On the Road and Off the Beaten Track in Ukraine

On an overcast afternoon not long ago, two friends and I found ourselves plodding to and fro amid a forest of crooked gravestones in the centuries-old Jewish cemetery in Bolekhiv, a small town in western Ukraine south of L'viv.We were on a sort of pilgrimage, methodically pushing through weeds and peering closely at eroding epitaphs, trying to find the tomb of a man we knew had been buried there more than 200 years earlier.Dov Ber Birkenthal, an intrepid wine merchant and Jewish community leader, had been born in Bolekhiv -- known in Polish as Bolechow -- in 1723 and died there in 1805.His tombstone, I knew, bore an epitaph that paid tribute to a long, busy and eventful life -- it summed him up as "the learned, the renowned leader, the open-handed, the aged."

Birkenthal, generally referred to as Ber of Bolechow, has been one of my heroes since I was introduced to him through his remarkable autobiography more than 15 years ago. Ber is believed to have written his memoirs in 1799 or 1800, five years or so before his death. He described everything from local political and religious intrigue to how he drove hard business deals and suffered on the road during arduous wine-buying journeys to Hungary. He wrote of customs duties, currency fraud, and drunken wagon drivers; of icy rivers, double-dealing business partners, flea-ridden inns, and occasional attacks by roving bandits. One long, dramatic passage describes how bandits attacked Bolechow itself in 1759, robbing and looting, killing several people, and setting homes on fire. Some local residents gave as good as they got -- the town's wealthiest Jew, a man called Nachman, held off the attackers with a blazing firearm in each fist. Business was Ber's primary concern. But he also touched on his failed first marriage and the love he found with his second wife, Leah; the pride he feltin his children; his friendships with other Jews and non-Jews; and his passion for books and prowess in half a dozen languages. Ber, "was a remarkable man," wrote Daniel Mendelsohn in his best-selling 2006 book The Lost: a Search for Six of the Six Million, which describes Mendelsohn's quest to learn the fate of his own relatives from Bolekhiv who were killed in the Holocaust. "Ber was the son of a forward-thinking, broad-minded wine merchant who encouraged his son's precocious intellectual appetites from his earliest childhood -- even allowing the boy to study Greek and Latin with the local Catholic priests, an unheard of thing," he wrote. The precocious boy, Mendelsohn went on, "grew up to be a precocious man: a successful wine merchant but also a scholar of enormous breadth and depth, a man who could read easily in Polish and German and Italian, as well as in Hebrew and Greek and Latin." He was, he concluded, "a man who exemplified the liberal, worldly energies that helped to create the Haskalah, the great Jewish Enlightenment movement." I had been to Bolekhiv once before, in 2006, when I was researching the latest edition of my book, National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide toEastern Europe.

On that visit, too, I had prowled through the cemetery trying to find Ber's grave. "Dov" (in Hebrew) and "Ber" (in Yiddish) both mean "Bear," and I did indeed discover a tombstone of someone named Dov Ber that was decorated with a particularly vivid carving of a bear and bunches of grapes, indicating involvement of the deceased in the wine trade.

This, however, turned out not to "my" Dov Ber. So when I returned this time, I was determined to find his real final resting place.

The two friends with me were also keen on the mission and had professional interest and expertise to suit the task.
NYU Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett heads the team developing the exhibition for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews now under preparation in Warsaw, and Ber's memoirs are a key source on 18th century Jewish life in this part of Eastern Europe.

Sergey Kravstov, one of the leading experts on Jewish heritage sites in Ukraine, had actually seen Ber's tomb years before and thought he could find it again amid the hundreds of other stones.

We set out to Bolekhiv from L'viv, where the three of us had attended a conference on Jewish urban heritage.
Anyone who has read the book or seen the movie "Everything is Illuminated" knows that backroads travel in western Ukraine can be an adventure, and the taxi we had hired seemed to hold out this promise. It was a bright blue Chevrolet that was totally missing its back bumper.

Bolekhiv is about 100 kilometers south of L'viv

On our way, we stopped in Stryi (or Stryj), a small, faded town where Jews lived from the 17th    century until the community was destroyed in the Holocaust. Some 12,000 Jews lived here on  the eve of World War II, about 40 percent of the local population. Most were deported to the Nazi death camp in Belzec, now across the border in Poland, but hundreds were rounded up and held in the main synagogue; many died there and many were shot dead in the Jewish cemetery or a nearby forest, where a small memorial stone now commemorates the victims.

