My “pilgrimage” to Drohobycz started a few days after the Holocaust Days of Remembrance and my own First Person interview and after my talks to high schools and synagogues about the Holocaust. That work turned out to be a kind of preparation for the exhausting, moving, and emotional trip that awaited me. Ania and I left Washington, DC, on May 9 for the beautiful landscapes of the Italian lakes where we spent the following eight days with my sister, Irena, and her husband, Manes. The overwhelming feeling of peace and serenity I felt there did not bring back the dark memories of the Holocaust.
From Italy, we traveled to Israel where we met with relatives and old friends. Each time we visit Israel it seems more beautiful and more affluent, and this creates much worse traffic. During one horrific traffic jam on our trip back from Jerusalem to Holon, we got stuck in a taxi for over three hours. The driver happened to be a young Israeli Arab. Irena and the driver spent the time discussing, in Hebrew, the political situation in Israel. I loved this person-to-person encounter, each party stayed calm, listed their grievances, yet was able to come to an understanding. If only the politicians could be as enlightened. The conclusion of the discussion was that neither government really wants peace at this time and, as a result, peace seems unreachable.
After 13 days in Israel, it was time to begin what would be the most exciting part of our trip. In the late evening of May 31 we met at the Ben Gurion Airport with members of the Drohobycz Boryslaw group to participate in a Roots trip to Drohobycz, Boryslaw, and Vicinity. The plane took off at midnight and landed in Lviv (Ukraine) airport at 2:30 a.m. Our wake-up time was 7 a.m. I could not sleep because I was so excited and anxious, wondering what the next few days would bring. I had left Drohobycz in December of 1945 as an 11-year-old child, and I was returning as an 82-year-old man.
Our group was not a typical tourist group, and the sightseeing was limited strictly to sights of Jewish suffering. In the group there were four Holocaust survivors, many children of survivors (second generation), and even some third generation. Milek, the oldest survivor at 87, showed the group the still-existing house of his grandparents located near a forest where many Jews were murdered. Yael, the youngest survivor, was born during the war. She was saved by a Polish or Ukrainian woman and remembered only the woman’s first name: Jadwiga. She hoped to find Jadwiga or some members of her family to thank for saving her, but was not successful. After the war, Yael was given to a Jewish couple for adoption and later to an uncle in Israel where she now lives. The other two survivors in our group were me and Irena.
It rained all day while we walked through the narrow streets of Drohobycz, which were vaguely familiar to me from memory and from reading Bruno Schultz’s* stories of places connected with Jewish life before the war and the places of Jewish suffering and killing during the Holocaust. Unfortunately, the monuments to the victims did not identify the victims as Jews, though they were the largest group among the victims. The sky was crying that first day, and it matched our mood. Later, we participated in the opening of an exhibition, The Holocaust in Drohobycz, Boryslaw, and Vicinity, in a local synagogue. Photos of Ania and me were part of the exhibition. The synagogue was built in 1726 and is the biggest in Eastern Galicia. Its facade was recently renovated, but the inside requires a lot of renovation.
At that synagogue, with great excitement, we greeted Marya, the great-great-granddaughter of Jan and Zofia Sawinski, who saved my family during the Holocaust by hiding us on their small farm. It was Marya who found my name on the Internet and invited all of us to Drohobycz. She and her younger brother waited to meet us at the entrance to the synagogue, bearing gifts. There was applause when the organizer of the exhibit introduced Marya, and she was given a bouquet of flowers. The reserved young lady appeared to be touched by the gesture.
The next day, we were invited to talk to Marya and her classmates, teachers, and some people from the town. The university from which Marya had recently graduated was located in a building originally erected in the 1920s as a Jewish orphanage. It was one of the best orphanages in Poland. The mother of one of the group members was brought up there. There is still a Star of David above the entrance. Irena and I offered to talk to the students in English or Polish. They chose Polish because the Ukrainian language is similar to Polish, especially in Western Ukraine, which used to be part of Poland until 1939.
