AN IMMIGRANT'S RETURN
By Clifford M. Rees (Copyright © 1998)
"Arrived (Ellis Island) July 2nd 1911 at 5 P.M. and it was an exciting voyage. Stayed on the boat that night and got off the next day 7/3/1911. (I) remember some of the voyage and the steerage. No ventilation, smelly, dirty and I was glad to reach this Land of Opportunity."
Isador Miller, July 18, 1976
Inscribed on the back of his painting of
Ellis Island and the SS George Washington
I knew from childhood that my maternal grandfather, whom I called "Dad", was not a native born American. He was born Zrul Leib Reisch in Sadgora, near the city of Chernowitz (now known as Chernovtsy in the Ukraine), Austria on May 16, 1892. In America, Dad Anglicized his mother's family name of Mehler and when naturalized as an American citizen on June 14, 1919 at the age of 27, used the name Isador Louis Miller for the remainder of his life.
I was the seventh of his eight grandchildren, born forty one years after his arrival in America. His youngest daughter is my mother, Flora Miller Rees, the last of the five children born from Dad's marriage to Elizabeth Hornstein. They were married in Baltimore, Maryland on July 13, 1913. "Mom", as I called my maternal grandmother, was a first generation American born of Rumanian parents.
Mom and Dad's marriage lasted for seventy two years until Mom's death on July 16, 1985. Dad, mentally alert and active until the end, died a year and a half after Mom, both in a nursing home in Sunrise, Florida on December 26, 1986. One of Dad's son-in-laws, Gerald Toomer, aptly wrote in the death notice that Dad died 94 years "young".
I'm not sure why I ultimately chose to become the family historian. Perhaps it was inevitable, given my studies as a history major at George Washington University in the early 1970's, that I would someday want to explore my own family roots. The search has given me a sense of my family's humble beginnings in America and a strong feeling of gratitude for the blessings I take for granted in my own life. I began by taping his reminiscences and verbal autobiography.
At a deeper level, I chose to research and write Dad's story, and, much to my surprise, in September, 1993, visited his hometown, as a way of becoming closer to him after his death. I also wanted to commemorate not only his memory, but the courage of his journey, and the journey of millions of other immigrants to America.
Dad arrived at the Castle Garden Immigration Station in Lower Manhattan, just east of Ellis Island, on July 2, 1911, after enduring two weeks on the Atlantic Ocean in the steerage section of the SS George Washington. That ship would later take President Wilson to Europe at the end of World War I to negotiate the Versailles Treaty. Dad never returned to Europe during the remaining seventy five years of his life. My pilgrimage was for him, since he could never go back.
His journey to America began in mid-June, 1911 on a horse- drawn wagon which took him approximately five mile trip south from Sadgora, across the Prut River, to the train station in Chernowitz. The region is located in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains on the northeastern border of what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The train took Dad from Chernowitz to the North Sea port of Bremen, Germany, where the ship left for New York City on June 23, 1911.
Dad's $40 one way passage was paid by his older sister Freda. She preceded him to Baltimore where cousins had settled several years before. Freda, known in the family as "Tinty" (for Tante) saved the money for him to join her by sewing zippers on pants in a sweatshop.
His entry into America required overcoming a minor obstacle. U.S. immigration law at that time required prospective immigrants to have at least $10 upon arrival in America to prove they weren't indigent and at risk of requiring public assistance. On the boat, Dad spent $1 of his $10 nest egg to purchase and savor his first ham sandwich and banana. (Since he had never seen a banana before, he didn't know it needed peeling!) At Castle Garden, he had to explain the $1 discrepancy to a German-speaking immigration officer before being admitted to the "Land of Opportunity".
A Jewish assistance organization guided Dad to the train station at Jersey City for the two hundred mile trip south to Baltimore. Gazing out onto the platform from the train before it departed, Dad saw a black person for the first time in his life. He was surprised that the man had a normal face! The legend in Sadgora was that blacks had two eyes - but one was in the front of the head and one was in the back!
Dad's arrival in Baltimore coincided with the 4th of July holiday. Unlike the opening scene in Baltimore-born director Barry Levinson's movie Avalon, there were probably no fireworks exploding overhead in East Baltimore's Patterson Park as Dad took a cab from Union Station to be reunited with his sister. Dad was told the 4th of July was a holiday, but of course he didn't know why it was being celebrated. After two weeks in steerage and two days in transit from New York to Baltimore, Dad was in desperate need of a visit to a bathhouse for a thorough delousing. The holiday, however, meant the bathhouses were closed.
At 1:30 A.M. Dad reached the three story rowhouse on 215 W. Barre Street where his sister rented a room. It was a steamy Baltimore summer night and tenants were stretched out in the hallway. Dad couldn't see where he was going in the dark and the ensuing commotion prompted Mrs. Levy, the landlady, to come out of her room to investigate the disturbance. Dad introduced himself to her in Yiddish and explained who he was. Mrs. Levy told Dad his sister was expecting him.
She took Dad up to Tinty's apartment on the third floor and rapped on the door. Tinty opened the door and Dad told her who he was. He was startled by her response: "You're not my brother! My brother was blonde!" Dad had matured from a blonde-hair adolescent into a dark-haired young man since she left for America. He produced a letter from their mother and ultimately convinced her of his identity. Eight years later, Zrul Leib Reich became American citizen Isador Louis Miller.
