Travelogues: A Visit to Galicia

by Saul Lindenbaum

My wife and I journeyed to Poland and Ukraine in August 2000 to visit the villages in which my father and grandparents had lived before emigrating to the United States. Our trip was planned with the patient help of Joanna Fletcher of ShtetlSchleppers, who guided us through the many details involved. What follows is an account of our trip—what we saw, what we thought and what we felt. Most of the trip took place within the borders of the Suchostaw Region Research Group, but in fact we traveled from Warsaw to Chernivtsi (Czernowitz), and also spent time in Lviv (Lemberg), all of which are outside of the SRRG area. I beg the reader’s indulgence for including these non-SRRG sites in my account. Their inclusion is necessary to provide context for our experiences.

Our Lot airliner landed in Warsaw on Saturday, August 19, after a comfortable trip from New York. We were met at the airport by Alex Dunai who would be our translator and driver for the next eight days. He is a remarkable young man. Fluent in Ukrainian, Russian, Polish and English, he is informed about and sensitive to Jewish culture and religion. He also has a wonderful sense of humor. He made our trip a success.

We spent the rest of that first day walking around the Old Town and former Jewish Ghetto areas of Warsaw. I had been concerned that I might feel very upset in Warsaw, but I wasn’t. Why not? It was a beautiful, sunny summer day and the streets were crowded with well dressed people in a festive mood, and I could get little sense of the horrors that had occurred there. The former Ghetto area is now a section of attractive parks, tree-lined boulevards and tidy buildings. Mila Street, for example, contains pleasant garden apartments. The rubble that was Mila 18, the nerve center of the Jewish Resistance during the ghetto uprising, sits under a grassy mound at the end of the street. For me, there was a feeling of unreality about Warsaw, despite the monuments and plaques, and my familiarity with history.

The next day we drove south and east through Poland via Radom, Ostrowiec, Rzeszow, Lancut and Jaroslaw to Oleszyce (near the border with Ukraine), the small town in which my maternal grandparents had lived. The deeper we drove into Galicia, the more I was struck by the beauty of the area. It is a region of rolling hills, broad valleys, small farms, rivers, streams and woods. Oddly enough, it reminded me of northern Baltimore County, in Maryland, where we live.

In Oleszyce we visited the Jewish cemetery, an impenetrable, overgrown mess—but with many tombstones still standing. We spoke with some local people, and heard what would become an all too familiar tale of shootings in the Jewish cemetery, and of deportations. We also had our first experience of the warm hospitality of the people in the small towns and villages when an elderly man, who lived across from the cemetery, came out to talk to us. After taking us to see his even older neighbor, he insisted that we come in for coffee, cake and schnapps, and we toasted each other’s health. In the midst of this pleasant interval, our host informed us that his house had been owned by Jews, and that this had been a street of Jewish homes. “And your father”, I wanted to ask, “your older brothers, your uncles, what had they done to help—or to harm?” But the old couple, their daughter, their grandchild, were so gracious, so obviously pleased to have us in their home, how could I be rude? The first excitement of walking in the steps of my ancestors mixed uneasily with the painful reality of what had happened here.

The border crossing into Ukraine went quickly and smoothly. As soon as we entered the country it was clear that the houses were in worse condition than those in Poland. And the people, especially the older ones, were poorly dressed in styles (Stalinist caps and babushkas) that were decades behind the times. For the first time, we saw horse-drawn wooden wagons on the main road. Suddenly, we knew that we were really in Eastern Europe. In about an hour we entered Lviv.

Lviv is a charming old city with a crumbling infrastructure. However, we stayed at the Grand Hotel, an excellent, privately owned establishment with wonderful, inexpensive food. We began to notice that foods we had always considered to be “Jewish dishes”, such as pierogis, knedle, latkas and kreplach are actually Eastern European.

Alex, who lives in Lviv, took us to see the former ghetto. Some of it is still standing and the area, with its solemn monument, was very moving. The emotion I had expected to feel in the Warsaw Ghetto, but didn’t, I felt in Lviv. From the ghetto, we drove a couple of miles on a broad avenue to a lovely, wooded, hilly area on the outskirts of town. This had been the site of the Janowska concentration camp. The former camp area is fenced in, and near the fence is a simple yet moving monument to the estimated 200,000 Jews who were murdered there. As we stood there in silence, we suddenly heard loud barking from behind the fence, and then some big German Shepherd dogs came racing into view. For a moment I felt disoriented and afraid, as if we had traveled back in time. The fence, the dogs—what was going on? Alex explained that the local police now own the property and use it to train police dogs. He said that many people have protested this desecration and that the police have promised to move. Obviously, this hasn’t happened yet. Hearing and seeing those dogs was a bizarre and surreal experience that left us somewhat shaken.