Ber of Bolechow mentions the Jewish community here several times in his memoirs. In particular, Stryj was the home of a family connection named Saul Wal, who farmed vast estates here and held a lease to Stryj "with all the surrounding villages" for many years. "He had ten fine sons and one daughter," Ber wrote. "All his children married into families of Rabbis and other notable people."But Wal got into financial trouble when the local nobleman, Count Poniatowski, did not renew his lease. In the end, Wal joined Ber's father in the Hungarian wine trade. "He bought wines, brought them back, and sold them at a good profit, which put him in a position to satisfy his creditors," Ber wrote.

Today, the only remnant of the Jewish past in Stryi is the hulking ruin of the Great Synagogue. Only the walls are left standing, enclosing empty space.Sergey had an old photo that showed the building with a peaked roof and sort of Byzantine decoration after a renovation in the late 19th century. Most of the outer stucco has fallen away, leaving bare, red brick, but a few remnants of delicate tracery still survive. The arched central portal is now closed by a new gate that features a menorah and stars of David, and a plaque denotes the ruin as a former synagogue. Inside, faint traces of decorative painting can still be seen on some of the the tall window arches. Standing next door is a smaller, but intact building, that once served as a beit midrash, or study house.

Bolekhiv is less than 20 kilometers due south of Stryj, and we bounced our way there through a lovely rural landscape.
In town, we first took a look at the surviving synagogue, a rather tall, narrow building set off the long main square across from a newly renovated church.

Built long after Ber had died, it has stood empty and in bad repair for years. Before that, it had been used after World War II as a club for workers at a local tanning factory. The cemetery, on a little hill across a stream just outside of town, was in the process of being fenced with a high concrete wall, apparently by a cemetery preservation group based in Budapest. Still, we were able to enter and fan out through the tombstones on our search. Jews settled in Bolechow in the 16th century and by 1900 made up about three-quarters of the population. Nearly 3,000 Jews lived there on the eve of World War II; as in Stryj and so many other towns in western Ukraine, they were deported to their deaths at Belzec or massacred locally by German units and Ukrainian police. The cemetery was founded in the 17th century, and the earliest legible stone dates from 1648. About 1,500 tombstones are spread out here, shaded by trees that have grown up over time. Most stones are large and ornately carved, with images of animals, grapes, and floral designs. Some bear elaborate calligraphy, and many are tilted at odd angles.

Sergey, finally, admitted defeat. With a shrug, he took out his cellphone and made a call -- to a colleague in Israel who told him where and what to look for. Thanks to the magic of modern communications, we found it easily: an ornate tomb whose decoration showed a big seated bear at the top of the stone holding a crown in his paws, with grape motifs at the sides. In fact, we had already passed it by several times. Standing right beside it, a companion stone marked the tomb of Leah, Ber's beloved wife.

Ber's epitaph was hard to decipher, even for an expert like Sergey; the Hebrew letters were weathered and a little mossy, and the lines of text ran down below the level of the soil, where the tomb, over the centuries, had sunk into the earth. Mission accomplished, we piled into the Chevy and headed back toward L'viv.

It was getting late, but we had our driver circle back along another route so that we could visit two more sites.
First was the little town of Dolina, where Ber had attended market fairs. Ber wrote that the bandits who attacked Bolechow in 1759 had first sought to raid Dolina but changed their plan and "marched the whole night" to Bolechow when they found that Dolina had mounted a guard of 30 armed men to defend it.

The Dolina synagogue still stands, but it was transformed in the 1990s into a Baptist church. Behind it, on a steep slope above a little stream, a monument markts the site of the World War II mass execution and mass grave of local Jews.

From Dolina, we bumped along more country roads to Galich (or Halych, in Ukrainian). Galich was something of a detour on this trip -- it doesn't seem to have figured in Ber of Bolechow's experience, but it was the medieval capital of the province and kingdom of Galicia: it's the town from which the region gets its name.

And here, perched on a ridge above the Dniester River, we visited the cemetery of the Karaite community, a breakaway Jewish sect that originated in 8th century Iraq. Karaites recognize the Torah and celebrate major Jewish holidays but have modified other Jewish traditions, reject the Talmud and rabbinical Judaism, and do not consider themselves to be Jewish.

Still, the cemetery looked pretty Jewish to me, with Hebrew epitaphs and decorative carving using typical Jewish motifThe sun was beginning to sink as we got back into the car. Our driver gunned the engine, and we took off, back to the city, at a speed that made me glad I wasn't sitting in the front seat to watch.