Dad seemed so thoroughly Americanized to me (except for his slight accent) that I could hardly imagine him as anything but an American. If I listened carefully to his speech, I could hear that he retained traces of a German accent when he pronounced "w" and "v" sounds. Yet Dad proudly insisted to me, with the fierce pride of a naturalized American, that he spoke English without an accent.
My grandfather was a soft-spoken, averaged sized man with friendly dark brown eyes and a wry sense of humor. He had a blurry tattooed eagle on his left forearm, the result of a youthful whimsy which he regretted the rest of his life. "Never disfigure yourself with a tattoo," he admonished me, and to this day I find tattoos repugnant.
Dad as a young man apprenticed as a barber in Europe and carried his barbering skills, though not his barbering tools to America. The tools were stolen from him on the boat before he arrived in New York. He worked for a series of other barbers after settling in Baltimore and ultimately opened his own barber shop in South Baltimore. After a few years he became a beautician and in 1936 Dad opened Miller's Beauty Shop on Garrison Avenue in the Forest Park section of Baltimore, a new residential suburb. He struggled successfully to hold onto his business and home during the Depression Era. In 1956, when I was four, Dad retired to Miami, Florida, by which time he had raised and educated five children.
During the last thirty years of his life Dad lived in several South Florida communities, managing his modest rental property, doing his beloved carpentry, tiling and furniture antiquing, enjoying the beach, and occasionally bringing out his small tan box of barber tools to trim the hair of a visiting relative or friend. In his final years, he also became a prolific amateur oil painter, producing a variety of landscapes and scenes from his life in Austria as an adolescent and later America, including a series of paintings of the Sadgora and Chernowitz synagogues, his home and remembered scenes.
It wasn't until the Summer of 1992 that I first imagined myself visiting Sadgora. The trip probably had its genesis twenty years earlier when I conducted a taped oral history interview with Dad on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He talked in some detail about his life in Europe, the boat trip to America, and his experiences in America. "I wish I had an education so I could write my own biography", he told me. I later transcribed the tape and gave it to him and other family members as a gift. "These words are yours as if you had written them", I reminded him when I gave him the transcription on the occasion of Mom and Dad's 65th Wedding Anniversary in Baltimore on June 10, 1978.
Dad also gave me his Austrian passport and a copy of his birth certificate. That information allowed me to request and receive from the U.S. Archives in July, 1992 a copy of the Manifest List from the SS George Washington's June, 1911 voyage which documented Dad's arrival in America.
Further research at Santa Fe's Temple Beth Shalom Library and the downtown Santa Fe Public Library in August, 1992 revealed that Sadgora continued to exist in the southwestern portion of the now independent Ukraine. When I saw Sadgora on a National Geographic map of Eastern Europe in the Map Room of the downtown Santa Fe Public Library, I saw myself in what I imagined was still a small town and heard an inner voice telling me I could arrange a trip there. I was already committed to visit the Russian Western Siberian city of Omsk later that fall to assist at Insight Seminars, the experiential educational seminars I had taken in Santa Fe in the early 1990's. One year later, I stepped off a train in now Russian "Chernovtsy", the city Dad knew as "Chernowitz", part of a dream made possible by the legacy he left me and the post Cold War freedom of Americans to travel in previously restricted areas of Eastern Europe.
The half full Lufthansa Boeing 737 descended into Borispol Airport east of Kiev in the early afternoon of Wednesday, September 22, 1993. Across the aisle from me sat a Rabbi whom I imagined to be the Chief Rabbi of Kiev, though he appeared to be an American. Below me, the gold domes of Russian Orthodox churches rose over the hilly west bank of the Dnieper River which bisected Kiev along a north-south axis.
I planned to obtain my Ukrainian visa upon arrival at the airport. My pre-arranged Ukrainian guide and translator, Alexsei Tatuyan, assured me by phone before I left Santa Fe there would be no problem obtaining my visa upon arrival. However, a Ukrainian Consular official in New York insisted during a phone conversation with me before my departure that I could not obtain a visa at Borispol. In a panicky cold sweat, I called the Kiev airport number Alexsei gave me to confirm his information, but could not find someone to come to the phone who spoke English. I decided to trust Alexsei and place my fate in the hands of my spiritual source. I flew halfway across the world, relieved at each airport document check in Albuquerque, Dallas, and Frankfurt that I was only asked to produce my passport.
The Borispol airport bus transported approximately thirty of my fellow passengers and me to the main terminal. Just inside the door, to my vast relief, was a counter with an English sign which read "Visa Services". Alexsei was right and the Ukrainian bureaucrat in New York was either misinformed or, for some unfathomable reason, had lied to me on the phone.
Right and wrong didn't matter to me at that moment. After standing in line for a half hour with an international collection of businessmen and tourists from Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, and the U.S., my documents and $50 bill to pay the visa fee passed immigration scrutiny. With my passport stamped and Ukrainian visa issued, I collected my suitcases and passed through a narrow corridor into the crowded airport lobby.
Alexsei recognized me by our pre-arranged agreement. We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Russian Embassy in downtown Kiev, obtaining my Russian visa for the second part of my trip, when I would travel to St. Petersburg and Omsk to once again assist at Insight Seminars as I had done the previous Fall. The wonderful experience of the previous year's trip to Russia convinced me I could travel to the Ukraine and visit Dad's hometown as part of a return trip to the former Soviet Union.
