Going Back (in time) to Skala

by Ann (Melzer) Bergart

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In October of 2015 my husband and I traveled to Poland and Ukraine, visiting the places where my parents were born and raised. My father, Michael (Moses) Melzer, came from Skala. The time we spent in his shtetl was brief, but incredibly powerful.

It is my good fortune that I was able to make this trip to Skala. I would like to express my deep gratitude to the Skala Research Group and other survivors and their families who gathered and published so much information and history about the town, and to Max Mermelstein and the Skala Benevolent Society who protected the Jewish cemetery in Skala and created a memorial at the Borsczhow cemetery where we can mourn and pay our respects to family members who perished there. With Russia's recent aggression in the eastern part of Ukraine, there is uncertainty about whether the west, where Skala is located, will remain accessible. I have the sense that we may have gotten there just in time, though I hope I am mistaken.

I want to share the story of my experience in Skala, but first I will put my decision to “go back” (Why do I say it this way when I've never been there?) into the context of my personal and family history.

A childhood longing

Almost as far back as I remember I've wanted to feel a sense of connection with my grandparents and aunts – the closest relatives among the scores of individuals in both my parents' families who were murdered during the Holocaust. A few photos of them, and even fewer mementos, managed to escape obliteration – a tefillin case my grandmother embroidered for my father when he became a Bar Mitzvah and a handkerchief bag made for my mother by one of her favorite aunts. I did not know of these treasures until I was an adult.

My parents volunteered very little about their families as I was growing up. It must have given them incredible pain when as a very young child I asked them why I didn't have any grandparents. I'm sure I sensed this, as children do, since I recall always feeling afraid to ask about our relatives. I believed that doing so might bring on a tsunami of grief.

Both my mother and father made it clear that they never wanted to return to Poland, though surprisingly we made a family trip to Germany and Austria during my childhood. I was in my teens when my father attended a medical convention in Frankfurt, Germany with my sister and me in tow. On that trip we also went to Vienna, where he was in medical school before and during the Anschluss until he was deported to Poland right after Christallnacht -- on the eve of his last final exams. I have never seen him as depressed when he walked the streets of Vienna and saw with his own eyes that there were no Jewish faces to be seen. It was overwhelming for me to witness his pain. I couldn't wait to leave the Austria.

Breaking the silence

At some point in young adulthood I began to feel that I had a right to learn about the family I had never known, and asked for stories of my parents' early lives. To my relief, the sky did not fall down (I'm of the Chicken Little books generation). My parents' stories were few and far between, but I cherished them. Having a limited capacity to remember all the new names and relationships, I started to put together a primitive family tree, and engaged my parents and the few surviving members of our extended families in helping with this project. Fragments of information began to come together, and for me also a growing sense of having roots.

When my father reached his early eighties I asked both of my parents if I could audiotape their life histories. They agreed. In the course of this taping (1993-1994) I learned that each had kept letters and postcards they had received from their immediate families during the nightmare years before they were murdered. In 1995, just a year before his death, my father agreed to translate the letters from his mother and sister, and I taped the translations. All these tapes remained in a safe deposit box for the next twenty years.

I lived my life through the middle years – busy with family, work, and the community of friends which has always served as my own extended family. My life was focused on the present and future. Aside from carefully asking an occasional question about their families, within my relationship with each of my parents I subdued my curiosity about the country where so many generations before us had made their home. Since they never wanted to “set foot in that country” it felt disloyal to experience my desire to see the places where my parents had grown up. Instead I eagerly consumed the novels and short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, grateful for the rich descriptions of Polish-Jewish life in the big cities (Lodz, where my mother's family lived), as well as the shtetls (Skala – where my father's family was).

Healing the hatred

Almost a decade after my father died I had a series of experiences which made me painfully aware of how my inherited prejudice toward Germans was creating obstacles in my life. I chose to tackle this hatred by talking about these feelings with a number of fellow members of a professional organization in which I'm very active. They were Germans, my age and younger. To my amazement they wanted to know how the Holocaust had affected my life, and listened with open hearts. These conversations, as well as a growing friendship with one of the German women I had been speaking with, led to a decision to attend the annual conference of this organization to be held in Cologne two years later. The next two years were spent in trepidation, preparation, and anticipation. I read novels about German rescuers, as well as accounts of intergroup dialogue and other kinds of intentional encounters between Germans and Jews of my generation. I also spoke with other Jews who were further along in the process I was just beginning.