After two nights in Lviv, we drove east to Ternopil (Tarnopol), a pleasant looking city with a big, man-made lake. Then we turned south towards Chortkiv [Czortków], where we made a brief stop. We saw the handsome synagogue that had belonged to the Friedman Hassidic dynasty. It houses a youth club these days. We also visited the railroad station where my father had boarded a train, in 1920, to begin his journey to America. My joy at seeing the station was tempered by the fact that I wouldn’t be able to tell my father about it, as he had passed away two months earlier, at the age of 92.

Moving south from Chortkiv, we headed toward Ozeryany [Jezierzany], by way of Ulaszkowce. At least, that was our intent, but the road looked like it had been bombed a few hours earlier, so we had to take a more circuitous route to Ozeryany. We went through the town on the main road--rather quickly, as it is just a small town, only stopping to take a few pictures, which are posted on the SRRG web-site.

Just a mile or two south of Ozeryany we passed Kozaczyzna, and immediately arrived at Lanivtsi [ Lanowce], where my father had lived as a refugee from 1915-1920. The setting is beautiful, on the banks of the Nieczlawa, a big stream that runs south for 15 more miles and empties into the broad Dniester River in the town of Ustya [Uscie Biskupie], my paternal ancestral village.

Lanivtsi was our first encounter with what a shtetl must have looked like. There is no obvious center to it, no streets, and no stores that we could see. Instead, it consisted of a series of very narrow (wide enough for one car and one cow, as we soon discovered), interconnecting dirt lanes. The lanes are lined with chest high fences, behind which are the houses. Beyond the lanes and houses are the fields. Sugar beets and tobacco are major crops, and many houses had tobacco leaves hanging from the eaves to dry—in at least one case incongruously placed next to a satellite television dish.

The people we met were friendly and helpful. One man stopped what he was doing to spend a couple of hours taking us around to some of the older villagers. No one knew my family names, but one man swore that I looked like someone he recalled. He provided certain details that indeed made it seem that he might have known one of my cousins—but who knows? It was thrilling to be there, anyway, especially as I have an 1870s map of Lanivtsi, and the layout of the lanes looks pretty much unchanged.

Lanivtsi [ Lanowce] has no Jewish cemetery, so the Germans, who seemed to like to do their killing in our holy places, apparently carried out no massacres in the town. That was reserved for the larger town of Borschiv (Borszczów), just a couple of miles away, which had both a ghetto and a large Jewish cemetery.

Leaving Lanivtsi, we made our way south on dreadful roads through an increasingly hilly and beautiful countryside. We crossed the Dniester at Zaleschiki [Zaleszczyki] where the cliffs are very high. It’s a magnificent spot, somewhat reminiscent of the American southwest. Exhausted, we finally arrived at dusk at our hotel in the city of Chernivtsi, in the former province of Bukovina.

The next morning we turned north, recrossed the Dniester at Zhvanets, and drove west to Ustya, my father’s birthplace. The village is idyllically located on a bend of this wide and scenic river. The 1870s map was still accurate for this village, which, like Lanivtsi, is mostly a series of interconnected dirt lanes. We easily found the former marketplace, around which most of the Jews, including my father’s family, had lived. The houses are long gone and the marketplace is overgrown with trees and grass now, but there is a tiny store there, with the grand name of Astoria. Villagers helped us to find the old communal well (long since filled in with stones) which had figured so largely in my father’s childhood stories. An older man spontaneously told us a story he’d heard as a child about a man falling into the well on a cold winter’s night. Incredibly, it was the same story that my father used to tell!

We walked up a path towards the Jewish cemetery. When we asked for directions, a woman working near her barn stopped what she was doing to show us a shortcut. She told us of a massacre in this cemetery. One little girl was told by her father to fall down and play dead when the shooting started. She was the only survivor, and apparently lived through the war.

