This is how it was…
The weather was bad, it was pouring, and sometimes the sun came out for a moment and quickly disappeared to give way to another heavy rain, which didn’t allow us to move forward.
Thus, our journey along the Memory road had started to the venues of the second International Volunteer Camp, Drohobych and Borislav, two small towns of the Lviv region, which are known for their significant Jewish heritage.
Earlier at the beginning of summer, an important event took place in Drohobych – the opening of the restored Great Choral Synagogue, which was once one of the largest synagogues in Eastern Europe. There is also an old Jewish cemetery, which needs cleaning and constant care. There are places of mass executions of Jews during the Second World War in Borislav and its surroundings and there were installed memorable signs. Most of these monuments are located outside the city and also require constant attention.
It should be noted that more than fifty volunteers from five countries — the USA, Germany, Ukraine, Russia, and Israel — responded to our appeal this year. A significant part of our team was German volunteers, because German organizations were among the main sponsors of the camp this year. Later, when we got to know each other better, it turned out that our new friends have the roots in Uzbekistan, Argentina, Poland, Bulgaria, Russia, Ukraine and France. For example, the story of Yuval Yarkoni’s family, a volunteer from Israel, is closely connected with Borislav, as his own grandfather lived here and was lucky to escape during the Holocaust.
We spent six days there – and every day was a special, unique day for all of us, because it was full of new works, knowledge, experience.
The first day. Acquaintance with Borislav.
When we got to Borislav, it finally stopped raining and started getting interesting. Oleg Mikulich, the local guide, told us in detail about the development of the oil industry of the town, about the “Galician California”, the center of which at one time was Borislav. This part of the history of the city is integrally connected with the Jews, since many Jewish entrepreneurs invested in the development of local oilfields. Then we visited Skhidnytsia (close to Borislav), the village of Urych and Borislav. It was very interesting to listen to the history of one of the memorable signs, created by sculptor Peter (Pinchas) Fleet, and established in 1982. At that time, such monuments were dedicated to “peaceful Soviet citizens”, the sculptor took a very bold step – he created a statue of an old Jew with a child in his arms. And we continue to watch over this monument nowadays.
After the excursions and lunch, there was a meeting with Danielle Mavor, the head of the Israeli organization of immigrants from Drohobych and Borislav. She walked volunteers through the history, told about the terrible events that took place here during the Nazi occupation and the stories of Righteous people of the World who saved Jews from death. Then we went to our first object – a memorial sign near Skhidnytsia, which was located in the forest. The only reminder of this place is a small sign with a pointer near the road.
But first of all we need to take care of equipment! The weather forecast called for rain for the following week, sometimes it was a slight drizzle or a heavy rain. Large puddles appeared and the soil turned into a swamp. It was impossible to work in such conditions without raincoats and rubber boots, so part of the group went shopping for the nearest city market. By the way, the route to the market ran through the café “Barabsky Most”, which is well-known to many tourists because of its design dedicated to the oil industry. This is a kind of “calling card” of the city, which reminds of its “California” past.
We made shopping, which pleased the owners of a small shop. And the we joined our main group and got to work. The rain was not disturbing us, we were excited and worked pretty well. For a couple of hours, the territory and the route to the memorial sign were completely freed from lush vegetation. So we had to do some more things – to repair a bit the memorial sign, restore the letters, clean and paint the fence, which the small group of volunteers successfully managed to do the next day. So the first day of our volunteer camp passed. The most difficult things awaited us ahead.
The second day. “Meat Packing Factory”.
– Why is this place so called? – a volunteer girl asked. “Probably because a lot of people were killed there?”
– No, there really was a meat factory in Soviet times. But now it is closed. And the name remains …
This place was not located on the territory of the meat packing factory, but a little further from it. A bumpy rough road lead to the place, and it was difficult to reach it even in good weather. After the rain, it was a mud ditch about five hundred meters long, in which you can move only on foot or by tank. There was no choice. We left the vehicles on the last meters of the traffic road, took our tools – string trimmers, chainsaws, shovels, rakes and moved forward to the memorial sign. It is located to the right of the road. This is a small obelisk that was created in memory of the Jews of Borislav who were shot here. Apparently, it has been abandoned like other monuments for a long time. After all, there are practically no Jews left in Borislav. Bushes grew around it; branches of large trees hang over it. So it seemed that the nature tried to hide the monument from human eyes forever.
We got right to work. Well-coordinated work, clear actions of our volunteers combined with the team spirit, showed the results – the place was cleared from greenery, and the area around the obelisk began to look better and cleaner. By the end of the day, all the excess vegetation was cut off. For the next two days, a separate part of our team led by Alexei Wallis, initiated to improve the obelisk and the elements of the memorial sign. Thanks to their hard work, the monument began to resemble an artwork, and the place around it became a beautiful, well-kept lawn. The only one thing, that ruined the impression was that road, we needed to return back. But how wonderful is this overwhelming feeling of the great and important work that was done!