My visit to Germany and my experiences there resulted in the kind of healing I was hoping for. I became able to see each German person I met as an individual, and to hear the German language without having an intense visceral response and concurrent desire to flee. A burden lifted from my soul. I tell this story here because without my engagement with Germany and Germans I don't think I could have managed a trip to Poland and Ukraine.

Deciding to go to my ancestral homeland

Freed from the overwhelming anger and outrage of my earlier years I became able to feel curiosity and sadness, and sought a way to actively grieve my lost relatives. I also needed to wait until my mother's death in order to consider going to Poland. Though my mother died in 2010, it was not till 2015 that I made arrangements to take this journey. A professional meeting I very much wanted to attend was to be held in Lithuania. When I realized that this country shares a border with Poland I know it was the right time. Since my father's shtetl is now part the Ukraine, that meant my husband and I would be visiting both countries.

What did I hope this trip would do for me? In recent years I have felt a strong need for my feet to touch the earth and my eyes to look around in the places where my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and those before them conducted their daily lives. These places do not look the same now in terms of their streets and buildings, but the surrounding landscapes are the same and some actual structures remain, like the kehillah in Skala. I knew that this kind of sensory contact would be enough for me. My other goal was to be in the places where family members suffered and met their end – to bear witness in the only way I could and to mourn their lost lives. These places, with their memorials to large numbers of our martyrs, are the only cemeteries survivor families have.

Preparing for the journey

Skala on the River Zbrucz, the memorial book published by the Skala Research Group, served as my anchor as I got ready to go to Ukraine. I devoured most of its pages, gathering images of life in Skala before WWII and the destruction of the Jewish community. It was an invaluable resource. I also spoke with Tony Hausner, head of this group, who recommended a wonderful guide and answered many questions. It heartened me to know that there is an active community of descendants of Skala Jews who, like me, want to know about the lives of our ancestors. To my delight, Tony also connected me with Uri Melzer, a distant cousin in Israel who shares my father's last name. We have met by Skype and plan to keep in touch.

I continued to prepare by doing some internet research, and bought guidebooks and maps of Poland and Ukraine. This was the first time I had ever looked on a map to find where Skala is! My curiosity had been released and was now available to me. I am by nature not a good trip planner, since I don't do well with logistics and certain types of detail, but I was so avid in my desire to explore Poland and Ukraine that I became able to research and plan a rather complicated itinerary. This amazes me and those who know me!

The trip

Fast forward to September, 2015 when we began our trip by visiting several Mediterranean countries, starting in Italy. From Turkey we went to Lithuania for the meeting, and then the day finally came when we flew to Warsaw. We immediately rented a car and drive to Czestochowa (my mother's birthplace) and the next day to Lodz. Since this narrative focuses on my travels to Skala, Borsczhow, and Muszkatowka I won't go into my experiences in Poland. I will only say that being there was meaningful in a different way from being in Skala. Because it is such a small town, and because of the vividness of my father's descriptions and those in Skala on the River Zbrucz, I found that I was able to relate more easily and deeply to Skala than to the places I visited in Poland – including Treblinka, where there is nothing to witness except a vast field of memorial stones.

Lviv and meeting Alex

After a good night's sleep at a hotel in Lviv (my father used to refer to this city as Lvov, its Polish name) we met our guide Alex Dunai. Having heard about how many Ukrainians helped the Nazis with the extermination of Jews, I had been worried about what kind of person was going to accompany us into such an intensely emotional experience. Luckily I quickly found that Alex was a warm and delightful human being, as well as a knowledgeable historian who loved being a guide to survivor families. With the comfort of my husband's love and support, and now knowing that we had a safe guide, I felt ready to begin this pilgrimage.

Nearing Skala

So much happened, but I will share the experiences that stand out for me. First was seeing a sign on the road indicating how many kilometers we were from Skala. Alex pointed it out, since I can't read Ukrainian. I felt excitement and disbelief. All those years of hearing my father mention this little town – was it possible that it really existed and that I was almost there? The terrain looked familiar, not very different from places we have driven in the US. This surprised me, as though somehow the area near Skala should look completely different from any place I have ever been. I now think that the place had developed a mythical quality for me, but this was quickly changing!

Arriving in Skala

More and more eager to arrive, I was thrilled to see the sign that we were entering the town itself. I was starting to feel (imagine?) a sense of belonging, of ownership. We first came to a bridge which crossed over the river Zbrucz. Could this be the very same river my father told me about – the one he was afraid to swim in because my grandmother feared drowning and passed this fear on to her son who passed it on to me? This river looked like many I'd seen before, and was narrower than I had imagined. Still it felt very good to see the real thing.

