Translation by Rachel Zetland
Donated by Jay Snider
I had a secret desire to go back and see Rafalovka ever since the day I left. I wanted to wander about its streets and alleys, to meet friends and have conversations with them, about this and that, about important and unimportant matters. I was lonely in my first years in Eretz Israel and my daily troubles at work and school pushed these yearnings out of my mind. But during the nights when I couldn't sleep this yearning was released, and upon its wings I return time and time again to our house and the paths and houses of the time.
Here I am in my mind's eye going out of the house to the main street, Pillsodesky Street that, after the rain, would become a thick swamp, and I would walk on the wooden sidewalk towards the vogzal, the train station. My uncle's house, David Tennenboim, and the Gorbach house are already behind me. I pass by the pharmacy, the stationery shop that belonged to Malka Gibel and her husband, Mr. Lengental, who plays a violin. I reached the house of Koifman Portnoy and the house of Michael Weissman, two stops I always made on my way. Reuven Portnoy and sometimes Sunny join me there, and so do Itzik and Bentsion Weissman, and later on Gedalyahu, and here we are already a big group capable of planning and executing many things. Play football, go to our counselor in the Ha-Shomer Ha-Zair center, find some excuse to go to our beloved and admired teacher Yaakov Schnieder more or less across from the barber. More than a barbershop, it was actually a debating club between the readers of the Haynt and supporters of the Moment, and supporters of Al Ha-Mishmar led by Shailik Katz and supporters of Et-Livnot led by David Tennenbaum. The debates were always heated and disagreements were vehement but they would always calm down when Lazer the carpenter or one of his sons joined the table. They were the devout supporters of Karl Marx and Soviet Russia, and then Shailik and David would show complete unity. On Saturdays the club would relocate to the synagogue and the debates would develop especially through the reading of the Torah. They would be stopped from time to time by the permanent collectors, Portnoy and Koifman. Pauses were not very long and the argument resumed with even greater passion.
Even when the days of the Holocaust and destruction came and I knew that my little town no longer existed, my heart and imagination, free of the chains of time, place and reality, continued to take me on these nightly strolls from time to time, and I went gladly.
In this situation it is only natural that when I was told about my upcoming trip to Russia, I immediately began thinking about the possibility of visiting Rafalovka. This time it was to be a real visit, and I pored over the maps to check my scheduled route for the shortest and safest place from which I could get to Rafalovka. Although I was completely aware of the fact that such a deviation from my route was risky, I knew very well I couldn't resist the urge and the temptation. Even logic was whispering in my ear If not now, when?
Checking the maps I saw that the best place to set out for this adventure was the capital of the Ukraine, Kiev, or the capital of Bellarus, Minsk. The distance from each of these capitals was almost identical, and even though it wasn't a small distance at all, almost 500 kilometers, it could not be compared to the distance from Moscow or Leningrad.
When I reached Kiev I began planning my trip to Rafalovka.
I first turned to the authorities and asked for official permission to visit Rafalovka. When this request was rejected I turned to a higher authority, and when this failed I started exploring other ways. I couldn't take a train or plane since it was likely that the inspections on these routes would be strict and frequent. I couldn't take a taxi either, because taxis in Russia are not allowed to go beyond a 50-kilometer radius from the place they are registered. The only possibility left was to rent a private car with the owner as its driver. In the end I sneaked out of my room in the Dneiper Hotel in Kiev at six o'clock on Sunday morning, July 31, 1988. I walked quietly and slowly past the guard of the hotel whose job was to keep an eye on those coming and going. I got into the car and sat down next to Yiffim. He intentionally parked it at somewhat of a distance from the hotel. My wife, whom I didn't want to endanger, said good bye to me as if I was going on a long and dangerous journey, and she wrote down the number of the car on a note in case she might have to trace my whereabouts
From Kiev to Rafalovka the route goes through many settlements, some of which are engraved in the history of the Jewish people. Places like Zhitomir, and others famous for ancient and glorious communities such as Novograd Volynskiy, Koritzand Rovno. From Rovno the road turns north to Sarny and passes by settlements that are known to the people of Rafalovka. Even though I showed no emotion, when I passed by the outskirts of the city of Rovno, where I spent a year studying in the Tarbut Gymnasia, I felt a warm wave come over me. I continued north and crossed the Horin River and reached Kostopol. At the entrance to Kostopol a large sign announces the celebration of the town's 200th birthday - a celebration that will of course not include the Jews who only fifty years ago filled the town's streets and houses. A road sign indicates that Stepan is to the left of the road. The road is straight and reminds me of the Meggido Afula 'ruler' road.
Speaking to Yiffim, it is now becoming clear that his real name is Haim Ephraim, and the good rapport between us becomes intimate. We speak freely about the glasnost and the perastroyka and Jews and anti-Semitism in Russia, about the economic situation, about an organization called Famiat, and about Israel. We reached the Sarny intersection where all the road signs point to places I know very well: right to Klesov and Rokitno, straight to Breznica, Dombrovitz, and Stolin, the very same Stolin where the rabbi lived and held his hatzer and was followed by many Jews from Rafalovka and the area, including my father of blessed memory. Left to Kovel. I start feeling at home and I tell the driver to turn left. I seem to recognize the landscape that has been engraved in my memory. I know the thick forests and the green fields, the piles of harvested produce, green grazing areas that stretch all the way to the horizon, and horses grazing peacefully. The road is not very wide, there's not much traffic, and we are making our way quickly. I tell Yiffim not to speed so we don't get involved with the police. In my condition, I tell him, that is exactly what I need Yiffim slows down and I can take a better look around me.
I see a big sign, the Vladimirets region and next to it a small sign, 25 kilometer to Vladimirets. Not far from here I see the first sign that bears the name Rafalovka: Reflovski Lass Chos Lessnoia Chosiestavo, which means the Rafalovka forest farm. Yiffim already knows this is the town we're going to, he slows down to make the reading easier for me and explains the contents of the sign. Another sign reads 'Luvita Freerodo', love nature, and right next to it is the right turn off the main road. We cross the train track and the smolarnye and stand at the outskirts of the town near a sign that announces Rafalovka. I feel relieved. No matter what happens next, I have succeeded in the mission I had set for myself. Yiffim stops the car and suggests I have my picture taken near the sign, and two minutes later we are near the vogzal. We park the car there and get out.
