established in 1994 and is published monthly, with a circulation of 500 copies, in both Russian and Ukrainian languages. Jewish people send her news for article via WhatsApp!
Klavdiya introduces us to Pyotr Rashkovsky, who manages the Regional Association of Jewish Organisations of Small Towns of Ukraine, an association that links together 40 Jewish communities in the Kyiv region. We meet him in one of the two rented rooms that the Association has in a dilapidated office block that smells derelict. The small room, more an office with large conference table, is set for Shabbos. On the wall is a decorative map of the Kyiv region with the key towns, about 40, that still have active Jewish communities. These are small communities, some only ten to twenty people, with no link to the larger, vibrant Jewish communities in Kyiv. Korsun once had a Sunday school for Jewish children of the region but it was closed 4 years. Most of the small communities do not have a rabbi, unlike the major cities; the mostly elderly communities gather where they can, making do with dusty halls, offices and kitchens! The fact is that despite the Association the Jewish communities outside of the city are dying out; Chaim estimates that in twenty years most communities will be gone, either due to old age or emigration to Israel; Pyotr’s son lives in Jerusalem. But there are competing narratives here: I am told that the Jewish communities are disappearing not just because of past atrocity but because they are being left behind but I then read in a small pamphlet, printed by the Regional Association of Jewish Organizations of Small Towns of Ukraine that ‘owing to the assistance of the Association 19 Jewish culture societies and communities were formed. Holidays and Jewish customs and rites have been revived …. and synagogue buildings are being restored.’
We drive to Zvenyhorodka to meet Leonid Brasavskiy, where we meet him outside a nondescript, one story building, separated into two room. This is the local synagogue: one room for prayers, the other for kiddush. When the community meet there are only 15 of them that gather, a rapidly ageing community. I see one of Klavdiya’s newspapers on the table and remember that there are links connecting these disparate communities. The first room contains Soviet memorabilia; Leonid is an avid collector of historical trinkets; thus is also a museum but a mix of Jewish and Soviet memory. The prayer room next door has a simple wooden Sefer Torah and a large wall tapestry; there are Israeli flags and Leonid tells me his son emigrated to Israel and lives near to Tel Aviv – he points to the map of Israel on the wall.
We then drive around the small town to meet the community. Elena Alekseevna is a practising Jew but her family is not. She looks after her grandson whilst his parents, her daughter & son in law, live in the Crimea; they work on Cruise ships plying the Black Sea. Elena’s parents were Jewish but didn’t observe because they were communists; she only begun to be religious when her mother died. She does not bring her grandson up as Jewish and when she dies the religion dies with her.
The next person we meet is a very frail 91yr old; virtually bed ridden. He gets up to meet us but his wife instructs him to sit back down again and ushers me into his bedroom. There is no time to talk, just to take picture: the elderly non practising Jew states amiably at me, as if used to being photographed, framed by the backdrop of a landscape with swooning swans that span over him, wings outstretched, like a premonition of heaven!
We end the day at Rabbi Nachman’s grave in Uman, a major Hassidic pilgrimage site in Ukraine. The surrounding area is full of Jewish hotels and restaurants; there is Hebrew writing everywhere and one could imagine being in Israel. The pilgrimage site swells to capacity in Rosh Hashannah when Hasidic Jews flock here to pay respect. Today is not so busy but there is still the steady hum of activity and prayer. Here I meet Abram who asks me whether I am a Jew and then tells me that I am a good man and asks me to sit. Abram is a charismatic Jew – he asks me if I have children, a family, then proceeds to tell me how to observe the shabbos: he doesn’t tell me I need to attend the synagogue, he tells me not to use any electronic devices for this one day, this way, he explains,I can communicate with God; he asks me if I understand, if he has communicated well. I tell him I understand completely. He tells me, again, that I am a good man and tells me he will WhatsApp me!
