The work-camp, that was held nevertheless

The editors of “Die Stimme” (The Voice)–the monthly bulletin of the Bukovinian Jews–were recently so kind to publish my report on this year’s work-camp of SVIT Ukraine to clear the Jewish cemetery of Chernivtsi (Czernowitz). Even today, “Die Stimme” is published in German in Israel. It moves me every time when I pull a new edition out of my letter box. But it also has the disadvantage that many can not read the articles any more. Therefore, here is an English translation of my report.

Since 2008, the Voluntary Service SVIT Ukraine helds work-camps in the Jewish cemetery of Chernivtsi (Czernowitz). Young people from all over the world clean the cemetery of rampant undergrowth, making it accessible for relatives and visitors. That this year’s work-camp could take place, is almost a miracle. SVIT, the Ukrainian branch of Service Civil International, comes from the eastern Ukrainian city of Artemovsk, a place which was temporarily occupied by “separatists”. SVIT was forced to move its infrastructure to Kharkiv. However, the difficulties were endless. After the “separatists” had begun to loot shops and banks, these were closed and the accounts frozen. Another problem: Many people are afraid to go to Ukraine. Understandable–even if one thousand kilometers are between Czernowitz and the spots of war in eastern Ukraine. For weeks in advance, it was foreseeable fewer volunteers would come this year. Ten had finally registered, nine came. But after all, the work-camp could take place.

Five of the volunteers came from Ukraine, two from Poland, one from the Czech Republic and one from Ireland. Among the international participants it were mostly the direct neighbors of Ukraine, who were willing to come. Maybe they were a little better informed about what was happening in the country and were able to calculate possible risks. There are no risks in Czernowitz. The war in the east is naturally present in all conversations, many people have family members who serve in the army or joined the volunteer battalions. The television stations report around the clock from the front. As everywhere in Ukraine, the number of funerals increased in Czernowitz–young men who lost their lives in the war.

When I met this year’s volunteers for the first time in the cemetery, the sky was clear and the weather hot. Almost every day it was hotter than 30° C, after my departure, it would be even close to 40° C. “We always start at 7 in the morning, so we do not have to work in the midday heat,” Genia–one of the work-camp leaders–told me. We–the volunteers and I–introduced each other briefly and I asked something that I always asked on this occasion. “Why are you here, you could be on vacation at the beach somewhere?”
Many of the answers I already know from the work-camps in recent years, it is the west of the country, which attracts the East Ukrainians, it is the unknown East, which excites the curiosity of the international participants. This year I heard something that surprised me. Two of the Ukrainian volunteers told that they are interested in Judaism. They had not many chances to learn about it, and this work-camp looked like a good opportunity to them. It are these little things that prove what is changing in the country. Felicity, the Irish lady is another surprise. She came because of the many poets of the city–very unusual for someone from outside the German-speaking world. In the next few days I tried to give her some advices for more books to read, but she already knew them all and we had to laugh every time.

In the afternoon of the same day, we met for an excursion to Sadagora. We were accompanied by Arthur Rindner–a former Czernowitzer, who now lives in Tel Aviv–and his girlfriend Rina. Arthur had already visited two previous work-camps. Beeing with the volunteers gives him something and he gives to them by sharing memories. The cemetery of Sadagora is completely different compared to the one in Czernowitz. No grid of pathes that structures the cemetery, no inscriptions in German. The volunteers were even more surprised when the ohel–the mausoleum–of Israel Friedman, the founder of the Hasidic rabinical dynasty was unlocked. A first step into Hasidic wonderland, of which there would be more in the next few days.

On Friday evening we were invited by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Glitsenstein to the Shabbat service. The volunteers were curious but also a little bit bashful. Most of them had not been in a synagogue before. Then they were surprised by the informal atmosphere. Attendants came in, had a chat, even made jokes. “This is not as strict as our Christian worship,” said Zuzana, a young Czech volunteer. Shortly before the end of the service, the congregation danced around the bimah. There was singing and hand clapping. Rabbi Glitsenstein gave a sign to the volunteers to join the dance. They liked to do so. Antek from Poland recorded the song on his smartphone. On the way home he listened again and again to the track.

On Saturday we set off for an excursion. A chartered bus took us to Kosiv to the famous craft market, then to the local Jewish cemetery, and further to the cemeteries in Kuty and Vyzhnytsia
(Wischnitz). A journey through the midst of Hasidic wonderland. A wonderland that exists only in memories. Stunned, the volunteers stood in front of the forest, which has overgrown the cemetery of Kosiv. Antek shaked his head. “Now I understand what destruction means” he said. “There is no one left who could take care of the cemetery.” In Wischnitz lived almost exclusively Jews. Genia wanted to know how many Jews still live here today. “None,” I told him. “All Jews were killed?”, he asked again. Yes, all Jews were killed. And those who survived, did not want to live here anymore. It’s hard to cope with this for the young Ukrainians, because our discussions also included Ukrainian complicity. Whether and how much young people have learned about the Holocaust in school, depends on the commitment of teachers. But these volunteers were curious and wanted to know everything. They reminded me so much of myself when I was in their age.

After all this seriousness our kind bus driver invited us to a short trip to the Carpathians. Our minibus winded up a steep road–asphalt is here no more. At the end of the road we had to continue by walking. For half an hour we had to climb uphill, then we reached a lookout point. On one side we saw the mountain ranges of the Carpathians, on the other the Galician plains. Through the valley below us winded the Cheremosh river. We took a break with a picnic.

While resting I looked at the this year’s volunteers and I thought of thoses from the last years. All of these young Ukrainians looked and still look for a better future. Many of the former volunteers have risked a lot during Euromaidan revolution–depending on where they came from, even their lives. One of them, Katya, who is from Luhansk, is now living as a refugee in her own country. Even before the situation escalated into a war, staying in her home town had become extremely dangerous for her. A few days ago she rescued her mother from the embattled city. When she recently called Arthur and me, she wept. I thought of other friends, of Mykola Kushnir, the director of the Jewish Museum, who could be drafted into the army. I thought of Dima, the commander of the Euromaidan in Czernowitz. He has endured throughout the winter on the Town Hall Square of Czernowitz. An old man–his age can hardly be guessed from his weathered face. He volunteered recently for military service. He said it was his duty. On Facebook he sometimes writes me short messages, such as it was important to him that someone hears him out there. I looked at the Cheremosh down in the valley. The country looked so peaceful.

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4 thoughts on “The work-camp, that was held nevertheless

  1. This is really wonderful and well written. Do you have contact info for Felicity? I’d like to get in touch with her. Joanna

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