The first place we saw in Skala was a huge, crazy building, -- old-style Russian, recently built but never finished. Maybe it was supposed to be a hotel – Alex didn't know. It was wild to think of Skala containing such a fantastic, costly, unfinished venture. And if it was meant to be a hotel, who would stay there? It was all very dream-like.

Next we came to the tower that overlooks the Zbrucz. I learned from my father and from the memorial book that Skala is located in a very strategic spot, and historically has been overrun by foreign forces on a regular basis. Troops were always stationed in the town for its protection. Another landmark now became real to me. From the tower we drove into town, first coming to the kehillah, the community center and center of Jewish cultural life that I had recently read about in the memorial book. I don't recall my father mentioning it, but it was built during the time he lived there. Here was a building that he had looked at and been in, along with other family members. It had survived, and I examined it with some reverence. This building gave me the first feeling of continuity I'd been seeking.

The town square, our next stop, was dominated by the statue of a man on a horse, which I believe had been added during the Soviet years, but it was quite possible that some of the surrounding buildings dated back to my father's time. I was struck by the colorful paint on some of these buildings. This color existed alongside much shabbiness and disrepair. Was it like this when Jews lived here, or did they manage to take better care of their homes, despite their poverty?

I took a walk down the few streets in the center of town where the Jews had been concentrated, consulting the map drawn from the recollections of Max Mermelstein. There were two buildings (or sites) that I was looking for. One was the house my father lived in as a child, before his father had a disabling stroke as a relatively young man. The second was the building inherited by my maternal great-grandmother Klinger. My father and his mother and sisters moved into this house after my grandfather went to Muszkatowka to be cared for in his parents' home. As I explored these Skala streets I was keenly aware that I was walking exactly where my family had walked many years ago. This was a profoundly moving experience.

The last place I saw in town that day was the Catholic Church, which I think is the same building that existed in my father's day. I found myself wondering about the priest of that time. Was he the kind who would call for pogroms at Easter time? Was the pogrom that became my father's very first memory incited by local people, or by a band of roaming Cossacks?

It was now getting dark, so we proceeded to our hotel. Alex had urged us to stay in another town for the night, but I had insisted that I wanted to spend the night in Skala and not interrupt our visit. The hotel was a shock for us. Like the mystery building we had seen as we entered town, it was another crazy structure – a surreal, Disney-like fantasy place that looked like a cave (yes, a cave!) inside. Alex told us that it had been built on top of the old Skala mikva. The manager assured us that nothing was left of the mikva, but when I saw the sauna and the pool, with its walls of large rocks and its water apparently coming directly from the river or a local stream, I doubted that. I was convinced that this woman was not being honest, and at the same time I told myself that if I went into the sauna and pool I might be bathing in a room which held some of the rocks from the original mikva where my grandmother and other female relatives had bathed. I reserved the area for an hour later that evening. As I went from the sauna to the pool and back again I concentrated on images of my grandmother and aunt. While I was there I experienced several things that felt strange – pockets of warm water in the freezing pool, strange sounds coming from the water source, and a malfunction in the always-accurate timer of my cell phone. Was I being silly, or could the spirits of my foremothers be visiting me?

I am one who does not firmly believe, nor do I discount the possibility that the spirits of those who have died may sometimes visit us. Of course I would like this to be so, but perhaps it is. Who knows for sure? There are many mysteries in life, and I like that. What is clear is that I was hoping to make some kind of contact with my grandmother and aunt, and this was a perfect place to start.

After my husband and I awoke the next morning in our strange, dark cave-room with a ceramic cherub hanging over our bed, we had breakfast and drove back up the hill that led into town. The sun was shining, unlike the day before, and the buildings no longer looked as shabby. Soon we saw that it was market day! Having a congenital love for open-air markets, I leapt out of the car with my camera. Alex followed. I drank in the sights. Everything was for sale – vegetables, fresh fish, breads, dairy products, pasta, sausages, cakes, candies, clothes, boots, bedding, and lots of other items. I immediately noticed that the bread stall had piles of challah, among other types of breads. What was this? Alex informed me that Ukrainians call it pletinka, which translates into something like “braided bread”. Older people generally know that it is a traditional Jewish bread called “challah” and it is very popular. There are no more Jews here, but Jewish bread survives. This made a very big impression on me. The other part of the market that drew me was the area where the Ukrainian women, donned with babuschkas, were selling sour cream and farmer cheese. This was the farmer cheese for her pierogi that my mother had always searched for in the States and could never find – I was sure of it! I longed to tell her that I had finally found it.

