As I prepared for our trip to the Ukraine and Poland I received an interesting contact. Betty sent me an e-mail telling me she was a survivor and had a connection to Radom. She invited me to contact her to learn more. When I called her in Ohio I learned that she was a survivor of Trochenbrod, a virtually all Jewish agricultural community in western Ukraine that existed prior to WWII. Many people are familiar with it as the setting of Jonathan Safran-Foer’s book Everything is Illuminated. Few Jewish communities were agricultural and I am unaware of others that were almost exclusively Jewish, a set of circumstances that created a community that was quite unique.
While most of the town was murdered in the Holocaust, Betty had hidden in the forest as a young girl with her family and survived, one of 33 survivors out of 5000 Jewish residents. The only Christian in Trochenbrod was the post-mistress whose son now lives in Radom. As his playmates were the Jewish children he spoke Yiddish and learned some Hebrew as well. Almost sixty years after the war Betty connected with this former childhood playmate. When she heard of my Radom project from the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Ohio, she resolved to contact me. She asked that I reach out to her childhood friend in Radom in the course of my visit.
The story of Trochenbrod has recently been told in a book The Heavens Are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod by Avrom Bendavid-Val. Betty Gold (then Basia-Ruchel Potash) tells her harrowing story in the book as does the son of the post-mistress. As I always try to do topical reading for my travels, this book on the Jews of the Ukraine seemed especially appropriate for my airplane reading and began to give me some context on the relationships between Jews and the nearby Ukrainian villagers. Ukrainians were often used as killers by the Nazis, but this book does underscore the positive relationships which also existed between Jews and their Ukrainian neighbors.
A few days ago as part of my Identity and Legacy oral history project, I had the opportunity to interview a Ukrainian Jewish woman from Kiev. She too spoke of the positive relationships that existed into the 1930s between Jews and Ukrainians. It began to change in 1932 when a famine was created by the policies of the Soviet Union as they began to move towards agricultural collectivization. Millions of people died and the Jews fared somewhat better than the Ukrainians creating jealousies. When I asked why the Jews fared better she gave examples of Jews using resources more efficiently and being more entrepreneurial in order to survive. This is a theme that also was addressed in the book on Trochenbrod where the Jews took poor farmland and irrigated it to make it usable. I suspect that this creative and entrepreneurial bent grew out of the restrictions that were often placed on Jews historically.
From unusual contacts to newly discovered books to timely interviews, it seems that many forces are converging to educate me as I seek to understand the historic and human dynamics that affected Jewish and Ukrainian interactions.