Excerpts from Trip Journal - Poland & Ukraine May-June 2005

Submitted by John Diener

John was accompanied on this trip by Joel Diener, Johnís brother and Brian Diener, Johnís son. We publish here only the portions of the Trip Journal that are relevant to our shtetlach. Full version of Trip Journal


Let me begin by providing a little bit of background information. Over the past five or six years, I have been very involved in genealogical research. I began by taking a handwritten Diener family tree that was drawn by my brother Joel about twenty years ago. Joel had interviewed some relatives at that time, and that had provided an excellent starting point for my research. I purchased some genealogical software, and entered Joelís data. From there I began investigating and adding extensively to the tree. Not only did I work on the Diener tree, but I was able to compile an extensive family tree for my motherís Luterman family with the assistance of a relative in Israel, Arthur Halpern.

I then became involved with genealogy at a community level. I joined the Jewish Genealogical Society of Ottawa, and attended two international conferences, the first one being in Toronto in 2002, and the second one, a year later, in Washington, D.C. At both of these conferences, I attended lectures by world famous genealogists, and connected with many people investigating their roots. Some of these individuals traced their ancestry to the same communities that our family does, so these contacts were very helpful in adding to my family knowledge. At the community level, I spent two summers with a friend and colleague, Hymie Reichstein, digitally photographing and databasing all of the gravestones, in the two Ottawa area Jewish cemeteries, compiling about 4000 pictures, for the eventual submission to an online burial registry, that can be used by researchers worldwide.

While collecting all of this data, I was extremely fortunate to locate many fairly close relatives with whom our Ottawa family had never had contact. Finding these people has led me to London, England, New Jersey, and Albany, New York to meet these new found cousins. Other cousins have found me, in particular one cousin, who like myself, has lived her whole life in Ottawa. We now see each other and our families on a regular basis. Just last month, I located one of my motherís Luterman cousins living in Honolulu, and this discovery opened up a whole new branch of the family, and may eventually lead to a Hawaiian vacation This aspect of genealogical research has been particularly rewarding.

While learning more and more about the family, I also began to learn a lot about the communities that produced my ancestors. My late father often mentioned his hometown of Grzymalůw, or Rimalov, as it was called in Yiddish. Doing the research, though, added a lot more to my knowledge of this community and the Galicia region, and of other communities where our ancestors lived. As I researched more, I found that I had a very strong desire to visit the ďold countryĒ to see where these family members came from, so about two years ago, I seriously began to think about making the trip to Poland and Ukraine.

As I mentioned earlier, it was my brother Joel who got the ball rolling many years ago. Joel was always interested in the Diener family, and also had a very strong knowledge and appreciation of history and geography. It was natural then, that he accompany me on this trip. As well, my son Brian, who shares Joelís enthusiasm for history, chose to join us on this journey.

We timed the trip for early June of 2005. Several factors went into selecting that date. First of all, Brian, enrolled at McGill University in Montreal, had spent the school year on an exchange in Dublin, Ireland, and was scheduled to finish at the end of May. Secondly, the weather in Eastern Europe would probably be at its best in early June, and thirdly, Alexander Dunai, who would serve as our guide in Ukraine, was available at that time, provided that we booked him well in advance. I had used Alexí services as a researcher a couple of years earlier. He was able to locate some marriage and electoral records for the Diener family from Grzymalůw from the 1920ís and 1930ís, and I was fortunate to be able to attend a seminar that he gave at the 2003 genealogical conference in Washington. I also knew two other genealogists who had traveled with him, and they both recommended him highly.