Now came the most precious experience of the entire trip. It dawned on me that my grandmother had done her shopping in this very market, which had always been held in the same part of town. The ready-made clothes now came from China, in all probability, but Ukrainians were still wearing some of their traditional clothes, and many of the men and women selling their goods were probably the grandchildren of those who had sold many of the same goods to my grandmother. She had walked these streets looking for bargains, and now I was walking in her footsteps. This was a mindblower! I felt closer to her that I have ever felt. My immediate thought was that my love of open-air markets must originate in my DNA, and my heart filled with a feeling of connection with all the past generations of women in my father's family. This may seem like sentimentality, but to me it was and is very real. . .

After touring the market I returned to the Jewish streets of Skala, taking photos of each building I passed just in case one might be located on the site where a Melzer or Klinger home had stood, or even be the original building. As I shot these photos I recalled that my father said that their family home had been made of stone. I found a building roughly where Max's map said that home should be – one with a stone foundation, though the house was built of other materials. I decided that this must be the place. Does it matter if it's not? Strangely, not really. I was close enough. . .

The estate in Muszkatowka

At this point we tried to go to the Skala cemetery, but the woman entrusted with the key to the gate wasn't at home. We peeked through the gate, and decided to come back after driving to two neighboring towns. I had heard a good deal about both places. Our first stop was Muszkatowka. When my father described idyllic periods when he was staying at his grandparents' home on his great-uncle's estate there, my sister and I would giggle at what this place was called. Was it possible for a town to have such a silly name? But here we were now, in Muszkatowka. I wanted to see what this place looked like, where my father had been able to spend long periods of time with his beloved grandmother and develop his love of animals and nature. Having recently connected with my cousin Uri Melzer, the great-grandson of the owner of the estate, I wanted to take photos for him as well as myself. But how would we find this rural parcel of land? Leave it to Alex to figure out a way. He stopped on the road when he saw the oldest person in sight and asked if this man knew the place. Yes, he did! It was the estate that the Soviets had later turned into a collective farm. With his directions we found the spot, and as I took it all in I thought of how grateful I am to my father for passing on to me his love of nature and animals, which I now share with my beloved husband.

The memorial in Borsczhow

From Muszkatowka we drove to Borsczhow, the town where one of my father's uncles lived. It was there that my grandmother, aunt, and probably many other relatives were shot and buried in a single pit. Some years ago a group of Skala survivors arranged for a memorial to be built on the site of this unspeakable atrocity. This aktion was carried out at the edge of the Borsczhow cemetery, which the Soviets later turned into a soccer field. I am so grateful for the memorial that was built there, and for the beautiful shrubs which now cover the huge pit like a gentle blanket. Knowing that the remains of my grandmother and aunt are actually there, I was able to shed tears of grief for them in this sacred place. I hoped to reach their spirits and let them know that part of the family had miraculously survived – that my father had married and had children, as they must have hoped for at the end. When I was finally able to separate from this place we returned to Skala

The Jewish cemetery in Skala

Our last hour in Skala was spent combing the cemetery, looking for family graves. We did not find any headstones we could recognize. Many are hard to read. Yet just being in this place gave me a feeling of peace because I knew that members of our family had been buried there. I felt grateful that the cemetery is on such a steep hill – no place to build a soccer field! Perhaps this is why it survived long enough to be there for the Skala survivors to protect. Who knows?

I've now come to the end of the story of my visit to Skala. It will take a long time for me to digest what happened and become fully aware of how my experiences there have affected my life. I do know that I came home somehow feeling more whole, and less like an orphan. My ancestors are more real to me now. I feel a kind of connection to them that I've never felt before, a sense that I am really part of a very long chain. This is what I hoped for. . .

I hope I've given you some sense of what this journey was like for me. For anyone who hopes to visit Skala, I urge you to do your best to get there soon. The place may fall to the Russians yet once again. For those of you who will never travel there, I hope my pictures and stories are of some value. If you have questions please feel free to get in touch with me. Click my name at the top or below to e-mail me, and my personal phone number is 847-825-6922.

Your landsman,
Ann (Melzer) Bergart

Text copyrighted by Ann (Melzer) Bergart
This page created by Max Heffler
Updated Mar 16, 2016. Copyright 2005 Skala Research Group. All Rights Reserved.