My Trip to Verkhnyaya Bystra (Vishni Bystra)
On August 29th and August 30th 2003 I went on a JewishGen trip to the village of Visni Bystry, which is now located in the Ukraine. This was the village where my mother, Etta Freilich Wandrei, and my aunt, Pnina Fixler Lesser, were born and raised.
The village is now located in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine. One of the challenges of doing research in this part of the world is the shifting national border. For example, this part of the Carpathians was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I. Between the two wars it was part of the Republic of Czechoslovakia. In 1938, after Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, he gave this area back to Hungary, which was an ally of his. In 1944 the Germans occupied Hungary and this area was the first whose Jews were evacuated to Auschwitz. The area had strong Ukrainian nationalists so after the war, the area was given to the Ukrainian Socialist Republic and it is now in the independent country of Ukraine in the Zakarpatska Oblast.
Because of these shifts in ownership, even the name of the town is different in different languages. With Slavic languages there is also the issue of transliteration of the Slavic alphabet. The current Ukrainian spelling is Verkhnyaya Bystra but I have also found it spelled as Verkhniy Bystryy and Verchnja Bystryj. I refer to the town as Vishni Bystry because that is how my mother always referred to it. To complicate matters, about 20 kilometers south of Vishni Bystry is another town, Niznie Bystra. Vishni Bistry, by the way, means "upper creek" and Niznie Bystra means "lower creek."
We set out on Friday August 29, 2003 with my wonderful guide Svetlana and our driver Chutan after I spent the night in the Grand Hotel in Lvov (also a town name with many spellings, such as Lviv, L'vov, L'viv, and in Polish Lemberg). We headed south initially passing through miles of relatively flat Ukrainian countryside. Then we started to climb. Finally we reached a crest that was on the border entering Zakarpatska Oblast. This was a beautiful spot. When my mother was growing up, this was the border with Poland and she talks about hiking up to this spot to meet with her Polish relatives.
The site of the former border with Poland, now the border of Transcarpathia state in Ukraine. This was a mass killing site during the War.
The mountains became more and more beautiful. They are fir-covered mountains of moderate height and because it rains in the summer, they were very green. Because this was late August, all of the fruit trees and vegetable and flower gardens were at their height. The air was clean, the sky was blue.
Finally we came to the first town I was looking for, Torun.
Torun is famous as the site of the first Hebrew school in this
building is still there but it is locked up and in
disrepair. This school was started by Smuel Freilich, who was the
father of Hadassah Freilich Lieberman, the wife of American
Presidential candidate and senator from Connecticut Joseph Lieberman.
She may or may not be a distant relative. My mother told me this had
been a Zionist village (Vishni Bystra was, like most of the area, ultra
Orthodox and anti-Zionist) and she had an uncle who lived in Torun.
Because her grandmother (who raised her)
was perturbed about her Zionist aspirations, she used to lie and tell her grandmother that she was going to Torun to visit her uncle and instead she would go to a Zionist meeting. It was about five kilometers from Visni Bystry, a half-hour walk.
Then about five kilometers south of Torun we came to another village. There was no sign announcing the town's name but, looking at our Ukrainian map, it had to be Visni Bystry and indeed it was. I got chills. I should mention now that throughout my visit I had the feeling of being in a dream. It was unbelievable to me that I was actually "walking where my ancestors had walked." This place that I heard about from my mother seemed like it must be the end of the world and inaccessible yet here I was, driving up in a car into town.
I should mention that in preparation for this trip, not only did I do all the historical and geographic research I could about this area but I also reviewed a videotape that my mother made and an audiotape I recorded of her recollections. She also not once but twice before I left described for me from her memory (almost 65 years later!) where everything had been. She turned out to be right!
We drove over a little bridge at the entrance to the town and just off to the left was a dirt road. Mom had told me that this was the way to the synagogue and the cemetery. We started walking along the road and an elderly man came up. They don't get many visitors from other countries in these parts and my visit will certainly be the talk of the village for months to come. They had only had two or three other visitors over the years, including the Hoffmans who now live in Boro Park in Brooklyn, New York.
I should also now say a word about the villagers. Of course there are no Jews left. The villagers are ethnic Ukrainians. I found them to be quite friendly and inquisitive. I asked Svetlana is she had ever encountered anti-Semitism on these trips. She said that in the five years of escorting people on these Jewish heritage trips, it had only occurred once. While no one remembered my family names (Fixler and Freilich), many of them remember where the synagogue and the Jewish houses had been. Many of them said that their parents had worked for the Jews and the Jews had treated them well. In some of the historical background reading I did for my trip and in my mother's testimony, I also found collaboration that, until the Hungarians took over, relationships between the Ukrainians and the Jews were mutually respectful. I got the sense that they were curious about this part of their village's past.
