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10.10.2008

New "old" pictures of the town have been added to the Historial Images section.

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30.10.2007

New version of the web site has been launched. It includes not only changes to the layout and design, but also improvement of the content and new section.

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Mass Media

The only local newspaper is Zorya. Its content is currently not available on-line, but we are working on this and hope to include Zoryas news in our web site. Meanwhile, please, find the article related to Volochysk below:

Journey to a recovered memory: a family's roots in Volochysk

by Ken Moskowitz

When I first met Ina Polyak, she made no claim of any expertise or scholarship. Yet I soon learned that this quiet, middle-aged woman had prepared a detailed history of her remote and tiny Ukrainian village, Volochysk. This piqued my interest, since my family's history crossed Volochysk, and my chance residence in Ukraine almost a hundred years later would bring me back there - back to a Jewish community that had all but disappeared, and back to Ina and what she could tell me about the village.

Grandma Esther, my most valuable source of family history, first told me about Volochysk about 25 years ago. My parents, aunts and uncles always waved away my inquiries about the past with a dismissive remark. My one other grandparent died before I took an interest in family history. But Grandma Esther lived to be 93, and she cheerfully told me that, although she was born in Newark, N.J., as were my parents and I, her parents came from a village called Volochysk, in "You-kraine," with the accent on the first syllable. In reply to my persistent questions, she could also fell me that the city was between Odesa and Kyiv, which was about all she seemed to know.

Some 20 years after these conversations, I had my first real opportunity to pursue this inquiry. In 1996, as a foreign service officer with the U.S. Information Agency, I was assigned to Kyiv, as the information officer. While still in Washington, I asked a Ukrainian language instructor if he could help me find a place called Volochysk in Ukraine.

At the time, I couldn't quite remember what the name of the city was, whether "Wolochisk," or "Volachest," or something similar. And I was far from confident that even Grandma Esther remembered the name correctly. But, after failing on several maps, we found a true-to-life Volochysk in western Ukraine, about 280 miles north of Odesa and about 190 miles west of Kyiv. It was as if Grandma Esther were with me again, pleased that her memory had been confirmed. There really was a little "shtetl" called Volochysk, where my ancestors had lived. What's more, there were two Volochysks: a simple Volochysk to the east, and an apparently smaller "Pidvolochysk" to the west.

As I explored the region, other interesting facts came to light: The two villages were separated by a river that, until World War I, had served as the international border between Volochysk in the Russian Empire under the tsars, and Pidvolochysk, or Lower Volochysk, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My ancestors, it seemed, had lived in a border town. But I still had my doubts. How well had either Grandma Esther or I remembered the name of our ancestors' village? Couldn't there be several towns that sound like "Volochysk" and that could just have easily be pinpointed on a detailed map of Ukraine? Was I really on the right track to finding my ancestors' village? Maybe not, but it was all I had to go on: A town that sounded like what I thought my grandmother had said.

Having no chance to explore the Volochysk of the map in Washington, I put that piece of the puzzle aside. Another piece was Grandma Esther's "postals," her childhood collection of 17 postcards from 1905-1907 that I, as the family antiquarian, had acquired. Some were written in English from Newark or Ann Arbor, Mich., but others were from relatives and family friends living or traveling in Russia, Japan and, yes, Ukraine. The most suggestive, to my mind, was from an American traveler writing from my future home. "You should see this place," he wrote from Kyiv in 1907, "It beats Detroit by a mile." This was one to amuse many Kyivites in the late 1990s!

There were also several puzzling cards. These had the grey weight of the ages on them: plain manila postcards with dog-eared edges, and a gnarled Yiddish applied with a fountain pen. They would have to wait until I could find someone of my grandparents' generation who could read the Yiddish and decipher them for me.

But I didn't have to wait so long to find meaning in them. The mystery fell away in a moment about a year later, several months after arriving in Kyiv for my assignment. Studying the cards one night, I focused on one aspect I had unaccountably neglected: in the round postal mark of the tsars, the many years separating me from my great-grandparents, dividing the shtetl from the suburb, the Yiddish from the English, suddenly fell away, Stamped in Cyrillic Russian, partly rubbed away but still clearly visible, dated 1907, was the sender's post office: Volochysk.

* * *

A year later I was still investigating in Kyiv. A Reform rabbi and other Jewish sources could supply no contacts in a place called Volochysk. JOINT, a vast Jewish charitable organization, had records that showed 12 Jews living there, but could provide no names. The Peace Corps, with over 200 volunteers in Ukraine, had none in Volochysk. No Fulbright Scholars come from Volochysk. But a young staffer at ACCELS, a USIA-funded organization that manages high school exchanges, remembered meeting a boy from that village. He is a student in Khmelnytskyi, the capital of the eponymous oblast, but living with his parents in Volochysk. And there was a phone number.