Monday, May 30th

We arrived in Frankfurt, and felt a little strange being in Germany. Being Jewish, and having had many relatives killed at the hands of the Nazis, Germany was not a place that I ever imagined visiting. While I have met many Germans in Canada, and bear no animosity towards them for what happened in Europe, it still didnít feel right being there. After getting off the plane, we walked down the corridor at the airport that led to shuttle buses that would take us to the main section of the terminal. At the end of the corridor, there was an official standing between two open doors. He pointed to the approaching passengers, and motioned some to go through the left door, and others to the right. Joel and I both had the same thought. We related this officialís selections to what happened in many of the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe in the 1930ís and 1940ís. Some Jews were sent one way, perhaps to be used as labour, and others were sent the other way to their deaths. As a symbolic act of defiance, when the official pointed us to the right door, Joel and I both went left. We did this without communicating with each other, which was very strange.

In the terminal, we had a couple of hours to wait before catching our Lot Airlines flight to Warsaw. We sat in a large waiting area, and spent the time watching the people. We were amazed at the diversity of races in that one large room. We saw blacks, oriental, Indians, and even a couple of Orthodox Jews, quite a different picture from what Hitler had wanted for his country seven decades earlier.

The next flight took us to Warsaw, and as in Frankfurt, we had about three hours before the next flight. As the weather was sunny and hot, we took advantage and sat outside. The warm air was inviting and welcome, especially since May in Ottawa had been cool and damp. After finishing our sun-tanning, we reentered the terminal building and lined up for the short Lot flight that would take us to Krakow.


Wednesday June 1st BELZEC

Once again Alex met us at 9:00 am in the lobby of the Polonia. Today, we were scheduled to leave Krakow, and cross the border from Poland to Ukraine, with a little touring of Krakow first, followed by a stop in the afternoon at Belzec, the death camp near the border that was responsible for 600,000 Jewish deaths in nine months of 1942. The day would end in Lviv.

On Monday, while on our own, the three of us had walked through old Krakow, and had ended up in the former Jewish section. This morning, Alex suggested that we visit some of the areas that we hadnít seen by ourselves. <<<<<<<<<SNIP>>>>>>>>>

After finishing with this tour of the city, we headed back to the car, and left Krakow for our trip east to Lviv, stopping first at Belzec. While Belzec isnít as well known as Auschwitz, it is very relevant to our family history. It is the camp that was used to liquidate much of the Jewish population of the Galicia region of eastern Poland and western Ukraine. In fact my fatherís two sisters, Gitel and Nechama, and many cousins were murdered at Belzec in 1942. In October of that year, the Nazis came to my fatherís town of Grzymalůw and to the neighbouring towns, and during one operation put my grandmother and the two girls on the train, which would take them to their deaths at Belzec. My grandmother told the girls, who were 13 and 15 years old at the time, that when the opportunity seemed right, that she would jump off the train, and the girls should follow her. My grandmother jumped, but the sisters panicked, and stayed on the train. The train continued on, and Gitel and Nechama became two of the 600,000 Jews murdered at Belzec in 1942.

As the war was winding down, and the Nazis realized that they were going to lose, they started destroying as much evidence as possible. Because of this, none of the buildings that existed at the Belzec camp remain today. Several years ago, a campaign was launched to build an impressive monument to those who perished there. On the grounds where the camp existed, in a rectangular shape, are tons and tons of broken stones and rubble. There is a sidewalk following the perimeter of the camp, and on the sidewalk are inscribed the names of the towns whose residents were liquidated at the camp. The town names are displayed by the date of liquidation, so sure enough, in the October 1942 section, Grzymalůw appears. I also located the names of other towns that are relevant to our family. There is also a sidewalk going straight down the middle of the camp, leading to an impressive set of walls at the back of the camp. Two of the walls contain common Jewish first names in alphabetical order, and I took pictures of the sections with the names Gitel and Nechama. After walking the perimeter of the camp, which took about 15 minutes, we entered the small, but excellent museum that was built near the entrance. We spend a few minutes there looking at the exhibits that displayed the history of the communities that were wiped out, as well as the progression of the Germans through the region, as they destroyed town after town.

