The Galitzianer, November 2007


Return to Galicia 
Linda Cantor  

My friend Cipora and I visited Ukraine this spring. It was my second visit to Bukachevtsy, the town in which my maternal grandmother Pesia Mandel was born.

      Cipora was born in Bukachevtsy right before the German invasion in 1941. She and her family, along with most of my family and all the other Jews in Bukachevtsy, were forced to move to the ghetto in Rohatyn shortly thereafter. While most of the Jews in the Rohatyn ghetto were either executed in Rohatyn or sent to the extermination camp at Belzec, a small number managed to escape and return to Bukachevtsy. They spent the next two years or so hiding in bunkers in the Vitan Forest on its outskirts. Although Cipora was too young to remember any of this, she and her parents and brother survived the war in this fashion along with my great-uncle Joel and his son Solomon (and others).

     It is amazing to think that this group of people survived for close to two years by living in a hole in the ground. They foraged for food, stole food from nearby farmers, and bought and traded with locals who were willing to help them. Occasionally things turned bad and some were captured and killed (two of my young cousins were killed in this fashion) but other locals helped. Cipora relates the story that a local Ukrainian woman—her grandfather's maid, who also became her parents' maid—used to risk her life and bring them food whenever she could.  

     While not a genealogist, Cipora was interested in returning to Bukachevtsy, her birthplace, and to Rohatyn, her mother’s town. Her plans coincided with my intention to continue work on my genealogy project, which involved a specific cemetery in that area. The chance to revisit my maternal grandmother’s hometown with a friend and work on a genealogical project of great interest to me was beshert.

 Several years ago I had received an unsolicited email, written in Polish, asking for money to build a wall around the remains of the Jewish cemetery in Bukachevtsy. There was no wall when I last visited, and this had been the first time I heard of a project to build one. The email came from someone who claimed to be related to the mayor of Bukachevtsy.

     I asked Alex Dunai, with whom I had traveled to Ukraine , to investigate for me. He discovered that the wall had been ordered by the rabbi in nearby Ivano-Frankivsk, who said that it was fully paid for. The mayor of Bukachevtsy claimed that they were not paid the agreed-upon amount and so the work was not completed. What to do?

     I raised some money from other Bukachevtsy researchers; fellow Gesher Galicia member Sol Sylvan graciously agreed to bring the money to Ukraine and give it to Alex, who would get it to Bukachevtsy. Sol not only delivered the money but also used his own time to go to Bukachevtsy with Alex and to photograph the wall for us. All this effort lead us nowhere, as the mayor, claiming that we had not sent enough money, would not accept the funds from Alex and Sol. The money was returned to me and I, in turn, returned it to the donors.

     Fast forward two years: now I had an opportunity to try to deal with this situation in person. Once again we were traveling with Alex Dunai, who not only drove and guided us but also translated and helped us in all our negotiations.

     We met with the Ivano Frankivsk rabbi, who had originally arranged to have the fence around the Jewish cemetery in Bukachevtsy built. He told us that he hadn't personally handled the project—a middleman had handled all the negotiations and money. He thought that everything had been paid for and wanted nothing further to do with this whole project. It wasn’t clear whether or not all the funds were paid to the workers in Bukachevtsy but we saw no point in discussing it further with him.

 The next day we went to Bukachevtsy and were able to meet both with the mayor (a new one) and the contractor who built the fence around the Jewish cemetery. We made it quite clear that we were not involved in the original negotiations or dealings and simply wanted to see the fence completed. They said that they were never paid the entire funds that were originally agreed to; we felt that they were truthful.

We agreed upon a price and made tentative arrangements to complete the fence, including needed repairs (it hadn't been disturbed since the last time Alex visited two years ago). We also wanted to surround the entire cemetery, leaving an opening for entry and exit. We would pay approximately half up front, and the balance upon successful completion of the job. The mayor agreed to allow us to put up a sign or plaque but we didn't want to get involved in such details at this point. It was a friendly discussion and the vibes were good.  At Alex's suggestion, we didn't pay them then, as we didn't want to appear over-eager. We left funds for the down payment with Alex, who will return and have the contractor sign an agreement for us.

We are now trying to raise funds to pay for this project and hope that all will go forward according to plan.  Face-to-face contact still works better than phone calls and emails. Of course, I will have to let you know if all goes well. My hope is that when this fence is completed and we put up a sign indicating that this was the Jewish cemetery, we will have a dedication ceremony attended by the few remaining Bukachevtsy Jews and the descendants of others.

     By the way, these negotiations took place in the Bukachevtsy Town Hall , which was the former home of Cipora’s grandfather and father. What better irony?  We also explored Bukachevtsy and with the help of an old woman found the remains of the last standing synagogue in town, now abandoned. We had lunch in the Oasis Café. Progress comes even to Bukachevtsy and the pierogies weren’t bad.

Cipora wanted to find the bunkers in which she had lived during the war. We located the Vitan Forest and drove around. But how does one find a bunker in a forest? Alex had the great idea of looking for the Forestry office in town and indeed found a worker who knew where the bunkers were. He guided us to them and Cipora saw for the first time in over 60 years where she had spent the first few years of her life. Most of us can only imagine what she felt.

 We also visited Rohatyn and saw the Jewish cemetery, the home of Cipora’s maternal grandparents and of the woman who had hidden Cipora for several weeks before her family went to hide in the bunker. Cipora had visited before and knew that this woman, who had once worked for her family, was dead, but we met her daughter-in-law and Cipora was able once again to say thank you.

     The third part of our personal campaign was a visit to Belzec, now across the border in Poland . Cipora’s grandparents and aunts and uncles, along with several of my great-aunts and uncles, were killed in Belzec and we felt the need to visit and pay our respects. Although no traces of the original extermination camp remains, a very moving memorial was constructed on the site of the camp in 2004. From March through December 1942 about 500,000 Jews, most from Galicia , were exterminated at Belzec. The corpses were buried in mass graves; there are no records of the names of these people. (There is a campaign at the Memorial to record the names of those who are known to have died here.)

     Additionally, we did the standard Jewish sightseeing as well as some non-Holocaust related sightseeing in Lviv, and visited Drohobych, Truskawiec (a famous spa) and Stryy. Cipora’s father had studied at the Music Conservatory in Lviv and we were able to visit it. Since we are both opera fans we attended the opera in Lviv, and enjoyed a pleasant evening in an absolutely beautiful jewel box of an opera house. And because Cipora knew that her father had actually performed at the opera house more than 60 years ago, this was a very special event for her.

We made an overnight visit to Uzhgorod, in the Carpathians, to visit cousins of mine who still remain in Ukraine , and on our return journey to the U.S. spent three days exploring Warsaw .

Was this a successful journey? The end results of the cemetery project remain to be seen. But certainly, Cipora was able to visit the scenes of her childhood and I the scenes of my family’s history. To me this is better genealogy than just names on the family tree.

(Linda, a retired high school history teacher, has been working on her family history for nearly 30 years. She is very involved in the world of Jewish genealogy and is currently president of JGS, Inc ( New York ). She was the co-chair of the 2006 IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, held in New York City .)  

Reprinted from The Galitizianer, November 2007

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