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From Maidenhead to Lviv

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Kayla Tomlinson reflects on a Maidenhead Synagogue trip to Ukraine. It was an opportunity to  learn more about the history of her own family and to experience contemporary Jewish life in a country where reminders of the horrors of the past are all around.

Maidenhead Synagogue members in UkraineMy father came from a town not far from Lviv. I just knew I had to be on this trip no matter what, so I persuaded my husband, Eric, and we booked.

Starting in Kiev, we enjoyed a wealth of sights and experiences, including an Erev Shabbat service at the Reform synagogue, a visit to an Orthodox synagogue with amazing stained glass windows and a women’s gallery from which you could barely see what was going on downstairs.

There was a visit to a museum, a boat ride on the Dnieper and a stunning performance of Romeo and Juliet at the opera house.

We also saw a Russian Orthodox Easter church service, with masses of people carrying candles and cloth-covered baskets of cakes to be blessed by the priests who were chanting in amazing harmonies. It felt surreal and it made me think of how my father must have felt, being a Jew during Easter.

We visited a Chabad synagogue with an even more enclosed balcony than the Orthodox one, and we visited the war museum, with its reminders of how World War II had ravaged the Ukraine and all its peoples, not just the Jews. Then we were taken to Babi Yar, where the Jews of Kiev – more than 30,000 – were murdered in a single, two-day operation. There we said Kaddish.

Then we went by overnight train to Odessa, where we had a guided tour and did some shopping. We saw the claustrophobic catacombs from where the partisans organised their resistance against the Nazis, and we visited Odessa's unusual Holocaust memorial which consists of lines of birch trees and commemorative plaques.

After another night on a train we were in Lviv where we had a tour of Jewish sites. We saw Kleparov railway station where over 500,000 Jews were dispatched to the gas chambers of Belzetz. There was nothing to mark the event save for a simple commemorative plaque, but the sight of freight cars in the sidings had a strange resonance which conjured a grim reminder of the past. We visited the Janowska death camp and then we visited the site of the Lviv ghetto, as depicted in the film 'In Darkness'.

For me, though, the most influential part of this special journey was when Eric and I were taken by our guide, Sasha, to my father's home town of Brody, about 50 miles away. Since I was a small child I have wanted to see where my paternal family came from and now that I had the chance I was quite apprehensive about what I would find.

In my father's day, the population was more than 70% Jewish, but they are all gone now. I remember my father, uncle and aunts reminiscing about the beautiful synagogue of their childhood. That synagogue, once a magnificent building, is now a burnt-out shell, having been fire-bombed by the Nazis. It was chilling to see and, at once, I had a better understanding of my father and his attitudes during my childhood. One of the two Jewish cemeteries, the Old Cemetery inside the town, was severely vandalized, but the New Cemetery, located out of town, is still standing. It has well over 10,000 gravestones which have survived as the Nazis, somehow, never discovered the place.

The buildings on the main street are much the same now as they were 100 years ago. We went to see my father's school, just as the children were coming out. They ran to us to find out who we were and then proceeded to practise their English. Sasha explained that my father had lived there and had gone to their school. They were amazed and wanted to have their pictures taken with us. One can imagine that they will talk about this event for a very long time!

They were so friendly and it was a lovely experience. It was very odd, but being with those children allowed me to see my father at their age; and in a curious way it was like talking to him. Somehow, I had a very peaceful sense of closure and felt that some of his angst (which I had inherited) was finally laid to rest.

The next day, Thursday, we went to Zhovkva where we saw the ruins of a synagogue very much like the one in Brody, except that it is being reconstructed, and we saw many buildings where Jews had lived, easily identified by the tell-tale indentations where mezuzot had once been. I had a strange feeling, as though I was in a ghost town even though there were people all around us; and of course, there were churches and shrines everywhere one looked. It was all rather odd.

We then visited a Chasidic cemetery in Belz and, in contrast, ended the day with a lively, uplifting concert at the Jewish Community Centre, where we were all given little presents. Our last day in Lviv had us at the Community Centre seeing how the children of all ages are cared for, followed by a Shabbat service with lunch for the elderly of the community. We were then whisked off to a second lunch to sample vareniki, a Ukrainian dumpling, of which we were treated to three varieties.

This was followed by a visit to an open-air museum of village architecture where the buildings are all made of wood. My father had described these buildings to me when I was a child, but I couldn’t imagine it then. To see them now was a truly wonderful experience. There was another enjoyable service with the youth at the Community Centre and two more meals, and then we were on the night train back to Kiev, where we visited places that had been closed for Easter, including a museum commemorating the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

The Ukrainians are a very hospitable and friendly people facing serious economic, social and political problems in a new-found democratic freedom. Reminders of the horrors of the past are all around, and the ghosts of a lost Jewish population are evident through the ruins as well as in the numerous memorials to them.

One way we, the Maidenhead congregation, can help revive and redress the situation is by twinning with the Lviv Jewish Community.

 

 

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