A Visit to Priluki
By William O’Neal Brown
Related to: Priluki (Town)
, Travel Reports
Written by William O’Neal Brown, of Killen, Alabama, during and after a trip he made to Priluki, Ukraine, in February 1998. Mr. Brown’s grandfather and his family, the BRUCHANSKY family, emigrated from Priluki to Carmel, New Jersey, in 1904. The notes were edited by Mr. Brown’s cousin, Harriet Brown.
Priluki, late February 1998
We drove to Priluki, Ukraine, on Friday, February 27, 1998. Vlodja was our driver. Vlodja is a nickname for Vlodomir. He usually works in a motorcycle factory, but that has been shut down and privatized, and the workers have not gone back to work. Vlodja has been out of work for over a year, but somehow he has a car, which is rare for an ordinary citizen in Ukraine. It was an old Lada in very worn condition. He was pleasant and helpful—a good safe driver who was cautious so as not to be stopped by the police. Often drivers are pulled over and then the bribe routine kicks in. He brought apples and hot tea on the trip.
Olena was our interpreter and guide. She seemed excited and eager to come along because she had never been to Priluki before. She brought a bag of the best little cookies I have had in some time.
Ukraine is known as the breadbasket of the region, but recent economics and management styles have hindered the production capabilities of the farmers. We drove across open fields—huge open areas that could only be worked by tractor for wheat, corn, and grain planting. Trouble was, the fuel is expensive and the parts to repair the tractors are hard to come by, so many farmers have gone back to horse and plow. Because of this, they cannot grow as much as they had been able to in past years. Barren trees bordered the fields, serving as windbreaks. Thick woods were visible in the distance, where they had not been cut down to make fields. The vast expanse of the fields reminded us of Kansas or Iowa. They were only turned over mud in February but looked so black and rich. The fertility of the area is famous. The topsoil is supposed to go down 10 or 11 feet. (We heard that the Nazis exported the topsoil back to Germany during the occupation.)
The road was a concrete two-lane road in moderate condition. Some potholes, but mostly very passable at 40 to 50 mph. Not much traffic on the road at all. We passed through very few villages. No houses were visible outside the village confines. The villages we did see were very small with small old houses and larger new houses. Olena said the old houses in many of the villages do not have running water. The reidents must go to a central point or have a well outside to draw water. However, almost everyone has electricity. Outhouses were still in use. Here and there, newer houses are large — of concrete and block construction. We passed through one area where many “dachas” were clustered.
Each family has its own garden plot and comes during the weekend to “rough it” in the country and grow their own vegetables. Olena said she would be happy to move to the country, but she did not want to live so primitively. Olena said she did not have much faith in the new Ukraine. “It is like a being with a hole in it,” she said. She did not believe that the upcoming elections would make much difference in the way things were going. Economics are not inspiring. People are working or trying to find work and having a very hard time making ends meet. Many families are doubled and tripled up generation-wise. In one family, only one person may be working.
When we reached Priluki we took some photos of the outlying neighborhood and took some photos of what appeared to be the center of town. We parked the car in the central area across from the main plaza where a large statue of Lenin still looked to be in good condition. Vlodja stayed with the car, as he was afraid it might be stolen or tampered with. (In Ukraine cars are stolen all the time.) Some posters/pictures of the past history of Priluki were on display in a glass case at the edge of the plaza.
Now that we were in Priluki we weren’t sure how to get started in our quest for information. Olena suggested going to the town history museum. Her idea proved to be very fortuitous because the town historian, George Feodorovitch, was there, and he proved to be friendly and helpful and quite knowledgeable. (Olena wondered if some of the data he gave us was interpreted from the standpoint of a country man. Priluki is considered provincial.)
We sat and spoke with him for some time in the museum and went through the family names that we hoped he would recognize. He disappeared into the back and came out with some cards with the names of Bruchanskys, Tantlefskys, and Kazanovitz. He knew all the names and said there were some residents of Priluki with those names. He is supposed to be doing more research in the town archives (the building next to the museum) and will get that information to Olena.
We toured the immediate downtown area and saw the cathedral, which had been recently renovated after being closed as a church for some 60 to 70 years. And we got some history about the tobacco and brick factories and businesses in the area.
