It is December 2016. I am in knee deep snow in the middle of what is, during the summer season, a fertile farm field in Northwest Ukraine, in Volyn Oblast (Province). It has been fifteen years since I visited the mass grave which marks the first of the liquidations of the Jewish population of Torchin (Торчин).
This site is located deep in the forest, at least three kilometers from any road. When I was last there in 2001, I traveled with my mother, who was among the fourteen of 3,000 Jewish residents who survived the liquidations and Aktions in Torchin.
My cab driver did not know the location of the site. He asked an elderly man, who unexpectedly proceeded by entering the car, and took us to the Torchin Museum, a large dark room located on the second floor in an old building. After briefly viewing the museum, the curator of the museum, the elderly gentleman, the driver and myself crammed into the car on the way to the neighboring town, Buyany (Буяни) the site of the first liquidation. The same site where my two aunts Freyda Chapnick and Sura Sprintzer Chapnick were murdered and buried.
I was expecting to again see the original old Soviet Style monolith , constructed with substandard concrete with a fading red star on top proclaiming that 210 “comrades” were buried at the site. No mention of Jews. Instead, two of the three carpool mates who
accompanied me, ran in the snow, and crossed themselves before the monument. The original monument was replaced with a big Cross.
It is Thursday, June 20, 2019. The Supreme Court of the United States overturned a lower court decision and ruled that a 40-foot World War I memorial cross can stay on public land at a Maryland intersection. It was a heated debate among the jurists with a 7-2 ruling. Seven of the nine justices wrote seven very different opinions. For some reason, it bought back memories of my visits to Ukraine. Is there a similarity between seeing a cross at two distinct sights in two very different countries of what many would consider to be hallowed ground? Is there a connection between łhe Cross, Ukraine, United States and Me?
My initial response upon viewing this Cross in Ukraine was outrage. I pointed to the ground and yelled “Yeverei! Yeverei! (Russian for Jew) to my kind hosts who took time from their schedules. They responded back (my driver, Bogdain, was outstanding and served as my translator despite his limited knowledge of English) by telling me that Ukrainians were murdered there, and they consider all who were murdered to be Ukrainians. I dropped arguing with my hosts. Why should I? To what end? I did not say that even though the area was Poland at the time, the Ukrainian Sonderdiensts and Banderists did not consider their victims to be Ukrainians. Nor did I tell them the mass killing took place on August 2, 1941 which not only coincided with the Jewish Sabbath but also with the fast day of the 9th of Ab, historically the most tragic day of the Jewish year.
Bogdain and I returned to Lutsk, the capital of Volyn Oblast. I met with Haim Svatofsky, the Director of the Jewish community. We spoke of many things, but the most concerning to me was the Buyany memorial. He told me that Buyany is not unique in this, but such memorials are being erected in similar sites throughout Ukraine. Unfortunately, he continued, the survivors are no more.
To his surprise I told him my mother is 93 years old, the last remaining survivor, and she still has an ironclad mind. We called her and she spoke of what she witnessed. He asked her to write out her testimony, which she did when I arrived back home. He said the best they can do, if at all, is erect a plaque stating that 205 of the 210 victims were Jewish (the remaining five were communist).
When I returned home, I contacted my long-time associate, Eduard Dolinsky, Director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, and gave him a report. Eduard grew up in that area and has a special affinity to it. His father, was the first Director of the Jewish Community of Lutsk after modern day Ukrainian Independence in 1991.
I did a lot of research the year after I returned. The burning question was why the Ukrainians were doing this. Without getting into detail, basically this is the only way Ukrainians know how to memorialize someone. Whereas, in the United States committees would be held discussing the type of memorials, to the Ukrainians, this is their default way of remembering.
It is that Ukrainian mentality that takes me back to the United States and the recent Supreme Court decision. The United States is a country in which there is a separation of church and state. The degree of that separation has been argued since the founding fathers, but the church never had (so far) an influence in governmental affairs like she did in Europe. It is this separation that gave Jews and other immigrant groups pause and comfort in this country.
Yet, there is no question that the United States is, by population, a Christian country. If someone greets me by saying “Happy Easter,” I accept it, and either nod back or say, “Same to you.” Ideally, there should be a deep division of church and state. Theoretically, Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s minority position on June 20th was absolutely on the mark. Realistically however, it just won’t work in the current climate. This issue, thank goodness, will continue to be argued in the courts of the land, as it should.
Does that mean I should be more forgiving and understanding about the Crosses on Jewish mass graves in Ukraine? That question requires a long-detailed response, but for now, I will settle with a plaque. The cross in Europe has a different significance to Jews than its symbol in America. In Europe, over the millennia, tens of millions of Jews were murdered in the name of the cross and as a result of the cross. The only way to communicate that to the countries and its citizens is through dialog, communication and education and not a “radical” demand to remove the cross. Thankfully, that is being done on the grass roots level in Ukraine. Let us hope it continues.