The Kosiv Coincidence

In October 2012, I visited Kosiv with a friend, a former shtetl in Galicia – a popular craft market had lured us there. We found no Ukrainian kilim, but we discovered the Jewish cemetery. Back in Germany, Kosiv crosses my way unexpectedly again. Locations can follow you.

Kosiv (Kossow in German, Kosów in Polish) is not impressive in particular. The city is located on the scenic foothills of the Carpathian mountains, but there is hardly a pre-war building left – history seems to have treated Kosiv badly. Probably no-one spends his vacations here. What Kosiv is known for, is a big Hutsul craft market. This is what my friend Kezban, a kilim expert from Cologne, and I want to explore.

We enjoy the lively atmosphere of the market. Shop owners from from Lviv and Kiyv buy here, but also private persons who purchase costumes for special occasions and weddings. Only the kilims find no favor in Kezban’s judgment. Sometimes it is the moth-eaten, sometimes the patterns that excite her indignation. But both of us admire the beautiful traditional embroideries on blouses, vests and tablecloths. Finally we leave the market with a large bag of dried porcini mushrooms and a heavy jar of honey and promise to be there earlier next time – the market already closes at noon.

Time to get something to eat. After some searching we find a small, very simple restaurant. The son and daughter of the owner do their best to make us understand the menu and so we are able to order finaly. At the next table dines a birthday party, the table bends under the food and Kezban is amazed again how the Ukrainians make it to drink strong liquor at noon already.

The waiting time for the meal gives me the opportunity to consult my guidebook. It says there is a Jewish cemetery here. Unfortunately, the location description is a bit vague. It should be located at  a wooded hill. A look out the window teaches us that there is more than one hill. I ask our friendly waiter if she knew where the Jewish cemetery is. She thinks for a moment. “No,” she says finally, “here is no Jewish cemetery.” Her brother knows better. If we had finished our meal, he would show us the way.

The trail takes us through a strange faceless town square and continues along gray apartment blocks. Finally we arrive at the cemetery, which is protected by a fence. This must be new, says our guide, he hasn’t been here since years. We thank him for his help. While we are still a bit perplexed in front of the locked gate, a man of indefinable age appears, swinging a key.

At the entrance of the cemetery are two ohels with the tombs of the Kosiv Tzadikim. In between, we see incredibly crooked, but very elaborated carved grave stones. Beyond this small accessible area extends dense forest – so dense that it is impossible to say how far the cemetery may extend.

A few days after my return from Ukraine I am at a conference in Berlin. In the evening when I leave Humboldt University, I have a look on the vintage books table in front of the university building. The “Hasidic Tales” by Chaim Bloch raise my attention. The “Tales of the Hasidim” by Martin Buber are familiar to me, but of Chaim Bloch I’ve never heard. I open the book at any page, to see if it’s for me and read a short paragraph.

On charity: He once said: When you see your companion making a mistake, do not blame him, but think: “What excuses would I look for to justify myself. You shall look for these justifications for him, and you shall try to excuse him.” And so the Bible is to be understood when saying: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

I flip back a few pages to find out, by whom this paragraph is, and read “Rabbi Mendel of Kosiv, died in 1825.” What a strange coincidence, I think. The book cost me only three euros.

Kosiv was captured by the Hungarian axis forces in early July 1941. In September, the Germans took over the town’s administration. On October 16-17, 2.200 Jews, about half of the community, were shot. A ghetto was set up and most of the inmates were later murdered in the concentration camps of Belzec and Yanovska.

Rabbi Mendel’s lessons of humanity kept unheard and unread by the assassins.

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3 thoughts on “The Kosiv Coincidence

  1. Kosiv is for me the saddest place I’ve ever been … Among the 2.200 killed Jews were the ancestors of friends – one of the survivors built in the 1990s a small monument – the plague is destroyed. Once we asked the director of the Ethnographic Museum why they don’t have any exhibits about Jews. The answer: The Jews moved away and took all things along …
    About Chaim Bloch I have to learn more!

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