This 79 year old man, whose name was Vasyl Foros, claimed that his father had been Jewish and had left he and his mother when he was a child. He said he lived in an old Jewish house and offered to show it to us. As we stood in the doorway, I noticed on the right doorframe the indentation of a mezuzah. We entered the house. It had a front room and a back room. This man was obviously very poor and not a very good housekeeper. In the front room was the stove that seemed to be made of concrete. It had shelves on top and I finally understood what my mother had told me about how, for Shabbat, they would wrap food up and put it in the cabinet above the stove to stay warm. In the back room was his bedroom. He wanted me to taste his honey and I obliged.
|The house of Vasyl Foros, an old Jewish house||The indentation of a mezzuzah on the doorframe||The stove inside Mr. Foros'house|
This gentleman accompanied us as we continued up the road. We passed another house just beyond his, the house of Chaim, the butcher, who was also on the town council. I remembered my mother's story about how this man didn't like children very much and how they used to steal his raspberries and he would go to the families and ask them to punish the kids and the families would agreed but didn't.
Further on the right we came to a gravel area by the river. The man said that the river had changed paths but that this gravel area had been the site of both the synagogue and the Czech school.
Site of the synagogue and Czech school
All the children in the village, Jewish and Ukrainian, had attended the same school, one that was affiliated with the Orthodox church. When the Czech government built a Czech school (a secular school that was in the Czech language), all of the Jewish children transferred to it and the Ukrainian children stayed at the Ukrainian school. There were no signs of either the synagogue or the school having been there. The synagogue had survived the war and like all synagogues in the former Soviet Union (with the exception of the one in Chust), it had been used for something else, in this case a club. Because it had been so close to the river water had rotted out the wood and it was torn down and people had used the wood as building material. The old man said he remembered as a boy in the late 1930's the Ukrainian children taunting the Jewish children by pulling their sideburns.
He also said this was the site where the Germans rounded up the Jews. He said that the old people were taken to a spot high in the mountains and shot into mass graves (see the earlier photo of the former Polish border). He said that the younger people were taken to Auschwitz. From my research, I have discovered that the Jews were taken to a small ghetto called Iza, near Chust. This was a very intense part of the trip, as I was at the site where my relatives had been rounded up. I was also puzzled because my mother had told me that her grandmother, Sheindel, had died in Auschwitz and that Sheindl had been quite old at the time.
I had expected it, like most Jewish cemeteries, to be desecrated and in disrepair but it wasn't. My guide Svetlana told me that this was very unusual. The cemetery had a wire fence around it and a lock on the gate and most of the tombstones were upright. The old man found the caretaker, Pozhar Elmira, and he unlocked the gate and I walked in. First I thought that the Yiddish, which is written using Hebrew script, on the tombstones was gone but then I realized that I had been looking at the back of the tombstones. I was totally stunned to see Yiddish writing on gravestones. I cursed myself for not studying the Hebrew alphabet before I left home. I took pictures of all of the tombstones with Yiddish (there were only 75 tombstones in the whole cemetery) with the hopes that the Yiddish would be legible (it was) and that my mother and my cousins in Israel could translate the writing for me. It was very intense being in the cemetery, knowing that I was probably in the presence of my relatives' gravestones. It was a beautiful spot, on a hill overlooking the river and the wildflowers were in bloom.
Mother had said there had been a mineral bath just before you came to town where people would come from all over in the summer. They would meet the bus and try to find people to rent a room in their house to supplement their income. We went back up to the main road and sure enough, there was a spring by the roadside where drivers were stopping to fill up their water jugs. We looked up the hill and saw a wooden house and climbed up and discovered it was the bathhouse.
The mineral spring bathhouse, still in use
After this we went back into town to try to find the house that my aunt was born in and the house where my mother grew up. We think we found the house my aunt Pnina (and maybe even my mother) was born in. At least there was a house in the right location according to my mother's directions and people said it was an old Jewish house that had been re-modeled and a second story had been added. Apparently my grandfather had built this house. We were unable to go into the house, as it was locked and no one was home. It is now some kind of office.
The house my grandfather built
We continued walking down the road and I was counting houses, looking for the fifth house on the right after the bridge, and looking for a duplex, according to my mother's directions. I found several houses in this spot, including a duplex, but the inhabitants said this had not been a Jewish house. But they said that next to them, enclosed in a fence, was the foundation where a Jewish house had stood at one time and next to it was an old shed from pre-war days. This was the exact location Mother had said the fifth house would be. The area where the house had been looked much smaller than I had thought it would be. It was overrun with wildflowers and weeds.
