Our Trip to Ukraine: October 4-11, 2003

by Carol Herman

Editor's Note: Carol Herman accompanied her mother Regina Kornblau Korngut (Reggie) to her ancestral shtetlach. The trip extended to Prague and other European destinations and the account of that part of the journey was omitted from this travelogue.

Sunday, October 5, 2003 - Arrival in Lvov: After a long, long night and day of flights from New York to Vienna to Lvov, we landed in Lvov ahead of schedule at 6 PM. After clearing customs, we couldn't wait to see the face of Alex Dunai, our guide. He turned out to be the most extraordinary, charming, intelligent companion and guide that we could ever have hoped for. We drove to our hotel (the Grand Hotel) and it was very lovely and old-fashioned, with simple but clean and renovated rooms. Though we had been up all night and were quite exhausted, we decided to have dinner with Alex to get acquainted and prepared for the next day. The dinner was in a rustic old restaurant, and we had wonderful salmon, potatoes (of course), and great brown bread.

Over dinner, Alex told us about his most recent experience with his clients the day before, who were still staying in our hotel and whom we met at breakfast the following morning. They were a 90-year old Los Angeles couple who were born in a town just north of Lvov, and had been married in Lvov 64 years ago, in 1939. When the Nazis invaded Poland, a Christian neighbor of theirs hid them and 6 other people in a bunker underneath their house. This couple spent a year in that bunker, then managed to survive the war and came to America. After many years of not wanting to talk about their experiences, they decided this year to return to their hometown, and to try to find that bunker again - and they brought their daughter and granddaughter with them on the trip. In fact, Alex did find that house for them, and the remains of the bunker were there for all to see. Apparently, it was overwhelming for all concerned, and when we saw the old man the next morning at breakfast, he tried to tell me about it but couldn't get the words out. It made me wonder what we'd find when we got to Yanov.

Monday, October 6 - Ternopil and Yanov: Breakfast in the hotel was exceptional and elegant - good thing because that was pretty much the only thing worth eating all day! Alex picked us up at 9:30 for our 2-hour drive to Ternopil, the "big" city that the family of Aunt Regina TOKER KORNBLAU was from, and the spot of the hotel we would stay in that night so we could be closer to Yanov both days. The hotel was a huge, ugly cement structure built in Soviet times, with lots of creepy employees watching us and rooms that were so Spartan they felt like jail cells. And this was the nicest hotel in Ternopil! We dropped off our bags, and headed for Yanov, now known as Dolina - a 30-minute drive through countryside that got more and more rural, and horses and buggies and women with babushkas became more and more common.

As we drove past the Dolina (the current name for Yanov) sign, Mom began to feel like the area felt familiar, but still there were no landmarks that she recognized. The town itself is now a village, with a population of only 900 people vs. the 2000 or so before the war. It's quite small (maybe one square mile), and there's really no town center. So Alex approached a very old woman and asked her if she had lived here all her life. She said no, but directed us to a man named Stefan Kowalsky who lived in a "house" up the road a bit. We got back in the car and somehow, Alex found this house, and this man, and it turned out to be the turning point of our trip.

When we entered Stefan's house, his wife (a true babushka lady) showed us in and Stefan was sitting on his bed. The house was a low-ceilinged cement building, with 6 or 7 rooms that meandered into each other. Outside was a courtyard, with some live animals, and an outhouse. In Ukrainian, Alex asked Stefan how old he was (81) and therefore if he remembered the Jewish families of Yanov. Stefan answered, of course, and proceeded to throw some names out like FRIEDMAN, LAZAR, NUTEMEYER, MERKULOFF, and others. Unfortunately, Mom didn't remember any of those names. Then Alex asked Stefan if he remembered Schulim KORNBLAU, and Stefan got very excited and said of course again, he remembered him well -- he and his father owned the grain and lumber business in town. Then Alex asked Stefan if he remembered any of Mr. Kornblau's children, and Stefan said, "I went to school with one of his daughters. She was the pretty girl with the long brown hair who left for America". When Alex pointed to Mom and said "That's her!", Stefan jumped up and hugged Mom and was literally speechless. It was an incredible moment for all of us; one can only imagine what was running through Stefan's head as he began to think again about those dark days when the Nazis invaded the town.