Before I can catch my breath and take my first steps out of the car, a boy comes up to me and asks me, of all people, to light his cigarette. Aware of my confusion, Yiffim acts quickly. It takes him a second to offer his lighter and light the youngster's cigarette. I ask him to be the speaker whenever we need to talk so people don't sense the foreigner walking around their town. He says he'll be the speaker but that that won't solve anything, since anyway everyone senses that I'm not one of them. I accept the situation and the fact that nothing can be done about it.
We start walking and leave the group of lads behind us. I stop, facing the main street of the town with the train station behind me, and am immediately struck by the differences. The Rafalovka I left, with its houses and streets, its atmosphere and spirit, no longer exists. It's as though it has disappeared, and what I see now is a different town with the same name but completely foreign to me and I'm foreign to it and to its residents. Yiffim understands my confusion and embarrassment and leaves me alone with my thoughts. These wander back to the main street of Rafalovka fifty years or more ago. I recall how after my Bar Mitzvah I used to walk next to my father of blessed memory to the first minyan at the synagogue before dawn, our feet walking on the fresh snow that has fallen that night.
We would walk that path every morning without saying a word, listening to the sighs that came up from the snowflakes crushed by our feet. We listened to the sounds of the people praying on Sabbath and the voices of Bulba the canter and his sons on the High Holy Days. But this street no longer exists, it is not only the face of the street that is different. I feel the soul and the contents of the street have been taken away as well. I suddenly understand that my town is not just an incidental collection of streets and houses, but a place turned into a living body with soul and spirit by the simple Jews who lived and worked here. This was the Rafalovka that was engraved in my memory and which I kept in my heart all these years, until that Sunday when I stood with Yiffim facing the main street near the vogzal, the building that would become a social focal point in the evenings.
This is where the finest men and women of the town would gather - sometimes every evening - to see the train coming from Kovel on its way to Sarny and then to see the train that was traveling in the opposite direction. The older cavalerim strolled the platform with the girls who had matured and together they all waited for the sign. The sign was given when Tzinlevski waved his flashlight and the last train began moving on its way. Then everyone would stand looking at the passing cars and the red light at the end of the last car until it disappeared in the mysterious dark. This is how the town's activity came to end and this is how it went to sleep until the next shacharit prayer the next morning. That is how it was in those days. Now I am standing at a completely different train station that seemed shrunken and pitiful. On the one side, the side facing the main street, stood an enormous picture of Lenin, and on the other side a big sign read Stantzia Rafalovka and a banner For the party - the wisdom, the honor and the conscience. Only the black tracks with their shining surface were somewhat similar to what I remembered from my childhood.
What do you have in mind? I hear Yiffim's voice breaking the long silence. I think about it and tell him to come with me on a tour of the town streets. I walk for about half an hour, an hour, an hour and a half, and I don't find one thing that's familiar, not a house, not a street, not a tree. Then I decide to see if there's someone living here from before the war. Yiffim helps me out again with great tact. He questions passersby, goes into houses, but they all reply no. Finally we meet a woman carrying a baby and she also says no. But after a few steps she turns around, calls us and says that she thinks there is one old woman named Krokova and her maiden name is Vichnievska and she lived in the town before the war. She points to her house.
Yiffim and I hurry in that direction. A young woman greets us in the yard of the house and we ask her if this is where Mrs. Krokova lives. Indeed it is, this is her house and she is her daughter. Can we speak with her mother? Of course, she replies and leads us into the house where we are invited to sit down. The mother looks young for her age and of normal intelligence, she is alert and clear. When she asks who we are, Yiffim responds I am his uncle who's come here to find out what has happened to my family during the war. I sense immediately that the old woman doesn't buy the uncle story. She asks me directly for my name and I decide to take a chance and reveal myself, I tell her I am Pinchuk, to which she responds Yes, you are Leibke and your sister is Leah. She remembers the day Leah came back from the partisans. And she, Krokova, gave her back many things her mother gave her for safekeeping. She speaks fluently and in detail about the days of the Holocaust, about the first aktzia in which the town's people were gathered according to a list, including my father and Reizel Tennenboim. They were led on the way to Sukhovolya, where they were murdered after being ordered to dig their graves. She remembers the creation of the ghetto and the final liquidation. The houses from that time, well, they were almost all destroyed and others built in their place. It's been fifty years already.
Our house and the Tennenboim house as well as a few nearby houses still exist. The synagogue was destroyed and replaced by a post office. We speak for a long time. I ask her questions and she answers in great detail, with an impressive memory. She offers us tea, cookies, bread, butter, jam and fruits from the garden in her yard. We began digging in the horrible past. In the end I ask to take a new tour of the main street with her son-in-law accompanying me. We go directly to my house, he knocks on the door and introduces me, This is the son of the first proprietors of this house he's come to visit the town, may he look around? Yes comes the somewhat hesitant answer, pazhalstva. I reexamine the house with a closer eye and come to see that indeed this is the house of Meir and Reitze Pinchuk of blessed memory where Leah and I grew up. I go outside to the back yard and to the front, to the two streets at the corner on which it is located and see the street names. One is Ulicza Comministychenia, the second one carries the name of the Ukrainian poet, Tres Shavchenko. I go and check my uncle's house, David Tennenboim, and find residues from those days, or so it seems.
From here we walk slowly towards the vogzal, yes the house carries the apteka sign, the pharmacy is still intact. Near it is a coffeehouse and after that a shop for house and closet accessories, and another one near it with food, and a grocery store more or less where the house of Koifman Portnoy stood. The pochta (formerly the lot of the synagogue) is facing the grocery store, and next to it is the house of Simha Brat. Here I continue along the street, back and forth, back and forth, checking the houses, and then I go back to Krokova's house. Now that I'm somewhat more familiar with the geography of the place, I realize her house is on the corner of the street, at the end of which was once the Tarbut School. The market that was near the school no longer exists, but the street that her house is located on is called Uliczka Rynkowa, Market Street. The granddaughter of Krokova picks apples from the yard and puts them in a bag and gives it to me. We take a picture and Krokova reminds me to make sure my sister Leah writes her.