Visiting Belzec for me was extremely emotional. The realization that I was standing on the grounds that took the lives of my two aunts, who perished twelve years before I was born was overwhelming. As we left the museum, I stopped at the information desk and picked up two copies of a form. The museum is trying to get as much information as possible on individuals who perished there, so I will fill out these papers in memory of Gitel and Nechama. While we were walking back to the car, I realized that we were the only visitors at Belzec at that time, which I think added to the experience.


Friday, June 3 - GRZYMAL”W

This day promised to be an important one for us. We were going to Grzymalůw, the birthplace of my father, Nathan. All of our lives we were aware of this town, so there was a lot of anticipation as we started the day. Alex met me at the hotel, and the two of us went to the bank to exchange some travellers cheques for US cash. As in many countries, cashing travellers cheques is a major task, involving going to the bank, meeting with the manager, and filling out forms. Alex says that he is so used to their system that he finds it hard to believe that in North America, almost any store, restaurant, or hotel will take a travellers cheque without even asking for identification. After the transaction, we walked back to the hotel, met Joel and Brian, checked out, and made our way to the car for the short trip to our ancestral shtetl.

Before reaching Grzymalůw, we arrive at the town of Skalat. This town was important to us, because during the war, the Grzymalůw Jews were rounded up and forced into the ghetto in Skalat, which is located less than 10 miles north of Grzymalůw. We stopped the car at the sign indicating the town name, and Alex took a picture of the three of us under the sign. We then continued on for about 15 minutes to Grzymalůw. Once again, as we entered the town, Alex pulled over, and the three of us were photographed under the sign. We then entered the town with great eagerness, not knowing what we would find.

Grzymalůw, or Rimalov as it was known in Yiddish, is in a beautiful, lush region. We saw meadow after meadow with poppies growing wild. Older Ukrainian babushkas, with the kerchiefs on their heads, were walking on the side of the road, some of them leading a cow on a rope. As we would see in all of the rural areas we would visit, goats and chickens walked freely in the yards and on the roads. A woman across the road from the town hall was drawing water from a well. We imagined that the scene must have looked very similar six decades ago when my father lived there. Probably the only major change to what the town looked like were the electricity and telephone lines connected to the homes, and that in those days, Hassidic Jews walked the streets as well. Three years ago, I had been sent some photos taken by a friend in California who visited Grzymalůw, and when seeing those pictures, I was amazed by the greenery and by the beautiful blue skies. Previous to seeing those photos, I had always imagined Grzymalůw and my dadís wartime experiences in black and white. The bright colours didnít seem to make sense until I really stopped to think about it.

Alex took us to ruins of a fairly large building located on a good sized piece of property. Although this hasnít been confirmed, he thought that it was the remains of the old cheder, or Jewish school. We walked the grounds for a few minutes, and then drove to the Grzymalůw town hall, a very Soviet looking grey building in excellent condition with an interlocking stone sidewalk in front of it. When we entered the building, we came across four women, who appeared to be employees. Alex introduced us to the ladies in Ukrainian, and told them that our father and previous generations had come from the town. He asked if they had any town records dating back to the prewar years. Immediately, there was a flurry of activity, and boxes started coming out of cupboards. Nothing could be found upstairs of any value to us, and one of the ladies told Alex that there were older boxes in the basement. Unfortunately, there is no power in the basement, so two of the women went downstairs with candles to continue the search. A few minutes later, they reappeared looking very disappointed, as they had not been able to find anything older than 1945, three years after the Jews of the town had been liquidated.

One of the women, named Maria showed us a letter, and we were surprised to see that it was on Meylach Sheykhetís letterhead and signed by him. It was a protest by his organisation over the fact that construction had been done, and was continuing to be done, on the grounds of the Jewish cemetery that had been destroyed by the Nazis. The letter had a map of the town attached to it showing the large area where the cemetery had been before the war. We were amazed to see this letter written by the man with whom we had spent time the previous day.

