Monday, September 12, 2016

Ukraine Trip Post #1--Day 1 (September 1, 2016)

(To see everything from my Ukraine trip, see here--I'll be posting regularly.)

I'm just back from a spectacular trip to Ukraine, which was more successful than I could have imagined.  I'll be posting details of what I saw here, so stay tuned!

It took a long flight to get to Vienna from Washington, a layover in Vienna where I had time to walk around the city center, and then another flight to Lviv. Did I mention I can't sleep on planes?
Here I go!!

Since my plane to Vienna landed early, I had 5 hours until the next flight was due to depart, so I decided to explore Vienna. What a beautiful city!
On my Vienna stopover

And then off to Lviv!  Austria still uses its old Austria-Hungarian Empire-era name, Lemberg.
Bipolar city names
When I landed in Lviv, I was met at the airport by the extraordinary Alex Denisenko and his friend (and our driver) Vitaly.  We immediately set off towards Volhynia.

As we got into Volhynia, the land was very flat.  We passed through a few small towns and villages, but it was mostly farmland.  Then we got to Shklyn (more on Shklyn later!), and headed towards Berezhanka.  This is the village where my grandfather Paul Diamond was born--at the time it was called Biscupice.
Bumping our way through Shklyn to Berezhanka

The road from Skhlyn towards Berezhanka was very bumpy--an old 19th century road still in use today. Berezhanka was a turn off that road through fields.
Entrance to Berezhanka
As we entered the town, we saw 3 older women sitting on the side of the road, so we stopped to see if they remembered any Jews who had lived there. All were ethnic Ukrainians who had been resettled from Poland in the late 1940s, so they obviously didn't remember my family. But they told us there was an old man named Vladimir who may remember, and a woman named Sofia walked us to his house.
In Berezhanka

Vladimir came out, and Alex explained why we were there. Vladimir asked for names, and Diamond/Diamant didn't seem to resonate with him.  But when I started naming family members, his face lit up.  He said of course he remembered "Tzivia's family." Tzivia was my great grandmother!  And that he knew there were two girls and at least two boys (there were three) and one of the boys was killed by the Germans (Shlomo) and one named David was saved by a local family.

I asked Vladimir what my great grandparents looked like.  He said that Tzivia had dark hair and was about my height (5' 5"). Avraham was a stout larger man.
The Diamond family house is in this overgrown area behind the pumpkin patch

The villagers said that Jews from the town had reunions in Poland during Soviet times, since they weren't allowed back.  They also said there was no Jewish cemetery in the village, and they thought the Jews were buried in Senkevychivka or Skirtche.
Remnants of the Diamond Family Home
Vladimir said that the family was relatively poor and sold beer and vodka that they made at the crossroads just outside their home, on the riverbank. He bought liquor from them when he had extra money (and since he was born in 1931, he would have been a child/teenager).  The house since had a fire and is largely destroyed.

He remembers they kept a cow in the cellar as well as ice to keep the alcohol they sold cold.

Remnants of the Diamond Family Home
He then got in the van with us and directed us to the house. It is completely overgrown, and I couldn't get there, but Alex did and took photos for me.

Vladimir then directed me to another woman in the village. This woman's mother was the one who helped to hide my Uncle Dave!  The woman remembers coming to Maryland in 1988.
Vladimir on the left; the woman whose parents saved Uncle Dave on the right

When I posted on Facebook about meeting this woman, my cousin Berly gave additional information:
So a little FYI. After the war, Uncle Dave really wanted to find the family that saved his life. When he found them, the first thing he did was to write to them. The response from the man who saved him went something like this. He said that he had waited all these years to find his son and he finally did. He died after he sent the letter. His children were told to never ever say that Jews were being hidden in their home. These amazing kids, ages about 3 and 5 , never said a word. They used to hide Uncle Dave in the snow , when the Nazis would show up (for days). They would then bring him back in and nurse him back to health. Amazing people!
View of Berezhanka from the "road" leading to Myrne

My grandfather had said that there was no shul (synagogue) in Biscupice and that the family therefore walked to Bludow (pronounced "Bludiff").  Using an old map, I was able to determine that nearby Myrne was formerly Bludow.  Vladimir stayed in our van and directed us over some horrible roads to Myrne. The road there is essentially some ruts through the fields.

Vladimir navigated us to the home of a 92-year-old man who initially said there was no synagogue in the town, but then said that all of the Jews gathered in "Chaim's house."  Chaim was a rich man who had a large home, so he hosted services for the community. Chaim's house has burned down, with only a doorframe remaining. The adjacent barn still stands and is nicer than most of the homes in the village.
Doorway to "Chaim's House," aka the shul of Bludow/Myrne

By this point, it was beginning to get dark (and I was exhausted--but exhilarated), so we drove back to Shklyn, where we checked into a rather cute little hotel.
Shklyn Hotel Room

So, where are we talking geographically?
Overview of Day 1 Locations
And here's a closeup of the small towns:
Towns & villages mentioned in this post
Stay tuned; more Ukraine trip posts will be coming!

Note:  I'm on Twitter.  Follow me (@larasgenealogy).

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  1. Had tears in my eyes reading this and its not even my side. But the story of such courageous and caring people gives you hope in humanity. Can't wait for next you insight into what life was like then.

  2. What a fabulous trip and to be able to find some people who remembered your family and knew about their lives is the experience of a lifetime.

  3. I was so hoping you would blog about your trip. I am loving it. This is my dream to discover the name of the Volhynia villages where my Mom's parents came from and get there and explore.

  4. You are so lucky to have foundpeople who remember and remnants of your family home. Mazel Tov!

  5. I enjoyed you first blog. It is very exciting. I would eventually like to get in touch with your guide. I hope you will give out his e-mail address.

  6. What a blessing! I am so happy for you to learn this about your family and see with your own eyes. We are all living vicariously through your adventures.

  7. What a blessing! I am so happy for you to learn this about your family and see with your own eyes. We are all living vicariously through your adventures.

  8. Great blog! Great stories. Hatte

  9. Terrific first blog, and great to see more details than on FB.

    Yes, loved this part and couldn't agree more "the extraordinary Alex Denisenko and his friend (and our driver) Vitaly." You hit the jackpot with this team! I call them my guys!

  10. God Bless You Lara! It was enjoyable reading for me! My GP and my Mom’s family were from Ivaniv, Vinnyts'ka oblast, Ukraine. This place is 2.5 hrs away from yours. I am also planning to go there (want to see with my eyes!!). Great story!Can you share with me contact these guys. I just need some one to assist me. I am perfectly speaking russian and ukranian languages.

  11. Thanks Lara, this is great!

  12. I could never do a trip like this, and am so envious, but so happy for you and others who are able to make these personal journeys.

  13. I can't wait to read more. How remarkable that you met the woman who helped your uncle.

  14. My family and I spent a remarkable week with Alex and Vitaly in 2004. Alex is the best! So glad that you were able to trace your family's history.

  15. My family and I spent a remarkable week with Alex and Vitaly in 2004. Alex is the best! So glad that you were able to trace your family's history.

  16. My family and I spent a remarkable week with Alex and Vitaly in 2004. Alex is the best! So glad that you were able to trace your family's history.