|There Are No Birds Today In Yesterday´s Nest*|
by Irving Kronenberg
It was a Sunday morning, in January. A brisk, frigid wind blew sleet and snow along the ground and upward, pelting the windowpanes in the kitchen. My wife Norma and I were finishing a late breakfast, slowly savoring the last lukewarm sips of our coffee. We sat silently, methodically searching favorite sections of the Sunday New York Times in our quest for the "important stuff." The intellectual fodder, our dose, our newsprint fix to sustain us through the ensuing week. (I have often thought these recurring Sunday, time honored rituals may represent some of the calmest and most peaceful interludes known to modern civilization.) The tranquility of the moment however, was suddenly interrupted by Norma's challenging query: "How'd you like to travel to Poland?" She had been reading about Jews visiting Poland and reminded me of our past conversations about actually seeing first-hand the small villages (shtetlech) where our parents were born almost a century ago. I looked up slowly from my reading to see her waiting patiently for my response. "Well, we certainly can look into it" I said, "We're experienced travelers and it doesn't appear to be too difficult a trip to plan." "Famous last words" and "easier said than done" both apply here. The planning had thus begun. The New York Times was laid aside and the atlas was opened to Poland and the Ukraine. Where were we going, how would we get there and why did we both feel the need to see firsthand the now barren world of our fathers?
We were both born and raised in the Bronx during the 1930's, the children of recent immigrants. As the scourge of fascism spread from Italy to Germany and Spain the inertia, the feeble anti-interventionist rationalizations of the rest of Europe and the United States spelled doom for tens of millions. World War II raced ahead enveloping all of Europe. The continual newspaper and radio accounts of the war dominated dinner table conversation.
Always, our parents spoke of Poland and the plight of Jews throughout Europe. They spoke of the increasingly ominous reports of the network of Jewish newspapers and international refugee and relief organizations. At first, letters and postal cards from family were received and read aloud at the dinner table, each word studied for clues to what was really happening "over there." The letters arrived less and less frequently and sounded more and more distressed - they begged, "please try to do something to get the children out, send warm clothing, food," but it was always the children, "try to rescue the children." As children ourselves, we wondered about why those children had to be rescued; from what? Could the same thing happen in the Bronx? Would we have to be rescued? What did "rescued" mean anyhow? We would learn.
In 1942, three years after the invasion of Poland, the desperate, pleading letters intensified our parents' efforts to join with others to press the U.S. State Department, the Immigration Service, the Jewish Agency, and a variety of Jewish fraternal organizations to help locate our families. Yiddish newspapers (there were four Yiddish dailies in those days) were scanned by thousands of Jewish Americans in search of information about their respective shtetl or about anyone who might have fled and escaped to some safe place out of the reach of the fascist beast. Those inquiries were all futile. Written communication ended and in our families hopelessness and fear was palpable. How could this be happening? Has the world gone mad? We would learn.
In New York City the press described the massive and inhuman segregation of Jews into ghettos in many large cities in Poland, the deportation of millions of Jews from every country in Europe to concentration camps, and the systematic annihilation of European Jewery - the "final solution" - the Holocaust.
The last three years of World War II dragged on mercilessly. The crushing feelings of helplessness and guilt dominated the lives of our parents and while they may have thought the unthinkable they would not yet allow themselves to say aloud what they knew to be true. Their anguish was pervasive, transmitted through their sadness, a kind of anticipatory grief from which we were never shielded.
Their worst fears were realized immediately following the cessation of hostilities in Europe when a simple postal card arrived from the Jewish Refugee Agency informing my family that my father's sister, her husband, (Ephram and Feiga Sharfrankar) and their two daughters perished in the Lodz Ghetto some 125 miles southwest of their town of Nowy-Dvor. It is unclear whether they died in the Lodz Ghetto or if they were transported to the "death camp" at nearby Chelmno on the river Ner. What is clear according to the meticulous German records is that they all died in 1942. During the first phase of the deportations from the Lodz Ghetto to Chelmno, which ran from January 16 to May 15, 1942 nearly 55,000 people were deported. With each passing day we learned about the fate of literally dozens of my parent's contemporaries, their former schoolmates and their families who were killed within the town of Nowy-Dvor itself or were "relocated" to ghettos in either Warsaw or Lodz. On December 14, 1942 the last transport of the few remaining Nowy-Dvor Jews arrived in Auschwitz where all but a small select group fit for hard labor reached the end of their tormented, innocent lives - the gas-chamber and the crematorium. The town where 4,000 Jews once lived (half of the total population) was declared "Judenrein" - free of Jews.
Only recently I learned that on the list of heroes who gave their lives to resisting the Nazis in the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto are the names of five Nowy-Dvor Jews.
Nowy-Dvor, once a strategic military garrison town is now a very unprepossessing industrial area, considered part of the Warsaw district, a suburb, only 31 kilometers from the capital city. The name Nowy-Dvor means new manor. Apparently some Polish nobleman established a new manor (castle) on the left bank of the Navev River in close proximity to the confluence of three major rivers - the Vistula, Navev and the Boug.
Planning a trip to Nowy-Dvor, so close to Warsaw, did not appear to pose any unusual logistical problems. No visas or special permits were required, just a Polish/English speaking guide/taxi driver.
The immediate postwar news from Dobromil, the town where Norma's parents were born and raised was equally grim and perhaps even more tragic. Her family learned of the eradication of the entire Jewish community of Dobromil from her uncle Itchu Frucht, (Uncle Irwin to Norma) her father's brother who as he describes his own escape, tells of a series of miraculous and implausible coincidences, good fortune, cunning intelligence, bravery and an uncanny ability to adapt to rapidly changing events. Uncle Irwin arrived in Paris in June 1946. He wrote immediately to his brother in the Bronx (Norma's family) describing his vertiginous journey of survival and the barbaric acts committed by the Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators in Dobromil between 1939 and 1945. He described how dozens of their family were murdered in Dobomil - men, women and children herded into the town's only synagogue which was locked and set ablaze while Nazi soldiers and Ukrainian civil guardsmen jeered, laughed and screamed obscene epithets. The remaining Jews who did not immediately flee into the Soviet Union, eastward, with the retreating Red Army were rounded up and deported to Treblinka, another of the infamous death camps.