Alex then asked if there might be anyone old in the town who might remember people from the Jewish community. One of the women told us that they had already sent for ďthe old manĒ, and sure enough, in a few minutes a gentleman in his 90ís by the name of Stanislav Mylyi walked up the steps of the town hall to greet us. Alex introduced us, and then began to question him about what he remembered from when ďthe Jews lived hereĒ. Mr. Mylyi started telling us about where the Jewish homes and shops were, and gave us a brief overview of the community. Alex then enquired about family names that he might remember, and when he was asked about the Diener name, he told us that there was a Moshe Diener with two children, a daughter and a son, who was in the leather business. Mr. Mylyi had been a shoemaker and had sold his products to this Mr. Diener. This made some sense to us as the Dieners tended to be in the cattle and leather business in the region. We do have three Moshes on the family tree, so it could have been one of them. One of our Moshes did have two children, Pinchas and Pepi, and our Moshe, his wife Jenta and the two children were all killed in the Holocaust. Mylyi then asked us if we would like him to go in the car with us to see where the Jewish sites were in the town, and of course, we took him up on that offer.

As we drove through the town, we were shown the location of the Jewish cemetery, which now has homes build on the site. It covered a fairly large area, so there was obviously a sizeable Jewish community living there before the war. Mylyi pointed out some homes that had been Jewish owned, and then took us to the ruins of the former synagogue. While the building has no roof, and the interior was destroyed, the walls are still standing, and in one of the upper windows (they are all missing their glass), there is ironwork with a Star of David clearly displayed in the centre. We spent a few minutes around this crumbling building before getting back in the car with Mr. Mylyi.

We headed back toward the town hall, and Mr. Mylyi never stopped talking about things that he remembered. When we got back, we all got out of the car, and Maria came over to speak to us. She told Alex that we should drive Mylyi back to his home, which we had planned to do, but that we should not be upset if he doesnít invite us in for refreshments. She explained that he is extremely poor, and lives in very primitive conditions without electricity. This is because for most of his life, he was self-employed as a shoemaker, and does not qualify for a government pension. He is very proud, though, and would not want us to see how he lives. We drove him down the road to his home, which was not clearly visible behind the tall bushes, and gave him a few dollars. He thanked us, shook hands, and wished us well on our journey.

Maria, who seemed to be in charge, had told us that there was someone else who might remember things, so as it was now closing time at the town hall, she decided to come with us in the car, to meet a woman named Roma, who would probably remember things from the pre-war days. Roma and her husband lived a couple of streets away, and when we got to her home, we found her working in her garden. Like everyone else that we met in Grzymalůw, she was extremely friendly, and wanted to help us as much as possible. She explained that she, too, had known a lot of Jewish people, but not by name. The interaction between the Jewish residents and the non-Jews was generally for business only, so she remembered the tailor, the butcher, etc, but not their names.

One story she did tell us though, was that she had known the rabbiís family, as the rabbiís daughter had given her German lessons before the war. When the Germans came to Grzymalůw and started to round up the Jews, the rabbi suffered a heart attack. Feeling that he was close to death, the rabbiís daughter frantically came to Roma and asked that if the rabbi was to die, and the rabbiís family was not able to retrieve his body for proper burial, that Romaís family attempt to recover it. Sure enough, three days later, the rabbi died, and the rest of his family was in hiding or had been arrested, so Romaís family went to the officials, risking their own safety, and paid to claim the body for burial in the Jewish cemetery. Roma said that they did this because she considered the rabbiís daughter to be her friend. I asked her through Alex if the rabbi was Rabbi Weidenfeld, who was the well known rabbi of the town, and she said that she didnít know the family by name, or at least couldnít remember it 65 years later.

