Journey to Balta

By Arnold

Related to: Balta (Town)


But Balta was the most amazing, like a step back in time. As we approached the town we joked with our guide Anna about the thatched buildings, saying that the people that lived in these buildings must be very wealthy as thatch is so very expensive in England; of course she laughed saying that it is only on the very poorest buildings in Ukraine. Balta lay on the border of the old Ottoman Empire, formerly Turkish on one side of a small stream, Polish on the other side, now joined as Balta. The town had been a farming hub and the first railroad went from Odessa to Balta. Then, in the 1700 the Cossacks killed 20% of the Jewish population, followed later by the German elimination of the remaining 80% of the population, almost all the rest of the Jews. The town that had been 30,000 and 80% Jewish was now 20,000 and <1% Jewish. It appeared to us that the guts had been removed from the town; it appeared that nothing had been done in the town for 70 years. The roads were pitted, the side walks were badly damaged with thick dust, many houses uncared-for. It felt like West Africa, nothing done since the British or French had left. It was as if those inhabitants with industry and skills had been removed with two deft strokes and those without remained. There was a huge market which sold used clothing, inexpensive highly-colored carpets, fish and meat (uncovered and un-refrigerated), and the plastic and electronic items one would expect in a cheap market, all in lockable shipping containers. We bought a set of handmade hair/bobby pins for US$1—crude, dusty, but unique.

We were told that the government hotel was not recommended but two men had recently bought a building that they converted to a hotel. After viewing the two rooms, we chose the one with the large mirror mounted above the bed and without the smell of mildew. Other than the fact that nothing worked, the main problem was that while the temperature and humidity was in the 90s, there were no insect screens, so we could not open the windows at night. No air-conditioning so it was a hot two nights, and a hot three days. The two men who had bought the building and spent the day watching TV and waiting for customers; clearly they did not waste their time in repairs or cleaning. The price we had been told was for 2 nights, after the first night, was (we were told) really only for one night so the price doubled to US$40 per night. As it was Saturday, the local Jewish historian and head of the Jewish community (Vadiem Vienyarsky) could not drive in a car, or even give us his business card, so we walked around the town as he showed us the many old synagogues, both large and the small private ones; he showed us the magnificent Jewish homes that had been owned by the wealthy merchants; he showed us the places where Jews hid when this or that atrocity emerged. We walked the streets, now broken or with deep mud where guttering had not been repaired for many years; streets lined with cherry trees now covered with lovely sweet cherries. It seems Jewish homes were distinguished by having their doors facing the street, for commercial purposes, while non-Jews built with doors facing the back garden or vegetable plots. It seems that many Baltese have set up groups in the USA, and we got the phone number of one in San Francisco (Michael Zilberfain), so we will pursue that link.

We searched for “our” names in the two cemeteries and photographed the few we found. Vadiem had made a list of all tombstones, so searching was easy. The vast majority of the tombstones were buried and there was no money for removal of the topsoil. The list of the 3000 names of visible tombsones was in Russian and, foolishly, I did not photograph the list at the time. As we walked, we spoke to one of the survivors of the ghetto in Balta, and this lady told us a story of what she had seen, told as a matter-of-fact, a tone that added to the chilling nature of the story. The image of a soldier pulling a baby (this lady’s sister) from her mother and breaking her back over his knee like a piece of wood, before casually shooting her mother and her father in the head with a pistol….

We saw the big wealthy old city of Odessa, the big old city of Nikolaev, and the moderate-sized town of Balta. Like Poland, without a private guide it would have been difficult to do, other than to wander the city streets. There were few tourists visible, although we were told many visited, especially from cruise ships. We saw no Americans. English (as well as our French, Italian, Spanish, German) was rarely helpful in restaurants and shops, but Russian predominated. The few dozen words and phrases in Russian we had practiced were incomprehensible to the Russian speakers, despite repeated honing and modification. One of our staples were potatoes done like American Fries, but trying to communicate “potato” with no Russian was challenging and frustrating; miming chicken was easy if a bit embarrassing. Lunch was the main meal of the day and it was puzzling to locals that we ate so little for lunch and so much for dinner. The most difficult custom to accommodate was the custom of never smiling to people you don’t know. It was so counter-intuitive that we failed repeatedly. To me it felt like having Christmas in the middle of summer, as they do here in New Zealand, something that despite 20 years here still just does not “work”. Through Anna, we made contact with researchers in two cities who would continue our search. We saw what our ancestors left behind, and we saw what they would not have left but for the ‘encouragement’ of the local residents. We imagined our life if they had not left, both their life in the ghetto and our life if they had survived and stayed.

The experience was unreal, it was emotional, and it was interesting. We stepped into the world of our ancestors, breathed their air, walked where they would have walked, and saw how their world had changed without them. We ate the food they would have eaten, visited the graveyards they would have cried in, seen the houses they would have been so proud of, entered the synagogues that reassured them. We added a dimension to our lives; we opened a window to a room we had not seen and could not have imagined; we added sights, smells, tastes, and feelings to the names of those who made us what we are.