A shtetl tour in Galicia

Galician Jewish family, 1930’s

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed book and movie Everything is illuminated, a small Odessa travel agency, a family-run company operating with one trabant undertakes the task of leading American Jews, searching for their Galician roots, to the former shtetls of their grandparents. The trabant, starting at the Lviv train station, soon turns off the highway onto a dirt road. From then on, a series of absurd misadventures follow one another until we reach the place where everything is illuminated.

The movie (directed by Liev Schreiber, 2005, see here) has always been a paradigm for the travels of río Wang, during which we leave behind the beaten path and seek encounters with the marvels of the East, the hidden small towns, the forgotten stories. But this is the first time we organize a journey in the same region where the film takes place, the former Jewish shtetls of the Ukraine. For many years we have roamed about this region, many times we have written about it, and we have organized a few tours to its western half, Polish Galicia. Now it is time to open up the Jewish world of Eastern Galicia, the “deep Galicia”, the birthplace of Joseph Roth, Bruno Schulz, Agnon and Paul Celan. Perhaps for the first time ever in this still recently isolated and less known country.

The film also has something more to teach. Due to our cultural conventions, we distinguish between sublime and tragic ruins. We consider the vanishing sites of past life either as messengers of a rich history, or of a tragedy. At the sight of the former, like Roman monuments, we think about the life that once took place there. At the latter, of the tragedy that brought an end to this life. The surviving relics of Eastern European Jewish shtetls, the cemeteries, the synagogues, the Jewish streets are clearly allotted in the latter group. Nevertheless, much more important than their destruction is the life which thrived here for centuries, which lives on in many forms, of which we are heirs. And which can be revived. Just as the film’s Trachimbrod is not only the stone erected in place of the destroyed shtetl, but also the house where all its memories are collected and where the former life vividly lives on. By traveling around the shtetls of Eastern Galicia, we also want to make this life visible again.

Ukraine is a large country, almost inconceivably large to us. The settlements are far apart, we will travel long hours in the gently rolling landscape, between endless wheat fields and forests, and along large rivers, just like in the film. This journey from shtetl to shtetl is part of the experiencing. It helps to understand the importance the small inhabited places in an uninhabited region, the weight of the distances, which the merchant and the traveler had to cover, when carrying wood from Verkhovina to Czernowitz or wine from Tokaj to Bolechów. Along the way, we will only stop at some prominent places, where enough sights have been preserved. However, all along the journey we will also hear stories about the other shtetls, where there is nothing to see any more, but which once were living links in the large net of Jewish settlements stretching from Pskov to Sighetu Marmației.

The tour lasts from 20 to 26 August, Saturday to Thursady. The participation fee is 400 euro, which includes accommodation (the half of a double room, with breakfast), the bus and the guide. You can register at wang@studiolum.com.

Paul Cantelon: Odessa Medley The travel motif of the movie Az Everything is illuminated (2005)

Day 1. Budapest – Yasinia

In the afternoon we arrive to Yasinia, the ancient border of the Hungarian Kingdom, in whose railway station in July and August 1941, seventy-five years ago, the Hungarian authorities handed over twenty thousand “stateless” Jews to the German authorities in the frames of an immigration procedure. Along the way, we will visit the still working synagogue of Hust, will have at the center of Europe, and will travel along the Beregovo-Yasinia railway line, which has been dead for half a century. That day or the next morning we will walk up in the hills abov the town, to the Jewish cemetery.

“Kőrösmező [Yasinia]. Rafter’s prayer on the arrival of dam water”, from here

Day 2. Yasinia – Czernowitz

After crossing the Yablonka Pass, we travel through Verkhovina, the land of the Hutsuls, whose central town, Kolomea was once a major city of the Galician Jews. At the border between Galicia and Bukovina, we stop at the beautiful cemeteries of Kuty and Vizhnitsa – important Hasidic communities –, and then reach Czernowitz, the “Jerusalem along the Prut”, the most Jewish city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We walk aroun the city, and go out to Sadagóra, to the palace of the Tsaddik of Ruzhin.

“Reb Burech drinks toast” on the stage of the Jewish theater of Czernowitz, from here

Day 3. Czernowitz – Tarnopol

Along a winding road, through many important shtetls we reach Tarnopol, the other center of the Galician Jews. We stop, among others, in Czortków, the cradle of the Hasidim of Teleki tér in Budapest, in Buczacz, the birthplace of Nobel Prize winner Agnon, and the Freud family, in Halich, with a still existing Galician Karaite population, and in Rohatyn, the birthplace of the wife of Great Suleiman, Roxana.

Klezmer musicians of Rohatyn, mainly the Faust family, 1912

Day 4. Tarnopol – Lemberg

We travel to the north, parallel to the eastern border of Galicia and the Monarchy. We stop in Brody, one of the most important trading cities and the Galician center of Jewish Enlightenment, from where Joseph Roth and the Bródy family of important Hungarian writers come. Here we turn back to the west, in the direction of Lemberg. In addition to the shtetls, we visit Podkamień, one of the most important Polish pilgrimage monasteries, and to the royal castle of Olesko as well. In the afternoon we have a walk in the center of Lemberg.

The border of the Monarchy and Russia at Brody, 1910

Day 5. Lemberg

A full-day sightseeing in Lemberg: Jewish and Armenian neighborhoods, Renaissance main square, Art Nouveau suburb, the “Krakauer Vorstadt”, the Jewish slum. This day begins the Lviv summer music festival, which previously was a Klezmer festival, but from this year is extended into a world music festival.

On the market of Lemberg, 1910

Day 6. Lemberg – Budapest

Along the way home, we stop in Drohobycz, Bruno Schulz’s birthplace, which at the turn of the century became a beautiful Art Nouveau small town from the wealth of the Galician oil fields, as well as in Bolechów, the Galician centre of Tokaj wine trade. Here, in the beautiful Hasidic cemetery lays Rabbi Ber Dov of Bolechów, who in the 18th century was one of the most important links between the Jews of Galicia and Hungary. Our Galician shtetl tour ends with the visit of his grave.

Hasidic rabbi and his followers in the Carlsbad spa, 1930’s

5 comentarios:

MOCKBA dijo...

I found amazing photographs of Yasinya Jewish cemetery in my grndfather's archive - tilted stones with birds and animals over the Hebrew lettering. Are they still standing?

Studiolum dijo...

Yes, they are. I have published a few photos of them here, but I have much more. Can you share your photos? Perhaps they could be identified with still standing gravestones.

MOCKBA dijo...

They were made in approx. 1960. The cemetery was much less overgrown than today. Sent you a file. He liked the pictures and included them in many albums and I kept wondering where is it, until I found a folder labelled "Yasinya"! Best of luck with your trip!!

Pawel dijo...

A really impressive tour. By the way, dear Tamás, Paul Celan was not born in Galicia.

Studiolum dijo...

Yes, I know that Bukowina was in certain periods of the Austrian domination a separate entity. But the two regions are often referred to as Galicia in shorthand, and we also visit Bukowina in this journey, including Czernowitz where Celan was born (true, in the very year when Bukowina formally ceased to be Austrian).

As the hint to Podkamień shows, we will also visit important former Polish (and Armenian) places. Do you have any suggestion along our route, or not far from it?