That evening and the next day we toured Kiev until late in the afternoon when our train left for the sixteen hour overnight trip to Chernovtsy. I recognized the coincidence of returning to Dad's hometown by train, the same method of transportation he used to depart for America seventy two years before. Alexsei had informed me by phone before I left Santa Fe that air transportation between Kiev and Chernovtsy was very unreliable due to fuel shortages. I was on a tight schedule and needed to use the most dependable form of transportation available. Relying on the trains gave me a sense that I was slowly travelling backwards in time to a slower, simpler era.
The hilly, tree-lined streets of Kiev immediately reminded me of Boston, Massachusetts. Compared to Moscow and other Soviet-designed cities, Kiev is reasonably attractive. A large city, with a population of over 2 million people, Kiev was heavily damaged during World War II (known in the former Soviet Union as the "Great Patriotic War") and is now almost fully restored. Along the east bank of the Dneiper River are rows of ubiquitous white apartment blocks, built by the Soviets to alleviate a serious housing shortage following World War II. I later realized, witnessing a similar apartment block scene in Moscow, that this was the Soviet equivalent of America's single family dwellings in the suburbs of our cities.
Alexsei recruited his friend Vasily to be our driver during the Kiev portion of my visit since Alexsei did not own a car and Vasily did. Few people own private cars in the former Soviet Union, relying instead on the crowded buses and electric trams to travel to work, visit friends and to shop. To be driven around Kiev in a private car was a convenience and luxury I greatly appreciated.
Vasily waited for us in the parking lot at Borispol Airport as I passed through customs. Vasily didn't speak English, but his friendly demeanor helped us overcome the language barrier and he became a very welcome addition to my expanding circle of guides and friends whom I came to see as my "Guardian Angels".
Alexsei and Vasily led me on a twenty-four hour whirlwind tour of Kiev. The first evening we took a walking tour of downtown, highlighted by a visit to the now anachronistic silver Russian-Ukrainian Friendship Arch overlooking the Dneiper River. I was reminded me of the golden St. Louis Arch along the banks of the Mississippi River. Below the Arch are several statues, one of which represents a group of men holding aloft a banner in heroic Socialist Realism style.
While walking on Kiev's main downtown shopping street, the Kreshchatik, we passed the Post Office and Revolutionary Square, where a statue of Lenin had clearly been removed from its pedestal. Another statue of Lenin still remains preserved at the other end of the Kreshchatik Alexsei informed me, for its "aesthetic" value. I was unable to make an independent judgement of this statue of Lenin's artistic value, although I was dubious of how "aesthetic" any Soviet-era statue of Lenin could be based on numerous other statues of Lenin I had seen previously.
Alexsei pointed out that the apartments above the stores were being bought by Western businessmen for $35,000 and up. By Ukrainian standards this was quite expensive and out of the reach of most citizens. Was this yet another example of the arrival of capitalism in Kiev?
I spent my first night in Kiev in an unoccupied furnished apartment owned by a friend of Alexsei's. I learned from last year's trip to Russia that Soviet-built apartment buildings have no parking lots, since automobile ownership among citizens is still rare. We drove up and parked in front of the building on what appeared to be the sidewalk. The lobby light fixture had no light bulbs as we waited in the darkened hall for the elevator, nor were there lights in the hallway on the fourth floor where my temporary lodging was located. I was prepared to use my pocket flashlight to find my way down the hall in the pitch blackness but Alexsei and Vasily, no doubt accustomed to a life-time of operating in dim lighting conditions, easily unlocked the apartment door for me. After a quick tour of the apartment, they politely left me alone for the night, arranging to pick me up at 8:30 A.M. the next morning.
Despite my fatigue from the trans-Atlantic flight, I was excited about the prospect of seeing an Eastern-bloc apartment from the inside for the first time, an opportunity denied me during last year's trip to Russia. The small two room apartment was simply furnished. Turkish rugs hung on the walls and area rugs on the floors added color to the home. A small hallway connected the two main rooms. One room served as the combination living room, dining room and den, with a sofa, dining room table and chairs, and a large boxy black and white television in the corner. The second room was the bedroom, furnished by a narrow bed and an old radio housed in a wooden casing which looked like it was manufactured in the 1930's. The only appliance in the kitchen was an old gas stove. In the second hallway between the front door and the kitchen was the "water closet". The toilet (ominously lacking water in the bowl, at least had a seat) and in the bathroom, there was also a sink, tub, and shower head, without a shower curtain around it. A long water faucet swivelled serving both the sink and the tub. A refrigerator was located in the hallway next to the front door. Confirming what I already knew about Soviet apartments, there generally were no built-in wall closets in the apartment. Storage was provided with portable wall units and wooden bureaus in the living areas to hold books, clothes, and dishes.
With sheets and a blanket left for me by Alexsei, I made the bed and had a hot shower, set the alarm clock I carried for 7 A.M. and got to bed. It was then I realized it had been over 32 hours since I awoke in my own bed in Santa Fe. Surprisingly, I was not as fatigued as I'd expected to be. Perhaps it was the excitement and anticipation of my next two days experiences. I slept deeply finally.
Alexsei and Vasily arrived for our scheduled meeting the next morning. It was a pleasant day with a hazy sun filtering through the clouds. At my request, we drove first to the Babi Yar Memorial located in a lush green park about 10 minutes from the apartment in a business suburb of the city. The Memorial is an impressive and stunning sculpture of abstract human figures. At its base are cement steps leading up to three plaques with Hebrew, Ukrainian and Russian inscriptions.