Most of the records they have in the museum are those of people lost or killed in the wars. The archives have other historical information about local people. There are still some Bruchanskys in the Priluki area. Mr. Feodorovitch gave us several copies of the Book of Memory. It is a small red book that he and others compiled in recent years from war records. It contains many photos of the townsfolk.
Priluki was first mentioned in writing in 1085. At the time there was a giant palace on an elevated area. One of the gates is still preserved. It was covered over in white baroque plaster and roofed in green. It is preserved as a historical building now.
We walked around the area. There was a statue to some ancient historical figure who first settled or secured the Priluki area about 1085. There is a large domed building which was once a gate in the wall around the city. It is white plaster with a green roof and preserved as an historical building now.
Behind the cathedral on a little knoll Mr. Feodorovitch pointed out the cigarette factory. The tobacco and cigarette factories are seen in the distance at the edge of town. There were four different factories, a big enterprise for the town. Some names may have been “Golden Fresh,” “Sultan,” and one with “Fish” in the name. We saw the smokestacks in the distance. Tobacco was grown here until the 1960s, planted in collective farms, or sometimes brought back from Bulgaria or Turkey, to be made into either smoking or sniffing tobacco. A man named Tobachniko (or was that the name of the company?) was a Jewish tobacco expert in sniffing tobacco. He had a laboratory in his factory. He did well and lived in a good house.
There were also brick factories in the area. A long time ago the factories and big estates were taken over by the government and nationalized. Lately people have been coming back and saying that certain properties were theirs or belonged to their families so as to try and regain what had belonged to them.
There were two synagogues. One is still in the city. One was a large one called the “Choral Synagogue.” In the 1950s there was a construction project to change a movie theater that had been closed in the 1920s into a synagogue. It was enlarged and joined with more space in 1951 or 1952. It took up two stories into the movie theater space. It is the central synagogue. The construction (reconstruction?) is going on now. It has been given to the town museum and is being rebuilt. The other synagogue is covered with tile.
The food industry in Priluki was mainly Jewish run. There was a union of food workers in Priluki. Before World War II there was about a 50 percent Jewish population, but there are very few now.
The population in Priluki was about 30,000 in 1900, and about 35,000 before World War II. We are not sure if we understood these figures correctly.
Priluki did well in the Revolutionary times, untouched by Stalin’s regime until World War II. There were Jewish schools and Jewish theaters in town, and Priluki was about 50% Jewish.
Then there were bad times. There was no specific anti-Jewish action. (This is one area where Olena and Mr. Feodorovitch had differing opinions.) Ten thousand were executed during the war. There was a huge grave outside Priluki where they were taken and shot and layered into a ravine.
A third to half the population was killed during the war. The population is in decline now, after growing in the 1960s-80s. We asked about a Jewish cemetery and were told it was on the edge of town, not too far away. We went there and found many, many stones and gravesites. The area was grown up with small trees and grass and not cared for at all. Some of the markers were tipped over and broken, but it could be the ravages of time rather than vandalism. We took many pictures of gravestones, hoping to get something of value, but little of the Russian and Hebrew writing meant anything to us. It would take days to go through and methodically look at all the stones. Some of the stones had Hebrew, some Russian writing. Some of the headstones had photograph discs of the deceased. Some were granite with carved writing. Others were flat to the ground and had metallic photos of the deceased in the stonework. Trees were growing up among the trees. It was muddy, wet and gray.
We ate a stand-up picnic lunch by the car at the cemetery. It was a somber lunch amid the derelict cemetery, under the gray skies. We had too little time in Priluki and so much more to discover, but we were forced to return to Kiev. It takes almost three hours to get to Priluki from Kiev. The distance is about 150 kilometers, or 100 miles.
We paid Vlodja $70 in U.S. currency for his driving and gas. He seemed happy with that amount. We had tried to negotiate various other ways to get to Priluki, but he worked out as the best and easiest if indeed a bit expensive. On the way back to Kiev, Olena showed us a site just outside Kiev’s city limits, which was discovered within the last few years. It was a mass grave where many were murdered and buried. It was not the Babi Yar site.
Bill Brown, April 1998