From Galicia to Podolia

On the morning of 27 August, the TV crew and I left Ternopil for the south-east. The journey of the next two days would take us to Skalat, Hrymailiv, Husiatyn, Kamianets-Podilskyi, Shatava and Dunaivtsi. Some of these places were unfamiliar terrain even for me.

In Skalat, only a short stop was actually planned because the synagogue is not far from the main road. The TV crew decided to film there after all, because Skalat is unfortunately an example of how parts of the Jewish heritage in Ukraine is threatening to disappear. I photographed Skalat synagogue in December 2018 and in May 2018. At that time, part of the roof had already collapsed and it was doubtful whether the building could be preserved. Now a large part of the former synagogue has been demolished. Although parts of the original masonry were used for the new building, the shell construction suggests that the new building will have little to do with the original design. Apparently alerted by construction workers, the builder came after a few minutes to see what we were doing there. Full of pride, he told us that a Protestant church will be built there. When I asked him if he would preserve the remaining murals, he answered evasively – which probably meant no.

Depressed, we drove on to Hrymailiv. Hrymailiv is significant to the TV crew because Rabbi David Kahane is from there – an important Holocaust witness who was saved by Andrey Sheptytsky, the Archbishop of Lviv. A testimony by Kahane will be part of the documentary. In Hrymailiv, things are unchanged. The impressive ruins of the synagogue continue to perch on a small hill. Nothing can shake these mighty walls in a hurry.

In Husiatyn we met Serhyi, one of the last Jews in town. He has made it his mission to preserve the Jewish heritage of Husiatyn. This includes above all the beautiful synagogue from the 17th century. Although it is a protected cultural monument, it is visibly deteriorating. The roof is no longer watertight, the masonry is damp, the cement is crumbling to sand, the plaster is flaking off in large pieces. The synagogue was used as a museum, but because of the dampness, the exhibits there were no longer safe. Now the building is abandoned, funds for securing and restoring it are lacking. Serhyi urgently needs support.

Behind a neighbouring building, Serhyi has stored Jewish tombstones. Some of them come from a collective farm in Chabarivka, where the stones from the Jewish cemetery destroyed by the Soviets were used as building material. Sometimes, however, neighbours bring found objects to Serhyi – word has got around that he collects them.

We spent the night in Kamianets-Podilskyi. These days mark the 80th anniversary of the mass murder during which 23,600 Jews were shot by an SS Einsatzgruppe. At the huge mass grave we found numerous bouquets of flowers.

The television crew had asked Vasyl and me to have a “discovery day”. On the route from Kamianets-Podilskyi to Sharhorod, we were to visit places that we both did not know yet. I had prepared a four-page list for this purpose. Of course, we could only visit a few of the many possible places, because filming takes time. We decided for Shatava and Dunaivtsi.

The Jewish cemetery in Shatava is gorgeous. It is in very good condition and protected by a fence. A board at the entrance informs in Ukrainian and English about the history of the Jews of Shatava. ESJF has done a good job here. The rain of the last few days had turned the cemetery into a blooming sea of flowers. We were all enchanted.

The synagogue in Dunaivtsi poses a mystery. What is authentic and what is a Soviet addition? We looked through a window and saw a jumble of dusty office furniture. Apparently there was once an office there. Now the building is abandoned and faces an uncertain future. The Jewish cemetery, on the other hand, is in a well-kept condition. Although the destruction of the past is obvious in the old part – stone after stone has been chipped away – a large new part proves that there was still a Jewish community here after the war. Between the old and new parts is a mass grave. Here lie buried people who were hanged by the German occupiers. The hollow of the mass grave is still clearly visible in the ground.

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