One here is reminded of the horror connected to the founding of this monument. Beneath the Memorial is a large grassy circular pit in which, over a two day period beginning September 29, 1941, units of the Einsatzgruppen C of the Nazi SS shot to death 33,771 Jews. The mass killing was a reaction to sabotage activity by Russian partisans in Kiev after its occupation by the Germans. Reacting to this resistance, the Nazis issued leaflets throughout the city ordering Jews to report to Babi Yar for resettlement or face arrest and death. At the time, Babi Yar was a rural isolated location. After the Jews were executed, Russian prisoners of war buried the corpses in a nearby ravine.
Only a hundred yards from the pit, above the now forested ravine, Alexsei pointed out a sculptured menorah, the eight candle Jewish candlestick used to commemorate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. I was reminded of the controversial 1961 poem by the Russian Siberian Yvgeny Yevtushenko, entitled "Babi Yar," a work which former Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev allowed to be published in the Soviet Union shortly before he was deposed from office. In the poem, Yevtushenko recalls the history of Russian anti-semitism and, though not Jewish himself, identifies with the Jews. I wondered what, if anything, I would find of my own Jewish heritage in Sadgora the next day and if I would be subject to any of the lingering anti-semitism Yevtushenko so eloquently described.
Near the park, clearly visible from the Babi Yar Memorial, stood a fifteen story unfinished office building with a construction crane still perched on the roof. Alexsei told me his new office was located on the thirteenth floor of this building, the home of the "State TV and Radio Company of the Ukraine."
Although the interior of the building was still under construction, I was grateful to Alexsei for offering me an opportunity to accompany him to the top floor's open observation deck to photograph Kiev.
Reaching the top of the building required a plan which allowed me to evade the scrutiny of the uniformed security guards situated in a guard post at the building's front entrance. Security guards continue to guard essential buildings in the former Soviet Union, including centers of communications. To enter the building, I needed a Ukrainian identification card. Alexsei left me in the car for about ten minutes with Vasily while he went upstairs to his office to borrow a colleague's identification card for me.
Alexsei approached the car with the borrowed identification card and briefed me on what I needed to do to execute our plan successfully. I was not to speak English as we approached the building or once inside if anyone was within earshot. He suggested I hold the photo portion of the identification card upside down as I approached the guard and flash it quickly as I walked by. I looked at the photo on the card, curious as to whom I was about to impersonate. The man in the photo looked like Phil Collins, the pudgy, balding English rock star. I was as excited and nervous as a school boy playing a prank on the teacher as we left the car and approached the guard post. I resisted asking Alexsei what might happen to us if we were caught in the act of deceiving Ukrainian security guards.
My mind flashed back to the State Office Building in Santa Fe where I work and how easy it is for the public to enter, no questions asked, during working hours. I very much wanted to see Alexsei's office and meet his colleagues. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Instead, we were required to play out what seemed to me to be a last vestige of the Cold War and observe the security measures still imposed on us which lingered in contemporary Ukraine.
We passed by the guards uneventfully, proceeded to the elevator in the unfinished central atrium and took the elevator to the top floor. After climbing several flights of stark concrete stairs we emerged onto the observation deck. A murky white haze lingered in the air which I assumed was a combination of automobile and industrial pollution. Kiev's skyline is undistinguished, consisting mostly of low white buildings which could have been offices or apartments. I took pictures from all four directions and was able to see the Babi Yar area we had just explored on foot.
We continued our tour which took us a short drive downtown to begin shopping at a store called the Art Salon. In the absence of any available parking spaces on the street, again Vasily parked on the sidewalk as pedestrians scurried out of his way. I was reminded from my previous visit to Russia that the pedestrian experience in the former Soviet Union includes the survival skill of constantly looking over one's shoulder to avoid being struck by cars driving along the sidewalk in search of scarce parking spaces.
I purchased ten painted wooden Easter eggs called "piysankas" as gifts for friends and family at home, each costing the equivalent of $1. Because the Ukrainian currency was so seriously devalued, I didn't exchange my dollars for the local money. Instead, Alexsei and I agreed that he would make all my purchases with Ukrainian currency and I would reimburse him later in dollars.
After a lunch at Maxim's Cafe consisting of open face cheese sandwiches, thick, dark coffee served in a demitasse and cranberry juice, we drove to an open air market on Andreyevsky Street across from the strikingly beautiful St. Andrew's Church. The church was designed by the Italian, Rastrelli, in Russian Baroque style, and was built between 1744 and 1753. Rastrelli's work also graces St. Petersburg, Russia, the former Leningrad, which I saw while there the following week. On top of St. Andrew's Church there are four green and gold onion-shaped domes characteristic of the Russian Orthodox Church. I later learned this is the highest point of Old Kiev, located just north of the main downtown area.
The market was small, consisting of a few vendors with folding card table, selling "matroyshka" nested dolls and black lacquer boxes. These are found all over the former Soviet Union and are part of a native craft. Despite the market's small size, I was pleasantly surprised to find exactly what I was seeking. To accompany my Bush/Gorbachev doll purchased on the Arbat shopping street in Moscow last fall, I found a Bill Clinton doll. Inside the Bill Clinton doll were wooden dolls of American Presidents Bush, Reagan, Carter and George Washington. I also purchased two black lacquer boxes decorated with painted scenes of Russian churches. All three purchases cost approximately $20.
