Feb 12, 2023
In their 2015 paper “Small Acts of Repair,”
Hirsch, Marianne and Leo Spitzer, “Small Acts of Repair. The Unclaimed Legacy of the Romanian Holocaust.” Journal of Literature and Trauma Studies 4, no. 1–2 (2016): 13–42.
scholars Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer describe their encounter with a man who had approached them years earlier with the story of his late sister, Sonja Jaslowitz.
Sonja was killed under a hail of shrapnel in the closing weeks of the Second World War, during an Allied bombing raid over an oil installation near Bucharest. Newly seventeen, Sonja and her parents had just been “repatriated” to Romania after surviving the camps and ghettos of Romanian-occupied Ukraine, a territory called Transnistria that ceased to exist after reverting to Soviet control in spring 1944.
After presenting Hirsch and Spitzer with poems that Sonja had written while in Transnistria, the man, who was in his late eighties, requested that Hirsch and Spitzer “do with them as you wish.” What he likely meant was that after the fruitless decades he’d spent advocating for the poems’ artistic and historical value, it was time for someone new to inherit the responsibility.
On a spring day in 2012, when my grandfather Motl showed me the testimony he’d been moved to write some thirty years earlier—about surviving a death camp in Transnistria 40 years before that—I too found myself inheriting a “weighty legacy,” as Hirsch and Spitzer put it. My grandfather was asking me to do something with it. As Hirsch and Spitzer explain, “Those of us in the postgenerations who are descendants of traumatic genocidal histories often inherit...testimonial objects — small or large, ordinary or remarkable — and we have to decide how to respond to their demands.“
Through fits and starts, my manuscript for a family memoir began to take shape. In early 2020, I planned a return trip to Ukraine, my first since emigrating to the U.S. in 1992. The pandemic, however, soon made international travel an impossibility. I would have to write the book’s final chapter that spring and summer without seeing the places I’d long been hearing about.
Late one night, I came across the website for a primary school in Tulchyn, my grandfather’s hometown. I was surprised to see a decades-old photo of the school, called School No 1. In the winter of 1941, Tulchyn’s Jewish residents were held there for three days before being forcibly marched to the neighboring village of Pechera, where they were imprisoned in a makeshift Romanian death camp.
Before long, I found myself exchanging emails with local librarian Vladislav Vigurzhinsky, who had provided the photo. As he explained, a friend who worked at the local “wastepaper collection point” had salvaged the photo, one of many items of interest to surface there over the years.
Vladislav took a photo of the photo and allowed me to publish it. He also noted details I had missed the first time around: posts on the right side of the street with (what appear to be) strands of barbed wire surrounding them. The notation on the back, written in pencil, says only “1948.” Vladislav’s theory was that the photo was taken earlier, possibly even during the war. This seems plausible, with survivor testimony and recent scholarship suggesting that the school marked one of the ghetto’s boundaries. 2 2 Maksim Goldenshteyn, So They Remember: A Jewish Family’s Story of Surviving the Holocaust in Soviet Ukraine, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2022) 192n53. More than 3,000 Jewish residents had been confined there for two months before their deportation, in a part of the town’s Jewish quarter once called Kaptsanovka (kaptsn is Yiddish for poor).
There’s reason to believe that this corner of Tulchyn, near a palace built by a Polish noble family in the 18th century, has historical significance for other reasons.
In 1648, one of the most infamous massacres of the Khmelnytsky uprising took place in Tulchyn. According to an account by Simon Dubnow, based on Natan Hanover’s 1653 Yeven metsulah, “The Jews, stationed on the walls of the fortress, shot at the besiegers, keeping them off from the city.” But later, Dubnow wrote, they were betrayed by Polish nobles and killed by Cossacks for refusing to convert. 3 3 Simon Dubnow, From the Beginning until the Death of Alexander I (1825), vol. 1 of History of the Jews in Russia and Poland: From the Earliest Times until the Present Day, trans. Israel Friedlaender (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1916): 147-149. Just 300 Jews survived. (Worth mentioning is that historians have since concluded that Hanover “employed significant license” in reconstructing this episode.) 4 4 Amelia M. Glaser, “The Heirs of Tul’chyn: A Modernist Reappraisal of Historical Narrative,” In Stories of Khmelnytsky: Competing Literary Legacies of the 1648 Ukrainian Cossack Uprising, ed. Amelia M. Glaser (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015) 128.
According to a rare map of 17th-century Tulchyn that Vigruzhisnky has also acquired, the fortress that Tulchyn’s Jews defended was situated on the very grounds that School No.1 and its play yard occupy.
The story of the massacre and the martyrdom of the Jewish defenders inspired Nikolai Minsky’s Russian-language play, “Osada Tulchina” (“The Siege of Tulchin”), which was subsequently translated into Yiddish by Avrom Reyzen, and inspired Sholem Asch’s novel Kiddush Hashem, which formed the basis for an off-Broadway production by the Yiddish Art Theatre. “Nothing on Broadway this season approaches the grandiose conception,” a New York Times critic wrote in 1928. 5 5 The New York Times, September 30, 1928, “Yiddish Art Theatre,” https://timesmachine.nytimes.c....
For hundreds of years, Jewish communities in Tulchyn withstood catastrophes and upheaval. The Romanian wartime occupation of southwestern Ukraine was no exception. When the Red Army crossed the Buh river and overran German and Romanian forces in March 1944, a few hundred local survivors made their way home by foot. Along with those who had served in the Red Army and later returned home, they continued to live in Tulchyn for decades, a continuity of Jewish life and Yiddish speech rarely seen in postwar Eastern Europe.
The community has continued to exist into the 21st century. A few years ago, the local Jewish population stood at just 150. 6 6 Sue Surkes, “Ukraine’s Jews Walk Narrow Line between Murderous Past and Uncertain Future,” Times of Israel, May 17, 2017, www.timesofisrael.com/ukraines-jews-walk-narrow-line-between-murderous-past-and-uncertain-future.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, many young families had left for larger urban centers like Chernivtsi and Mohyliv-Podilskyi. And in the majority of cases, opportunities for a better life abroad emerged beginning in the late 1980s. The memory of Jewish Tulchyn and other former Podolian shtetls, then, will soon be left to what Marianne Hirsch has called the “postgenerations,” descendants of survivors living in North America, Israel, Germany, and elsewhere who may have inherited their family’s stories. In other words, the people now charged with remembering.