A Visit to Potok Z這ty

by Howard Gillman

The following article is part of a more extensive travelogue written by Howard Gillman titled A Visit to Four Villages written during his trip to Belarus and Ukraine on September / October 2004.

Intro to A Visit to Four Villages by Howard Gillman

I am fortunate to have known my four grandparents. I knew them well. They all emigrated to the United States in the first decade of the 20th century. Except for my maternal grandmother, who occasionally spoke about the beautiful mountains in the village she came from and the emperor Franz-Joseph who was good to the Jews, there was almost no discussion about the places that they came from. And I never questioned them about it. I can't remember exactly when I first wanted to visit these places. Certainly a "roots" exercise my elder daughter did in the 7th grade added to my desire, but for at least the last 25 years I've wanted to visit these villages.

But as my search for the villages neared completion, and as I started to actually plan for the trip, I began to have other thoughts. While I still wanted very much to see what they saw and walk where they walked, I half expected the visits to be a bit boring. I though I might walk around the villages, sit in cafe for a while and leave. I wasn't at all prepared for the emotional and intellectual experience that was to come.

What follows is, essentially, a diary of what I saw, what I felt and what I thought during my trip to Eastern Europe to visit the villages of my grandparents. It consists of the notes I took each day, written up each evening in various hotel rooms.

Potok Z這ty

6 October 2004

The ride to Potok Z這ty, which is to the northwest, starts out with flat farmland, no woods, no mountains. The villages we pass through are to a large degree rebuilt and refurbished. Many new houses are being built. They are built in stages and take a long while. Building will reach a certain stage and then stop while more money is accumulated. The soil looks black, very fertile to my eyes.

As we get closer to Potok Z這ty, we enter lovely wooded areas. We cross the Dniester River, a beautiful river surrounded by hills. We're a bit lost. We go for miles and miles on "dirt" roads, some of which seem as if they haven't ever been paved. At times we go off the road and drive on a farmer's path which is smoother.

===> Potok Z這ty was part of the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia at the time David lived here.

We enter the town and visit with:

The current center of the town is a lovely little park, really almost a small woods, but it used to contain the main street of the town where the Jews lived. They also lived on several streets running off the center. There were two fires in the 1930s which destroyed the center (the Jewish area) of the town. (The old man's memory of the Nazi bombs causing a fire and destroying the center of town is probably incorrect. He probably remembers the fires and the Nazi bombs and thinks they happened at the same time). As we walked through the park we were shown the foundations of the houses (probably Jewish houses) that used to be there.

A couple of blocks away from the park we were shown three houses that were at least 100 years old. They've clearly been refurbished (perhaps many times) but the basic structure is unchanged and it did strike me that David most probably saw them nearly every day while he lived here.

===> According to the ex-director of the school, the prewar population of Potok Z這ty was about 2400 and over 50% was Jewish. The current population is about 2800 which includes 30 Poles. It seems strange that Polish was the lingua franca 100 years ago and now there are only 30 Poles. Zoya thinks that the Poles, typically being religious, migrated away during Soviet times. There is a Catholic church in the town, newly refurbished, which has about 100 worshippers.

===> A Polish language history of Potok Z這ty shows a total prewar population of 6600 and 2600 Poles! The population difference might be due to different definitions of the town. But there were clearly many Poles still living there. Where did they go?

===> There are walnut trees all over the place. "Lunch" consisted of walnuts, grapes and peaches from the ex-mayor's front yard. (I also have a chestnut from Gorodeya and ate an apple from Obchin) [Shtetlach previously visited].

===> During WWII the Jews were marched 12 km to the Dniester River, shot and pushed into the river.

Contrary to the views of the many people I communicated with prior to my trip, there is a 'castle', or rather the ruins of a fortress and small palace, about 50 meters from the center of the town. To my eye it is perhaps 20-25% still standing. We were taken on a tour of the site. Here is the history I was able to get from the ex-director of the local school: There was originally a wooden fort on the site built by the Turks. In the early 17th century, a wealthy Polish nobleman named Potoski built the fortress. The walls were (are) very thick, 3 m in places. There is a domicile, or palace, inside and there was a moat around it. The Turks captured and destroyed the place in the late (mid?) 17th century. At some time later, the Poles regained the site.

===> I have 2 books (one is actually a pamphlet) of the history of Potok Z這ty, one in Ukrainian and the other in Polish. I'm not sure what I'll do with them but the Polish one has some pictures (photos, I think) of what the town must have looked like when David lived there.

===> Did I. B. SINGER come from Buczacz, the nearby district town? The ex-director seems to think so. To my knowledge, before emigrating, he lived in Warsaw and also split his time among several shtetls. But Buczacz is a long way from Warsaw.

The Jewish cemetery has about 30-40 stones. Some are still standing, many are pushed over and tilted. The story I got (from the old man) was that in 1956 a KGB official ordered the cemetery destroyed and the gravestones used for construction. (My own view is that this may not have been an anti-Semitic act but rather just a pragmatic act of an atheistic Marxist. There were no Jews here, the cemetery was not being "used" and one might as well get some use out of the stones). There is a pile of stones in one part of the cemetery where some returned the stones when, apparently, they realized what they were. I looked at the Hebrew lettering on some of the stones but couldn't discern Kropitzer or Sporn. But clearly some of my ancestors must be buried here.

This article is copyrighted by Howard Gilman.

Photos of Potok Z這ty

Photos of Potok Z這ty Cemetery

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