Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Of Castles and Cemeteries

Yesterday was devoted to castles and yet one more cemetery, one of the most interesting ones to date. We began our day in Khotin, a city about 30 miles away from Kamenetz Podolsk in Bessarabia. My interest in this city is that my grandmother’s family originated there and several family members gave it as their most recent residence prior to immigrating. At that time it was located across the Dniester River in Roumania. Now it is part of the Ukraine.

We began our day with a visit to the fortress/castle that we had admired from Zhavnets on the other side of the river. Not quite as grand as that in Kamenetz, it made up for this by the striking views of its location. Located high above the river, it is surrounded by earthworks and fortifications.

We also drove around Khotin to the area where the Jewish homes and shops had been and identified buildings that would have existed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A synagogue still stands and is in use although there are not enough Jews to have a minyon. At one point we drove past a home that was abandoned and I viewed the inside which consisted of two rooms with what may have been a heating unit of green enamel. An outhouse stood in back and a wooden storage shed and root cellar adjoined the house.

After touring the town we drove to the cemetery. I had done a search on-line and found the tombstones had been photographed. One was of particular interest to me, Mariam daughter of Avrum was all that was recorded, no surname and no dates. My great-great grandmother was Mariam (Wasserman), daughter of Avrum so I was interested in locating that tombstone to see if it was possible to decipher more. We arrived at the cemetery in front of which stood a house with writing on it that indicated it was the Jewish cemetery. As no one appeared to be home except a small child, we began to explore. Once again we saw striking photo engravings and I quickly found a tombstone for a Wasserman, the maiden name of my great-great grandmother. My first thought was that this appeared to be an orderly cemetery with tombstones in rows. That belief was shattered as I got about three rows back and discovered that small saplings made many of those rows impassable.


First the cemetery manager’s wife appeared and then the manager himself. A burly man with a white beard, he was accompanied by his grandson, a small child who perched on a tombstone as Alex translated for us. The manager told us that he grew up in the cemetery and was the third generation to manage it. He reported that when a group tried to improve it they actually created problems. They cut trees down, but they dropped their seeds creating the saplings. They also tried to burn brush and it destroyed about 500 tombstones.

We asked him about my family names and the one he was able to offer information on was that of Wasserman. While two had been on the on-line site, he showed us several additional ones. He told us that a Wasserman came from Israel each year to visit the grave of a family member. I was interested in a Mariam Wasserman of a more recent generation as family names frequently are repeated within a family. He showed us a tombstone that had a scissors on it and no surname and indicated that it was for a Wasserman as it was one that the Israeli visited as well. He seemed to know all of the tombstones personally as well as their families reporting that one was the mother-in-law of another.

The cemetery has been in existence for 300 years. When I asked about my great-great grandmother he asked when she would have died and led us to the section that would be around 1900.

While I found Miriams and Abrams, I didn’t find them in the same tombstone. Realizing the futility of the search, I began to focus on the decorative details on the stones. The other cemeteries typically had a Star of David, but very little other ornamentation. The tombstones in Khotin were often multi-colored as well as ornamented with fish, birds, lions, griffons and ornate patterning. I inquired about an area that was particularly decorative and was told that it was 200 years old.

Upon returning to Kamenetz we visited the castle there. The prior day it was closed as they were filming a movie there. It is often used for such projects. Our final project was to attempt some videotaping. A test drive by auto quickly reminded me of the bumpiness of the roads and I walked across the bridge filming and down the street where my grandfather lived. Not quite ready for prime time, these videos will allow me to share the imagery with family.

This morning we began our journey back to Lviv. By now the horse drawn carts, storks and elderly women in head scarves looked much more familiar. The day was sunny and we chatted as we drove. By now we felt like old friends with Alex having discussed a wide variety of subjects spanning family, politics, history and literature. When we arrived in Lviv, Alex gave us a brief tour of the Jewish sites including what remains of a 16th century synagogue destroyed by the Nazis, the former Jewish district and ghetto area, traces of Yiddish writing which remain and a Holocaust memorial. We bid a fond good by to Alex. His assistance had allowed us to access sites which would otherwise have been inaccessible to us due to language barriers and a lack of knowledge. Our investment in his time had been well worth it. Tomorrow we fly back to Warsaw and meet up with Dvora and her son for the next leg of our trip in Radom.

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