trip summary -Trochenbrod, Lutsk, and Kiev, August 16-21, 2009 Martha Nathanson, September 2009

Trochenbrod, Lutsk, and Kiev, August 16-21, 2009

By Martha Nathanson, September 2009

Sunday, August 16. We arrive in Kiev after a long overnight flight preceded by two connecting flights, giving us plenty of time to review the itinerary and create the mood for the experience we are about to have. We hit the ground driving, for the 5 hour bus ride to Lutsk for the bulk of the week. The motley crew on the bus impresses me that even though we are separated by miles and by countries, we are connected by this tiny dot on a map of Ukraine, a dot that no longer exists other than in the bodies of all of these families and “cousins” that span the globe. I am struck by the fact a survivor is with us, and a 13-year-old, who can, with my daughter and the other young people, see for themselves what happened and visualize who we were when we lived there.  

Monday, August 17, Lutsk. Today we meet the Israelis. We are two groups, not yet together and I’m hoping we gel sooner rather than later. Met 3 other survivors. Esther and Frank Foer tell me they met the man who saved her father, and who knew her mother as the little girl who lived with her grandmother in Kolki. Kolki??? My own bubbi lived there until she left after the 1905 pogroms. Would someone have saved her in 1942? And my zaide who lived in Trochenbrod, who also left after the 1905 pogroms, well, in a very different way, the widow Melamed saved him when she took his father in as her only son to avoid conscription in the Czarist army. I feel strangely guilty that my family did not have to endure the events of 1942, that we got out early, and thankful about the same.

We tour war memorials, including a wall with plaques for the towns that were destroyed – there’s Sofievka, the Russian name for Trochenbrod.  This was the first physical manifestation of where we were going the next day. A plaque on a wall to evoke the emptiness that awaits us. Seeing all these general Ukrainian memorials makes us more anxious to get to the actual Trochenbrod site and memorial.   

But not yet – we go to the Archives first, to find documents about our families. Crazy polyglots, screaming out names in Russian, Yiddish, English, copies, who wants copies, that’ll be $7 per page, we can’t find most of what you are looking for but we will get back to you – just email us, that will work. Yeah, right.

Robin and I have an unanticipated opportunity when Jeff and Ellen Burack offer to take us with them to Kolki, where their grandparents and my grandmother (Robin’s great grandmother) lived. Anna, our guide, and her father, Ivan, drive us there, through gorgeous countryside, the most fertile land in Ukraine/Russia/Poland, they say. Jeff verbalizes our thoughts – it looks so bucolic that it’s hard to superimpose an image of what happened here. We wonder, was it just the Nazis, and what was the role of Ukrainians, complicit by force or voluntary? We visit the memorial to the 4000 Jews slaughtered that day in 1942, in woods that are in fact not all that far from the town. The Ukrainians we meet say all were friendly in the town, but then how could they do this?  Some helped the Jews and lost their lives for that effort, but most did what? Nagging question.

I notice that there are so many flowers all around this town and the area in general.

Tuesday, August 18. Today we go to Trochenbrod.  Not by plane, train, car or foot – but by horse-drawn cart. And not the kind you find in Central Park, each wooden cart had 2-3 planks that served as seats, and each cart carried an average of 6 people. These carts were our main mode of transportation throughout the day as we moved to different sites all over the area. A surreal experience and that allowed us to get into the mood of what was in store for the day. Though this was just a side-effect – we were taking these carts as a necessity as this was the only way into the town of Trochenbrod. This town that was once a thriving economic force, now reduced to a giant field with no roads. Powerful.

As soon as, I mean as soon as, we get to the site it rains. How a propos!  But no comparison to the weather our families had to endure during the war. We cram into the tent and wait it out. I’ve heard Betty Gold’s story before but hearing it here, on this ground, no words, only tears, the first of many. Only luck brings her to us – one bunker or another, she went to the second and it saved her life. People are listening. I’m sitting with Ethel Kessler and she reaches into her bag only to find her family photo wiped out by the rain (only a copy, thank God) and we both think “weird.”

After the rain, we start walking up Main Street, Trochenbrod, Ukraine/Poland/Russia.  Ninety-year-old Shmulik shares his memories of who lived where when. The Germans/Russians/Ukrainians took the houses apart, but our kids find their strewn pieces of brick and stone. Betty stands in a field that she thinks is where her house stood and is flooded with memories. She holds a bunch of flowers and I think she is the flower in this place. 

The Ukrainian young people with us – what must they think about us? Jews standing in a field talking about their old town. Did they even know before today that WE WERE HERE?

The walk drags on. The walk flies by.

We hold a service at the memorial set up by the Israelis years ago, and today they replace part of the stone that was vandalized by locals. I am so used to vandalism and crime, living in Baltimore, but was this for religious/ethnic reasons, or just youthful violence? Seeing Shmulik with all his grandchildren holding on to him, supporting him. That really makes me cry. Robin feels my sadness and intensity today, I think, and stands a little closer than usual.

We visit two more mass grave sites deeper in the woods; two more cart rides, two more times to question who knew what was happening.

That evening the group assembles but it is late and folks have no more words in them. But, remember I said I hoped the group would bond? I can feel it happening, still some way to go, but palpable. The young people stay up late and party. For once the adults are glad to see that.

Wednesday, August 19. Driving back to Kiev we stop in Rovno, which had a huge Jewish population. Another mass grave and memorial. Another mass grave and memorial. Another mass grave and memorial. No, this it not a typo, that’s just what’s left of us in this country.

We see Babi Yar. No words for this mass grave and memorial. Disgusting.  Horrifying.  How did the wonderful citizens of Kiev not know what was happening to their neighbors? Our Israeli young people soften the blow with their music.

Allow me one personal digression. As we stand around the memorial, I notice a well-dressed middle aged man not a part of our group, but standing with us for awhile. I ask of his interest and he says he noticed Jeremy filming and that he is Director of Documentary Film for Ukrainian National Television and was walking to his office nearby when he saw us. (This is the longest conversation I have had in Russian since arriving and I’m pleasantly surprised that I can hold my own, assuming I didn’t say anything grossly ridiculous!) I explain our mission here and introduce him to Jeremy and if the stars align properly, our film may get air time in Ukraine. How better to reach large numbers of Ukrainians who likely know little about this episode in their national history?

By now, we have all become friends in the unique way of big families. Being with Israelis on a trip like this makes all the difference – they feel the hand of history more acutely than we can ever feel it on a daily basis and in their national consciousness. I am so grateful they brought us along and thank them for living in Israel for all of us. And I’m so glad the Soviet Jews got out of here.