In 1938 Uncle Irwin was one of only a handful of Jewish students who graduated from the University of Krakow's Jagiellonska Institute, historically the academic seat of the great 16th century (pre Galilean) astronomer Nicolas Copernicus. The story of Uncle Irwin's survival, his odyssey through eastern Poland, the Ukraine, Stalingrad, a Russian Gulag, his brief return to Dobromil, his flight to Warsaw and then Paris and ultimately his immigration to the United States in October 1948 still leaves us all breathless. His chameleon-like transformations from Latin teacher, trench digging laborer, gulag prisoner, German-Russian interpreter, Polish-Jewish refugee relief administrator, Parisian fur shop nailer, undergraduate at the City College of New York (CCNY) and New York state bank examiner still has us all shaking our heads in disbelief at the resiliency of the human spirit. His story is central to our planning to visit Dobromil.
The shtetl of Dobromil lies in a setting of scenic natural beauty in the former Austro-Hungarian empire province of Galicia. Bucolic, lofty green hills with bountiful fields and orchards belie the regions history of violence, upheaval and intolerance.
Poles, Ukrainians and Jews have lived in Dobromil for centuries. The Roman-Catholic oriented Poles and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church (Ruthenians) resented the hegemony of German-speaking Vienna and vented their frustrations on each other and together tormented the Jewish minority.
Dobromil became part of the Hapsburg Empire in the 18th century (1772) following the partition of Poland. The empire collapsed during the First World War and an independent Poland emerged. The southeastern region (southeastern Galicia) where Dobromil is located, was absorbed into the Soviet Ukrainian Republic in 1939 through the territorial realignment created by the short-lived Molotov-Von Ribbentrop (Soviet-German) pact. In the USSR the pact was rationalized as a measure designed to buy time to prepare for war. In the west however, the pact was considered to be duplicitous, dashing any hopes of impeding the German advance throughout eastern and northern Europe. The pact effectively divided Poland in half ceding the eastern portion to the USSR i.e. the Ukraine. The line of demarcation passed through the city of Przemysl only 12 kilometers to the west of Dobromil along the course of the river San. Dobromil thus became a part of the Soviet Ukrainian Republic. No sooner was the ink on the pact dry when the German Army, breaking the treaty, advanced eastward, crossing the river San, attacking the Soviet Union as the world knew it would. Thus, Dobromil, lying so close to the border, became part of the German-occupied Distrikt Galizien in 1941 on the very first day of the German encroachment.
The Germans were driven out of the Soviet Union in 1944 by the Red Army and Dobromil again became part of the Soviet Ukrainian Republic, a designation which lasted some forty-seven years.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 Dobromil became part of an independent Ukraine and to this day the region has never been restored to Poland according to pre-World War II boundaries.
Prior to the war the language of the district was predominantly Polish progressively changing over to Ukrainian after the war. Eastern Galicia represented a convergence of peoples, cultures, religions and civilizations. The multicultural, multilingual and multi-religious character of the region was striking. As a legacy of the 150 years of benevolent rule of the Hapsburgs almost every educated person, at that time, regardless of their ethnic origin knew the German language. This was however, anything but a melting pot. Nationalism and religious intolerance often led to bloodshed. Polish nationalism and Ukrainian nationalism clashed in 1918-1919 and the subsequent Ukrainian defeat would leave a lasting imprint on Ukrainian-Polish relations.
During the period from 1917-1991 there were constant changes: from the Hapsburg Empire to an independent Poland to the Soviet occupation followed by the German occupation and then the establishment of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic and finally the advent of an independent Ukraine.
As we planned our visit we were told that the Ukraine still had not established an official monetary currency of its own and that the very rural eastern Galician region was "lawless" that is, without a local police force or any other law enforcement organization and that bandits controlled the primitive roadways and frequently boarded trains to rob passengers at knife-point or by holding chloroform or ether soaked rags to their noses while they slept. We were also warned that the border crossing from the Polish city of Pzemysl into the Ukraine, particularly the visa application process, would be tedious, a bureaucratic nightmare that would take hours filled with anxiety and suspense. These persistent reports of chaos and virtual anarchy gave us pause, more than sufficient reason to reconsider our mission. Clearly, we would be "crossing over" into a highly unstable environment that would always be colored by the horrific account of the fate of Yosha, Uncle Irwin's oldest brother. Yosha managed to survive the war, hidden by a peasant farmer. He returned to Dobromil immediately after the Germans had been driven out of the Ukraine and was promptly executed by his former neighbors who resented his return and his legitimate claim to the modest single-level house (bungalow) and less than an acre of land that belonged to his family for at least 200 years. Unstable environment indeed. At this juncture, over 50 years later we realized that we were no longer planning as mere tourists on a nostalgic excursion but rather pursuing a course that was potentially fraught with danger and at best, embarking upon an unpredictable adventure. It became apparent that we would need a well thought out plan to minimize the risks. We would need help entering the Ukraine and that meant locating reliable people who could help us, people who would be concerned for our safety. We did not speak any of the languages soldiers at the border or residents of Dobromil were likely to speak. We would need safe, private transportation and an English-Polish-Ukrainian translator/guide who could help us negotiate our visas, available only at the border crossing at Medyka for day visitors. I was not optimistic about our chances of putting it all together without considerably more research.
