Thursday, July 5, 2012

July 3, 2012 Lutsk, Trochinbrod, Doroshkopol

July 3, 2012

It’s our 18th anniversary.  Happy anniversary, Marci, and thank you for lifting and inspiring me, Rebecca, and Shayna with an incredible optimism and love of life.  I’ve been the lucky one for 18 years…and what a better way to spend it than to honor your family and their memory in Lutsk.  It was an epic day today and an anniversary that switched cards and gifts into memories and stories of your family’s ancestral homes.

We woke up early today to meet our Ukraine guide Svitlana for breakfast to plan our day.  It really helps to have a Ukrainian speaking guide to navigate. 

We have an ambitious schedule, visiting three towns from Marci’s side.  Lutsk, the birthplace of Marci’s grandfather, Philip Levine; Trochinbrod, the birthplace of Marci’s mom’s grandfather; and Doroshkopol, birthplace of Philip Levine’s mother.

Svitlana recommended that we start in Trochinbrod so that we can get back to Lutsk for lunch (no villages with restaurants anywhere in the vicinity).  Otherwise, we’ll be heading out to Trochinbrod at lunch time and will be very hungry by the time we get back.

Trochinbrod (and thank you Aunt Betty for the info here) is the subject of two books, Everything is Illuminated (historical fiction) and a non-fiction that we think is called The Heavens Are Open.  It was created as a model utopian Jewish village.  To that end, it was the only shtetl settled only by Jews.  It’s safe to say that it was 99.9% Jewish….and that’s because local authorities did not permit Jewish postmasters so the woman who ran the post office was not Jewish.  Trochinbrod claimed a variety of Jewish organizational chapters, including several Zionist groups.  While they did not have the kibbutz-style economic system, they were trying their hand at a certain level of Jewish autonomy.  This hope and optimism for Trochinbrod makes it story all the more tragic.

With intention, Trochinbrod was built on a marsh swamp far away from any other villages.  Its residents wanted to be clear of outside influences and they dealt with the recurring flooding by building homes with wood step bridges in case there was too much water around. 

We learned, first hand, of its remote-ness.

We drove out of Lutsk for 30 minutes or so, turning onto a small side road for another 10 minutes, then down an even smaller side road until we came to a tiny village.  Cows walked the streets, farming tools everywhere, villagers in the fields classic a scene as you can imagine.

Of course, no streets signs (heck, no streets) so Svitlana rolls down the window and asks a villager for the location of our guide’s farmhouse.  We are directed down another “street” to his home.

It’s tractor time!

Turns out the trail to Trochinbrod cannot be traversed by automobile and will need to travel by tractor.  While we rest in the air-conditioned car (it’s 90 degrees outside), our farmer-guide hitches a flatbed trailer to his very old tractor.  Then, he takes a wood bench and a park bench from his house and places them in the trailer.  After 30-40 minutes of prep time, we each climb up onto the trailer.  Since the ground is dry, we are told it will be quicker than the usual 20 minute ride.  It seemed a whole lot longer than 20 minutes, but we had fun on the tractor pull.  The family dog was in chase the whole time.  We had strong recollections of our jeep ride on safari in Kenya (Weisses:  “Safari!  Safari!).  We bounced around, sheltered ourselves as much as possible from the sun, and pulled into a clearing.  “Get out of the trailer,” Svitlana told us, and we climbed down.

Sad.  Sad moment.  We weren’t actually in Trochinbrod.  We were 100 yards before Trochinbrod….at the site of the mass grave. 

While Trochinbrod residents hoped that their remote locale would discourage the Nazis from bothering them, that wasn’t the case.  In August 1942, all the residents of Trochenbrod were brought to this field and killed.  We went to the memorial marker.

From there, we walked a few minutes down the dirt trail into the middle of, basically, nowhere.  Svitlana told us that we were now standing in the middle of what was Trochinbrod’s main street. 

Main Street, Trochinbrod

As the photos indicate, we were absolutely no where…just in the middle of a clearing in a forest.  With amazing knowledge, Svitlana proceeded to paint a picture of the town for us, pointing to where different buildings once stood, right down to the names of its Jewish residents.

We retreated to the shade of a tree near the road and began to ask questions of our tractor-guide, with Svitlana’s translation.  He was there with his wife and 3 year old son, who rode alongside Daddy in the cab of the tractor.  He told the story of Trochinbrod, of how even its memory is lost on most in nearby villages, and that he is a keeper of its memory, leading the authors of both books on Trochinbrod to the site on his tractor.  We asked him how long his family had lived in the village,  His answer:  “forever.” 

Marci and Rebecca headed back to the tractor while Shayna and I prepared and then filmed video for her bat mitzvah movie.

I asked her if there was anything else that we needed to do….and we agreed that we should say the mourner’s kaddish prayer before leaving.  So I got the first two sentences out before I started to cry.  In a bid to day school Jewish education, Shayna, sensing my pain, picked right up, continuing the blessing even louder until I could rejoin.  (Heck, I’m crying right now just writing about it).  Another treasured moment and memory, to be sure.

Back at the tractor, our tractor driver and his wife had prepared a big jug of water from their well, sweetened with the addition of their homemade honey. 

So, in review, we are sitting on the back of a tractor trailer, on a dirt road, next to the mass grave on an entire town, drinking well water to hydrate ourselves.  At one point bouncing around on the trailer, I did ask Marci and the girls, “How, on earth, did we end up right here?”