We returned with Maria to the town hall, dropped her off, and headed to the southern border of the town, where we saw the location of a mass gravesite just off the road. While this location represented one of the countless horrors of the Holocaust that we saw over the two weeks, the scenery at this spot was among the most beautiful. The gravesite was just off the road a few metres up a gently sloped hill that overlooks a most picturesque fertile meadow, with cows grazing on the lush green grass. There are two soccer goal frames standing in the pasture as well, so this property is obviously used for recreation as well as for agriculture. In the background, we could see some of the town buildings in the distance. The scene would have made for a gorgeous postcard. We imagined my father and his cousins playing in these fields and along the banks of the nearby river, before the horrors of the war would change everything.

Within sight of the sign indicating the end of Grzymalůw, we saw the sign showing the border of the next town, Bitziki. While my father didnít speak much of Bitziki, he did say that for a short period of time, the family did live there. The two towns are so close together, that it would be like moving to another street in the same neighbourhood in a Canadian city. We drove into Bitziki, which was very tiny, but there were only a few homes there, and we did not stop to interview anyone. We turned around, headed north, back into Grzymalůw, and out to Skalat.

During the war, when the Nazis came to Grzymalůw, some of the Jews were murdered immediately, and the rest were taken to Skalat, and put into the ghetto. While bigger cities like Lviv had large ghettos that encompassed several blocks, the Skalat ghetto was comprised of two warehouse-like buildings. My father, his parents, cousins, and many more from the region, had been taken here. Alex knew which buildings served as the ghetto, pointed them out to us, and this was confirmed by a resident of Skalat, who was walking by as we got there. We didnít find out what the buildings are being used for today.

We then drove a short distance to the outskirts of town, where a large monument had been constructed several years ago in memory of the Jews of Skalat. There was a ceremony there about three years ago, unveiling the monument, and I have video sent to me by my friend and genealogical colleague, Pamela Weisberger of California, who was there at the time. Much of this impressive monument was constructed from former gravestones that had been salvaged from the area.

From there, we experienced one of the most moving happenings of our trip. My grandmother, Frieda Diener, had been taken from the Skalat Ghetto on April 7, 1943 with about 800-900 other women, forced to disrobe, and was marched about two miles outside the town. There, they were made to dig a large pit, and one by one, were shot by the Nazis. The pit was covered with dirt, and evidently, not everyone died immediately from their wounds, and the locals reported that the next day, the ground was still moving in spots from victims who were still alive. Alex told us that he had been to the site of this mass killing, and that he thought that he would be able to find it. We left the town, drove down a country road, but could not find the exact location. Alex remembered that it was not visible from the road, but was sure that we were very close. Some children were playing at the side of the road, so we stopped and asked if they knew where the Jews had been killed. They all pointed into the field, and showed us where there was a path that the car could take to get to the spot. We followed the trail into the field, and right in the middle of nowhere, by a grove of trees, we spotted the beautiful monument that had been built to mark the event. We got out of the vehicle, and I was very moved thinking of my grandmother who I never had the chance to meet, who perished on this very spot 62 years ago. I thought of my own children, and the close relationships they had with all of their grandparents, and wished that I could have known my fatherís parents. We stayed at the scene a few minutes, place a few stones on the monument as a tribute to the people who died, and then returned to the car for the trip back to Ternopil.

What a day this had been. We had visited the town of our ancestry, walked the same streets that my father, grandparents, great-grandparents and many more relatives had walked. We had ended the dayís touring at the exact location of my grandmother Friedaís murder. This would be a day not to be forgotten.

Saturday, June 4th

After breakfast, we checked out of the Halichina Hotel, and began the drive to Kamenets-Podolsky. Alex had suggested to us that since the previous dayís events had been so emotional and meaningful, and that we may not have the opportunity again, that we drive back through Skalat and Grzymalůw. This was only a slight detour, but one that he thought would be worthwhile.

