SOLOTVYN, Ukraine (JTA) — On a sloping green hill tucked between small farmsteads, the mottled graves of Jews buried here since the 1600s rise up like a forgotten forest.
Trudging through the mud between the tilted stones, their chiseled Hebrew lettering and renderings of menorahs sometimes barely visible, Vladimer Levin, an animated young historian who specializes in Jewish art, wants to save the gravestones.
"When we talk about preserving Jewish history, it’s not just about the spiritual life, thought and books but the material culture Jews produced for themselves. And that is what remains in this place," he said, looking at the tombstones. "They are the artistic remnants of this small Jewish community."
Levin, a 39-year-old immigrant to Israel from St. Petersburg, Russia, is part of a team of Israeli historians attempting to document what remains of a once populous and vibrant Jewish life in the regions of Galicia and Bukovina, most of which is in the western edge of present-day Ukraine.
As part of efforts to recover the world that once was in these towns and shtetls, where some 1 million Jews lived before the Holocaust, the researchers are partnering with Ukrainian academics. The idea is not only to boost the level of scholarship but to highlight to Ukrainian locals a Jewish past that spanned centuries but is rarely remembered publicly in the country.
"Jewish history is not part of the agenda” in Ukraine, said Yaroslav Hrystak, director of graduate studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University, which has partnered with the Israeli researchers. “It’s like a whole subject that disappeared.”
The project aims to collect oral testimony and document cemeteries and synagogues left derelict or used for such purposes as canning factories to storage space, and enlist young Ukrainian historians to do Jewish-related scholarship. An online database has been established on the project’s website to make the research widely accessible. The project also has set up a scholarship for Ukrainian graduate students to spend a year at Hebrew University to learn Jewish history, Hebrew and Yiddish.
"Records are being lost in front of us, and so the goal is collection and preservation," said David Wallach, a professor of molecular biology at Israel’s Weizmann Institute who is among the group of families that helped establish a fund called the Ludmer Project to help pay for the research.
Academics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev are overseeing the project with the hope of including other universities.
Wallach, 64, became intrigued by the region’s history after his father’s death. He found among his father’s belongings a black suitcase crammed with photographs and documents he had taken with him from Bukovina before immigrating to prestate Palestine in 1932.
"There is an urgent need for this research," said Wallach, a tall man with a graying beard.
His relatives came from various parts of Galicia, including a former shtetl called Nardvirna where Gestapo units assisted by local Ukrainians rounded up most of the town’s Jews on Sukkot of 1941. With whips and dogs, the 3,500 or so Jews were herded into a nearby forest and shot, their bodies dropping into ditches.
Here the complete destruction of the country’s Jewish communities is marked with little commemoration or public knowledge. No haunting edifices of concentration camps like Auschwitz, in neighboring Poland, stand as testimony.
The collection of oral testimonies from Ukrainians who were old enough to bear witness to this period and prewar Jewish life is part of the project’s mission.
Among the grimmer tales collected in Solotyvin was information on the approximate location of a communal grave of Jewish doctors and pharmacists and their families who were killed after most of the village’s Jews were rounded up. The grave was dug near the cemetery’s entrance, locals recalled, although no one could be sure if it was to the left or the right of the path that divides the hundreds of tombstones.
They also told of a doctor’s young son who was found hiding and brought to the cemetery to be shot and buried.
"My parents did not speak. These were not things you told children about," Wallach said, adding that his mother only warned him of her birthplace, "Don’t go there; the land is soaked in blood."
Now he is spearheading efforts to solicit funds and assistance to keep the project going. For Wallach it has become a mission to honor the lives lived in a world that no longer exists. Along with a small group of historians and journalists, including JTA, Wallach traveled to the southern side of Galicia last month to see some of the project’s past and future work.
"We want to go beyond the Shoah," said Levin, who led the tour along with fellow Hebrew University historian Semion Goldin, director of the Leonid Nevzlin Research Center for Russian and European Jewry. "Before people were killed, they lived many generations in these places. We are the result of these lives."
In a small white van careening down pot-holed roads deep in the countryside, one of the stops was a small town known as Podhajce (Pidhaistsi in Ukrainian), an important place on the Jewish map during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was the hometown of several rabbis who went on to prominence in other parts of Europe.
Podhajce once was a walled town, an embattled place that found itself under successive attack over the centuries from raiding armies including the Tartars, Cossacks, Nazis and eventually the Soviets.
Along a narrow road, a stone-faced building rises far above the surrounding tin roofs of the neighboring houses, the oldest standing structure in the town. It is a synagogue built in the early 17th century with soaring Gothic windows. The massive buttresses on its south side suggest it may have been used as what is known as a fortress synagogue intended to shelter locals and withstand attacks.
A corrugated roof was put on during the Soviet era, but inside the building is dark and abandoned. A packed dirt floor is littered with broken bottles and the odd discarded shoe. Its thick plaster walls house a deep niche, the former site of its holy ark.
Budget allowing, the historians plan to return with a team of Israeli and Ukrainian architectural students next summer to document the structure with measurements and photographs. But they fear that the the building, in such poor shape, might not last another winter.
They also plan to document the town’s Jewish cemetery next summer. Dozens of rows of graves already are gone, leaving a massive gap between the headstones. They were taken away by locals for paving stones, some of which make up part of the stairs leading out of the cemetery.
"If the past is being erased, our response is to study, preserve and document," said Wallach, adding the Talmudic maxim, “You are not obliged to finish the task but neither are you free to walk away from it.”