Norma took the research challenge seriously, beginning with telephone calls to the Ukrainian Consulate and the Ukrainian Travel Bureau in New York City and Landmark Opportunities (a Ukrainian-American Joint Business Venture) in Alexandria, Virginia. None of the aforementioned were able to help with train schedules, hotels in Pzemysl, auto rentals, guide/translators/drivers. They all confirmed for us that the hotels closest to Dobromil within the Ukraine were in L'vov, nearly 100 kilometers to the east and that we could not apply for visas in advance of our trip without furnishing an address in the Ukraine where we would stay. Therefore, confirmed also was our decision to cross the border as day visitors, obtaining our visas at the border crossing station known as Medyka, only 1½ kilometers from the city of Przemysl, a small Polish city at the border. But who would help us? Norma advanced our cause substantially with a fortuitous visit to our local bookstore, happening upon the work of Jim Haynes, publisher of the unique "People to People" travel guides. Imagine finding a travel guide entitled "People to People in Poland," turning to the index, finding the city of Przemysl and then finding a listing of the people in Przemysl who would like to meet English-speaking people. Norma wrote directly to one of the entries in the travel guide; Natalia Czarny, a 24 year old married woman with an 18 month old daughter. Ms. Czarny's husband Tadeusz was the Vice President of a regional development foundation.
Within two weeks we received a most gracious reply inviting us to Przemysl, offering to meet us at the railroad station, offering to be our guide in Przemysl and in Dobromil as well. Her reference to their automobile, however, although humorous, underscored our, by now, well-founded suspicions that we were in for a "rough ride." Natalia wrote: "First problem is that one can not rent a car in Przemysl. So you are under sentence of our car. It is no problem for us but you should prepare on not beautiful, not fast, and old Skoda. This car is perfectly for travel to Ukraine because does not strike the eye." She apparently was aware of the bandits on the roads but volunteered their help in spite of it. She told us about a new small hotel in Przemysl very close to the Medyka crossing. Her letter was both welcoming and enthusiastic and we could not believe our good fortune. Additional correspondence including our itinerary, hotels in Warsaw and then in Krakow followed. As our plans evolved, Norma telephoned Natalia at her mother's home in Krakow where she was visiting and she promised to call us at our hotel as soon as we arrived in Warsaw to make definitive arrangements. Now, nearly four months in the planning, the trip was on although we were not as yet certain about the reliability of our volunteer escorts to Dobromil. We decided to proceed with our trip to Warsaw, Nowy-Dwor and Krakow and to venture into the Ukraine only if our new friends materialized and were actually as wonderful as they sounded.
We arrived in Warsaw on May 8th and checked into the Intercontinental Hotel Victoria on Krolewska Street opposite the Plac Zwyclestwa site of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. True to her word, Natalia Czarny telephoned that same evening but we were out for dinner and no return phone number was left in her message. (We were later to learn that the Czarny's had been waiting four years for a phone for their home in Przemysl.) All we could do was proceed with our trip and wait for another call. Perhaps we would hear from Natalia in Krakow.
We roamed about Warsaw, where many streets had familiar names, thanks to I.B. Singer. We found Singer's beloved Krochmalna Street, Elektoralna and Nowolipki Streets, Swietojerska and Dulga Streets and the nearby Krasinskich Gardens. Turning north we walked into the former Jewish Quarter, infamously known as the Warsaw Ghetto. We sought out the headquarters of the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance at Mila 18. Only a modest stone monument remains where the miracle of the "uprising" was organized. It was a miracle of bravery and courage, certainly, for me, the most memorable, uplifting and noble event in the history of the Jewish people. We looked for Mila 41, the last address given by my mother, living with cousins while waiting for the visa that would permit her to join her husband in the U.S. That was in the fall of 1932. During the nearly three years of the resistance, the entire Ghetto area had been leveled. Immediately following the war, the area was rebuilt with hundreds of two and three-story box-like apartment buildings reminiscent of Army barracks. Rows upon rows of these austere buildings on stark treeless streets underscored the massive destruction and suffering during WWII and the post war exigencies of housing thousands of homeless Poles. Warsaw was among the most deeply scarred capital cities of Europe at the end of the Second World War. Fifty years after the war the blight was still evident. Other sections of Warsaw, however, showed signs of recent attention, particularly a restored area called "old town" where restaurants, cafes and shops circling a huge square provide some respite from an otherwise dreary urban scene. The food in the several restaurants we dined at in Warsaw was only fair, with the exception of an outstanding and elegant meal at the newly restored, historic Hotel Bristol.
The concierge at the Intercontinental Hotel arranged for us to hire a driver/English/Polish interpreter and guide to take us to Nowy-Dwor where my mother and father were born and where they lived until they married in 1929. We had visited the Jewish Museum and archives office in Warsaw (Zydowski Instytut Historydzny w Polsce Archiwum 1) to inquire about the fate of my maternal grandmother who was left behind when my mother, the last of her four children, departed for America in 1932. Grandmother Michalowska had a variety of medical conditions which disqualified her from obtaining a U.S. visa. My mother knew very well when she left that she would never see her mother again. We never learned whether she had been killed by the Nazis or if she had died from her illnesses before the Nazi invasion and occupation. On the short 31 kilometer auto trip to Nowy-Dwor we explained to our driver the purpose of our mission which, we thought, could be accomplished with a brief visit to the Archives and Registration Office in Nowy-Dwor. We had an address given to us by the Jewish Archives Office in Warsaw where we were told that each town maintained a registry of its residents and that we were probably looking for the 1938-39 registry book. We found the store-front office without difficulty and our interpreter explained to the two women in the office our rather simple request for information. They defiantly, as if rehearsed, folded their arms across their breasts and proceeded to tell him something which seemed to embarrass him. He kept glancing over at us to be sure we understood nothing of this conversation. It was obvious that they had refused our request and that they were not interested in helping. Our interpreter explained that we lacked written authorization to be given access to the information we sought, but that in his opinion, a few American dollars would readily qualify as "authorization." I glared at them for a few seconds, finally shouting "Neh," Polish for no, adamantly refusing to offer the requisite bribe. As we were leaving the office, the women, pretending to be sympathetic, were hurriedly mumbling something to our driver about the proprietor of the nearby corner general store who they said was an "old lady" and who might "remember something." We went there but it turned out the "old lady" was younger than Norma and me and she couldn't help. As we started to leave the general store, however, she mentioned that "the last Jewish person in town, an elderly woman, had been taken to a nursing home in Warsaw only a few days ago." (They certainly kept track of their Jews.) We never made any reference to being Jewish, but they knew, they all knew and they refused to help. We walked around Nowy-Dwor, looking for architecture that might have appeared in some of the old photos I had of the town dating back to the 1920's. I took a few photos myself, feeling thoroughly frustrated at not learning more about where my parents actually lived and of course by the bitter rebuke of the archives office clerks. We pondered the vile combination of continued overt anti-semitism with the black-market mentality of the bureaucracy and concluded that our expectations were probably much too high. We ended our brief visit to Nowy-Dwor with the frustrating realization that the fate of my grandmother will probably never be known. All this we thought to ourselves as we returned to Warsaw in silence. We were back at the Intercontinental Hotel Victoria just before dinner and welcomed the neat double vodkas we sipped at the hotel bar, anguished over how easily we had been thwarted.