We drove a few blocks west to St. Sophia's Cathedral on Vladimirskaya Street. It is now a museum, dedicated in 1037 by Prince Yaroslav the Wise. Unfortunately, the building was closed. Alexsei told me that some "religious fanatics" had recently barricaded themselves inside one of the buildings on the grounds and had to be removed by the police. I posed for a photo in front of the 256 foot high bell tower erected between 1744 and 1752.
Another few blocks away is a small park where the Golden Gate of Kiev is located. Also built by Prince Yaroslav in 1037 to guard the main entrance to the city, it was restored in 1982. The Golden Gate is wooden and the adjoining walls consist of brick and stone. We next stopped near Revolutionary Square to visit a bookstall in the lobby of an office building. I purchased maps of Kiev and the Ukraine to allow me to record the route of our train to Chernovtsy.
Several blocks south of Revolutionary Square, we visited the Memorial Complex of the Great Patriotic War in a park along the riverfront. The Complex consists of a various green painted military equipment on display from World War II at the base of the ugly massive steel statue of "Mother Russia". The statue struck me as the Soviet equivalent of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
More interesting was the nearby "Pecherskaya Lavra," ("Monastery of the Caves"). This is a series of churches, cathedrals and monuments overshadowed by the statue of "Mother Russia". We lit candles and entered the dark catacombs beneath one of the churches to view the mummified bodies of Ukrainian saints, their faces covered from view, resting in open wooden coffins.
Outside again, we passed the foundation of the Assumption Cathedral, built between 1073 and 1089, which was destroyed by the Nazis in 1941. We left the grounds by the Trinity Gate where Vasily waited for us with the car.
About 3 P.M. and our sightseeing tour of Kiev was over. We drove to the Vladimirski open market to purchase cheese, salami, grapes, and apples for the overnight train trip to Chernovtsy.
Alexsei and I walked around the corner from the market into the lobby of a building where fresh bread was sold from behind a counter. Various machines cut the loaves to size as we ordered a small loaf to make sandwiches on the train for dinner later that evening.
We returned to the car for the short drive to the Central Passenger Train Station and a rendezvous with the 4:30 P.M. west-bound train to Chernovtsy. I noted throughout the day a part of me was distracted by thoughts of what awaited me in Chernovtsy and Sadgora tomorrow. What, if anything, would I finally discover about Dad and our family history?
After parking, we lugged our suitcases across the busy traffic circle directly in front of the large, stone terminal building. I noticed that the old Soviet hammer and sickle symbol was still affixed in stone at the apex of the terminal's front facade.
Inside the terminal, a large crowd milled in front of an electronic board displaying arrival and departure information. Alexsei, Vasily and I weaved our way through the crowd and up a short flight of stairs to the equally crowded train tracks.
Above the din, Alexsei heard the loudspeaker announcement to board our train. It consisted of several engines and fairly modern-looking green sleeping cars made in the former East Germany. I had to display my passport to the conductor before being allowed to board the train. Alexsei and I settled into our compartment after saying goodbye to Vasily, who would meet us when we returned.
The sleeping compartment consisted of four bunks, two upper and two lower, one on top of the other, and a small table attached to the cabin wall under the window between the bunks. A mattress, sheets, blankets, and pillows were provided for each bunk. The lower bunks opened to reveal a storage area underneath the bed frame for luggage.
Before the train left the station, Alexsei told me he had purchased all four tickets for our compartment, but the conductor would probably place two more people in our cabin anyway unless we offered him a bribe. He asked me what I had to offer and, unaccustomed to bribery, I asked him what would be appropriate. "Just about anything will do," he replied. I searched my carry-on bag and informed Alexsei that I had chewing gum and ball point pens I was willing to offer. Alexsei indicated that would be sufficient and when the conductor arrived following our departure from the station, Alexsei handled the transaction while I feigned disinterest in what was apparently a common ritual in the Ukraine.
As the late afternoon sun began to set over the Ukrainian wheat fields west of Kiev, Alexsei told me how time-consuming and challenging it had been for him to obtain our round-trip train tickets. He spent most of an afternoon at the train ticket office, arguing for round-trip tickets from Kiev to Chernovtsy. The train ticket for a Ukrainian cost about the equivalent of $1; if I had purchased it as a foreigner, I would have paid about $70. The problem Alexsei encountered in purchasing round-trip tickets was that the black market value of the tickets increased when sold separately. Approximately 60% of the tickets were sold as one-way tickets on the black market, making round-trip tickets hard to acquire. With much persistence, Alexsei was somehow able to persuade the ticket agent to sell him the two round-trip tickets we needed.
I told Alexsei, by contrast, that I made my travel arrangements for this trip entirely by phone through my travel agent. My only direct contact with my travel agent was when her messenger delivered my plane and train tickets to my office just before I left home. Once again I realized how much time and effort people in the former Soviet Union expended to get their daily business accomplished. What appeared to me to be a simplified way of life had many time-consuming bureaucratic inefficiencies which drained energy and complicated everyday existence.
Our dinner consisted of the food we bought at the market. I contributed my orange juice in cartons and pre-packed cake snacks for dessert. I used our time travelling to show Alexsei my maps and documents about Sadgora and told him Dad's story in preparation for our tour the next day and to help him understand my reasons for this adventure.