The site of the house where my mother grew up with the original shed
I was exhausted from all of this and it was already late so we decided to drive to Chust (about an hour and a half away) to our hotel and come back the next day. That night I decided to surprise my mother by calling her (I had tried in Vishni Bystra but the only public phone was not available). She was very surprised and couldn't quite believe I had actually found the village and that the cemetery was in such good shape.
There were thunderstorms during the night. We got into the car and drove to Vishny Bystra and the weather was clear by the time we arrived. I wanted to go directly to the cemetery. Not having grown up Jewish, I wondered if I would do something at the cemetery that might be considered inappropriate and I wondered if there was someone I could ask. Then I remembered: I was the only Jew for miles around. This made me sad, knowing from the history what a vibrant center of traditional Jewish culture this whole region had been. Whatever I decided to do would just have to be right. I used my notes and tried to read the tombstones but I wasn't successful. I "chalked" one of the tombstones to make it easier to read in my photo. I made several grave rubbings. I saw several menorahs (put on the graves of women) but only one Star of David (put on the graves of men). I sang the only Hebrew songs I knew well enough to sing, "Dodi, Dodi" and "Shma Israel." I felt frustrated that I couldn't identify my relatives' graves to honor them by putting a stone on them. Then I realized that everyone buried here deserved to be honored and that most of them probably had no survivors at all. Then I knew what I had to do: I was going to honor all of the graves. I gathered stones and went back and prayed and cried and talked to them as I went from grave to grave. I told them that there had been survivors who had children and grandchildren and that they were not forgotten. When I was finished, I wished I had brought my Star of David with me because I felt strongly that I wanted to leave some part of me buried here. Then I looked at the gold ring I was wearing. I had found this ring several years ago. I don't think it was very valuable. I dug a hole and buried it. Somehow it comforts me to know that some part of me, a Jewish woman, is still there in that cemetery. I picked wildflowers. Then I left. People had been passing by the cemetery all throughout this but they had been respectful and had left me alone.
I found the caretaker's wife. I asked her why they took care of the cemetery. She said that they didn't think it was right that it not be taken care of and that some people wanted to take the stones for other uses. Then she told me that she had wanted to mow the grass but hadn't because it was Shabbat. I was astounded by her consciousness. I gave her money towards the upkeep. This time at the cemetery was probably the most intense part of the whole trip for me
On our way down from the
cemetery we passed a very large house
in very good shape. They said it had been a
wealthy Jew's house. I
found it hard to believe that it had been a private house because of
its size but sure enough, when I asked my mother later she said that
there had indeed been the house of a very wealthy family in that
I decided that the perfect thing to do after this would be to go to the mineral spring and take a mineral bath. We walked in and the bath attendant filled a bath in a private room for me. It was wonderful and very healing after my experience in the cemetery. She didn't want me to pay (about USD$.50) after Svetlana told her why I was in town but I insisted. We walked up the hill behind the house to find the spring's source. It was so beautiful! Part of me just wanted to hike around the mountain
I was hungry by now so we went to the only café in town and had yogurt and fried potatoes and orange juice for lunch.
Inside the only cafe in town (built after the War)
We went back to some of the places I had visited earlier when I realized that none of my pictures had me in them and I wanted to prove I had actually been there. As we were about to leave, an elderly man started running after our car. "I live in a Jewish house!" he yelled in Ukrainian. We jumped out of the car and went inside. This had been a wealthy merchant's house. His name was Herschel, and this man's father had worked for him. He had four rooms. This house was also in bad shape. There had been several other Jewish houses in what was now his garden area.
Here I am in front of this old Jewish house
A room inside this old Jewish house
The garden area where there had been other Jewish houses
This man told us that he had an 82-year-old sister who lived in Canada. She had been taken by the Germans to Germany and then immigrated to Canada after the war. She had returned to Ukraine in 1972 but because when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union it wasn't possible for a foreigner to visit border regions, she was unable to visit the town. Now she was much too frail to travel.
I felt finished with the village after this: I had seen what I had came to see and it was OK to leave now. We still had some time so we decided to drive to a beautiful lake, Sinevir, in the Carpathian National Park. It was gorgeous and there were backpackers setting out on the trails. I wondered if my mother had ever been to this lake and when I returned, she told me that indeed she had and that she had relatives from the village of Sinevir.
This was a perfect way to end this intense but quite wonderful day. We returned to Chust to spend the night and the next day we explored sites, Jewish and other, in Chust, Munkacs (Munkaceve, and Uzgordad, all of which had had significant Jewish populations before the war, on our way back to Lvov.
After my mother read this narrative, she said that the things that the people in the village told me weren't all necessarily so. For example, there was an eyewitness to my great-grandmother's death (when she was in her 80s) at Auschwitz. I encourage you to read my mother's memoirs
Copyright © 2003 Karin Wandrei
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