After a restless night we departed Warsaw the next morning heading south by train, for Krakow - a four hour ride, 200 miles through small villages and the forest, wooded slopes and peaks of the Holy Cross Mountains. As we looked off into the forest, we tried to imagine the defiant Jews once hidden here and the courageous resistance fighters protected by the density of the woods and the mountainous terrain.
We arrived at Krakow's Central Station mid-afternoon and checked into the Hotel Francuski on Pijarska Street located three or four short blocks from the Market Place (Rynek Glowny) in Old Krakow. This central square rivals the largest squares of medieval Europe retaining its original form dating back to 1275. Krakow is a beautiful, charming city the Poles like to think of as a city of art and architecture and the home of the first university in Poland, the famous Collegium Maius (Krakow Academy) also known as the Jagiellonska Institute. Built at the end of the 14th century, the buildings of the Collegium Marius are arranged around magnificent courtyards considered the gem of Old Krakow. The famous Porta Aurea at the entrance of one of the halls in the south building remains a veritable marvel. We were, of course, drawn here knowing it was Uncle Irwin's alma mater. He had received a scholarship and was one of only a handful of Jews who attended the collegium, the only Jew from his village of Dobromil. Uncle Irwin was told by the town's priest who made recommendations to the collegium for scholarships that it was the darkest day of his life having to recommend a Jew, but admitted that he was eminently qualified and that he should not be denied the honor.
On the next day we spent several hours roaming the Kasimierez district, (the Jewish quarter) depicted in Stephen Spielberg's film Schindler's List. There were two active synagogues, a Jewish bookshop, a Jewish cemetery and a few kosher purveyors of meat, fish and groceries, as well as a small restaurant and sidewalk café advertising a variety of Polish-Jewish culinary specialties. It was obvious that people lived very modestly in the Kaziemierz district. The cobble stoned sidewalks and streets were in disrepair and a distinct odor of raw sewage permeated the area. But there is nothing like a Hollywood movie to bring tourists by the bus load. Buses, vans and street signage advertising tours, "Schindler's List tours." The film itself apparently had taken on more importance than the medieval and renaissance architecture. Various buildings and streets were of interest because they were in the film.
By mid-afternoon, we returned to our hotel. You may call it masochism, curiosity, a need to know, a need to witness, and perhaps all of the above that led us to the hotel's concierge to book an "excursion to Oswiecim" (Auschwitz) scheduled early the next day.
The excursion, led by an English-speaking guide, left Krakow by bus at 9 a.m. and arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau at 10:30 a.m. Just as we approached the city of Oswiecim, the bus passed a vast railroad yard in which, almost as billboard advertising, dozens of railroad cattle cars stood idle on the sidings. Instantly, the ominous association with everything we knew of the holocaust sent chills down our spines and we gasped in disbelief that in this place at this time these carriers of horror were on display, conveyances which fifty years earlier had become an indelible symbol of depravity. The local folks probably never gave it a thought.
We entered the sinister Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps through a wrought iron gate over which was the familiar cynical, bold lettered inscription "Arbiet Macht Frei" (work makes you free). I was overcome with a sense of lightheadedness, a feeling as close to sleepwalking as I have ever had and although we didn't discuss it at the time, I sensed that Norma was having her own difficulty controlling her emotions. We moved along slowly following the tour group, climbing up into the tower over the railroad entrance from which we could observe the railroad siding platforms where, upon arrival, women and young children were separated from the men (the first "selection" for death). Somehow, with each passing minute, the scene became more and more familiar. The images of the dozens of newsreels, films, documentaries, photographs, and the written accounts of survivors like Primo Levy, Elie Weisel, Imre Kertesz, and so many others created an eerie sensation of our having been there before. We walked silently past the crematoria, the gas chambers, the rows of brick chimneys, the remains of fallen barracks, and the several barracks preserved as a kind of grotesque museum to show the all too familiar stacked sleeping compartments, rows of open toilets and a variety of barbaric devices to assist punishment and torture.
The tour continued through a few buildings in the main camp where prisoners from virtually every country in Europe were housed as forced laborers (slaves). Subjected to the most inhumane working conditions, they literally worked until they collapsed or died. Our tour guide referred to the buildings by the national origin of its inmates, i.e. the Czech building; the Polish building, the French building, etc., never once indicating that nine out of every ten prisoners at Auschwitz were Jews. As a response to accusations of Polish civilian collaboration with the Nazis in the camps, this Polish guide was obviously attempting to point out the "victimhood" of other nationalities, especially the Poles. Enraged by this obvious attempt to distort the truth, I left the building in which piles of shoes, human hair, suitcases, spectacles and other personal possessions of the inmates were on display piled in glass cases. Norma remained in the building, overwhelmed. She lost her orientation momentarily, and couldn't find the exit. She finally found her way, exiting onto the street in a cold sweat. As the tour neared its end we took the opportunity to wander away from our group in search of what was described to us as an archives or office of records. Friends of ours who had been to Auschwitz only months earlier provided a very accurate description of the building and its location near the main entrance. The small three-story brick building had no special markings or signs and the door was locked. We looked up at the windows, the lights were on, and there were people obviously working in an office and although we weren't quite sure that this was the right place, we started calling and waving to people in the building. Someone finally appeared at the window and we asked that they open the door. A woman came to the door and confirmed that this was in fact the records office. We waited our turn behind another couple on a similar mission. Apparently this record room was the repository for the "records" of nearly one and one half million people who were prisoners at Auschwitz. Here they had recorded their country of origin, the numbers tattooed on their arms, the date they arrived and the date they were murdered. When our turn came, we approached the "teller's window," wrote our family names on an inquiry form and waited while a clerk disappeared into a maze of filing cabinets behind her. Within a few minutes she returned with two stacks of index cards, each perhaps an inch thick, a stack with my family name and one for Norma's family name. I could not identify, with any certainty, any of those who perished at Auschwitz, but for Norma it was quite different, chilling, overwhelming. There before us were the names of several cousins, and their young children whose histories and routes of deportation were tracked from the Ukraine to Paris to Drancy (the French concentration camp) to Auschwitz with the dates they were put to death.