At that point, Stefan and his wife asked us to please come join them in their living room, where they showed us all of the beautiful embroidery work that Stefan does now for a hobby. Apparently Stefan is quite artistic (though he was an electrician by trade). So he grabbed a pencil and paper and tried to sketch out for Mom what the town square used to look like when she lived there. He showed her where her house was in relation to the synagogue, and also where her grandfather's house was. He said that none of the houses existed anymore with the exception of the GROSS house, which used to be the market where they all shopped. He laughed as he recollected that "at the Gross shop, you could go in naked and come out dressed and riding on a bicycle!", his endearing way of saying that as children it was like a wonderland and seemed you could buy anything there. Stefan also recalled (with fondness and great clarity) spending time twice a year in a long corridor inside Mom's house which the Ukrainians rented to put on shows (this was also alluded to in the Yizkor story My Shtetl Yanov). Mom also asked Stefan about Dr. LANDES, since she remembered him and his daughter well. Not only did Stefan remember the doctor, but he also recalled that he was being taught the ropes by the old doctor Dr. BERLINSKY, in preparation for taking over as the town's main doctor.

By way of history, Stefan told us that there were about 400 Jews living in Yanov before the war, plus 1000 Poles and 600 Ukrainians. It was a thriving town then, not a village, he said. Alex confirmed that that was the same for many of the small towns he'd investigated before. When Mom asked him what happened to the Jews, he said that the Germans sent all of the Yanov Jews to a ghetto in Trembovla (the town 5 miles from Yanov). As far as he knew, they all died there soon after. He was vague about this.

As for the Jewish homes and the synagogue, the Nazis did not burn them down. He said that the houses just stood empty, things were stolen from them, and one by one they gradually decayed. The synagogue survived the Nazis, but afterwards the Soviets destroyed it. Stefan said it was a beautiful two-story building built in 1725.

We asked Stefan about Yulko, the son of Vladik Krivoruka, the then 11-year old boy whose family hid several Jews in their basement ((including Ruth CHARAP POHORYLES, a close friend of Mom's brother Joe). Stefan knew all about this, since he remembers all the packages and gifts that the American family sent Yulko for years in appreciation. He told us about Yulko's wife, Maria Kryvoruka, who still lived in Yanov and whom we would go to see as soon as we left Stefan. Mom had heard from Ruth's daughter Sharon that Maria was senile, but when Alex asked Stefan about that, he laughed and said "she could be a deputy in the parliament!", suggesting she was still sharp as a tack. And she was!

We made a plan with Stefan to return the next morning, and he would give us a personal tour of Yanov, showing Mom the exact spot where her house was, as well as the synagogue, the river, etc. Before we left that afternoon, though, he insisted we have some homemade wine and bread with him in his kitchen - it was simple and delicious, and he was very proud.

After we left Stefan, Alex helped us find Maria, who was embarrassed to see us in her home, but insisted upon spending time with us on the road outside. She confirmed the whole story of her husband's family hiding the Jews, and told us also of the wonderful reunion 15 years earlier in Moscow when her husband and Ruth saw each other again after all those years. She was very proud of her husband, and was only sad that his name was never included in the Israeli memorial that was erected to honor all of the Christians who helped save Jews in Eastern Europe. Apparently, the final paperwork never came from Ruth in America, or got lost somewhere - maybe there's still a way for someone to straighten that out. In any event, she was so thrilled to see us, and gave us her address as well as her daughter's address in case Sharon wants to write to her. Maria wished us well, but really didn't want any photos taken of her, so I snapped one surreptitiously from the car.

At that point, we headed out of Yanov, back to Ternopil for a rather mediocre chicken dinner, and then a surprisingly good night's sleep in our very depressing hotel.

Tuesday, October 7 - Yanov and Skalat: We awoke to an absolutely beautiful sunny day, a very auspicious start to our new day in Yanov. When we arrived in Yanov again, we first stopped at the "town hall", where a very lovely secretary looked for records of property owners, etc. As we suspected, all of the earliest records were from way after the war, but Alex figured it was worth a try anyway. We then headed off to find Stefan again.

When we arrived at Stefan's house, he was all dressed up in a suit and hat for our tour of Yanov. But before we started, he handed Mom a piece of paper on which he had meticulously drawn a rendering of her house, as well as the surrounding area, as a gift for her - it must have taken him hours. We began our tour at the school that he and Mom attended; it was right up the hill from her house, just as she remembered. The school was in session, but when we went in and the teachers saw us in the hall, they all came out to see who we were. The kids were fascinated with the thought that Mom went to their school almost 70 years ago, and now lives in America; they all wanted to be in pictures with her. We had a great time there, and I'm sure gave those kids something to talk about for a long time after.

