Ukraine on my mind – though I am not Ukrainian!

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I am not Ukrainian.  I state that up front just to be very clear. We hear many stories now from Ukrainians describing the homes they left behind – and the pain they endure at seeing their former homes destroyed by Putin’s men. But neither my parents nor grandparents nor great-grandparents ever had any connection to Ukraine. Just to be very precise.

That said, when my son and I wanted to go on a “Roots Tour” back to the hometowns of my ancestors, we had to go to Ukraine. My elders didn’t come from Ukraine. Their documents all state their homes had been in Austria-Hungary which they’d left at the turn of the last century, in the late 1800s early 1900s. Nobody was from Ukraine.

Bubby, my maternal grandmother, had once told me that her area was a border zone, whose borders changed often. OK, I thought – it’s a mere technicality then, a line on a map. So we checked the CDC requirements for vaccinations needed for the Ukraine. (We said “the Ukraine” then.) This was, it now seems, a life time ago – namely it was a few months before any of us heard of COVID-19. It was September 2019 to be precise.

After deciding on the flight dates to get there and back in time to prepare for Rosh Hashana, we ordered the tickets for seats on a Hungarian Airliner, to and from Budapest. My son contacted the rabbi of the Chabad Center in Uzhhorod (“Ungvar”, as the town was called in Hungarian or Yiddish) and made arrangements for the kosher food for traveling in SubCarpathia (that is the name of the area).

The rabbi also recommended the guide for our needs.  Our base, our main destination would be Mukachevo (Munkacs), about 25 miles or a 40 minute drive from Ungvar. Munkacs is where my paternal grandfather and his birth family had all been born, educated, worked and lived at least until their late teens. Ungvar, though, serves as administrative center of the region and its archives house the registration books of the population, including former residents of Munkacs.  We needed a driver and guide familiar with SubCarpathia, someone who spoke English and maybe some Hebrew as well as the local language(s) – and who could also help do research in the Archives. The recommendation we received fit all our needs!

Bela Huber (aka Adelburt or Baruch) met us at the airport in Budapest. His car was roomy and comfy, and he was clearly adept in a few languages.  On the way from Budapest to the Hungarian-Ukrainian border, we made just one turn-off – to a tiny farming village, Gulacs, that had been the birth place of my maternal grandfather and his birth family. Gulacs is so small that if you blink while driving through, you could miss it. Small as it is though, my mother’s Weiss family weren’t the only Jews who lived there, because via the internet I saw an old cemetery. The dates on the spare memorial stones were all from long after any relatives of mine had left there and settled in the US. Still, I wondered what we might find.

What looked like a short turn off from the main road became a longer slog than expected, but Huber tried to be a good sport. When we got to Gulacs, which is, incidentally, squarely in Hungary proper, at my request, Huber agreed to stop twice to ask passers-by where the Jewish cemetery was. They said there was no such place. It was getting late; we skipped searching for the cemetery and traveled back to the main road. We passed some stork nests perched above us and fields of corn, wheat and even tobacco beside the road. We reached the border just as the guards and staff were about to change their shifts, which made for a very long wait. Despite frustrations, Huber could keep his cool in English, Hungarian and Ukrainian.

My grandparents had never spoken Ukrainian. That’s the whole truth. They spoke fluent Hungarian and Yiddish and could also manage some Slovak. Bubby knew a smattering of other dialects, including “P’ruski” (a kind of Russian?). But nobody on any side of the family ever referred to Ukrainian. Obviously, that border change happened way after they’d left their home towns. In their time most of SubCarpathia was an unbroken plain, part of Greater Hungary that stretched up to the Carpathian peaks.

The Carpathian Mountains run north-south down the far western side of today’s Ukraine. This mountain range is west of one of the places that features prominently in the news of the moment, west of Lviv (Lvov). The news reports now mention how hard it is for people fearing the blasts of Russian artillery in eastern Ukraine, to get to these far western border crossings.

Huber had been born and raised and lived here through its modern changes after the Second World War. He grew up and was educated during Soviet times and had earned his degree in Moscow. Once Ukraine became independent in 1992 Huber saw the tourists coming, and he found it appealing to be a guide and do genealogical research for visiting Jews like us checking our roots.

It was fairly late when we arrived in Munkacs for the night, so Huber dropped us off at the hotel with plans to take us to Uzhhorod – Ungvar the next morning.

On the ride up to Uzhhorod, for a good warm breakfast and to see the original volumes (called metric books) that held the birth registrations of my Herskovics grandfather and all of his siblings, we drove past more fields of wheat and corn.