Man's inhumanity to man has never been so methodically and efficiently recorded. We shook our heads in disbelief, asking why, for what reason? What were they thinking?
We left Auschwitz through the iron gate past the electrified barbed wire fences and sentry towers. I remember looking back tearfully, unable to speak. What could be said that hasn't already been said about the cruelest period in the history of the world?
Upon returning to the Hotel Francuski we were somewhat cheered to find a telephone message waiting for us from Natalia Czarny's sister-in-law, Anna Czarny, who lived in Krakow with her parents.
We returned her call and were invited to a concert of the Krakow Symphony Orchestra where she held an administrative position. We were to be her guest at the concert and she, in turn, would be our guest for dinner at a local restaurant before the concert. Apparently, she was the advance party assigned to learn something about the crazy Americans who have such a pressing need to visit the backward, agrarian western edge of the Ukraine. We met Anna at our hotel the following evening and found, to our great surprise and good fortune, that she spoke English very well. Dinner was very cordial, and we found Anna to be an attractive, interesting and friendly woman. Conversation was lively and we were impressed by how well informed she was about the United States and world affairs generally. Before we knew it, we were walking briskly across the Rynek Glowny (Central Square) towards the concert hall. Anna, who apparently approved of us, revealed the plan for assisting us into the Ukraine. On Saturday morning (two days hence) at 7 a.m. Anna and her brother Tadeusz Czarny, who would drive five hours up from Przemysl the night before, would pick us up at our hotel for the five hour return trip southeast to Przemysl. Anna would care for baby Elizabeth while Natalia and Tadeusz chaperoned us into the Ukraine via the border crossing station at Medyka about a mile from their home in Przemysl. We were going to Dobromil after all. The concert that evening was delightful and we parted with Anna marveling at how things were falling into place. And yet I still expressed doubt to Norma that they would actually show up according to plan. Norma, however, was a step ahead, already thinking about who we would need to inform about this plan. After all, we could easily disappear. Who would know? We could be kidnapped, held for ransom. The reputation of the region obviously contributed to these serious concerns, and we didn't, at this point, know anything about the Czarnys. We kept asking each other, "Who are they? Why are they doing this?" The following day we made contact, at the University of Krakow, with a visiting professor from the University of Connecticut who had been recommended as a possible resource in Krakow. We arranged to have a drink at our hotel and discussed with him our plan and its purpose. He did not discourage us in any way, but it was apparent that he knew very little about conditions in the western Ukraine. We left with him our passport numbers, home address, family names, addresses and phone numbers and the expected time of return to our hotel, late the following night. We left the same information and a detailed letter describing our trip and our escorts at the registration desk of the Hotel Grand where, coincidentally, our very dear friend and his family were expected to check in the following day (the day of our trip). We had a prearranged date to have dinner with them the day after our trip. Our friends, an American, Polish born, architect, a survivor of the war in a Russian Gulag, was traveling with his family, returning to Poland for the first time in forty years to show his grown children his native country.
Now at least two different people were aware of our plans. Our friend expected us for dinner the following evening and we were confident that he would report us missing if we didn't show up. We tried to assure ourselves that we had all contingencies covered, but try as we did, we had a restless night nevertheless.
At exactly 7 a.m. the next morning there was Tadeusz and his older sister Anna in a ten year old faded, "dirty" orange Skoda (Czech automobile) with a rear engine and exhaust vents slanting downward where the trunk would normally be. Natalia was very accurate in her description of the car in her first letter to Norma: "You should prepare on not beautiful, not fast, and old Skoda. This car is perfectly for travel to Ukraine because does not strike the eye." Tadeusz, dressed in a jacket and tie, greeted us as old friends and opened the car door for Norma with a slight bow. We climbed in, made ourselves as comfortable as possible in the rear of this very compact car and we were on our way to Przemysl. Five hours, no highway, just a simple two-lane road passing through small villages and nondescript countryside. Heat and exhaust fumes rose from the engine just behind our seat and the unresponsive shock absorbers did nothing to mitigate the road's severe heaves and potholes. We traveled with a sustained mild nausea. Stopping only once to use the restrooms at a small roadside "snack bar," we had a few sips of a mud-like, tasteless coffee and some homemade pastries sent along by their mother in Krakow. Mother Czarny had also packed a huge picnic meal and two litres of water for the trip. Conversation en route finally gave us some insight into who our escorts were and why Natalia and Tadeusz made themselves available as our escorts to Dobromil. Tadeusz did not speak English very well and all conversation between us was filtered through Anna who was very forthcoming. She told us that Natalia and Tadeusz had met as students at the University of Lublin, a catholic university held in low esteem by the Polish communist government at the time of the solidarity movement led by Lech Walesa. Natalia had been a student leader of solidarity at the University of Lublin and had been arrested and jailed several times during the height of the protests against the regime. The political and economic turmoil created by the communist puppets desperate attempts to retain control, made the life at the only catholic-private university in Poland very difficult. Most of their fellow students, as they graduated, were deemed unemployable because of their anticommunist sentiments and their "catholic education." Natalia's education was interrupted frequently by her periodic imprisonment, and later by her marriage to Tadeusz and the birth of their daughter Elizabeth. She was only now, at the time of our trip, taking courses piecemeal to complete her baccalaureate degree. All this Anna told us along the way, with Tadeusz nodding in agreement as he drove with both hands on the steering wheel, attempting to avoid the incessant potholes, apologizing for each bump.