Day 4 – Uman /Bershad
In Uman we meet a local historian who comes prepared: copies of documents, like a lawyer presenting his case. He points to the corner building across the road and tells us this was once a Jewish hotel; it is now the Biblioteque. He shows us where Lenin once stood, and the bank where 50 Jews were suffocated in the cellar during the war; there is an indistinct plaque on the wall. He tells us that beneath where we stand are catacombs and tunnels, dug by who knows. He shows us original photos dating back to late nineteenth century: views of the city at the turn of the century and the new constructions that correspond to the same locations, a palimpsest of new on old. He then takes us to the old residential district, the former shtetl, pointing out the pre-Revolution buildings. Back on the main road we stare at a charred hotel, facade intact, infamous for its balcony where Hitler and Mussolini stood together and made their speeches. During Hitler’s speech the German soldiers lined the street, a formidable occupying force. Hitler only visited three places in Ukraine, one of which was Uman, Uman being dead centre of the country. During the war the Germans killed roughly 17,000 Jews in Uman; now, I am informed, the community is about 50 people but maybe I’ve misheard as this seems like a drastic decrease in numbers; when I check Chaim’s website Ukrainian Jewish Heritage, I read: ’In the late 1960s the Jewish population was estimated at about 1,000. The last synagogue was closed by the authorities in the 1957, and the Jewish cemetery fell into disrepair.’
We visit Dimitri Gaisinsky and his son Oleh. Dmitri is 72; he’s been a shoemaker since he was 14yrs. His mother told him he needed a trade or he’d go to prison; his friends were all trouble. The family fled Uman after the war, fleeing to a village near to Bershad; at this time Bershad was part of Hungary, so more protected. Dmitri’s father was Jewish but his mother was not. During the war they lived in the ghetto but she hid the children with her sister. His mother was awarded a Certificate by the Vad Yesham in Israel for protecting & saving her Jewish family. However, the family were not religious and likewise Dmitri and Oleh are not religious. He has two other sons, one of whom moved to Russia the other lived in Israel and converted to Judaism and now lives in Kyiv. Dmitri shows me his workshop full of tools, leather, wooden blocks and fabrics. He takes out two boots for me to photograph and gives me a bag full of walnuts.
Oleh takes us to an old section of the city, pre 20′s Russian Revolution – this was lower Jewish street, he tells us, above was upper Jewish street. This was also the Jewish ghetto area during the war. We go to his home and Oleh shows us images dating back to the end of the nineteenth century of Uman city; again we look at the palimpsest. Most poignant, and frightening, are the images of Hitler and Mussolini walking across the airport runway, smiling, virtually hand in hand!
In Bershad we meet the Efim Vigodner, Head of the Jewish community, who, as requested, takes us on a tour of the former shtetl. Though he points out the original Jewish homes, most in states of disrepair or being renovated: the original exterior bricked over with a new skin, there is no sense of this being a shtetl as the houses are mixed in with other homes, the whole area merely a small district of a larger town. At the synagogue, which looks biblical, leaning over with age, incongruous and out of place, the lights do not work. We enter into darkness, entering the cellar first, where Efim shows us the cave-like room used for Shabbas; there is no light but the light from our phones and details are spotlit so that it is impossible to gain a full picture of the space. Upstairs in the main hall of the synagogue the darkened interior is lit by several candles which Efim places on the table while he rifles through an old book. The darkened interior slowly reveals its details: a pile of prayer books, some open as if caught mid-prayer, shuttered windows that let in scant light, the sefer torah, rows of benches and a central Bimah. The semi-light seems apt, the shadow fading in the encroaching dusk. He opens two wardrobes full of clothes: suits, dresses, shoes (strangely redolent of another time when the clothing, hair, lives were taken off of the Jews) and tells us that these are the clothes left behind by the departing Jews – on their way to Israel, making Aliyah to the Holy Land.
Yakob the Photographer meets us in his studio-shop. He wears a purple shirt and is surrounded by colour. I am being introduced to the local Jewish community; the local shoemaker refuses to see me Yakob is more than happy with all the attention. Yakob wants to perform: he strikes flamboyant poses until I request he relax, look neutral, but this is not his nature and it seems a lie to deny him his charismatic smile.
The last person we meet is Barooka, translated to Belinda for me. She is her eighties and shows us pictures of her daughters and grandchildren, who all live in Israel. She stares out at us through thick lenses and tells us she wants more time!
