Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, Nos. 3-4 / Winter 1997-98
Personal Experiences in Search of Jewish Cemeteries in Ukraine
by E. Sokolova , JPCU Survey Coordinator for Kiev, Chernigov, Poltava, and Vinnitsa Provinces
The following report was submitted by one of the coordinators of the Survey of Jewish Monuments in Ukraine carried out by the Jewish Preservation Committee of Ukraine for the U.S. Commission. This work has been funded by a grant from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. Results of the survey can be consulted online at: www.jewishgen.org/cemetery
I have visited Kiev, Chernigov, Poltava, and Vinnitsa provinces, and all the time I've had an impression of seeing "ancient ruins." The whole social-and-cultural layer of the Jewish shtetl has vanished. Only where some reasonable number of Jews still live can one find "isles" of the mostly vanished past. The once flourishing shtetls have become ordinary villages. Even buses only go there one or two times a week from the regional center. Other days one must get there only by hitch-hiking, and it is possible only in good weather. One can not imagine how many times I had to get to a village using a bread carrier, or a milk carrier, or a tractor, to say nothing about horses, because the only bus route was canceled because of a lack of gasoline. The risk of being stuck in some out-of-the-way place was always with me. When, at last, I arrived at a village or town, the local people were astonished to learn that I did not use my own car. It somehow lowered my social status and significance of my tasks for local people. But from the other side it drew compassion towards me, and people helped me, willingly sharing their memories, showing former Jewish houses and streets, synagogues, shops, etc. Elders remember quite well about flourishing past of shtetls, and regret about that times. I was often told: "When Jews were living here we also could live properly." But what surprises and shocks most of all is the contrast in attitudes towards Jewish and other cemeteries. If Russian Orthodox and Catholic cemeteries are properly looked after, the Jewish ones are simply destroyed. One can find anything on the place of a former Jewish cemetery -- a kolkhos farm with an animal farm (like in Borschagovka, Vinnitsa province); sand mine for roads construction (like in village of Nekrasovo, former Yuzvin, not far from Vinnitsa); a garage with skulls being dug up and left on the roads (like in ancient cemetery in Tyvrov), etc., etc., etc. -- and in every place grave stones have been used for building foundations for private houses, roads, and more. There are no moral or legal restrictions or barriers to these practices. Attitudes towards Jewish cemeteries are as follows: there are no Jews, nobody looks after the cemetery, that is why one may consider that the cemetery does not exist at all. And often it is so literally, and you have to locate the elderly who remember the place where the cemetery has been in the past. So, in the village of Repki (Chernigov Province) I was told by local authorities that there had never been a Jewish cemetery, but a 90 year-old man was able to show me the place. Similarly, I was often told that there were no separate Jewish cemeteries, that all people were buried in the common cemetery.
The above situation, however, does not generally apply to the places of mass burials dating from the Second World War. Before the disintegration of the USSR all such places were as a rule kept in good order, and definite organizations or schools were ordered to look after them. For example, schoolchildren in the village of Kovshevatoye (Kiev Province), study the history of mass shootings of Jews in the village, and they collect recollections of witnesses of these massacres. Each year they hold meetings to commemorate those who perished. In other places local people have taken the initiative to compile lists of those who died, always adding new names. For example, in Lokhvitsa village (Pltava Province), I was shown such a list in a local museum, and I was presented with a copy of the list specially for JPCU.
Naturally, there are many places of mass massacres of Jews that are not registered, but they are known to local people. There are still, for the time being, many witnesses of those terrible events. One is grateful to those who labor to register and preserve the memories of the past times. Near Nemirov town there is the village of Kovalevka. A local teacher has organized a team of scouts who are searching for unknown places of mass massacres in all the Nemirov region. And that is why each fact of vandalism and grave robbery can not be tolerated, and these do frequently occur! For example, in the village of Dashev (Vinnitsa Province), all of the old Jewish cemetery, located near the railway crossing, was dug with pits, and in the village of Pliskov, the site of a mass massacre was also dug up. Even in the Dashev town where Jews are still living, in the guarded cemetery some graves were dug up in search of gold.
I should mention that the work with old Jewish cemeteries is connected with acute psychological and physical stress, with lots of wasted time, and even with risk to life. As a rule, Jewish cemeteries are situated in suburbs far from living places, and sites of mass massacres in old mines, in the deep woods, or in remote fields, often five kilometers from habitations. It is dangerous to go there alone, and it is not easy to find a person to accompany. One might have to walk ten kilometers, because there is no means of transportation. It is simply luck when a private car can be rented, but such cases are so rare!
One of my last impressions is of the village of Zhezhelev, where there is a place of mass execution of Jews from the village of Komsomolskoye. It was difficult to persuade the Village Council secretary (an official person!) to show me the place, situated in the depth of a forest near the old mine. We got there with difficulty, walking half of the way in water up to our knees. There was no other way to get there. Later the secretary asked me to pay for her services because it was not her duty to walk over marshes.
To get information one has to converse with tens of people in each village or town -- with local authorities, with Jewish community members (if so), with local elders, with anybody who wishes to share their memories. From time to time, I found people afraid to speak, while others simply did not want to say anything, and still others were speaking so much that it was simply impossible to stop them. Attitudes towards my mission differed. Most people were kind, but they could be aggressive, too. For example, the chief of the Village Council of Pilyava (Vinnitsa Province) told me: "Thanks to God, there are no Zhids (derogatory expression designating Jews) here in our village!"
In general, if our study is not continued, and carried out in the immediate future, all the information will be lost forever, except in those places where strong Jewish culture or religious communities have been established. In such latter places there is a thread that connects present with past, but in places where there are no Jews the thread has been broken, or can be broken in any time. There already are many places where we can no longer get any information.
Results of the Ukraine survey and Commission surveys of other countries can be found on-line at www.jewishgen/cemetery
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