Arriving in the city of Przemysl at noon, Tadeusz took us directly to the Hotel Marko-Exim, a new hotel about 1½ kilometers from the border crossing at Medyka. He suggested that we check in and rest a bit while he went to fetch Natalia. He returned an hour later and we were delighted to be meeting Natalia at last. We were all talking at once, congratulating one another at having finally put all the pieces together. All conversation ceased abruptly, however, as we approached the first directional sign pointing to Medyka, where traffic was at a standstill. Ahead of us were what looked to be at least three hundred autos, trucks and vans lined up in two lanes waiting - all waiting for entrance visas and/or routine border interrogation and inspection. We were incredulous. It was now 1:30 p.m. and our hopes of crossing the border during daylight hours seemed somewhat unrealistic. We might be here all night, we thought, and we sat back stunned, feeling helpless at being thwarted again. Apparently our pessimism was not shared by Natalia and Tadeusz. They quickly exchanged a few words in Polish and Tadeusz jumped out of the car and started running slowly up the line of vehicles while Natalia came around to the driver's seat. She told us that Tadeusz's employer was a regional development foundation whose mission it was to privatize the Przemysl region by bringing in investors, developers, and venture capital. It was obvious that Tadeusz, as he moved up the line, stopping to speak to Polish border guards, was exploiting his very formal looking business card and his title as foundation V.P. He was trying to beat the bureaucrats at their own game. He kept pointing back at our car, showing his card (we found out later) telling any official he could find about the "rich Americans" who were interested in a variety of investment and business opportunities in the region. How they fell for his line, given the antiquity and shabby appearance of our automobile, was beyond comprehension, but they did. Slowly we were moved ahead in the line at the direction of one official after another. To our great delight they all cooperated. It was evident that not one of them would have wanted to be held personally responsible for impeding the region's economic development by keeping the wealthy American investors waiting unnecessarily. Two hours later we pulled up adjacent to the office for visa applications and passport control. Natalia was still at the wheel and Tadeusz accompanied Norma and me into an office, now for the first time, encountering Ukrainian soldiers who staffed the border station. The soldiers wore the unmistakable old uniforms of the Red Army including the red star cap and lapel ornaments. The rough, heavy, woolen, khaki cloth, instantly, reflexively, brought on the urge to scratch. (It was "Just like in the movies.") A rather attractive female soldier sat at a 1931 cyrillic typewriter with a worn out ribbon and over-used carbon paper, punching out letters with one finger, copying information from our U.S. passports. She spoke very little, pausing after every few pokes to admire her work, smiling and rubbing her hands together as if to say, "Oh boy I did it." She did it alright, but it took forever. We thought we were through this ordeal when she told Tadeusz that the fee was fifty U.S. dollars for each visa, which we paid, but then she indicated that she had to type the receipts, so we sat back again and waited. We had now been at Medyka for a little over two and a half hours. We exited passport control to find that Natalia was able to move to within a dozen or so cars from the automated barrier at the actual border. We joined her in the car, trying to laugh off the anxiety provoking typewriter poking, our mood lifting to one of anticipation of actually being in Dobromil. Again, however, the rollercoaster dipped downward as an arm was thrust into the car followed by the full shoulder and then the head of a Ukrainian Army officer. In his hand he held a form that requested information regarding our destination in the Ukraine and the total amount of currency we were carrying into the country. We took the form from him observing his three day growth of beard, his bloodshot eyes and boisterous demeanor. He left the sickening stench of body odor and alcohol as he withdrew from the window staggering away from the car. Natalia, holding her nose for effect, said this form was routine, and was curious herself to know how much currency we were carrying. I said "Thirty-five hundred dollars - three thousand in U.S. traveler's checks and five hundred in U.S. dollars."
Our position in the line brought us to within fifty feet of the border, third in line. Something, however, had changed in the faces of our chaperones, they were no longer smiling, in fact, they looked frightened. They volunteered that we were carrying far too much money for comfort, but sternly advised that we must report every dollar accurately on the way in for fear of being accused of profiteering if upon leaving we were found to have more money than we reported when we entered. Already thinking of the possibilities, Tadeusz indicated that if there were bandits on the road ahead, they could be tipped off by collaborators at the border station. Tadeusz said that we could make a run for it to Dobromil only twelve kilometers (8 miles) or we could take a more circuitous route requiring us to drive three times that distance. This route, he hypothesized, would, at the start, take us off course heading in a different direction, thereby possibly confusing anyone laying in waiting for a car supposedly on its way to Dobromil. An unlikely deception, we thought, but it was obvious that options were limited.
I provided the requisite information accurate to the last U.S. penny and handed the form back to the officer. As I sat back in my seat, I looked over at Norma, and for the first time since we started to plan this trip, I detected a hint of doubt, perhaps even fear about what lurked beyond the border. Her discomfort was directly related to the degree of apprehension shown in the faces of Natalia and Tadeusz when they heard the amount of money we were carrying. We both felt that we had placed an added burden on our escorts and upon ourselves as well. The likelihood of encountering trouble ahead had been suddenly, albeit inadvertently, exacerbated, but at this point there was no turning back.
