If your parents or grandparents from Eastern Europe identified themselves as Galicians, chances are they came from Lviv — the capital of the Galicia reigon, which straddles the modern-day border between Poland and Ukraine — or from Rivne, Ostrog, Hannopil, Brody, Rohatyn, Medzhybizh, or any of the other small towns and villages we passed by. There were 29 of us on the trip organized by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom - the National Synagogue. The group members ranged in age from six to 77; most people were members of the congregation, while some were from other DC synagogues, and others came from New York and San Francisco. Almost all had some roots in Galicia.
Why did we go? One reason was to see where our parents or grandparents came from. But our most important goal was to honor the memory of 1.5 million Jews who were murdered in Ukraine during World War II, and to raise awareness of these atrocities among the Ukrainian population. On our first day we visited Babi Yar, the infamous ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv where 200,000 people were shot, including over 70,000 Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, Roma, and other “undesirables.”
There are more than 1,000 Jewish mass graves in Ukraine. We visited only five or six of them during our trip, but we were told by our tour guide, Victoria Chymshyt, that the picture is the same all over. At almost all of them there is no fence, no monuments, no tombstones or even markers. Buildings have been erected over some of them, while others are covered by city dumps; at most of them, only a few elderly locals could pinpoint the exact spot were Jews were executed and buried.
At two sites that have memorials, we found fresh digging, where people were looking for gold or other valuables that Jews might have managed to hide from the Nazis. We found human bones scattered on several sites. Our group collected as many bones as we could find and then reburied them in a Jewish cemetery and said Kaddish (prayer for the deceased) for them. We had many opportunities to say Kaddish throughout our journey.
As the Russian troops approached Kyiv in 1943, the Germans did a thorough job hiding the evidence of their crimes: Bodies were burned, bones were crushed. After the war, to erase any memory of the victims (not just Jews, but also the Russian prisoners of war, whom they considered traitors), the Soviet authorities poured cement over most of the site and built a metro and a TV station. A small portion of the ravine that still remains is now a park where people barbecue and leave garbage. A small sign mentions “Soviet citizens” that were murdered there, and recently Chabad installed a menorah dedicated to the Jewish victims. There is no fence, no security cameras, and no police protection.
Kyiv is now a large modern city with rich history; a cradle of the Russian Orthodox Church. There are approximately 10,000 Jews living in Kyiv; with several synagogues. We visited the sites where Golda Meir was born and where Sholem Aleichem lived. After that, we boarded our bus and headed west toward Galicia. Our first stop was Hannopil, to visit the tomb of Rabbi Zusha; from there we went to Rivne for Shabbat. The next destination was Lviv, a charming old city, followed by stops at Rohatyn and Medzhibizh (to visit the tomb of Baal Shem Tov).
The only Jewish cemetery that was fenced in and cared for was in Ostrog, and it was thanks to one person — Hryhoriy Arshinov. He single-handedly restored hundreds of Jewish tombstones, erected a fence around the seven-acre cemetery, hired a person to guard the entrance, and is now working to restore the famous Maharsha Synagogue in Ostrog. Like many other Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers, Arshinov invested his own time and money into these projects at a physical and emotional risk to himself and his family.
In 2008, Marla and Jay Osborn came from America to the small town of Rohatyn in the hopes of researching their roots. Upon arrival, they were shocked to discover that the Jewish cemetery had been destroyed and the mass graves had been turned into dumps. In 2011, the couple moved to Lviv permanently and founded the Rohatyn Jewish Heritage Organization, which researches the names of the victims, removes and replaces broken tombstones in the cemetery, and ensures that the mass grave of 3,500 Jews is protected. These people are doing the holy work of restoring cemeteries, mass graves, and the Ukrainian memory.
As we were leaving Ukraine, our group felt that we learned a lot and we tried, in our small way, to honor the memories of Holocaust victims: by visiting their graves, cleaning up the sites of mass killings and concentration camps, and saying Kaddish for those for whom there is no one is left to say Kaddish. We raised awareness everywhere we went by letting the local media and people on the streets know that the victims have not been forgotten. Hopefully our letters to the Ukrainian president and our meetings with mayors and other local authorities in Kiyv and Lviv will result in more permanent measures to prevent the future desecration of Jewish graves. Very few organized groups come to Ukraine to specifically visit the Holocaust sites. Let’s hope that along with trips to Auschwitz and Majdanek in Poland, people will also come to Ukraine, so the murder of 1.5 million Jews there will not be forgotten.
By Nina Tarley