There are fewer of us. Our friends and loyal helpers, Jay and Marla Osborne from California, as well as Daniella Mavor, who worked with us these two days, left us. They had urgent matter and a lot of work. But they made their invaluable contribution to our common cause, did their best, and we were grateful to them. In the course of the camp, we put in order another memorial sign, which was located on the territory of the city, and this was our last activity in Borislav. The most difficult part of the camp expected us. This was cleaning the old Jewish cemetery in Drohobych.
The third day. Drohobych. Old Jewish cemetery.
In addition to the Great Choral Synagogue, the Jewish cemetery of Drohobych is one of the most remarkable monuments related to the Jewish history of this town. It was founded in the thirties of the last century, and according to Iosif Karpin, the head of the local Jewish community, it is twice miserable. During the Nazi occupation, most of the matzevah belonging to the rich members of the community, made of polished granite, were removed and used for construction work. This “tradition” was successfully continued in Soviet times, and we suspect that it goes on nowadays.
The cemetery was divided by the central road, the right side of which was intended for rich people. It was almost empty, there were no matzevahs. There were only a few stones and two memorial signs, one of which was installed by the relatives of the executed and buried Jews during the Holocaust. The other black sign was set up by the Soviet authorities in the city center in honor of the “workers who died because of the German fascists”, without referring to the Jewry of these workers, which was the reason of their death. Subsequently, the sign was transferred to the territory of the cemetery. There were fragments of matzevah around it.
Only a half of the left part of the cemetery is still preserved. The larger part of it was covered by vegetation. Matzevahs, standing in a row are partially, were captured by thorny bushes and weeds. And this was not the biggest problem. A lot of matzevahs were completely hidden under the shadow of long living trees. Some trees grew straight from the graves! There was no one to care for this cemetery. The Jewish community is small and consists of elderly people who are not able to do such work. But now we got down to work.
We didn’t have enough time – Shabbat was coming soon! It remained a day and a half of work. The weather was not pleasant, it was raining and then the sun was shining and vice versa. But we decided to achieve maximum results in short terms. The strongest of the volunteer guys, armed with chainsaws and lawnmowers, cut trees and bushes, making their way closer to the cemetery wall. Others, using shovels, cleaned part of the central road, which was covered by vegetation. The rest of the volunteers, mostly girls and women, lined up in a chain, handing over to each other armfuls of cut branches and putting them on a pile so that it could be put in the car and taken out.
By the middle of the next day, we managed to free most of the cemetery from bushes and trees. This part of the cemetery became clean and available for many interesting discoveries. For example, original matzevahs, which were not like others. There are so many forgotten names, so much work still to be done to return the memory of the dead and to find living relatives if it is possible. But it will be another story. Those days we did everything we could, although bringing the cemetery to full order requires much more time, effort, and money.
The fourth day. Kabbalat Shabbat in the Great Choral Synagogue.
As it was mentioned earlier, the Great Choral Synagogue in Drohobych is one of the most significant and unique Jewish heritage sites in Western Ukraine, which has recently been restored in all its glory. It was this place which became the symbol of our volunteer camp.
On this day, people heard calls to God and ancient prayers sounded again within these walls for the first time in many years. Adele Dianova, head of Lviv-based Hesed, and Mikhail Pleskov, head of the Bnei-Brit Leopolis charity foundation, arrived to participate in this symbolic Shabbat celebration ceremony in the Great Choral Synagogue of Drohobych. The ceremony was conducted by Alexander Nazar, the head of the volunteer camp, and Joseph Karpin, the head of the Drohobych Jewish community.
The fifth day. Acquaintance with Drohobych.
Having completed all our tasks, we went on a walking tour of the city in the morning. On this day there was a wonderful sunny weather, it was even hot. During the tour, led by a wonderful guide Lada Moskalets, volunteers from different countries got acquainted with the historical and cultural heritage of Drohobych, the Jewish history of the town, the biography and creativity of such wonderful people as Bruno Schulz, novelist and artist, Ephraim Moshe Lilien, artist, photographer and Jewish activist, Mauricius Gottlieb, artist. The program of this day ended with an excursion to the salt plant, where we watched the whole process of extraction and evaporation of salt according to a technology that has been preserved from ancient times.
The sixth day. Going back to Lviv. Results
Our stay at the camp came to an end. It was time to say goodbye to each other. It was not easy, because during the time spent together, we became like one big family. The final event of the camp was a tour of the Jewish places in Lviv guided by Alexander Nazar. For most of the volunteers, this was the first close acquaintance with the city and its history.