We had little time to deliberate over Tadeusz's plan as we were directed to move forward into the first position at the interface with the electronic barrier arm. With a wave from the guard, the barrier lifted, clearing the way; we were finally free to cross the border. The road was straight, climbing steadily upward to a hill-crest off in the distance. Tadeusz, exercising what he thought to be his best judgment had decided to take the long way to Dobromil. He "gunned" his feeble engine, climbing the rather steep hill at the Skoda's "top speed," passing as we did, two small cars parked under trees on the roadside to our right. We all gasped at seeing them, but looked straight ahead holding our breath and hoping they were not waiting for us. Within thirty seconds, we had climbed the hill and looking behind us were delighted the two cars had not moved. Tadeusz, wiping sweat from his face, smiled for the first time in several hours. At the first crossroad Tadeusz, leaving the road to Dobromil, turned right onto a dirt road heading southeast. Thus began our intrusion into a forgotten world, a world of tiny agricultural villages joined by primitive farming roads flanked by some of the most beautiful, picturesque farmlands we had ever seen. The sun was now setting over the rolling hills and the sky was filled with an orange glow turning the fields to deep shades of Cézanne-like greens. As we bumped along we passed men, women and children on the road, all of whom were dressed as if they had just come from "central casting" for Fiddler on the Roof. Our preconceived notions about how people would be dressed in fact turned out to be overestimated. It was clear that nothing about western Ukrainian fashion had changed in over a hundred years. The villages of Drozdovici, Popovyci, Zolofkovyci, Nyzamkovyci, Serkascue, Novi Misto, and Seljanuvtka, each about five to six kilometers apart, formed a semi-circle reaching to the southeast and coming back to the west ending in Dobromil. We were there - Dobromil. The shtetl Norma's mother spoke about so nostalgically, so affectionately, now showed signs of longstanding neglect. As we drove into the center of the village we saw a few official looking buildings on our right, a church on the left and a village square in front of us, but no people. It was now 5:00 in the afternoon, and as the sun set lower the town took on a faded grey hue creating the eerie sensation of a dusty spaghetti western ghost town. No sooner had we arrived than we were already feeling the pressure of time - we all agreed that it was necessary to see as much as we could and still be on our way back to Medyka before dark. Our first task was to try to find Yaroslav Krasnévych, a childhood friend of Uncle Irwin with whom he attended the Dobromil Gymnasium (high school) and later the University of Krakow. Uncle Irwin knew that his friend, a Ukrainian gentile had survived WWII but he had lost touch with him over the years. Mr. Krasnévych, who had studied art at the University had been a talented painter and we were determined to find out if he was still living and if so, where? This quest turned out to be easier than we expected. We sat in the car in the center of Dobromil, hoping that someone who we might question about Krasnévych's whereabouts would walk by. Within a few minutes a woman holding a young child by the hand strolled along and Natalia jumped from the car stopping them in their tracks, showing the woman a paper with Krasnévych's name. She immediately shook her head affirmatively and turned, pointing up ahead. This woman was joined by another who confirmed that Krasnévych was indeed alive and living only a few streets over. We drove to the street, turning right off the main road onto a narrow dirt road with two deep wagon ruts and stopped before number 12, a modest, single-level bungalow. Natalia and Norma excitedly jumped up the few steps to the front door and knocked. Again we all held our breath in anticipation. A few moments passed and the door was opened by a diminutive elderly gentleman with striking blue eyes and a lively smile; handsome, you might say. He was, surprisingly, dressed in a sport coat over a vest and a shirt and tie. On his head he wore a navy blue beret. What else would an artist, a painter, wear in the remote, backward shtetl of Dobromil? "How can I help you," he said. Natalia identified herself and then asked, speaking Polish of course, "We are looking for Yaroslav Krasnévych." "I am Yaroslav Krasnévych," he said. Natalia extended her hand to him and with the other hand on Norma's shoulder said, "This is the niece of Itchu Frucht." Krasnévych looked from one face to the other and taking just a second or two to process what was happening said, "Itchu Frucht was my friend," and as he spoke tears were already welling in his eyes - "He was my friend," he repeated. (He hadn't seen his friend for over fifty years.) Tears were now rolling down his face and in an instant the rush of emotions enveloped Norma and Natalia who were now also weeping openly, still standing at the threshold of Krasnévych's home. He regained his composure and, holding the door open, invited Norma and Natalia into his home while Tadeusz and I stood mesmerized only a few feet away taking it all in, choked with emotion, shedding a few tears of our own. After meeting Krasnévych's wife and having a quickly prepared cup of tea they returned to the car to tell us that Krasnévych had volunteered to show us Dobromil; the homes of Norma's parents and grandparents, which have been occupied by Ukrainians since 1939 when the German Army, together with their Ukrainian Civilian Guard collaborators, disposed of all Jews in the region.
Krasnévych squeezed into the rear of the Skoda with Norma and me and gave directions to Tadeusz to drive to the river (Rzekal). Within a few minutes we were standing where the road abruptly ended, on the tree-lined bank of a river which divided the town. The river was about thirty yards wide; the clear water, about a foot and a half deep, flowed briskly over smooth stones at the bottom that were partially obscured in the fading light of early evening. "Where is the bridge?" (Most) asked Tadeusz. "No bridge," said Krasnévych, "Nie most." "Nie most," repeated Tadeusz with an I should have known that tone in his voice. "You must drive across through the river," said Krasnévych. Tadeusz and Natalia looked at each other for a brief moment, exchanged a few words, after which she threw her head back defiantly and jumped out of the car to descend the river bank to the water's edge where she stopped, knelt down and quickly ran back to the car shouting, "we go, we go," pointing to the bank on the other side.
