April 25. We travel further through Eastern Galicia. Berezhani, Pidhaitsi, Buchach, Chortkiv – remains of synagogues, cemeteries and rabbinical courts.
I like Berezhani from the first moment on. The city is built on hills, everything looks incredibly tight – like a anthill with golden church domes. Armenians and Jews have shaped life and prosperity of the city in the past.
We take a walk to the Jewish cemetery, which is situated on a hill overlooking the city. From here one has a panoramic view over the valleys. Large parts of the cemetery are destroyed. Everywhere we see fallen and shattered stones. Nevertheless, the place looks clean. The grass is short, there are no wild sprawling bushes. We sit down at a group of grave stones and look into down into the lowlands. A flock of crows is circling above us. One sharpens its beak on a broken grave stone. Our human conception of eternity is very poor.
Later in the morning we meet Jeremy, who organized a video project about Berezhani’s Jewish history with young people from the local orphanage. Part of the project is a guided city walk. Every young person has to prepare for a part of the walk and tells on camera.
Before the walk, Dan, a volunteer of the American Peace Corps, shows us the orphanage. Approximately 150 young people are housed here. The fear, the orphanage could be closed is great. For many young people it would mean to have to return to broken families. In the orphanage they have the chance to get an education as an IT specialist or carpenter. More than is possible in the surrounding villages.
The first stop of our tour in Berezhani is the great synagogue. The building must have been huge. Now it is in a state in which it is likely irretrievably lost. However, the grounds seem a somewhat tidy. Some clearing took place, but no one knows more. In Israel there were plans for the reconstruction of the synagogue, says a local historian who accompanies us. The problem is the money. Facing the Great Synagogue, one can easily imagine.
We drive east to Pidhaitsi. The road is much better than we had hoped. In Pidhaitsi there should be an old synagogue and a Jewish cemetery. A quick question to an old man helps us to find both easily. The synagogue is surprisingly huge, but in bad condition. An important pillar is in danger of collapse. The market buildings, which were built around the synagogue, are not any better. They obviously are empty for years. In some of them the chickens breed. Through a gate you can see into the synagogue. We see the empty Torah ark.
In a few hundred meters distance is the Jewish cemetery. An open field. At its edges are dense rows of grave stones. At second glance, it is clear that the open spaces were once covered with grave stones. After all, about a third of the original stock is still available. After a few minutes a man is waving at us. It is Stepan, who keeps care of the cemetery and has also published an impressively large book on the history of the Jews of Pidhaitsi.
Stepan leads us around, showing us grave stones from different eras, and finally a mass grave, where a monument stands. “Here, many of the Jews of Pidhaitsi were shot” says Stepan. “The others were sent to Belzec in the gas chambers.”
We continue towards Chortkiv. On the way we pass Buchach. The Israeli Nobel laureate Samuel Joseph Agnon was born here, the mother of Sigmund Freud too. We see several large baroque churches. Jewish heritage is no longer here. The Great Synagogue and the old Beit Midrash – house of learning – Agnon wrote about, are long gone.
We reach Chortkiv, the former seat of a Hasidic court. In search of a hotel we drive through streets that are still unmistakably influenced by the architecture of the Habsburg monarchy. The hotel search turns out to be easy. Our hotel is called “aircraft carrier.” I hope it does not sink tonight.
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