Much work has been done in these six days. We put in order three memorial signs in the places of Borislav’s Jewish mass graves, helped the Jewish community of Drohobych in cleaning the old cemetery. This is a significant contribution to the preservation of the Jewish heritage not only of Ukraine, but of the whole world. The Memory Road united people of completely different religions, national cultures, traditions, professions and ages. There were both religious people and atheists, Jews, Christians of different faiths, evangelists, agnostics among the participants. For some of them, participation in the camp attracted research interest. Someone just decided to touch the spiritual component of human life, being tired of material concerns. But all these people worked together tirelessly, united by a common noble goal – the salvation of Jewish memory, as a part of universal cultural and spiritual heritage.
We express our deep gratitude to our sponsors – the foreign Ministry of Germany (Auswärtiges Amt), the Embassy of Germany in Ukraine, and German organizations of the EVZ Foundation (“Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” Foundation); Meet up: Deutsch-Ukrainische Jugendbegegnungen (German-Ukrainian Youth exchange program), Robert Bosch Stiftung (Robert Bosch Charitable Foundation) and of course, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, whose help was necessary during this volunteer camp.
People and organizations that provided assistance and supported us during the camp deserve special thanks. This was the Jewish community of the city of Drohobych and its leader Iosif Karpin, the Khevra charitable foundation of Borislav and the activist Tatiana Firman, representatives of the Borislav Self-Defense public organization that helped us with cleaning-up.
And now – we call on to the participants of the volunteer camp!
Elizaveta Bulgacheva (psychologist, volunteer at the community of Dortmund, coordinator of a volunteer group from Germany)
– I am very grateful for the opportunity to participate in this camp. The amount of work, which was done by us, is impressive! The camp was well-organized, the only issue that needs to be improved is logistics. In general, the program succeded. Thank you for the excellent teamwork, impressions and a lot of emotions!
Davina Natalie Lang (teacher, volunteer, coordinator of a volunteer group from Germany)
– Thank you very much for the opportunity to participate in this project. I really liked to work in a multinational team and I am happy to tell all my friends and acquaintances about it. Our achievements in short terms are really impressive.
Luis Antonio Schneider (cultural manager, volunteer (Germany))
– I am grateful to the team of the volunteer camp for this experience and highly appreciate the result of its work. When organizing future volunteer camps, it is necessary to pay more attention to team building at the very beginning in order to immediately bring the participants together into united friendly team. There is a great potential for improvement regarding communication. The sooner and clearer the information is given to people, the more they accept with a smile.
Lana Chudnovska (writer, volunteer (Germany))
– I was happy when I heard that the memory of Jewish life is kept in Ukraine.” People should not forget that terrible period of time that happened. I really hope that such events will be held in the future, and that next year the volunteer camp will be planned and carried out even better.
Sarah Dek (Assistant Director, Volunteer (Germany))
– First of all, thank you very much! This event was very impressive. I was pleasantly surprised by the group dynamics and understanding between the participants. The only thing that confused me was the frequent uncertainty of the daily planned activities, for example, during excursions. Next time it would be nice to make small introductions before activities, and tell the history of a place, as it was in this case, the history of cemeteries.
Verena Meyer (student, volunteer (Germany))
– The positive aspects of the event are a friendly atmosphere within the team, group dynamics, a lot of work done, a simple application process, a good Saturday program.
Anna Madamova (volunteer (Russia), participant of programs for the preservation of Jewish heritage in the Republic of Belarus)
– I enjoyed working and having a rest. I liked participants, our international team. I would like to come back, somehow help and participate in the volunteer movement one more time. It is a pity that we had only three days of work – it was not enough.
Vladimir Kogut (volunteer at the All-Ukrainian Jewish Charitable Foundation “Hesed-Arieh”, paramedic, historian, participant of the first international volunteer camp in Old Sambor in 2017 (Ukraine))
– I have very positive emotions. I am glad that I could take part in the camp and help in this holy cause regarding the revival and preservation of the Jewish heritage. I hope that such projects will be carried out in the near future and this will be able to unite even more people who are not indifferent to the history of the Jewish people and the remaining memory of it.
Yuval Yarkoni (student (Israel))
– I was very surprised and happy when I heard that volunteers, who are not directly related to Drohobych or Borislav, are taking part in the camp. I think it’s great that this question is so important to people. We have done a very necessary work and enjoyed it. For the future programs, I recommend dividing the camp participants into several groups in order to achieve greater effect. It would also be great if, while working at the sites, we received historical and cultural information about it, so that people could become more aware of the importance of this work. It is necessary to have more information in English. Thank you very much for organizing this volunteer camp. Hope to be able to participate next year. Waiting for your message!
Pavel Shmayevsky (student, laboratory assistant (Russia))
– In general, I have good impressions, because of interesting activities. It was something unexpected and new for me. I liked the communication with different people and comfortable atmosphere. I would like to receive in advance as much information as possible about the places where we worked. The excursions were interesting and informative (I really liked the salt plant). In general, the volunteer camp was really great.