Yiffim gently urges me, saying our time is running out. We do not want to get stuck on the road late at night. We bid our hosts farewell and drive back to Kiev, getting there 7 hours later. I thank Yiffim for all he has done for me and I pay him generously. He shakes my hand and tells me, Many here believe that the Israelis are a bold and courageous race, today I saw that this indeed seems to be the case. Why? I ask him, and he answers, The trip you took was dangerous, but you conducted yourself calmly and indifferently. I thank him for his compliment and we bid each other farewell.
My first night after Rafalovka I spent on the fifth floor of the Dneiper Hotel. This was a turning point for me, a point in time when a new era had begun. One circle of life had been completed and another has begun. Everything that will happen in my small world from now on will be so many days, months, years from the day I visited the town.
I cannot fall asleep and I toss in my bed. I go down and stare silently out the window. The city is sleeping, there is no movement, just small streetlights here and there.
Another section of the vast silver river, the Dneiper, is seen from afar. Here in this very place called Babi Yar, more than a hundred thousand of our people were slaughtered. The world did not shake, the sky did not fall, and the Dneiper continues to flow as though nothing has happened. Where the crime was committed, an impressive statue is standing and thousands of tourists and youth visit the place. On the copper plate they read that it has been erected in memory of more than 100,000 Soviet civilians. There is of course no mention of the fact that those miserable civilians were Jews. It will soon be dawn and I have not yet fallen asleep.
Suddenly I realize what is keeping me from sleeping. My conscience is whispering to me, How is it that after all the effort you went through you did not bother to go up to your parents' grave, the place where your friends and all the townspeople were slaughtered? This question I feel will never let go of me and I decide immediately I have no choice but to go back to that place on the way to Sukhovolya. I wait for my wife to wake up and tell her about my decision. We know that this time she'll join me.
Two days later we are in Minsk in a big hotel given the somewhat odd name Planeta. I start searching for someone who will agree to take me to Rafalovka a second time. Through the help of a friend we met on that trip, Yaakov Weissman from Netanya, I meet Sergei who is willing to take us there. We check the map and I show Sergei the road we need to take and the place we need to get to and back on the same day. Sergei follows me and decides that the price is no less than 350 Rubles. This sum is equal to two months salary for Sergei, but I readily agree. We decide to meet the next morning at a quarter to five. My wife and I stand outside in the pouring rain with an umbrella and wait for Sergei at the fixed time. He's late and we are concerned whether he changed his mind and isn't coming, but he hasn't let us down. Unfortunately the hotel guard is watching us suspiciously, the odd guests who leave the hotel at such an early hour and stand outside in the rain. He looks at the approaching car and sees us get into it and disappear into the darkness.
With my poor Russian I try to start some kind of a conversation with Sergei. I mean we're going to need to spend 20 hours with him and it makes no sense to keep silent all the time. First he is reserved and cautious, but soon the barriers fall and we are deep in a lively and frank conversation, like the one I had with Yiffin. He knows we are Jews, why and where we are going. He's also aware of the fact that we do not have a travel permit, but he reassures us saying that things are much looser these days and chances are we will not run into the police and roadblocks on the way.
I ask him about himself and his family. He tells me he was born in Slutzk, the town from the famous song Slutzk, oy Slutzk mayn shtetele, and that is where his parents are buried. Since it's on our way, he suggests that on the way back we stop there for a short while and he'll show us his parents' grave and the mass grave of the Jews of Slotzk and the area.
The immediate association that comes to mind to Hebrew speakers is Auschwitz. Holocaust survivor Yehiel Dinur coined the expression that Auschwitz was another planet" while testifying in the Aichman trial. Dinur (pen name Ka-Tzetnik) wrote volumes of fiction based on his experience of the Holocaust.
We passed by Slutzk before dawn and continued to the vast swamp area of the Pripyat River. It is a very difficult and slow journey, and I feel that Sergei is realizing that he asked for too low of a price. The rough stones we are travelling on now, Sergei tells me, were laid in a hurry during the war by thousands of German prisoners of war, when the Red Army pushed the invaders westward. I did not want Sergei to be sad about today because of the mistake he made concerning his price, and I hinted that he should not worry because everything would turn out OK.
We finally get out of the swamp area and pass by a city called David-Gorodov. Sergei cannot tell me who that David is. We continue and cross the Horin River and reach Stolin. We travel for another fifty kilometers on the side of the river and enter Dombrovitz, then Bereznica, and then Sarny again, but this time we enter it from the north and not from the south. When Sergei stops at a gas station he finds out that the violent jolts and many holes in the road damaged one of his tires as well as a light, and another part of the car was pushed out of place and is now dangling. He repairs what can be repaired provisionally and I promise to pay these expenses. We are back on the Sarny-Kovel road and Sergei is taken by the lush and beautiful landscape. He always thought no place is prettier than the region he was born in, but he is questioning this matter.
Enthused by the landscape he asks me, Such a beautiful place, would you be ready to come back and live here? Indeed yes I reply, the place is beautiful, very beautiful . and I do not relate to the matter at hand. He understands that the question was out of place and our conversation stops for a while.
When we reach Rafalovka I tell him where to park the car, near the vogzal of course. From here I go to the shop and buy Krokova a gift, and from there I go straight to her house. She is surprised by the repeated and unexpected visit. I try to calm her down, and explain that my wife too wanted to visit the town, and I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to visit that place on the way to Sukhovolya. She calls her daughter and the daughter gets in the car with us, and a few minutes later we are in the place, hills, golden fields and wheat that has ripened. A small wood and near it a stone plaque with red writing: In this place, 2500 Soviet civilians were killed by the Nazi invaders with the assistance of the Ukrainians.