Tadeusz slowly let the car roll slowly forward toward the water and in another moment we were in the water, bumping over the stones. I was overcome by the feeling that everything that was happening was out of our control and that what we were experiencing at that very moment was truly an act of madness. The queasiness in my stomach and the pounding headache at my temples might be considered exaggerated irrational responses if we were crossing a shallow stream in New England, but here in the primitive western Ukrainian town of Dobromil at dusk, without benefit of emergency road service from the Automobile Club of America, it was surely irrational. The thought of being stuck here with a disabled vehicle, having to spend one or more days in Dobromil, brought sour bile to my throat. Norma and I protested; but it was too late. We were in the middle of the river with water trickling in through the doors and then somehow, miraculously, we had begun our ascent from the water onto dry land on the opposite bank. Only Krasnévych was calm, unperturbed by our amphibian exploit while the rest of us, greatly relieved, were cheering thankfully at our success. Krasnévych directed Tadeusz to the former home of Norma's family a short distance from the river. The house, constructed of wood and a kind of crude stucco had a rusted corrugated metal steeply slanted roof. The single level bungalow was situated almost at a crossroad of two unpaved dirt roads that were riddled with deep potholes, loose stones and muddy puddles left from a recent rain. We parked across the street and were walking in the direction of the house when Krasnévych asked Norma if she would like to see the inside of the house. "Yes of course," replied Norma. "Does someone live here now?" "Oh yes, since the war," answered Krasnévych. "Will they let us in," queried Norma? "We'll see, we can try - we'll soon find out," said Krasnévych. Norma and Krasnévych approached the front door and knocked and waited for someone to appear. There was no response and they waited anxiously while the rest of us stood back away from the house so as not to overwhelm anyone who might open the door. They knocked again and this time the door opened slowly and one-by-one three people appeared, dressed in tattered clothing, muddy boots similar to the folks we had seen on the road as we drove to Dobromil. They exited and closed the door behind them with a slam taking up what appeared to be defensive positions directly in front of the closed door. A middle-aged man and woman stood defiantly, arms folded across their chests while a boy of fifteen or sixteen hurriedly ran off down the street and disappeared around a nearby corner. Krasnévych tried to explain Norma's presence; "that she has come all the way from America to Dobromil and hoped to see the former home of her father and her grandparents; that it would mean so much to be able to do this only for a moment. Would they see it in their hearts to allow Norma to step inside?" His tone was gentle, conciliatory, almost pleading, but the more the couple understood about the purpose of our visit, the more they shook their heads, "ni" "ni." They stubbornly stood their ground, refusing to move from the doorway and were looking beyond us, down the street, in the direction of nearby houses where a commotion was stirring. We noticed that our presence was beginning to draw a crowd of curious neighbors who were attracted by the automobile and four strangers being led by the elderly Krasnévych. Our attention was also drawn to the boy who had run from the house returning now accompanied by a rather well built man carrying a huge scythe over his shoulder. The man looked as if he was pulled right out of the field to intimidate the strangers. As they approached, he was already shouting at Krasnévych (all of which was translated for us later by Natalia and Tadeusz), "What do you want here; who are you? Why have you brought these people here?" The Ukrainian version of "get lost!!" was patently clear. We were not welcome and the sooner we were gone the better. The shouting continued as he took up a position next to the others at the front door, the handle of his scythe put to the ground and held like a staff with the curved blade jutting out toward Norma and Krasnévych. Krasnévych took Norma by the arm turning her away from the door saying, "I don't think they want to let you in - we should go before there is trouble." We all started walking down the street in the direction of where we thought Norma's mother's house was when people from each of the houses along the way shouted from their windows or came out to the street screaming hateful epithets at us, but mainly at Krasnévych. "Why did you bring them here? We thought we got rid of those people. Why did you bring them back?" We had obviously outworn our welcome and we abandoned our effort to find Norma's mother's house. We decided that we now needed to be thinking of our own safety and that meant we had to be on our way back to the border. Krasnévych was disappointed that we would not be returning to his house, since he so much wanted to send one of his paintings back to America as a gift for his friend Itchu Frucht. We drove him to the center of town via a roundabout route avoiding the river (he was able to walk home from there). We said goodbye in the center of Dobromil. Krasnévych was embarrassed by the behavior of his neighbors, probably not for the first time. "This is the end of the world, the end of the world," he lamented. Darkness was creeping in and we suddenly felt rushed to leave, but we felt great sadness at leaving that kind, gentle man standing on the road in Dobromil at the end of the world.
We took the short way to the border and arrived at approximately 9 p.m. The Ukrainian side had only a few cars lined up but there was no movement. The border was temporarily shut down. We waited over two hours and finally saw border personnel stirring about, taking their stations, but the delay was never explained. We passed through into Poland quickly and spent only a few minutes at Medyka and we were on our way to our hotel arriving just before midnight. As we entered our hotel room, we realized that we had not eaten since early that morning, but there was no appetite for food, only exhaustion and a need for escape, for sleep. We slept well. The next day, at our invitation, we were joined for lunch at our hotel by Natalia, Tadeusz, Anna and baby Elizabeth. The new restaurant there was said to be the best in Przemysl. After several toasts to friendship and good health, we had a very traditional Polish meal followed by a brief tour of the city of Przemysl. Just prior to our departure, as we strolled near the castle through a lovely park, Norma asked Natalia why she had responded to her correspondence and why she volunteered to help us with our journey to Dobromil. "I guess I just like adventure, replied Natalia. No more, no less. Adventure, was that it, or was there something deeper that motivated this young Polish couple? We were never to learn how much they knew of the fascist occupation of their country and the atrocities committed, aided and abetted by their countrymen. Was this an act of contrition? There was too little time to probe. We realized too that the enemy of their generation was the oppressive pro-soviet regime of forty years, which they fought courageously to defeat.
At about two o'clock in the afternoon, we said goodbye to Natalia and baby Elizabeth, promising to write and hoping we would see each other again. We squeezed into the rear seat of the Skoda and bid farewell to Przemysl. On the five hour ride back to Krakow we described the events of the previous day to Anna who showed no surprise at our hateful encounters in Dobromil and even less surprise at the story of our river crossing - the kind of thing she came to expect from her sister-in-law and brother.
At a fuel stop I approached Tadeusz quietly telling him that while no amount of money could repay his family for their help, there must be something we can do. I offered money and he refused, saying, "We did not do it for money!" I pressed on, finally ramming a handful of American dollars into his jacket pocket insisting that he must, at the very least, allow us to share the expense of the trip. Reluctantly, he accepted, probably because he thought it would make me feel better.
We returned to our hotel in Krakow, parting with Anna and Tadeusz still confounded by their kindness and generosity.
We met our friends at the Grand Hotel where we sat with them for hours telling our story on that last night in Krakow.
We were back on the train to Warsaw in the morning. On the following day, in a taxi moving through the streets of Warsaw on the way to the airport, Norma began sobbing. "It's like leaving a graveyard," she said. And so it was, and we made a shiva call.