On the morning of 28 February, my friend Yuliya and I set off early. Synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in Moluvėnai, Vievis, Žasliai, Kaišiadorys and Žiežmariai were on our way until we reached Kaunas in the evening, the second largest city in Lithuania and the first capital after independence in 1918.
From 26 February to 5 March, I was travelling in Lithuania with my friend Yuliya. Yuliya, who comes from Belarus, lives in Vilnius in exile. On 24 February, Russia attacked Ukraine. Although I did what I always do on such trips – photograph the traces of Jewish life – we found it difficult to focus on our subject. Nonstop, we followed the news, tried to distinguish what was credible and what was not, and tried to stay in touch with our friends in Ukraine and Belarus. Nevertheless, I would like to share this journey with you. On 27 February, we walked through Vilnius.
2021 was not an easy year. The pandemic continues to have a firm grip on us and for me it was also a year of personal losses. Travelling remains difficult and is risky. But all these difficulties and losses make me look at the topic of giving with a changed perspective. Many people have given to me in the past year. They have stood by my side when I needed them. They have given me comfort or simply held my hand when there were no more words. Now it is my turn to give something. The Vanished World calendar for 2022 is now available for download and can be printed at will. The subject for 2022 is Jewish heritage in Ukraine and is largely based on a trip I undertook in August and September 2021 – one of the few trips that were possible at all last year. Have a great 2022, stay safe and healthy!
The last part of my journey with the German TV team began on 30 August in Mohyliv-Podilskyi, took us on to Chernivtsi – finally a reunion with one of my favourite places! – and back to Lviv. On the way back, we made short stops in Halych and Burshtyn.
Sharhorod and Chernivtsi (not Chernivtsi in Bukovina) were typical Podolian shtetls. Even after the war, there were still substantial Jewish communities, because both places were part of the Romanian occupation zone “Transnistria”, where the chances of survival were higher than in the German “Reichskommissariat Ukraine” or the “Generalgouvernemant”. After 1991, most of the Jews left the successor states of the Soviet Union. What remained behind is their material legacy. Soon, in Sharhorod and Chernivtsi there may not much be left of that.
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.
On 25 August, the TV crew and I left Lviv. It was the beginning of a 10-day journey that would take us in a wide loop through Galicia, Podolia and Bukovina. Brody, Pochaiv and Zbarazh were on the agenda for the first two days.
It seems like an eternity since I was last time in Ukraine. The pandemic simply made it impossible. And it’s been almost two years now since Susanne Brahms and Rainer Krause from Blind Cat Documentary in Bremen asked me if I would support them in a TV documentary about the shtetl. Now that the whole team has been vaccinated and the infection figures in Ukraine are relatively low, this has finally become a reality. From 20 August to 5 September I was on the road in Galicia, Podolia and Bukovina. In the coming days and weeks I will report on the trip. At the beginning there is Lviv.
Yesterday I was awarded with the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for my commitment to the Jewish heritage of Eastern Europe – the order is better known as the Federal Cross of Merit. It was handed over to me by Cologne’s Lord Mayor Henriette Reker in the Historic City Hall. Since some friends have already commented on it publicly, perhaps I should say a few words too, because this honour does not only concern me, it is an honour for a whole network of people.
Considering the past year, I assume we all deserve a small gift. I would like to give a gift to all who followed my trips through Eastern Europe’s Jewish past and present. A calendar for 2021 with some of my photos is now available for free download. In solidarity with the brave Belarusians who fight a terrorist dictatorship, I was using exclusively photo motifs from Belarus for this year’s calendar. They were taken in spring 2019 – a time when traveling was still possible and nobody thought of a pandemic to come. The images may remind us how much Belarus is part of a European and global culture.