Again it is Soviet civilians without mentioning that these were Jews, Jews of Rafalovka and the area. I asked the daughter for the exact place where the killing took place, and she points to a path leading up into small wood.
We advance slowly and in complete silence, I walk in front and listen to the quiet hum of the sand I'm walking on. This is the sand and clods my father walked upon on his last way. This is where he marched surrounded by armed guards who were bloodthirsty and hated the People of Israel, those who are named in the plaque, Nationalist Fascist Ukrainians. We get to the place. It is surrounded by a low wooden fence, and although it is over fifty years now, you can see the mound that has been created. The grass growing on the mound looks different from the grass around it. Sergei and Krorkova's daughter are whispering and I hear parts of their conversation. She tells him that after the killing the peasants from the area used to come and take the bodies out and look for gold teeth and rings, so they said in the town. Not thinking much I turn my head towards them and they stop immediately. I lean against the fence and listen to the winds blowing between the tops of the trees above me, and to the tense silence. It seems to me I can hear the cries coming up from below.
Here, on the road to Sukhovolya, in a forgotten and lost place, that has no name, here is the eternal resting-place of the Jews of my town Rafalovka.
Yehudit Muchnik née Leshetz
Translation by Rachel Zetland
Donated by Jay Snider
In May 1999 my husband and I went to visit relatives in Russia in the city of Hamilnitzki. In Khmelnitski we received an entrance permit to Rafalovka and to other places such as Lvov and Brest.
We first visited our town Rafalovka where my cousin Bril lived. He was the only Jew to live there with his family. We took a bus and it lasted the entire day. It was very tiring and moving. We went through a lot of places we knew very well, such as Rovno, Zdolbunov, Sarny, Antonuvka, Vladimirets, Olizarka, and all the towns in the area. We reached Rafalovka the Station in the evening. We were excited and deeply pained at not being able to recognize what had once been the town. We didn't know how to get to my uncle's house, although it was very close to the train station. A stranger took us there.
It's difficult to describe our meeting. The houses had shrunk as though they had sunken into the ground and were mourning for those who once lived there and are no longer among us. I go past each house and remember very clearly the people who owned the houses. I don't see a single familiar face and nobody recognizes me. The town, which is so close to my heart, where I spent my childhood and adolescence with friends, seems completely foreign to me. This pain pierces my soul. I saw my house where I grew up in a warm family. My father of blessed memory built this house, and I couldn't go inside. The Dembovsky! family lives there. The head of the family invited me in, but I just couldn't do it, I wasn't strong enough.
In Russia there are two families today from Stara Rafalovka, Leibel Schnieder who now lives in Brest and Shirman Grisha who lives in Lvov. We contacted them and we all met in Rafalovka at my uncle's so we could go up to the mass grave together. We went up to the area of the mass grave where our martyrs were killed and murdered. This was a very painful and emotional moment. Being there 32 years later, going up to our father's grave, it's impossible to describe the moment. It's regret, it's pain; these feelings will always be with me. Why? Why did they deserve this? We deserted them and ran to save our souls. Woe to us, this happened and what has been done cannot be redone. The pain will endure. We said kaddish and el male rachamim and laid flowers on the grave. We left shattered as if it had all just happened.
The next day, the second secretary of the communist party came to see us. The city Koznichov was established where once stood the village of Varach, which was near Stara Rafalovka. He brought with him the plan of the monument they were about to erect in memory of our martyrs. At the moment there was a sign on the road in the forest that read in Ukrainian: In this place 2500 Soviet civilians were killed by the Nazi invaders with the assistance of the Ukrainians.
The monument was to be set in the forest atop the mass grave so sacred to us. We saw the plans. They asked us if we wanted to change anything. There was no need to change the original plan, it was big and impressive. When we asked them to add that Jews were murdered here, residents of Rafalovka and the area, they told us that in order for the monument to remain intact it is not desirable to write 'Jews', since anti-Semitism is very great. When I visited there in 1956 there were three hills. Now they were leveled out and the area has been fenced off and a forest was planted. This was due to the fact that the goyim dug up the graves looking for gold and teeth. When we offered financial assistance, they said there is no need. They have a government fund and civilians were also asked to contribute to the erection of the monument. Monuments have already been built in Kiev and Rovno.
It is so painful that we here in Israel, the survivors of the families that were exterminated, did not establish a monument, nor did we publish a book commemorating our beloved ones for over forty years. Perhaps this year with the help of God we will be able to publish a book and perhaps our conscience will bother us enough to move us to build a monument. It all depends on us. After all, erecting memorials for the deceased is a Jewish tradition.
My uncle Bril who lived in Rafalovka escaped the graves when they started shooting the Jews and exterminating them. That is how he escaped death. He was a witness in the trial of the damned Ukrainians: Panasijuk, Palamarchuk, and Smorodaski. The trial took place in Vladimirets and is described in a Ukrainian newspaper.
My uncle's oldest daughter was very active in establishing the monument. The monument was supposed to be ready in November. They already began working on it. If you want to take part in the opening ceremony, give me your current address, your birth date, and an entrance permit to Rafalovka will be sent to you. I promise to take care of this, and you will receive invitations from the Soviet authorities.
Ada Sidelman née Pugatch
Translation by Rachel Zetland
Donated by Jay Snider
Yaakov asked me to give my impressions of our visit to Rafalovka. After Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev we reached Rovno, a big and beautiful city compared with Lutsk and Kovel. On the morning of May 27, 1990, we set out from Rovno to Rafalovka. I sat by the window and gazed at the tall styrax trees and the wide oak trees, the tall ferns and the dense vegetation along the road. We passed by the Kostopol sign and my heart began to flutter, this was a town of Jews with Zionist youth and a training-kibbutz, and now there is no sign of Jews. The goy neighbors are now living there after they murdered the Jews and took their property. The Jews of another Jewish town, Brezna!, were also murdered. Another sign shows the way to Kovel. Further along the road we reached Lutsk and then Sarny. Childhood memories overwhelmed me, I am approaching a familiar childhood landscape.
