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Ukraine revisited

Under the weight of my family's suffering in in the '40s, I'd forgotten the Ukrainians' many kindnesses, but I remember them now, as I pray for their victory
Jews are marched through the streets of Kamenets-Podolsk (Ukraine/USSR) to an execution site outside of the city, on August 27, 1941. (Gyula Spitz, Wikipedia)
Jews are marched through the streets of Kamenets-Podolsk (Ukraine/USSR) to an execution site outside of the city, on August 27, 1941. (Gyula Spitz, Wikipedia)

The onslaught in Ukraine is wreaking havoc not only on the ground, but in the minds of numerous Jews, myself included. As the custodian of family stories, the current war is triggering not only recollections of gruesome narratives, but also an inner conflict as I root for the country’s victory. Perhaps by revisiting some of the stories, as well as the historical events surrounding them, more generous sentiments can be elicited.

My maternal grandmother, Tzipa Reines, together with her parents and siblings, came to Donetsk, Ukraine from Moscow during the brutal aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It is difficult to imagine how much worse it could have been for them in Russia than in the family’s new place of refuge; here, they encountered a severe famine in which one of the siblings died of starvation.

Additionally, Ukraine was then in the midst of a war in which, similar to today, it was struggling to maintain its newly won independence from Russia. The state fought numerous factions within it and the Jews “were targeted by all sides,” according to the historian Jeffrey Veidlinger in his stellar piece, “The Killing Fields of Ukraine.” These actions, he says, were often referred to as pogroms and led to the death of over 100,000 Jews.

A slice of life in Ukraine at that time is poignantly portrayed in an audio interview with my great-aunt Masha, conducted in 1989 by her grandson. She was my maternal grandmother’s younger sister, but unlike my grandmother who died in the Holocaust, she had come to America before the war and was a vital part of my childhood. I hadn’t listened to the recording since soon after the interview, and despite my pessimism about playing a dusty cassette in an ancient recording device, Aunt Masha’s soothing voice emerged. It was not only comforting to hear her talk, but also jolting as I realized that the hardships she had endured remained etched in my mind, while the numerous acts of kindness were mostly forgotten.

She recounts her experiences during one particular pogrom. “One day in Ukraina as a little girl, I was in our cellar because in Europe we didn’t have a refrigerator. We used to bring the food down and there was a piece of ice. I was there because my mother sent me to bring up some butter. I saw my mother and sisters and brothers and everybody running, so I started to run to the house of a batishka, that means a minister, a priest, who used to hide the Jewish people when he opened a certain door that led to the basement. Everyone ran down the steps, and then he closed the door. When I came, I was the very last one and I had my younger sister. He was afraid to open the door because the petruris were already near his house.”

“So he put a cross on us and when they walked in and asked him, ‘Are there any Jews in your house?’ He said, ‘No, only my two daughters are here and my wife.’ When they left, he opened the door and led me and my sister into the basement where all the Jews were. We had no food and I remember distinctly when I was a little girl, I used to walk around quite a few days without food, but this particular time, I cried very loud. The priest heard my crying, but he was afraid to open the door in case the petruris were still around. I remember someone put tape on my mouth. In the morning, the priest came and said, ‘You can all breathe. Everyone go back and don’t be afraid for now.’”

My father, Morris Berkowitz, and his large extended family, was familiar with the turmoil in Ukraine, as well. He was born in 1909 in a small town, Drahova, which was in a region of the Carpathian Mountains that had been a part of numerous sovereign entities throughout the years, including Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greater Hungary, Soviet Socialist Republic, and since 1991, Ukraine, in the southwest region. Throughout the frequent changes to the name of the country to which the area belonged, however, the majority of the non-Jewish people living in the town were Ukrainian nationals and spoke that language.

While my father spoke little about his prior life and especially the Holocaust, I learned a good deal from Binyamin, one of the two survivors among my father’s oldest sister’s 11 children. He went to Palestine after the war, and I met him during my first trip to Israel in 1967. Even though he was more than 20 years my senior, we became close first cousins, and as my questions grew in frequency and audacity over time, his need to talk accelerated at the same rate and intensity.

He talked about life in their town in 1939, when Hungary annexed land lost to Austria-Hungary after World War I, which included the area they lived in. He described how their Ukrainian neighbors, who they had lived with all their lives, began to bare feelings mostly kept at bay until then, and bellowed antisemitic songs throughout the night, while he and his family cowered behind locked doors.

Binyamin also recalled the terrors of 1941, when Germany violated its 1939 non-aggression pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union, which included Kamenets-Podolsk, in Ukraine. Jews of my father’s region were summarily removed from their homes and taken to that area if they could not provide proper Hungarian documentation, which, given the constant change of borders, was often impossible. It is estimated that over 20,000 Jews were shot there during this first occurrence of “Holocaust by bullets” in Ukraine, and several members of my father’s family, including his sister, Brahna, after who my youngest daughter was named, were among those victims.

In 1944, the remaining Jews of my father’s town, those who had not been deported to Galicia in 1941 and had not escaped to Russian controlled areas, were taken to Auschwitz when the Germans invaded Hungary, their former ally.

I met Binyamin’s older brother, Chaim Baer, after he immigrated to the United States in the 1980s. He recalled not only the horrors of the deportation in 1944, but also the kindness of a well-meaning young Ukrainian neighbor who traveled across difficult terrain to search for him at his mother’s behest. The Jews of the town, now housed in a ghetto, were ordered to ready themselves for their trip to an as yet unknown destination, and his mother was gathering her children. When the young man found Chaim Baer hiding out in the mountains, he led him to her.

After the war, Chaim Baer returned to Drahova to look for family members that may have survived, but found none; the few relatives who were still alive, had made their way to America or Israel. He decided to stay in the town, however, and together with a few other Jewish townspeople who had gone back, built a life there. When he first decided to stay, he wanted to live in the house belonging to one of my father’s brothers who had died in the Holocaust, but a Hungarian family had taken up residence there and refused to leave, leading to a knife fight. Ultimately, a local Ukrainian judge ruled in his favor stating that “the Jews have suffered enough.” The house was his, and the Hungarians needed to vacate it.

While uplifting, this story is not meant to suggest a happily-ever-after ending for Ukrainians and Jews following the war. In fact, throughout the years that Chaim Baer lived in Drahova, there were several outbursts of antisemitism, including a murder, which was the final straw that propelled him, and other Jewish residents, to move to the nearest city of Chust in the 1960s. I learned this not only through him, but also from Jews still living there when I visited in 2008.

It is my hope, however, that the new Ukrainians, who have elected a Jewish president, are the spiritual descendants of the priest who saved my great-aunt’s life, the boy who climbed mountains to find Chaim Baer, or the judge who ruled in his favor. Even if that wish is not yet fully realized, remembering the acts of kindness towards my family and other Jews in Ukraine has generated the empathy I was craving and my wholehearted support for the country during its current struggle.

About the Author
Florence Berkowitz-Siegelberg grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and she and her husband raised three daughters on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She has published several freelance articles and produced a documentary, "The Road From Destruction", based on interviews with survivors. She recently retired from Kingsborough Community College where she taught writing.
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