The Germans had knocked down the tombstones, and the Soviets later took them to pave the barn in the collective farm. Only one tombstone was still legible and amazingly, it bore a family name: Szarfszteyn (Scharfstein). The village woman was utterly astounded that we cared enough to come from America to see her village. I explained that it was my village, too. She struggled with this idea for a while, not quite getting it. Finally she exclaimed, “So your roots are here!” I answered, “Right here”. With tears in her eyes she blessed us and our journey. She would not hear of our leaving until we accepted a basket of her tomatoes as a gift.

From Ustya, we drove further north to Borschiv, via Melnitsa [Mielnica], where cousins of mine had lived. But Borschiv was a priority, because I wanted to visit the cemetery where my paternal grandmother had been buried in 1919. (See picture on web site.) Borschiv is a large town. The cemetery is on a hill, the road to which was in a remarkable state of disrepair, even by local standards. We found the site of the cemetery, but were shocked to see that at least 90% of it has been leveled, and is now the town soccer field. It is a bitter insult, especially as a Holocaust memorial sits just outside one of the walls of the soccer field, on a strip of land perhaps 25 feet wide by 200 feet long. It is the site of a mass grave, possibly of the massacre of several thousand people from Borschiv and surrounding towns (including Ozeryany and Melnitsa), during Passover 1943. For me, this was the most painful moment of the trip, partly because of the desecration, partly because it is highly likely that some of my cousins are in that mass grave, and partly because the place, and the view, felt so familiar from the old photograph. The Holocaust felt very, very personal at that moment. We were all deeply affected, and no one spoke much on the ride back to Chernivtsi.

The next day we returned to Melnitsa to see if I could find any trace of my Lindenbaum cousins. On the way, we stopped briefly in Khotin to see the impressive 13th century castle and church. It was a relief to be an ordinary tourist for an hour, and it was definitely worth the time spent there.

In Melnitsa, we stopped in the post office to ask for directions. The young lady in charge told her assistant to take over, and left her duties to spend the next several hours with us. She took us to her 75 year old grandmother who lives across the lane from the Jewish cemetery. When we explained our quest to the grandmother, she began to tell us about the Second World War. With mounting emotion, she told us of a massacre she had apparently witnessed in this very cemetery. She described how the Jews were first made to dig a ditch. Then a board was placed across the ditch. Then, in small groups, Jewish men, women and children were marched up onto the board, where they were shot, their bodies falling into the ditch. By the end of her narrative she was in tears, and the rest of us were not in such great shape, either. The way the story poured out of her, without prompting, it felt to me as though she had been waiting for 60 years for someone to show up and ask, “What happened to the Jews?”, so that she could unburden herself.

And yet, I couldn’t help wondering, “How about your brothers, uncles and father—where were they that day, and other days?” I felt guilty for thinking that at that moment, and yet….

We spent several hours in Melnitsa as the young postal worker and her grandmother took us to meet their neighbors, and other elderly people in town. We found another tombstone with a family name, and talked to two women who recalled a classmate named Lotte Lindenbaum, but whether these were actually relatives is not clear. We were fed latkas and again received gifts: two beautiful eggs painted in Ukrainian folk style, and a lovely vase, both made by the grandmother’s talented neighbor.

When we left Melnitsa, we were emotionally spent. To relax, and also because my great grandfather may have come from there, we drove east to the small city of Kamenets Podilskiy. There we visited the striking 17th century Turkish castle, located high on a cliff above the Smotrich River. It was interesting, but not without its own reminders of the Holocaust.

Leaving Chernivtsi the next day, we took a more westerly route back to Lviv, via Sniatin, Kolomyya, Ivano Frankivsk and Halicz. In the distance, way off to the west, we could see the gray outline of the Carpathian mountains. It was wonderful to be seeing the places that for decades had been only strange names on an old map. Yet there was a real sadness, too. I marveled at the determination of the Germans to reach into these towns and villages, remote even today, with the sole purpose of killing every Jewish man, woman and child. What dedication and planning it had taken. So many resources: trucks, trains, guns and bullets; and so many people to plan it and to do it. And they had succeeded. No Jews now live in these towns and villages which had once contained so many vibrant Jewish communities. I realized that our visit had become more than personal. That we need to go back there to show that the descendants of the victims are still around—and that we still remember.

As our plane took off from Lviv the next day, I was experiencing conflicting feelings: exhilaration for having realized the dream of a lifetime; sadness over the fate of our people; and gratefulness for the hospitality and kindness we had experienced. But most of all, I felt a profound sense of gratitude and respect for my father and my grandparents who had had the wisdom and courage to uproot themselves from their villages to make the long and difficult journey to America.

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