When history comes close

Chernivtsi, former Czernowitz, in western Ukraine in August 2012. For the last five years, volunteer organizations have been engaged in the maintenance of the Jewish cemetery. Young people from the whole world remove vines and undergrowth in an attempt to make the cemetery accessible each summer. It is hard physical work but it is possible to learn and experience much.


It becomes very quiet, when the volunteers from the work-camp of SVIT Ukraine enter the former synagogue of the rabbis of Sadagora. The path leads through tall growing weeds and tottering planks to the interior. They view the damaged frescoes, the leaking ceiling, rotten floor-boards. Here, people once came to pray, now no one comes any more. Chassidim from Israel have tried to save, whatever can be saved. Now there are difficulties with the Ukrainian authorities, the restoration work has stopped. This fall it will again rain through the provisional roof, in the winter snow will fall on it. Whether the roof will hold fast depends on the harshness of the Ukrainian winter.

These moments of silence always occur during the excursions of the volunteers. They occur in the burned-out interior of the great synagogue, in the old Jewish quarter of Czernowitz, in front of the moss covered tombstones in the cemetery of Vizhnitz and in front of the mass grave in the Jewish cemetery of Czernowitz where 900 people – killed during the first few days of the German and Romanian occupation in July 1941 – were hastily buried.

Nearby there are memorial stones for those who were deported to ghettoes and camps in Transnistria and died there. In the villages and towns which the volunteers get to know, the wounds and scars are easily recognized; cemeteries gone wild, synagogues used for other purposes, Jewish dwellings near collapse. A landscape after the genocide. Diego, one of the volunteers, says: “Here, one can everywhere feel the history”.

Both SVIT Ukraine and SCI Germany have now had work-camps at the Jewish cemetery in Czernowitz for five years. Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste) has done the same for 3 years. Encouraged by this, former Czernowitzers have formed an organization, to collect contributions with which to hire laborers to clear the cemetery.

Almost all parts of the cemetery, which measures 11 hectares have already been cleared once. But on many of the areas, this is hardly believable. The soil of the Bukovina is fertile and the good climate allows bushes, grasses and vines to grow back quickly. Only those who know the state of the cemetery before the beginning of the work can see the difference.

Morning at 9:00 o’clock at the entrance to the cemetery. Dr. Bursuk from the Jewish aid society Hessed Shushana, brings herbicide material to be used on the stumps of trees. A woman of middle-age approaches him, speaks for a long time to him in Russian and finally breaks into tears. She has come from Israel, to take care of the graves of relatives in a village near Czernowitz. The cemetery in that village is so overgrown that it is inaccessible. She is looking for experienced laborers. “Before we started, it looked the same way here” says Dr. Bursuk.

Tom Berman, who also arrived from Israel, does not have this problem. The generation of his great-grandfathers is interred in Czernowitz. The grave of Lazar Igel, the first rabbi of the great Tempel of Czernowit – today a cinema – is in the immediate vicinity of the entrance to the cemetery. The grave of the second great-grandfather is also easily found, it is in the area on which the volunteers are currently working. Tom Berman is glad about the volunteers and they hang on his words, when in the evening in a Restaurant he tells recounts.

“One sees the cemetery in another light, when one knows people, who have a connection to it” says Alena from the Czech Republic, “it adds something personal to the experience”.

“Why do you want to spend your vacation time working on the Jewish cemetery?” wants tom Berman to know of the volunteers. They could spend their time otherwise. This question also aims to determine values. The motives of the volunteers are various, but for most, curiosity and the desire to learn are most important. Western Europeans would like to learn something about the Ukraine, their neighbor to the East. The joung Ukrainians who come mostly from the eastern part of the country, are drawn by the historical towns of the western Ukraine, which are so different from the industrial towns in the Donbas. “In school one learns about the holocaust next to nothing” says Iurii, one of the leaders of the work-camp, “here one can learn something about it”.

Katya from Charkiv has a wish. She would like to take part in a Jewish religious service. Noah Koufmanskiy, rabbi of one of the two synagogues of Czernowitz, gladly invites them to the Saturday service. He only asks that the volunteers come slightly earlier, because he wants to tell them about the history of the synagogue. He is proud of the fact that the synagogue was never closed, not during the war and not during the whole Soviet time. “We are situated somewhat hidden” he says and smilingly points to a concrete building on the other side of the street.

With the end of The Soviet Union, freedom of religion has returned. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Glitsenstein has made use of this; he has received from the city one of the old synagogues and has managed to get donations with which to restore it. It was not easy. The building had been used to house electrical transformers. Once the transformers were removed, the extent of the damage to the building could be evaluated.

But rabbi Glitsenstein had plans, together with the synagogue he created a community center. Next, he plans a kosher restaurant and connected to it, a kitchen for the poor. “When the volunteers come back next year, they will be able to come here to eat” he says and laughs. Later he also wants to speak about the restoration of the cemetery. Things continue in Czernowitz.

The original German version of this post is here: http://www.ijab.de/vielfalt/erinnerungskultur/a/show/geschichte-ganz-nah/

Thank you Mimi Taylor for translation!

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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One thought on “When history comes close

  1. Pingback: Volunteers help clean cemeteries in Ukraine | Jewish Heritage Europe

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