Day 5 – Judaica Institute
At Brodsky Synagogue I photograph Stein and his cousin, or maybe brother; they are visiting Hasidics from Israel. They are insistent I photograph them. At the synagogue I have my first bowl of chicken soup in the restaurant downstairs. If eating can be an act of remembering then this clear broth is clearly made with memory. The waitresses are very particular about where I sit – in the comfortable section partitioned off behind net curtain. It seems to me that poorer local people are sat the other side of the curtains and I surmise from the many duvets being handed out upstairs that the synagogue does a lot of charitable work. Despite the archaic codes of conduct there is an air of tolerance here.
Afterwards I visit the Judaica Institute, situated within a basement at the Kyiv-Mohyla University. I arrive unannounced, a planned yet unplanned visit, and am honoured with an introduction to Leonid Finberg, Director of the Institute, who has talked and written about many things including on the enigmatic theme of ‘the architects of mutual understanding’. The Judaica Institute is many things: an active archive, a book publisher, a research centre, a humanitarian organisation: it has hosted conferences and exhibitions and currently has an exhibition of its collection of Puppets from Yiddish Theatre at the Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema Of Ukraine, Kyiv. The institute is not a teaching establishment but it is closely linked with the Ukrainian Institute for Jewish Studies at the University which has an MA & PhD programme. There are 15 people who work in the Institute; there are also about 15 people who assist, such as publishers and interviewers. Tania specialises in Second World War and Holocaust history. She is also interested generally in the history of genocide and what defines genocide, which is very pertinent to Ukraine as there is dispute over whether the Holodomor can be classified as genocide. Tania’s PhD project will connect the Holodomor genocide with the Holocaust; she wants to find out whether Ukrainians who lived through the Holodomor helped Jews during the War and likewise whether Jews had helped Ukrainians during the Holodomor. We discuss how the underlying theme of her PhD is about healing: instead of cultural tragedies competing Tania is exploring whether mutual understanding can be cultivated by sharing traumas.We talk about Jewish memory and how it went through multiple trauma. She tells me she plans to visit Kremenchuk to meet the Jewish community; she wants to find out what archive they retain. Tania says she’d like to learn Yiddish to allow her to translate the Yiddish articles she has in the archive. Anya collects Jewish oral histories; the Institute has 400 oral accounts. She tells me that her particular interest is the Revolution of Dignity, the second Maidan uprising in Kyiv, and how Ukraine is beginning to have a more open dialogue about its past and present state. We talk about the Babyn Yar and the complications around competing memories of trauma here. Babyn Yar has multiple monuments to different cultures. The effect of the Soviet Occupation was to not only suppress religion but also memory. Anya says: ‘Hitler murdered the Jews and Stalin destroyed their memory!’ Ukraine, it seems, is at a pivotal stage in re-remembering its many layers of history and is only beginning to process a century of trauma.
Day 6 – ESJF
The ESJF, the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative, was set up by a German based non profit organisation, to survey Jewish cemeteries in Central and Eastern Europe. The ESJF project has begun the process of physically protecting Jewish burial sites in Europe, most particularly in places where Jewish communities were wiped out in the Holocaust; its aim is to protect and preserve all the Jewish cemeteries in Europe. I meet with Yana Yanover and Kateryna Malakhova to talk about how their work is part of the larger dialogue on Jewish memory. They tell me that in Ukraine there are 1500 sites to survey; the centre has so far surveyed 1200. The cemetery survey begun in the 1990s. Kateryna is a Historical Researcher, the lead researcher at ESJF and an expert on specialist in 18th-century Jewish history. She shows me original documents of rudimentary projects started in the nineties that begun to collate data; she shows me how they correlated Soviet maps from before the 2nd World War with even earlier hand drawn maps. Now they have the luxury of drones and aerial surveys to get an accurate idea of location and boundary, however the old maps are essential sources of information. On old maps a Jewish cemetery was marked with cartography crosses; on a few it was clearly marked that these were Jewish as opposed to Greek Orthodox or Catholic. She shows me an encyclopedia of Jewish communities compiled by the Yad Vashem in Israel of Jewish communities in Poland; they have 8 volumes, however none of Ukraine; they have not collected information from what was pre war Russia. These volumes are another main source of information however they only cover north western Ukraine, formerly Poland, formerly Austria. Kate tells me they