The 20 minute ride back took almost 2 hours!  It turns out there’s a whole series of dirt roadways in the area and our driver wanted to take us on a tour of them.  Good news is that we were able to see several memorials. 

At one of them, all four of us repeated mourner’s kaddish.  Sadly, we can count kaddish opportunities by the dozen each day.

We were also rolling through the forests where Jewish partisans hid from the Nazis (and where even a few residents of Trochinbrod were able to escape and hide). 

The tractor driver told us about his youth, playing in these forests, and finding human bones pulled from the earth by foxes during the night. 

Svitlana told us that at the site of several mass graves in Ukraine, the Germans brought in bone crushing machines as the Soviet troops advanced.  They were trying to destroy the evidence.

We spoke with Jakub, even in all the motion of the trailer, about what it would be like to hide and live in this forest.  Bad news was that the curators of this Jewish history adventure didn’t go out ahead of our tractor to clip back the tree branches.  Whack!  Whack!  Whack! 

While Jackub tried to divert branches as we drove, we either broke off the branches as we passed, pushed them aside, or just yelled “duck!”.  Over time, the trailer filled with lots of greenery, we picked off lots of bugs from our clothing (mostly spiders), and, at the end, checked one another for ticks.  (all good!).

We called Aunt Betty in Delaware to tell her we were in Trochenbrod, the birthplace of her father.  (Sorry if we woke you Aunt Betty but we really wanted to call you from Trochinbrod).

It would have been our dream to have Nonny (Marci’s mom, Irene) join us on this journey but we all agreed (and think you agree, Nonny) that the tractor ride would have been way too much!  We took lots of video for you….

It was mid-afternoon before we got back to the farm.  We were already getting really hungry….had two more villages to visit…and take the 2-3 hour drive to our next hotel…  It was a good thing to start the day in Trochibrod.

Then, the farmer instructed us to follow him in his car.  He wanted to show us something.  Hungry, tired, running hours late, with so much to do…and not really socially or culturally acceptable to tell this guy we had to leave…

He pulls up next to a picnic table in a clearing and invites us to sit down.  From his car, he pulls out loaves of fresh-baked bread, jars of his home-made honey, two bottles of honey-wine he’d fermented (“moonshine” was Svitlana’s translation of it), as well as fresh tomatoes and cucumbers.  It was looking very Israeli, again.

And so…we sat, ate, and conversed with this farmer who was showing us such concern, and interest, and compassion, and heart.  Wow. 

Then, he brought out a large map of Trochinbrod, written in Hebrew, that listed the names of each and every resident, by street and house number.  He said it was given to him by the author of one of the books.  Svitlana reviewed it to see if we could find Marci’s family surnames.  We could not.  (It was dated in the 1930s, long after the family left). 

We did all we could to help him clean everything up; got a picture with him; offered him our heartfelt thanks.  I gave him some extra cash, which he was clearly surprised and appreciative to receive.  I asked Svitlana to communicate to him how much his efforts meant to our family.

We headed back to Lutsk, for dinner now instead of lunch!  It took a little longer because cows had blocked the road.  I hate it when the cows block the road.

We returned to the same restaurant as last night, regained strength, and headed out.

...after a little ice cream break..

1/3 of our visits are complete for the day!

We took the short drive to Lutsk’s Grand Synagogue, where Svitlana told us of Lutsk’s Jewish history.  Shayna and I filmed video. 

Then, we went to one of the three areas of Lutsk where Jews lived.  Since the buildings were all a century old, it was a real good sense of what life might have been like for Marci’s grandfather as a young boy.

We headed south towards Lviv, our next destination, with a stop en route in Doroshkopol, the birthplace of Howard Levine’s grandmother.  We told Svitlana that we had no information on this locale and we’d be happy to stop in the center of the town, do a little filming, and head to Lviv and the hotel.

On the outskirts of Doroshkopol (whose name has changed), we saw an elderly woman walking on the street, pulling a wagon of corn.

Svitlana asked her about Jewish life in the town and she directed us down a few side streets….when we happened upon a very well maintained Jewish cemetery.  Wow, again.

A commemoration sign shows that a group of students from Dartmouth College came in 2006 to care for the cemetery as one of the students ancestors hailed from the town.  We spent some time there, talked a little bit about what life might have been like for Marci’s great great grandmother, reflected on her journey from Doroshkopol to Lutsk, where she had moved prior to the birth of her son, Philip.

While Shayna and I were filming, a group of local kids began forming across the street to watch.  Svitlana went over to talk to them and returned to tell us that we were near the site of a mass grave and that two of boys would lead us there on their motorcycle. 

We hopped back in the van, drove through the fields, until we came to a commemoration marker (built, as well, by the Dartmouth group). 

We glanced over at the fields, wondering, of course, about whether any of Marci’s cousins were there…and noticed that all the land over the mass grave was being used as farm land.  How deep, exactly are these mass graves? 

I asked Svitlana what she thought about farming there and she agreed that it should not be done.

Rebecca made friends with a little boy who was with his father working the field.  She gave him a cliff bar and watched him race through the fields calling out for the big brother to see what he got.

Enough already?

Back to the van to finish the drive to Lviv.

We’re thinking we’ll just take it easy tomorrow…

An anniversary for the ages.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing. Happy anniversary!

    Honestly, I have no idea how you can keep up this blog at the end of these full, hot, emotional days to write, but I can't tell you how glad I am that you're able to summon the energy to do it.

    The book on Trochenbrod is The Heavens are Empty : Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod. I am floored by actually seeing your photos--that there is truly nothing that remains of this town, other than testimony to its death.