Dreyfus in Kasrilevke
Zola in Zlatopol
A tale of
Mark and Jolee
During the course of two days in late June, 2002 my wife Jolee and I visited the village of Zlatopol, Ukraine where my paternal grandparents had lived until they emigrated in the first years of the last century. Incorporated into the neighboring town of Novomirgorod in 1959, Zlatopol is located about 80 km northwest of Kirovograd (formerly Elizabethgrad), which lies some 225 km southeast of Kiev.
As we set out on our adventure, we thought that our visits to Prague and Budapest (at the beginning and end of our itinerary) would be the highlights of the trip. Contrary to this expectation, our visit to Zlatopol was the most memorable part of our three and a half week journey. Where I had readied myself for a voyage into the heart of darkness, I discovered instead a delightful welcoming small community still rooted in the past. Where I had expected to find no trace of my family, I experienced a deep sense of continuity with the Zalozhins and Krupnikovs (my grandparents’ original family names) even though they had all apparently emigrated years before World War II. The dusty roads, the pre-war frame houses, and most importantly the continued existence of Jewish residents in Zlatopol forged a link to the past that made our visit a unique and wonderful experience.
Our guide’s name was Anna Royzner. She works in a team with her sister-in-law Tanya and a driver (on this trip a capable young man named Volodya). Our experience confirmed what many others have said: a good guide/interpreter can mean the difference between a wonderful experience and one that does not meet expectations. Anna is an English teacher and Tanya a history teacher. Together they were able to research Zlatopol before we arrived, locate the most important person in Kirovograd to help us in our visit, and once in Novomirgorod, locate the oldest living Jewish person in Zlatopol and arrange a visit with her. And of course Anna was our able interpreter, something we could not have done without, since we only knew a few key Russian words and phrases.
Anna, Tanya, and Volodya met us in Kiev about 11:00 AM on Tuesday, June 25 after a seven hour drive from their homes in Western Ukraine. After introducing ourselves, we began our six-hour drive to Kirovograd, the provincial industrial town we had decided to use as our base for visiting Zlatopol. Konstantin Shchedrov is the director of the Jewish History Museum in Kirovograd. He is also president of the synagogue, director of the Jewish theater group, and head of the Jewish Cultural Society of Kirovograd.
The Jewish History Museum is located on the second floor of the 100-year-old synagogue. Although we visited many impressive museums in Prague, Vilnius, Kaunas, Odessa, and Budapest, this small museum in Kirovograd was an unexpected gem. We were fortunate that Mr. Shchedrov was in town and able to take time from his genuinely busy schedule (given all the hats he wears) to guide us through the museum. There were displays on famous Jews who were from Kirovograd, such as the revolutionaries Trotsky and Zinoviev. Another display told the story of Russia’s first tramway and how the factory owner and most of the workers who built the trams and operated them were Jews. And how the first tram accident fatality was Jewish as well! Another dealt with Jewish history during the Pale of Settlement, another during the Civil War of 1917-1920, and another section dealt with the Nazi invasion and occupation. A list of names of confirmed victims of the fascists in the Kirovograd region has been compiled and is available to look through. And while much of the museum is devoted to tragic events in the history of the Jews of Kirovograd, there are several informative displays devoted to contemporary life. These include the story of the Jewish theater group of Kirovograd, which participates in theater competition throughout Eastern Europe. Mr. Shchedrev capped our tour by taking us to several of the sites just outside of Kirovograd where the Nazis had killed thousands of Jews and Red Army soldiers.
After our morning at the Jewish History Museum, it was off to Zlatopol. It was June 26th. On the drive out, Anna and Tanya shared with Jolee and me the information they gleaned about Zlatopol from Russian language sources. Before our trip I’d only been able to find a handful of references to the village, mainly dealing with the terrible pogroms during the 1918-20 period plus a brief reference in the Encyclopedia Judaica. Anna and Tanya were able to add a bit more to this, mainly for the World War II period. The told us that the Jews who had remained in the village when the fascists came in August of 1941 were eventually all killed and thrown down a well.
After the war, those Jewish residents who had been evacuated or who had been at the front in the Red Army and survived returned to Zlatopol. They recovered the bodies and buried them in a common tomb at the old Jewish cemetery. The research that Anna and Tanya had done was very helpful in preparing us for our visit.
But it was meeting Busia Israelevna Nemirovskaya that made Zlatopol really come alive for us, the Zlatopol of pre-war and World War II days. Eighty-year-old Busia is the oldest Jew living in Zlatopol. We found her by Anna and Tanya walking around the main square of Novomirgorod and asking if there was a Jewish person in town who could talk to two Americans about the old Jewish community of Zlatopol. One person led to another and before you knew it we were on our way to find the home of Busia Nemirovskaya, who had agreed to meet with us. The streets of the Zlatopol neighborhood were unpaved and dusty. Here and there you could see a horse, chickens, and ducks along the side of the road. An old woman was herding a gaggle of geese up the street. The houses were small, one story wooden frame houses, many from before the war. Cherry trees were everywhere. Red cherries, white cherries, sweet cherries, tart cherries. And just like back home, at the end of June people were out picking the ripe cherries.