At about 9:30 P.M., we called it a day. I found an upper bunk surprisingly comfortable. The only thing keeping me awake was the growing anticipation and excitement imagining I would be in Sadgora soon. Did Dad know I was on my way and would visit the place where he was born and raised and left, never to return?
I awoke at about 6:30 A.M. after a reasonably good night's sleep. It was Friday, September 24, 1993. Alexsei told me we were now travelling along the Ukrainian-Moldovan border in a rural agricultural area. Numerous country roads crossed the train tracks. Small buildings at the railroad crossroads were occupied by elderly women who controlled the gates blocking traffic as the train passed. The green rolling hills reminded me of the Appalachian Mountains of western Pennsylvania. As we entered what turned out to be Chernovtsy, the train crossed a bridge over a small river and halted at the station. We stepped off the train onto the paved platform in the middle of the tracks. It was 8:20 A.M. I snapped a photo of the train station ahead to our right, the tracks, and the people waiting next to the tracks for other trains. The picture would help me relate my journey to family and friends when I returned to the United States by sharing the family history I experienced this day with as many people who might be interested to know about Dad's origins and mine.
Chernovtsy Train Station, Sept. 24, 1993There was a fine haze hanging over the station and nearby hills of the town, adding to the dream-like quality of what I was experiencing. My feet seemed to float above the ground. I wondered whether this was the same train station Dad left from in mid-June, 1911, for Bremen and America.
Alexsei and I took a brief walk toward the Baroque-style train terminal where we met our local guide, Yuri, and his friend, Valentin, who would serve as our local driver. Yuri also worked for Alexsei's employer, the Ukrainian Radio and Television Company, in Chernovtsy. Alexsei, I had learned before leaving home, had never been to Chernovtsy. I contacted him in order to be taken there, if possible. Alexsei had arranged for his colleague Yuri to spend the day with us. Yuri and Valentin spoke very little, if any, English, but they became my friends and part of my band of guides and guardian angels which continued to expand as I travelled.
While sitting in Valentin's car outside the train station, I asked Yuri, through Alexsei, how old he thought the train station was. His translated reply was "about 150 years old". Wasn't this was in fact the train station from which Dad left for Bremen in June, 1911 and described to me 61 years later as he dictated his taped autobiography to me?
Our first stop would be for breakfast. We drove up a steep cobblestone street through downtown Chernovtsy in Valentin's boxy grey Russian sedan. The aging one story structures gave the impression that the city (which dates from the 12th Century and currently has a population of about 250,000 people) must have changed very little since Dad's departure eighty-two years earlier.
I was jarred back into the late 20th Century as we arrived at our breakfast destination. The modern thirteen story Cheremosh Hotel, built in the late 1980's as a Hungarian-British joint venture, provided us with one of the few paved parking lots I had seen anywhere in the former Soviet Union.
I picked up some glossy "Intourist" brochures about Chernovtsy in the hotel lobby on our way to the nearly empty dining room. While eating the now familiar eastern European breakfast of salad (tomato and salami), oatmeal and coffee, Alexsei told me about Yuri's plans for our visit to Sadgora. He said Yuri had arranged for an elderly Jewish woman to be our guide but first he needed to return to his office to call the lady for directions to her house.
We made the short drive to the Ukrainian Radio and Television Company office in downtown Chernovtsy to make the phone call. As in Kiev, I was not invited into Yuri's office which was located on another cobblestone, tree-lined street. Alexsei and I waited on the street outside the office compound where Yuri worked. I watched an elderly woman sweep the dust from the sidewalk with a straw broom. Across the street, I saw a parked Russian sedan which had what appeared to be a dollar sign outlined in the dirt on the rear passenger window. One could only speculate the symbolism this sign was intended to communicate. Alexsei quietly smoked his cigarette as I observed with keen interest the street activity and continued to marvel how distant culturally this scene was from America.
Yuri rejoined us on the sidewalk after about a half hour and we drove north across the narrow, two lane Austrian-built Prut River bridge into Sadgora. I knew from my prior research that Dad's hometown was founded in 1769. It was known for its local market and as the home of Rabbi Israel Ruzhyner, the founder of the "Friedmann dynasty" of Hasidic rabbis. Rabbi Ruzhyner built the Sadgora Central Synagogue in Moorish architecture. When I saw a photograph of the Synagogue in the Encyclopedia Judaica at the Temple Library in Santa Fe, I fancifully imagined the Synagogue to have been built with adobe bricks Southwestern style, the architectural style so much a part of my own environment.
Of course I hoped the Synagogue was still standing though it seemed likely it had not survived the Nazi occupation during World War II. Happily, this would be the first of many of my assumptions that would be dispelled before this remarkable day in my life ended.
Also from my research, I knew at the time of Dad's departure for America that Sadgora had a Jewish population of about 10,000 people. Pre-World War I was the most flourishing period of the community. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed after World War I, the area was politically administered by Romania. In 1940, the Soviet Union occupied Sadgora when the area was incorporated into the Ukraine. Rumanian rule was restored in 1941 at the beginning of World War II in collaboration with the invading German Army. The Jews who remained in Sadgora were either killed or deported to Transnistria, a forced labor resettlement area northeast of Sadgora in the Ukraine between the Bug River in the east, the Dniester River in the west, the Black Sea in the south and a line beyond Mogilev in the north.