Vasyl was at home when I called. Yes, he says, I have reached Volochysk. Yes, he was an exchange student in the United States. No, he is not currently a student in Khmelnytskyi. Well, no, he will not be in Volochysk if I come to visit in two weeks because he studies in Kyiv, and has only returned for the weekend to see his parents. I am delighted to hear that he can meet me in Kyiv.

A few days later, Vasyl paid me a visit in my office. He is a bright, cheerful 17-year-old studying at the prestigious Institute of Foreign Relations just up the street. He had already explored the history of the village. He gave me the name of a former history teacher from Volochysk who now lives in Kyiv. Vasyl had learned that there are three Jewish cemeteries, but that they are hard to reach. Moreover, with the help of his parents, he had talked to a few Jews. There are very few Jews in Volochysk, he said, but there used to be a great many. We quickly developed a congenial relationship, and, on his second visit, he recommended that I stay with him and his family in Volochysk, rather than the dingy Druzhba (Friendship) Hotel. I accepted his offer.

A week later, we were sharing a second-class overnight sleeper train cabin to Volochysk. I bought the round-trip cabin for the weekend trip, and a high school pal of Vasyl's joined us. They were very curious about why I would want to see their modest village, but were delighted in any case to see my interest. We arrived in Volochysk early the next morning, and Vasyl's father, Volodymyr, met us at the station. Initial signs were all positive. The weather was crisp and clear. The station seemed to have been recently renovated. Volodymyr, who is about my age and had heard about my interests, had a full agenda planned for my weekend. It turned out that he is a neurologist and a voluminous reader, and is the one who has researched the Jewish history of the village. After a breakfast of oatmeal, black bread, and "tvorokh," which is something like farmers cheese, with Vasyl's mother, Oksana, and brother, Sasha, the brothers took me on a tour around a nearby lake.

They pointed out a local vocational college and the shoreside factory that polluted the lake until it was shut down several years ago. The man-made lake looked pretty clean to me, especially for early in the morning on such a fine day, and the pollution didn't deter the several fishermen who had dropped their lines into the water.

By the time we returned to Vasyl's home, Volodymyr had a car and driver waiting. We trundled off in the old Lada, past backyard gardens, dachas, and a deserted town center, where the former Lenin statue had been removed from its pedestal shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. The central post office beside it was open, but only to distribute pension payments to retirees; I was not permitted to mail a postcard to my parents in New Jersey with a Volochysk postmark. (Vasyl would mail it for me later, and this "postal" became a modern addition to Grandma Esther's collection.)

We then drove out to "Volochysk One," as the old historical part of town was known. It looked no different, alas, than the rest of the village. Our destination was the home of Vira Prokopivna Voitko, a frail, elderly retired schoolteacher, who said she remembered the Jewish community well. In her roomy but rustic parlor, we sat on simple wooden chairs around a rickety table, and looked at old black-and-white photos.

Mrs. Voitko pointed out the Jewish schoolmates in the group shots from the 1920s and 1930s. Mrs. Voitko explained that the heart of the Jewish community had been right outside her door, across what at one time had been the central square of Volochysk, now a wide intersection with large but bare lots.

The Ukrainians had their schools, as had the Poles and Jews, but the Soviets brought them all together in the same schools. Still, each nationality retained its own language, of which the others understood very little. Given the proximity of the Jewish neighborhood, however, Mrs. Voitko said she understood some Yiddish, and took great pride in showing me that she could still write her name with Yiddish characters.

The Jews, she said, who mostly disappeared during World War II, had been the chief component of Volochysk's artisan and commercial class. While the Ukrainians mostly worked in the fields, the Jews operated a large shoe factory, and another that made simple and decorative mirrors. They were also involved in a host of professions and trades: doctors, barbers, druggists, teachers, local officials, shopkeepers. The neighborhood had clustered around the customs house on the Zbruch River, which at one time had been the border between Volyn of the Russian Empire, and Galicia of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The lively community, Mrs. Voitko said, had served itself, the surrounding rural area, as well as the Russian border officials and military officers who resided in a nearby barracks. We then set out to explore this vanished neighborhood. Some of the narrow alleys that had been the neighborhood streets were still there. The main street of the community was a bit wider. On both sides were Ukrainian homes; no shops or offices remained.

Mrs. Voitko pointed out where there had been the Jewish council, or local self-governing authority, as well as the three synagogues, the post office and several shops. She indicated the site of the former kindergarten and the location of two rival Jewish clubs, one named for the writer Sholom Aleichem and Voikos. A former Jewish general store she frequently used was now a decrepit shell. The Jewish park, however, was now little used but well maintained. The stone remains of the mikvah, the orthodox synagogue's ritual bath, were still plainly visible near the Zbruch River shore. According to Mrs. Voitko, about 5,000 Jews had lived in this area, which constituted the majority of Volochysk up until World War II. But they wouldn't bury their dead here for fear of flooding from the Zbruch River.