My Rafalovka, how I loved you and spent my most beautiful years here. How I dreamt to come back and see you. All my years in Eretz Israel I never forgot you, and always came back to you in my dreams. Now I come to you to visit the mass grave where our most dear ones are buried, our parents, our brothers and sisters. The great valley of death.
We enter Rafalovka and I don't recognize the entrance, I don't know what side we came from, everything is strange and different. I ask Hannaleh where exactly we are, and they tell me this is the market. I remember the market that was near our school, this is the new market. Where is the train station, with the big square in front of it and the stores around it? On the side of the train station is a small dilapidated building, only the windows remind me of the station that once existed. I don't believe what I see. Is this the station that was once so big and beautiful, the pride of Rafalovka?
I continue to look around and ask for the store of my uncle, Isaac Pugatch, which stood on the corner of the main street, the spolka, the stores of the Berezniaks, the house of David Koifman. They're no sign of those people and stores. The streets are so different and empty. My Rafalovka was a beautiful town with dear Jews and lively youth filling the streets. We would hang out at the train station when the big trains would travel to Kovel and to Warsaw. We stood on the other side until the trains rushed by with a big commotion. We imagined we too were traveling to far and unknown destinations.
We start walking in the streets and try to identify houses where the Jews of Rafalovka, all of whom I knew well, lived. I don't recognize a single house on the main street. The synagogue is now a post office. I look for Pnina Brat's house that stood near the synagogue. There were two lilac trees in the front of the house. The trees are gone. The streets are empty, people knew we were coming, the residents dread the questions we might ask.
We get ready to follow in the footsteps of our beloved ones on their final march. We were thirty people walking, carrying bouquets of flowers. A Christian woman and her daughter, representatives of the municipality, are walking with us. We were joined by the Schnieder family from Rafalovka, and the daughter and grandson of Bril, the only Jew who has lived in Rafalovka all these years. How intense is the pain in our hearts. Each step I take I see my beloved ones in front of me, I see them so clearly.
We march silently. At the end of the road is a big wooden plaque. This is the monument the Russians built, a pitiful plastic flower bouquet leans against it. The sign reads Passerby, stop when you pass through here, lay your head low, this is the place where, in 1942, 2500 Soviet civilians were killed by the Nazis and the nationalist Ukrainians. We stop by the sign. My hand shakes when I touch the wood. I want to commune with this monument, and the wooden panel doesn't speak to me. There, up the path, lay our beloved ones under a big hill covered with vegetation and surrounded by tall trees. The place is fenced off and seems guarded.
I look up at the blue heaven and feel a sharp pain in my heart. Heaven, you should be red from shame. How could this atrocity take place? You witnessed the cursed murder of innocent women, old people and children. They were murdered just for being Jews. Nothing moved. Nature has its own course. Everything is so green and peaceful around us. Helpless, we stand on the mass grave in this killing valley. We lay the flowers on the soil of the hill. Aryeh Pinchuck reads the family names one after the other, and we light a memorial candle to remember our beloved ones. We all burst out in a kaddish yatom. Pained and paralyzed we stand around the hill. I kneel and dig deep into it. I fill a bag with its soil in order to erect an eternal monument to them in our cherished country, which they loved so dearly and dreamt to reach. We ended our visit to the killing valley singing Hatikva .
We went back to town. We also went to visit the old cemetery. Most of the tombstones were destroyed and lying every which way. One grave had big holes dug by the goyim looking for gold teeth. The area of the cemetery had been reduced because the goyim had built their homes on it. We separated and each went to look for his home. I didn't recognize the way leading to my home. Aryeh Pinchuck showed me how to get there. The surroundings were unfamiliar and so different. Had Sokol's house not been there, directly across from where our house was, I would not have known this was my house. Rochele and Haike, Sokol's granddaughters, went with me. We looked for an entrance to the house. We knocked on all sides and could not find an opening. Finally a woman came out, opened a door and invited us in. She asked us to sit down, she knew who I was and asked, You used to live here? With tears in her eyes she told me she was a widow with three children and had been living in the house for about 20 years. She knew what had happened here. I asked to see the rooms inside. I walked into the other room, the ceiling and the walls closed in on me, and nothing reminded me of my home. I felt stifled and my eyes were tearing, I thanked her and we quickly left the house. I ran as if I was escaping fire.
We continued to walk around and look for houses. Haike and Rochele's house was still standing. Once it housed a flourmill. Today they had added a story and built a factory. We identified a few other houses. Most houses are still standing but they had sunk into the ground and looked small and pitiful. When we went back to the bus a few goyim gathered around us, they saw we were walking around with bags and handing out presents. When we asked them about our families they knew nothing. They were young and their parents were no longer alive. There was this one goy who spoke Yiddish.
When we asked him how he learned Yiddish he said that when he was a child he started working at Stepansky's! with the tailor and he grew up in their home. When I asked him what had happened to them, where is Shlomo who was my classmate, he didn't know.
Among the goyim was also a Jewish woman from Politsy. As a teenager she fell in love with a man in the village and married him. I remember her story. Her parents sat shiva for her after this happened. She said that during the killings they came for her as well. A good neighbor rescued her. Her husband had left her many years ago and she never had children. She was lonely and lived in the village; she had a house, a garden and a cow. She asked that her cousin, Atta Kruk, the daughter of her aunt, send her an invitation from Tel Aviv. She wanted to return to her people.
Rafalovka is poor and pitiful, they are already paying the price for their crimes and their punishment is great. They are being eaten by the radiation from Chernobyl and the factories in the area. I have no pity for them. And I longed so much to be there and see my Rafalovka at least one more time and perhaps have some closure. Now I want to erase the memory of the house and the town, but the memory of that hill, in the killing valley, will stay with me forever.
Dr. Yael Israeli, daughter of Haya Grober and David Zeslavski
Translation by Rachel Zetland
Donated by Jay Snider
I'm a bit embarrassed to speak to you - I, the young one who was born in Israel who am I to come and speak to you? But I won't deny I am happy to have this opportunity and there are two reasons. The first reason is that I want to answer the question many asked me before the trip: Why are you going? And indeed, why?