also refer to many sources, including local Yitzhak books, which include details about birth & deaths as well as local gossip. When a community is known but they have no information then they send a field-team to the area to talk to local people; they normally have five or six teams at work. Although the survey team have old maps which date back to Imperial Russia as well as more recent Soviet maps there is no guarantee that the Russian cartographers marked the Jewish cemetery. The survey team complete a questionnaire, a checklist of what they find, number of Matzevah, state of disrepair. They take photos on the ground but do not have time to document every single tombstone. After a survey they will make recommendation such as ‘needs fencing’; the ESJF has some funding for conservation work though this is the construction of perimeter fencing as opposed to Matzevah repair work. They are compiling a database but they are not a genealogy organisation. Kate tells me that far more Jewish cemeteries were destroyed by the Soviets than the Nazis: land was repurposed for agriculture, headstones used for construction. They was a brutal disregard for tradition. Yana shows me photographs of a derelict building (former school) that used Matzevah fragments to shore up the crumbling wall, and an old wooden barn that has Matzevah as foundation stone. Kate tells me that just in the Carpathians there were 250 communities; this was a particularly dense area but Kate does not know why. She thinks that ESJF might miss maybe 5 % of the total Jewish communities that once existed but generally there are enough records left to locate community and thus cemetery. I meet Oksana & Tatiana, drone engineers, who are working on three dimensional aerial images of several cemeteries. They explain that these are real images though they look computer generated; I am mesmerised as they pivot the scene and focus in on details as if they are playing a computer game.
The rest of my time in Kyiv is spent wandering around the city, once called the New Jerusalem, overland and underground. I have a list of key Metro stations to visit: Zoloti Vorota, Teatralna, Arsenalna, Olimpiska, Kreschatyk, Demiivska and Palats Ukraina. There is something very run-down about its visual splendour: the architectural jewels of the Metro is accessed via dark and foreboding passageways where locals peddle cheap items. At the St Michael’s Golden Domed Orthodox Church old beggars line the entranceway. On my way to see the Jewish puppets at the exhibition of Yiddish Theatre, I pass the statue of an emaciated girl, representing the Holodomor genocide. I ask to photograph a passing tourist in her bright blue coat, stood next to the rigid statue, for context. Further on stands the grotesquely monumental Motherland Statue, a Statue of Liberty imbued with the gods of Aasgard, flanked by tanks, the typical military parade of Soviet pride, a monumental monument heavily biased with heavy Soviet slant: following the Soviet denial of Jewish loss in the Holocaust there was the elevation to Hero status for Soviet fighters in the War. This city has more than its fair share of competing tragedies and Ukraine has a legacy of conflict: within the Twentieth Century it has suffered mass starvation, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing, pogroms and Holocaust, prolonged occupation, radiation poisoning and mass evacuations, continued war in the east and civil uprising at its centre. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1999 the politics of Ukraine remained corrupt and hang on to an ingrained Soviet mentality. In the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square, is the memorial to the Civil Uprising of 2014 that resulted in the overthrow of the then Ukrainian Government, a puppet government tweaked by Russia, and forced Viktor Yanukovych, the then President, to get on his private jet and flee to Moscow. Against this puzzling picture, where national identity is still contested, the Jews face their own tragic trauma of loss. Following the Revolution of Dignity Ukraine’s political and socio-political landscape shifted. It now has a pro European orientation and has established Jewish studies at key universities (Kyiv-Mohyla Academy), Holocaust Museums and memorials to the Jewish loss, and there seems to be growing discussion within Ukraine regarding its joint Jewish/Ukrainian history of trauma & loss. There is talk of a Jewish revival within Ukraine, with new communities in large urban areas, however a declining Jewish population in the rural areas. Ukraine is culturally and religiously significant to Jews: it is the ancestral home to many diaspora Jews in America, Canada and England; Jewish people have lived on these lands for nine millennia and it is a major pilgrimage site for Hasidic Jews. This layering of history is crucial to the understanding of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe in general, and is the contextual soil in which this project sits. Ukraine may have been a borderline, with Kyiv and the Dnieper River at its centre, but for the Jews it was the spiritual heartland and place of religious reform and enlightenment.