Vasyl had already told me that he had heard of three Jewish graveyards in Volochysk, but that they were remote from any roads and inaccessible. Mrs. Voitko knew how to reach them, however. We bundled back into the Lada, drove south for about 10 minutes, and parked at the end of a dirt road. Ahead of us lay a steep grading up to banked railroad tracks.

To my surprise, Mrs. Voitko showed us the way up the grading, over the tracks and down the other side. We continued around an undeveloped hill, past several old dachas, then up a steep hill looking over the valley out of which we had just climbed. There, at nearly the crest of the hill, were about 30 badly decayed tombstones with Yiddish inscriptions. Most of the writing was barely visible, and none of the gravestones were undamaged by the elements. There was no visible vandalism or graffiti. The site might always have been too remote to attract trouble-makers.

* * *

For my last day, Vasyl and Volodymyr had promised to find someone who could decipher my Yiddish "postals." In the town center we met Ina Polyak, who had accompanied us to the former Jewish neighborhood the day before, and her elderly friend, a gentleman in a stylish cap, Fina Baranfeld, who arched his elbow back in order to throw out his arm to shake your hand, which he did with obvious pleasure. Ina gave me a small commemorative pin with "Volochysk" on it. The engraving showed a sugar beet, a factory, a plowed field, and a hammer and sickle on a red background.

Fina then led us several blocks away, into a courtyard and up to his third floor apartment to meet his wife, Dora Yakavlovna. Dora, frail and about 80 years old, had lived most of her life in Khmelnytskyi Oblast in a Jewish village called Kupish, which lost all its inhabitants and disappeared. The few survivors who did not emigrate, like Dora, wandered off to other villages or towns.

Was Kupish a shtetl? I asked Dora in Ukrainian. When I repeated the question, she understood me: "Yes, of course, a shtetl, " she replied. I felt that I had at long last made contact with the Jewish tradition of the Pale, and with someone who, however distantly, shared a language and history with the Kristals and Hendricks of my own family. I had also, for the first time in my life, heard someone pronounce the word "shtetl" who had actually lived in one.

Now to the postals. "Very very difficult," Dora said, because of the faded, cursive handwriting. She studied the first letter, with the Volochysk postmark and put it aside. She took up the second one and was able to make some headway: "... letters from you. Would you write me more often? You have my address ... Write me if you're healthy. Everyone here is healthy." She stopped. "Lots of non-Yiddish words. Lots of dialect." She continued, "Write to us ..."

When Dora had finally given up, I asked if I could have her phone number in case I had more questions. But the old fears and suspicions persisted, whether of Cossacks, Nazis or Soviets I could not say. And though I felt that the warm community of Volochysk, the community of Ina and Vasyl and Sasha, posed no threat to her and Fina, I couldn't be sure that the remainder of her life, in impoverished post-Soviet Ukraine, would be smooth. "You can reach me through Volodymyr," she said, which was fair enough. He had a phone, and would always know where she is.

On the way back to Volodymyr's apartment, Ina turned to me. "I have a friend whom you should meet. She is a good cook and can take good care of the house." Ina wanted to be my matchmaker! To my greater surprise, she then told me that she, too, is Jewish! "There are only eight Jews in Volochysk," she said. "My daughter Yana, my son Matviy and I are three of them. So I will have trouble finding Jewish spouses for my children. Do you think you could help them?"

In this one minute of conversation, the tiny fragment of Jewish Volochysk ballooned. Suddenly, Ina became a recognizable Jew to me, and in fact appeared with the familiar tone of a certain Yenta from "Tevye Tevyel" the play by the Jewish Ukrainian writer Sholom Aleichem that made Broadway history as "Fiddler on the Roof."

How many Jews remain in Volochysk? Well, if only eight, I had already met more than half of them, since I had met Ina's children and husband the day before at a picnic. And these Jews, not even enough for a minyan, the minimum required to found a Jewish religious community, still wished to marry Jews. They wanted to remain Jews.

It turned out that, not only had I been searching for Jewish Volochysk, but Jewish Volochysk had been looking for me.

Ken Moskowitz was press attache at the American Embassy in Kyiv in 1997-1999 after serving as press officer in Budapest and Tokyo. He is currently a Congressional Fellow in Foreign Affairs, on sabbatical from the Department of State.

Copyright The Ukrainian Weekly, October 31, 1999, No. 44, Vol. LXVII
http://www.ukrweekly.com/Archive/1999/449920.shtml