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Reconstructing History

By Ira Rifkin
Photographs by Craig Terkowitz

Note: This article originally published by the Baltimore Jewish Times on October 11, 1991
Thanks to Neil Rubin from the BJT for sending me the article and giving his permission to publish it here.

Volodya Okhs: I never imagined being permitted to openly document Jewish history.
Chechelnik, U.S.S.R. – When Voldya Okhs first began to collect information on the history of Jewish life in Chechelnik and other such towns and cities in the southern Ukraine, he never imagined that one day he would be able to conduct his work openly.

Mr. Okhs first visited Chechelnik in 1893, in the days prio to perestroika and the liberalization of the Soviet Union. The rebirth of Jewish culture was still officially frowned upon, and Mr; Okhs, a historian from Odessa, was forced to do his research clandestinely.

To hide his intent, Mr. Okhs, who teaches at a university in Odessa, said he was studying general Ukrainian history, with no special emphasis on the region’s Jewish past. That enabled him to obtain government approval for his efforts and deflected the suspicions of local police and KGB operatives.

But it did not necessarily enable the Jews he met in Chechelnik, which he said was the best-preserved shtetl town in the southwest Ukraine, to feel any safer in his presence.

“I would just go to Chechelnik and start interviewing all kinds of people,” Mr. Okhs, speaking through a Russian-speaking interpreter, said during an August interview. “That way, no one took note when I also interviewed old Jews. But the Jews themselves were fearful. Some still are today.

“I would have to stand at a window and talk to these Jews through the glass because they were afraid to come out. Some Jews today still will not talk to me, because they fear arousing their neighbors.”

Not until 1988 well after the policies instituted by Mikhail Gorbachev were in place, did the 39-year-old Mr. Okhs go public with the true nature of his work. Today, he functions under the umbrella of the Odessa Jewish Cultural Society and spends every opportunity travelling around the southern Ukraine documenting what remains of the region’s once-trhiving Jewish life.

Mr. Okhs also leads tours of Jewish historical sites in Odessa.

Stuart Saffer, the representative in Odessa of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, said Mr. Okhs is the only person in all the southern Ukraine engaged in Jewish historical research. “Without Volodya, all this data would be lost. Much of it would already be forgotten,” he said.

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