This week on the news we see some reporters who begin their observations by stating “It looks so pastoral here – but we hear the artillery blasts, and the pastoral appearance is deceiving.” When we were in Ukraine, the pastoral appearance was the real thing. Huber did refer to fighting in the east, of which I was barely aware, and it wasn’t felt at all where we were in the west. Well, Huber did say that some boys from his area had gone to fight and many lives had already been lost. I know precious little about Ukraine’s history before its independence in 1992, and not too much about what followed that date either.

Huber, a native born Ukrainian Jew, shared some bits of info. For example, we learned that the Ukrainian flag symbolizes the peaceful ambiance we felt. That flag, which is now ubiquitous with its simple, unadorned, uninterrupted broad yellow band under its equally broad blue one above it, Huber explained, represents the fertile corn and wheat fields we were passing with the clear blue sky above.
Of course nobody in my family ever had a Ukrainian flag. In fact, come to think of it, nobody had a Hungarian one either. American flags – for sure! And Israeli too. That was it as far as flags go.

At the Chabad Center in Ungvar, before sitting down to a full breakfast, we saw the little children being brought to their bright, colorful day care rooms. Later in the day, when we returned for dinner, the Rabbi’s 12 year old daughter and I had a little chat about the absence of girls her age, despite the little ones we’d seen in the morning. The children of Chabad families have classes online through a special Chabad link. The distance learning our children suffered through these past two years, Chabad children in far flung communities experience all the time. Ungvar is not as isolated as some places – it claims a Jewish population of about 400 people – but there is a paucity of local classmates or friends for the rabbi’s children. Their teachers and friends are all at a distance.

The food at the Chabad Center was good – but it wasn’t what I’d been imagining. I thought I’d find my Bubby’s lekvar (prune butter) or shlishkas, or for a meat meal, goulash or chicken paprikash. I could almost smell those dishes.

Uzhhorod’s Archives hold 3000 volumes of registrations of the former population of the area. Seeing the original registration books from some 100 to 150 years ago – that was exciting! And there was something unexpected Huber showed us in the records: although my grandfather and all his sibs, along with their mother, were born in Munkacs – their father was born in a mountain village, Szinyak, above Munkacs. Could we go and see it? Huber said he’d take us the next morning, it being just a turn off from the main road.

After the archives we walked through Uzhhorod – since Huber lives there he took pride in pointing out its special features, even an old large shul across the river which is not in use.

When we drove to Szinyak the next morning, we were on a steep pock-marked road winding up the mountain. A lush forest lined both sides of the road. Szinyak is sparsely settled – with small houses set far apart. Apparently it had always been thus. We saw an old man sitting out in his yard with his cow and two small dogs. Huber asked him if there was a Jewish cemetery here. I knew that my great-grandfather was not buried here, but maybe his father or another relative was. The old man was dismissive, “Of course there was no Jewish cemetery here.”

Despite that, I admired the view – little Switzerland – peaceful and tranquil in its simplicity and basic isolation. One could imagine Heidi running through these woods – or skiing through them in the winter. Well, she’d have to be a Ukrainian speaking Heidi. And of course I wouldn’t understand her, since I’m not Ukrainian. Never was.

In fact, in doing family history, I’ve also been gathering information on the other branches of my grandchildren’s families – my machatonim and their roots. All the branches of the family emigrated at one time or another from some place. They left homes in Austria, Romania, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Tripoli, Aleppo, Baghdad and Mumbai. But not Ukraine – not as far as I know.

We toured Munkacs and met a handful of men gathered at a small shul that is in use. These men weren’t native Munkacsers – they had been born elsewhere in the Former Soviet Union and transferred here during Soviet times, when population transfers were not uncommon. There are about 100 older Jewish adults we were told. “How many children?” “No children,” the community leader answered. The children all moved away.  The shul also lacks a minyan unless a tour group comes through town or a committed group of yeshiva boys from elsewhere come to help make a “yom tov” for the people.

The main community synagogue of Munkacs is long gone – it’s a bank building today. The memorial to the victims of the Holocaust on the side of the building states that this is the place where the whole Jewish population was gathered and marched away towards their presumed deaths in May 1944. Hungarian gendarmes were said to be in charge of that.  Actually, to be more precise, the Jewish men had already been taken a while before for slave labor, even before the Nazis invaded Hungary.  The Jewish population of Spring 1944 consisted mainly of women, children and elderly.

The old cemetery of Munkacs was torn up in the 1970s by the Soviets. Today it’s a kind of memorial park. From a distance it looks like uniform memorial stones set over real individual graves as in a properly kept cemetery.  When you approach, however, you see they are faux memorial stones that have no names inscribed.