In the first meeting of the people going to Rafalovka someone asked me, 'And where are you from?' and I was born here in Rehovot. How could I respond?! I told him my mother was from Rafalovka. And then he asked which Rafalovka, the New or the Old? I said nothing. It was my Rafalovka as it was constructed in my thoughts, feelings and dreams.
And the second reason: on the way back at the end of the journey, I had a thought I wanted to share with people with whom I experienced moments of great excitement, who gave me their memories and shared their pain with me. I didn't have the opportunity to tell you this during the journey, so I will do so this evening.
During one long night - the train carried us back to Moscow, leaving Rafalovka far behind us again everyone was very pensive. Suddenly, after so many years, seams were coming apart and needed to be resewn: how will we live with the experience of the visit? How will it be from now on? What I thought was that the journey to Rafalovka did not start and did not end in May 1990.
For the people of the group, it was not only a journey but also a heavy load they had been carrying for many years. A load of memories, of missing, of great love and of pain. The weight of a dream one couldn't shake away. My dream was that my grandmother and grandfather would come to me and be with me in my home, as every child deserves to have a grandmother and grandfather. I think I am correct to say that in the house of my parents, they never stopped waiting for grandma and grandpa, even when they already knew they would never come.
As a child I was never told whether they would or wouldn't come, but gradually I began missing the beloved family and I started dreaming in the colors of love and grief, inspired by my mother's stories. She told me about the town, about the train station, about the fruit, the flowers, and colors I didn't know, about the house and the life within the house. She told me about the good and the not-so-good memories, like escaping to the forests, being called insulting names in the street, and so forth. Slowly the sweet dream became a dream of pain perhaps a personal symbol that binds me to a national inaccessible Holocaust. Along with this strange dream that one day a miracle will happen and grandpa and grandma will come to me to my house, I started dreaming another dream, to visit the town and see with my own eyes the sign that declares Rafalovka. To stand facing that house and to say, this is the house of my mother, this is the house of my grandmother and grandfather. And here I stand and Rafalovka isn't just a legend, it indeed existed. Then it became clear that I have brothers who are dreaming as well and after so many years the dreams can be realized. It was not easy to deciside to go on the trip. There are dreams that are so real it's frightening to realize them. But desire overcame fear and now I have no doubt that Rafalovka did exist, regardless if whether did or did not find the house. The green plain, the forest and the train station resemble the scenes I imagined from my mother's stories. And I was not alone in Rafalovka, there were many with me, those who came and those who were not privileged enough to come. The love of those who remember and the dreams of the people who traveled with me made Rafalovka come alive from its remains and shame, and I saw it in its beauty and grace as though it meant to compensate those who were returning to it. We stood there in the destroyed old cemetery and in the forest where our beloved ones lay. And I, who was born in Rehovot, stood on the non-grave of my family members, and knew that Rafalovka exists and will continue to exist in the hearts of those who dream of it, here and in Eretz Israel. Because this is the dream, and this is its meaning: those who visited the pit where our beloved ones were shot, revived them and restored them to their land.
Tonight I want to thank all those who shared their pain, grief, dreams and stories of pride and of all that had happened to them, of their town and my mother's town. I beseech you, my fellow travelers - if I may - if you can, be proud of the memory and be proud of the pain, because this is the material this country is made of; this is the real soil upon which we grow.
Shmuel Efrat (Appelboim)
Translation by Rachel Zetland
Donated by Jay Snider
Let me begin by giving a few messages. Warm regards to the people of Rafalovka and the area, survivors of the Holocaust, from Isaac Perth!, a famous partisan who acted courageously in the war against the Germans. He now lives in Moscow with his family. Fifteen years ago he was released from the army with the rank of polkovnick and since then works as a civilian engineer in the Moscow municipality as the head of a planning team.
Another partisan from Stara-Rafalovka, Zalman Shirman, lives in the city of Pram near the Ural Mountains. I didn't meet him but in his letters he sends his regards to the people of our town.
The third message concerns Ivan Ivanovitz Kontchia, the commander of the partisan unit in the Rafalovka area, where Jews from Stara-Raflovka, Zoludzk, Olizarka, and Chartoriysk also served. He is no longer alive. There is no doubt that Ivan Ivanovitz Kontchia was one of the righteous gentiles. Thanks to him there was a civilian camp populated by local Jews and refugees from the area. Many Holocaust survivors owe him their lives. May his memory be blessed.
Volodia Bakish was one of the few Ukrainians in Stara-Rafalovka who opposed the Nazi regime and was friendly to the partisans. He served after the war as head of the regional government of Rafalovka. He died four months ago. In the last years he worked as director of a regional retreat in Belskaya Volya!. May his memory be blessed.
And now to the visit to Stara Rafalovka. We drove there at the end of the memorial ceremony at Bachova-Hora. Leibel Leon Schnieder of Stara-
Rafalovka accompanied me there. He now lives in the city of Brisk [Brest] with his son Moshe, who came to Israel recently as a new immigrant.
A road leads from Rafalovka the Station to Stara-Rafalovka and it splits near our town. The left fork goes to the new city, Koznichov, founded fifteen years ago, where the village of Varach once existed. The right fork goes to Vladimirets through the villages of Chodla!, Olizarka and Dolgovolya.
At the entrance to Rafalovka, in a place called dar-barg (the mountain), there is a thick forest. In the central square where the remiza once stood dense growth blocks the view of the Pravoslav church and hides the big lot upon which stand the school and surrounding garden. We stopped at the corner of the main road across from the house of Yankel Weissman of blessed memory. Now there's a big Ukrainian sign that says Dezarjinski Kolkhoz [collective farm R.Z.], and above it a painted sign reads Together we will build communism.
The lots where the homes of the Jewish families stood have not changed, but the houses are different. The only one that looked original to us was the house of Lazer Golberg of blessed memory. I took a picture of it as well. There's a private house where the Libishey synagogue once stood. All the houses are one-storey high and have wooden fences. You no longer see straw roofs. The houses are painted white on the outside, like the houses in New Rafalovka. The only two-storey house is the one standing on our lot.