We managed to lose our way and then got our bearings again and found Lunacharsky Street. We asked a young boy on a bike where the house of Busia Nemirovskaya was. He answered in Russian: “This is it, right here. And I am her grandson.” For many hours over the course of that day and the next we visited with Busia. She has a wonderful memory and we covered many topics: Jewish life in Zlatopol before the war, the fascist invasion, her escape and evacuation to a collective farm where she spent the war years working as a tractor driver, the fate of Zlatopol Jews – like her aunt and grandmother – who refused evacuation and were killed by the fascists, the trial of local Ukrainian collaborators after the war, the battle of Stalingrad, her father’s imprisonment under Stalin, the “thieves” who are governing Ukraine today, and the difficult life of pensioners. And yes, Busia did remember the families named Zalozhin and Krupnikov, although they had emigrated long before the war.
That first afternoon we met in her house and the next day in the gazebo in her lovely garden, with our talk accompanied by the singings of birds. Her neighbors Maria and Tanya came by with tomato and sunflower seeds for us to take back home with us. Cherries, black and red currents and two kinds of homemade wine were brought out. Many toasts were made and songs were sung as well. Fortunately, I had a tape recorder with me and was able to record much of this priceless encounter.
Busia & grandson Vladik
After our discussion Busia took us to the old Jewish cemetery. Because Zlatopol had been such a prosperous town before the war, there had been many valuable headstones at the time of the fascist occupation. The Nazis carted off most of the stones. When we visited, what we saw was a large pasture with goats grazing here and there, and an occasional headstone either lying flat and partially buried or leaning and lichen covered. At the entrance was the common tomb of those murdered during the war, along with a memorial plaque. And further on, the new Jewish cemetery, where those who have passed on since the war are buried. Busia took a few moments out from guiding us around to visit the graves of here father, mother, and husband.
When we left Zlatopol both Jolee and I felt that we had experienced something that was a genuine privilege. We had been able to enter into the life of my grandparents’ village through our dialogue with Busia. As for the title of this little commentary, “Dreyfus in Kasrilevke, Zola in Zlatopol,” let me explain. I have always wondered where the name Zola came from. At first I thought it was assigned by a customs official at the port of Boston. But my research has revealed that the name change came after arrival, and went through various permutations (Zalo, Zulo) until finally becoming Zola. Still Zola is a curious name for a Jew from Russia.
And then I read Sholom Aleichem’s “Dreyfus in Kasrilevke” after I got back from our trip. I was surprised to read that the Dreyfus Affair was well known to Jews in the Pale, even in remote and isolated towns. And according to Sholom Aleichem in his fictional story, if Émile Zola had come to Kasrilevke, the local Jews would have hoisted him on their shoulders and paraded him through town. That’s the kind of hero he was considered because of his strong public denunciation of anti-Semitism and support of Dreyfus. It’s not such a leap, I thought, to the idea that my grandparents finally decided on the name “Zola” because of the high regard that European Jews of that generation held for Émile Zola. I have absolutely no evidence to support this view. But it makes a good story and may very well be true. And I don’t think Émile would mind us borrowing the name.
Zlatopol Jewish cemetery
Our visit to Ukraine was part of a larger trip to Eastern Europe that began in Prague, continued through Lithuania (where my maternal grandparents were from), Ukraine, and after a couple of days in Istanbul, ended in Budapest. We were particularly interested in how the places my ancestors came from were part of great historical events and periods: the middle ages, the rise of capitalism, the Russian Revolution, and the Nazi invasion and occupation. We prepared for the trip by reading many works on the history of Europe and European Jewry, World War II, as well as some fiction. In fact, the six months leading up to our departure was one of the most intense educational periods that my wife and I had ever experienced. By the time we left on our trip we felt we were prepared for whatever our visit to Ukraine had to offer.
I am still a novice genealogist. I write this commentary mainly for others who are just starting out on this road, in the hope that there may be some useful information here that will make your work more productive and be a positive influence on plans you may have to visit Eastern Europe. If I have one piece of advice after our experience, it is to make your visit sooner rather than later. Once you’ve done your homework and have decided to visit the ancestral village in the old Russian Pale of Jewish Settlement, I would recommend not waiting too long. At least in Ukraine, there are still a few Jews living in many of the small towns and villages, people in their 80s or older, who have lived in these places all of their lives and remember what these villages were like in the pre-war days and during the terrible days of World War II. There are not many and they will not be with us forever. But they are our window into the past and can help bring us closer to our ancestors.
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