The next hour was probably the most incredible of our trip. Stefan took Mom step by step through the spot of the Jewish town square - the very heart of the shtetl and the same area captured in the 1938 photo of the square that Mom had with her. Stefan pointed to every building in the picture, then insisted upon standing us in each spot so Mom could get her bearings. We took wonderful photos of Mom in front of a garden and fence that was the spot of her house, plus across the street in front of what was then her grandfather's house. We then drove up the hill, past what was the synagogue, and then up to a beautiful open field which Mom remembered was the site of the annual harvest party in the fall. Stefan showed us the one house still standing - the Gross house - which looks almost exactly as it does in the photo of the square from 1938. Then we went into the Yanov "market", which is just a few doors down from the old Gross market, and bought some souvenirs there so we had something officially from Yanov. Finally, Stefan had us drive down to the Serit River, to the exact spot that Mom remembered swimming and bathing. Mom said she remembered it exactly as it was, and it hasn't changed at all.

Finally, we drove Stefan back home, took some pictures together, and said goodbye. We told him we'd send photos back from our trip, and he also asked that we include a photo of the Yanov Synagogue, because he would like to embroider a picture of it for Mom. How wonderful will that be! Stefan was very emotional when we left; I'm sure our trip will be a terrific memory for him as well.

On the way back to Ternopil, we decided to make a trip to Skalat, the town 15 miles away from Yanov where Mom's mother Sarah ROSENBLATT WAS born. Skalat was a much bigger town, and had a thriving Jewish community before the war. In Skalat, we saw a beautiful memorial at the site of the old Jewish cemetery, and then walked the field which was the site of the mass grave for the Jews of Skalat. It was a very sobering experience. On our way out, on a whim, Alex wanted to see if anyone remembered the Jewish orphanage that Mom's Uncle Louis Rosenblatt built in the 30's (he had already left for America, but was very successful in America so returned each summer to Skalat and decided to start an orphanage). After trying a few passers-by, Alex somehow found an older woman who not only remembered the orphanage, but told us she lived right near it and would like to show us the building! So she took us there, and there was a lovely cement structure that was the original building. Apparently after the war, it was used as a regular orphanage (since there were no more Jews), but then as some Jews began to move back to Skalat, the building was reclaimed as kind of a Jewish community center through the 60's. It's no longer occupied at all.

Finally, we went to see the synagogue of Skalat, which is no longer functioning as a synagogue, but has been amazingly well-preserved. We were so glad that we went to Skalat, since it really enriched our sense of Jewish life before the war. So after a very long day, we drove all the way back to Lvov, had a nice but too slow dinner which none of us could eat, and then decided to hook up with Alex again in the morning to tour Lvov.

Wednesday, October 8 - Lvov: We met up with Alex at 9:30, to give us 3 good hours to tour Lvov before we had to leave for the airport for our flight to Prague. Lvov is a very beautiful city, often described as the "Paris of the Ukraine". We first toured the old Jewish section, many of whose buildings are from the 16th century and very well preserved. We could envision the town square, and one wall of the original synagogue is still intact as well. We then went on to a memorial at the site of the Lvov Ghetto, where 136,000 Jews were kept. It was a stunningly small area for so many people - one can only imagine the living conditions. Alex then drove us to the spot of the Yanovka Concentration Camp, where 200,000 Jews perished - many from Lvov but also from all over Poland and elsewhere. Mom and I had never even heard of this camp; Alex said that many people had not, but it was a notorious place in its own right.

We then drove through the heart of Lvov, which is becoming a thriving metropolis, and visited an open-air market which had beautiful wares from Ukrainian artisans. We bought some wonderful souvenirs there, then stopped for delicious pastries instead of lunch, and headed off to the airport for our afternoon flight to Prague (via Warsaw). Alex saw us off, and we will miss him.

For mom, it was a meaningful fulfillment of a long held wish to return to her roots. And for both of us, it was an amazing, unforgettable and enlightening journey through Eastern Europe.

Regina Kornblau Korngut (Reggie) writes: " My October 2003 trip to Janów (now in Ukraine, formerly in Poland) was the fulfillment of a long held wish to visit my home shtetl. It was my daughter's gift to me on the occasion of my 80th birthday. During my visit to Janów memories of childhood and adolescence came alive as I met a former classmate, saw the familiar river Sered, my elementary school, etc. Sadly there was no trace of my home, synagogue, or any of the Jewish homes previously in the market square. During my visit I met the widow of the courageous Ukrainian youth who, along with his parents, had managed to hide and protect from the Nazis a dear friend of our family, Ruth Charap Pohoryles".

Photos of Janów taken during Carol Herman and Regina Kornblau Korngut's visit to Ukraine

Photos of Skałat taken during Carol Herman and Regina Kornblau Korngut's visit to Ukraine

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