Talking about the Holocaust where it actually took place seemed strange. When I talk in the United States it is about “there,” thousands of kilometers from “here.” In Drohobycz it was “here,” the site of the ghetto was a few blocks away, the Sawinskis’ farm and the house of my grandparents—where I was born—were just a few kilometers away. When I mentioned my grandparents’ neighbor who picked up our family photos from the mud after they were scattered during the pogrom, I was told that the neighbor was Mrs. Sawinski’s brother. A graduate student, present during the talk, showed me a document from before the war listing donors to a charitable organization with my father’s name on it. Irena and I loved and admired our father; it was good to see that in addition to being a brave man, he had also been a generous and good hearted man.
Marya’s professor mentioned that the history department would like to establish a Judaic Studies or Holocaust Studies program. The Museum has a contact and helps the Taras Shevchenko University in Kiev with this subject. I suggested the local university contact the Kiev university.
There is a great need to educate the Ukrainian public about their national heroes and their treatment of the Jews. A major hero in Ukraine’s history is Bogdan Chmielnicki, a 17th-century leader of the Cossacks and a leader of a peasant uprising against Polish rulers. His goal was the eradication of all Jews. He and his followers murdered about 100,000 Jews. Another Ukrainian hero is Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist and Nazi sympathizer, who helped the Germans fight the Russians and kill Jews and Poles during World War II. Monuments of these two men are in every city and town; there are streets and car washes named after them. Sometimes dishes in restaurants are named after them, too, like the Chmielnicki salad or Bandera sausage. In order for Ukraine to look objectively at the history of the Holocaust, the Ukrainians will have to find different heroes.
After the talk at Marya’s university, we went with her extended family to the cemetery where Mrs. Sawinski is buried to lay flowers on her grave. I had waited for this moment for a very long time. It was a modest thank you to her for saving my life. The cemetery is located on a hill in Mlynki Szkolnikowe where I was born in my grandparents’ house and where I was saved at the Sawinskis’ farm. Marya’s family sang a prayer. I had tears in my eyes and said a quiet kaddish for this brave woman who put her and her family’s lives in danger to save mine. Visible from the cemetery are the remnants of the oil refinery in Galicia where my grandfather was a foreman. Uncle Bumek Gruber also worked in Galicia as a butcher and smuggled food to the Sawinski farm where we and nine other Jews were in hiding. From the cemetery we were invited for lunch at Marya’s parents’ apartment. Extended family and friends attended; one of them was Marya’s grandfather, who was the Sawinskis’ grandson and remembered them. We looked at their family photos and listened to stories. We all exchanged gifts; they gave us books, albums about Drohobycz, chocolates, and vodka, and we gave them a generous amount of cash.
The remaining time we spent with the group traveling by bus and walking on muddy roads to places of mass executions. At the Bronica forest, where 8,000 Jews were murdered, Irena and I talked about our uncle’s wife, Blimka, and their little daughter, Liba, who had been murdered there. Someone said kaddish, we lit candles, placed an Israeli f lag on the memorial, and sang the “Hatikva.” It was heartbreaking. We repeated this ritual at several other places. We heard stories of mass murder and individuals’ miraculous survival. One member told a story of her ten-year-old cousin who fell into the trench that was a mass grave. At night, this child was able to get out from under the dead bodies and survived. Another person eulogized his little sister while standing at the station from where, a long time ago, she was taken to the Belzec killing center. We all cried.
We also visited three cemeteries, one of which had became a bus station, another a housing development. Now, there are only small plaques indicating that the sites had been Jewish cemeteries. The third cemetery was overgrown with grass and wild bushes. The last burial there had been in 1970. Several former synagogues had been converted to churches, still with a Star of David above the entrance and mezuzahs on the door frames. I mourn the loss I saw of a rich Jewish cultural and religious community that will never come back.
It was an unforgettable trip; I will always remember the beauty of the Italian lakes, the loving reception of friends and family in Israel, the places of death and destruction of my family and fellow Jews in Drohobycz. But most of all, I will remember the emotional meeting with Marya whose great-great-grandparents allowed me to live this good life.
* Bruno Schulz (July 12, 1892–November 19, 1942) was a Polish writer, fine artist, literary critic, and art teacher born in Drohobycz to Jewish parents. He is regarded as one of the great Polish-language prose stylists of the 20th century. His prose has been translated into many languages. Both the Poles and the Ukrainians claim him as theirs.
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