Huber took us south of Munkacs to another small village, Barkasovo (Barkaso), a farming village in golden plains with fields of wheat. It’s also just a turn off from a main road. Barkaso is the village where Bubby was born, as well as her siblings, the Klein family; her mother and her maternal grandfather, her Krohn grandfather, were born here too. In the records I’d found, this great-great grandfather of mine had also died in Barkaso.  Maybe we could find where he was laid to rest?

Huber had a hard time maneuvering on the very deeply pock marked road to reach Barkaso. Here too we saw an older gentleman taking in the sunshine in his yard like the retiree we’d seen in Szinyak, but better dressed. Huber naturally began speaking to him in Hungarian. (The closer one approaches the border, the more Hungarian rather than Ukrainian one hears.) Huber asked about a Jewish cemetery. The man turned somewhat solemn, “There was one,” he said. But it no longer exists. “Someone wanted an extra field.” He motioned in the general direction to where it had been. “But you will not find it – it looks just like any other field.”
So much for proud Hungarian roots.

We continued traveling, as planned, down to Berehovo (Beregszasz) which sits right by the Hungarian border.  It has a very well reconstructed small shul, behind which is a memorial with the individual names of all the people who had been deported from there. Huber said his in-laws made a major donation to it – as did the Hungarian government. The present Hungarian government under Orban has made a number of contributions, especially in Beregszasz, to sites both Jewish and non-Jewish.  A recent article speaks of the Hungarian government’s plans to restore the large old community synagogue here.
It’s hard to know what to think of reconstructing synagogues in places where all the Jews were led away to be murdered and few survivors returned and fewer still of the returnees stayed and re-established themselves there. At least the reconstructed shuls show that we had been there, even if we now live and raise our families elsewhere.

Huber drove us back to Munkacs for the night and we left Ukraine the next day. That was September 2019.

People who are familiar with Jewish history also know about violent antisemitism in Ukraine even from well before the Holocaust, even if many people don’t know the details.

During this difficult week, however, everyone and his cousin knows about Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, and has only praise for him. Such a mentch – in such an un-mentchlichkiet situation! What a hero! Zelensky is featured in all major publications: The Economist (“How Ukraine’s Leader Found His Roar,” Feb. 27); The Atlantic (Gal Beckerman, “How Zelensky Gave the World a Jewish Hero,” Feb. 27); the New York Times (Steven Erlanger, “How Volodymyr Zelensky Rallied Ukrainians, and the World, Against Putin,” Feb. 27); and articles appeared in this paper among many others. Zelensky’s filmed appearance at a special session of the UN brought a standing ovation.

Huber wrote a few days ago that it was still relatively calm in SubCarpathia, nearly 400 miles from Zelensky in Kyiv, which continues to be bombarded by Russia and threatened with worse.

On the news early this week a Chabad woman described trying to help the community in war-like conditions in eastern Ukraine. She spoke of older adults with chronic conditions who lack their regular medications, and despite searching for a pharmacy the Chabadniks could not find one that was open and stocked. That touched a nerve – I’d just spoken to my doctor to renew my prescriptions and went to the pharmacy up the street to refill them. I cannot imagine doing without my meds.

As I write this, on TV they’ve been showing the long lines of people at the borders trying to leave Ukraine and escape the bombardments. The same scenes have appeared all week, only growing more intense as the situation has deteriorated. The crowds are full of weary, over-exhausted women carrying their babies with their other children trudging besides them. The men of military age stay behind, by law and by choice, trying to defend their country. The women and children we see on our screens have traveled long perilous journeys and waited in endless lines to reach the border, with insufficient food or water. We see them trying to bundle up against the freezing snowy winter weather.

I think of the energy that the little ones in my family need and expect from their parents. My grandchildren and great-grandchildren require so much attention and care on the best of days. I cannot imagine the hardship of the Ukrainian mothers in such trying circumstances.

Maybe this is the time – maybe past time – when we announce, “We are all Ukrainian.”

In my Israeli community besides words of empathy and prayers and sending funds for humanitarian assistance in Europe, plans are announced to locally house, feed, and offer basic services for immigrants who come here from Ukraine.

Can anything more be done? Can anything be done for Ukraine?

About the Author
Susan was born in McKeesport, PA and grew up in Chicago, receiving her B.A. in English Language & Literature from the University of Chicago. She studied at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, for one year in the early 60s, and made Aliya in 1987. She was a teacher and has been a freelance writer. Susan retired after two decades of public relations and grant writing for the non-profit, Melabev. She is currently working on family history projects.
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