Finding Gratitude in East Europeby Sharon Rosen Leib March 1, 2019
Jewish Baby Boomers, now in our mid-50s to early-70s, serve amongst the last primary-source heirs to our Eastern European-born grandparents and great-grandparents’ legacies. We re- member their quaint Yiddish accents and phrases; the tangy-sweet apple strudel our bubbes (Jewish grandmas) prepared from memory; and the shadows of anti-Semitic traumas lingering deep in the creases around their eyes. Their stories, both told and untold, lurk inside us.
The Old Country voices I remember from childhood popped into my middle-aged brain with increasing urgency, beckoning me to Eastern Europe. This fall, my husband, sister and I answered the ancestral call and traveled to Poland, Ukraine and Romania to bear witness, trace family roots and shape fuzzy memories into narratives to pass down to future generations.
We understood this journey would be a reckoning with death and devastation — no easy ride down memory lane. We spent months customizing the trip with the assistance of Warsaw-based Taube Jewish Heritage Tours and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) network of staff and local guides in Ukraine and Romania. JDC’s presence in Eastern Europe serves as a lifeline to the former Soviet Bloc’s enduring Jewish communities and provided us the priceless experience of forging connections wherever we went.
Our first stop: Debiça (Dembitz in Yiddish; population 47,000), the township in Poland’s southeast Galicia region my stunning, red-headed maternal great-grandmother fled in 1905 at age 16. Our guide led us to an unobtrusive black, granite memorial at the edge of Debiça’s forest inscribed in Hebrew and Polish “Here lie buried 500 Jewish victims murdered by Hitler’s bastards July 10, 1942.” The anonymous skeletons of distant relatives beneath my feet brought me to tears.
Then we headed farther east to Ulanów, a charming village of 1,500 on Poland’s San River, that my maternal great-grandparents wisely departed in the 1890s, before anti-Semitic pogroms and the Nazis decimated its Jewish population. We strode through prickly stinging nettle to Ulanów’s desecrated Jewish cemetery and viewed scant remnants of its once-thriving Jewish presence in a cramped museum maintained by the town historian.
We headed still farther east, our van jolting down deeply rutted Ukrainian roads into the architecturally magnificent western Ukrainian city L’viv. Blessed by its proximity to the European Union, L’viv boasts a thriving café culture and established tourist infrastructure. From there, we flew through Kiev to Odessa, the once lustrous Pearl of the Black Sea now fading and economically ravaged by Russia’s persistent military threat to Ukraine.
My paternal grandfather, the son of a prosperous Jewish family, grew up 93 miles northwest of Odessa in Ananyiv (population 8,500). His immediate family survived pogroms where, as a young boy, he witnessed a dozen male relatives massacred by Russian revolutionaries. After years of deprivation, he made it to the U.S. in 1927 at age 15.
As we drove into Ananyiv, we saw farmers tilling the rich, black Ukrainian soil with horse-drawn plows. Small, thatched-roof farm- houses dotted the landscape. I felt we’d time-traveled back 90 years. I imagined our Grandpa Fred as a teenager fishing in the Tyligul River bordering the town. After our emotional visit with an elderly Jewish woman – one of ten remaining Ananyiv Jews supported by the JDC, we returned to modernity in Odessa.
Then we boarded a flight to Romania to trace my husband’s paternal grandfather’s roots in Ploiesti, a city of 210,000, located 35 miles north of sprawling Bucharest. The female head of Ploiesti’s Jewish community greeted us with warmth and platters of pastry at the city’s lovingly restored, onion-domed, pale pink Marea Synagogue. She showed my husband a ledger with entries recording the deaths of Ploiesti’s Jewish community from the early 1900s to the present. His eyes widened when he discovered a page of Leibovicis – his family’s pre-Americanized name. Long-obscured family history became present reality.
While walking our ancestral Eastern European lands, we unearthed stories bubbling like black tar just below the surface. Memories of our beloved grandparents and great-grandparents welled up and comfort- ed us. My husband, sister and I, blessed to be native Californians, feel forever grateful to them for making it out of Eastern Europe’s killing fields to our free-spirited, sunny state. Our travels forged an unforgettable link to the past and equipped us with the knowledge to pass our ancestral stories down to generations to come.