Film of vanished shtetl reprises woman’s story
In “Everything Is Illuminated,” the film adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed novel, Trachimbrod is the imaginary Jewish shtetl near the Polish-Ukrainian border wiped out by the Nazis.
But Trachimbrod is not a fictitious place. Instead, the shtetl, spelled Trochenbrod and once home to about 5,000 Jews, is the birthplace of Betty Potash Gold, a Beachwood resident. On August 11, 1942, when the Nazis killed most of Trochenbrod’s Jews, Gold was in hiding with her parents, siblings and cousins.
The Nazis had the Jews dig a mass grave, lined them up, and machine-gunned some 4,200 to death, according to Norton Kessler, a Dallas resident and former Clevelander who is a descendant of Trochenbrod survivors. He wrote a master’s thesis on the town.
Perhaps 700 to 1,000 Jews survived the mass murders, and some still are alive, residing in Israel. But Gold, as far as she knows, is the only survivor remaining in the U.S.
Although Foer has insisted in interviews that he made up virtually everything in his book, Gold, 75, says many of the events he chronicled actually happened.
Trochenbrod was the Yiddish name for a town called Zofiowka in Polish. In anticipation of trouble when the war broke out, Gold’s father, Eli Potash, added a false partition to a large storage shed behind his family’s house, thus creating a secret hiding place.
When the Nazis arrived and forced the Jews to move to a ghetto established in the town, Gold’s parents, brothers and several other relatives were allowed to return to their home to retrieve some more possessions. Left behind in the ghetto with her grandmother, Gold, then 12 and very small for her age, decided to run home. In the chaos, she ran past the Nazis’ legs and managed to escape, leaving her grandmother in the ghetto.
A total of 16 people n Eli and his wife Riva, their three children and some cousins n hid for 24 hours behind the false wall in the shed. They heard shooting and realized the Nazis had killed those who stayed in the ghetto. “I still feel guilty that I left my grandmother behind,” admits Gold.
Later, the family fled to the woods. While in hiding, nobody could cough or sneeze or talk for fear the Nazis would find them. A cousin with three small children could not stop her baby from crying. The young mother choked the baby to death to save the others from discovery, Gold recalls.
For the next several weeks, the extended family lived in the woods. Because her brothers were circumcised and thus could be identified as Jews if caught, Gold stole food from surrounding farms to help feed her relatives.
On several occasions, the family miraculously escaped certain death at the hand of the Nazis. Just before Yom Kippur, in September 1942, starving and cold, Gold’s family made their way back to the Trochenbrod ghetto because they learned some other Jews had returned.
On Yom Kippur morning, the Nazis and Ukrainians surrounded the few occupied houses. To give the children a head start, the adults threw the youngsters out of the windows, and they all ran to the woods.
“They were shooting at us with rifles,” says Gold. “We ran over dead bodies, the wounded, children dead in the streets. The other two children of my cousin who choked her baby were killed.” However, most of Gold’s relatives escaped death.
To survive the winter in the woods, Gold’s family, now a group of nine, dug out a small, shallow bunker only several feet deep. At one point, a friendly Christian peasant who occasionally brought them food warned them the Nazis were coming. They attempted to flee to a different bunker sheltering other escaped Jews, but were turned away because there was no room.
It turned out that the peasant’s report was in error. The Nazis had discovered the hiding place of the other group of Jews and killed all of them.
Exhausted and starving, Gold’s family eventually decided again to return to Trochenbrod. Somehow, even though they were only several miles away, they got lost and ended up spending the night in a ditch. They woke to shots; the Nazis had killed the remaining slave laborers in their shtetl. Later, the family saw Trochenbrod in flames as the Nazis torched the town.
During the spring and summer of 1943, Gold’s family lived in a water-filled swamp on a makeshift bridge they created from decaying tree trunks. That fall, the Russian resistance found them, and the family joined the partisans.
Gold, her mother and younger brother were transported to a collective farm where the women worked in a kitchen. Her older brother was sent to the Russian front where, like so many others, he was killed.
The Russians sent her father, who made and sold leather goods in Trochenbrod, to Kiev. Eventually, Gold’s mother dispatched her to find him. After a three-day train trip, clinging to the outside of the car because there was no room inside, Gold arrived in Kiev.
For several days, Gold wandered the streets with her father’s photo and slept on park benches. A man she met in a park recognized her father from the photo and took her to the leather factory where he was working.
In the spring of 1945, the family was reunited. Because Trochenbrod was gone, they returned to a nearby town. A Jewish agency smuggled them out of that part of Poland, now controlled by the Russians. The family made their way to Austria and lived in a DP camp.
Eli Potash sent a telegram to his wife Riva’s sister, who lived in Cleveland, asking if her family could help them settle in America. With the sponsorship of these relatives, the family immigrated to Cleveland. Gold was 16 years old.
The film “Everything Is Illuminated” chronicles the journey of a young American Jew named Jonathan Safran Foer as he searches for a woman in an old family photograph, who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Foer hires a Ukrainian guide named Alex to help him search through the Ukrainian countryside in what was once eastern Poland.
In 1997, after his sophomore year in college, the real Foer actually traveled through western Ukraine, accompanied by a guide, looking for the woman in the photo. All he knew was that his grandfather had survived the destruction of his village in what used to be Poland.
“I was totally unprepared. I did no research. I found nothing,” he told the CJN while in Cleveland on a book tour three years ago.
However, he told The Jewish Week in New York in an earlier interview that he did find the site of the village of Trachimbrod and the monument that commemorated its destruction. Foer said he later discovered folktales that talked about a drowning in the Brod River. That inspired him to create a character named Trachim, Foer said, who appears in the beginning of the novel.
Gold insists Foer, who was 20 when he wrote the first draft of his book, must have done more research than he acknowledges. Too many details in the novel and in the film match the real-life history of her hometown, she says.
The 1973 thesis of former Clevelander Kessler, written while he was a graduate student at John Carroll University, also recounts the tale of the wagoner named Trachim who drove into the river Brod and drowned. Foer writes of the same fable in his novel.
Gold met with Foer when he was in Cleveland three years ago. “We had an argument,” she recalls. “He calls his book fiction. I said it’s not.”
Today, an empty field with markers memorializing the mass graves occupies the site of the once bustling Jewish town. Gold returned to the area in 1998, hiring a Ukrainian guide named Alex, the same name as the translator in the novel and film. She’s convinced he’s also the guide Foer used, although he denies it.
She spent the night in a hotel in Lutsk, the same hotel she says Foer stayed in. The hotel figures prominently in the film as well as the book.
While in Ukraine, Gold reunited with a cousin living in Lutsk, the biggest city near Trochenbrod. She’s very proud that she helped the cousin’s three married children and grandchildren living in Ukraine resettle in Israel. Gold’s first cousin, Lyndhurst resident Sidney Franklin, and his wife Bea also provided financial assistance.
“My mission was to get them out of (Ukraine) and have their children be Jewish,” says Gold, who has three sons and four grandsons. Still, she says, “my heart belongs to Trochenbrod.” She has instructed her sons to some day sprinkle her ashes on the shtetl’s mass grave.