My paternal great aunt, Clara Katzel (1896-1990), was everyone's Aunty. So, when she went to the Jewish Home to live in 1986, I visited her frequently. During our many conversations I realized that I didn't know anything about my family who had lived until 1912 in Ekaterinoslav, (then) Russia. Since she was the oldest remaining relative, I began taping a series of interviews which lasted from 1986-1990 when she died at the age of 94.
These "memoirs" which consisted of 8 hours of tape have since been put into a "book" and distributed to our family.
Clara Katzel (1896-1990)
From the "MEMOIRS OF AUNT CLARA CHERNOY KATZEL"
"I was born in Amour (Amour Nishni Dnjeprowsk, across the river from Ekaterinoslav), that was a little town because we didn't have paved streets, - nothing! - and when we had to go to the big city, Ekaterinoslav, we had to take a little ferry that we used to pay 2 cents to cross the river. In winter, it used to freeze up so hard that we used to walk across.
The first thing I can tell you about is the revolution. It was not yet a revolution - but the Cossacks attacked the Jews.
It was Friday night and I was coming back from the marketplace carrying candles for my mother. And along came two Cossacks at either side of me with whips, saying "Kill the Jews".
My father at that time was the principal from a Jewish school. So the first thing that we did was take the sign off, not to see that the Jews are there. The owner of the school was a nice person. He put us in like a basement.
It was Friday night and we couldn't light the candles! So we put the candles in what used to be an oven so nobody could see it from the outside.
Right opposite our place there was a home that had three daughters, and the Cossacks demolished the home because they were looking for the girls. All they wanted was the girls, young girls of 20, 21 & 22. But the girls were in the city. The Cossacks were very angry because they couldn't find them. So they took the pillows and tore them apart.
And that's all; they were doing was running with whips and saying "Kill the Jews".
I was maybe 6 or 7… I was a kid. [Aunty was born in 1896 - author’s note]
When I was about 10 we moved to the big city.
When I lived there it was called Ekaterinoslav after Catherine the Great. It was the most beautiful town that I've ever seen. The main street, it was for stores and for cars to go on and then there was like a park in the middle, then again for cars. I guess it was 3 blocks wide [many of the streets are this wide today with park-like grounds in the middle - author’s note].
There was an auditorium where they used to have plays and a beautiful park where they used to have summer, outdoor plays. And the people would walk to the concerts there. We kids used to sneak in. We went into the toilet and forgot to come out. So we didn't have to pay. Oh boy, were we crooks! We'd sneak in during the day, then at night when it was time to pay, they'd open the gates and we'd already be in there. We used to have an open air show, an orchestra and music. And people were dancing, and walking back and forth, And boy used to talk to girls.
It was beautiful, beautiful. That city was so beautiful".
My Visit To Ekaterinoslav, Ukraine (Dneiperpetroskov)
While the memoirs was of considerable interest to me, it stayed in a drawer until August of 1999 when my husband and I decided to go there.
Ekaterinoslav was now Dneiperpetroskov, located in the southeastern portion of Ukraine and is a city of 1,200.000 people.
We started our Ukrainian adventure in Kyiv by taking a riverboat cruise down the Dneiper river, since we wanted to see modern Ukraine. However since we were mainly interested in the Jewish history of Ukraine, and needed to go to Dneiperpetroskov, a non-tourist city, we could not find a travel group to join. We therefore turned to Chabad, an orthodox Chassidic group which sends
Rabbis to all parts of the world to help reestablish Yiddishkeit. I was put in touch with Chabad in Dneiperpetroskov. They graciously arranged transportation, hotels, and guides for us.
We were not emotionally prepared for our adventure, - there was no way we could have been!
As we docked at city after city, we saw utter decay, the dismal future of the country.
Ukraine, the agricultural basket of the once Soviet Union, had no money for fertilizer, equipment repair, irrigation systems and no hope of distribution of their products if they did have the above. Their farms were not productive and their crops were bruised and undeveloped. Therefore, there was no money for needed repairs on their schools (The Kyiv Post lamented that it would be a problem opening up the schools because the needed repairs of doors and windows couldn't be completed because of lack of money). The streets and buildings of each city lay in disarray. Whatever year the building had been constructed, that was the last time anything was done to that building. The streets had huge potholes. Large water pipes were seen for thousands of miles with rags wrapped around them (I guess for insulation).
I must say, however, for the most part the people were clean and adequately dressed, the younger people faring much better than the older people. But we saw pensioners everywhere with very old clothes. Elderly women with babushkas covering their heads had bandages on their large, swollen, ankles. We found out that the average pensioner receives $12.00 per month from the government. This was enough to pay their rent and buy some food, but certainly not enough for clothing. While medical attention was free, if anyone had the misfortune of needing to be in a hospital, they needed to bring their own sheets and food with them and medical equipment was at a minimum.
It was truly a third world country: Visa was only accepted in Kyiv - and then on a limited basis. Everything else was done on a cash basis. (we had to convert our American dollars into local currency). Other than hotel costs ($75.00-100.00 per night for 3-4 star hotels) things were quite inexpensive. All books advised not eating raw fruits and vegetables and drinking bottled water. All meat was questionable, so we only ate vegetables except when we found a McDonalds in three cities and were pleased to see that it seemed the same as back home. Fish had more bones than we ever thought possible. Trains were very dirty (- as was almost everything else in Ukraine) but cost only $30.00 per person for a sleeping couch between major cities. Planes were of the Aeroflot variety. We had to carry our own luggage into the plane when we flew from one city to another.
On the good side: We always felt "safe" even at night, and we asked in each city and were told that anti-Semitism had not reared its ugly head … (yet).
In Dneiperpetroskov with my Aunt's "book" in hand we proceeded to look for her apartment.
And there it was!
Just as she described it
- seemingly untouched from 1912!
The park that she had played in was exactly as she described it with the same gates. The governor's house was still around the corner, the streetcars still going down the middle of her wide avenue.
Across the river was Amour Nishni Dnjeprowsk, where Aunty was born. It still had sandy streets - very few were paved. The remnants of the old marketplace could still be seen.
We spent four days in Dneiperpetroskov seeing not only Aunty's city but the Jewish presence in the today city.
Judaism is springing to life with a Jewish Day school of 770 students, free to them, sponsored by private people as well as the Israeli government. There is also a yeshiva, a Jewish Community Center, a nursery school and a women's seminary.
There are 2 synagogues, both built during the late 1800's. One has been continuously used and the other was used until WWII when Hitler turned it into a clothing factory. This largest one is being renovated and will soon seat close to 1000 people. They were expecting over 1500 people for Rosh Hashanah! The second, smaller one houses a very nice looking Bet Hamikdash complete with Bema and Ark and a small library. There is also a Yeshiva for 22 boys and a seminary for young women (to teach them to be teachers of Judaism). The senior citizens center serves almost 1000 meals per month.
I have the name of a person who said he would go to the archives for us to do research, - but as yet I have not established contact with him.
This was a physically demanding trip, since the comforts we take for granted are not in Ukraine. Ukraine is an extremely poor country, with a very unsettled future. But, it was the culmination of a dream that I have had since 1986 and it was wonderful.
I felt that a continuity with my grandparents' lives and with my Jewish roots in general.