A month before I left for the Ukraine, I received a letter from my uncle, Herman Miller, Dad's only son. Herman wrote that Dad once made the comment to him that this area of Eastern Europe was the "toilet seat of Europe" because "sometimes it was occupied and sometimes not"!
Shortly after crossing the Prut River, we stopped at the home of our Sadgora guide, Klara Moiseyevna Mykalyuk, who lived on Vasile Aleksandry Street. While Yuri and Alexsei knocked at her door, I took a picture of her rustic, vine-covered home. A horse drawn wagon passed by in the street and I remembered Dad telling me, in his oral history tape twenty one years before, that he rode in such a wagon to the Chernowitz train station the day he left for America and I saw in my mind's eye this young man carrying his simple bag to the station.
Horse drawn wagon, Sadgura, 1993Klara, a stout grey haired woman, appeared from the house and sat in the front seat of the car with Valentin, while Yuri, Alexsei and I squeezed into the back seat. From her brief conversation with Yuri and Alexsei, Klara knew I wanted to visit the Sadgora Central Synagogue and Jewish Cemetery, where I believed family members were buried, in addition to attempting to locate the family home. It was then Alexsei informed me as we drove to the center of Sadgora that the Central Synagogue building and Jewish Cemetery still existed, but Sadgora's streets had been renumbered and the family home address from Dad's one hundred and one year old birth certificate was outdated. Also, the headstones in the Jewish Cemetery were in Yiddish, which neither Klara nor I could read. What an exciting surprise to find that at least two of my desired destinations, the Central Synagogue and Cemetery, still existed, and I could see them this day. Once again I placed the day's tour in the hands of my Higher Power, opening myself to whatever unfolded.
Before going to the Jewish Cemetery, Klara suggested we stop at the open air market two blocks from her home to purchase flowers to put on Rabbi Ruzhyner's grave. The market stalls were empty except for several pots of red and white flowers. Yuri and Alexsei bought a bouquet of white flowers for me which I placed on the back ledge of the car as we drove through the central shopping district of Sadgora to our first stop, the former Central Synagogue. Their sentiment in suggesting this gesture involved them in my quest and clearly connected them to this expedition.
On the train from Kiev to Chernovtsy, I related to Alexsei a conversation I had just before leaving home in which I speculated that I seriously doubted the Synagogue building was still standing. I told my office colleague that if it still existed as I had seen in the Encyclopedia Judaica photograph, I would faint on the spot! As we parked the car in the Rehozna neighborhood of Sadgora and walked up a short driveway from the main street past a vine-covered fence, I instantly recognized the Synagogue building from the photograph. I jokingly assured Alexsei I was not going to faint after all.
Great Temple of SadguraThe building of course was not constructed of adobe as I had fantasized while in Santa Fe. An up-close inspection of the building's exterior revealed that it was instead constructed of red brick covered with a fading coat of white paint. The building was abandoned and now looked more like a factory than a house of worship. There were no Jewish symbols attached to the building which could have identified its former use.
While I was taking pictures outside the building, a balding middle-aged man in dark suit, carrying an open can of beer, approached Alexsei and Yuri. He engaged them in an animated conversation in Russian or Ukrainian and followed us into the empty building. I climbed a rusty staircase for an elevated view of the building's ramshackle interior. The paint on the walls was chipped and peeling.
Alexsei translated for me his conversation with the angry man. The building had been used as a machine shop by the local collective farms until its return to the Jewish community in 1991 when the Ukraine gained its independence from the former Soviet Union. This man had been the manager of the machine shop. He was angry that the building had fallen into disrepair and disuse. He gestured towards the leaky roof above us.
I was also told that efforts by wealthy American and Hasidic Israeli Jews to renovate the building had been unsuccessful to date. A wealthy American Jew had visited the synagogue last year, but had died before he could donate money for its restoration. The man told the story to Yuri and Alexsei because they represented the Ukrainian media. Later that evening on the train back to Kiev, as Alexsei and I reviewed our experiences in Sadgora, Alexsei commented to me that restoring the synagogue could create a tourist attraction for Jews from Israel, the U.S., and Canada with family ties to the area, but local officials were too short-sighted to see the tourist potential for the building.
We returned to the car and drove up the side of a shady hill to the Jewish Cemetery in Rehozna. Yuri took Klara's arm and led us inside the fence down a grassy path to the Rabbi's white tomb enclosed by a low black metal fence. I placed the bouquet of white flowers on top of the cement tomb in silence. Like the Synagogue, the cemetery was not maintained. A brown and white cow and a white goat grazed among the uncut grass in an open area between the headstones.
The Jewish Cemetery of SadguraThe headstones were mostly in Yiddish, the language of Ghetto: Hebrew letters and German-sounding words. From Dad's 1974 oral history tape, I knew his father died when Dad was only eighteen months old and that his older sister was accidentally burned to death in an accident a year before Dad left for America. I also knew Dad's mother had died before World War II, but I didn't have an exact date. I assumed that at least these three members of Dad's family were buried here. With no one to translate the Yiddish for me, it was impossible to determine which if any of the graves were theirs. I consoled myself with the fact that it didn't really matter if I couldn't find the exact gravesites - being physically present was enough to honor their memory and connect with my family history.
Beyond the cemetery fence, I could hear the chatter of school children playing in a school yard. A guard tower for a military installation stood at the far end of the cemetery. Some of the students stared at me through the fence, mocking my English when I said "hello" to them. I guiltily suppressed an urge to shoo them away; their presence felt like an intrusion into my privacy as I retraced the footsteps of my ancestors.
