LVIV, Ukraine (JTA) — Alex Dunai is not Jewish. But over 15 years of leading Jewish tourists searching for their roots in Ukraine, he’s built up a serviceable knowledge of Yiddish — though sometimes he has to make things up.
"I make up sayings — you have highway roads, we have ‘oy vey’ roads," Dunai said. "If it’s something funny and unusual, that’s always Yiddish. It’s an amazing language, one-of-a-kind."
A burly man with an easy laugh, Dunai lives in Lviv, Ukraine’s fourth largest city. Over the years, the 43-year-old has built a profitable career as a researcher and tour guide, escorting Jews through Ukrainian shtetls in their search for information about departed relatives. He has provided services to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
In 2006, his reputation was cemented by Daniel Mendelsohn, author of the best-seller "The Lost," a memoir of his attempts to ascertain the fate of six relatives killed in western Ukraine during the Holocaust. Mendelsohn, who relied extensively on Dunai for research and other assistance, refers to him in the book as his “right-hand man.”
"He has a rigorous historical background; he has the smooth savvy; he knows how to work with archivists, and is especially good at knowing how to avoid time-wasting distractions," Mendelsohn wrote in an email. "More than anything, perhaps, he’s incredibly canny about how to deal with local people.”
Along with Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated,” Mendelsohn’s book helped put a spotlight on the growing phenomenon of Ukrainian heritage tourism, the lucrative industry of American Jews trekking back to the old country to explore their roots.
For visiting Jews, Dunai has become a sought-after resource. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, he said, the traffic has been staggering.
"The 20th century was an intense period of looking into the future," he said. "And now, people are saying, ‘OK, we’re looking at the future, we’re flying to the moon, but we don’t know what our grandparents did, what was our background? Let’s look also into the past.’”
He got his start in guiding after graduating from the state university in Lviv with a degree in history. For a time Dunai worked for the government in a capacity he would not specify.
In 1994, an American genealogy group specializing in Galicia contacted him for help with research. Those requests led to shtetl excursions, and soon Dunai was spending much of his time driving foreigners to small villages in his father’s old Lada.
Eventually, he was so busy he had to decide whether to drop the side gig or devote himself full time to his new occupation. In retrospect, it was an easy choice.
"The more I was doing the research for other people in genealogy, the more I was uncovering for myself how much knowledge is missing about all this,” Dunai said. “People here are not aware about how different this world was before the war. It became so fascinating to me that I really decided I will take a risk. I don’t regret it."
Dunai’s client load fluctuates, though he said he tends to lead more excursions in the summer and to focus more on research in the colder months. The work can sometimes be emotionally taxing.
"Sometimes people tell me stories that they wouldn’t tell others,” he said. “On the first trips, I was drained completely. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t do anything. I would come back and just lay on my bed speechless, and just be drained emotionally."
It’s an image at odds with the Dunai of today, a gregarious, heavyset man with an easy sense of humor and speech peppered with excited exclamations and bits of wisdom.
"There are more good people than bad,” he explained at one point, “but the bad are better organized."
Though Dunai enjoys guiding his clients, he said he’s growing too old for such frequent travel and may soon transition his work into a company providing tours of the Lviv area with "really intellectual and really deep" excursions focusing on places connected to literature and famous Ukrainians. But he said he’ll probably never fully give up guiding. He thrives on its spontaneity.
"I couldn’t be a bus driver, going on the same route. I enjoy that every time it’s interesting and unusual and diverse," he said. "This really became my whole life. This is not just work for me. Even if I could earn a living somehow in a different way, I would do it for free."