The roads have also remained the same; they've been paved but not kept up. Not far from where we had stopped stood a group of four or five local men in their forties. My experience in New Rafalovka taught me that there's no use asking them anything. I didn't believe they could offer any information about the past. I therefore looked for people my age. There were two at the edge of the street leading to the Styr River. These people recognized us as owners of the shop on the main street, and recalled other Jewish family names from those days.
Seeing their clothes and houses, I got the impression that they were quite poor, although I didn't see anyone walking with torn clothes or barefoot. I didn't even see postoles which we used to see in the past. What struck me was that people were barely smiling. They speak little and do not engage in long conversations. Their facial expression reveals that these are hard-working men and women, toiling for their bread and hiding their feelings.
By the way, when I went by the church I saw that it was quite active and had a considerable number of people praying according to the old custom. I didn't see people walking in the street. I didn't see youngsters or children, nor did I meet people on bicycles or motorcycles or other vehicles, as can be found on Sundays in other European countries. I remember that when a foreigner appeared in Rafalovka people came out to greet him in the street and tried to make some contact. But none of that happened this time.
I went to Polsha Street and met with a few people. I asked what had happened to people whose names I could remember from among the Ukrainian population. The people replied politely but without warmth. I walked to the edge of the river that seemed much smaller from afar. On the right hand side I saw a big bridge leading to the village of Sovishitz; on the left, tall reeds blocked the view of Varach village. The river looked neglected. Under these circumstances I felt good that the visit had to be short, shorter than an hour, and I sensed that any attempt to force a prolonged visit would not yield better results.
We made our way back to meet the other members of the group in Gostiniatzia Varach, Varach Hotel in Koznichov. We completed our visit to Stara Rafalovka, forty-six years after we had left it.
Translation by Rachel Zetland
Donated by Jay Snider
We had a special and unexpected encounter on our way to Rafalovka on our last visit. It was one of those meetings that impressed itself upon the soul and aroused memories from days long gone. It was a simple event. But it embodied within it, and focused with great intensity, feelings and memories that had been erased and forgotten. I am talking about the meeting with a daughter from a Jewish family from one of the towns near Rafalovka; the meeting with Henia Fisch. Before I tell you about the meeting itself I should first introduce the family and some of the events that befell it in those distant days some 60 years ago. This is how the story goes:
In a small peasant village named Vortino, two kilometers from Politsy, a somewhat larger village, lived the family of Rabbi Nahum Fisch. He was an honest and pure Jew, worshipped God and was happy with his lot. He used to keep all the mitzvahs, both the more and the less strict ones, with joy. It could be said that if everyone were like him you would not need the tractates of nezikin. Most of the day Rabbi Nahum would study and pray and he found very little time for the business of earning a living. There was no minyan in Vortino so Rabbi Nahum used to walk to nearby Politsy every Saturday and on holidays. A few dozen Jewish families lived there and there was a synagogue as well. Rabbi Nahum would contribute to the livelihood of his family by passing in front of the ark during the High Holidays for a small fee in the synagogue in Politsy. Two or three months before Passover he would go around painting houses, an occupation for which he received great acclaim, especially in his hometown of Kolk. Every year in the days preceding the holiday, the Jewish and non-Jewish homeowners in Kolk would wait for Rabbi Nahum, and, indeed, he would come around and paint their houses white. Most of the burden of livelihood fell to his wife Devorah, who successfully managed a galanterye shop and won the trust and admiration of all the villagers and was blessed by her hard labor.
The only problem that disturbed Rabbi Nahum and Devorah from time to time was their daughter Henia who, under these circumstances, grew up in a gentile environment without Jewish friends. I said from time to time since the daily troubles of livelihood and other problems that occupied Jews in the towns and villages like Vortino and Politsy pushed these kinds of problems to the side, especially as long as Henia was a child and a young teenager. So the days and years passed by until one day the Jews of the towns in the area learned that Henia had run off with a shegitz from the village. Rumor also had it that she had converted to Christianity. There is no need to say that this was a great blow to everyone and every Jew in the area knew about it. Is it possible? A kosher daughter of Israel? And what's more, the daughter of Rabbi Nahum? With a shegitz? This act denies the existence of God and is an act of treason that has no remedy or atonement. But this is what had happened. Henia left the home of her parents, followed her lover, the goy, and married him. What had happened to her after that, my wife Tamira, my sister Leah and I heard her tell in that meeting in Rafalovka in the house of a woman named Krakova.
I must preface the tale by saying that the rumor about the anticipated visit of our group, the Jews of Rafalovka, reached the villages many months before we arrived, and Henia heard it as well. When she found out we would visit Krakova's house she urged her to let her know when we arrive so she can come meet us. And this is what happened. We had just walked into the house and greeted Krakova and her family and she immediately whispered something in the ear of her granddaughter who disappeared and came back with Henia a short while later. We of course did not know this was Henia until she was introduced to us. She sat at the table and slowly began telling her story, alternately holding the hands of my wife and Leah. As can be guessed, what she had to say was not pleasant and encompassed a tragedy.
The story's essence is that not long after she married, the shegitz left her in his house saying she did not bring him children, and married another woman. That is how she lived for a few years. She survived the Holocaust with the help of friendly peasants who hid her and for many years now she has been childless and lonely. I looked in her wrinkled face and her hands scarred from heavy work. Her eyes were full of sadness and grief for a life destroyed. A world that had been washed away and roots that have been severed. She tried not to let my wife's hand slip from between her fingers while she suddenly quietly sang an old Yiddish song:
Mit hentalach fatchen
Mit difisilach klaffen
Mitin moyle lachen
I don't remember how the song continued but she went on alternately singing and telling her story. At a certain point I stopped absorbing what she was saying and I could just hear the recurring verse Simhat Torah Simhat Torah in Ashkenazi pronunciation. I felt she was trying to give us a message, a message that confessed failure and expressed regret, as though she tried through us to admit she had made a terrible mistake. It was as though she was closing a circle or fulfilling an obligation to herself, her family, and perhaps her people. Her face said she was greatly relieved, as though she was being liberated from a burden that had weighed her down all her life. When she went back to singing Simhat Torah Simhat Torah it was as though she had been released. A daughter of Israel, exiled from her father's table and from her people, tried in her later days to look for a rescuing hand that will help her come back, if only in spirit and heart, to where she began.
by Penina Shavit
Translated by Gabriella Schwartzshtein
For 50 years I had dreamed of that day; the day I would finally visit my mother's grave and, together with her, our big family and all the people of Raflowka.