I was surprised that both the synagogue and cemetery physically survived the Nazi period and made a mental note to do more research about the fate of local Jews during the Holocaust upon my return home. I remembered a scene from the movie Schindler's List, which depicted a road in a Nazi concentration camp paved with Jewish headstones. In February and May of 1994, I was able to study the issue further in the Library of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. There I learned for the first time of the history of Transnistria and the persecutions of Jews by the Nazis and their Rumanian puppets. Unlike Poland and other parts of German-occupied Europe, however, there were no records of wholesale deportations of Jews to the death camps.
Once again I felt the mystical presence as if being in Sadgora was actually a dream, an out-of-body experience, or I was watching a movie. It was difficult for me to accept that the experience was real after all the planning and uncertainty!
I took pictures of the tombstones as representative of the graves of my own family members. Alexsei and I walked among the graves in silence and I noticed that a few headstones were in German with names like "Yetti Katz" and "Pardel Rinzler." As we left the cemetery, Klara quietly gave me some leaves from the ground to take home with me. I asked Alexsei to identify the trees we were seeing and he replied "Greek nut" trees. I put the leaves in plastic bag when I returned to the car for safe keeping until I returned home.
Still to come was the drive down the hill from the cemetery to search for 366 Rehozna, Dad's home address I found on his birth certificate, which I carried with me, as well as the English translation from the German done by a German friend in Santa Fe, with assistance from his father in Germany. The birth certificate identified Dad's parents as Chaim Reisch Fuhrmann and Sara, daughter of Fishel Mehler, who were married in Rehozna on March 22, 1888. Dad was born May 16, 1892 and was circumcised five days later on May 21, 1892 by Jacob Lowi of Sadgora. The midwife who assisted in his delivery was Chana Zimbler from Sadgora.
We first looked for the family home on a tree-lined country lane. Yuri and Alexsei went door-to-door asking residents if they knew the location of the Reisch home. I waited on the street by the car. After about four stops we were directed down the street to the home of an elderly woman. By now, we had collected a small gathering of curious neighbors who walked beside the car with us to the house. We stopped the car and walked down a dirt driveway off the main road where there were two houses.
My guides knocked on the door of the house at the end of the driveway. It was the home of a middle-aged woman who told Yuri and Alexsei that the elderly woman in the next house might remember the Reisch family. The elderly woman was very hard of hearing, we were informed, so the middle-aged woman knocked loudly on her door and then walked to a nearby window to attract her attention.
A few moments later the elderly woman, who appeared to be in her eighties, emerged from the house wearing a long red house coat, her head covered by a white scarf. Alexsei showed her Dad's birth certificate and the composite photograph of Dad's family I had also brought with me as two neighbors looked on. The elderly woman told Alexsei she was born in 1916 (5 years after Dad's departure from Sadgora) but that she remembered the Reisch family members who remained in Sadgora and the location of the family home. It was a two story house with a second floor balcony across the street from the synagogue we had visited earlier. By now I was close to tears and feeling Dad's presence with me very strongly. To be directed to my grandfather's home on this already remarkable and historic day was at once dreamlike and yet painfully real and I shall find it difficult to feel this depth of emotion again.
We drove back down the road into town and turned right onto Sadgora's main street. A pink house on the right across the street from the synagogue had the distinctive second floor balcony. Yuri, Alexsei and I got out of the car and walked into the backyard of the house to speak with one of the residents. She did not know if this was the Reisch house because she had only lived there for a year. But yet another neighbor confirmed that this was indeed the Reisch house. Of course I took pictures of the house and the street. Alexsei insisted he take a picture of me in front of the house. I wondered if this was really true; could this really be the family house? I decided to dispel my internal doubts by declaring it was the family house. I jokingly told Alexsei that it was my "European villa."
The REISCH house of SadguraThe balcony was particularly fascinating to me because I realized now how Dad could have painted the synagogue from memory seventy or more years later. It was just across the street from his house and he would have seen it everyday. After I returned home, I realized I never asked my guides for the house's address nor permission to look inside the house. I was so moved by the unfolding events that such requests would have been much too logical. I was still in a magical state of wonder created by the totality of the experience since I stepped off the train that morning. My dream of travelling to Sadgora and finding almost everything I wanted to see had been realized.
Klara waited for us in the car and we took her home, our tour of Sadgora having been completed. Alexsei took a picture of Klara, her husband and me in front of their house. I gave Klara copies of Dad's passport, birth certificate and the Encyclopedia Judaica article about Sadgora, along with my Santa Fe address. Alexsei wrote her address in my journal in Russian and translated it for me so I could write her a thank-you note after I returned home. I did eventually write her the thank-you note but never received a reply. I thought again with infinite gratitude about all the guides and guardian angels, arranged and unplanned, who appeared today to help me.
At 1:45 P.M., after approximately three hours in Sadgora, we again crossed the Prut River and returned to Chernovtsy. This day was "an unrepeatable miracle".
"And I believe that only one person in a thousand know the trick of really living in the present. Most of us spend 59 minutes an hour living in the past with regret for lost joys, or shame for things badly done - both utterly hopeless and weakening or in a future wish we either long for or dread - the only way to live is to accept each minute as an unrepeatable miracle, which is exactly what it is - a miracle and unrepeatable."
I. L. Miller
Copyright © 1998 Clifford M. Rees