We retraced the previous dayís route, but this time only drove through the shtetls, taking a good last look at our ancestorsí towns, and then continued to Trembowla or Terebovla. This town is less than 15 miles from Grzymalůw, due west. The drive was very enjoyable, as the scenery was very impressive, made up of never ending lush green meadows, and gently rolling hills. I first became aware of Terebovla after reading a biography by Sam Helper, named Darkness and Hope. Mr. Helper was born in Terebovla, and wrote about his experiences before, during, and after the war. The book was of interest to me, because many of Halpernís experiences are identical to those of my father. Halpernís mother was murdered in the group of 800 on April 7th, 1943 with my grandmother, and both Halpern and my father were at the Kamionka labour camp at the same time, and escaped together with about 200 others, just hours before the camp was burnt to the ground. As well, I located Yad Vashem Pages of Testimony where Sam Halpern remembered five of his Diener relatives who were betrayed by a Ukrainian woman for a bag of sugar.

We didnít stop in Terebovla, other than to purchase some refreshments at a roadside stand, and then because we had nothing major on the itinerary, Alex suggested that we drive to Borshiv, which is known for its caves. By this time, it was quite hot, and the idea of spending an hour or two inside a cave was appealing. We parked in an open area at the base of a very steep hill, and trekked upwards to the cave entrance area. Once Alex saw that we were in the right place, he returned to the car. He always worried about the vehicle and our belongings, especially on travel days, when the luggage was visible through the windows of his station wagon. While this cave had about twenty five miles of passageways, the public is only allowed to tour about three miles with an escort. We had to wait about thirty minutes for the guide to arrive, as she was busy escorting a large group of school children. When she finally emerged, she was at first disappointed to see that we were waiting, as she had been hoping for a break, but when she found that we only spoke English she was happy. It turns out that she only speaks Ukrainian, and was losing her voice from all of the tours she had given. Taking three Canadians into the cave meant that she wouldnít have to talk. We followed her on the trail, bumped our heads a few times, and completed the walk in probably close to record time. The temperature in the cave is always around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, so we enjoyed the hike in the cool environment.

After Borschiv, Alex drove us to Skala-Podolska, which is known for its magnificent castle ruins, dating back to the 16th century. The castle is built on high grounds overlooking the Zbruch River, and boasts a beautiful view of the surrounding river and valley. We were greeted in the middle of the castle ruins by a sheep and her baby lamb, which seem to inhabit the grounds. The mother did not appear thrilled to see us on her territory, and warned us to not get too close to her offspring. There was also a pair of goats grazing on the hillside, but they did not seem to mind our visit.

We continued on to Kamenets-Podolsky, where we checked into the Gala Hotel, a fairly new establishment on a quiet street. After dropping off the suitcases in the rooms, we met Alex at the car, and went to dinner at our first Ukrainian pizza parlour. Alex explained that he knew the owner, and that this business was doing very well, with several branches in Galician Ukraine. As it was late afternoon, and hot and sunny, we decided to take advantage of the weather, and found a table on the outside terrace overlooking the sidewalk. The pizzas were very good with an impressive selection of toppings, some being the usual ones that we are familiar with, and some a little different. Brian and I learned that pepperoni in Ukraine is not a salami-like deli meat, as we are accustomed to, but the name of the hot pepper that appeared on our pizzas. That did not prove to be a problem, as the meal proved to be delicious.

We returned to the hotel, and as on most evenings, Brian and Joel played a little poker, and then the three of us watched a movie on Brianís laptop computer. We were briefly interrupted by a knock on the door. Three attractive young ladies appeared outside our room giggling. We will never know if they knocked on the wrong door, or were attempting to do some business, but we politely informed them that they had the wrong room.



This two week adventure turned into the trip of a lifetime. I went into it hoping for a great experience, but had no way of knowing what we would see. Walking on the same streets as oneís ancestors is emotional and humbling. We had hoped that Alex Dunai would be able to show us things that we would not be able to see without a guide, and were not disappointed by his knowledge and his personality.

I returned to Canada with an increased appreciation of what hardships our ancestors had to endure, and a renewed desire to continue my research and to discover more about my family.

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