Already in the plane to Russia and the Ukraine I was very anxious, wondering to myself how everything would play out in reality.
Before my husband and I began the journey, I went to see Aryeh Pinschuk to find out about the route of the journey and he equipped me with maps. He also revealed to me something I had not known since leaving my home; he told me ``...listen, in Kiev lives Boris Svatchuk. Give him a gift from me...``.
That name immediately rang a bell. It was that same Boris who, a week before the Aktzia [round-up of Jews by the Germans, usually in the town square or in the synagogue, in order to choose those who would be sent away to the concentration camp] brought me clothes from his sister, so that I would disguise myself and escape. He had also hidden my father, my brother Ziska, and my cousin Meir for a few days.
It was at a time when no-one wanted to help the Jews, even not to talk to them, let alone to take them in their homes. So I was clearly excited as I hadn't heard anything about him until that day. Apparently, Aryeh`s sister Leah had also hidden at Boris's home.
We travelled. Four days in Moscow, and from there we continued to Kiev which is as beautiful as I remember it when I visited in 1944.... a city in the midst of a huge garden. Upon arriving in Kiev, I immediately set out to find our saviour Boris Svetchuk. He was once a tall and handsome man, but now, after many years had passed, I found a sick man basically senile who did not recognize me. I brought him a suitcase filled with presents and I gave him money. His reaction was this will be for my burial.
I came to see him twice. I brought 2 parcels from the Joint and organized a doctor for him, so that he could be medically checked out and given medication if necessary.
It was so important for me that he should recognize who I was. I told him I am the daughter of Simcha from Raflowka. Confused, he answered: the daughter of Mrs. Simcha?
Well, it was worthwhile to visit him, and to somehow help this gentle soul. Afterwards, we visited in Babi Yar. We visited a communal grave for 200,000 Jews of Kiev and its surroundings an experience that shuddered right to the depths of our souls.
The next morning we set out for Raflowka, at 4am, with a Ukrainian driver, who led us through cities that were, once upon a time, settled with Jews: Kiev, Zhitomir, Novograd-Valenski, Kortz, Robinu...
We drove around the city the city that was once inhabited by more Jews than non-Jews, and from there we continued through Kostopol, Sarni, and into villages such as Politz until we finally arrived to Raflowka.
Aryeh had given me the phone number of a Ukrainian woman. She was now waiting for us with lunch.
The township had changed completely, and was hardly recognizable. Many new houses were built; the big balcony with the lovely garden which adorned our house was removed; the roads were widened, and our house was split up between 3 families.
With not a moment to waste, we immediately set out to the peak in the forest near Sochovula to the communal grave. Well... what can I say; what can I tell...
There, a small sign post indicates that here are buried the sacrificial victims of the fascists and their helpers; the victims are approximated at 2500 men and women. A small and low fence is there; and pine trees rise 25 metres above the graves.
I lit candles and my husband recited the prayers of Kaddish and El Male Rachamim. He remarked to me that the trees growing there would stand in for the absent 10 men required to make a minyan.
For the first time, he cried and he said to me you at least have a grave to visit, whereas my parents were burned in the crematoriums; even their ashes I don't have.
The non-Jews standing with us cried too.
Two hours later, we left that place, but not before I vowed never to return again.
I asked the escort to guide us to the cemetery of our city that existed prior to the war. It had once been a large and well looked after cemetery, with many graves. There are buried my Aunt Fruma, Meir's mother, and my maternal grandfather, who was murdered by fascists searching for gold.
In the cemetery I found 11 broken gravestones. On one of them I could just make out the name of Itzik-Meir Manyuk.
I cried when I saw that something had been built on the grounds of the cemetery. Not too far away I could see that a Ukrainian prayer house was built.
From the cemetery we went to what used to be our school, which was enlarged, and is still being used as a school.
I asked our escort that we should visit our old house. I sent her ahead of us to speak to the current residents of the house, to assure them that nothing was wanted from them just the opportunity to see the house. Personally, I wanted to see the cellar into which the four of us were thrown myself, my sister Miriam, and my mother and sister Rachel, may their memory be blessed. We were chucked in there by the evil Michal, who through demands and scathing blows wanted gold from us.
We entered the house through the kitchen, and I also glanced at what used to be our play room; the red flooring was unchanged but the cellar was no longer; it had been closed up.
And what did our escort tell the man living there now? She said that I had once lived in that house as well....She didn't mention the fact that I am the rightful owner of that house!
That injustice and absurdity caused me to run outside not to return there ever again.
We walked a little down the main road. The shops of the Jews of Raflowka are no longer. New houses were built instead. I recognized the house of Sheindl Tzodler, but there is nothing more to stay for.
From there I asked to go to the small factory we owned, for filling bottles of beer, vinegar, and lemonade. The structure was quite large once and now nothing remained apart from one step of a former staircase.
I rested for a moment on this one step and my life flashed before my eyes. My brother Dov-Berl, who built the factory and ran it before the war, used to say now that the factory will succeed, we will sell it all and move to Eretz Yisrael.
He served in the Polish army. He never returned from the war.
We went back with the escort to her house, drank coffee, and, as soon as we could, escaped from there back to Kiev, via a different, shorter route. And once again we saw the familiar villages and townships which once fizzled with Jewish life.
We arrived back at nine in the evening. I was broken, run down, but I had gained a closure after 50 years and one week. I had come full circle from that dreary Shabbat day all those years ago during which I was not together with my mother and family, for my mother had cleverly sent me, 3 days prior, away from the house with a righteous gentile to his city Wolka, 60 kilometers from Raflowka. And so my life was spared.
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